The analogical-digital subject: ubiquitous identity in transit within and against techno-communication


Marialaura Ghidini 



Project Title



Marialaura Ghidini: I’d like to start by asking you a bit about the genealogy of your work as an anthropologist. How did your interest in digital culture and art begin?

Massimo Canevacci: My anthropological story was very accidental — I’ll summarise it briefly. I worked at Alitalia for ten years, then I graduated on the Frankfurt School. A professor of cultural anthropology was curious because he was working on the anthropology of complex societies and invited me to the university as a tutor to do seminars; I was a temp at the university almost until the end. The first course I was able to take as an adjunct professor was in 1990 in Sociology at La Sapienza [Rome, Italy] — I was a researcher and will have been until my early retirement. In this first course, I was faced with a large number of students who were very interested in changing, I won’t say the world, but almost! They were very advanced students who were the first ever — I think not only in Rome — to set up the first BBS at Forte Prenestino, which is a historic self-managed social centre, indeed the first — an extraordinary and beautiful place. They called it AvAnA BBS. These students started inviting me to participate in discussions about the digital, but I didn’t understand anything! [laughter] In the sense that I had absolutely no proper training (I don’t even have it now!) to understand these phenomena. But I was very interested in this emerging dimension, and also in the relationships between digital communication and forms of opposition, conflict and also innovation that the students — who were also friends, people with whom we worked together — were anticipating.

From there began a whole series of invitations to meetings outside the university in which we started to discuss the meaning of the digital. And I was trying to include anthropological elements; certainly those linked to an identity that was no longer based on a historical dimension and to a unique identity, but also those linked to the difficulty of continuing the public-private distinction, to the crisis of the dialectic, and to the question of representation (and self-representation) that digital communication favoured. In the sense that it was no longer the professors or the journalists who were interpreting these young people, but these young people were interpreting themselves and very well. Indeed, they were also interpreting professors and questioning the university education. In short, they were in a position of radical innovation.

The university at the time, and still now, needed a profound transformation because the Sociology Department was quite deaf to the issue of the digital, it didn’t have this ability to listen to emerging cultures and to these students who expressed this dimension of innovation. So, in my opinion, sociology and anthropology should have been sensitive towards this dimension of innovation, and that’s where this relationship came from. A relationship that eventually resulted in a magazine I edited in the late Nineties, Avatar. It was an unknown name at the time — the film would come out ten years later, and when I once introduced it to department, no one could pronounce the name avatar. I was able to bring together the best undergraduate and doctoral students, and address the issue of digital arts and digital ethnographic communication. This path, with which I tried to assert a more structured dimension on body, art, performance, polyphonic writings, empirical research and fluid identities connected to the issue of the digital, ended in early 2000, after six issues.

M.G.: What a fascinating story.
In a debate you had with sociologist Derrick de Kerckhove, Technology: The New Totemism (2013), you argued that “the new totemism puts technology as a defining character of humanity.” Can you tell me more about this idea, also in relation to the concept of digital ethnography?

M.C.:  This is where the decentralised centre of my research opens up, that is, the reflection on fetishism which had already started a long time ago. Fetishism has always fascinated me since my first readings as a student of Marx, of course, and then also of Freud, Benjamin, Adorno. I have always tried to understand how fetishism influences the dimension of culture, sexuality and bodies in the contemporary world.

Then I started a genealogical operation of the concept of fetishism, which is generally considered neutral: ‘yes, there is fetishism’. The problem is, however, that the term fetishism — which derives from the Portuguese word feitiço, and in turn from the Latin word facticium, which means manufactured, constructed — was invented by the Portuguese when they encountered the African populations of the West Coast. When the Portuguese found themselves faced with phenomena of religiosity, art and representation that they didn’t understand, they called them fetishes. This word also had enormous immediate success because of a French author, Charles de Brosses, who wrote about this entry in the Encyclopédie [by Diderot and d’Alembert in the Eighteenth century]. And this version of de Brosses came to Marx and then to Freud. They all took the concept of fetish as if it were natural and neutral. Whereas, instead, it conceals colonial power, an absolutely Eurocentric, racist and colonialist conception of the vision of the sacred of these African populations, and also of the arts, of these great artistic expressions that would be discovered many years later by cubism, currealism, etc., etc.

The concept of totemism in part is connected to that of fetishism because also this concept is problematic. It’s very often presented as a form of superstition and animism because, like fetishists, totemists are animists. This is to say, according to the Eurocentric logic, they don’t have a soul, but they have a small soul, a little degenerate soul that, thanks to Western culture, could reach what is meant by soul. Of course, my positioning is different! In my opinion, totemism and fetishism have the power to question some facets of Western dichotomous thinking, and in particular that between object and subject. In the sense that what we call objects, all these works — works of art considered to be made by animistic people who, in the Eurocentric vision, would not have a sense of proportion and beauty — from my point of view, are not objects but are subjects. So, the dimension of subjectivity transitions from the inorganic component, which would be that of the thing of art, to a more complex one — something that a great thinker of mine, Walter Benjamin, already understood (the sex appeal of the inorganic). These things are more complex than we could have imagined — even if Benjamin remains within a dialectic, he questions these dimensions, like that of his reflection on the collector. Therefore, distinguishing the sacred from the profane is just as fundamental. Because the sacred, unlike religion, does not have an institutional dimension: it does’t have a church, a mosque, that is, a fixed place; and it doesn’t have a book that tells the truth, it doesn’t have a body of priests who transmit that truth, etc. etc. Religion is always institutional, while the sacred is much freer: it’s irregular, and it does not have a book that tells the truth, it does not have a body of priests who transmit that truth, etc. etc. Religion is always institutional, while the sacred is much freer: it’s irregular, it has an immanent transcendence. So this immanence lies within the bodies of the works, of these objects that are subjects; and for this reason they are totemic, because they have a life story — they have a biography. And now, to resume the discourse of new technologies, these objects also have a biology. So the interweaving of biology and biography constitutes the new subjectivity of the works, and in this sense I wanted (and still want) to liberate concepts that belong to European colonialism and to insert them within a more advanced perspective, which would be my anthropology.

M.G.: An anthropology that I think we really need! It’s interesting because the way you explained the role of anthropology relates back to the idea of the space of conflict that was created with your students online, with the BBS. This space that gave way to conflicting ideas.

M.C.: That was a foundational period in my life, and also for some students with whom I still maintain a relationship of deep friendship and intimacy.

M.G.: In your work you have addressed the sense of ubiquity of the digital subject, who can be simultaneously in different times and spaces, as a modus operandi in web culture. I find it very interesting that you approached this issue as a potentiality rather than a problem. For example, ubiquity as a situation that allows for the emergence of an individuality that brings into question the issue of representation, how and “who represents whom.” How can the digital subject affect contemporary narratives and social imagination?

M.C.: This is a question I’m so pleased with since the concept of ubiquity is the favourite, because it’s the last concept that came to me. I’m making a sort of moving constellation of my concepts that I consider fundamental to my research — as they have developed over time — and ubiquity came precisely as the last. It came when I was still in Brazil — I taught and lived in Brazil for a long time, where I taught at an institute of advanced studies in the city of São Paulo (IEA/USP).

At a conference on time that we held, I presented the concept of ubiquitime, that is, an interweaving of ubiquity and time. In the ethnographic method, the researcher, the anthropologist, is always part of the research; they are not outside, they don’t observe from outside, but they are inside and outside. This is a very complicated thing. Having this ability to observe oneself while observing the outside, to see one’s own emotions, one’s own conflicts, one’s own desires is a constitutive part of this anthropology that is called reflexive. I was more and more interested in the fact that I, being in São Paulo, in the same space-time I was everywhere! So I had invented this word: the dappertuttità [everywhereness]. I was with a friend in Rome, with another who was Paris, and so on. When I had time, I would read a fragment of a newspaper while talking to someone else. I read online newspapers, which expressed this extraordinary potential that was impossible before: now I could read The Guardian, El Pais, La Repubblica, and A Folha de San Paolo simultaneously. And all this gave me a sense of ubiquity, of living in a mixture of spaces and times that were no longer the classic ones of the analogue era. It’s not that digital technology totally surpassed the analogue dimension, but the analogue-digital crossover certainly changed the meaning of my experiences, of my sensibility, and also my cognitive aspect. From here comes the concept of ubiquity, of the ubiquitous subject and even of ubiquitous identities that traverse the contemporary subject — of this I am convinced. Which means, as mentioned earlier, that identity no longer remains fixed, compact, unitary; it’s not a destiny that comes to us in our histories. But it becomes much more flexible, multiple, intertwined. And identities indeed become ubiquitous, they dissolve the stable spatio-temporal relationship. This was my first reflection and I tried to give a strongly progressive and transformative vision to the concept of ubiquity. Later came some reflections that were, let’s say, a little calmer. [laughter]

Returning to Rome, and living in Rome’s Pigneto district, I realised that this experience of ubiquity produced contrasting reactions. It certainly produced these cosmopolitan, liberating and pluralising dimensions, but it also produced a terror, or a demand to affirm one’s own territoriality; indeed, to invent a territory because the territory has never remained a-historical, it has always changed. Therefore, especially in people of a certain age but also among some young people, there is an unchanging territory that is being invented within which one always remains with that family, with that sex, with that job. And thus they remain ‘calm’ to manage their whole life. Certainly the resentment that is spreading, even the hatreds that we are familiar with in digital communication, stems precisely from the difficulty of accepting ubiquitous identities, and of preferring a dimension of a stable, unchanging territory, upon which the most conservative and reactionary forces, not to say worse, are playing. Because everyone knows very well that it doesn’t work that way. But the cynicism of a certain kind of politics plays precisely on fear, on this desire for stability, for a stability that can certainly give you some consolation, but travelling, being travelled, abandoning oneself to the experiences of transit is, for me, a fundamentally liberating experience. But I can understand why so many people, especially these cynical politicians, use the power of territory in a cynical way, and also the power of sexuality which is always seen in binary terms, and therefore attack these concepts and also that of gender. But if the sexes are two (as I used to say in class), the genders are infinite — erotica is bio-cultural it’s never just biological thankfully.

M.G.: This is all very interesting to me because I wasn’t connecting the idea of territory, the general necessity of human beings to map out territory, and therefore of stability, to the negative rhetoric about ubiquity (about being in different places at the same time), and therefore to the possibilities opened up by digital culture. Your perspective is positive, not critical.

M.C.: This belongs to the whole narrative within the university. Not only because change, as I mentioned in the first question, is often — or rather, it’s normally — seen in negative terms. I define myself as a constructivist. That is, I like to stay within the flow of change and transit, however tumultuous; the transitive dimension, also transient, of our subjectivity, of our desires, but also of our deeper research from the theoretical point of view, are decisive. What is at the heart of my research, and I think it still is, is precisely trying to identify those transformative forces that constitute a liberating and progressive dimension of happiness that is different from that of the past. And the dimension of ubiquity represents that continuity, the one that arrives in more recent times — that’s why it’s somewhat my favourite. It’s a beloved child because it’s the very thing that will be able to allow us, if we engage with it creatively, to assert a profound change in history, in the stories that are there.

To make a variation on the theme, the story of Giorgio Parisi [physicist, academic and president of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei] who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, makes me extremely happy because what he does should be the task of any university. I do the opposite, he puts order in the chaos, I like to put chaos in the order! [laughter]

M.G.: After the exploratory times of the early web (often referred to as the utopian web), followed by the sociability of Web 2.0 and its more user-friendly interfaces, we now navigate a quite different digital landscape. The online environment is now increasingly made up of autonomous, commerce- and product-driven worlds that more rigidly dictate user’s behaviours. How do you think our relationship with the online space has changed?

M.C.: Of course, I have already partly answered this question. But this opens up a critical dimension I think it’s good to underline. In the sense that, while maintaining all my constructivist reflections, it’s certain that the web, and digital communication, had this sort of utopia of horizontality at the beginning of the Nineties, of giving a voice and a means of communication to those who had never had one. Hence, my research on indigenous cultures was fundamental, for example. Being among the Bororo in Mato Grosso in Brazil, I was able to verify with great joy that they were using not only the smartphone but also the computer. So they were inside digital communication. And this allowed for a radical change in the ethnographic method. That is, with respect to a ritual where I had been invited and participated, I was not only the main subject who represented. The concept of self-representation came to me at that moment: it’s the indigenous people who are self-representing themselves. The anthropologist, the journalist, and the politician no longer have the exclusive power to represent the other, because the other represents themselves, and even represents me as an anthropologist. This is an extraordinary paradigm shift. And this is due to digital technologies because, previously, analog cameras were very expensive, very complicated, heavy, etc. etc.. Whereas, on the contrary, digital systems (not only video cameras, but also simple mobile phones) allow, at truly zero cost, to represent one’s daily life, and even ritual life. This has been, and still is for me, a process of liberation of the subjects. Marx had a limit: he spoke of the social division of labor, but alongside the social division of labor there is also the communicational division of subjects. That is, there is a part of humanity that has always been narrated, and another part of humanity that had the power to narrate. This is another dichotomous aspect that has deformed, that is, oriented in a colonial and Euro-western sense, the representation of the other who became as ‘I’ represented them. But once the other is represented — in indigenous culture, but also in the young and the very young, in the cities and whatnot — that makes you change your perspective.

Of course this doesn’t simply produce the liberation of self-representation in a horizontal sense, as Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, had imagined and planned it. This other extraordinary scientist who has taken a strongly critical stance against the instances you cite in your questions that seek to hoard the potential that the digital economy enables. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The digital should neither be censored, nor controlled from above, nor should it continue to be practiced in these dimensions that are certainly not pertinent to those utopias we were talking about earlier, whereby large social networks currently have become very economic, and also political centres of power — as we know of enormous importance. So, my vision of the digital subject has to be in and against. We cannot be against these dimensions (you and I are talking thanks to these these potentials!), but at the same time we cannot accept this vertical power that is building a new dimension of the digital. And this is the conflict within which we have to stand. And here would begin the question, that we can now only imagine or hint at, of how to get out of this situation that unfortunately is again dichotomous, that verticalises what was our perspective of horizontality.

M.G.: Here you have perhaps already partly offered me the answer to the question I wanted to ask you about the ubiquitous digital subject. Do you think it can play a role in giving new forms to the use of digital technology (to the rules and assumptions determined by its producers), and therefore to the relationship between their users?

M.C.: I’m convinced of it. Only a subject that I would call more analogue-digital than digital can do that. Because we know very well that almost all the analogical dimensions within our corporeality are inserted within the digital one, so our bodies are analogical-digital and we could also define them (just as I was talking about immanent transcendence before) trying to mix these two concepts that were perceived as different before. I see analog and digital as material-immaterial — I put the two words unified. Our experience is material-immaterial, and so is the analog-digital subject, which prefigures and continues to imagine my perspective. Only this can transform the current context.

There is no way, in my opinion, that a merely analogical subject can restore things from the past — it’s absurd. We are inside and we have to face the processes of transformation. And so the basic problem is how to insert not only a theory, but the practices of analogical-digital subjects within this process in transformative transit. Of course, this also fits into the dimension of education — at present, a four- or five-year-old child already knows things that are unimaginable compared to when we were four or five. And so a whole scenario opens up, or rather many complex scenarios, within which we have to stay. But not as in a collective dimension that unifies all differences — a term I detest. Let’s say that the analogue-digital subject is connective, it connects differences. Subjects are connected and each subject has its own specific life story, sensibility, etc. etc. So in my opinion the process of transformation of the current analogue-digital condition, depends on the possibility of connecting subjects based on different stories. And this without having the terror of difference, because a trick of even the most banal logic has been to confuse the concept of identity with being identical in the most different contexts, of being identical because equal. The problem instead is that equality is based on difference: only those who are different are equal, not those who are identical. And so this practice of equality based on difference is the experience we need to have within the analog-digital subjectivity, even on the things that may seem more trivial. Also, affirming the Ius Culturae*. The migrant subjects who arrived in the city were the first to use the digital centres. It wasn’t the university, but a laundry in Piazza Vittorio that had the first digital phones. [laughter]

M.G.: In Rome?

M.C.: Yes!

M.G.: I think that’s what happened even where I am, and other places too.

M.C.: I’m absolutely convinced of it, because these subjects came from far away, they needed to talk to friends and relatives, and the telephone system of the early Nineties was very expensive. And they were the first to industrialise to put these services in their little stores, which were laundries, bars, and other different things. And so the subjects of immigration are an incredible wealth. That is, they bring us, and I emphasise this, innovation — they can bring us other problems too of course but problems are part of life, and a life without problems what would it be?

M.G.: I agree!
In your book Minima Viralia (2020), there is a section dedicated to the res publica [the thing public], which I found really important in a diary written during the quarantine of the first period of the Covid-19 pandemic. I also find the theme very timely when applied to a reflection on the online environment. Do you think that (and here I paraphrase you) the idea of liberation from the concept of utility in favour of an “affective involvement” and that of the collective as something that grows and extends, has room in the online environment?

M.C.: I’m also very pleased with this question. I’ve recently come back to that part I wrote off the cuff about res publica.

I confirm that the concept of republic for me is far more advanced than the concept of democracy for many reasons, and in particular for this word res, which is a word of extraordinary complexity and fascination. It’s singular and plural, and in this sense it fascinates me even more because res is within the discourse we were having earlier on plural identity, on this ubiquitous identity. And then there is the fact that this concept of the thing is very difficult to fix in the dictionary. I will always remember, when there were dictionaries (now there are almost no more!), the pages dedicated to res and thing: they were very long because there is a real difficulty in defining this concept of thing. This is part of a reflection that I have carried out for some time before the pandemic, and also at present, which is that on the utility of things — with reference to Walter Benjamin. Benjamin said precisely that things don’t have to be useful, they don’t have to be merely useful, or essentially useful. To separate utility from the thing allows you to have a relationship with the thing that is not the object external to you, but becomes, like I mentioned before, a thing-subject.

Since you’re here I’ll show you my invention: a work of art of the thing, in which I inserted a toothbrush inside a water bottle. This is a joke! [laughter] But it’s to say that transforming the object, a thing, into a subject (like the conceptual artist Piero Manzoni) is a liberating operation for me. In other words, I can’t throw in the garbage the bottle of water that I haven’t consumed, but that has nourished me and kept me alive, as if it were a residue, but I have to wash it, rinse it, try to put it in the garbage cans as if it were a farewell, or maybe even a goodbye. In short, I see the things that are around us more and more as subjects. In this sense the concept of the collector is fundamental, because the collector has always had the strength to tear the thing from its functional dimension. I’m not talking about the collector of things of value, but the collector of things without value, as I have always been, by collecting cinema tickets (many years ago there were those coloured tickets in Rome that had Orpheus playing the zither and looking up), as well as bus tickets where I travelled, museum tickets, etc., which I put inside my secret box where I would see them every now and then. For me, these were subjects that made me live and relive my experiences. So I cared for them, I collected them, not because they had any value other than the symbolic value of my life experience. And so the collector transforms the thing into a being. This is the beauty of the thing: the thing becomes an entity, and as such, as I mentioned earlier, it has a life story, a biology and a biography —  singular and plural. And it can also be public. Because even the concept of public for me is a beautiful concept: water is public, air is public,… This dimension of the concept of public is one that makes me happy because it should never be possible for individuals to appropriate such public goods, such public thing. And this would also apply to the streets and also interpersonal relationships which are increasingly public-private, in the sense that digital communication unifies this dichotomous dimension of the concepts of public and private.

The concept of private, of interiority or rather of the interiour, the private office-room of the bourgeois was born in Paris in the middle of the eighteenth century – two centuries ago! So the public-private dialectic belongs especially to the history of the West. But at present it’s increasingly difficult to talk about the dialectic between public and private; both because dialectic is now a concept that must be retired, because it is universalist, dichotomous etc. etc., and because with social networks public-private are mixed. And this is one of the biggest problems that is rampant. That is, if you are a person who wants to simply have a private dimension, you have to understand that on social networks that dimension immediately becomes public. So you have to pay attention to what you can put on this sphere, and other things that should remain in your personal dimension. To make a long story short, I would never put, for example, that I have experienced a family bereavement on a social network — I find it absurd. That’s because there’s a sense of confidentiality that always has to be somewhat attended to by our subjectivity. We don’t have to move randomly but to perceive that the thing, this fascinating thing that is within our relationships with the world, must affirm a non-anthropocentric conception.

It’s no longer about claiming like the great Greek philosophy, and then also so many other authors, that the man is the centre of all things, and neither are humans — men and women. We can no longer claim that.  The thing allows us to facilitate this transit towards a non-anthropocentric anthropology in which it’s no longer the human being at the centre of all things, but we are certainly the humans, we are the animals, we are the vegetables, we are the rocks and minerals, and even, if you want, we are the divine, the divine being: a plural decentralised centre that is not centralising but decentralising. I have to feel that the thing as subject is a constitutive part of the transformation of what is now increasingly called the Anthropocene. By now it’s clear that evolution (my teachers like Gregory Bateson have always stated this) is a co-evolution between nature and culture, and inside there are technologies, techno-cultures. So the Anthropocene evolves thanks (sometimes not only thanks but by misfortune!) what humans insert inside. So if we have this vision of a non-anthropocentric anthropology, we are inside another process in which the subjective dimension expands. And we have to expand the juridical subjectivity not only, but I would say mainly, to our immigrants, but also to all the things around us, to see them with tenderness and with affection. This cosmos of ours, this cosmology of things, is the anthropological constellation in mutation: the mutant anthropology.

M.G.: I’ve often mulled over a section of Minima Viralia where you say, “paradoxically, by staying put at home everything that happens outside engages me and overwhelms me.” You’ve already told me about this idea of the connected world and connected subjects. But I’m interested in this idea of the home, of feeling overwhelmed while staying at home, in a home that had turned into a home-world during the quarantine. What do you think this period of our lives that has been heavily mediated by digital platforms is actually creating?

M.C.: This was certainly a difficult challenge; personally, not only as an anthropologist but as a traveller — I have travelled a lot — and also as a walker – I like walking a lot. I’ve been able to accomplish some of my most important research, especially in São Paulo (in this complicated, diverse and partly kindred metropolis), by walking; and also in Rome. Walking for me is also a methodological experience, as well as an emotional one. In class, I always explained how to walk [laughter], especially in areas that you know very well, thinking you understand everything and have seen everything, but you haven’t. I used to talk about the oblique gaze and a whole series of optical suggestions (“getting-yourself-seen”, “getting-yourself-eye”).

Staying home for the first time, all of a sudden, alone (in a house that wasn’t mine, by the way) was a very, very difficult challenge in many ways. So I tried to live it partly by telling it. This was what used to happen to me: in the morning I would wake up around seven, stay in bed, and think, “What am I going to tell now?” [laughter] I’d get the idea, and then I’d get up, have a coffee (the Moka was my mistress all this time!), and after the coffee I’d get on Facebook and tell the story, trying to tell a story that wasn’t simply a totally personal experience, but that had some somewhat general components. I started every morning: after my coffee, I would tell the stories. This lasted more than two months, and it happened that eventually a friend of mine said, “Massimo why don’t you make a book out of this?” I hadn’t thought about it, but then a young publisher immediately accepted it.

I’m introducing this fact because, being in bed still at seven in the morning, I would begin to navigate. But I wouldn’t navigate in the digital, I navigated in my imagination. I was looking for stories that might not only be useful for me (for me too of course) but also for an expanded friendship, as I called it. Because Facebook allows for an expanded friendship. Friendship, as I generally conceive it, is based not so much on shared values but also on life experiences that you have together. It’s the doing together on which friendship is basically based. Normally, however, with the digital, there is no such doing together. However, I was intrigued by the expansion of the friendship, the tenderness with which I was always trying to write down things between fantasies and memories, and the answers that came back — I received so many answers and I’d initially thought of putting them in the book, but then it would become a huge volume! [laughter] These responses were very interesting, sometimes they lasted for days and days — they were very long — and discussions would spark. This gave me a deep adventure of travelling while standing still. Stories would come to mind that I had absolutely forgotten about, but that had happened when I was a kid, or my first experiences with indigenous contexts. These adventure stories made me stay inside in the stillness of home and also outside. I was staying inside-outside. So I felt close to my favorite writer, Emilio Salgari. Because Salgari never moved, but travelled all over the place. He’d sit still and go to the library and read. And then he told these amazing adventures in Malaysia with Sandokan and in the Caribbean with The Black Corsair, etcetera, etcetera. Sometimes immobility can foster an ignition of traveling and being travelled. And so I’ve been trying to experience immobility by travelling in my writing and other things as well. Being inside the house made me travel and make up stories. I’ll just mention this one. There are two televisions in the house, one in the bedroom (which I would have never put in but the house wasn’t mine) and one in the dining room. I would put the two soundless TVs on two different channels with two different movies. So, going up and down, not only was I having fun because I was walking, but I was making up stories, because here was Maciste versus Al Capone, here Messalina with a cowboy! [laughter] The two films were mixed so I was making up stories walking through this confined space that made me live this experience in a pleasant way as well.

M.G.: I have a question that concerns online art exhibitions during the pandemic, but before I ask it I wonder if you’ve been following them. The question is related to the trend of replicating offline spaces, such as those of the art gallery, online to recreate the idea of immersion in the contemplation of the artwork.

M.C.: More than events I had a lot of connections with people working in the arts who would send me photographs or maybe short videos. It’s an important thing this that you say, but if you’re referring to the time of the seclusion, I don’t recall having those experiences. I participated in discussions, webinars, etc.

M.G.: And here is my last question. What role can art (online or otherwise) play in deepening, and perhaps complicating, our relationship with the idea of public space?

M.C.: Tackling art in the last question means opening ten thousand closets! [laughter]

There are some components of the arts, which are the performing and live arts, in which not only the public-private distinction but also that of the art gallery are broken. The example I would most like to mention is that of the Brazilian artist Néle Azevedo — there would be a story to tell but I’ll summarise it for you. When I was in the south of Brazil, one day I saw a picture of Florence with many ice statues in the newspaper La Repubblica. So I searched for the artist, we got in touch (she lives in São Paulo) and I met her. Néle Azevedo develops a critique of the concept of monument — monuments, these beings that are in the stones and bronze fixed in the cities, so threatening, dark — and has sought another dimension that I’m going to summarise. Néle must have big trucks with freezing facilities, and she puts ice shapes in them; lots and lots of beings all looking the same, just sitting around. There can be hundreds of them, and in Manchester, at the World War I memorial, there were five thousand. She takes these freezers to the places she chooses, which are public spaces — in São Paulo in one of the staircases where there is a famous museum of contemporary art by Oscar Niemeyer; in Rome, in the Giardino degli Aranci, which is one of the most beautiful places in the city. People have to take these objects, these ice people, and they have to put them on a step because they are made to sit, but also on trees. Then people who are supposed to be spectators are no longer just spectators but are co-creators of the works. What happens then? These beings are initially all the same, like us humans, but after a few seconds they begin to differentiate themselves because, being in the atmosphere, they begin to melt. And melting creates shapes that are different from each other. Each frozen being thaws out and becomes what we all are a little bit too, which is beings that are all different that hook up and become like a pair of lovers, sometimes, or stay isolated and sad. And the co-author can move between them, and also pick them up and move them around. The author is no longer just Néle; the authors become all the people who co-construct the performative event, which is also temporary because then, little by little, all these frozen beings melt, become smaller and smaller, one different from the other, and at the end all that remains is a pool of water. Then there is nothing left, not even the water that dries up. And so here a reflection opens up on a temporary art that lives only in that moment and in that place, and then it’s gone: it vanishes. The art certainly remains in the images, but mainly it remains in the memory and in the emotions. I remember that in Rome people laughed and cried. It was an almost Dionysian frenzy that was set in motion among people. Then they would stop in the last few moments, right in front of the disappearance of life, of the work, of each one of us.

This work of art, Minimal Monument, also made me think of Nietzsche, who carried out the critique of the monument, memory and the question of identity in a famous text on the genealogy of morality. Because to take and melt is also an art. It is an art that the viewer or the spectator has to face to melt their certainties, to unfreeze their preconceptions, their stereotypes, even their ideals and their ethics. I think it’s a profoundly philosophical and anthropological form of art because it encourages a spectator who is co-author, not only to be moved and to have a sense of the temporariness of the work and therefore also of our lives and those of everyone, but also to learn that there are cognitive and emotional zones that we have inside that need to be melted, that can be melted.

Thus, this art of Néle Azevedo is not only temporary and public, but it also questions the public-private and the dimension by which an object must be eternal and preserved in museums. It’s part of those experiences in which the works are not inside the museum, but are experiences that are disseminated outside, in the cities and in the streets, and that come out of the concluded, authoritative space of the museum, which also intimidates a little. Of course I love museums, but museums also have a historical dimension. They cannot remain as they have been since the Wunderkammer — they were invented and now we are going in other directions. So Néle Azevedo, for me, represents (there are many others of course) the symbol of a conception of art that is transitive, transitory, transeunte, and also a dimension that makes us reflect on water and the symbolism of water. Water as life, water that has shapes, water that has many forms, water that is rain and ice, that boils and overflows. Water is polymorphous, it’s like the erotica. And this polymorphous dimension of water gives us a sense of sadness, but also a euphoric dimension. In the end I honestly say: I was euphoric! [laughter] Seeing that the water disappeared, was gone, and then life resumed with euphoria!

* Ius Culturae is a principle of the Italian law according to which foreign minors can acquire the citizenship of the country in which they were born or in which they have lived for a certain number of years.

Massimo Canevacci: Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Faculty of Communication Sciences – University of Rome “La Sapienza”. Visiting Professor in several European universities, in Tokyo (Japan), Nanjing (China). From 2010 to 2018, he has been Visiting Professor in Brazil: Florianôpolis (UFSC), Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), São Paulo (IEA/USP). Some books: “Culture eXtreme”, Derive&Approdi, 2021a, 4th ed.; “Minima Viralia”, Rome, Rogas, 2020; “Syncretisms, Fetishisms, Ubiquities. Ethnographic Polyphonies on a Transitive Constellation”, Postmedia Books, 2019; “The Polyphonic City”, Rome, Rogas, new edition, 2018 (“A cidade polifonica”, Studio Nobel, São Paulo, 1997, 3rd ed); “The Line of Dust. The Bororo Culture between Tradition, Mutation and Self-representation”, Canon Pyon, Sean Kingston Publisher, 2013 (Meltemi, Milan, 2017 – Annablume, São Paulo, 2012); “Anthropology of Visual Communication”, Milan, Postmedia Books, 2017, 4th ed.