On August 8, 2016 at the NeMe Arts Centre, art historian and curator at CACT-SMCA Areti Leopoulou presented an expanded version of this paper, loosely and informally based on her forthcoming book Beneficial Parasites which will be published by Futura Books Athens (in Greek) by the end of 2016. The event developed into a substantial conversation about the beneficial function of artistic interventions; as necessary parasites, to our social body and without which, our existence would not be the same.


The word parasite has mainly negative connotations1. However, the noun parasitism, invokes a more positive state used to describe a common biological function based on coexistence. Thus, I have focused my interest on this capacity, searching to find analogies with the function of socially engaged art which does require a living organism in order to exist and coexist. The metaphor of the parasite in context to art, defining its nature and social impact, is clearly not new. It actually has existed as an idea and as a metaphor for the function and the impact of λόγος by the post-critical research field since the ’80s.

Gregory Ulmer, already in 1984-85 in his text The Object of Post-Criticism, gleans the foundations of this interpretative concept, while seeking the essential role of art in a broader postmodern reality2. A suitable metaphor, which may be applied to the field of artistic interventions, because of their intrusive function into life and social situations. Earlier, Michel Serres, whose book, The Parasite – a hybrid project between literature and critical text, first published in French in 1980 – explained allegorically, the ambiguous functions and interpretative extensions of parasites. He claimed that, although a parasite may be a possible internal disharmony that weakens, without killing its host, it is mainly operating beneficially, and can sometimes reveal what was not visible before. Based on this proposal, there is a dynamic relationship between the host and its parasite, a state of competitive vying for survival. This dual existence can further enrich complexities, transform a system, constitute a potential stimulator and capable to alter the systemic functions. Serres had intelligently shaped and projected the idea of the parasite embedded within a social context3. It is, therefore, a useful concept for the overall interpretive approach of art projects and happenings4.

In biology, parasitology is the main field that eminently investigates this symbiotic condition and we find that there are many versions of parasitic modes, like “phoresis”, “mutualism”, and “parasitism”5. One positive version of parasitism we are mainly interested in is the so-called mutualism which “describes a relationship in which both partners benefit from the association. Mutualism is usually obligatory, since in most cases physiological dependence has evolved to such a degree that one mutual cannot survive without the other”. This is a balancing function with beneficial effects on both coexisting organisms.

So, how does this proposed system operate in context to art and its social outreach? The artistic actions, performances, happenings (potential parasites) that I refer to further in this text take place within the lived quotidian, perceived as ‘normal’. The examples I have chosen to present do not respond to an aggressive parasitical function, but to a symbiotic one. These are actions or interventions that cannot be easily understood as rational activist artists’ interventions. In fact,, some of these projects were not even visible as artistic actions, but rather, as small modulated gestures in a space and time that is not far from what we call “everyday life routines”. A PhD on artistic aspects of everyday life was also the occasion under which I began this research many years ago, in which I ascertained the metaphor of the parasite, which helped me to understand such postmodern artistic attempts and practices, that were actually initiated far beyond the popular Situationist International logic and mode6. My aim is to tackle these projects as stimulants, not as contagion, but as catalysts for the transformation of a system. So, the examples presented, which I denote as “artistic gestures”, have emerged through such a system and they reintegrated into the social ‘body’ from which they unfolded. After all, the point is not to live by someone, but with someone and according to Serres: “parasite means literally: fed by someone. Let’s start with the literal meaning”7.

Two examples

George Tsakiris

A photograph of the artist collecting peaches , Paiko mountain. ~ 1980s

1. George Tsakiris was born in 1955 in Giannitsa, a town in Northern Greece, studied Senior Electronics (1974-1976) and then Painting and Printmaking at the Firenze Accademia di Belle Arti (Italy, 1976-1981). Since1997 he is a Professor at the Fine Arts School of Thessaloniki. Tsakiris has been working on many different media, such as engraving or painting, but mainly on installations and environments. His work, influenced by the Italian Transavanguardia and Arte Povera, are constructed of natural materials and very often in natural environments and provincial landscapes. These installations and environments are combinations of physical and biological features inherent to the creative process of his work. During the 80s (1980-1983 and 1985-1989), Tsakiris lived on Mount Paiko, his actual place of birth. There he worked with nature, gradually ceasing to consciously integrate his artistic creative process with nature, a method which for him, even today, remains integral to his actions of detaching his outcomes from any aesthetic criteria or controlled result.

Tsakiris’ “Lakes” is an appropriate example of a parasitic and symbiotic artwork. In his own words: “By making those lakes, my original idea was to move the frogs from the foothills of Paiko on top of the mountain, about 200 meters higher; so “Lakes” aftermath, was that they and their streams actually became useful by allowing every local animal to drink water there”8.

Thanasis Chondros and Alexandra Katsian
Action “Zero positive 0+”, Achepa Hospital Thessaloniki, February 6, 1988
(photo by Maria Argiriadou)

2. Thanasis Chondros and Alexandra Katsiani met in 1973 in Thesssaloniki, Greece, where they currently live. Since 1974 they have correlated both their personal lives and their public actions or, as they say: “since 1974 we coordinate our behaviour”, which consists of interventions in the local sphere. Being ‘local’ artists does not mean that we are closed into a kind of xenophobic isolationism. It means that from the quantity of information we receive from all over the world, we keep only the data that can enlighten our quotidian”.9

Furthermore, they collaborated and founded several art collectives as well as music groups (e.g. the well known Civil Servants’ Terrace) with several other artists during the ’80s and the ’90s in Greece. They officially gave up their art activities during 2004, however, they still create situations, having a wide variety of objectives and always remaining focused on the field of everyday life. A typical example of their work and socially parasitical activity is a series of ephemeral everyday actions held each day of the month February 1988, entitled “Gestures” and taking place in various spaces of Thessaloniki, such as art galleries, bars, video-clubs, parks, bookstores, hospitals, on the radio or on the telephone. One characteristic action was “Zero positive 0+” on February 6, at the Thessaloniki hospital Achepa, when they donated their O+ blood type without any public invitation or spectators, but just a photo documentation; it was a common, non artistic social gesture, addressed to those in need.

An action as such, reflects perfectly the concept of “affectivism” by Brian Holmes,10 where the challenge is not the potential of the “aesthetic” through the work of art, but mainly the possibility of a new coexistence and intimacy, not necessarily at the global level, but mainly within a local community. And if something occurs and it is eminently obvious, in the strategy implementation of such artistic interventions, their importance lies within the space of the local, because these projects, embedded in the social environment in which they occur and coexist, and to which they aim to address.

So, what?

Reservations, criticism or indifferent reception of such artworks is expected. Understanding these projects, which are situated outside mainstream dialogue and context, is difficult, as they are not clear-cut representations of the process of Beneficial Parasites. Moreover, they more concerned with symbiotic actions rather than define themselves as art works. This is indeed the key core and aim of this investigation. At this point, even the logic of implied positive or negative reception, does not seem a priority, but what is important is both the acceptance or rejection of the social relationship these actions, as organisms, manage to build. Clearly, this is not an innovative, exclusive appropriation of new forms of expression, but rather a development of creative production, which essentially coincides increasingly in the broadest sense with the methodology of realising the work11.

It is critical, however, to focus on how effective such intrusive actions may actually be, to their real influence within social framework and daily lives of those directly involved or the potential of those who, in the future, could be impacted by them. It is also important to keep in mind the potential artistic legacy these actions leave behind12. The truth is that these practices have become more and more popular in Greece since the beginning of 2000 and even more intensively after 2008, when the political and sociological situation, the so-called “Crisis” in Greece, has massively spread into the field of artistic practice resulting in many events of an interdisciplinary nature relying on the contribution of anthropologists, architects or urban planners, sociologists, economists, etc.

Identifying the parasitic efficacy of these projects, integrated in their host/social body can be difficult to assess due to situational factors and, as such, each example requires individual attention and is a priori understood that the effects of beneficial parasitism cannot be identified with specific measurements or tools. What is certain is that the “parasitic” activity of an artistic social subject and interventionist operation, can contribute as an experience, “pay its share”13 and conceptually communicate clear social messages.

Notes

  1. Robert Maltby, The Language of Plautus’s Parasites, University of Leeds, U.K., Open University^
  2. Gregory L. Ulmer, “The object of Post-Criticism” at Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, Washington 1987, p. 83 -110 and Gregory L. Ulmer, Applied Grammatology. Post(e)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore – London 1985, p. 59-60^
  3. Steven D. Brown, “In praise of the parasite: The dark organisational theory of Michel Serres”, Informática na Educação: teoria e prática, Porto Alegre, v. 16, (1), 01-06/2013, p. 83-100^
  4. Michel Serres, To Parasito, translated in Greek by Nikos Iliades, Smili editions, Athens 2009. The book is available in English: Michel Serres, The Parasite, translated in English by Lawrence R. Schehr, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London 1982. This text, though, is based on the Greek translated book, thus using the Greek book’s page references.^
  5. “Parasitology is largely a study of symbiosis, or, literally, ‘living together.’ Although some authors restrict the term symbiosis to relationships wherein both partners benefit, I prefer to use the term in a wider sense, as originally proposed by the German scholar A. de Bary in 1879: Any two organisms living in close association, commonly one living in or on the body of the other, are symbiotic, as contrasted with free living. Usually the symbionts are of different species but not necessarily”, Gerald D. Schmidt & Larry S. Roberts (editors), Foundations of Parasitology, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, New York 2009 (8th edition), p.2^
  6. Areti Leopoulou, Aspects of everyday life in post-war Greek art, PhD thesis at the Art History Department, School of History and Archaeology, Faculty of Philosophy, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki 2014, available in Greek^
  7. Michel Serres, ibid., p. 25^
  8. From an interview/conversation recorded sound file between the artist and the writer (12/12/2013)^
  9. Excerpt from the Press Release of their disc 0+, courtesy of artists from their archive.^
  10. Brian Holmes, The Affectivist Manifesto. Artistic Critique in the Twenty-First Century, on his blog^
  11. Augustine Zenakos interviewing Nikos Papastergiadis, in Greek: «H τέχνη είναι δύναμη που κατασκευάζει γνώση», (“Art is a power that constructs knowledge”), To Vima Online Newspaper, 06/03/2005^
  12. A detailed analysis of further aspects of perception (in Greek): Areti Leopoulou, ibid., p.158-179^
  13. “The Greek word συμβάλλεσθαι, which gives us that word so characteristic of our religions and ideologies, “symbol”, means initially ‘to pay one’s share”, hence: to participate in the magic action, in the effectiveness of the ritual» as Henri Lefebvre mentions in his Critique of Everyday Life, v. I, Verso, London – New York 2008, p. 204^