Using the User: Parasites and Hacktivism

On December 5th, 2013, I went to see a talk at the University of Toronto’s iSchool by Anna Watkins Fisher, who is currently an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, teaching in the Department of Performing and Media Arts. Her talk was titled “Playing the Parasite: The Art of Dependence in a Networked Age.” The talks hosted by the iSchool aren’t available to view online; however, I wanted to make mention of her concept of “parasitism,” which she uses to ‘map’ feminist, performative, interventions into digital platforms. In this two-part post, I want to go over some of the salient points in her presentation and then follow up the next week with a review of Michel Serres’ talk on the Digital Revolution, which is what Serres references to describe a transitory period, a period of crisis, in mankind. I follow up with Serres because Fisher draw her work on the ‘parasite,’ which is an analogy that describes the organization of human relations, primarily from him.

Fisher has developed the term ‘parasitism’ to describe the performative anti-strategies of users, who reconfigure dependency upon neoliberal host systems by essentially ‘using the user.’ The most prominent example she used, amazon-noir, was developed by UBERMORGEN.COM (German for “the day after tomorrow” and “super-tomorrow” ) in which artists Paolo Ceriu and Alessiandro Luduovicio conducted an “experiment:”  they broke into the digital library of using the “Search Inside” function, gaining access to about 3000 copyrighted books. You can read their blurb about the technology they used here. Interestingly, I wasn’t able to find any evidence of English media coverage when searching the newspaper archives on the university database. But here it says the story was covered by papers in Switzerland, Germany, Spain and Austria — the press clippings are listed although links aren’t provided.

Amazon, after offering kick-back bribes, which the artists rejected, ultimately ended up buying this technology back from them for an “undisclosed sum,” thus re-integrating the parasite into their host-system. Fisher’s uses the paradigm of hospitality (she traces back the concept of ‘parasite’ to the 17th century) to argue that users, who were once welcome as guests have now been supplanted in the modern period as parasite who takes, but doesn’t give. The state host conceals its hostility until the parasite exposes the host’s limits, revealing the host as ‘inhospitable’ – Fisher points out that the host is “user friendly but can’t be used in return.” This is a very general (and hopefully faithful) recall based on my very sketchy notes. What is really exciting about parasitism as strategy is that it allows for the development of a feminist, performative, politic in which artists/hacktivists can take advantage of increasingly blurred distinctions between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ so as to expose the hypocrisy of host systems. There are many questions, too, that Fisher raises about the feedback-loop in this strategy, in which the parasite (as in the case of Amazon) gets re-integrated back into the host. I’m looking forward to reading her forthcoming book.

For a more thorough account, see her publication in art&education, in which Fisher recounts her own experience at the receiving end of this strategy, when an artist requests to use her original work in an exhibition without attribution. It is here that you get a sense of how dangerous parasitism can be as a strategy upon which to base a feminist politics. She writes, “The parasite is both dangerous and generative precisely because it does away with the subject/object dichotomy and because there are no guarantees against its mechanisms.” Fisher also anticipates criticism of parasite-as-strategy and responds to anxieties by describing the ways in which artists can disrupt the “accumulative force” of performativity. You can decide if you find it a convincing argument.

If you’re interested in exploring “hacktivist” projects by the artists mentioned, see these projects: Google Will Eat Itself and Face to Facebook.

To conclude I leave you with a great inteview with artists Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico about Face to Facebook. There is a great discussion about the vulnerability of data: