It seems we’ve found ourselves in a world where the term “fact” has become loosely defined. In election cycles and populous referendums around the world, we’ve seen overwhelming amounts of misinformation, as well as strongly partisan “facts” administered to the public via party leaders and pundits alike. The media in the US is scrambling to begin fact checking Donald Trump, one of the most outlandish candidates we’ve seen in our history, after months of airing his sound bites to boost ratings. Much of Britain voted to leave the European Union in the ‘Brexit’ vote, without really knowing what that would entail. And Colombia’s Peace Agreement with the rebel group FARC was rejected by a small margin of less than 1%, even though in the areas most directly affected by the conflicts, the overwhelming majority voted for the agreement (between 76–96%), while in other regions, oppositional leaders of the right-wing party swayed opinion against it.
At the center of this conflict around the validity of facts lies the media, which can often serve either as the vehicle or regulatory force for dubious political rhetoric. But in Mexico, where threats to the media from both cartel leaders and government officials make it extremely hard to maintain a completely free and independent press, the situation is less cut and dry. The watchdog group Article 19 reports that there has been widespread abuse and intimidations against the Mexican press in the last five years, including hundreds of attacks against reporters. But there also exists more subtle forms of “soft censorship” or imposed “self-censorship,” where journalists or editors are bribed or threatened to be fired if they don’t maintain favorable stories about those in power, as we saw in the case of Carmen Aristegui, who was dismissed from MVS Radio in 2015 after reporting an unfavorable story about the First Lady.
Enter Carlos Amorales, the Mexico City-based artist who is featured in a new exhibition at Sapar Contemporary called Hiding in Plain Sight, for which curator Justine Ludwig brought together work from five international artists who illuminate aspects of political or social issues that are often easily ignored by the culture at large. The show includes a series by Amorales called “El Buró Fantasma,” or “The Ghost Bureau,” which takes censorship head-on with seven tabloid prints of actual newspaper articles written by Amorales in a top Mexico City publication (the name of which has been redacted), marked up with minimal copy edits and signed off for printing by testigos, or witnesses.
Through “Ghost Bureau,” created with the help of collaborator and editor Edgar Alejandro Hernandez, Amorales was able to essentially infiltrate a newspaper by writing subversive articles that simulated the style and format of an average story or puff piece, without raising any red flags regarding censorship. He did this by capitalizing on the free space that often opens up in daily Mexican papers (perhaps due to the high amount of redactions imposed on the press). Where there are gaps, the editors are forced to fill them. So Amorales, writing under a pseudonym, submitted his stories under the guise that they were culture section filler. They were then presumably fact-checked, copy edited, and published for anyone to read, as we can see from the prints in the show.
But the contents of these articles are not simply innocuous human-interest pieces; rather, they all investigate the intersection of politics and avant-garde poetry in Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. Amorales’s interest in this specific cultural moment came from reading Roberto Bolaño’s 1996 novel Distant Star, which chronicles the story of an undercover fascist agent who, during the 1973 coup in Chile, infiltrated a leftist poet’s circle in order to kill all of its members. After this mission was completed, the agent went on to become the avant-garde poet of the new fascist regime under Pinochet. But there is another hidden context, which is that Bolaño used the poetry of avant-garde leftist poet Raúl Zurita, who was an actual cultural figure of the time. Amorales, who grew up in Mexico under the influence of the many exiled leftist Chilean thinkers, finds the idea of an avant-garde fascist poet “very disquieting and challenging,” as it upsets the expectation that art and intellectuality are exclusive to left-leaning ideology.
Having been deeply influenced by Bolaño’s novel and the hidden subtext that it contains, Amorales decided to do his own research into the possibility of a fascist poet (or fascist intellectualism) existing in Chile. But rather than publish his findings under his own name as an artist, he decided he would take a cue from Bolaño’s book, and embed the information into the culture section of the newspaper in the form of articles, written under a pseudonym. Just as Bolaño buried versions of history within a fictional narrative, Amorales decided to burry social critiques of contemporary problems within the newspapers that often avoid such critiques.
One story reports that in 2006, it was discovered that Pinochet had amassed one of the largest private libraries in South America, despite having burned or destroyed thousands of books that he felt went against his regime. Amorales points out that “[Pinochet’s] decision to destroy [the books] is no longer seen as the decision of an ignorant and self-conscious being, but as the will of an educated person who even kept for himself a copy of the books he exterminated,” which shows the intellectual leanings of the fascist regime.
In another article, Amorales writes of Zurita and his fellow poets that their “formal experimentation could be a tool to disguise social criticism.” He is speaking here of new forms of poetry that escaped the censorship of Pinochet’s national publishing house, like skywriting, public performance, and conceptual exercises on paper. But the criticism also applies to Amorales’s own formal experimentation of writing under the censorship mechanism set in place in Mexico’s contemporary media. The fact that these veiled critiques are printed in the very newspapers that are under constant scrutiny and pressure from the forces in power, makes them quite literally hidden in plain sight.
As an outsider, looking at the copy-edited tabloid prints, hung neatly in a white box gallery in Tribeca, it is hard to comprehend the entirety of this subversive editorial project. The work doesn’t just highlight how easy it is to make information passable in the right context, but rather exposes the repressive nature of Mexico’s contemporary government and one of its greatest censorships: that of the press through the manipulation of facts.
Hiding in Plain Sight continues at Sapar Contemporary (9 N Moore St, Tribeca, Manhattan) through November 14.