Artistic Parasitism

“The city rat invites the country rat onto the Persian rug. They gnaw and chew leftover bits of ortolan. Scraps, bits and pieces, leftovers: their royal feast is only a meal after a meal among the dirty dishes of a table that has not been cleared. […] The two companions scurry off when they hear a noise at the door. It was only a noise, but it was also a message, a bit of information producing panic: an interruption, a corruption, a rupture of information. Was the noise really a message? Wasn't it, rather, static, a parasite? A parasite who has the last word, who produces disorder and who generates a different order.” – The Parasite, Michel Serres, p. 3 (1982)

In Berlin, the rats have long figured it out. Under no circumstances would they strain their widely accepted fugitive presence for such a thing as having dinner together. Instead, like the many other restless beings in this city, they abide by the imperative of dislocation and flexibility – in a way they perfected it. Among disenfranchised renters and those without a home, precarious workers and students, it is artists and cultural workers who are forced to buy into this rotten expertise, in order to survive, while seemingly eloquent terms such as the fugitive, ephemeral, the intervention, or event often only mask the deficit of suitable, affordable space and the exclusion from institutional funding structures.

And yet, some of these parasitic artistic practices somehow manage to insert themselves into the public body momentarily. In doing so, they transform their host just as much as themselves and might be held to carry ambivalent features. Like animal parasites, artist parasites follow the paradigm of self-purpose and therefore don’t shy away from empathising with a dominant host organism, as long as it serves to find resources and material means. This initial affirmation, however, can turn into a destructive force occupying the blind spots of the host and toppling its stability.

In 2015, Canadian artist Joshua Schwebel received a residency which enabled him to realise a project at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. The year-long residency was supposed to provide Schwebel with space and money for research, compensating and honouring his artistic work. Despite fierce opposition from the hosting organisation, he eventually realised his work Subsidy, which compensated the interns for their unpaid work, asking them to relocate and carry out their tasks in the exhibition space itself. By putting a spotlight on the invisible and self-exploitative work that makes art exhibitions possible in the first place, those structures were revealed to the visitors as well as to the institution itself.

You could call this practice interventionist, only that it probably hadn’t been possible without the support of and participation in renowned artist residency programmes. Artistic parasitism is neither interested in the moral dimension of such an interrogation, nor is it apolitical. It approaches the capitalist utilisation machine that equally reigns the art system – para, Latin for next to, besides – and deprives it of one of its most valuable resource: the prerogative of interpretation. Artistic parasitism’s radicality, therefore, lies not only in enduring the dilemmas of artistic-political interventions but to feed on them while critically embracing its parasitic involvement.

For Project Space Festival Berlin 2019, Joshua Schwebel will produce the pilot episode of a Reality TV show which aims to render the conditions and difficulties of founding and establishing public art spaces visible. The (self-inflicted) precariousness of those who still commit to such ventures, their parasitic strategies, but also the omnipresent risk of failure, describe some of the possible critical moments in this engagement.

What artists and cultural workers can do, is causing disruption – breaking up the standardised monotonies and slick surfaces that disguise the real conditions of artistic practice and cultural labour. The open question with which the fable of the rats in Michel Serres’ book The Parasite closes, could then – admittedly quite optimistically – be answered as such: First comes disorder, then comes a new, a different order.



Illustration Credits:
CC karoline achilles, 2019
ig: @achillescartoons

Feben Amara has studied Art and Cultural Studies, as well as German philology. Her work and research revolve around the knowledge formations of postcolonial theory, transculturality and Resistance Studies.
As part of the Project Space Festival Berlin 2019, she is working as an author and editor on textual contributions.

This text has formerly been published in Arts of the Working Class # 6 : Art of Darkness .