We are not parasites, at most we are fungi
This open letter* is questioning the foundation on which several presumptions, addressed in the shape of critical feedback, were made after a Master presentation of the keet project. They were: parasitism, the ethical question of work, arrogance and exalting a certain way of life.
The main aim of this letter is to fairly ask for clarification and explanation of the usage of these terms in the given context- which part of the text presented or part of the house itself made think of and address these questions? As we perceived it, the questions did not relate to the keet, the project itself, which was the subject of the presentation, but to the ethical behaviour of it creators and inhabitants, Bianca, Daniel and Dok.
How we positioned the project in the presentation was as a social experiment and urban intervention. What we ask through our project is social tolerance and legal support for alternative ways of building and living.These are very positive goals, which we always try in our speech to press upon. Without doubt there are layers of the project which remind and make reference to criticism of the consumerist model, but that is not all the main drive, vision behind or goal of the project. We are not ridiculous clowns that try to save the world from environmental disaster and pose as anti-capitalist heroes, like it was suggested, but conscious individuals, that try to act and live in accordance to the modest set of ideals they have built for themselves. For this we have constructed a nice, or at least curiosity-provoking house.
We are aware that possibly this was not clear during the talk. We both take full responsibility for our communication, and try to work on finding the most appropriate way to present the project.
Once that ground is clear, we can indeed try to consider the feedback constructive and challenging (this being the form in which it was addressed, and the focal point of our disagreement), and not as a case of bullying, as we perceived it at that moment, and still do. The bullying inhibited a proper response from our part at that exact moment. We naively hoped the speech would raise up a beautiful conversation upon matters of building, living, environment etc, which is normally the case if people come to visit to inquire about the project.
It is again worth mentioning that this seems to be a particular case. We never experienced such thing, nor were we asked these kind of questions. Therefore, we cannot position them as the voice of a larger group of people; we see them as isolated remarks.
The intention of this writing is not to complain of the above, but to continue to carry an academic conversation regarding the issue, as we take into account that what we have described here is our own perception over the event (no matter how objective we try to look at it) and we want to leave space for clarification. We are interested to know what aspects of our text and talk caused this interpretation and thinking, which we don’t recognise ourselves into.
*We choose this to be an open letter, in order to raise a general concern, which we think involves several other actors, the places we were parked at before, the city of Gent itself and possibly other private people intrigued by the topic.
On Defining Parasitism
After briefly inquiring into the etymology and history of the term parasite, one encounters a tremendous amount of different individuals and groups of people which were labelled as parasites. To explore the different historical and contemporary uses of the term is beyond this simple text, but a few examples will suffice to illustrate the variety of uses of the term.
The term parasite could have been brought into English language either from the Latin ‘Parasitus’, from middle French 'Parasite’ or from Greek 'Parasitos’. Probably all terms originate in the Greek term, which breaks down into Para (beside) and Sitos (food); and was used to mean as much as 'someone who eats at anothers’ table’. First recorded use in English is from 1530s as a social label. Only a century later, about 1640, we find the term first applied to ecology, where it is defined as: 'an organism which lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the other’s expense.’ This definition still holds for ecology today.
In socialism the term was regularly used to describe the upper class; capitalists were thought to parasite on the working class. In the Soviet Union parasitism was considered a criminal offense and some 130.000 people were charged with it.
In fascism the term was used too. Hitler mentions it frequently, especially in Volume I chapter nine of his 'Mein Kampf’. His parasites, far from being the upper classes, are amongst others: Jews, Gypsies and Handicapped people.
Anarchists of all denominations have argued that the state functions as a parasite. Examples include Austrian economics Anarcho-Capitalists to Syndicalists.
Interestingly, throughout history, different ideologies assign the parasite role to the classes of people or institutions which they imagine to live at their expense. Contemporary use of the term is no exception. A quick google search on recent news items reveal artists (living on subsidies), Greeks (taking their early retirement with EU-money) and refugees (taking advantage of our social benefits, taking our houses, our space, our money) as parasites. Most often though, one finds mention of the unemployed (living on welfare) and migrant (working our jobs, living on our land) classes as parasites.
We can try to identify in what ideological frame these uses of parasitism fit. Some tend to fit within the Nationalist perspective, identifying the parasite as an outsider, coming here, living at the expense of the great (insert any Western European country) nation and its noble people. Others might better be placed in the Neoliberal ideology, arguing instead some people work hard to create wealth, while there are others amongst us who do not; they prefer to lay around and waste the money of those who do work, having coerced the state to take it from honest hard working people and give it to them.
For the rest of the text, we will refer to parasitism in its most neutral sense, the ecological one, which we believe is the closest to the intended use in the feedback.
Somehow this term was applied to us and the keet. Our lifestyle described as parasitic. The first reaction upon hearing such a suggestion is simple unbelief; how can somebody describe the way I relate to others and my environment as parasitic? It is however a nice starting point to analyse how the keet and we relate to others and our environment, and whether or not it differs from the way a parasite does.
A parasite lives at the other’s expense. So at whose expense do we live then? Maybe we need to investigate the various actors with which we interact(ed) and look closely at our relation to them, in search of parasitism. We consider here both the exchange from the actors’ interests as well as the relation the keet has with the society at large.
Actor 1, the producers of our resource, waste.
Is the fact that we acquire objects (food, construction materials, firewood) without paying for them from skips parasitic? Here our role, to dwell upon another metaphor from ecology, seems closer the fungus than to the parasite. Where the parasite takes nutrients at the expense of the host, the mushroom simply deals with waste. Like the mushroom, we take the waste which 'the host’ doesn’t need anymore. Moreover waste is generally considered a problem (most companies have to pay for every kilo of waste they need to get rid of) and companies or private individuals are most of the times happy someone takes their waste away.
Not only is this exchange mutually beneficial, also society at large benefits. If normally objects would have ended up landfilled or incinerated now they are recycled, with environmental benefits. Acquiring objects in this fashion is for us preferable to buying them anew from a social and environmental point of view; through recycling one does not pay for the exploitation of labour and nature.
Obviously these actions do not aspire to save the world from environmental disaster or solve economic injustices, but rather live in accordance with a certain environmental and social consciousness.
Cleaning up waste is a useful and necessary role in any society. This work also needs to be part of an individual’s habits, rather than expect it to be fully executed by scientific experts in sustainability. It is however a lot of work. The time and effort invested on our part in recycling waste materials is not comparable to the time and effort spent working for money to buy similar materials and work with them. Often the recycling process involves a lot more operations and creative manoeuvres before materials serve your intended purpose. In this way we live largely at our own expense, through our own labour, not at the expense of the environment or through the labour of (exploited) others.
Actor 2, the places we park
Perhaps the parasitic relation is in our relation with the places we park? This case is more difficult, for the relation with the places we park is very different every time depending on the specific place. Therefore we will single out five cases where we will individually discuss the situations, dwelling a little longer on the current situation at the Bijloke.
The farm, Sprundelsebaan 60
It is possible when squatting in the NL that we would have been perceived as parasites (by police or supermarkets’ managers), but that is a very different situation. There we were part of a movement, which was in itself looked down upon by the conservative public of Breda, where we used to live. The keet in itself was never before perceived this way, and we don’t think it is an appropriate term to use to describe it.
On our relation with the squatted historical monument farm in Breda (the place we started to build the keet at), I have already wrote a consistent article for the magazine of the Bucharest Biennale Of Contemporary Art. The online version can be found here: Viata la squat.
Because it is written in Romanian, and Google translate might be problematic, I will try to summarize the parts of its content which refer to our win-win exchanges with the grounds of the farm. What we benefited from the place, as in all cases, is the absence of rent.
The farm was occupied by squatters in 2007; dead animals, syringes and feces were cleaned out. The association owning the farm, WSG is mainly occupied with speculation of historical monuments and demolishing of social housing in favour of building prestige projects; at the time mentioned in the media as being involved in the dissappearance of 64 million euros from public money.
Our definition of speculation is: possessing various properties with the sole purpose of reselling them at a time when that would make the most profit, without considering the condition of the property itself, social effects, the withdrawal from the market of those properties, rising prices etc., and the general destruction of monument buildings in order to build fast, new, ugly and cheap buildings.
In opposition to the plans of the WSG to leave the farm to crumble over time (a year, 3, 10, 20), our contribution by occupying it, was to preserve the cultural heritage of the area by maintaining the building. At least until it will have been resold, torn down and built a sauna in its place.
Our giving back for the parking on the grounds of a small piece of forest, after the farm eviction was purely practical, as the owners themselves never came there and didn’t have the time for it: maintainance of the grounds, the trees especially since Daniel has a diploma in Forestry, and pollination (at the time we had several bee hives).
The six months agreement at the Verbeke Foundation was also very straight forward. Daniel and I had the status of artists in residence; in exchange of food and a place to park, three days of the week we would help the museum with museum work, the rest of the days we would work on our own project, which was the keet.
Maybe for our stay at DOK this question is the most unfitting, as the founding concept of DOK is that it is the collaboration between several organisations, or individuals. Together or separately they organise various recreational events like flea markets, concerts, circus, exhibitions etc.
During our one year at DOK, as bewoners, we had several participations in creative manoeuvres and interventions. One of them was the keet itself, but also we built and organised the Tiny exhibition project, participated in conferences on sustainability, gardening etc.
But maybe this questions of 'give what back?’ in this case would be asked to DOK itself. What does DOK give back to the municipality? We think the municipality, and all 3000 people present at DOK on a sunny summer day are all happy DOK exists. DOK uses a ground which would otherwise only be the set for hipster photographic sessions (the industrial background is a great theme for amateur photography). DOK makes people happy; it captures the atmosphere, attitudes and values of Gent, which in the city centre area, especially in the summer, are a little lost between tourists. And for us as bewoners it was a great place for thinking and building creatively.
The BIjloke, KASK
First of all what needs to be clarified is that the keet at this moment, in this place, is a school project. This is the first reason we are here for, to further develop a school project. One of the question which was addressed to us 'What we give back to the school?’ can as well be 'What does one give back to his/her teacher?’. Is a student a parasite because he or she makes use of the facilities and knowledge that belong to the school (ateliers, garden, libraries, expertise of teachers, etc)?
[Also, some other examples would be the people from the neighbourhood that make use of the same garden of KASK as us, they come here everyday to let their dogs run free. What do they directly, give back to the school? Or what did the pigs that were placed at KASK by Spilvarken offered back to the school?]
The keet fits as a public intervention in the school context precisely because we are enrolled in school. It is still in the stage of an experiment; a research we are conducting while being here at the Bijloke and which we briefly tried to introduce in the school presentation.
But we assume the question was in regards to us, as individuals, not students. As individuals, we believe the school, a platform for developing intellect and skill practices, regarded our project significant for their own activity. Interestingly enough, in the past, the school, which for a very long time was a cisternian monastery, was guided by ideas of returning to manual labour, self-sufficiency, simplicity in the way of living (and also in architecture) etc. We recognize up to an extent some of these ideals set by the cistercian sisters in our own occupations, and therefore the common ground for the partnership.
But who owes what to whom?
In the text above we have first sought to define parasitism, finally settling on the following 'ecological’ definition for our analysis: “an organism which lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the other’s expense.”
Then we demonstrated by analysing our interactions with different actors in our environment this definition cannot be applied to us. Furthermore we looked at the effects our interactions have to the rest of society. In economic theory these effects are called externalities.
However, in considering the interests of actors we interact with, as well as the externalities, we are using a very specific language, economic language. We were in a way forced to adopt this language, as we started with the notion of the parasite. The notion of parasite assumes this utilitarian morality, where morality boils down to a business deal, albeit one that that subscribes to CSR. Pay what one owes, fulfill ones’ debts.
This is not the place to develop a critique of this morality, though it should be mentioned we find it problematic, and will shortly introduce why. In criticising this language, this morality, we make freely use from the works of anthropologists Mauss and Graeber.
At the start of Plato’s 'Republic’ Book I we find Cephalus arguing a similar position to the one described above. He replies to the question 'What is justice?’ with the simple reply 'to pay ones debts and tell the truth’. Socrates doesn’t agree: 'What if someone borrows me his sword, after which he goes violently insane and wishes it back to kill people? Is it just to return what I owed?’ Basically the rest of the book tries to figure out what morality is then, if it cannot simply be reduced to paying one’s debts.
Not all debts can be paid, or are even supposed to be paid. We owe a debt to our parents. We owe a debt to composers of music for the music they left us. We owe a debt to philosophers and scientists for the thoughts they still communicate to us. We owe a debt to humanity for sustaining our life. A religious person might imagine this as our debt to God. We can never pay these debts, but we can transcend them. We transcend the debt to our parents by becoming parents, to philosophers and scientist by building on their foundations, to humanity by becoming humane.
Maybe the question of what we give back to De Bijloke is a wrong question. Maybe we shouldn’t image our relation to the school as a cold win-win exchange, a business deal of some sort. Even though neoliberal politics tries to push this image of the school as business, and us students as consumers. Maybe it is a part of our ongoing relation to the world at large, and we answer to the hospitality we encountered at the Bijloke by becoming hospitable ourselves.
On different conceptions of Work
Work was mentioned during the feedback as another problematic ethical issue related to the keet and our lives. We have experienced considerable difficulty trying to place this 'ethical’ concern. To clarify our position in relation to work maybe it’s helpful to elaborate on two very different definitions of work, and see how we relate to both concepts.
The concept of work can be thought of in a rather narrow sense. Work is what you do to make money. In return for work, you receive money which you can use to sustain yourself, your family or contribute it to other causes.
In this commonsensical definition what gets lost is the work for which you are not paid. Feminists have stressed this point in relation to housework (cleaning, cooking, child rearing (reproductive work)). Voluntary work is lost too, whether it is building shelters for refugees or helping your disabled neighbour with shopping or cleaning. Another example would be to help out your parents in the garden or explain the way to the STAM to some lost tourists. Also work to sustain yourself directly gets lost, like skipping for food and materials, building your house etc. Only work mediated by this system of organized labour fits the definition.
It is not true we don’t work, even in the narrow conception of work. At times we have to. But we prefer to keep this kind of work to a minimum, seeking ways of work that sustain us more directly. We prefer a wider definition, that includes all constructive efforts to change the environment around, not just those for which you get money. We relate stronger to the wider definition, and most of our efforts fall within this field. Here it doesn’t just concern work for ourselves, but also work done for others.
There is stigma associated with not working for money, or trying to avoid to work for money. This stigma is taken to an extreme in contemporary Belarus, where one is yearly fined for being unemployed. Here we stumble upon a contemporary use the word parasite; the crime committed for being unemployed is labeled 'parasitism’. But functioning outside paid labour structures is not just criminalized in Belarus, all over Europe the unemployed 'parasite’ is evoked to destroy welfare systems.
We might risk the thesis that contemporary use of 'parasite’ within the neoliberal ideological framework does to some extent apply to us. We don’t make it our lives’ purpose to contribute to the accumulation of capital. As noted we do contribute in this fashion, but as little as possible. Obviously contributions in a wider definition of working are not counted and personal circumstances ignored in this frame.
Our current status in society is that of students. Within the neoliberal framework most students would be labelled parasites, except maybe those whose parents are rich enough to pay the full price of education, and do so in private institutions. Possibly after graduation, when our statute as student is ended, we start to work for a bank and finally contribute.
On exalting certain way of life and arrogance
We are aware of certain stereotypes. Our very normal lives are somehow inevitably romanticized and possibly remind people of: the return to nature, the simple and beautiful living, travellers, the 60s hippies etc. We don’t find these associations troubling; with most of them, of course we share certain elements, whether they are purely esthetical, practical, or similar in philosophy. It is also natural that people try to, by association, fit things, any things, into a larger context. We don’t understand in any way how the keet could remind of arrogance and exalting a certain way of life.
This would presume the keet did have a certain conceptual preparation and planning prior to its construction. It didn’t. Keet glorifies itself, not through our observations, explanations, presentations… When addressing these matters, what is completely neglected is the beauty of the making. Not the beauty of the keet, the beauty of the making of the keet. The energy invested in building it, covering three years of our lives can not be described. The confidence and passion that we dedicate to the project, was mistaken with arrogance and exalting of a way of life (what way of life?). The construction of the space is for us the visualisation and materialization of all our thoughts and experiences, that cannot be reproduced in words.
Our uncomfortable answer to the question 'What do you give back to the school?, 'We hope it is not arrogant to say, but maybe, in the context of public intervention, people can question their own way of life..’ could not be further developed because it got interrupted by 'You don’t want to sound arrogant, but you are arrogant, exalting a certain way of life…’
As at the moment we were not allowed to defend or continue to build a full answer, we will try to do it now. If we visit Ana, who lives in a 9m2 kot, we question her way of life too. We question the way of life of a princess living in a castle, and the life of a farmer living on a farm. And out of that questioning, we try to form a living philosophy of my own. Our response did not in any way suggest that we disrespect other ways of living or think our way is in any way superior. We are curious, inspired and motivated by all kinds of thinking, being and living.
Maybe this idea of arrogance was drawn from the statement that the keet is the “accumulation of our past experiences and naive beliefs in 'the good’ or 'the right thing to do’ ”. We make here the note that no matter how 'perfect’ we appear to try to make our lives, they are not. Keet is not perfect, we are not perfect, because we are well aware that life and living in general are not and cannot fully be perfect. We agree with Camus and Cioran (especially in his 'The Trouble with being Born’). Both rebellion and living in acceptance, are actually ways of acceptance, and that starts with the absurdity of being born and ends with the absurdity of dying. In the end we all die; death is a given we accept from birth. But it is nevertheless not wrong to be naive. Time kills us, we kill time; what we try to propose is to kill time nicely. We add here a nice quote from John Cage describing music: “a purposeless play” which is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living”.
The keet as Public Intervention
The keet we consider functions as a public intervention by placing it, with us living there in a public or semi-public context. We engage with the dynamic of the location and encounter different people as we settle a location. The keet should not only be seen as the monologue of Bianca and Daniel, but also as a tool which can be used by the local community to help start up conversations and think of possibilities over matters of living, standards, privacy, waste, even work as demonstrated in this essay.
We don’t praise the way we live, especially not in contradiction with other ways of living. We present an alternative that we believe has its place within society, without idealising it as the best and only way. And we of course hope the society will consider it a valid alternative and help build the necessary administrative and legal infrastructure for it to develop.
Placing ourselves in such a public space (with or without a choice or specific purpose), offers a very direct confrontation with aspects of life which are normally taken for granted. At KASK we experience privacy at a completely different level than the current worry and discussion on Google, Amazon or governments which have and make use of our personal data for their own interest. Once we arrived at KASK, we made curtains for our windows and exclaimed 'Now we finally have privacy.’ Questions of privacy affect us directly. How much of my personal life we owe to communicate or show to the public, and how much are we allowed to keep for myself?
Also, at the time of the feedback when questioned about our work ethics, we were not allowed to re-explain the reference we made to Walter Benjamin (the separation of work and free time) and how it related to our project. We were told we should use our own theories, not others’. Presentation extract:
’(reference to Walter Benjamin) Only with the Industrial Revolution the distinction between private life and public life was made. Before this moment in history, somebody’s home would also be their atelier/work space, while after the Industrial Revolution people were forced to work in factories for a specific amount of hours. The separation of private from public life is then a consequence of the division between working hours and free time.
So then this idea seen in the keet is historically not unheard of, but what happens is that it takes a very absurd shape, as of course the rest of the world/ city is organised very differently and we are placed in the centre of it…’
During the presentation several factors hindered this or similar conversations from arising. Though some interesting points were made by the students, the input coming from the teachers did not let go a nice flow of associations, an honest and open encounter as we expected.
But probably the most disappointing of all for us is that, because of the unexpected turn of events, we forgot to show everybody present our shower!
Because we were confused about the feedback, we asked the teachers to shortly explain some of the terms through e-mail, here attached. This information arrived after most of our text was already written. Nevertheless we feel our reflextion is still valid.
Me too, very busy this week… Lets wait with talking about all that on Friday. I just add a note here, that the notion of parasite (which actually came through X), was not necessarily meant as a bad thing, more as a choice of relating in a certain way to the environment. this choice is an ethical one and as such calls for reflection.
Parasitism is a form of life: a guest lives from the host.
There is nothing wrong with it as long as there is a balance and/or compensation.
We mentioned the element of parasitism in connection to ethical questions as well as to a felt exalting way of communicating about your work and life.
> 2.the ethical question of work
Ethical is every action that involves or relates to others: how does the Keet involve or relate to others?
If the Keet doesn’t want to involve or relate to others, what are the ethics of the Keet? >>> Diogo: maybe your work doesn’t want to contribute - and that is ok.
In that case the Keet would oppose to the assumed ethics of most of our today’s liberal economy, where sharing and contributing is becoming an obsession.
someone gives the impression of being arrogant when it seems that s/he doesn’t need the other or the feedback from the surrounding…
… when it seems that s/he is not approachable …
> 4.exalting a certain way of life- what way of life exactly and how do we exalt it
… although i don’t think that it is your purpose, the way you talk about your work 'glorifies’ a certain negation of today’s society. The problem is not the negation, but the glorification.
As with any kind of 'heightening one form of life over another’ an ideology comes along.
And even that wouldn’t be a problem as long as you acknowledge it.
My question than would be: why worshipping an ideal way of living.
And I am curious about your answers - as you are the one creating attention for a work/life, called Keet.
I hope this helps a bit …
Some random notes
We hope this essay will have proved the point that we are not parasites. However, manual labour was set back a week.
To be a parasite is not a matter of choice, but of social labelling.
A parasite walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Get out! No parasites are welcome in this bar.” The parasite says, “Well, you’re not a very good host.”