New
Museum
Monday 02/09

Para-sites like us: What is this para-sitic tendency?

by Janna Graham, Six Degrees Resident, tagged with Janna Graham, Fieldwork, Museum as Hub, Para-sites like us, Pedagogy, R&D Season, Six Degrees Resident
Cover Image:

Janna Graham, “Banking Concept,” 2014. PowerPoint diagram. Image: © Janna Graham

“Para-sites like us” is an ongoing research project initiated by Janna Graham, the inaugural Six Degrees resident. Graham’s series of texts examines the para-sitic condition as a potential coordinated political struggle, one that might make “good on culture’s claim to social transformation” by working para (i.e., alongside), within, and as other to institutions.

Below, the first essay in this series, “What is this para-sitic tendency?,” maps the contemporary terrain of this political project under late neoliberalism. Accompanied by a partial taxonomy of the para-site, where microbial definitions are offered in relation to their cultural counterparts, this essay traces a genealogy of the para-sitic condition by examining practices grounded in gallery education and Community Arts practices in the UK, as well as broader radical or popular education models.

While the historical research in Graham’s essay emphasizes a para-sitic approach that has a specific ethics embedded in it (i.e., she focuses on the para-site’s assumed potential within the realm of culture to effect change for broader social justice), Graham will evaluate the actual function of the para-site through a series of conversations with collaborators in the remaining texts. Recognizing the risk of such a method being appropriated for other aims, Graham will articulate some beginnings and possibilities for a viable para-sitic project in her manifesto coming out of this series.

Later this month, Graham and her collaborators will reflect on their creation of the Centre for Possible Studies, a space and program in the Edgware Road neighborhood of London where activists, artists, and local students and workers have come together over the past five years, often working on projects at odds with the main programming of their host, the Serpentine Gallery. The second full text in this series, “What is at Stake in Para-sitic Projects?: Implicated in Conversation,” is a discussion between members of Implicated Theatre—a political performance group that was developed through workshops at the Centre—that looks precisely at this dilemma. In the text, paid staff, artists, and so-called “community participants” speak about the process of deconstructing and reshaping their relationships to one another and the gallery. Following that, a conversation with Ava Caradonna, the collective name used by the x:talk project—a sex worker solidarity group that was in residence at the Centre for Possible Studies for five years—will ponder what is lost and gained by invited para-sites and what limits they pose under current conditions of crisis capitalism.

WHAT IS THIS PARA-SITIC TENDENCY?

The parasite is also a guest, who exchanges his talk, praise, and flattery for food. The parasite is noise as well, the static in a system or the interference in a channel…it is both the atom of a relation and the production of a change in this relation.

—Lawrence R. Schehr, translator’s introduction to Michel Serres, The Parasite, 1982

In their text Communists Like Us, drafted in 1985, political theorists Félix Guattari and Toni Negri attempted to reclaim a communist project, proposing a contemporary struggle for the liberation of work. What they describe as “real communism” was a “call to life,” a break from both capitalist and socialist organizations of the labor process. They were not proposing a departure from work itself but a reconsideration of work as it stood at the time, as a set of employment categories, modes of surveillance, repression, and, in their terms, generalized hopelessness. Their communism was not constituted by a class of workers, but rather by transversal relationships between workers and broader communities—“minorities of every kind”—developed through the struggles and analysis of the contradictions of work, which could multiply beyond it, spreading new kinds of relationships, altering material conditions and linguistic signs. Beyond a belief system or an abstract egalitarianism, the communism they proposed operated through the practice of breaking down capitalism, of “awaking” from its confines, and of moving toward liberation and repossession of work’s character, namely, the time we spend doing it.

Nearly thirty years later, after decades of both inspiring and failed experiments with the liberation of work and worker subjectivities, it is widely agreed that neither the underlying aims nor scale of Guattari and Negri’s prophecy have been realized. In its wake exist many small, contradictory, and everyday attempts at such a project, many conflicted people and ventures, many whispers, beginnings, and possibilities, and uncertainty with respect to how to proceed.

In the cultural field in particular, experiments with transversal processes, alliances between cultural workers and broader communities, and conversations about the nature of work have instead resulted in increasing confusion and a bifurcation of thought: there are those, for instance, who wish to make good on legacies of cultural transformation from below and those who make use of these same legacies to build networks based on hegemonies of taste, class, and education from above. In the UK, where I am based, the trajectory leading to this is quite clear. It is the result of the progressive reconsolidation of cultural resources into mainstream cultural institutions—a re-territorialization of the explosion of small, funded, grassroots cultural practices that occurred through the Community Arts movement in the 1970s, reinstating the old arbiters of taste and high culture in neoliberalized clothing.

Many of those who continue the legacy of these movements—whose primary aim was a redistribution of cultural resources into the projects of social justice in solidarity with the poorest and most marginalized communities—do so at the periphery of organizations at every scale. These organizations, while often showcasing socially progressive art, are increasingly structurally oriented toward securing social hierarchy by providing greater levels of access and influence to corporations, real estate developers, wealthy individuals, and paternalistic state policies.

Book cover of Félix Guattari and Toni Negri, Communists Like Us (New York: Autonomedia, 1990). (Click image to be taken to the full text)

This shift, from a coordinated critique of culture linking the projects of feminism, antiracism, anti-imperialism, and working class solidarity to a present when this same critique secures social and class hegemonies, is described by sociologists Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski (and quoted by many others) as a central facet of the neoliberal project.1 Political philosopher Brian Holmes has pointed to the implications of this process for the art field in the double game of cultural institutions that present radical art and culture with no interest in supporting radical social consequences.2

Little has been said by or about those who toil at the margins of these processes. What are the stories of those attempting to carry through the project of cultural critique that is linked to the projects of social justice lurking within the frameworks of hegemonic cultural institutions?

In everyday parlance, far away from the annual reports, conferences, and glossy brochures, such practitioners, be they educators, artists, curators, or “community participants,” often describe themselves in jest as “para-sites” or as engaged in acts of para-siting: living off the wealth of their hosts—their material resources and symbolic capital—attempting to redistribute cultural funding, reallocating cultural resources, and reorienting cultural projects toward progressive social and political outcomes.

The term parasite, most widely understood through its microbial definition, in fact comes from the human world and refers to those who para (sit alongside) the sitos (the food) but also the situs (a local place). The parasite was, in the 1600s, understood as a “hanger-on,” as a “toady”—a person who lives off others or one who eats from another’s table. Then, as now, parasites were understood as characters oriented toward collectivity who did not fend for themselves. They had a penchant for redistribution, always taking from those who had more. They were pests, bottom-feeders that were associated with the lower classes.

A number of contemporary cultural projects have made use of parasitic relations: for example, artist Michael Rakowitz’s “paraSITE” dwellings, developed in the late ’90s and given out, free of charge, to numerous homeless people in several East Coast cities, draw on urban building’s HVAC systems for heat and air to keep the dwellings inflated. In another instance, the media collective CAMP suggests a parasitic relationship between their online archive of densely text-annotated video material, Pad.ma, and official media databases. These projects understand the parasite to be markedly outside of and drawing resources from the architectures and repositories that are their hosts.3

A second kind of para-site, though not often named explicitly as such, can be read in projects of institutional critique, in which an outside agent, most often an artist temporarily embedded in a cultural institution, engages in deconstructive readings of institutional collections and processes, attempting to intervene in them from the inside. While such projects in their interface with various publics have a general aim to effect relations beyond this inside, and have importantly observed there is no absolute “outside” of the field of social relations of art or cultural institutions, they are rarely defined by their direct solidarity with specific groups who see themselves as other to the cultural sphere. While these insides and attendant outside are by no means absolute, it is fair to observe, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu did in his notion of habitus, that there are those who feel more a part of the internal operations of cultural institutions than others and a set of specific institutional conducts (such an invitations, modes of speaking and listening, etc.) that contribute to this perceptual field.

The para-sites that I am addressing in this text are those who sustain work within cultural institutions through ongoing and embedded relationships, those who “sit at the tables” with those at the helms of hegemonic processes, all the while committed to the project of social justice, somewhere else, in direct contact and negotiation with critical social agents. They run para (outside/beside), but also within, and understand themselves neither as autonomous nor as exclusively engaged in struggles framed by the language and concerns of the dominant cultural institutions from which they draw resources. They are organizing for social changes that are located in other sites, in concrete struggles with accountabilities beyond the art world’s often hermetic focus on itself or its phantom mirroring of social process. While not ignorant or neutral with regard to the politics of their hosts, they and the constituencies with whom they work are not fixated upon these politics, and they struggle not to be contained by them. Their practice and their concerns are therefore experienced as both within and profoundly without.

Such para-siting does not exist as a cited body of knowledge nor as an identity as such. It and its proponents lie among what philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault once described as the “banal facts” of institutional culture.4 Its agents speak of it only in whispers and rants, in their desires and in their dreams, far away from the ears and feasts of the host body. Rather than a backdoor utterance, an accidental position, an individual approach to a profession, or a clandestine survival strategy, what would it mean to take this role of the para-site seriously and understand it as a coordinated political project?

Do Para-sites Have Histories?

It is surely the case that there are para-sites that operate in every field: Marxist economists lurking in management schools, anarchist pedagogues squatting in the public school system, anti-psychiatry groups in the mainstream public health system, anti-colonials in the diplomatic core.5 And if a convention of the para-sites were ever possible, if we were really to compose ourselves into a political force, some work would have to be done to find them, to understand their particularities and genealogies, and to move beyond professional postures and positions toward a recuperation of the stakes and commitments upon which they make their claim to an otherness from their host.

Among those with whom I work, namely social justice–oriented gallery workers, artists, and community groups in the UK, our genealogies are plural. On the one hand, as educator and researcher Carmen Mörsch’s historical research on the pedagogical programs of UK cultural institutions reveals, there has always been what she describes as a “dispositive” of those working on projects of social change and education in galleries, a circumstance in which socially transformative tendencies have been hosted alongside the more hegemonic colonial and imperial interests. The Whitechapel Gallery, for example, combined the interests of an art world–savvy benefactor and a canon working with the poor in London’s East End, by showing art works sanctioned by the elite but also by supporting projects by local antifascists and opening on Sundays for the use of the working poor of London’s East End. Similarly, the zoo in London’s Regent’s Park was designed with para-sitic viewers in mind, in that it provides vistas of the animals through the bars that separate high (those who could afford to hobnob with the zebras and giraffes) from low (those who could not) culture.6 Considered in this way, the figure of the para-site has existed as a fundamental character within high Euro-Western institutionalized culture since the nineteenth century.7

Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad, “The Public Zoo,” 2012. Map of viewing sites from outside the zoo in Regent’s Park, London, as part of “ZOO-TOPIA,” an exhibition curated by Eszter Steierhoffer in 2012 that surveyed the Modernist architectural heritage of zoological gardens and presented taxonomies of natural representation from the viewpoint of architectural and design history; as part of the exhibition, Hashemi-Nezhad also gave daily guided tours of the zoo

Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad, “The Public Zoo,” 2012. Image of a viewer at the zoo in Regent’s Park, London, displayed as part of “ZOO-TOPIA,” curated by Eszter Steierhoffer in 2012

A more recent history in the UK links back to the social movements of the ’70s and ’80s and the project of politicized and community-based artists that began working at that time. Where the dominant cultural narrative has historically relegated the Community Arts movement to the realm of the naïve, or has suggested that Community Arts practitioners have been “incorporated” into hegemonic culture, these readings often deny access to the desires, agencies, and investments of the Community Arts project as it existed in the past and continues in the present. The plethora of new terms for this type of work, i.e., Social Practice, Dialogical Art, etc.—all of which attempt to depart from the instrumentalized term “community”—often blurs their relationship to the stakes of this historical project and curtails a sustained critical reading of projects of cultural education and democracy in the present.

As the cultural arm of the anticolonial, antiracist, feminist, and working class movements of the ’60s and ’70s, these artists and other cultural workers (like their counterparts in other fields) wanted to make changes at the very heart of the working process and to see funding pushed from the silos of high culture into culture that was defined by its proliferation in local and minority community experiences. While some desired to remain autonomous, others felt that the transformation of institutional work could have a vital relationship to the reconfiguration of other social positions. Within the field of contemporary art gallery education, artist and educator Felicity Allen has written at length of the important role of feminist, student, and Community Arts movements in shaping a para-sitic position for mainly women artists within art galleries in the UK.8 Contemporary gallery education, a relatively unmarked field in the ’70s and early ’80s, was seen as the antithesis to the narcissistic, individualized space of the art school, the authoritarian model of state education, or the artistic/curatorial hierarchies of exhibition production. Education and, in some cases, curatorial roles within galleries presented opportunities to experiment with artistic processes as well as social and political projects that were developed in community contexts and to provoke and reshape cultural funding and cultural institutions.9 Allen describes how key players from feminist and Community Arts movements were involved in the creation of Arts Council positions and policies that heightened the importance of arts education and community engagement. In addition to expanding the Council’s funding brief to include much smaller, politics-based organizations, larger existing arts organizations (such as the Tate) were reshaped to place education and community in a more esteemed position than had formerly been the case, for better or for worse. Whereas some characterize such efforts as a misplaced desire for “change from within,” in fact, they would be better conceptualized as a desire for change from within and beyond institutions. If one were engaged in community projects outside of the gallery, communities would reflect and act upon the contradictions they encountered, as would those working in galleries. Those who engaged in these gallery occupations did not see themselves as lone agents on the inside but as participants of and contributors to the “outside” social movements to which they were vitally connected.

Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson, poster for exhibition panel from Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign, 1977–78.

In his ethnographic account of Community Arts movements in the UK, artist and writer Owen Kelly describes the challenge that Community Arts practitioners posed to the Arts Council, demanding that funding be disseminated across practices embedded within localities and social struggles as well as within institutions. Artist Loraine Leeson, then part of the community-oriented visual arts organization the Art of Change, similarly describes the alterations to the funding model that took place as a result of the struggles of community artists and their non-artist, social movement counterparts at the time. Leeson has described a moment when municipalities, trade unions, and even the Arts Council funded artists to work directly with social movement groups in their struggles against hospital closures, local gentrification, and de-housing. She also describes the attitudes of artists and community members with regard to galleries, seen as points to engage middle-class audiences in awareness and action campaigns around local struggles.10

The manifesto of the exhibition “Art for Whom?,” which took place in 1978 at the Serpentine Gallery (where I was employed from 2008 to 2014), suggests the degree to which these movements impacted—if only temporarily—the contemporary art sector; it called upon art institutions to become way stations for artists and activists working on local campaigns, who could use them as spaces from which to sway the middle classes toward supporting the struggles of the working and non-working poor. The Art of Change, for example, used their involvement in this exhibition as an opportunity to build solidarity for the Bethnal Green hospital closure campaign, which they were embedded within as funded community artists. The Bethnal Green Hospital in London was a community hospital valued for its accessibility to local residents, and, after a wave of Labour government–sanctioned health cuts ordered it closed, hospital staff occupied the hospital and waged a campaign against the closure. While this exhibition did not mark a sustained shift in gallery exhibition practices, that a project posing such a strong proposition for the usefulness of galleries to social movements could even take place seems quite unfathomable in the same institution today.

Manifesto by the organizers and exhibitors from the exhibition “Art for Whom?” at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 1978

However, although multiple gains were made, Kelly also describes the way in which the cultural funding won by these movements was experienced as a processual integration into vertical accountability and institutional structures, requiring the redefinition of the practices around categories of art rather than those of social action. Participatory art, Social Practice art, Dialogical art, and the need for these various descriptions today emerge from this call for the reorientation of socially integrated critical cultural practices (Community Arts) around categories of art-making, fixations on the elusive term “quality,” and/or the categorizations of a burgeoning art market. Kelly has importantly attributed this slippage of critical projects as a failure of the movement to theorize its position vis-à-vis the state and other forms of organized power. Kelly here was not calling for community artists to gain degrees in poststructuralist theory (though many now have), he was rather forewarning that a failure to theorize the counter-hegemonic position that many community artists inhabited—in terms of both their commitments and their accountabilities—left them ill-equipped to fight or adequately critically occupy dominant hegemonic institutions. Thus, while many of its practitioners remain agents engaged in transformative social change, a realm of descriptive separation between artists oriented toward the individual and the collective and their social movement and community counterparts reinstated colonial and heroic tendencies that projects of cultural democracy were actively working against. This separation was particularly problematic at a moment when the public/private model of culture was being introduced. As, indeed, at the same time as the field of and funding for cultural work was expanding to respond to the proliferation of cultural projects linked to social justice, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s privatization of public services and policy of “popular capitalism” was also well under way. For the cultural sector, this began with the massive incentivization of private involvement. As art critic Peter Aspden notes, in 1982, Minister for the Arts “Lord Gowrie urged the wholesale abandonment of the ‘subsidy mentality’ among arts institutions, pushing them to ‘drive for bigger box office, to drive for more patronage, drive for more business sponsorship.’” By the late 1980s, this move toward privatization was coupled with the expectation of making institutions more accessible. In the midst of these contradictory policies, as artists and organizations had to adhere to the stricter guidelines of leaner cultural funding, market interests, and the rhetoric of accessibility, artistic refusal of clarity in the name of openness and the right to ambiguity left them ill-prepared for the onset of neoliberal governance.11

These two parallel tracks—an ambiguously defined commitment to the social in art and a move toward a public/private model of funding “committed” to access—have been carried into the present UK cultural field. They are regularly evidenced in Arts Council of England KPIs (key performance indicators), which require state funding recipients to paradoxically increase community (usually a euphemism for low-income) engagement while committing to the high-level participation of wealthy individuals.
Bernadette Lynch, “Whose Cake is It Anyway?,” 2009. For this report commissioned by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Lynch worked with a study group of twelve UK museums and their community partners to evaluate the nature of public engagement within these spaces. (Click image to be taken to the full report)
As in the UK, state funding provides half or more of the core funding for many cultural institutions, these competing ideologies are very central to everyday cultural practices. Far from the idea of communities and their artist collaborators taking over the field of culture, the former, under the heading of “community” or “education” projects—in spite of their progressive growth and prominence since the onset of neoliberalism—are still given lower budgets and profile than the latter—the cultivation of private donors—which take up increasingly more and more office and exhibition spaces, budget lines, and board of trustees positions. Those who align themselves with social justice movements schizophrenically find themselves para-siting the realms of corporate and cultural elites and working in collaboration with working-class communities. Faced with this set of contradictions, and consistent with Kelly’s reading, contemporary cultural workers have varying degrees of literacy around the complex social situations in which they operate. The terms “Social Practice” and “socially engaged art” are used to describe a swath of projects, spanning those that reinforce a culture of artistic ego and hierarchized social segregation, and others that work explicitly in the realm of social justice and community organizing. And, predictably, those “social” art projects that adopt market vocabulary and logic find themselves higher up on the chain. As a result, in the explosion of Social Practice courses, there are few that explicitly dedicate themselves to theories, practices, and histories of social justice, and even fewer that train artists to engage in reflexive collective work, to consciously align themselves within specific social conflicts, or to develop the skills to analyze and critically act upon moments of social contradiction. That this is the case does not suggest that all cultural workers and, in particular, many of those engaged in education and social justice work have simply been “incorporated.” It suggests, rather, the terrain of a struggle—one that we are currently losing.

Janna Graham, “A preliminary sketch of the Para-sitic Approach,” 2014. PowerPoint diagram. Image: © Janna Graham

The Dance Between Para-sites and Hosts

An organism lives very well with its microbes; it lives better and is hardened by them.

—Michel Serres, The Parasite, 1982

What can we learn from this particular genealogy about para-siting as a political project? What is it that characterizes this activity in the present? And what is it that distinguishes it from the vague characterization of instrumentalization on the one hand and the proliferation of “_____ art” headings on the other? Both of these descriptions obscure what is really at stake when cultural workers become involved in social justice projects, reorienting them toward disinterested definitions, hermetic analyses, and the very hierarchies of taste and learning that they attempt to escape.

To answer these questions we must turn our attention from the terrain of the cultural field’s many acts of self-representation (whether these be artworks or explanatory fora) to its various modes of production—the pre- and post-representational, micro-political terrains wherein most of those who work in culture spend their labor time. It is here that we find the commitments and effects of para-sitic inhabitations most poignant, and it is here where the dance between para-sites and their hosts so often takes place.

Over the years, alongside my own work amid the contradictions of gallery, artistic, and community-organizing practices, I have conducted workshops with current cultural and would-be cultural workers, many of whom were committed to socially progressive ideas. I have asked them to outline the chain of production for their exhibition and education projects—the phases—before they are made public. In almost all cases this chain is unidirectional and consistent with what Brazilian educator and philosopher of critical pedagogy Paulo Freire describes as the “banking concept” of education. Beginning with the socially relevant or transformative idea of a director, artist, educator, or curator (or, in more extreme cases, a private donor), the cultural project is initiated in the top levels of an organization, shared with those charged with delivering it to a public, and delivered by way of participatory and engaging activities. This public is either “targeted,” based on the degree to which their perceived identities or interests conform to a particular social category, or is considered as a “general public,” which means middle- to upper-middle-class people who are arts educated or are hoping to gain cultural capital by means of their association with galleries.

The banking concept, with which many will be by now familiar, was developed in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968. It refers to a transactional understanding of education in which those perceived to be in possession of knowledge deposit what they think they know to those perceived to be without it. When Freire wrote about the banking concept he was referring to a more simplistic notion of banking than we are familiar with now. In today’s cultural institutions, this metaphor might be updated to include the invisible entities that exist around the edges of cultural knowledge transfer: the subjectivation of poorly paid workers; the involvement of corporate and bourgeois elites as funders, lenders, brand collaborators, and partygoers; the production of passive audiences for discursive spectacle events; and the role that art and galleries play in the gentrification and social pacification processes, to name a few. Thus, it is the case that while a socially progressive education or exhibition program may take place on the level of content, in the process of its production it may reinforce a chain of subjectivations that instills its very opposite in producing these (above) socially regressive tendencies.

The host, while seeming outwardly amenable to progressive social elements, minority communities, etc., is so only when these initiatives and groups coexist with this banking concept and the invisible elements it solidifies. To critics of culture—many of whom take part in the endless representational events on the topic of progressive politics—this may seem obvious.

For those who toil in the less visible education departments (or in less visible ways seated in other departments), it is very rare that they are able to bring the questions of social justice and radical pedagogy they exercise in solidarity with certain communities into the organizing principles of the cultural frameworks in which they operate. In fact, in many cases, these frameworks instead infiltrate their projects, curbing collective and political potentials. This is clear in micro details such as questions of who is named and who is not in community projects; who speaks about projects in public, and who does not; how reflective fora are organized to structurally differentiate between “professionals” and “participants”; and how the limited finances of projects are distributed and often barred from meaningfully reaching those engaged in social struggle and in the precarious conditions and uncertain durations of institutional commitments to social process. When these questions are posed within cultural frameworks, educators, community curators, and artists often lose their credibility vis-à-vis questions of art, accused of serving special interests and not those of the “general audience.” Social struggle is only interesting if reframed as “social practice” at the hands of identifiably artistic agents. And, it is often at the expense of these questions of social justice that arts education and socially engaged projects are given prominence in mainstream cultural venues—their right to sit at the table.

While the logic of the banking concept infiltrates community, education, and social projects, the para-site often has difficulty infiltrating the life of its host. Researcher and museum consultant Bernadette Lynch’s important study of the impact of the prominence of education and community programs in UK art galleries speaks to this problematic. In it, she involved gallery directors, educators, and so-called community partners in exercises based in Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed to “get under the skin” of institutional assertions of commitment to participatory education projects, attempting to understand the degree to which cultural organizations had or were willing to change to reflect the involvement and desires of those who take part in community and education programs. The finding is that “Communities remain, or at least perceive themselves to be, fundamentally separated from processes within these organisations: rather than engaging at every level of their work, they are relegated to mere consumption of museums’ and galleries’ ‘products.’”12 Although eyebrow-raising for funders who commissioned education programs, this simply affirms what has become a given for cultural workers aligned with community struggle. Increased funding for this work, through private and foundation grants, has, the study argues, paradoxically increased both its profile and its precarity in cultural institutions.

While this is the case, many would say that whereas changes to cultural institutions are important, they are not the only story: there is a plethora of other, often unwritten aims that exist for projects beyond a shift in the politics of their hosts—aims related to the changes that transversal groups of cultural workers and their collaborators in social struggle codetermine. That these histories and aims are broadly unaccounted for in the artistic project descriptions that launch them into the public realm renders them invisible but not nonexistent. Para-sites in these clandestine and unarticulated zones move beyond positions or professions and into the realms of gains and losses, weighing their ability to maintain commitments and accountabilities within social struggle against the moments when they are curtailed. They make decisions about their participation based on this balance sheet and often align or exit with little public fanfare. These para-sites measure their work in degrees of change. The question at the forefront of their minds is: when are we the para-site and when are we the host?

What Do We Know About Para-sites?

Every parasite that is a bit gifted, at the table of a somewhat sumptuous host, soon transforms the table into a theatre.

—Michel Serres, The Parasite, 1982

In biological terms, what we learn from the genealogy of Community Arts in the politics of the present is the difference between the commensal, an organism that benefits from its attachment to its host without harming or affecting it; the para-site, which has the capacity to alter or harm it; and the cryptic organelle, a cell often found in fungal para-sites, which, in adapting to “new demands, or perhaps a relaxation of demands,” is at their cellular level, forever changed. At their extreme, cryptic organelles “are degenerated and transformed beyond recognition.”13 This cellular level of microbial para-sites—and its corollary in group composition in the human para-sitic world—is often where strength is built and where the power of the host can do its greatest damage.

In Freire’s terms, the interplay between the malleability of the host and the efficacy of the para-site is understood as the difference between the banking concept’s symbolic dialogue, dialogue that blocks social action (what he describes as being akin to “an alienating blah blah blah”), and “problem posing” education, that is, an understanding of social change from within the limits and contradictions of the social situations in which we are embedded. If the pedagogy of the banking concept is transactional, moving in one direction, para-sitic pedagogy is rotational, attempting to produce change from the limit-situations experienced through deeply embedded practices of articulation, analysis, and action. That change is not always about overcoming limits but about understanding them as the precondition for a reorganization of power and an assessment of what they make possible and impossible for those analyzing them. It is not by accident that the form he names for those articulating the analytic process of investigating limits is the “Culture Circle,” as these solidarity groups pose a fundamental challenge to the hierarchical organization of culture and propose a cultural process that begins from an analysis of power. Freire does not do away with the representational and symbolic structures of the cultural field. Rather, he and practitioners of the pedagogy of the oppressed place them at the service of truly dialogic processes, suggesting that by moving between abstractions of power relationships and collective readings of these abstractions, groups produce the conditions of their own liberation.

In reading a pedagogy of the para-site through Freire, an intricate relationship is suggested between the oppressor and the oppressed. What results is a cast of political figures other than those whom we have come to expect in both political and cultural/artistic terms. They are neither strict heroes nor anti-heroes. They are neither at the front of the line nor on the outside charging in. Their positions can be gross and murkily embedded. Neither leaders nor followers, they are radically connected to what they take from and what they host. Like the many unspoken heroines of feminist activism, they are often known more for their organizational contributions than they are for loud speeches and grand gestures, but over time they have developed strategies for breaking the power relations in which they are embedded and for inducing change.14

Exiting the Logic of the Host

The parasite is the location and subject of the transformation.

—Michel Serres, The Parasite, 1982

I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.

—Ella Baker, quoted in Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, 2003

Students and artists held a teach-in at the National Gallery in response to education cuts concurrent with the government’s increasing caps on tuition fees in London on September 12, 2010. They used the forum to create a “Nomadic Hive Manifesto” and intentionally chose Room 43 as a location due to the proximity of Édouard Manet’s painting The Execution of Maximilian (1868–69). Image: © Kristian Buus

In recent months, on a more global scale, the seams that have held together the contradictory practices of para-sites and hosts in the arts have started to unravel. Anti-gentrification activists occupied a forum dedicated to the notion of “public” in the lead-up to the Istanbul Biennial. The migrant theater group Mind the Trap15 engaged with a previously hermetic conversation among cultural organizations contemplating why minorities (themselves absent from the event) do not engage in mainstream cultural institutions in Berlin. HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? (Yams Collective) withdrew from the 2012 Whitney Biennial on the basis of micro- and macro-political practices of institutionalized white supremacy.16 Artists invited to show their work on social issues withdrew from the 2014 Sydney Biennial due to the biennial’s involvement with Transfield, a company that contracts with the Australian government to manage its controversial offshore mandatory detention centers for asylum seekers; as a result, migration activists called for the art world to dispense with heroic narratives of the artist and focus on those organizing in Australian detention.17

Though very different in circumstance, each event called into question the hypocrisies of activating social justice motifs in hegemonic institutions that, due to their structural makeup, are divorced from the possibility of social justice action. Cultural workers have been polarized in their responses, exposing a conflict that repeatedly articulates itself when projects within the arts attempt to engage in socially progressive projects: a conflict between commitments to social justice and the liberal values upon which most cultural institutions are based. The fundamental difference between commitments to antiracism, anti-imperialism, and problem-posing curricula and these liberal foundations is often glossed over and neutralized in the speed of spectacle production. In the examples of the withdrawals from the Sydney and Whitney Biennial, conflicts that are often unarticulated, or, at the very least, hidden behind the gloss of production, were brought into public view. For each of these struggles waged in public, however, there are many more that take place in silence: practitioners who have not found a collective voice, those who feel out of their depths, those who feel that they have too much to lose to speak out, and those whose struggles are represented by artworks and projects within institutions of culture, but who are nowhere near a position in which they might be heard by these institutions.

If there is to be a future of politicized para-sitism, it will have to emerge from the coordination of such experiences—whether those of paid workers, artists, and “community participants,” or those endlessly referred to, but excluded from, the field of organized culture. As late neoliberalism exposes what lies beneath the modes of inclusion of its earlier iterations in violent acts of policing and recrimination, the distance between the para-site and the host is lessened. In this, the very existence of the para-site is threatened, and silent and clandestine para-sitism may no longer be an option. It might rather be necessary to move from this quieter phase to one of amplifying contradictions in order to become more conflictual. If facilitated, such strategies might be opportunities for para-sites to gain, by way of exit or rebellion, new consistency and new ground.

Images of materials from the “kein mensch ist illegal” [no one is illegal] project at the Hybrid workspace at Documenta X in 1997 and subsequent campaigns

ADDITIONAL MATERIALS/ Para-sitic Typologies Appendix

Below is a partial taxonomy of para-sites in cultural work based on their counterparts in the microbial world, whose definitions have been gleaned from medical encyclopedias.

Oocyst Parasites / Occupying Para-sites

In biological terms, Oocyst parasites move quickly from host to host. They simply use their host to catalyze their own development, leaving little impact on it.

For example, during 2010 and 2011 in the UK, those involved in various struggles against cuts to education and social programs used cultural institutions as sites to stage symbolic encounters. Groups such as Arts Against Cuts, UK Uncut, and Precarious Workers Brigade embedded themselves in the halls of these arts organizations to raise the profile of political actions and, also, to suggest the political role that artists and arts spaces play. These actions took place without obvious authors or leaders, opting rather for the working structure of a hive. Read more about the Arts Against Cuts Occupations here.

Ectoparasites / Dialogic Para-sites
Are parasites that live on the host’s surface using its attributes to encourage the development and multiplication of para-sitic activity? An ectoparasite does not necessarily leave an imprint on the host’s cellular structure.

An example of this kind of para-siting is the use of Documenta X in 1997 as an organizing and public education site for the “no nne is illegal” campaign that supported an international movement of undocumented people.

Endoparasiting / Critical or Transformative Para-sites
Endoparasites occupy spaces inside the host’s body, changing it as well as enabling the conditions for the community of parasites.

Type 1: This often happens through a deep embedding of the para-site (intercellular) within the body of the host, which then multiplies itself within it.

Examples can be seen in the early projects of feminist arts educators, as described by Felicity Allen in her report “Situating Gallery Education,” published in Tate Encounters [E]dition 2 in February 2008.

Another example is evident in the role of MACBA’s director and curators in supporting local activists in the 1990s in the city of Barcelona.

My experience of this intracellular or critical/transformative kind of para-siting links to my first time organizing in the gallery context at the Art Gallery of Ontario. In 1999 a group of young people working as part of the gallery’s youth program, including myself, was asked by local organizers to support a campaign against a police-instigated Giuliani-style clampdown on young people of color congregating in urban areas. We, an embedded and relatively empowered group operating in and out of the gallery, worked with a broader base of campaigners outside of the gallery to develop a three-year program of events and meetings to change the profile of youth in the city, alter media perceptions, and intervene directly in the court cases against young people. We staged events, served as character witnesses and experts in court cases, and enabled charged young people to work off their community service hours on the campaigns against the police program. For this project, we used the gallery’s spaces and influenced its exhibiting practices, ensuring that works that supported cases for graffiti and other urban art forms were on display. Refusing the trend of the “young curators” model of youth programming at the time, we placed our analysis and work into the social realm, inviting artists to take part in the struggle rather than vice versa. Solidarity projects have continued with young people in the city working with activist, artist, and educator Syrus Marcus Ware.

Type 2: This can also happen via carriers (intracellular) that link parasites to the cells of the host.

An example of intracellular linking can be read in the relationship between William Olander and ACT UP in the “Let the Record Show…” exhibition at the New Museum in 1987. For this exhibition, the gallery space was used to propel a broader message about AIDS into the realm of middle-class museumgoers, while at the same time entering into the debate about the role of cultural institutions in supporting social movements around AIDS and HIV.

The Invited Para-site
The final category—in which the invited para-site is actively commissioned by the host to use and interfere with its body—has no counterpart in the microbial world. The difference between those relationships listed above and the one between the commissioned para-site and host is that, while hosts solicit the input of outside activist agents, these projects are not created through a real negotiation of the para-site’s demands. Rather, these projects are initiated through the interests and desires of those working within the institution, who then solicit outside agents from there.

In the cultural sector, commissioned para-sites are a common type and thus are important to observe. Commissioned para-sites often expose the incoherence of the hosts, its confusion about its constitution, and the cracks in its ideological composition. While such cracks are a consistent feature of neoliberalism and have enabled workers of and communities involved with cultural institutions to articulate their own agency vis-à-vis the issues of social justice, they have equally opened the doors to private interests and privatized modes of subjectivation. Invited para-sites can, for this reason, just as easily replicate hegemonic hierarchies and values—and therefore not be para-sites at all—as they can break with them. Examples of the commissioned para-site and how it intersects with its host will be the subject of investigation in the following texts of this series.


1 Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007)..

2 Brian Holmes, “Liar’s Poker: Representation of Politics, Politics of Representation,” Springerin <http://www.springerin.at/dyn/heft_text.php?textid=1276&lang=en> (accessed Nov. 20, 2014).

3 View further details about “paraSITE” on Michael Rakowitz’s website: . For more information on the para-site, visit the pad.ma archive via CAMP: <https://pad.ma/texts/padma:10_Theses_on_the_Archive/10>.

4 “Everybody is aware of such banal facts. But the fact that they’re banal does not mean they don’t exist. What we have to do with banal facts is to discover—or try to discover—which specific and perhaps original problem is connected to them.” Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry (Summer 1982): 779, <http://www.unisa.edu.au/Global/EASS/HRI/foucault_-_the_subject_and_power.pdf> (accessed Jan. 12, 2015).

5 Many of these examples share similar trajectories. For example, a number of Marxist and anti-capitalist academics in the UK, through the course of the neoliberalization of the university, have been absorbed into business schools and management departments as a mode of survival (i.e., saving their jobs) and/or as an attempt to directly intervene into capitalist business pedagogy. This particular group has invented the field of Critical Management Studies to describe their uncomfortable and complicated location in management education. What these groups share is less an avant-garde obsession with transgressive behavior and more a condition in which their commitments to projects of liberation, radical democracy, decolonization, and anti-capitalism are not overtly supported by public or socially oriented institutions. This condition is a direct result of the ways in which neoliberalism has absorbed various forms and moments of social critique that have taken place both within and outside of these institutions. While there are moments where such neoliberalized institutions are more favorable for the growth of socially critical projects, there is rarely a time where such critical projects become the dominant form (as to do so would be to profoundly change their organizations of power). But because it always feels like there might be a chance to shift the balance, and because resources are attached to these neoliberal institutions, it is more difficult for these groups to engage in more autonomous forms of organizing, themselves often equally compromised. It is for this reason that the para-site is not a heroic figure, but rather one that continues a project of social justice amid a complex terrain of competing accountabilities, and that the para-site often risks reproducing the very structures it critically inhabits.

6 See Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad, The Public Zoo (2012), <http://www.artnetworkagency.org.uk/css/handout%20zoo-topia.pdf> (accessed Nov. 20, 2014).

7 See Carmen Mörsch, “At a Crossroads of Four Discourses: documenta 12 Gallery Education in Between Affirmation, Reproduction, Deconstruction and Transformation,” in documenta 12 education #2: Between Critical Practice and Visitor Service, ed. Carmen Mörsch, et al. (Berlin; Zürich: diaphanes, 2010), 9–31. Also see Carmen Mörsch, “The Formation of the Art–Education–Dispositive in England,” presentation, “Symposium C: P/ART/ICIPATE III–Art, Public(s) & Cultural Citizenship–The Audience as Co-Producer,” Universität Salzburg, Austria, Nov. 30, 2011, <http://www.w-k.sbg.ac.at/fileadmin/Media/contemporary_arts_and_cultural_ueroduction
/2_Forschung/Symposienreihe_Participate/Texte/Art_Education_Dispositiv.pdf
> (accessed Nov. 20, 2014).

8 While specific to the UK, my own entry into the field of art education as an activist working in indigenous land rights movements a generation later speaks to a similar trajectory in Canada. First hired by the late Judith Mastai, a Marxist-feminist community-theater worker, I have since worked in the UK and Canada in departments led by feminists with links to women’s liberation, antiracist, and queer politics.

9 Felicity Allen, “Situating Gallery Education,” Tate Encounters [E]dition 2 (February 2008), <http://felicityallen.co.uk/sites/default/files/Situating%20gallery%20education_0.pdf> (accessed Nov. 20, 2014).

10 See “Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign 1977-78,” cSPACE <http://cspace.org.uk/category/archive/bethnal-green-hospital-campaign/> (accessed Nov. 20, 2014).

11 Peter Aspden, “Out of Adversity,” in Barbican at 25, ed. Emily Mann (London: Newsdesk Communications Ltd, 2007), <http://www.barbican.org.uk/media/upload/Barbican%20at%2025/291OutOfAdversityByPeterAspden.pdf> (accessed Dec. 30, 2014).

12 Bernadette Lynch, “Whose Cake is It Anyway? A Collaborative Investigation into Engagement and Participation in 12 Museums and Galleries in the UK” (London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation, 2009), <http://www.phf.org.uk/downloaddoc.asp?id=547> (accessed Nov. 20, 2014).

13 A special thank you to Brian Holmes and Claire Pentecost for their reference to the role of organelles. See Claire Pentecost, “Notes from Underground,” in Documenta (13): 100 Notes—100 Thoughts (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2012); and Brian Holmes, “After the Stark Utopia: Political Economies of the Future,” presentation, “The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel Gallery,” London, Aug. 8, 2013.

14 Of this tendency in the role of women in the Civil Rights movement, organizer Ella Baker has said, “It was sort of second nature to women to play a supportive role. How many made a conscious decision on the basis of the larger goals, how many on the basis of habit pattern, I don’t know. But it’s true that the number of women who carried the movement is much larger than that of men.” I include this quotation here, in briefer form than is warranted, to indicate how the roles that race, class, and gender (and their various intersections) play in para-sitic configurations in culture mirror and intensify forces of marginalization in broader society. See Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

15 This video was brought to my attention by the curator/educator Nora Sternfeld and can be found (in German) on YouTube. See “Intervention am Deutschen Theater: MIND THE TRAP 9.1.2014,” video, 6:15 min, Jan. 9, 2014, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTN3WT4lAaY> (accessed Nov. 20, 2014).

16 Ben Davis, “The Yams, On the Whitney and White Supremacy,” artnet (May 13, 2014), <http://news.artnet.com/art-world/the-yams-on-the-whitney-and-white-supremacy-30364#.U4kpMRnsXqN.facebook> (accessed Nov. 20, 2014).

17 “Liz Thompson explains why she is not speaking at the Close Manus rally on Saturday,” Crossborder Operational Matters (Feb. 28, 2014), <http://xborderoperationalmatters.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/thompson-re-rally/> (accessed Nov. 20, 2014).

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