Leonardo Caffo. Is the digital audience a real public?

Second Episode

Transcript of the second episode of The Disappearance of the Public, a new podcast in which Castello di Rivoli Philosopher-in-Residence Leonardo Caffo investigates the notion of the public, its disappearance, its different characteristics, and qualities.

 Manuela Vasco: Welcome to our weekly podcast with Castello di Rivoli Philosopher-in-Residence Leonardo Caffo, who’s investigating with us the idea of the public, its disappearance, its different characteristics, and qualities. I’m your host Manuela Vasco from Castello di Rivoli—Cerruti Collection Communication Office. I welcome Leonardo Caffo and I’d like to ask him: is the digital audience a real audience? How is it a different world, a different audience from before?

Leonardo Caffo: Hello Manuela. Thank you for this very interesting question about the nature of the digital audience. Many artists have actually anticipated, as art often does, the issues regarding the disappearance of the analogical public—that public made up of bodies, blood, physical presence, room noises. They’ve talked about what it could be to shift to the gaze of the other, of otherness, into a digital type of spatiality, and tried to understand what kind of subjectivity and what kind of audience the digital audience is. In this context, I would mention the project Annlee, by Pierre Huyghe [Paris, 1962] and Philippe Parreno [Oran, 1964]. Many years ago, these artists bought an online manga character, which was on sale for anyone who wanted to create cartoons. They acted on this “shell,” trying to introduce multiple personalities, visions, curiosities, emotions. They also involved many other artists, giving life to what is a real work of art in motion, constantly changing. We find Annlee in many different international exhibitions—such as the one at PS1 in 2001–02 curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev—No Ghost Just a Shell. At this specific time, Castello di Rivoli is showing a work that comes from this experimentation, created by Pierre Huyghe, under the title Two Minutes Out of Time (2000). Annlee walks on a kind of dynamic 3D moon, reads novels, watches films, talks about the concerns of the artists who have personified her. This group of artists who’ve worked on this character give her life; they use her as a means of expressing their thoughts. But in this way, Annlee, triggered by a hybridization of thought, becomes a being in her own right, albeit a being who doesn’t exist in the normal public domain. You won’t find Annlee at the supermarket or in the post office line. But her very existence in what in ontology is called the “domain of fictitious entities,” introduces an incredible theme: that of the ontology of functional objects. We have, in fact, a new living being. She lives in a different space; she lives in the digital space. But she observes us, she questions us, she tells us things of some kind. By questioning us, despite being a fictional character, she tells us something on which we must reflect: the disappearance of the public. Whether existing or non-existent, Annlee observes us, talks to us, tells us about her problems. Perhaps these problems have an effect in the real world? Listening to Annlee, do we feel some kind of emotion? Does it make sense to ask if she exists, or how we feel about it? The domain of existence becomes wider, bigger, more complex, and objects born from fictitious narrative contexts exist in their own way. This is a question of philosophy that is fundamental to understanding the hybridization between art and the philosophy of the digital audience. It is precisely this theme of the observation of objects and digital subjects that crosses art.  We’ve just made reference to Huyghe and Parreno, but we can also think of another great artist who’s crossed the recent history of Castello di Rivoli, and this is Ed Atkins [Oxford, 1982], who had a solo exhibition in 2017 curated by the Castello’s director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and by its curator Marianna Vecellio. Here, there’s a great analysis of the existential conditions of contemporary life, filtered through the interaction between the body and technology. The characters that Atkins created show the ambivalence between digital reality and analog reality and the gap we need to bridge. It’s above all a question that concerns the subjectivity of the digital, the gaze of the digital. Is it the same as the gaze developed in the analog? Artists today work on this question a lot.  Another work that Carolyn and I have been thinking about is by Miao Ying, who created a great narrative based on the novel Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau [Concord, 1817–1862] in which, as we know, there was this idea of a utopian social credit, in which people behave well because they get rewards. This artist created Pilgrimage into Walden Twelve (2019), which is a great sci-fi fantasy of animation and artificial intelligences, which are precisely trained with stimuli and become more real than reality itself. This happens in some way because the audience and the actors have always been in great communion. The action is oriented to the gaze of the other; it always has been. If we think of the most primordial public, we think of the theatrical representations of Athens in the 5th century, or the so-called Dionysian festivals, on which many philosophers reflected—I’m obviously thinking about Friedrich Nietzsche [Röcken, 1844–Weimar, 1900] and the tragedy. The closeness of the audience to the actors was also an architectural fact. It was a spatial datum that had to do with the conceptual: the noises of the audience influenced the actions of the actors; the actors influenced the noises of the audience. Everything has always held together.  But one could say that today’s digital audience is the same thing. We have an audience, even today. It’s a fundamental question. We talked about the disappearance of the public in the first episode. Somehow, the analog audience disappeared during coronavirus. The museums are empty, the stadiums are empty, the theaters are empty. But we’re still observers in other contexts. We use museums as large databases to digitize on the internet and we’ve tried to make public programs on Zoom, Instagram, Clubhouse. The people who’ve connected to these have in some way served to create an analogic public. Let’s say the gaze of the other has remained.  First of all, it must be spatiality understood. If Huyghe’s and Parreno’s works hadn’t been spatialized in this lunar landscape, the work itself would have been much weaker. What is the space within which the public manifests itself? The first thesis of this second podcast: the audience is the context. The context allows observation to develop in a certain way. I’m thinking, for example, of what Achille Bonito Oliva recently said about museums, which are fundamentally enjoyed in a dimension of stasis. The public enters and is “forced to observe” first one work then another, to participate in the set-up that curators have created for viewers to enjoy the works through a path that influences their observation. In the digital realm, this is very different. One thing that changes with the digital audience is the attention threshold. Digital gives us the possibility to infinitely scroll. We can watch Rivoli live for two seconds, then we can watch MoMA live. In the meantime, we can consult the weather, check the Corriere, Le Monde, El Pais websites and in all this our attention threshold is different. It’s an ingoing and an outgoing of things. Moreover, a live audience becomes fundamental to you as the actor, the musician, the artist, etc., because it tells you how it observes you, how much it observes, and according to this, your performance changes. There’s a difference between performing in a real analog, museum space or in a digital space—as we’ve experienced in recent months during the coronavirus. But the only information we have access to on our Instagram, for example, or with our rooms on Clubhouse, is the number of visitors. It tells us that someone is listening to us, but we don’t know how they’re listening to us, if they’re doing something else while they’re listening to us, if they’re really focused in the moment of observation, and this makes our performance different once again. The digital audience has changed not only digital but also analog production. The great communion between the audience and the actors that was created, for example, in the “proagon” ceremonies—the prologues before the Dionysian festivals in 5th-century Athens—helped audiences to understand the context, triaining them in the knowledge of the playwrights. This aspect has been completely lost.  There’s a Kantian thesis that I’d like to share with you regarding this collaboration between philosophy and art that we’re staging at the museum. In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), when elaborating on transcendental schematism and transcendental analytics, Immanuel Kant [Königsberg, 1724–1804] says that we’re only able to aquire knowledge through a scheme. Without this schema, a concept that governs our intuitions, we remain blind. We need a way to “grab” the information that we receive; otherwise, we can’t observe all its nuances. This means, for example, that the digital only apparently gives us more information than analog. We may be able to look at a weather forecast, read a newspaper, observe a live broadcast all at the same time, but we’re unable to grasp the nuances of the complexity of the space in front of us, what is called the “landscape,” that is, the portioning of the world given by the eye. The limits of our world are the limits of our language, as Ludwig Wittgenstein [Vienna, 1889 – Cambridge, 1951] would have said. There’s a partiality of observation.  Why are the works we started from, created by Huyghe, Parreno, Miao Ying and Ed Atkins important? Because they help us to understand the contemporary audience. It makes no sense to be nostalgic for an analog audience. Today, in 2021, with the hybridization of analog and digital, we speak in the technical jargon of “on line”— that is, we no longer go on the internet, we are the internet. We’re constantly traversed by a network. It makes no sense to say, “It was better when we looked at museums more carefully before we had Instagram and before Google Arts and Culture digitized everything.” We must understand the phenomena of contemporaneity, while always taking an archaeological approach to audience analysis. I use the term “Archaeological” in the sense in which Michel Foucault [Poitiers, 1926–Paris, 1984] spoke of it in his great research on sexuality and madness. With this podcast and with this research project at the museum, we’re carrying out an “archeology of the public.”  Essential to understanding the reason for talking about Foucault’s archeology of power is what he tells us in his great book Discipline and Punish (1975). He tells us about the Panopticon, a utilitarian prison, where incarcerated people know they can be constantly seen by the guard, who is at the center of this circular prison, but they don’t know if, how and when they’re seen, and therefore their actions change on the basis of always being subject to an audience. Even the guard is not aware of his audience. The Panopticon is one of the great philosophical conceptualizations that can be read completely from the perspective of the public. The archeology of the Panopticon can helps us to understand what “public” means. Foucault spoke of a post-1960s society, the first society of observation, surveillance cameras, etc., but not a society in which there was a certainty of being watched. Today, however, we’re in total pursuit of being seen. We’re not only unafraid of the Panopticon, but we live in constant expectation of grabbing that famous 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol [Pittsburgh, 1928 – New York, 1987] talked about. We want the guard to see us, and we offer him information constantly. With the general mobilization given by the digital, we show off our homes, tell our stories, etc., constantly seeking the public eye. We live to be observed, supervised and therefore also punished. This is a central aspect, because the categories of philosophy in which we spoke of the gaze of the other and the impossibility of protecting oneself from this gaze of the other—what Jacques Derrida [Algiers, 1930 – Paris, 2004] called “the taste for secrets”—have changed profoundly with technology. When the technique changes, the tyranny changes too. Gilles Deleuze [Paris, 1925–1995] said that every technique expresses a tyrant. He meant that technology equates to a new form of life and therefore to new life expectancy and therefore to a new spatiality of life, a new spatiality of existence.  The question you asked me is: is the audience the same as before? Yes and no. There’s no other way to answer. In some ways, the audience remains the same. Let’s give a better definition of “audience” than the one we gave the first time—because I’m contantly researching while working on this podcast. The real, ontologically decisive, powerful public, the one we always pursue in some way, is made up of an observer who doesn’t simply look at reality, but helps to create it, as happens in quantum physics. But, above all, the observer shouldn’t be someone you choose, as happens in invited exhibitions or in the short lists that museums produce for inaugurations and so on. The audience should be someone who arrives suddenly, with the gaze of the other, of the madman, who as Foucault said, suddenly observes you, questions you. As we shall see next time, the animal’s gaze is absolutely other and asks you “Who are you? What do you want? What are you introducing me to?” And the public in turn must be seen and recognized as an observer, beyond the prejudicial claims of our being observed, where we may assume, he’s not prepared enough, he’s not intelligent enough, he’s not educated enough. This doesn’t mean that there’s no objective reality that we must provide for an audience, but that there are many, and that therefore—and this is where the “no” of the “yes and no” answer I gave earlier lies—the digital audience has contributed to creating new types of reality and therefore also new types of performativity. Annlee observes us, questions us, and it makes no sense to ask ourselves if she does it well, that is, as we would like, because she is not human, she is not intelligent, etc. We aren’t what we do, but we are what others see us doing. And in this apparent transition from one position to another, relative to a context, lies in my opinion the decisive revolution with respect to the image of existence that we’ve always given ourselves in our various cultures. It’s obvious that one thing is applause, making a live noise inside a room, and the other is simply a number that grows the digital audience. In this sense, it’s crazy because you can even buy followers on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, knowing that this quantity doesn’t equate to a quality or a reality. The poor Indian boy who’s paid by the digital subcultures to follow them will never observe us. Yet today, we evaluate the quality of the digital audience through quantity: how many followers does Castello di Rivoli or Leonardo Caffo have on Instagram? This becomes an evaluation, even thorugh we know that it’s absolutely not equivalent to a real look. The thing that must be understood, however—and here’s the defect of the digital public—is that in the definition of public that I’ve just given you and that, in a hypothetical future, I’d like to discuss further—is that the public isn’t something that’s there to gratify us, but is something that’s there to make us responsible, that is, to make the action, the music, the art that we’re putting in front of them perform. It’s therefore quality that should count much more than quantity tout court.


An important thing that the artists we started with also understood is that what worries us about digital subjectivities is not so much whether they’re real or not. This is a profoundly wrong question, because, as the philosophers say, as soon as an entity is communicated, it enters the domain of reality, like all other entities, with its own status of reality. But what types of new subjectivities do we have before us? And therefore, what types of gazes of the other, what types of audiences and what types of actions will follow this gaze of the other? And this is the thing we must try to investigate and understand. Digital offers new possibilities. It also does this in art. Who is the audience of the NFTs[1] that are being auctioned for millions of pounds today? Is there really an audience for NFTs, for a work that, in fact, is a certificate and not an aesthetic phenomenon? This ontological question is important and fundamental. What are these works that are now produced in the digital sphere, that are equivalent to their certification and not to the power of the aesthetic phenomenology they generate? The museum is fundamental for aesthetic phenomenology: to cross a threshold and be amazed to find yourself in front of something you weren’t looking for, while digital always gives you what you were already looking for. As Pablo Picasso [Malaga, 1881– Mougins, 1973] would say, “I don’t seek I find.” Digital is essential to understand that sentence: the algorithm always puts the thing you were looking for in front of you. However, this doesn’t immediately generate the idea that the digital audience is a worse audience, and the analog audience is a better audience. It also generates a reflection on new forms of art production. What does it mean to produce a work for a glance that you’ll never get to verify? A look that’s equivalent to a quantity and not a quality? A look that’s equivalent to a “like,” an appearance? And above all, what does it mean when there’s no way to interpret the reason for that like, the reason for having suddenly appeared in history while we’re doing a performance? Reading a face, however enigmatic, allows us a better understanding when we’re developing an action.

The real question is this: what’s the difference between us and Annlee? And this is where the good and the bad of the research project we’re developing together comes. One might say “Is Annlee fake? Why should I care about the concerns of artists who created her?” But what do we really know about the other? I could be created; my voice could be fake. You don’t know if Leonardo Caffo really recorded this podcast or if the director recorded my voice, recalibrated it through an automaton and made me say things that I don’t really think. Basically, the knowledge of otherness and therefore the gaze that otherness exercises towards us is always an act of trust. When we’re in a conference and someone in the room nods as we speak, they might do so because they feel they’re being watched and think, “Oh, I’d better nod so he thinks I’m listening carefully,” or they might nod, but in reality, they’re minding their own business or listening to something else. Annlee is fake, because so is the mind of the other, since it’s always inaccessible. It’s always a great act of trust. So then the digital audience leads us to the oldest, most complex, most articulated question: what do we really know about who’s observing us and for whom we’re producing things, if we’re not sure that attention is really being paid on the other side? And this is where new perspectives open up: the audience and the actor, just as in the 5th century in Athens, merge in a much more structural way. The only certainty we have to produce art again, to produce beauty again, to produce genuine questions of meaning about existence, is to let the actors and the audience walk together, as happened in the proagon, or as Marina Abramović [Belgrade, 1946] put it: when we train the public.

Here we find the enormous horizons for contemporary art: from walking with the audience to not even producing graphic works, which are becoming NFTs. But there is a way to work together, to make the public walk together with the works. We must understand a way—and perhaps we’ll find it later in the next episodes—to make sure that behind those numbers, behind that quantity, which is not equivalent to quality, there is a way to understand that basically the landscape in which we walk is no less lunar, less different, less abstract than the one in which Annlee walks. And it’s made above all not of our dreams, but of the dreams of others; not of words but of the words of others; not of our own concerns, but of the concerns of others. We’re actually more like Annlee than the many dreams of actors and authorship we’ve always had.

Manuela Vasco: I thank you all for being with us. I’d also like to thank Regione Piemonte, Fondazione CRT, Città di Torino, Città di Rivoli and our partners Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo and Intesa San Paolo / Gallerie D’Italia. We look forward to welcoming you again next week for this exciting series of podcasts with the philosopher Leonardo Caffo.


[1] A non-fungible token (NFT) is a unit of data stored on a digital ledger, called a blockchain, that certifies a digital asset to be unique and therefore not interchangeable. NFTs can be used to represent items such as photos, videos, audio and other types of digital files. Access to any copy of the original file, however, is not restricted to the buyer of the NFT. While copies of these digital items are available for anyone to obtain, NFTs are tracked on blockchains to provide the owner with a proof of ownership that is separate from copyright. (Wikipedia)