Leonardo Caffo. What is the public?

First episode

Transcript of the first 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: what is the public? In the frame of the current pandemics, has the public really disappeared?

Leonardo Caffo: First of all, thank you for your question, which seems to be a fundamental one when approaching the notion of the public—think about the disappearance of visitors from museums such as Castello di Rivoli, where I’m currently in residence. This podcast is spurred by a stimulus that director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev very kindly offers me each week. The works she invited me to reflect upon when approaching the disappearance of the public are emblematic. On the one hand, she suggested that I should talk about Lampada Annuale (Annual Lamp), an unusual Conceptual work by artist Alighiero Boetti [Turin, 1990 – Rome, 1994], dated 1966. It’s a box made of wood, metal, and glass with an electric device inside—a light bulb. It’s designed in such a way that once a year it lights up for a few seconds. No-one has ever seen it lit up. What does the idea of the work rely on? Is it on our waiting for enlightenment? Is it on our hope of seeing it light up, or on the impossibility of this? Again, no-one has ever seen it illuminated. The next work the director invited me to reflect upon is Sergio Lombardo’s [Rome, 1939] Progetto di morte per avvelenamento (Project of Death by Poisoning). The work was made in 1971 and in this case is a small cardboard box, signed, dated, and numbered with a marker pen and containing a sealed poison, which might be nicotine. There’s also a leaflet inside with the description of the effects of nicotine. This box can only be opened after the death of the person who has taken the poison. It’s obviously an emblematic choice between life and death. No-one has ever read the leaflet because no-one has ever chosen to die—or to let someone else die—in order to open the box. So, in some ways, these are two works that seem to have been conceived for no public—or at least, their function is not really access to the work as such, but is related to the idea of the work or to a conceptualization of the work. When we talk about the disappearance of the public, we’re thinking of what, by way of example, has happened with the pandemic.

The seeming disappearance of the public from museums, cinemas, theaters, stadiums, academies, and schools. And yet, the reason why I say “seeming disappearance” is because we need to completely unlearn and re-acknowledge the notion of “public.” I recall a poignant remark that Marina Abramović made in answer to Hans Ulrich Obrist during one of their conversations, reported in Obrist’s book Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects (2017). Abramović states that her focus in art is on the public, and that we haven’t focused on the public enough, which is a shame since it’s the viewer who completes the works. Art is only made for the public: it must serve society and the public, and in a sense train the audience. This idea that works of art are completed by the publics’ gaze closely resembles Umberto Eco’s notion of “Open Work” back in the 1960s. Therefore, far from being a minor matter, art—as conceived by Hegel in The Philosophy of Art—does not restrict itself to a limited meaning if compared with philosophy. In fact, as Eco stated many years later, art embraces multiple meanings and therefore it must somehow be mediated by its observers. What the Coronavirus has shown is the end—or at least the deconstruction—of the canonic notion of “public.” Lately, RAI (the national public broadcasting company) was looking for fake audiences to fill the void of seats at the Sanremo Festival. In the end, this didn’t happen. But let’s think about our behavior with social media, when we try to build a fake audience for our Instagram lives, or about the football matches that have recently been played in stadiums where the public was substituted with animations, mimicking the behavior of the absent fans in order to try to pretend that there is an “otherness.” Finally, think of the talent shows or TV shows that fill the unbearable absence of applause with recorded tracks and a virtual background audience. However, COVID-19 seems to have been just an accelerator of something that has already been going on for a long time. After all, anyone raised on a certain variety of Italian TV, such as programs on the courts, knows very well that most of these are fake programs, with fictional trials and actors. In the frame of the art scene, how “normal” or “real” is the public attending museum public programs, academic panels and so on and so forth? They’re often students, co-opted to participate. Or let’s talk about stadiums: what is the stadium audience, if not a biopolitical mechanism for controlling the fans? The notion of the public has to do with the concept of recognition, that is, with the idea of being able to be known from the outside, because it’s the gaze of the other that makes you exist as an individual, positions you, judges you, applauds you, challenges you. This is why Sergio Lombardo’s and Alighiero Boetti’s works are relevant. Both put up obstacles to the public gaze, and thus the conceptual dimension of these works is what makes them interesting. Historically, the public has been a concept to be broken and reinvented, certainly not something that we have to accept uncritically, obscured by some wall that cannot be negotiated. The public, however, is certainly not something anonymous, like what we nowadays experience with social media, where what matters are the numbers. We’ll expand on this idea when talking about the digital audience in the next episodes. It seems to me essential when making the assumption of this alleged disappearance of the public to think about what a new public could be now that COVID-19 has accelerated this process, this impossibility of being spectators of things in the world as we were before. Some ideas come to mind, which maybe we’ll develop in the next episode. I’m thinking of the digital public, the non-human public, the public of the future, the public of cultural activities, the public of minorities, the public of the street, child audiences, adolescent audiences—often considered less interesting by intellectuals—or even object audiences—think about the artworks as spectators—or mineral audiences. The question about the disappearance of the public has to do with the fact that we miss the other’s gaze.

We replace it with its surrogates and yet these too are somehow surrogates for surrogates and we say, rather clumsily, that today we cannot do anything because of COVID-19. But in reality what has prevented us, I believe, is not so much being actors, but actually being spectators, which means being public. In fact, I’d like to try to speak of the public as something active, not as something passive. The point is that we can do a lot. I’m talking now, but who is really listening to me? I can speak, but I don’t know who will receive my message. We don’t know for whom we do this, and how suitable it will be for us to observe this doing. Many philosophical interpretations of this digitization, too—or what we might call the “recording society”—tend to see us as producers of archives. But Giorgio Agamben in his latest publication When the House Burns [2020], reminds us that an archive doesn’t communicate the voice that changes, the relationships that words have in the pure, genuine, vital exchange, in the emotions. In a record, this immediacy is filtered. What Agamben says is that we’re missing the “dialect”—which, for me, is a very romantic word, because I think a little differently from Agamben philosophically. But we miss meeting each other, we miss the other’s gaze. We attempt to replace it with surrogates and in the end what comes out is what I would call—and it’s a concept to which we shall return—a sort of “prostitution of the public,” since we use it whenever we need to. Since when have we no longer really been seen from the outside? When the world goes back to “normal,” won’t the small group of people who come to hear me when I give a public lecture be part of a bubble guaranteeing me what is in effect a soliloquy, not so different from a podcast? Can the reception of academic and scientific research in specialist journals read by very few people really be considered public? So the real question is: who are we really talking to? These are relevant questions when thinking of a possible hopeful post-COVID reality and in organizing what is to come. Who are we really talking to? Are we all pronouncing soundless words that travel through the ether as if we were already dead? I’m thinking, for example, of the boundless field of contemporary art, on which I’m called to reflect in this residency. It’s a reflection on what it means to manage an audience in the era of the definitive disappearance of this phenomenon, according to the most genuine meaning of this word—that is, the public as an encounter with a stranger, someone absolutely other and uncontrollable, who might boo Carmelo Bene or Antonin Artaud. In this sense, the subject of museums comes to mind, since they’re often considered merely as databases. Think about what happened with the closure of museums during the coronavirus: they were closed more readily than shopping centers. In a time when it’s increasingly rare and difficult to experience a moment of genuine enjoyment, what does it mean when a work remains unseen, or an exhibition is inaugurated and closed the next day? What is the meaning behind the emptiness of a museum? It is precisely this sudden, unmanageable and radical encounter, perhaps even an extra-linguistic one, that we really have to confront. The problem is conceptual and logical, not simply perceptual. It’s not as if when we return to normal and people start attending concerts, stadiums, conferences or fashion shows, we can say “OK the audience is back and the research project on the audience no longer makes sense because we’re back to “normality” and let’s move on.” On the contrary, we’re likely to experience confusion. The hellish void will perhaps become a hellish fullness, like in the old days. But what will be the gaze of the other that really questions us? This is the fundamental question about the public.

Who or what will take our voice and transform it into an action? Will we really want to relinquish the conditions of control, the feeling of being in our comfort zone, in which we constantly find ourselves nowadays, in which at the end of a meeting the most we can expect is applause? Perhaps it is with this truly sudden encounter that in the end we must try to confront ourselves. But like the question from which we started, this is an answer that in turn is a question. When everything returns to how it’s supposed to be, which form of meeting would we like to confront? An unexpected encounter with another, or an audience that is no less artificial than the digital avatars that populate today’s stadiums? The need is therefore in my opinion—and I try to conclude—that of articulating a new and more radical concept of “public.” And this can only be done by trying not to use old categories to deal with complex and explainable contemporary phenomena. This is the only way that will allow us to think, for example, about what’s happening in the world of contemporary art or what is the real interest in producing and receiving things in the public world. “Public” means the unexpected glance of the other. This is the first definition that I want to try to give: an uncontrollable, untamed glance. A look that observes us and really questions us. A look that somehow makes us feel naked and makes us ashamed and that obliges us to give an account, reason, and explanation of the things we’re showing, the things we’re talking about, the things we’re working for. In the frame of Coronavirus, the public has disappeared. But hadn’t it already disappeared, since the only public we were used to was already so distant from us?

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 Sanpaolo/Gallerie d’Italia.Our digital programs are also made possible thanks to Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo. We look forward to welcoming you again next week for this exciting series of podcasts with the philosopher Leonardo Caffo.