“Worker, build your own machinery!”: this was the appeal that Ernesto Guevara—Minister of Industries from 1961 to 1966—directed to the participants of the Primera Reunión Nacional de Producción [First National Production Meeting] in August 1961. This event was the first ideological initiative of the national movement of Cuban innovators and inventors, who had begun organizing themselves in 1960 with the Comités de Piezas de Repuesto [Committees of Spare Parts].
Two and a half years later, in 1964, the Comisión Organizadora Nacional del Movimiento de Innovadores e Inventores [National Organizing Commission of the Movement of Innovators and Inventors] was created with the goal of facilitating and institutionalizing the movement’s activities. Several years later, this organization of increasingly ready and willing workers consolidated themselves as the Asociación Nacional de Innovadores y Racionalizadores [National Association of Innovators and Rationalizors], known to the public by the acronym ANIR. It’s existence and solidification was the result of the confluence of two fateful circumstances: on one hand, the accelerated deterioration of the industries that had been paralyzed, and on the other the mass exodus—beginning in the early 1960s—of engineers, technicians and skilled workers who sought job security on US soil with the companies that they had worked for on the island.
The new government nationalized both foreign and national companies and called for the workers, as the new “owners” of the national industrial park, to take up the task of producing replacement parts and tackle the first repair jobs. The broken machines seemed, during those days, to be the nation’s number one enemy. A lathe without a spindle, a band saw without wheels, worn-out molds and thousands of other mutilated contraptions threatened the course of the new society like zombies.
The missing pieces in the machines paralyzed the gears that were to set the revolution in motion. The workers began to fill those voids, filling them so many times, over so many years that many of those machines now consist of more parts made by the workers than originals. In workshop jargon these altered (or completely remade) machines were rebaptized “Creole” machines. If an engineer exiled in the US for ten years would have returned to the island, he would no longer be an expert. The entrails of the North American technology that he knew so well had been substituted with others: imperfect, rustic, but equally efficient.
I spoke to some of those first Cuban innovators and rationalizors, now elderly, and I noticed a recurring theme: over the course of their life they had left a trail of inventions in their wake everywhere they lived and worked, altering the functions, uses and appearance of everyday objects and environments. We could even speak of a continual process of transformation, of the worker’s movements as a vector transferring ideas as well as material and technical resources from the home to the factory and vice versa.
The government generally supported and publicized the news of successful repairs and adaptations of factory machinery; in the eyes of the State, the worker was a hero. But it was their creative activities in their personal lives where the innovative movement really resided; it was their homes that served as the true laboratories for invention and manufacturing. The same person who by day repaired the motor of a MIG15 Soviet jet fighter, at night made their spouse a picture frame out of hundreds of nails, pieces of mirror and string. Or who, with the match shortage, invented an electric lighter out of a light bulb and a pen.
The fact is that these stories, which may seem like a worker’s dream exaggerated to tropically epic proportions, was built on contradictory alliances and oppositions. Following the series of nationalizations carried out by the self-declared communist government, and the refusal of expropriated foreign businesses to comply with severance payments, the US declared an embargo on the island, seeking to create obstacles to the arrival of construction materials, industrial substitutions and merchandise in general. As a consequence, the country, already paralyzed by inefficient production and the budding bureaucracy of the socialist system that created roadblocks for all individual initiatives and eliminated the incentive of private property, was submerged in an economic crisis that hit bottom for the first time in early 1970.
This technological disobedience that arose as a production alternative stimulated by the revolution eventually become, paradoxically, the primary strategy of individuals for surviving the administrative inefficiency and the incapacity for production of that very revolution. That is, the same worker who used his imagination to remove obstacles to the revolution then had to dedicate his creativity and technical skills to resisting the harsh living conditions that the inoperative revolutionary government imposed on him.
During the first months of 1970, desolation set in on the country’s commercial sector. The workers, who had lived the last ten years in revolution, saw how a decade of efforts had not resolved the problems of everyday life. A preventative behavior overtook home life, one that has remained the organizational foundation of Cuban creative phenomenon: accumulation.
Skepticism of the revolution’s success turned every inch of the house into storage space. Every material or object, even fragments, could be reused, whether for their original purpose or a new one, and as such everything was subject to accumulation. With this first, discrete gesture the processes and logic of industry were called into question, and radically at that, painstakingly reevaluating them from an artisan perspective.
The habit of accumulation separated the industrial object from the lifecycle assigned to it by the industry and postponed the moment of its disposal, inserting it into a new timeline. This initial act of resistance organized the Cuban production phenomena that I have chosen to call Technological Disobedience and inscribed it in its own time frame with its own rhythm.
When people held onto things, they also archived their technical principles, ways of piecing things together and formal archetypes. In a critical moment they could mentally survey their stockpile to find “just the thing” to fix it, one which they had saved for this exact moment. Whenever the lights went out, the fan stopped working, or a chair broke, the family seemed to hear whispers coming from everywhere: the patios, under the beds, the dark corners of the living room where they had stored all kinds of things. Pieces of chairs made the recently broken ones whole again. The old, dilapidated kerosene lantern (an Eagle) was trucked out when blackouts ravaged the island. An old can of condensed milk, with some dried beans inside, was a rattle for my older brother, a newborn at the time.
In the following decade, due in part to the reinforcement of strategic and economic relations with the USSR, the country seemed to be emerging from the crisis. The economic exchanges with COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) instituted standardization on the island. Every Cuban was familiar with the two sizes of the only brand of refrigerator (Minsk), the two types of televisions (Caribe and Krim), the only kind of fan (Orbita) and two generations of the same washing machine (Aurika). Seven types of canisters, with a few variations, maintained trade with communist Europe. Papaya sweets were sent to Bulgaria in exchange for pears in syrup; Vodka in Havana was distributed in the same bottle as Cuban Rum in Russia. The bourgeois material foundation that had existed before the revolution was mixed into the system of standardized objects; Soviet parts kept North American cars running.
Communist industry prioritized production that had social objectives. Chairs made out of metal pipes and plywood abounded. Accumulation in the home also took on an air of standardization. The fact that everyone saved the same things favored the establishment of a common technical language and standardized solutions and ideas for repairs as well. Rationalization and normalization lended a pattern to common sense, a fact which later had its effect.
Fast forward a few years and there were objects ingeniously produced by hundreds of people at the same time, but in different places. The aluminum tray used in school and worker cafeterias all over the island become the only television antenna possible. The solution—like many other ideas inspired by standardized materials—went “viral.” What allowed for such an expansion? Was there a first antenna that inspired all the rest? Or was the antenna a fateful conjunction of necessity, standardization and vernacular ingenuity? The tray was the only accessible piece of metal and “normal” antennas had disappeared from the market soon after the crisis began.
Many Cubans talk about the eighties as a decade of splendor. And it’s true; there were more things to accumulate. The end of the European Communist Bloc was imminent, and with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Cuban imports fell by more than 80%. The country took a nosedive into the most aggressive economic crisis of its history.
People immediately realized that they were on their own in the battle for survival. The government, paralyzed and inefficient, made a single gesture: they temporarily suspended control and increased the flexibility of the limits on self-employment and entrepreneurship intended to make ends meet.
The government inspectors received orders to look the other way when they came across an infraction in the city. The duration of this crisis forced the authorities to declare a state of emergency in the country and called these circumstances the “Special Period in Time of Peace.” Just four years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the island’s government enacted a law that had been unthinkable up until that point, Law 141 of September 6, 1993, which permitted, limited and regulated self-employment.
At the beginning of the Special Period, Cubans were creating instantaneous substitutes—objects or provisional solutions—that resolved their problems until the new crisis went away. Over the years of continual shortages, they gained confidence and tackled problems of housing, transportation, clothing and household appliances.
As they were reinventing their lives, an unconscious mentality began to take shape. A surgeon can only open up so many bodies before he becomes desensitized to all the wounds, blood and death. And that is Cubans’ first expression of disobedience in their relationship to objects: a growing disrespect for the product’s identity, and for the truth and authority that identity projects. They could only open up (and fragment, and use as they wished) so many objects before they began to show contempt for the markers that lend Western objects their identities as self-contained units.
Cubans of the Special Period weren’t afraid of the authority emanated by certain brands like Sony, Swatch or even NASA. If an object broke, it was fixed. If the object worked to repair another object it was used, whether in parts or whole. This contempt in the face of the consolidated image of industrial products could be understood as a process of deconstruction. The fragmentation of the object into materials, shapes and technical systems.
It is as if when you have enough broken fans you start to see them as a collection of usable structures, joints, motors and cables laid bare. This liberation, which makes us rethink our understanding of raw materials, or even semi-finished materials, replacing these concepts with the idea of an object material or a fragmented object material, precludes to a degree the concept of “object” itself: in this case the fan. It is as if an individual on the island can no longer perceive the form, connections and signs that semiotically make up “the object,” instead seeing a heap of materials, mechanisms and forms available for use whenever an emergency arises.
This process calls to mind the idea of the transparent object-as-comrade that Boris Arvatov announced with the dawning of Productivism. Arvatov described how the socialist object should create an opposition to the hermeticism of the sumptuous bourgeois object. The thing-as-comrade, for Arvatov, should be an object that doesn’t mask its productive, technical and functional principles, one that includes and invites the worker-user to be part of its logic. Cubans, having been forced by the crisis to develop a special kind of ability, “saw through” all objects regardless of their origin or their economic or ideological function. Socially-oriented objects and exclusive ones made by capitalist manufacturers were one and the same for him. All objects, or their parts, were reborn before his eyes as comrade-materials. If an object broke, it didn’t matter if it was a capitalist or socialist object, its system became transparent; it became invisible as an object or self-contained form and manifested itself as a relationship of parts.
The object that is essentially transparent, like the one Arvatov dreamed of, is what I have denominated the object of necessity. I mean, for example, the kerosene lantern that someone made out of a circular glass jar, 13 centimeters in diameter and 13 centimeters high, which contained, soaked in kerosene, the wick holder made out of a toothpaste tube. The glass jar, supplied via COMECON’s trade system, was simultaneously the fuel receptacle and the lampshade. The Arvatovian transparency comes into play here in the capacity to map the mental and manual process of its creation, with the functional and usage principles both in its totality and in its parts. That is to say: the lantern is a diagram of the capacity of the individual to understand urgency and respond with just the right dose of ingenuity, temporality and austerity.
The other emblematic object of necessity is the “phone-fan.” I found it in a shoe store on the Boulevard de la Habana. The creator-turned-repairman, when the base of the fan broke, remembered that he had been saving a broken telephone originally from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) for years. He remembers because the base of the Orbita fan mimics the prismatic pyramid form of the telephone. He is not interested in establishing associations or meanings; he is only interested in the formal analogy of the dimensions and structures. The repaired fan is simultaneously a blueprint mapping out the ingenuity of the individual, a diagram of accumulation and an image of the disobedience and moral reinvention that Cubans have undertaken. Incidentally, when I asked the creator of the phone-fan about the object, he referred to it as the “Mambí,” possibly alluding to its disregard for authority and its resistance.
To delve further into the processes that constitute Technological Disobedience, I would like to comment on some ideas regarding practices like “repair,” “repurposing,” and “reinvention,” all of them highly subversive. First off, in their reconsideration of the industrial object from an artisan angle. Additionally, for the way in which they deny the lifecycle of Western objects, prolonging their useful lifespan, whether in their original capacity or for new uses. And lastly because, by postponing the action of consuming, but satisfying the demand, these practices become alternative forms of production.
Let us look more concretely at the case of repairs. This practice is the most widespread, carried out on both the household and the national scale. As many of the household appliances in Cuban come from large-scale, standardized productions, the solutions for repair were similarly standardized, leading to the creation of a massive system of spare parts.
The most disobedient aspect of repair is the capacity to immortalize objects by preserving their original functions. Repair can be defined as the process through which we restore, partially or totally, the characteristics—technical, structural, usage, functionality or appearance—of an object that has partially or completely lost these qualities.
When we repair, we establish a more complex relationship with the object; it is an undertaking that surpasses even the use of the object itself. It equalizes, in a sense, the dependence we have on objects, positioning them as subordinates to us. That is, the dominance of the object over the user and his limitations is balanced out by the forced domination of its technology.
In another sense, when the repair is big enough or when its magnitude includes the repurposing of the object, then it generates a new type of authority: that of the repairman. This individual becomes a depository of the technical secrets of the product. The repairs must not necessarily be definitive; sometimes they are recognized as palliative, stop-gap or “superficial” ones that make the product look new.
Repairing is, in a sense, recognizing, restoring, and to a certain point legitimizing the qualities of the object; that is why it is the most discrete form of Technological Disobedience. Its potential lies in the possibility of expanding our conception of the contemporary product, democratizing its technology, facilitating its longevity and versatility. Oftentimes there are two outcomes to a repair process: the object repaired and the tool that repaired it. Repairs open the door to other processes such as repurposing and reinvention.
Repurposing is the process through which we utilize the qualities—material, form, function—of an object that has been thrown away in order to make it work again, whether in its intended context or in a new one. This definition includes the parts of the object or the functions that said parts fulfill in it; it covers operations such as metamorphosis and recontextualization.
In the universe of domestic objects, it is those associated with food that are most prone to repurposing, specifically in regards to its packaging and repackaging. When repurposing puts objects—or parts of them—side-by-side in a new product or solution, then the operation can be considered a reinvention.
Of the three practices mentioned, reinvention is the one with the most disregard for the authority of industrial culture and context. It can be understood as the process through which we create a new object using parts and systems from objects that have been discarded.
Reinvented objects look like original inventions, due to the combination of austerity and gall with which their components are utilized and joined together. Reinventions present us with objects that are transparent, sincere, and proportional, in terms of the symbolic and material investment, to the need that they arose from. They also retain the combination of manual, conceptual and economic gestures that the creator-operator adds to them.
A paradigmatic case is the “non-rechargeable battery charger” that I found in Havana in 2005. Enildo, its creator, made it to recharge the batteries that his wife’s hearing aid kept using up. In his Frankenstein-like attempt to bring the battery back to life, Enildo had to reinvent a charger that when connected to an outlet for twenty minutes is capable of charging the tiny battery enough to last for twenty days. The apparatus looks like a school-book diagram, its technical system stripped down and exposed. Its objective is to revive the battery, and by doing this it questions the technical and commercial logic inscribed in the battery itself.
Repair, repurposing and reinvention can be considered leaps of imagination, as opposed to the concepts of innovation favored by the reigning commercial logic, which offers few solutions for the current problems of the individual. Leaps of imagination, on the other hand, propose we reclaim the creative attitudes of the users and the production centers of material goods.
The practices I have commented on in this text may seem like backwards adaptations to the reality of poverty, but they are not presuming to change reality in a utopian way; what they offer is the possibility to be conscious of that reality. Ironically, they provide an escape from the dream world of idyllic consumerism, to reality. It is difficult to imagine that these practices on their own will have a space within the future of design concepts. Their value lies in the present, in the possibility of subverting the current order to propose new ways of looking at the relationships between objects, the market and industry; that is their humble way of influencing the future of design and production.
To conclude with Technological Disobedience in Cuba, I should clarify that its existence does not owe itself exclusively to the rejection and transgression of the authority of industrial objects and the lifestyles that they contain and project. It incarnates, above all, an alternate route when faced with economic hardship and the restrictions that prevail in the Cuban context.
In this sense, the disobedience that I have deemed “technological” in the context of this text is intertwined with its social, political and economic variants, and as such it could also be described by any one of these adjectives. It is an interruption of the perennial state of transition imposed by the West and of the equally continual transition towards communism that has been instituted at the official level on the island.
Five years ago, in 2007, www.revolico.com appeared: a website for Cubans (the few who use the Internet) to sell houses, cars, and all kinds of goods online. The name could not be more appropriate: the Revolution had become more like a “commotion”.
The website is a virtual laundry list of descriptions, brands and acronyms that read like anagrams, an extensive itemization of contraptions, in particular of “hybrid” cars: “For sale: Fiat 125, 1974. Original Motor in mint condition; 5-speed SEAT transmission; NISSAN V-12 carburetor, TOYOTA YARI front seats; new LADA dashboard, fully-functional; SONY CD player with 4 speakers and brand-new PEUGEOT clutch … .”
The terminology and vernacular jargon utilized by Revolico users are indicative of a social movement with a consolidated language of resistance. During the presentation of the Chinese appliances brought to Cuba as substitutes for the fans, stoves and fridges that the Cuban people had created to resist the dictatorship, Fidel Castro himself acknowledged those Cuban contraptions as enemies, calling them “energy-devouring monsters.”
In addition to www.revolico.com and Castro’s speeches, there are other spaces that have echoed this technological disobedience. I am referring to the official press, the documents and legal declarations issued by the State, in their desperation to control the torrent of entrepreneurship. The first was Article 215 of Law No. 60 of the Roadway and Transportation Regulations: “The construction of vehicles by assembling new or used parts or objects is prohibited, as is their inscription in the Registry, regardless of the acquisition of the titles of these parts.”
I would later find articles in the official press where some regime journalists describe—in pejorative, theatrical terms—the negative effects of “Rikimbilis” on public health and the city. The “Rikimbilis” were, originally, bicycles with motors from fumigation devices, water pumps or mechanical saws added on; today the term is useful to encompass all of the hybridized and/or reinvented apparatus-on-wheels on the island. One of the articles I saved spoke out against the robbery of the street signs used to construct the frames of these vehicles.
But something new trumps these articles, legal documents and even Revolico itself. As of a few months ago, the State has issued a new law that permits the recirculation of those cars destroyed by crashes, corrosion or abandonment. When a car was out of circulation for one of these reasons, it used to be impossible to continue using it as a vehicle. The new decree allows a car to be registered if it conserves 60% of its original parts. This leaves a 40% margin for technical and formal fantasy. In everyday speech these cars are called “Sixty Percent,” although it would be more appropriate to call them “Forty Percent.”
This phenomenon produces a demand for new types of expertise. In the years to come there will be “60 percent” experts competing with “40 percent” experts, and in the legal annals we will find fascinating drama. The battle of the percentages, where the battlefield is the bodies of the cars, will eventually have an impact on general transit laws. How, and by whom, will the legal and physical borders between the 60% and the 40% be defined?
Last March I found a Peugeot 404 designed in 1962 by Pininfarina. The car retained, at least in theory, 60% of the original design; the remaining 40% cannot be attributed to the Italian designer. The new combinations and silhouette of the trunk, the now-hybrid technical systems, the colorful Plexiglas that takes the place of the windows and the swollen mud flaps, among other alterations, make up that 40%.
The silhouette of this car now evokes a vernacular aerodynamic, thrillingly speculative and utopian. A car’s shape, when its maker is serious, is a diagram of the speed, wind resistance, turbulence and other forces of the universe acting on that car. If we presume this relationship to be true and invert it, by changing the shape of the Peugeot we are diagramming, and proposing, the physical laws of a new universe. This suggestion doesn’t sound so delirious if we see it as a model for interpreting the chaos provoked by these cars in their encounter with the rules of the legal universe.
When the car drove away, I thought that it was as if through movement it sought to permanently escape its referent, the standardized model with which it would share, from now on, a certain percentage. Two blocks later I found another “Forty percent”: Volkswagen in the front and Fiat in the back.
translated by Andrea Mickus