Fillip 15 — Fall 2011

A Productive Irritant
: Parasitical Inhabitations in Contemporary Art
Post Brothers and Chris Fitzpatrick

The parasite is an infectant. Far from actually transforming a system’s nature, its form, elements, relations, and paths, the parasite makes the system change its condition in small steps. It introduces a tilt. It brings the system’s balance or the distribution of energy into fluctuation. It irritates it. It infects it....brings us close to the subtle balances of living systems.— Michel Serres 1

In 1969, artist Harvey Stromberg walked into the Museum of Modern Art in New York with a notebook, measuring tape, and a camera. Posing as an eager student, he returned on a regular basis, pretending to study the museum’s collection when, in fact, he was surreptitiously measuring and photographing various features inside and outside the museum in order to make an artwork. Later that year, after printing over three hundred of the photographs he had taken—of light switches, keyholes, bricks, air vents, and so on—Stromberg printed the photos out at a 1:1 scale of what they depicted and backed them with adhesive. In a series of visits to the museum, he attached his photos to the walls, floors, and other surfaces—subtly, and without authorization from the institution. Although they were often found and destroyed by museum employees, Stromberg was never caught.

Rosalind Constable noted in a 1971 issue of New York magazine that Stromberg originally executed this solo exhibition anonymously, but after two years, decided to claim authorship of the work in order to make “people be aware there are conflicts between museums and artists,”2 namely around who is allowed to exhibit and who is not. By humorously inserting his own work directly into the interior and exterior architecture of the museum, Stromberg confused what the institution had sanctioned and what it had not.3 Stromberg inhabited the museum as a foreign agent, adopting tactics that offered practical and conceptual strategies of artistic production through acts of “parasitical inhabitation.” 

An Irritant

A parasite is defined as an organism that lives in or on another organism, extracting what it needs from its host without giving anything positive in exchange. We consider Stromberg’s project parasitical because, like a parasite, he entered his target’s body through a point of weakness, exploited its faculties and facilities, and thereby showed the museum’s impenetrability (its curatorial selection, accessions committees, etc.) to be, like his photographic illusions, a facade. He walked in the front door. When artists are working parasitically, context (the site, its history, its claims to authority, its funding and organizational structures, and its habits) is perhaps the primary material being occupied and consumed.

When we speak of parasitical practices in art, we must first refer to the work of French polymath Michel Serres, whose book The Parasite (1980) discusses its namesake as a vehicle for introducing “irritants” to any given order, causing subtle changes that can be productive and cumulative.4 Through a disciplinary promiscuity akin to the parasite’s ability to trespass corporeal boundaries, Serres’s text investigates the appearance of parasitical activity in literature and science, bridging the domains of biology, anthropology, and information theory to arrive at a conception of how systems operate. Serres breaks down three familiar uses for the word “parasite”: the “biological” parasite, the “social” parasite, and the parasite as communicative “static” (derived from the French word for noise, parasite). For Serres, these linguistic significations are not distinct, but interrelated. Serres breaks away from conventional notions of parasites, arguing that parasitism is not merely antagonistic, but that its effects are productive, not solely reductive; its disruptions are indicative of complex yet fundamental relations between people and between things, whether sentient or not.

For example, in its most traditional conception, the biological parasite enters a target host’s body with the aim of diverting and feeding off the host’s energy. Along this line of thought, there would be no mutual exchange. With Serres’s notion of the social parasite, however, which may be analogous to an uninvited guest, an exchange occurs that is uneven and complex. For instance, in this scenario, the guest takes hospitality and food from the host without giving an equivalent back. Yet there are other forms of exchange: conversation, pleasantries, and humour are on offer for food, drink, and temporary shelter in an immaterial-to-material transaction. In doing so, the social parasite redirects the surplus energies of the host, similar to the biological parasite. Finally, Serres’s notion of the parasite-as-noise introduces interference into communications—disrupting, feedbacking, and dispersing information as it moves between messages and their reception.

Throughout Serres’s discussion, these three conceptions of parasites operate neither as autonomous nor distinct entities. Rather, they are mutually defined in that there exists always a level of static, so to speak, in social relations. In other words, Serres argues that there are always disturbances in bodies, human or otherwise. And, there is always a loss in any act of exchange, but also something gained. The parasite is not any one of these phenomena but is actually all three (biological, social, noise) in constant play. In each instance, the parasite intercedes in exchange, but Serres shows us that the parasite is not any single conception or phenomenon, but rather operates in constant negotiation.

Stromberg’s inhabitation is similarly complex. While he may have exploited both MoMA’s prestige and space to create his work of art, wasn’t the museum’s status in turn reaffirmed, having been targeted by Stromberg as a host endowed with resources to spare? The potential and actual results that can be and have been achieved by artists working parasitically is but one interest we have in the strategy. In addition, the complexity of the relations that lead to such gestures and actions is of significance. The figure of the parasite extends to artists a means of surveying, articulating, questioning, and contaminating relations, a tool to determine loopholes, interdependencies, differences, and positions within affective relations. Through this observation and redistribution of component logics and positions within systems, the parasite becomes an expert in its host’s patterns and can then subvert and redirect them. With Serres’s discussion of parasites in mind, in the following essay we have chosen three forms of biological parasites as models through which contemporary artistic practice can be considered.

First, in Candiru (Invasions Upstream), we will look to the candiru (Vandellia cirrhosa), a freshwater fish that detects urine and then swims up this stream into its host. Its operations provide us with a model to think about the forcefulness of a parasitical intrusion, and how the detection of weaknesses in a potential host can lead to tangible access otherwise impossible to achieve. Second, in Cymothoa Exigua (The Tongue-eating Louse), we follow a crustacean parasite that latches onto a fish’s tongue, drains it of blood, and then effectively replaces the host’s tongue with itself. Related to artists working in more discursive modes, the parasite offers a model for considering artists who mirror, redirect, or overtake the voice and authority of their hosts, and who insert “static” into communications of which they would otherwise not have access. Finally, in part three, Toxoplasma Gondii, we will consider a feline parasite that has infected over half of the earth’s human population. Spread through contact with cat feces, this strange parasite is notable for the way in which it affects its host, changing its behaviour, but also for the manner in which it is spread (and how easily). Through relating Toxoplasma gondii to artistic practice, we can see that the entire field of relations is always already parasitical—a key point made in The Parasite. 

When Serres argues that the entire field of relations is parasitic, what interests us is that what parasites actually attack are, in fact, those relationships. In other words, what is useful is not just the operational modes to be gleaned from parasites, and not just the antagonism or exploitation of the host, but how parasitism is causal; parasites offer tactics, but their tactics create legible effects. Moreover, parasites appear to turn their hosts into parasites, but the alterations caused by the parasites reveal that their hosts’ statuses were already parasitical. 

It is not our intention to suggest a canon of parasitical practice. Nor should this be misunderstood as a comprehensive historical survey. Rather, we aim to proffer certain artists’ parasitical operations as effective strategies for the manipulation of context, the introduction of unsuspected tactics, the identification of weakness within seemingly taut and enclosed systems, and the ability to disguise one’s appearance or to take on that of one’s host. To ride communication vectors and exploit the logics and surplus of their targets, these artists embed themselves within a system to reveal the system’s dependency on logics of exclusion. 

Our interest in candiru and Cymothua exigua (as parasites and as frameworks) lies less in any antagonistic position or romance of transgression and more in their strategic implications. With Toxoplasmosis we are especially concerned with the way in which the parasite affects the behaviour of its host. In general, our interest in parasites is in how they negotiate their surroundings and the ways in which their presence brings about responses—how certain implicated foundations can become productive for change; how certain infiltrations by those routinely excluded can interrupt the status quo; how specific hosts call for precise manoeuvers and offer discrete potentials; how an outside operator’s ability to intrude and use the system’s nomenclature can divulge an infrastructure’s integral aspects; and how to negotiate and disrupt such naturalized or stratified relationships. 

I. Candiru (Invasions Upstream)

Although their operations and specific conditions vary widely and they can, at times, be beneficial to their hosts, parasites are generally thought of as unwanted, harmful invaders. They exist through external attachments to, or physical infiltrations of, a host organism’s body. Once inside, the parasite draws energy from its new environment, but generally ensures that it does not take too much, as this might run the risk of depleting the vitality both parasite and host require to live (though in many cases, the parasite’s host is a vessel to be extinguished before moving on to another host).5

If the word “parasite” is almost always a pejorative, it is perhaps because the parasite’s identity is contingent on it being a nuisance—a stranger to the host despite their intimacy. For Jean-Luc Nancy, it is crucial that the parasite-to-host relationship is contentious. Nancy, contemplating the paradoxical experience of a human hosting an alien organ after a heart transplant, suggests that such an “intruder” enters its host “by force, surprise, or cunning, in any case without any right to do so and without invitation.”6 For Nancy, that intruder’s status is always bound up in issues of corporeality and proximity, for without “an element of the intruder in the stranger” or the parasite in the host, the intrusion is without the necessary “strangeness” to be perceived as such.7 In other words, an invitation or any allowance given to an intruding force would negate that very intrusion. When individuals ingest roundworms to lose weight, for instance, does this willing introduction of the parasite negate its harmful potential? And, how does the act of voluntary bloodletting change the patient’s relation to the leech, when that leech is put in service to medicine? What do the processes of regulation, invitation, and control, therefore, render? As Serres reminds us, the guest can disgrace and abuse the charity of a host. In doing so, he notes the similarities and dissonances between the invited parasite and the parasite as unwelcome intruder, which offers a nuanced sketch of how parasites and their targets renegotiate their positions when confronting one another. 

For Serres, The parasite is “next to,” it is 
“with,” it is detached from, it is not sitting on the 
thing itself, but on the relation. It has relations, as 
one says, and turns them into a system. It is always mediate and never immediate. It has a relation to 
the relation, it is related to the related, it sits on the channel.8 Of course, the host can also abuse the guest, but there can also be intermediaries who add further complexity to the field of relations. 
For example, Trisha Donnelly contributed a total of four projects to the 54th Carnegie International in 2004, including Dark Wind (2002), which periodically sent the sound of wind rustling through the galleries, and Night Is Coming (Warning) (2002), in which the omen “NIGHT IS COMING,” appeared to pulse, as it was projected onto the wall. And, in Letter to Tacitus (2004), she selected a museum guard who, dressed in an elegant suit, recited a letter (written by Donnelly) to the Roman senator, consul, and historian, Cornelius Tacitus, each day. As a far subtler contribution, Donnelly circulated unannounced among the lavish opening dinner attendees inconspicuously dressed as a waitress serving water. Donnelly’s presence was barely registered by the guests. Only curators Laura Hoptman and Liz Thomas were aware of the performance, and their collusion with the artist—that is, their withholding of information from the guests—furthers the complexity of Donnelly’s gesture, while at the same time allowing it to occur. Unlike Stromberg, Donnelly was invited into the institution, but once inside, Donnelly infiltrated the situation’s social and material relations (the class and labour dynamics of the celebratory fanfare) by embedding herself so mimetically within the opening’s context—an act akin to the artist’s invisibility in plain sight. Would many of the attendees Donnelly served have interacted differently with her had they known she was an invited artist and not a waitress? 

An Unattended Exit, An Unintended Entrance

Donnelly’s gesture shows that parasitism can be highly nuanced, but in its most traditional conception a parasite elicits an image of a forceful invader penetrating the body of the host (entering by puncturing the skin, etc.) or sneaking in through the host’s day-to-day activities (in water, waste, food, etc.). Exploiting the weakness of their targets, the parasite finds channels by which to burrow and feed, which the examples of both Stromberg and Donnelly support in an art context. Yet to best exemplify the force behind Nancy’s ideas around an invader’s intrusion, let us cite an overt intruder—an Amazonian freshwater parasitic catfish known as the candiru. Until recently, its disturbing behaviour has, for the most part, existed only in local legends and fiction. William S. Burroughs mentioned the invasive behavior of the candiru in his 1959 novel Naked Lunch, describing it as “a small eel-like fish or worm about one-quarter inch through and two inches long” that “will dart up your prick or your arsehole or a woman’s cunt faute de mieux, and hold himself there by sharp spines.”9 What makes the candiru’s tendency to invade and parasitize the human urethra so abject is that it exposes the vulnerability of our most intimate orifices.10

Ethnological reports of the candiru’s attacks on human genitals date back to the late nineteenth century, but the first documented case of the candiru parasitizing humans was only in 1997. The fish penetrated the victim’s urethra while he was standing in the river urinating, where it actually emerged from the water, travelled up the urine stream, and entered the man’s penis, filling the entire anterior urethra.11 The candiru’s agonizing operations resonate with many artistic practices that transgress borders—strategies that are useful for entering proscribed zones of exclusion, while showing how simply and economically it can be achieved. Moreover, the candiru’s manner of travelling through waste reveals how parasites operate in ecosystems more generally—their specific role in the regulation of surplus and excess. Just as the parasite itself is that which the host organism wants to expel, the candiru enters in through the organism’s system of exclusion, the surplus waste products that the host wishes to dispel. 

For historian William H. McNeill, however, it is a question of distribution. In The Human Condition (1979), he describes the history of civilization through microparasites (micro-organisms, fungi, insects, small animals like mice and rats, and other organisms that live off of humans specifically) and macroparasites (humans who feed off of the labour of others). He argues that, in the course of human development, microparasites such as pests and disease have thrived by infesting dense populations, serving as a means of population control.12 For McNeill, the development and circulation of microparasites and macroparasites served not only to regulate and exploit surplus, but remain, in fact, the primary motivation behind clashes of civilization.13 The parasite’s actions are, thus, seen through a classic economic model of scarcity—that is, parasitism follows a predatory model where organisms vie for limited resources. Surplus appears through the unequal distribution of biomass, and parasites serve to balance ecosystems over time through homeostasis.

But to understand the parasite’s behaviour, it may be more beneficial to move from the idea of a “restrictive” economy of scarcity, as McNeill proposes, to a “general economy” of surplus, as Georges Bataille attempts in The Accursed Share (1949). For Bataille, the infinite outpouring of solar energy and its movement through the chemical processes of organisms creates a superabundance of energy that must be expended. Unlike predators, parasites do not play into a simple food chain of carbon distribution but extract the excesses produced by these processes. For Bataille, “If the excess cannot be completely absorbed in growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.”14

The “accursed share” is that excessive and non-recuperable part of any economy that is destined to one of two modes of economic and social waste: it is either spent through spectacle, luxury, or the arts; or in the destructive acts of war and sacrifice. A parasite and its host are always at war. Like McNeill, Bataille sees war as a parasitical act, one that is meant not to gain energy, but to expend energy and eradicate surplus. Luxury, and especially art’s extraneous and ostensibly non-productive expense, is not grounded in use but in a production of consumption. A society’s nature is shaped by its use of this excess: how it expends, unloads, squanders, discharges, or defecates surplus in various ways. Bataille believed that in order to undermine the operations of restrictive economies, one must enter through a general economy of abundance, uselessness, and excess. Just as the candiru exploits its host’s waste as a means of entry, parasitical artists use whatever technical systems or apparatuses they can find to enter into their targets’ bodies through excesses, drawing on the hosts’ output, energy supplies, and cycles. As Seth Price attests, “Production, after all, is the excretory phase in a process of appropriation.”15


An intruder disrupted the neat numerical order implied by the title of the historic 9 at Leo Castelli (1968), as well as the exhibition itself. On display at Castelli’s warehouse,16 the exhibition was organized by artist Robert Morris and was to include works by artists Giovanni Anselmo, William Bollinger, Eva Hesse, Stephen Kaltenbach, Bruce Nauman, Alan Saret, Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, and Gilberto Zorio. Although barely documented, 9 at Leo Castelli was an important moment in the history of exhibitions and the development of anti-form, particularly for the way the raw condition of the site influenced the arrangement and composition of the works on display. Yet while the exhibition officially included the works of only seven artists (as the works of Giovanni Anselmo and Gilberto Zorio were not delivered in time),17 the artist Rafael Ferrer also participated, uninvited, by filling a stairwell with fallen leaves during the exhibition’s opening.

Although Ferrer knew Morris, he remained an artist outside the show. Ferrer asked his students to deposit the leaves quickly and without fanfare. Arriving first at Leo Castelli Gallery, two of Ferrer’s students poured four bags of leaves into a mound on the gallery floor, within an exhibition of paintings by Cy Twombly. They then proceeded uptown to the warehouse, where they filled a staircase with the remaining leaves they had brought. By inserting his own work into these spaces, Ferrer tapped not only the context of the exhibition itself and his exclusion from it, but also the spotlight exhibitions afford, simultaneously bringing more attention to his practice in return. To return to Bataille, perhaps the abundance of leaves in Ferrer’s gesture serves as a sign of excessive energy accumulated, used up, and discarded by an organism, and Ferrer’s delivery of the leaves, referential as they are, constitutes an addendum to the display of “anti-form” works, while perhaps implicitly mocking the phenomenon that such impoverished and base materials could be re-appropriated for economic and symbolic surplus. 

Parasitical Mobility
Like Ferrer, Polish Romanian artist Andre Cadere is also known for inserting his own work into other artists’ exhibitions, often uninvited. Yet whereas Ferrer brought everyday, essentially unaltered leaves inside the white cube, Cadere brought art objects, crafted by hand inside his studio, outside and into public, or inside another artist’s exhibition. With these objects, Cadere eschewed the slick fabrications and phenomenological aims of Minimalism and also, as Astrid Ihle writes, “the hegemony of the Ecole de Paris and of the avant-garde movements of Nouveau Realisme and Op Art.”18 Cadere’s objects were portable and could be displayed in any conditions or context. They did not need a prescribed gallery space to exist; Cadere authorized his objects to exist as artworks regardless of context.

Cadere’s public work sometimes took the form of serial colours, spray painted on walls or curbs, but he is best known for presenting Barres de bois rond—cylindrical, wooden rods of different lengths, circumferences, and weights. The Barres display varying chromatic patterns according to a system of Cadere’s design, which contains an error that intentionally obscures that system.19 But these physical objects were only part of his practice. For Cadere, galleries were not sites of display, but “systems of power” to be subverted. His exhibitions, therefore, took place wherever, whenever, and however he wanted them to occur—announced or not, indoors or out.20 Cadere stated, “My art is the situation of my work in the art world.”21

Mark Godfrey writes that “Cadere was one of the first artists to realize that objects were inseparable from market and institutional contexts: half of his focus was on the systems of distribution in the art world.”22 Eventually, Cadere’s presence became a common and well-known occurrence, one that was not always appreciated. Daniel Birnbaum relays that during a 1973 opening...Cadere anticipated that he would be prevented from bringing a large barre into the gallery and so [he] hid a very small second rod in his pocket. Cadere fought his host’s attempts to expel his presence; after being denied entry with the larger work, he smuggled in this miniature parasite instead, and a tiny striped rod soon appeared on the gallery floor23 Birnbaum’s use of the word “parasite” is fitting (a term also used by Astrid Ihle24), as Cadere’s Barres not only became a symbol of his contention with the gallery systems he entered, but also one of transgression or trespass, navigating around those who would attempt to block his access.

By the mid 1970s, Cadere was increasingly invited to exhibit his objects, which changed his status within the system he occupied.25 When Harald Szeemann invited him to participate in documenta 5,26 however, it was under the condition that Cadere must arrive in Kassel on foot, with Barre in hand. Cadere instead faked the voyage through a series of postcards entitled Marcheur de Cassel (The Kassel Wanderer), and later announcing he would arrive by train, which led to Szeemann’s irate exclusion of the artist. Cadere, of course, showed up anyway; disinvited by the curator, his presence and that of his object became all the more parasitical. The artist’s uninvited self-insertion into the gallery exploited, like that of Ferrer, the fact that in order for galleries to exist, they must be both private and open to the public.

Appearances / Embodiments

An alien in an alienated world, a parasite seeks out its place by relating itself to others and immersing itself in systems. The regulated and formalized operations of exhibitions serve as both metonyms and exaggerations of political, cultural, or social arrangements as a whole, and, accordingly, subversion inside and outside of such domains unveils the tenuous ideological boundaries and functions of exhibitions. Just as Ferrer and Cadere execute both critical gestures and acts of wanting to belong and participate by invading such sites, the Italian-born Swiss artist Gianni Motti often enters into generic scenarios outside the confines of art—including public events, political proceedings, and mass media—whereas Motti’s structural analysis of his hosts allows him to place himself into the world in unpredictable ways. In 1995, for example, Motti emerged on a professional soccer field alongside players, warmed up with the athletes, and took a seat on one of the team’s substitute benches. Entitled Ala Sinistra, La Maladière Stadium, Neuchâtel, National A League football match (1995), Motti’s almost unnoticed parasitical action was witnessed by several thousand spectators and recorded by television and newspaper cameras.27 Like the contained exhibitions that Ferrer and Cadere entered, the soccer field is a delineated zone for a limited group of approved agents to act according to certain rules. By simply appearing, Motti broke both the rules of who may appear and the sovereignty of that particular domain. The soccer field is shown as an ideological space, one where the invisible actions of a subversive artist or the spectacle of a crazed fan breaks down the system. Enacting the desire of the audience to identify with the players, Motti resists the limitations of specialization and undermines the integrity of the game. 

More activist than prankster, Motti infiltrates systems and seizes opportunities when they appear. In 1997, while attending the 53rd Session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Motti noticed a vacant seat reserved for Indonesia’s delegate and replaced the absent representative, voting alongside the attending commission members.28 When the time came to vote on the 48th resolution concerning ethnic minorities, Motti rose and made a speech on ethnic division, aesthetics, and human rights. Representatives of Indigenous Americans and other marginalized ethnic groups all rallied to the words of the “Indonesian delegate” and walked out of the assembly in solidarity with Motti’s position. 

Motti infiltrates a host and takes responsibility for actions not taking place in the social body, introducing ideas previously excluded from the conversation.29 Unlike the gallery system Cadere railed against and Ferrer trespassed into, the primary audiences for Motti’s interventions are completely unsuspecting spectators and agents, rendering the artist either invisible or hypervisible (as he both follows and undermines the given protocols of participation) by making a statement to an audience that does not expect one.30

In his quest for recognition and dispersal, Motti constructs his own self-identity by proxy, using events and their mediation as a network in which to place himself.31 Over the course of a week in 2000, the more sensitive readers of the Swiss daily newspaper Neue Luzerner Zeitung began to notice a surreptitious and unknown figure appearing in images accompanying the articles. In one report with the headline “Eine Flugreise In Die Bunten 60er-Jahre” (A Flight Through the Colourful ’60s), Motti appears entering a domicile through a door directly behind a woman posing on period furniture. In another article, headlined “Der Restaurator Im Ständeratssaal” (Restorer in the Senate Hall), two people admire and point to a wall fresco with Motti beside them, looking curiously at the images. While in most of the reports Motti barges into the scene at the exact moment the camera flashes, the image accompanying an article on a teacher’s meeting features Motti sitting alongside the participants in an act of solidarity. Motti’s seemingly random, though in reality highly calculated, appearance in these images was both a form of anonymous promotion and the introduction of a tangential narrative. As a witness to the events pictured rather than a maker of news, Motti’s position in the newspaper constituted a tertiary position, which the artist occupied as silent corroborator, a bystander. Moreover, by irritating the readership by offering an unsubstantiated pattern of appearance for an unnecessary character, Motti was subsequently featured in other newspapers for his actions, expanding his influence further, proliferating to infect other hosts.32

Other Embeddings

With the Mythic Being series (1972–75), Adrian Piper inhabited social conventions, city streets, and, like Motti, the newspaper, as sites for disseminating the appearance and actions of her male alter ego, the “Mythic Being,” into the public sphere. This histrionic caricature of a young black or Latino male appeared mustached and afroed, smoked, wore shades, and exuded an aggressive masculine persona, interrupting and exaggerating deep-seated yet unacknowledged fears and stereotypes of young minority men. Just as we are all constantly at odds with our personal identifications and the learned, indoctrinated regimes in which we operate, Piper stages identity as a parasite, foreign to the host she occupies; she is both within and outside the culture to which she has been made to inhabit, and both within and outside herself. However, Piper’s adoption of various personae affords her a parasitical means of inhabiting other perspectives, however disingenuously.33 Like Cadere’s propensity for public display, Piper’s character would appear in both “culture-related locales” (galleries, openings, concerts, etc.) and on the streets or on public transportation.34 Piper’s actions were obliquely complimented by the Mythic Being’s concurrent appearance within sixteen single-panel works, published as advertisements in the Village Voice almost monthly between 1973 and 1975.35 Each included the same image of the Mythic Being and a thought bubble containing different, brief, dated passages culled from Piper’s personal diary.36 Publicizing her private thoughts, these phrases were treated as “mantras” by the artist by which she disassociated her voice and anxieties through an inverted double. As Piper describes it: “the experience of the Mythic Being thus becomes part of the public history and is no longer a part of my own.”37

Though Piper herself was quite well known at the time of Mythic Being, her gesture spoke to the exclusion and conditional representation of minority and women artists. Working around the same time, Robyn Whitlaw used her relative invisibility as a black woman to traverse and hide behind the noise of culture and politics through her In-Visibility Project (1973–78). During this time, Whitlaw exaggerated her own professional obscurity by sending simple invitations for a number of her own secret exhibitions after they had closed. Whereas in the 1970s many conceptual artists were using the exhibition invitation as a site for both their work and enhanced promotion, Whitlaw questioned the “publicness” of publicity and the self-aggrandizement of artists by distorting both temporality and the art establishment’s customary use of advertising procedures. A comment on the systemic neglect of non-white and women artists, Whitlaw’s project was based on her concept of the “secret artist” (an incorporation of secret agent behaviour and Watergate-era deception and secrecy). Realizing the role invisibility played in the manipulation of power, she used clandestine strategies to invade zones from which she was prohibited and revealed how such prohibitions were generated ideologically and reproduced. Using a system of authentication to certify the existence of her work and its pre-emptive dismissal, her project’s power lies in its absurdity, existing outside the market system’s logic and expectations. 

Each of these artists use invisibility to accentuate the roles visibility and invisibility play in the proliferation and reproduction of power, entering into systems by either being too visible (hiding “behind the noise and to-do of the devout,”38 to use Serres’s words) or cloaked in incomprehensibility. Theirs is a game of penetrating and exposing the intersubjective negotiation between individual and society, interrupting the system’s regime of exclusion by swimming up the stream. By forcing themselves into the host, they make their own presence known and show their targeted systems as “the location relative to which the included and the excluded will define themselves.”39

Parasitical Implications / Complicity

A parasitical gesture sharing a certain visceral quality with the candiru is an ethically complex project called El Préstamo (The Loan) (2000) by Guatemalan artist Aníbal Lopez (a.k.a. A-1 53167).40 Lopez robbed an unsuspecting passerby in Guatemala City at gunpoint and used the pillaged money to fund an exhibition at Contexto space.41 Thus the victim was unwillingly turned into a patron, funding the invitations, installation, and costs associated with the exhibition’s opening reception, implicating the spectators and exhibition space as accomplices in the crime. 

Lopez communicated the robbery, as event, to viewers by means of a poster that summarized what transpired and his motivations for committing the act. It also notified the audience that the liquor and food they were enjoying was courtesy of that crime. With only the poster as evidence, one can only speculate about whether or not the heist actually occurred, and those in attendance were forced either to disregard or to acknowledge and accept the professed offense responsible for the exhibition’s manifestation.42 Anyone who has been mugged will surely attest that there is a profound ethical and experiential difference between an actual and fictional robbery. Regardless, as viewers cannot independently verify it, the affect of the robbery is palpable whether the action happened or not.43

With El Préstamo, an unequal relation between each party involved in the work (artist, victim, witness, audience) exists, and Lopez traverses this chain of asymmetrical exchanges and induces a volte-face in regards to the funding of the artist—taking a system in which the artist seems to be vulnerable to the whims of foundations, collectors, and governments and making society itself vulnerable to the artist.44 Each subject position in the act is taking without giving, complicit in the field of relations.45 In taking money from a victim, who the artist rendered a patron, Lopez demonstrates the degree to which Serres’s assertion that “exchange is always dangerous” can be true, and that the “gift is always a forfeit.”46 In this conceptualization, all exchange is predicated on abusive relations, exploitation, and unequal balances. Serres explains this idea by replacing Marx’s concepts of “use value” and “exchange value” with the term “abuse value,” which he defines as “complete, irrevocable consummation” that only works in “one direction.”47 Abuse value “precedes use- and exchange-value,” according to Serres, because “exchange is always weighed, measured, calculated, taking into account a relation without exchange, an abusive relation.”48

II. Cymothoa Exigua 
(The Tongue-Eating Louse)

Consider the odd crustacean parasite known as Cymothoa exigua, the tongue-eating louse. Entering through a fish’s gills, this parasite attaches itself at the base of the fish’s tongue. Extracting blood, the parasite causes the fish’s tongue to atrophy from lack of blood, allowing the parasite to attach its own body to the muscles of the fish’s tongue stub and effectively replace its host’s tongue. While the inhabited fish continues to use its tongue as before, the fish tongue—now embodied by the parasite—is no longer a tongue exactly, but a functional prosthesis and a hybrid organism. That the tongue specifically is the site of this struggle—and is also a key muscle of human speech—has symbolic significance when considering the many discursive and informational modes of parasitical practice, as does the verb form of the word “louse,” which tellingly means to ruin or spoil.

A tongue-eating louse presents a model for the possibilities and problems raised when an artist appropriates the figurative “tongue,” or voice, of a targeted institution. It also introduces heightened potential for parasitical artists to be instrumentalized by the institution—used, in reverse, as the mouthpiece of its target, and thus reduced to yet another vehicle for the language and operations of the host (whether a big fish or a small fish). Fish cannot speak as humans do, of course, but by anthropomorphizing the fish’s tongue, the operations of Cymothoa exigua yields questions concerning the codes and formats of institutional address, the role of parasitical noise in communication, and the interconnected relationship between the host and parasite.

For theorists like Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser,49 the voice is an object of interpellation by which the subject is entered into the signifying order and positioned according to the determinations of ideologies. The tongue can therefore be seen as a vehicle for authoritative hailing. The voice of the institution beckons its public and, in doing so, simultaneously brings that public’s existence into being—reproducing the ideological network of policies, tastes, positions, and actions to which one must subscribe as a constituent. These claims are circulated by an institution’s internal agents through a variety of structures; in art such forms range from press releases, publications, wall texts, and other didactic materials to events and educational activities, as well as the normative curatorial processes of including, excluding, and arranging objects within exhibitions.

Reversed Lip-synching
Just before Stromberg began his illusionistic inhabitation of MoMA, there was a clear appropriation of the institution’s voice in Whitlaw’s Monument to the Unknown Artist (1968). Through this work, a subversive gallery tour through MoMA, Whitlaw drew connections between the struggle for recognition in the artistic canon and the violence of the Vietnam War, “cleverly recontexualiz[ing] culture itself as a battleground strewn with casualties.”50 By covertly replacing the customary audio guide tapes available for MoMA visitors with a revisionist rereading of MoMA’s galleries, she accentuated the absence of work by “unknown artists,” primarily African Americans and women.51 By verbally deconstructing the established meaning of the works on display and asserting that the works played to elitist ideological desires, Whitlaw’s substitution articulated a message counter to the voice of the institution, parasitically appropriating her host’s mode of address to both expose and derail the function of that one-way system of communication from art institution to audience.

Like Stromberg’s photographs, Whitlaw’s tapes were uninvited irritations to the gallery. Security officers eventually found and destroyed the tapes, presumably because ventriloquizing the institution compromised the authority of the museum, effectively overriding the official code such that “one tongue invades another.”52 Just as Lacan and Althusser describe the subject’s anxiety that the voice coming from one’s mouth is not one’s own (but rather that of the ideological state apparatus), such gestures of inhabiting the tongue frustrates power positions and exposes the tenuous authority of the institution’s language. Inhabiting the tongue makes clear to the host not only that its own voice can be appropriated, but also that its authoritative communication is not objective nor indifferent, but rather constituted by ideological decisions by specific actors. 

Critical Echolocation

While Stromberg and Whitlaw each entered their voices into an institutional frame, the institution’s voice can also be replaced when it exits the space of the museum or gallery. For example, rather than locate its intervention at the source of institutional communication, the British artist collective BANK intercepted and redirected outgoing messages within the communicative channels of several hosts, specifically press releases from commercial galleries. Formed in 1991, BANK spent nearly a decade presenting similar, critical parodies of the art market through a variety of means, including the adoption of pseudo-corporate identities.53 In BANK’s FAX BAK project (started in 1998) and the related Press Release exhibitions (first shown in 1999 at Gallerie Poo Poo, London), BANK collected and edited publicity materials issued by galleries, commenting on the grammar, content, tone, form, and style of the texts directly onto the press releases in circulation at a given time. BANK then faxed the documents its members altered back to the galleries that issued them, and later exhibited these documents as works.54 The attention paid to these generally one-way streams of information was redirected in almost real-time, away from the abstracted subjects to which they referred and back in on their points of origin, stimulating reflections on not only the significance of the press releases, but of the artists, institutions, and discourses involved. BANK’s parasitical methodology sabotaged the institution’s rhetoric by mirroring its voice and occupying its physical circuits of transmission. Ultimately, BANK’s interventions showed press releases to be inflated advertisements masquerading as critical commentary and contextualization. Strategically, BANK’s position as a collective limited any individual’s liability for the group’s actions, thereby diluting any potential for recourse.55 This echoes corporate structure, suggesting another parasitical inhabitation—that of the shielding properties of incorporation. 

BANK’s détournement of press releases was effective, forcing galleries to rethink the language they employed and the curatorial and programmatic choices they made, as well as the images they projected, their graphic identities, and so on. BANK challenged the authority of the institutions, as well as the larger system in which they operate, by seizing the tongue from which they speak to change the conversation. BANK’s parasitic inhabitation affirms Barthes’s rhetorical question: “Does the best of subversions consist in disfiguring codes, not in destroying them?”56 By locating its work within its hosts’ press releases, BANK detaches the format from its parasitical dependence on another and shows the mechanism of dissemination as the primary material, site, and receptacle for events and ideas. The parasitic press release becomes a host for another order of parasites that enters through and appropriates the domain for counter messaging.

A Slower, Parallel Stream

Today, discursive and promotional channels are often confused as equivalent means of mediation. Some forty years after the introduction of conceptual art strategies, press releases do sometimes operate as the primary site for the work’s dissemination in a globalized arena where it is possible to find out about almost everything but impossible to know and see everything in its entirety.57 Nearly ten years after FAX BAK, the American duo Dexter Sinister engaged in a similar form of parasitical practice when they were invited to participate in the 2008 Whitney Biennial. Whereas BANK used the press release as material and site, for Dexter Sinister the press release offered more of a “frame of reference” and a specific institutional mode of circulation as opposed to a specific generic structure.

Collaboratively, Dexter Sinister produced and released a rich cache of documents from the Commander’s Room at the 7th Regiment Armory (the offsite mirror of the museum where most of the biennial’s programming took place). In this context, Dexter Sinister’s “press releases” took the form of general press releases, logos, re-typeset versions of texts, essays, archival documents and memos, email exchanges, a loose chapter of a novel, re-released magazine articles, book releases, and much more.58 They also created an alternative audio guide for navigating the Whitney Biennial, much like Whitlaw did at MoMA. Whereas BANK intercepted official communications, altered them, and then rerouted them back to their sources, Dexter Sinister joined the publicity office for the biennial, releasing information in parallel with and in the same channels as their host, yet distributing a very different stream of information designed to expand and slow, rather than contract and expedite, the superficial conclusions the biennial usually disperses through these channels for reasons of accessibility, brevity, and time. 

Unlike BANK’s FAX BAK, Dexter Sinister did not launch “a direct critique against the institution, or anyone else—at least not primarily or directly,”59 but instead introduced “forms of communication and noise” in order to examine “the ways in which information is released and distributed.”60 Looking back to artist Hans Haacke’s well-known Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971), we see an artist invited to exhibit his work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, only to have that invitation terminated because of the implications of that work. Haacke, in examining the real-estate business of Harry Shapolsky over a twenty-year period, revealed ties between Shapolsky and the museum’s trustees. Whereas Haacke was invited into the museum but soon became an overtly critical irritant in that space—in other words, a guest turned intruder—Dexter Sinister’s response to their host was far less intentionally antagonistic. They forced a slowness of reception and a plurality of information, which are, of course, antithetical to what marketing channels generally achieve. Turning again to Serres: “his parasites are eating him up, and their noise covers his voice.”61

Serres has observed that the French word parasite translates to “static,” and the parasite-as-static is in fact a paramount model for the parasite’s intercession into the exchange of information. Both Dexter Sinister’s and BANK’s projects introduce a certain level of noise into the transmissions they hijack, but their productive ends show noise to be a necessary artifact to any form of communication. There is a direct correlation between the intensity of activity on the channel and the communication of the message, between noise and information, between parasitism and functionality.

Resembling the Tongue

The American artist group the Yes Men parasite specific forms of address and assume the semblances of other entities, which grants them access to sites or contexts that are otherwise inaccessible, such as television programs, closed-door conventions, and other speaking engagements. Yet while they are officially invited to speak, they do so in disguise as their confused hosts are not aware of who it is they are actually inviting. Whereas BANK intervened in the communications of others, the Yes Men actually communicate as others: they pose as particular people or invent representatives of existing companies. Whereas Dexter Sinister introduced a parallel stream of information into and beside an authoritative institutional stream, the Yes Men, camouflaged, become an institution’s mouthpiece.

In fact, the Yes Men’s Andy Bichlbaum posed as a spokesman of Dow Chemical named Jude Finisterra on BBC World TV in 2004, on the twentieth anniversary of the 1984 Union Carbide chemical spill in Bhopal, India. As Finisterra, Bichlbaum announced that Dow Chemical, the company that took over Union Carbide in 2001, was finally taking full responsibility for the disaster, in which at least twenty thousand people died and thousands more were made sick. Putting this landmark announcement into perspective, Bichlbaum explained this was “the first time in history that a publicly owned company of anything near the size of Dow has performed an action which is significantly against its bottom line simply because it is the right thing to do.” Dow Chemical stock lost value temporarily, and surely many victims were disheartened after BBC World TV later notified viewers of the hoax, but, as Carrie Lambert-Beatty writes: “For those two hours, the world believed that there would be something like justice in Bhopal; for that time, there existed a different model for corporate decision-making, an ethical as well as financial bottom line.”62

Just as Motti, through the spectacle of the media apparatus, took responsibility for horrible disasters and inhabited the voice of the absent Indonesian delegate to claim responsibility when it was not being taken, the Yes Men stand in for their hosts, making them accountable, speaking for them, as them, because the hosts refuse to do so. The Yes Men’s uncanny ability to transform—with the aid of a business suit—into the semblance of their host, ostensibly becoming the host’s representative, is a type of ventriloquism that forces the host to enunciate against its will, or even without its knowledge. 

A Silent Tongue

To parasite a channel of authoritative communication is not only to make visible the falseness of an institution’s voice, but also to show that these contrived pathways have real-world effects. As arbitrary as an institution’s voice may seem, the symbolic pronouncements articulated in bureaucratic documents regulate the movements, behaviour, and self-identification of subjects. The power granted in law to certain actors makes their decisions inviolable, and therefore the approval of the state is necessary for a subject’s self-constitution (let us not forget the experience of people “without papers,” who, in their exclusion from the system, are therefore illegal and thus rendered invisible and silent, though this invisibility can also be a form of agency).63

In the flow of detached bureaucratic exchange there are often hiccups or mistakes that defer the normal passage of information through the appropriate channels to open up a space for artists to enter, where proclaimed impartiality can force the state to unknowingly accept false claims. For instance, the Vietnamese Danish artist Danh Vo has a curious ongoing project through which he constructs the life story of a fictional son by way of bureaucratic recognition.64 In this work, a fictitious birth certificate begets a chain of events and procedures that constitute the experience of the absent son, presumably terminating with an official death certificate. In relation to Vo, the documents he collects and appropriates express, through an official tongue, the determination of people’s movements and actions and are codifications and traces of such transactions. Thus, a child exists because the documents say so.65 By using the language and formats of official documents, Vo is subversively playing with what John Searle refers to as the institution’s “status indicators”—“policeman’s uniforms, wedding rings, marriage certificates, driver’s licenses, passports, etc.”66—that serve as markers of power, permission, obligation, and authorization.

Ana Teixeira Pinto observes in Vo’s work that “in the staged clash between bureaucracy and biography, the dismaying outcome is not that bureaucracy might impair biography but that biography is an effect of bureaucracy.”67 Vo himself has conjectured that his strategies and creative negotiation of social apparatuses may be an outgrowth of his experience as an immigrant, perhaps similar to the way in which Cadere viewed himself as a marginalized outsider for being part Romanian.68 Nevertheless, Vo’s work shows that constraining systems can be and are often undermined, but also that these codes are social and historical constructions. 

There’s a similar sentiment in Kristin Lucas’s Refresh (2007). On October 5, 2007, the artist officially changed her name from Kristin Sue Lucas to Kristin Sue Lucas in the Superior Court of California in Oakland. Trading in her name for the exact same name, the artist asserted that she wanted to “refresh” her identity as though she were a Web page.69 Divorcing the particularity of the name from the body, even temporarily, questions the construction of subjectivity in relationship to formal measures and therefore demonstrates the contingency and artificiality of identity. Lucas petitioned the court for a name change in the standard procedure, and after some deliberation, it was eventually granted.

Lucas put statutory procedure into a feedback loop, forcing administrators into a double take of the system they invest in and maintain.70 Her deference to the legal system “is both crediting the government with more power than it actually has, and tacitly raising the question of whether, in fact, the judge has the authority to grant a new lease on life.”71 Lucas entered, irritated, and provoked the mouthpiece of the institution to question its own regimes philosophically and, in doing so, forced the court’s voice, the judge, to not only acknowledge her, but to accept her existential change. In its noisy obstruction, the parasite reinvents the host, becoming an integral part in the system by forcing it to reorient whatever message the host transmits. 

III. Toxoplasma Gondii

It is perhaps that we, like everything else, are parasites. On parasitism John Brown writes: “Nature is not without a parallel strongly suggestive of our social perversions of justice, and the comparison is not without its lessons.”72 Indeed, parasites operate with a brutality on par with humans, a brutality well beyond the violence of Lopez’s previously mentioned robbery. On a certain level, separating ourselves from parasites is as futile as distinguishing the “built environment” from “the natural world.” 

For instance, Brown notes that the ichneumon fly is parasitic in the living bodies of caterpillars and the larvae of other insects. With cruel cunning and ingenuity surpassed only by man, this depraved and unprincipled insect perforates the struggling caterpillar, and deposits her eggs in the living, writhing body of her victim.73 Of course, Brown is using hyperbole, but if we read him literally, his statements unfairly anthropomorphize and moralize the behaviour of parasites, citing the “innate cruelty” with which they “eat their way into the living substance of their unwilling but helpless host, avoiding all the vital parts to prolong the agony of a lingering death.”74 Every living thing takes, at some point, without giving back. And every living thing is infested with parasites, which further contain their own unique species of parasites; as each parasite has its own parasites, parasites make up the majority of life on earth.75 Parasites are catalysts in evolution, their adaptability to the conditions of their hosts forces the hosts to transform. The same can be said for artists working parasitically.

Deconstructing the notion of the parasite by reversing and breaking down the fictitious opposition of “host/parasite,” Jacques Derrida and J. Hillis Miller each unmasks the paradoxical etymology of “guest” and “host” (where parasite implies a host, and guest, host, hospitality, and hostility, all derive from the same root, the French hôte).76 For both writers, parasites undermine the integrity of social, symbolic, and linguistic systems by elaborating endless chains of dependence, citation, and influence—the various ways ideas, ideologies, and institutions host contradictory concepts they’d prefer to exclude. The host’s hospitality toward the guest is contingent upon the host being, first, a guest in its own domain, with each position dependent on one’s acknowledgment or exclusion of the other’s right to be there. Their mutual determination illustrates the impossibility of sustaining the host position as a controlling subject on which the principle of hospitality is based. When brought to bear upon the formations of social systems and particularly art institutions, theories that stress the interrelation and interchange between parasite and host offer a nuanced way of thinking through interventionist strategies. 

Let’s return again to Whitlaw. Curiously enough, she makes an appearance in Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles (2004), where he tells the story of meeting the “outlaw artist” at a dinner party. After describing her as walking “in a motion like a slow dance,” the singer/songwriter recounts asking Whitlaw, “What’s happening?” Her response, in true parasitical fashion: “I’m here to eat the big dinner.”77 An unwelcome guest that gobbles the surplus of her host, Whitlaw positions herself as a social parasite. As Serres reminds us: “To be a parasite means: to eat at somebody else’s table.”78 The host and the parasite share the food at the table, but the host is also the food, “his substance consumed without recompense, as when one says, ‘He is eating me out of house and home.’”79 The intruder arrives as an affront to the host’s home (hostility); the gracious host welcomes the parasite in (hospitality). She takes from the table and gives nothing in return. In this way, hospitality begets hostility and vice versa.80 Extracting surplus from the host and exploiting the hospitality on offer, Whitaw was at the dinner not only to procure sustenance parasitically, but also to interrupt the structure of affairs where manners govern behaviour, reversing the hierarchy of inviter/invited by making visible an unsaid and corrupt social contract.

If everything is always already parasitical, then why is it that when artists work parasitically they are able to achieve perceptible results? What is it about the conditions of art practice and institutions today that compel artists turn to such a strategy? Let’s look once more to biological parasites for guidance. After all, it could be that, for all of their creative and industrious trespass and transgressions, the most gifted and effective parasites are those that possess the ability to make their hosts come to them. Where the candiru locates an opening and enters through its potential host’s waste, other parasites operate with an even more complex mode of infection. One such parasite is the single-celled parasitic protozoan Toxoplasma gondii. While Cymothua exigua’s manner of replacing its host’s tongue with itself demonstrates an impressive mimetic corporality, Toxoplasma actually manipulates the functions, even the minds, of its host, forcing it to act counter to its own self-interest. Toxoplasma replaces the mind from within and, in a way, remotely. Like parasites that inhabit intermediate organisms in order to enter another, more desirable host down the line, Toxoplasma rides a chain of mammalian and avian interactions in order to enter its preferred host: the cat. 

Sexually reproducing in the belly of felines, Toxoplasma spreads through processes of digestion and defecation. When prey, such as a rat, comes into contact with the predator’s feces (or contaminated soil, water, or meat), it picks up the parasite, which alters the behaviour of the infected, reducing its ingrained cautionary fear of cat waste, and causes it to become more likely to be captured by its predators. When the cat eats the rat, the cat ingests the parasite as well—Toxoplasma has thus completed one cycle, and the process may begin again. The cat becomes a machine for the production of parasites, as well as a channel for their dissemination (defecating them on one end, re-ingesting them at the other). 

Some parasites can only survive in specific hosts, but Toxoplasma is astonishingly versatile; it is able to live in thousands of species—including humans, with over half of the global population playing host. In most humans, the parasite remains dormant, forming a silent pact with its intermediate host by symbiotically sharing space with the body’s defenses.81 Recent studies have found, however, that even the quiescent Toxoplasma may affect human behaviour, connecting its prevalence to everything from schizophrenia, to increased risk-taking and aggression, to cultural differences.82 In terms of cultural production, Toxoplasma can be related to artist Joe Scanlan’s statement that “success is not a matter of status, but of circulation.”83 Its distribution is almost incomprehensibly widespread.

Appropriating Appropriation

In its host’s house, a parasite must be humble and quiet, for being too visible can be fatal. Consider once more Whitlaw’s stealthy chicanery. In 1984, while the “Pictures Generation” of artists was reaching a pinnacle of success, Whitlaw was apprehended while breaking into the house of a New York dealer who represented many well-regarded artists who use the strategy of appropriation in their own production. Ralph Rugoff explains that “during a pre-trial hearing, Whitlaw maintained that if theft could be art—at least in the hands of appropriation artists—then her action, and those of thousands of other thieves, should likewise be judged by aesthetic, rather than penal, codes.”84

Whitlaw’s gesture charts a chain of exploitive relations, calling each actor involved a parasite. Attempting to appropriate from the proprietor of artists who appropriate, Whitlaw’s project can be seen as appropriately illustrating Serres’s assertion that “the parasite parasitizes the parasites.”85 If other artists could benefit from the theft of cultural signs, objects, and images, then surely Whitlaw could continue this chain of colonization, extending the logic of exploitation back to the things themselves. As the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously wrote in 1840: “Property is theft!”86 The individual expropriation of goods replicates the general appropriation of labour and resources in capitalism. If artists, dealers, and collectors could benefit from the theft of cultural signs, objects, and images, then surely Whitlaw could continue this chain of colonization, extending the logic of exploitation back to the things themselves.87

For Serres, humans are the parasites of parasites, the grand parasites of all nature. He asks, “What does man give to the cow, to the tree, to the steer, who give him milk, warmth, shelter, work, and food? What does he give? Death.”88 As Marcel Mauss, Bataille, Miller, and many others have attested, the gift always comes with a reciprocal obligation, an unequal exchange that never finds a balance and serves the interests of the giver as much as the receiver.89 But traditionally an artist becomes an unwelcome guest when they abuse the hospitality of his or her host, turning malicious or critical intentions onto the institution itself. The artist remains at an impasse located between the false distinctions of opposition and complicity, still adhering to a dependency on the very institutions that critical practitioners have sought to circumvent since the ’60s.

The mutualistic parasitism that emerges from Serres’s idea of dinner guests suggests another, more homeopathic possibility. Perhaps the host itself needs the parasite, just as our bodies need bacteria and other organisms to maintain homeostasis. The host uses the parasite to regenerate and invigorate, inviting criticism in order to question, develop, and reify its status.90 This “impulse [for an institution] to criticize itself from within, to question its institutionalization,” is not a defensive strategy, but is, as Benjamin Buchloh describes, one of the “essential features of modernism.”91 One can see the evolution of “institutional critique” in the recent curatorial trend towards “New Institutionalism,” which instrumentalizes certain forms of critical practice by inviting it in placidly. Still, there are cases in which artists, aware of the shared benefits for both the artist and the institution, inhabit that mutualism, subverting the exchange to disrupt and expose it for what it is, but in doing so, also show that such mutualism does not entirely sap the potential it generates. 

A Parasitical Precipice

In the spring of 2000, the Viennese artist collective GELITIN and fourteen other artists were invited to share an official studio residency on the ninety-first floor of one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. GELITIN’s contribution was a “club house” made of cardboard, which concealed the group’s activities from their hosts and the other residents.92 Using this privacy productively, the four members of the collective realized a project entitled B-Thing (2000). Undetected, the group removed a window and replaced it with a cantilevered balcony of their own construction. A group member stood upon the platform for almost ten minutes and was photographed from an orbiting helicopter flying a small clique of in-the-know collectors and dealers as observing participants in the project. 

GELITIN immediately dismantled its contraption and the project thus unfolded without incident.93 Still, while the group’s intervention shares some resemblance to those discussed in the Candiru section for the way in which access is gained through subversively exploiting a weakness in the autonomy of the host’s system, B-Thing is slightly different. Without the building, the balcony would fall. However, it also seems to suggest that in order for the institution to remain a unified body, it must have a parasite, an internal difference, which forces the host to reorient and defend its boundaries. Such intersubjective negotiation shows that the parasite is never simply external to its host, but rather engaged in a reciprocal exchange where not only does the parasite “come to live off the life of the body in which it resides,” but “the host incorporates the parasite to an extent, willy-nilly offering it hospitality: providing it with a place.”94 The parasite then “takes place”; it ruptures the sovereignty of the host’s domain, turning the host’s hospitality to hostility by confusing and occupying the space between outside and inside. Previously whole constructions are shown to be heterogeneous, operating less as a destructive move, and more as a supplementary displacement, a shift in the site’s regularized operations.

This dilemma between complicity and critique is even more pronounced in art institutions. Since at least the ’60s, practices variously described as “political art,” “interventionism,” or “institutional critique” have reproduced the figure of the artist as an antagonistic, parasitic force that attacks the stable object of “the institution,” either divulging the institution’s latent and manifest ideological and political intentions, or seeking to eradicate the space entirely. As the tongue-eating louse’s predicament attests, co-optation may be inevitable for such attempts and might therefore be seen as superficial gestures lacking critical potential. For Andrea Fraser, such gestures are “victim[s] of [their own] success or failure, swallowed up by the institution [they] stood against.”95 While some may believe parasites risk reifying their host systems, treating ideology and institutions as static things, parasitical practices involve defamiliarizing the host, disrupting normative procedures, and making clear that systems of relations are exactly that: contingent social models enacted by the acceptance and accordance to certain rules that are not only artificial but made up of actors and asymmetrical relationships that are performed in specific ways. 

The Intestine or the Tapeworm?

A constructivist reading of Serres’s work, where the parasite’s interruption rejuvenates and forces evolution in the host, frustrates numerous critiques in that such “interventionist” gestures lack critical potential. To return to Burroughs, a useful question might be: “Which came first, the intestine or the tapeworm?” Did the parasite evolve to exploit the habits of the host, or did the host develop according to the terms set out by the parasite? In what ways does the parasite violate the integrity of the host’s homogeneous and defended domain, making clear to the host that its sovereign body was never its own? Perhaps the tapeworm and the intestine co-developed, providing the perfect conditions for both to extract surplus from nourishment. The vast majority of our bodies are populated not by our own genetic material but by parasites.96 Like the fish and the tongue-eating louse, where the parasite is effectively the same as an organ, the host’s home is actually already populated by functional divergent organisms.97 The parasite is as much “you” as you are yourself, and what constitutes “you” is the collectivity of these internal and external interactions.

The host’s defenses are what Donna Haraway refers to as “biopolitical maps,”98 responsible for negotiating challenges to the sovereignty of the self, identifying what belongs and what doesn’t. As Ed Cohen suggests, “What the parasite reveals is that the ‘life of the body’ also belongs to life in general, which is why the para-site can eat both with us (as guest, as commensal) and from us (the literal meaning of parasite). In so doing, the parasite confronts us with the fact that life does not properly ‘take place’ within a proper body.”99 “We” are no more autonomous than “they,” and our parasites are on as intimate terms with our organs as our organs are to themselves.100 Of course, the affective workings and effective dispersion of Toxoplasma suggests an intimacy of another sort—the collapse of any lingering semblance of distance between “us” and “them.” In more clearly institutional terms, Andrea Fraser states: It’s not a question of inside or outside, or the number and scale of various organized sites for the production, presentation, and distribution of art. It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution.101

The parasite is entrenched in the system in more than one sense: it is lodged in its host and it is a trespasser. Intimacy and enmity are not antithetical but rather mutually defined—a strategy of continuous association and dissociation that allows critical positions to be established and shifted. Marisa Jahn, writing about “embedded practices” that infuse into certain cultural, economic, and social systems, suggests that, due to their proximity and dependence on the host system, such practices “therefore signify not from a position of pure oppositionality (antagonism), but one in which the oppositionality is irreconcilably bound up with an empathic relationship to the larger whole (agonism).”102 She raises the point that antagonism depends upon an essential and static system to attack face to face and destroy, while agonism (a political doctrine taken up by such thinkers as Michel Foucault, Ernesto Laclau, and Chantal Mouffe) emphasizes the positive aspects of dissent as a “permanent provocation,”103 one that both recognizes dependencies and differences without the delusions of consensus. The host is shown not as a stable, closed, or homogenous entity, but rather a body politic that is at constant contestation with itself. 

What makes a project parasitical is not only that it enters and feeds off a system, but that through its interruption, the project lays bare the parasitical interrelations within the system itself. These component relationships are what parasites feed on; parasites exploit systems of exploitation, interfering with perceived balances by deferring the normal route. Unencumbered by boundaries, such cunning acts of infringement enter into the unacknowledged economies of the host, the excesses and waste that it wants to deny. When parasites permeate paths of interaction and communication, they not only profit from modes of circulation but also by manipulating and deconstructing crucial codes. These efforts impart the role noise and interference plays in the transmission of information. While parasites are dependent on the context in which they operate,104 theirs is a game of asserting their presence in the host while deferring and distracting the system’s mechanisms. Even when invited into the dominant field of discourse, the parasite asserts itself as a stranger, one who recognizes not only the hidden pacts of hospitality and property, but also how the host is only a position that can be displaced. 

Through many examples we’ve shown what parasites can offer artists in terms of models. And parasites tell us much about their hosts and the systems in which those hosts operate. But what is parasitism exactly? Is it a strategy of convenience, an operational channel for riding the waves of already established communication in order to exploit its scale and power? Does the parasite identify with its host? Is its embeddedness an empathetic gesture—towards identification or belonging? If host and parasite are constantly reversing relations, then what can be offered by identifying and naming these positions? What is at stake in a parasitic action? What happens when roles are inverted and dependencies revealed? Does the parasite reflect an impasse in transgression where there is no longer an oppositional position from outside, but where change is only conceivable from the inside? What can the parasite tell us about the interdependencies necessary for social and communication systems? The intimate yet poisonous interaction between parasite and host surely provides a more nuanced way of charting exploitation between parties, but does interrupting essentialist binary models of abuse allow for identification between others, or does it wipe away the problems between them? Does the parasite offer a model for the host, a way of institutional arrangement that recognizes and evolves through intrusion? Can an institution be built that reveres and learns from the parasite without making it one of its own? Is the parasite contagious? Can subtle interruptions in specific spaces effect broader structural and ideological shifts? When some projects bring external or marginalized voices into the institution, what is their dependence on the institution’s contradictions? Is their inclusion just a simple use of a middleman so that the institution does not have to confront its own exclusions? In every case of parasitical practice, the first question is, who is parasiting whom? Though this is not the last question.

Perhaps to think through parasites is to use the parasite as an optical device with which to see relations break down; perhaps to work parasitically is to make those relations more visible. And yet perhaps it is less about why than what for. Both questions (why and what) are, of course, inextricably bound to how, but what we’ve sought to show is that parasitical inhabitations are not simply a mode of operation, a tactic, or a medium for cultural production. Surely, the most advantageous factor in using parasites as a framework is the way in which parasites reveal the complexity of all given relations between things (sentient or otherwise), as well as how parasites render binaries worthless. What emerges from this clarity of vision is the ability to study and disrupt those relations. How parasites shift according to certain rules and how their hosts must shift according to their parasites is the very point of parasitic gestures—it is how parasitic gestures become more than gestures. It is how they effect change.

  1. Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 293–94. 

  2. Rosalind Constable, “The Longest Running One-man Show in Town,” New York, June 28, 1971, 56–57 

  3. For Brian O’Doherty, even a fire hose presents “an esthetic conundrum” within the white cube, which operates parasitically, subsuming anything that enters its space—symbolically divorcing it from the exterior world its architecture serves to hide. Brian O’Doherty, “Notes on the Gallery Space,” in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Berkeley: University of California Press 1986), 15.

  4. Serres, The Parasite, 293–94.

  5. Some parasites draw so ravenously from their hosts that they can debilitate them to the point at which they cannot protect or feed themselves adequately (e.g., mites causing mange in dogs). 

  6. Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Intruder,” in Corpus: Perspectives in Continental Philosophy, trans. Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 161–62.

  7. Ibid., 163.

  8. Serres, The Parasite, 64–65.

  9. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch: The Restored Text Edition, eds. James Grauerholtz and Barry Miles (New York: Grove/Atlantic Inc, 2001), 38.

  10. The small, almost translucent fish normally hides in mud and attacks the open cavities of larger fish (most often the gills), eating its flesh and blood.

  11. The urogenital surgeon Anoar Samad attended to a man from Itacoatiara on the Amazon River who sought medical attention for obstruction of his urethra. “Trichomycteridae candiru,” Oregon Piranha Exotic Fish Exhibit, last modified July 7, 2009, 

  12. The development of surplus goods left humans open to macroparasites—to thieves, then warlords who levied taxes in exchange for protection, shaving off the surplus while leaving enough behind for producers to continue. This process of parasitism evolved into vast divisions of labour and value. 

  13. If microparasitism may be likened to a nether millstone, grinding away at human populations through time, human-to-human macroparasitism has been almost as universal—an upper millstone, pressing heavily upon the majority of the human race. Between them, the two forms of parasitism usually tended to keep the peasant majority of civilized populations close to bare subsistence by systematically withdrawing resources from their control. Just as microparasites have circulated throughout the globe via trade, macroparasites have likewise evolved in the form of war, agents of theft who steal the resources and identities of whole nations. W. H. McNeill, The Human Condition: An Ecological and Historical View (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 8.

  14. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, vol. 1, Consumption, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 21.

  15. Seth Price, “Dispersion,” Distributed History, 2002, (PDF), 14. 

  16. 9 at Leo Castelli was on display from December 4–28, 1968 at the gallerist’s warehouse, then located at 103 West 108th Street, New York, New York.

  17. Annie Cohen-Solal, Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 507.

  18. Astrid Ilhe, “Andre Cadere: Interventions in the Public Domain,” in André Cadere: Peinture sans fin, eds. Karola Grasslin, Fabrice Hergott, and Alexander van Grevenstein (Koln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig, 2007), 43.

  19. In a sense, the intentional error ensured that each Barres de Bois Rond arrived with its own parasite, a thing both in and out of place.

  20. Cadere presented his rods throughout Europe and in New York, bringing them to opening receptions for artists such as Robert Ryman, Daniel Buren, and Barnett Newman, or to biennials. However, he also took them on the subway and to cafes, parks, and other public spaces. 

  21. Karola Grasslin, Fabrice Hergott, and Alexander van Grevenstein, eds., “Interview with Linda Morris,” in André Cadere: Peinture sans fin (Koln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig), 17.

  22. Mark Godfrey, “Andre Cadere: Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Germany,” Frieze, March 2008, 181.

  23. Birnbaum is referring to Cadere’s intervention into an exhibition of Valerio Adami’s paintings at Galerie Maeght in Paris, which he cites in “Andre Cadere: Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Germany,” Artforum, January 2008, 271.

  24. Ihle, “Andre Cadere: Interventions in the Public Domain,” 55. 

  25. Cadere was keen to keep his contrived outsider position, a position that is echoed by Nancy: Once [an intruder] is in, if he remains a stranger, and for all the time he remains, instead of “naturalizing himself,” his arrival does not cease: he continues to come and never stops being an intrusion; he continues to be without right and familiarity and habits, but he remains a disturbance, a turbulence amidst the intimacy. Otherwise the extraneousness of the stranger is eliminated before he walks over the threshold. Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Intruder,” 166.

  26. The inclusion of an artist’s work in documenta could be seen as the ultimate symbol of acceptance and appreciation of that work, but such an invitation would present a negation of that artist’s parasitical status.

  27. The artist was asked to produce a new work for an exhibition at the Centre d’Art Neuchâtel. Motti went to a Swiss first division soccer match between the Neuchâtel/Xamax and Young Boys football clubs at the La Maladière stadium instead, targeting a significantly broader public than an art show could provide. 

  28. ONU, intervention at the 53rd session of the Commission on Human Rights, UN, Geneva (1997).

  29. Perhaps the most overt example was in 2004 at the semifinal of the French Open tennis championship during a visit by the American president George W. Bush. Gianni Motti, sitting in the VIP stand opposite live television cameras, wore a hood on his head and kept his hands behind his back, alluding to the controversial images taken of prisoners by soldiers at Abu Ghraib. While this event injected politics into sports, such a gesture also brought excluded views into a site already for protest. Robyn Whitlaw had an “appearance” in a 1972 Life magazine photograph by Arthur Schatz, which shows the artist holding up a blank white sign above a packed street of umbrella-toting SDS anti-war protesters. Her gesture was an act of protest and a forfeit, an elaboration of the impasse of dissent and the invisibility and silence of numerous voices within the movement. Whitlaw’s action protests the site of protest itself, intervening into the protest’s field of relations rather than the content of the demonstration. 

  30. Additionally, since 1985, Motti has claimed responsibility for numerous eclipses of the moon or sun, falling meteorites, earthquakes in California and the Alps, and even the 1986 explosion of the Challenger shuttle (Eclipses, 1986; Revendications, Terremoto, revendication, 1996; AFP, 1986). An autocratic proclamation, Motti’s claiming of catastrophe and change renders the world readymade, parasitically inserting himself into global causation. 

  31. One can say that Motti resembles Woody Allen’s character Zelig (from his 1983 movie of the same name). The faux documentary concerns Leonard Zelig, a Jewish New Yorker who comes to fame in the 1920s when it is discovered that he compulsively imitates whatever social milieu he finds himself in, transforming himself both physically and mentally into a reflection of the people who surround him.

  32. Similarly, the artist David Horovitz has been inserting himself anonymously into photographs appearing in Wikipedia entries, on an ongoing basis. See Jeff Khonsary, “The Encyclopedia That Anyone Can Edit,” Fillip 14, Summer 2011, 98–103. 

  33. Can a parasite and a host be one and the same at the same time, and in the same body? 

  34. Whereas Piper’s previous public actions in the 1970–71 Catalysis works played out the relationship between abject difference and public indifference or disgust, the Mythic Being series is noticeably more ambiguous. 

  35. To distribute the fictional persona, Piper devised a complex mathematical structure, like those she employed in earlier works, through which she would “isolate” and mine 144 passages from her diary, mount the same number of performances, then “publicize” and circulate the same number of two-dimensional works through a “widely distributed newspaper.” The artist did not follow through with the strict numerical component of the project. Cherise Smith, “Re-member the Audience: Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being Advertisements,” Art Journal 66.1 (2007), 46.

  36. The first advertisement appeared in the “Theatre” section of the Voice; the remainder was published in the “Gallery” section roughly once a month from October 25, 1973, until February 2, 1975. There is one significant exception: the ad work for June 27, 1974, was censored by the Voice because it contains the phrase: “DON’T FEEL PARTICULARLY HORNY, BUT FEEL I SHOULD MASTURBATE ANYWAY JUST BECAUSE I FEEL SO GOOD ABOUT IT. 6-6-70.” A small, rectangular text advertisement appeared in its place and announced that the original advertisement could be seen at the Jaap Rietman Bookstore on 157 Spring St. 

  37. Adrian Piper, “The Mythic Being: Getting Back,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, Vol. I, Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968-1992 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 117

  38. Serres, The Parasite, 218.

  39. Ibid.

  40. Since 1997, Lopez has worked under the name A-1 53167, his Guatemalan ID card number, as a gesture of both erasing assumptions about his cultural identity and immersing himself within a bureaucratic system. 

  41. Like a parasite, Lopez terrified and threatened his host by hijacking his victim’s reserves and diverting those resources into other uses.

  42. Erin Starr White, “Lifting: Theft in Art, Fort Worth Contemporary Arts,” Art Lies, Winter 2008, 96–97.

  43. Lopez’s work is in some ways a literalization of an action Adrian Piper performed as part of Mythic Being. Getting Back, a performance in collaboration with David Auerbach, Piper described as involving my loitering on the sidewalk reading a newspaper, while David, a stranger, reads over my shoulder and tries to strike up a conversation containing many of the features just described. I react with violent and barely suppressed anger, asking him to please get out of my face. Shocked, he withdraws, having appropriated the newspaper I’ve finished reading. But my hostility hasn’t been fully expressed, so I decide to mug him and steal his money. I follow him to the nearest park, jumping him from behind, throwing him to the ground, and making off with the newspaper (he has no money). Adrian Piper, Out of Order, Out of Sight, 147. Whereas Piper’s performance was staged and included a knowing victim—and thus an accomplice in reality—Lopez recasts his audience as unknowing accomplices in what is a true crime, or so we are led to believe. In both projects, the intersubjective game of parasitical power becomes apparent by making visible the ways in which one position in an antagonistic relation is contingent on its opposing force. 

  44. Implicitly elaborating the dependence of the artist on the charity of patrons, foundations, and governmental bodies, Lopez intensifies this subjection, exaggerating the servile relationship between producers and funders into one where the artist violently demands support rather than waits for “grants.”

  45. Since we are not party to the exchange, we are left to assume that the victim is either a wealthy beneficiary of capitalist exploitation, a victim of such a system, or, more realistically, one who is abused by both inequitable economic relations and an active, interpellated agent within those structures. Perhaps this is why the work is titled “the loan” and not “the theft” or “the payment”: though the money has been taken from the patron, it will be returned in symbolic capital. 

  46. Serres, The Parasite, 80.

  47. Ibid.

  48. Ibid.

  49. See Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation),” in “Lenin and Philosophy” and Other Essays (London: New Left Books, 1971), 121–73.

  50. Ralph Rugoff, Circus Americanus (London: Verso [Haymarket Series], 1995), 77.

  51. If the museum is a monument for “the unknown artist,” then its existence is as a trace marking the absence of those excluded, unknown, or refused. A tool for critique and iconoclasm, Whitlaw also advocated for an alternative mode of interaction with masterpieces, even encouraging visitors to appreciate the tactile quality of a Jackson Pollock painting by feeling the surface. 

  52. Doris Somner, Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 60. 

  53. BANK took its name from the site of its first exhibition, which was on display within a disused bank in London. BANK attempted to reclaim control over every aspect of its work by inhabiting all of the roles of presentation, such as marketing and funding as well as artistic and curatorial practice. 

  54. It is a common complaint that interpretive materials drain a work of its “blood,” its “life,” which would then cast critics, curators, historians, and other cultural workers as vampiric. The standardized proofreading marks BANK employs are a means of imposing upon and reforming the text, borrowing from standardized institutional codes and personal regiments, reopening whatever closure these documents may imply or cause. Moreover, BANK’s coded and graphological inscriptions are themselves a parasitical language, semantic and asemic alike. 

  55. Grading the press releases issued by galleries on a scale of 1 to 10 and inscribing them with critiques ranging from coy to scathing, BANK in turn received letters and answering machine messages from the galleries, which ranged from calculated thanks to unmitigated anger.

  56. Roland Barthes, Sade/Fourier/Loyola (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 123.

  57. The role of advertising in art’s distribution and constitution has become increasingly expansive throughout history, but the inflated use of promotional channels as the primary site for art’s appearance or existence may be an inheritance of tactics and aspirations from the conceptual art of the ’60s. Conceptual artists and entities such as Robert Barry, Bulletin, On Kawara, and Stephen Kaltenbach, among others, used these channels (press releases, postcards, subscription lists, mail art networks) as sites for the materialization and movement of ideas, but also depended upon such formats to justify, commercialize, and announce the very existence of their ideas. Such gestures dialectically emphasized the correlation of “primary information” (“‘the essence of the piece,’ its ideational part”) and “secondary information” (“the material information by which one becomes aware of the piece, the raw matter, the fabricated part, the form of presentation”). 

  58. Other activities included two days of curator Raimundas Malasauskas randomly calling a payphone in the Armory from the Commander’s Room and reading Tom Marioni’s Predictions ’78 (1978) to whoever answered.

  59. Adam Kleinman, “Dexter Sinister,” Bomb Magazine, March 2008,

  60. Kleinman, “Dexter Sinister.” 

  61. Serres, The Parasite, 216.

  62. Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “Make Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility,” October 129 (Summer 2009), 51–84.

  63. This gesture of modifying the body through bureaucratic procedures resonates with an earlier but also continuing project, Vo Rocasco Rasmussen (2003–), where the artist marries and immediately divorces several people (who have been in some way influential in Vo’s life) in order to accumulate a succession of last names. A response to debates in Denmark regarding homosexual marriage (Denmark was the first to legalize same-sex marriage, but, until recently, did not allow same-sex partners to apply for adoption), Vo’s gesture redefines the structure of marriage by parodying its formal protocols.

  64. If bodies are ruled by documents, the artist asserts, then “performance art” today is not dependent on the presence of a body, but rather on the relationship between social rites and their certification. Vo mentioned this line of thinking in a conversation with Post Brothers. 

  65. John Searle, “What Is an Institution?” Journal of Institutional Economics vol. 1:1 (2005), 15. 

  66. Ana Teixeira Pinto, “Danh Vo’s ‘All your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble’ at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin,” exhibition review in Art Agenda, October 27, 2010.

  67. Carr, “Artists at Work: Danh Vo.”

  68. When you look at a web page, you are seeing the data that is assigned to it by a server. If you hit the ‘refresh’ button on your keyboard but nothing on the server has changed, then what is seen on the screen appears to be the same, but in fact, this is a whole new set of data retrieved from the server. Marisa Jahn, “‘Refresh’: Versionhood and the Multiplicity of the Self, An Interview with Kristin Lucas,” in Byproducts: On the Excess of Embedded Artistic Practices (Toronto: YYZ Books & REV-, 2010), 113.

  69. Because the judge ordered a court recess for two weeks while he determined the case’s legitimacy, the judge was forced into a philosophical and methodological paradox. 

  70. Jahn, “‘Refresh’: Versionhood and the Multiplicity of the Self,” 114.

  71. John Brown, Parasitic Wealth or Money Reform: A Manifesto to the People of the United States and to the Workers of the World (Chicago: C. H. Kerr & Company, 1898), 162.

  72. Ibid.

  73. Ibid.

  74. Every living thing has at least one parasite that lives inside it or on it. Many, like leopard frogs and humans, have many more. There’s a parrot in Mexico with thirty different species of mites on its feathers alone. And the parasites themselves have parasites, and some of those parasites have parasites of their own…. Scientists have no idea just how many species of parasites there are, but they do know one dazzling thing: parasites make up the majority of species on Earth. According to one estimate, parasites may outnumber free-living species four to one. In other words, the study of life is, for the most part, parasitology. Carl Zimmer, Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures (New York: Free Press, 2000), xxi.

  75. If the host is both eater and eaten, he also contains in himself the double antithetical relation of host and guest, guest in the two-fold sense of friendly presence and alien invader. The words “host” and “guest” go back in fact to the same etymological root: ghos-ti, stranger, guest, host, properly “someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality.” The modern English word “host” in this alternative sense comes from the Middle English (h)oste, from Old French, host, guest, from Latin hospes (stem hospit-), guest, host, stranger. The “pes” or “pit” in the Latin words and in such modern English words as “hospital” and “hospitality” is from another root, pot, meaning “master.” The compound or bifurcated root ghos-pot meant “master of guests,” “one who symbolizes the relationship of reciprocal hospitality,” as in the Slavic gospodi, Lord, sir, master. “Guest,” on the other hand, is from Middle English gest, from Old Norse gestr, from ghos-ti, the same root as for “host.” A host is a guest, and a guest is a host. A host is a host. The relation of household master offering hospitality to a guest and the guest receiving it, of host and parasite in the original sense of “fellow guest,” is inclosed within the word “host” itself. J. Hillis Miller, “The Critic as Host,” Critical Inquiry III, no. 3 (Spring 1977), 440.

  76. Bob Dylan, Chronicles, vol. 1 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 66. 

  77. Serres, The Parasite, 17.

  78. Miller, “The Critic as Host,” 442.

  79. Jacques Derrida offers the term “ipseity” to describe the twin poles of hospitality and hostility, which he sees as a kind of choreography of complicity and intersubjective negotiation between multiple entities. Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other; or, the Prosthesis of Origin, trans. Patrick Mensah (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 24. 

  80. Toxoplasma can be deadly, however, for those with depleted immune defenses, particularly afflicting fetuses that haven’t developed defense mechanisms and people with AIDS. In this sense, Toxoplasma becomes also an illustration for how a parasite can be benign in some circumstances (in carriers with adequate immune defense), but deadly in others. The same strategy can yield different effects depending on the host and how the parasite positions itself along the chain. 

  81. See Carl Zimmer, Parasite Rex, 92–94; E. Fuller Torrey and Robert H. Yolken, “Toxoplasma gondii and schizophrenia,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 9, no. 11 (November 2003), Jaroslav Flegr, “Effects of Toxoplasma on Human Behaviour,” Schizophrenia Bulletin 33, no. 3 (January 2007), 757–60; Kevin D. Lafferty, “Can the Common Brain Parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, Influence Human Culture?” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 273 (2006), 2749–55,

  82. Elisabeth Wetterwald, “Consumption and the Self: 
Elisabeth Wetterwald Interviews Joe Scanlan,” in Rue Sauvage (Dijon: Les press du réel, 2003),

  83. Ralph Rugoff, Circus Americanus (London: Verso [Haymarket Series], 1995), 77.

  84. Serres, The Parasite, 55.

  85. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism, ed. Daniel Guerin, trans. Paul Sharkey (San Francisco: AK Press, 2005), 55–56.

  86. Whitlaw’s meta-appropriation calls into question the authorship and ownership of the imagery those artists used to call into question the authorship of others, while also appropriating the imagery from the dealer who would claim to have owned those objects, and thus the stolen imagery they contain. In the end, the dealer opted not to press charges in order to save himself from further embarrassment. 

  87. Serres, The Parasite, 5. 

  88. To be a parasite means to divert food, money, energy—anything material—from its destined path. Once at the host’s table, the parasite in return…must regale the other diners with his stories and his mirth. To be exact, [the parasite] exchanges good talk for good food; he buys his dinner, paying for it in words. It is the oldest profession in the world (Serres, The Parasite, 34). In other words, when an artist is invited into the home of the art institution, the unspoken pact is that the artist must be thankful and exchange the benefits of financing and resources for the symbolic capital of their works.

  89. Vaccination, Serres reminds us, is based upon this principle: the parasite that enters the body as contaminant then protects it against further contamination: These logics shifting around minimal angles are at work in other systems as well. Parasitology, as we shall soon realize, uses the vocabulary of the host: hostility or hospitality. First of all, the parasite is always small; it never exceeds the size of insects or arthropods. In fact, the most numerous are protozoa or bacteria or viruses. Their small effects are usually well-tolerated by the organisms, which quickly rediscover their health, that is to say, their silence (at least relatively). This equilibrium that is well taken care of, thanks to the defense systems, is more solid than the preceding one. With the expulsion of Tartuffe, Orgon’s fly is vaccinated against the next devout man. In vaccination, poison can be a cure, and this logic with two entry points becomes a strategy, a care, a cure. The parasite gives the host the means to be safe from the parasite. The organism reinforces its resistance and increases its adaptability. It is moved a bit away from its equilibrium and it is then even more strongly at equilibrium. The generous hosts are therefore stronger than the bodies without visits; generation increases resistance right in the middle of endemic diseases. Thus parasitism contributes to the formation of adapted species from the point of view of evolution. Michel Serres, The Parasite, 34. 

  90. Benjamin Buchloh, “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art,” in Art after Conceptual Art, eds. Alexander Alberro and Sabeth Buchmann (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 29.

  91. One can hardly consider GELITIN’s clubhouse parasitic, as they were invited to create it, and context does not really provide GELITIN’s primary material. However, if one considers the balcony the group created behind the clubhouse, a more complex set of relations emerges: between inside/outside, guest/host, guests/other guests, visible/invisible, support/risk, etc.

  92. In fact, the group’s gesture would have gone entirely unnoticed had it not published an account of the action in an artist’s book containing detailed sketches and documentation. Some have suggested that B-Thing was just an elaborate hoax, a fantasy produced through documentation. Accordingly, witnesses and accomplices have wavered from admitting to its fabrication to producing evidence of this truth, suggesting that the work is either a fake event made to look real or a real event cloaked in speculation in order to defer responsibility. 

  93. Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc., trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 90.

  94. Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum, September 2005, 278.

  95. Consequently, the parasite reveals that ‘the body’ itself does not exist as a proper and proprietary given—that is, as a natural fact—but rather incorporates a scalar narrative, a fiction, that emplots us within what we call ‘a life’ by emplotting us within ?it.’ What we name as the body situates us within a life story that binds up space and time, suturing us to our ‘selves’ as the jealous proprietors of our much coveted vital property. The parasite therefore addresses us as ‘an enemy’ only insofar as we identify the body and identify with the body as the essential psychological/political/ biological metonym for our life. By perturbing this putatively natural metonymy, parasites reveal the underlying paradox of modern political ontology—which perhaps explains in part why viral epidemics seem to trouble us biologically, politically, economically, and psychologically. Ed Cohen, “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All,” Social Text 106 (Spring 2011), 23.

  96. I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many. Some of these personal microscopic biota are dangerous to the me who is writing this sentence; they are held in check for now by the measures of the coordinated symphony of all the others, human cells and not, that make the conscious me possible. I love that when “I” die, all these benign and dangerous symbionts will take over and use whatever is left of “my” body, if only for a while, since “we” are necessary to one another in real time. Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 4.

  97. Donna Haraway, “The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Determinations of Self in Immune System Discourse,” in American Feminist Thought at Century’s End: A Reader, ed. Linda Kauffman (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 199–233.

  98. Cohen, “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment,” 23.

  99. As Steven Shaviro reminds us: My intestines are on as intimate terms with their tapeworms as they are with my mouth, my asshole, and my other organs; the relationship is as “intrinsic” and “organic” in the one case as it is in the other. Just like the tapeworm, I live off the surplus-value extracted from what passes through my stomach and intestines. Who’s the parasite, then, and who’s the host? The internal organs are parasitic upon one another; the organism as a whole is parasitic upon the world. My “innards” are really a hole going straight through my body; their contents—shit and tapeworm—remain forever outside of and apart from me, even as they exist at my very center. Steven Shaviro, “William Burroughs,” in Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997), 101. 

  100. Fraser, From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique, 278.

  101. Marissa Jahn, “Byproducts and Parasites” in Byproducts: On the Excess of Embedded Artistic Practices (Toronto: YYZ Books & Rev-, 2010), 12. 

  102. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in Critical Inquiry 8, no. 4 (Summer, 1982), 790.

  103. In Arthur Danto and others’ “institutional theory of art,” artworks themselves can be seen as parasitic on the ideological, symbolic, and economic mechanisms of the institution, which has the authority to recognize an object as art. Conversely, the institution itself is parasitic on its artifacts to make an empty room into a zone of discourse. Equally, site-specific artworks often are regarded as parasitic on the context of the site of display, where not only is the work embedded on or in the host, but also the project extracts meaning and materials from its host’s reserves.

Image: Max Smith, Cymothoa Exigua (The Tongue-eating Louse).

About the Authors

Post Brothers is a critical enterprise that includes Matthew Post, a curator and writer currently working from an elevator in Oakland. Post Brothers has recently developed projects at COCO Kustverein, Proyectos Monclova, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the San Francisco Antique and Design Mall, Queen’s Nails Projects, and the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. Post Brothers’ essays and articles have been published in Spike, Kaleidoscope, Mousse, Pazmaker, ArtSlant, Curating Now, Woo, and Snowball as well as numerous artist publications and exhibition catalogues.

Chris Fitzpatrick is a San Francisco based curator who has organized exhibitions and events for Artissima 18, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, the Oakland Museum of California, Palazzo Ducale, Proyectos Monclova, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, among other venues. His writing and interviews have been taped to the feet of carrier pigeons and featured in a variety of publications, including The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt, Cura, Mousse, Nero, Pazmaker, as well as exhibition catalogues and books.

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