With this article, I want to propose a new approach to aesthetics and sketch an aesthetic theory that is able to describe parasitic artistic interventions. The development and empirical base of this understanding is my experience with the artistic intervention Penthaus à la Parasit. I am not a philosopher nor an aesthetic theorist, but after reading through the canon of aesthetic theory I was unable to find a concept that would consolidate the aesthetic language of the Penthaus à la Parasit. That motivated me to postulate Parasite Aesthetic as a new aesthetic term.
As an artist, I claim a new aesthetic sphere, because it seems that the traditional approaches of aesthetic theory are too limited. Kant‘s theory of the sublime and the experience of the integration of body, mind and imagination of the unexplainable are unable to grasp the important dimensions of Parasite Art1. I am also not satisfied by Adorno’s dialectical concept2, which sets the autonomy of art as the priority and views every type of intervention or direct action as domestication of the cultural industry and therefore a loss to the function of art. Even other concepts such as Nicolas Bourriaud’s `Relational Aesthetics‘ or the category of social practice3 fail to reach very far in describing interventions that engage critically in society and are not directed to an actual change to a social issue.
The Parasite Aesthetic that I will introduce tries to break and combine some of the approaches of aesthetic theory mentioned above. The empiric base will be the analysis of the Penthaus à la Parasit which represents one such new approach to a Parasite Aesthetic as defined first, the Parallel Practice, second, the Production of Irritation, third, the Pick-up Audience approach and fourth, the Aesthetic of the Border.
The core characteristics of Parasite Art
1. Parallel Practice
A Parasite Artwork chooses different strategies depending on its context of involvement. This means that the same art piece can be seen and experienced in radically different ways according to the system it expands. I use the term parallel, because the different languages of Parasite Art are happening at the same time and exist within the same art intervention without conflicting with each other in terms of perception and expansion. It seems like the same art intervention is acting in different systems or worlds of perception. However, I will elaborate this thought by giving an empiric example.
In the case of the parasite penthouse, an external agent can see the face that appears in the public sphere. On that level, it performs as a symbol and sculpture, and the aspect of Erscheinung (illusion) is the prominent language. In contrast, another Parallel Practice is when the Penthaus á la Parasit hijacks a real estate platform by using the language of real estate agents, addressing people who search for investments and entering into their realm. A third Parallel Practice is at play when the penthouse mobilizes and supplies a platform to connect initiatives and creates a space of empowerment for local communities. For example, by organizing events or connecting neighbors and collectives.
It becomes clear with the Parallel Practices that Parasite Art cannot be experienced as a whole in the phenomenological sense, because one can only perceive it in one of its own languages, or in more than one but only analytically, as a detached observer. This is because the experiencing subject always belongs to only one, or maybe two systems (real estate, neighbourhood, etc.) and as a rule, they cannot cross the border to the next environment so easily.4
As a consequence, the conjunction of these Parallel Practices and strategies creates a phenomenological black box5 of aesthetic production. In other words, Parasite Aesthetic is only perceivable from the position of the observer6 of the different languages, and not through the experience of a single field of operation.
2. Production of Irritation
According to Michel Serres7, the function of a parasite is to produce noise within communication. He understands information as the distinction between noise and information and information is therefore produced through the production of noise. The noise a parasite creates is thus the edge of information, or the border of a system, and a constitutional element of every information. Instead of noise, I term the action of the parasite irritation, because it irritates or interrupts the existing order and focuses on the system of this order, instead of operating within the norms of communication.
The parasite always creates irritation to its system, by living in the niches of that system. The parasite comes and inhabits these niches at the edge without asking, but has to leave if the host finds it, that is, finds the source of irritation. Each time the parasite enters or leaves a niche in a system, it marks the edge of a given system as it irritates the host.
In doing so, the parasite is the `needed‘ irritation which keeps every system alive because it supplies it with new information. Without the parasite, the system will die the “death of stagnation”, as Serres put it.8 This means that a parasite cannot be a constant entity. A parasite is defined through the context where it settles and its relation to that context. It has to be both the noise and the irritation. This means that the parasite and the host are relational, and their positions can always change. For Serres, everybody wants to be the last one in the chain of host and parasite: “In the parasitic chain, the last to come tries to supplant his predecessor“.9 Parasite Art only is in the moment or as a description of a realized relation. It cannot be a category of art as an object – it has to be connected to irritation, which is based on a situation (as used by the Situationists) in a specific context.
The parasite and its binding relation to the host, in opposition to hegemony (information), can be related to Oliver Marchart’s concept of “Conflictual Aesthetics”.10 The theorist defines the aesthetic moment as the way in which an artwork creates conflict (as previously described as irritation). Marchart’s concept reveals a double conflictual state: First, a state that breaks with the aesthetic of spontaneous ideology11, the way that the art world produces its confirming understanding of the political. Second, the concept refers to the conflictual artistic practice in terms of the political; the way artistic practice produces antagonism in the public sphere.
Marchart refers at this point to the concepts of hegemony in Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau.12 Out of Mouffe’s three types of political art; Marchart sees only the most radical category as actually conflictual. That is the category that Mouffe names “artistic activism” – an art practice that not only challenges hegemony but “leaves also the hegemonial institutions behind and introduces counterhegemonic moves against the capitalist appropriation of aesthetics.”13 14
In Mouffe’s terms, a parasite is by definition, counterhegemonic and cannot truly be appropriated by a capitalist aesthetic.15 However, unlike Marchart’s conflictual form, which always acts out of a counter-hegemonic position, a parasite stays at the threshold of hegemony and counter-hegemony and shakes hands with anyone who gets in and out of the hegemonic system. Thus, the parasite is neither inside nor outside and is stuck in its position at the membrane. At the same time, it is flexible enough to always find the next door or loophole to inhabit. Parasite Art, unlike Marchart’s conflictual art, lives from this opposition between hegemony and counter-hegemony, as much as the ‚art world‘ or the hegemony live from the noise, or from the outside of its boundaries. Without information, without a host, there is no parasite, no irritation. Without parasites, no host exist. In this way, Parasite Art tries to break the dialectic between hegemony and counter-hegemony – between autonomy and dependence.
Irritation, in contrast to conflict, means, not to be simply in opposition to hegemony (information), but to be in-between and create irritation for both sides of the spectrum.17
However, this does not mean that a parasite practice can sit still at the border of two (op)positions and observe: instead, part its defining qualities are that the parasite is always moving and finding new points of irritation, which also implies, that the parasite must always be faster than the host – or, in terms of a critical art practice, it must be faster than the capitalist logic of exploitation and appropriation of the outside (counter-hegemonic). At this point, I want to reiterate that a parasite always tends to die; in other words, it tends to be appropriated for it is eventually too slow to keep on irritating – to keep on searching for a new niche.
Finally, I am confronted with an unsolved question to Marchart’s concept of conflictual aesthetics: how to actually create political moments out of counter-practices? And, for the parasite, how to find and stay at the position between inside and outside? To create political moments, the parasite practice must take place outside enough to irritate and inside enough to be able to address fields of operation and to create connectivity.
Jacques Rancière’s18 aesthetic theory may help resolve these questions, as the philosopher’s concept of art includes different layers of aesthetics, or aesthetic regimes, which each have a different logic of evaluation. Ranciere also wrote about dissensus as the important aspect of the intersection between art and politics. Rancière’s aesthetic regimes exist simultaneously and can overlap or stay independent: the ethical regime (judging according to truth and origin in Plato’s tradition), the representative regime (defined through the shape, and mode and place of production and it‘s autonomy towards the political institutions – Aristoteles concept) and finally his aesthetic regime, which is the important point for our approach.19 Ranciere‘s aesthetic regime is not about art, but about politics and his understanding of a democratic order. He places the ‘perception of the sensible’20 at the base of aesthetics, where everybody should be able to participate. He sees the aesthetic moment in the fight for a commonly sensible world, which means to Ranciere, to make visible the limits and borders (noise) of this world – through creating dissensus, or irritation. With Rancière’s concept, we can look for the answer to the questions posed above, in other words: how can situations of irritation be produced?
Ranciere introduces The Standing Man21, at Taksim Square in 2013 as an example of dissensus aesthetics. Firstly, because the performance misuses the public sphere by
inhabiting the public‘ as an act of politics. There is also an act of dissensus in the misuse of what a regime declares a public urban space. Secondly, the action was an aesthetic because the man produces a “redistribution of the sensible”22. Art “always [has] to do something else than its proper business”.23 To think aesthetically means to confront or to be confronted with indetermination. Turning back to Ranciere‘s concept of the “distribution of the sensible”, we can now establish that both politics and art work on the redistribution of the sensible share a mode of operation. Every form of redistribution creates dissensus24 and derives from a counter-hegemonic position.25 Rancière’s aesthetic is close to Marchart’sconfrontation‘ and to Parasite Art, but the philosopher opens up the bridge between art and politics, which is also defined in the moment of action (that is relational) and not in a manifestation of an artwork in itself.
To recapitulate, Parasite Art is not searching for the outside, but instead, it attempts to perform as the black box – to be at the border itself, which is the arena of the Aesthetics of Irritation. This practice is what Rancière would describe as redistribution of the sensible and as dissensus; Marchart as conflictual; and I, as the Aesthetic of Irritation.
3. The Pick-up Audience (Aufsuchende Öffentlichkeit)
The Pick-up Audience is the public of an artistic practice that searches for, and even creates, its own context for action. The parasite does not
wait‘ for its audience that he can then irritate, or personallyaffect‘ or move. Instead it creates its own public by coexisting within the public. This is possible through its ability to live within the niches. It also needs to search for where it can fit within the host.
Having a Pick-up Audience means that Parasite Art enters local systems. The parasite appears where nobody expects it: not in an exhibition space, but in everyday life.26 One might be confronted with it, in the case of the Penthaus,from searching for investments in the online real estate market, or by attending a concert that, unusually, takes place on a rooftop, to working in the court and having to deal with the question if the parasite occupation is legal or not. The parasite therefore, breaks the border between the artistic field and the societal field.
This active engagement in finding its audience within the usual operations and communications of society is radically different from artistic practices that work mostly inside the white cube. Even interventions in the public sphere are often designed so that they are
waiting‘ for people to approach them27. In contrast, Parasite Art does not focus on the audience. It addresses the system (that is, the host) itself. It tries to find how to enter and co-habitate different systems. By doing this and by not having a certain public in mind to reach and inhabit, it becomes part of the system and therefore it becomes visible to the participants of that system. Whether that public is in the real estate market, the legal system or the rooftop, the consequence is that participants of the system stumble into the work rather than choose to be there, they have to deal with it. Usually these groups need to confront at once reality and fiction - and they even might start to question the „distribution of the sensible”, by questioning their way of perception. Here, it is useful to cite Boris Groys28, for whom “contemporary art is situated beyond the beautiful and the ugly, beyond taste and displeasure, because spectators have become emancipated […] they are no longer spectators but art producers: contemporary art is a spectacle without spectators.”29 The relevant question is how the parasite differs from this aesthetic canon. Art has the task to “invent the missing people”30 – which could mean two different things. Firstly, to find a form that tries to involve, invite, attract, or to use Marchart’s words, to “agitate” the missing people through new strategies of engagement. Or second, it means to “depersonalize the sensation”31 and make the experience of sensation independent from the artist. Deleuze said that not the beautiful (sublime), but the sensational experience is the important aspect of aesthetics.32 This means there is a shift from the production of aesthetic experience centred on the subject to an impersonal or disembodied aesthetic production. The Parasite Aesthetic follows this thought, and makes disembodiment into a method, by finding ways to appear in the landscape of the everyday experience. Here the disembodied sensation becomes the ordinary, because there is no subject transmitting the aesthetic experience. However, it also follows the first sense of art’s invention of missing people, as it agitates its audience, in this case, by creating its own audience, through its own production of publics as described above. Here we also see that the creation and the search for itsaudience‘ is a core element of parasitic artistic practice.
4. The Aesthetic of the Border
After the irritational core element of the Parasitic Aesthetic, the Parallel Practice and the Production of Audience, defining a figure that enters systems without being invited, we now turn to the last characteristic of Parasite Aesthetics: the Aesthetic of the Border.
Parasite Art is balancing on a `tightrope‘, dancing between different epistemological, political and systemc borders: between distinction and separation, between hegemony and counter-hegemony and between inside and outside. The parasitic experience of the border is integral, because the figure of the parasite is the dancer. It is impossible to think about parasitic practice without reflecting about the border.
The parasite is not struggling with the borders of systems, rather, it represents the border. Through dancing on the tightrope or living at the border, the parasite makes the border visible: the border and the habitat of the parasite become the same.
In Parasite Art, the parasite translates the position of the tightrope dancer into artistic production. Thus I call the situations of the act of balance as the Parasite’s Aesthetics. The moment of balance is about reception and attention, about how the parasite can make itself able to dance, to create, and to stretch balancing situations for as long as possible. The Aesthetic of the Border implies these operations: the parasite has first to find a wire or rope, then it needs to learn to dance, and then eventually leave to find a new border. The parasite dances every time with a different rope in a different setting. For the Penthaus à la Parasit, the border or the rope tightens between legal and illegal, between personal and public, between tactical and strategic, between autonomy and dependence, between art and activism, fiction and reality, and finally host and parasite.
If we look only at the border of the legal system, the Penthaus à la Parasit tightens his rope between the definition and the law of property. On the one hand, it uses property that belongs to others as if it were its own, by squatting a rooftop and building up the parasite; while doing that, it calls for the right of artistic freedom. On the other hand, it uses the concept of property to defend the Penthaus à la Parasit from being destroyed by an angry host, who orders the deconstruction of that intervention. Namely, the parasite makes use of the legal definition of property in the paragraph of “Protection of Property”33 in the German Constitution. This happened once in Berlin, when a company had already been contracted to destroy the penthouse.
The Penthaus also tests the border between fiction and reality. The penthouse is fictitious, or at least it works as a symbol for one or many real meanings; it is also, at the same time, a real space that acts as a real agent. The symbol becomes a habitat, and the signifier a significant – this shift and double-layering can be seen as a parasitic action. The Penthaus is a symbol and fiction for reclaiming and recovering the city from the agency of its dwellers, which is reality, not an alternative. At the same time, seen through another system, the parasite actually squats on a rooftop, in all the real sense of the action; it hosts people, and it claims to be able to commodify. It is a reality for the people who sleep over in the penthouse, or for those who meet up there for community organizing. The penthouse creates and embodies ‘use value’, because suddenly people are using the rooftop.
This dance on the border– which is the very development of the parasite’s techniques and strategies – is Parasite Art’s aesthetical language, and the aesthetic moment is created within the perception of this dance between the inside and outside given categories.
The balancing act, or Aesthetic of the Border, is only interesting in the moment when the distribution of the sensible is shifted. If it is once accepted (seen) as the new reality or established as a new symbol, it loses its potential of redistribution and its critical potential – because, once assimilated, it no longer balances between realms and definitions.
After evaluating the different aspects of Parasite Art and its aesthetic moment, the interesting question is how to expand this term, developed around one work, to other examples of Parasite Art.
Is the Parallel Practice, with its schizophrenic approach to realize different actions in different systems, something what we can find in other practices? Or is the Production of Irritation, which is not only defined by being counter-hegemonic, but through being in-between of in and out, something which is spread throughout artistic activism? How about the Pick-up Audience? Is that more a marker of contemporary art, where even the audience has to be produced by the creative producer34 – or is the Pick-up Audience, as defined above, a specific characteristic of Parasite Art?
Finally, does the Aesthetic of the Border really give a distinguishing characteristic to Parasite Art? In fact, I would say that as single characteristics, it does not. It requires different aspects and a further study of different cases of Parasite Art and it‘s aesthetical language.
It also becomes clear, after studying the different categories for a Parasite Art, that none of them are dependent on materialization and that all of them describe a relation, rather than an object. This means, in turn, that Parasite Art cannot be materialized or embodied in a single art piece. It can only be actualized within its context of relations and depends at all times on its position in a network or system. In the moment of action itself, nonetheless, a material presence is important and condenses the Parallel Practice at the starting point.35
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that Parasite Art stays, phenomenologically, in a black box. As a result, the Parasite Aesthetic can only be fully noticed by an informed observer, as a core element of this art form is precisely the Parallel Practice of different levels.
The Penthaus à la Parasit combines different aspects of the artist’s work, such as direct action, poetic imagery, social practice and parasitic engagement. It navigates through various fields and is confronted in every field with misunderstanding. For instance, being a foreign agent in the field it is engaging in and because it is noticeable that Parasite Art always acts parallel in different fields – and some of these seem to contradict each other.
To follow the sequence of ideas laid out in the beginning of this essay, the Parasitic Aesthetic always evades the gaze, or its visibility, because once it is visible, it has already gone: it has already become part of the system. In the same sense, it eludes categorization, because once categorized in known epistemic structures, it would already be part of the system and lose its aesthetic moment of inhabiting the border.
In short, we end with a conundrum: even defining Parasite Art as Parasite Art causes the practice to lose its parasitism, for it loses its indeterminate, border-narrow niche in art and aesthetics.
- Like described in: Ross, Toni. “Aesthetic Autonomy and Interdisciplinarity: a Response to Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘Relational Aesthetics.’” Journal of Visual Art Practice 5.3 (2006): 167–181. Web.
- Adorno, Theodor W. 2003. Ästhetische Theorie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
- After Lawton, 2019, the question of activists is: “how democracy looks when rights are deprived or upheld, demanding distinctions between right and wrong”. But that’s far from my approach to my artistic or artivist practice. Similarly, Bishop (2012) says: Social practice artists working within an artivist framework view art as a form of protest and resistance with “people [comprising] the central artistic medium and material. Social practice art repositions the viewer or audience of a work of art as collaborators or participants cooperating in partnership with the artist.”
- Therefore, it can only be partly experienced in Baumgartens way of aesthetic as the science of senses.
- Referring to Spencer Brown (1979), describing the black box as a container for unknown processes, where one can only observe in and output, but not know about the system of the black box itself.
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