Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra. Transparency, Occultation, and the Division of the Visible in Contemporary Mexican Public Art: The Case of the Pillar of Light in Mexico City

“Transparency” has become a dominant political notion in early-twentieth-first-century Mexico, often seen as the foremost ideal in a violence-ridden and pessimistic political scenario. Officially, transparency is understood as the axis of this country’s process of democratization, a process that followed 71 years of one-party rule and has been accompanied by the neoliberal reorganization of state and society. The current prominence of the notion of transparency in political discourse, however, belies a wide plurality of understandings of this concept, together with the social consequences of those technologies of governance and regimes of vision that accompany it. Indeed, the direct association between transparency and democratic accountability is complicated by the rise of what some have described as a “surveillance society”, in which the “eye” of not only the state apparatus but also private corporations has become capable of infiltrating most aspects of public and private life. As Byung-Chul Han has argued, “the society of transparency is not a society of trust, but a society of control” (2015). This thinker describes transparency as a “neoliberal dispositive” in which secrecy, foreignness, and otherness become rapidly eroded, often through collaborative and seemingly free-willed forms of engagement with digital panoptica. Given the broad history and scope of the idea of transparency, however, any meaningful critique of this notion demands a situated analysis of the local construction of its meaning and a discussion of how it has shaped the material and symbolic production of public space and public culture. In this paper, I situate this discussion around one of the foremost urban expressions of the ideal of transparency in contemporary Mexico: The Pillar of Light in Mexico City, a 104-metre-tall column made of translucent white onyx, standing on top of a centre for digital culture, and surrounded by a public square. This space was originally conceived as the main cultural project of the 2010 bicentennial celebrations of the country’s Independence. My discussion of its brief cultural history, and the ways it has been contested by artists and activists, serves to make visible not only the context of distrust that seems to fuel a boundless desire for greater political visibility, but also the extent to which activist and grassroots organizations have also begun to demand more “transparency” from an increasingly securitized state. This discussion will allow me to frame the meaning of neoliberal or transparent democracy in today’s Mexico as a battle of what can be measured, displayed, performed and seen, a process that is accompanied by a manifest “moralization of objectivity”. In this context, public art has become a privileged platform for the negotiation and performance of competing ideas of what “unmediated” political truths may entail.