Newspapers, people and Art: from mud to hope

During the Serralves em Festa festival, on June 3, the atrium of the Serralves Museum in Porto highlighted a performative sculptural presentation. The space was filled with a hippopotamus, newspapers, a person who sat on top of the hippopotamus reading a newspaper, and another who arranged the newspapers that came out of the circuit where the person reading the newspaper, the newspapers, and the hippopotamus were. Hope Hippo (2005) is a ‘perfomative sculpture’, part of the exhibition Entelechy, by the artist duo Allora & Cazadilla. Intended to look at the hippopotamus rising up and “hope”, according to the exhibition’s explanation, it represents “a kind of watchtower from which a human ‘whistleblower’ can, while reading news about the world, sound the alarms of injustice”.

Going beyond that explanation and starting from a look at the social and cultural contexts and their production of meanings (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2021) and discourses (van Dijk, 2017), other interpretations become enabled. With this writing, the ambition is, therefore, to offer “a broader vision capable of extrapolating and thus framing, the understanding of the artistic field” (Pires & Pinto-Coelho, 2021, p. 18). Taking into account Journalism and Communication Studies, especially Social Semiotics and Critical Discourse Studies, a central idea is argued: the ‘performative sculpture’ in question represents a call for attention to the devaluation of the news, the beyond-news press and the professional people in the field, as well as to the citizen people and their need to obtain information and knowledge, positioning and intervention.

News is part of everyday life and constructs it. Gaye Tuchman (1978) talks about its role to inform people about what they are ignorant about and to construct social reality, in their everyday life. Teun van Dijk (2017) emphasizes its value in producing discourses, at the base of which are the meanings, and semiotical elements, playing a basilar role in guiding people in their daily lives. Dialectically, they create, nurture, and cause to nurture and create mental and social representations, attitudes, behaviours, and attitudes. Situated in a temporal and spatial context, people interact in their daily lives through language, which conventionalizes their experience and can lead to contributing to changes in daily life. As for cities, since the ‘performative sculpture’ is installed in the city of Porto and was initially intended for the city of Venice, each one corresponds to a “complex interaction of fields and senses, in which local and non-local actors intervene”, in a “cultural landscape” that “is filled with contested senses” (O’Connor & Wynne, 1997, p. 196).

Led to reading a newspaper, what does a person sitting on a hippopotamus, reading it and surrounded by other newspapers, these on the floor? According to authors Kress and van Leeuwen (2021) and their “visual grammar,” meanings that go beyond representational ones, that offer representations of the world, help contribute to addressing several points. The person reading the newspaper, elevated, in central focus, and the being surrounded by newspapers that are on the ‘Margin’ and as what is both ‘Real’ and ‘Given’ – already known, the newspapers – and ‘New’ – by the impact it creates in a physical space to see the newspapers on the ground and even step outside the boundaries imposed for the circuit of the ‘sculpture’ – create an experience of interaction potentially inviting contemplation. The ‘performative sculpture’ occupies the atrium and takes over the space and time of the people viewing it. With his head turned towards the newspaper that is open, the person offers an ‘image’ in an indirectly appealing way. The angle of view is another point to be analysed, which is counterpointed, suggesting the demonstration of power – the power of reading the newspaper and having the power to act – and that of assuming a position different from that of the other people around, of prominence and the unusualness of a person sitting on a hippopotamus and surrounded by newspapers lying on the ground, apparently read.

Suggestively referring the news scenario to journalism, some contextualization around current trends in the same field deserves to be addressed here. Reports such as one by the Observatório da Comunicação (OberCom) (Cardoso et al., 2023) or studies such as the one by Baptista et al. (2021) show how current Portugal gives preference to television, where news gains greater strength, while consumption via social networks grows and that of the physical press decreases. Among others, the work of Camponez et al. (2020) reveals two trends in the news media: a migration to digital media, in which the Coronavirus pandemic, with its confinements and prophylactic isolations, has had its interference, and a loss of circulation of the physical press. According to the same document, it has also been witnessing a professional precariousness, which the same pandemic has accentuated. In social media, the strategic focus on content, as if trying to capture people’s attention to the click, the activity, and the subscription of the medium, whether journalistic or not, seems to prevail (e.g., Mattos, 2023). Drawing from a semiotic-discursive perspective, analysis works such as Ribeiro’s (2023) show how publications on newspapers’ social networks can produce senses of dramatization, spectacularism, wrongness, and dehumanization and this can be strategic for the respective media. As such, it raises the debate about the quality of what is produced and the sense of social responsibility of journalism, and the companies that support it. Looking at the sculpture, a note goes to the sense that newspapers produce as representative of the mud from which the hippopotamus rises, and which raises the person who reads the newspaper and tries to endow the same person with the knowledge to intervene in the world. If the mud proposes something dirty and harmful, it also proposes all the accumulation of knowledge produced by the media that, inherently, is based on a given social context and this context causes that knowledge to be produced.

In the performative exhibition, the newspaper is read, dropped on the ground, and is suggested to evaporate with the wind; in this case, a person tries to keep it and the several other newspapers in the circuit of the sculpture. In contrast to the depth of his production, isn’t the superficiality of what a newspaper is and its uses highlighted by this image? Moreover, the decadence of a newspaper in physical support and its diminishing importance? Also, isn’t the fact that the knowledge of the news is free or apparently free – when, for example, to access the Internet, you have to pay for it – and the illusion of the gratuitousness of the profession leading some people to read less and less? Paying for quality? And what about sensationalism, which goes beyond ethical and deontological guidelines, for which one also pays? The future generations and the interaction with digital equipment and the disdain for paper? Then, there is the ecological issue: the waste of paper and its uselessness – can’t this ‘sculpture’ also warn about this phenomenon? Won’t it become a niche commodity and expensive in unit price in the future? Like everything that becomes garbage and decays with time.

Among the newspapers on the floor, two advertisements make themselves seen, with the occupation of a full page on two different sheets. They are self-promotion ads, in a newspaper that cannot be identified. It is understood that they belong to the Global Media Group, which contains on one page a promotion for subscriptions to Women’s Health magazine, and on another page a promotion for subscriptions to Men’s Health magazine. Account must be taken that this group has, among other practices, editorial staffs under threat such as that of Diário de Notícias, with the dismissal of journalists since 2008, or TSF radio, with several waves of layoffs. Women’s Health was even discontinued in 2017, having returned in 2018 with a new partnership. It is not only journalism that shows its precariousness, but also other forms of press, such as lifestyle and physical media, becoming intense its dynamics in social media, journalistic and enterntainment media, in which covers generate other approaches and even others. In Women’s Health, there are several cases of celebrities represented on the covers as digital influencers who generate media and social attention, such as the case of Helena Coelho, in July/August 2020. The influencer triggered an episode in the radio program Extremamente Desagradável, denouncing thoughts associated with the focus on weight loss, such as already being able to ‘fit’ into clothes of a certain brand for children. As in Men’s Health, even with celebrities based in other media, such as television: the case of Fernando Rocha, humourist, on the cover of September 2022, was clear both for his weight loss and for reactions of his own that followed the cover. An example of this was when he revealed that he was being ‘affected’ by being allegedly accused of manipulating photos on social media. Suggestively, all this is for the sake of helping in this task of generating media and social attention and financial return, including attracting subscriptions and potential advertising entities.

In the middle of all that is enunciated so far, there is the hope. Robust and long in its locomotion, here is the hippopotamus, which emerges from the mud, lifting those who sit on it to read the newspaper. The hippopotamus represents a call to attention, motivating that, through the news, people look at the world and act in it to make it more liveable – with solidity, dedication, and attention, like the person reading the newspaper on top of the mammal. But what about the news, journalism, and the non-journalistic press, and the people who contribute to it and the above? What about hope? Is there hope for the digital? For the Artificial Intelligence (AI), about which authors like Chomsky declare themselves sceptical, declaring “an attack on critical thinking”? What about the case of psychologist and computer scientist Geoffrey Hilton, who left Google after a decade, frightened by the future of AI that he himself helped drive? Aren’t newspapers like i, which designed an edition almost entirely with the ChatGPT chatbot, contributing to this sludge of journalism?

On the other hand, the potential of journalism, the “hope”. As an example, one can see how journalism alerts to what is hidden and leads to action, as became clear with the case of Alexandra Reis, former TAP Air Portugal director, who ended up paying part of a compensation offered by that company, after taking a position as secretary of state, denounced by journalism. Even more complex cases can be summoned that involve investigative journalism, such as a quackery network in Ghana, which claimed to cure COVID-19 with a drinkable product, denounced by a media outlet, and which culminated in the arrest of the people responsible for that network (Ribeiro, 2020). Also, one should pay attention to the opinion and debates that the media foments. An exemplifying case of this was the Expresso’s opinion article authored by the illustrator, activist, and author Clara Não, who warns about the liberation of women’s bodies, more precisely of their “vulvas”, which was answered by the writer João Cerqueira. In Nascer do Sol, in an opinion article he wrote, the writer affirmed that, once it is impossible “to change the world or correct the Bible,” it is possible to “continue to fight against the stenches and the stinckers”. Newspapers also help to provide opportunities for discussion, on the most varied subjects, enabling intervention, aggregating different voices and appealing to different audiences, and promoting their inclusion to a greater or lesser extent.

The duo’s suggestion, through art, is that people can still draw attention to these and other threatening phenomena of the world as a place where one can exist and coexist because social reality is built dialectically. Art comes into contact with people when they interact with it, it performatively materializes – even if it is not seen as performance – and brings out of one social reality so many other realities that, within it, intersect. In line with Berger and Luckmann (1966/2010), objectivity and subjectivity coexist and construct reality. The initial proposition is therefore answered: if Hope Hippo brings hope, it also brings the muddy side of journalism, of the non-journalistic press, and of the conditions that professional press people have been facing, in an overview. Looking for and finding hope is just a start: facing it is an added challenge that many newsrooms are facing, especially in times of monetization and digital-oriented monetization, with business groups that are devaluing even the paper and overvaluing the digital.

Allora & Calzadilla provide, therefore, a work of art that triggers multiple reflections, thus highlighting its semiotic and discursive richness, as well as the richness of what cities can offer and what they can encourage. It is noteworthy that, despite dating from 2005 and through what is written here, the work is framed in the panorama of today, in this case, in the press. Since the exhibition of which it is part began in May, Serralves presents this ‘performative sculpture’ until October of this year. From it, opportunities can be created – interaction with art being an opportunity right from the start, considering its vast communicational potential – and, amidst the newspapers that are thrown to the ground, hope can rise. Above all with the action of people, informed, with critical and self-critical senses, able to intervene socially to encourage better societies for both current and future generations.

Text and images: Pedro Eduardo Ribeiro*

Published on 06/16/2023

*PhD student of Communication Sciences, University of Minho, and PhD researcher at the Centre for Communication and Society Studies (CECS).

This work was supported by a PhD Student Research Grant [BI_Doctoral/FCT/ CECS/2021 (UI/BD/151164/2021)], from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, under the Collaboration Protocol for Financing the Pluriannual Research Grant Plan for PhD Students, signed between FCT and the R&D Unit CECS (UID 00736).


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