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//Something sensible on my precarity.// Arek Parasite talks to Marcin Zalewski

Something sensible on my precarity. Arek Parasite talks to Marcin Zalewski

A few weeks ago Igor Stokfiszewski asked me to write an article for the MOCAK Forum. He told me the issue would be devoted to art and class, to art’s economic and symbolic dimensions and that myself, with my parasitism and artistic tactics, would fit into the section on precarity. I was intrigued – after all, already before that, having read various texts about culture and the proletariat, I felt I belonged to the precariat. But to comment on it, to speak with its voice? For me this was much too theoretical. My first thought, after the conversation with Igor Stokfiszewski, was: “I do not feel I could say anything sensible about this. I would have to find time, which I don’t have, and write something coherent about it. To do so, I would have to read some book or other really in depth, which would inspire me to sit down and write”. Too many woulds. Then I thought: “So maybe I could involve someone else in this project? Someone who could say something sensible, moreover something sensible about me. It is going to be somewhat parasitical, not too much work for me (and after all, I am the one getting paid). On top of that, it will be much more interesting and to the point. I am going to talk to my friend who knows my work and, generally, has more to say. I even hope that this conversation will help me to find new directions for my work”.

Arek Parasite: Marcin, you have known me for a while. Do you think I belong to the precariat? If so, I would be interested to know what makes you think so. If not, why not?

Marcin Zalewski: This question is important from the point of view of the history of modern culture: did the emergence of the artistic profession, the way we conceive of it today, foreshadow the social concept of a precarian? Maybe it all happened much earlier: always hungry, perpetually in debt and without any stability, painters or singers, let’s say in the Middle Ages, had to move from place to place in order to find commissions either on a village fair or in the local church. Artists, who were constantly on the go, always hunting for jobs, unable to settle down, build a house or start a family, dreamt about finding a sponsor. But even if they managed to do so, they got a contract with the length of notice entirely dependent on the sponsor’s temperament. At the time, apprenticeships were usually arduous, morally questionable (an apprentice’s work was signed by the master), and promotions uncertain. Few achieved stability, satisfaction was even rarer.

We like to joke about it but the social status of art did change radically during the Romantic period to then, in the time of the avant-gardes, become completely different from popular forms of work and employment. It was this moment of mass modernization and consequent globalization that divided the labour world into two: those who work for practical reasons and those who seek job satisfaction. Artists undoubtedly resist seeing the world in rational terms and the main goal of their work is the pursuit of pleasure. This is the first reason why you are not a precarian – your professional ambitions are incompatible with the principles of modernity, which the precariat embodies.

Of course, at this point we can also invoke the (yet again modernist) myth of the artist who absorbs creative energy from smoky air and sticky tables in cafés. Many of our friends operate in this way: they work on various rather vague “projects” , only very occasionally producing a true work of art. Proportions obviously differ but the mechanism is the same: I earn making some worthless rubbish in order to finance my own works, which, for now, do not bring money but give me a lot of satisfaction. Your case is more complicated: you paint pictures for sale, which allows you to make a decent living, but you do not see is as a fully legitimate artistic endeavour. Seemingly those paintings are a part of your creative strategy but you keep saying that this is still just a means to financing those projects “which require immersion”. One may wonder to what extent this is true. After all, you are a painter, not a precarian.

AP: As you rightly said, I started to do those paintings as a part of my strategy. Already at the very beginning of my parasitising I experienced considerable financial problems because [before] I had been employed here and there. Becoming a parasite meant that I had to give up all other jobs. I wanted to live entirely from making art. Initially, I did not want to produce any objects for sale, pure artistic activity was what I wanted to earn a living from, to have enough for accommodation, food and other pleasures. With time, I started manufacturing things that were equivalent to situations, namely Sporulated Forms, small white pieces of canvass sprayed with my sperm. Later, I began making small installations called Insert a coin everywhere I went. This was meant to be another source of income. My paintings are a similar idea. They do fit within my general strategy but they are not what it is really about so let us come back to my actions. Inviting me to write down my parasitic manifesto, Igor Stokfiszewski was particularly interested in ephemerality and instability of my art. Do you also see it like that?

MZ: What comes out here is your slightly more complex relationship with contemporary forms of work or housing, which does not make you a precarian but rather a person who plays with the elements related to precarity. The mere fact that you start with a manifesto and then carry out a programme which expresses your artistic attitude to the world moves you away from the hidden machinations of the global capital. Parasitism emerged within the relationship between the artist and the art world. Men and the world as their habitat or employer and employee – these themes started appearing when you outgrew your youthful defiance.

I think that the features mentioned by Stokfiszewski are not, in and of themselves, the goal of your artistic projects but rather consequences of the intensity with which you work. You are always very engaged in your art, ready for sacrifices, sometimes realizing and sometimes not that in the long term your topic is unreal, utopian or that you do not have that much time after all. Permanence is not your goal and one-off results, such support for a poor family, are equivalent to two months of working with the homeless. What it means is that you reconcile yourself with the fact that nothing is permanent and therefore it is worth doing all you can, looking for more and more extreme fields of activity, regardless of their “objective” social usefulness. This is why the result is always useful – because you get rid of the fear of ephemerality. Of course, the level of usefulness and the person who benefits vary. On the one hand, there are projects in which you are almost entirely focused on yourself and your internal struggles, projects that may be of interest to others only in the broader context of your work, like the one which involved begging near a gallery. On the other hand, some of your projects are nearly systemic such as DOM in Elbląg[i]. The lack of fear of ephemerality, which I mentioned before, can be seen as an asset because it fits in with the current precarious world order. But then again, you do not need an expert to tell you that the “invasion of helpfulness” is inefficient or even counterproductive. Some of your actions – ephemeral and inclusive forms of work, for example with socially dysfunctional communities – if not backed up by a strong organizational framework, become just isolated attempts at coaxing the participant to interact (which they very much need).

What is also quite telling is that you turned away from straightforward parasitism, that broadly speaking consisted in sponging, and towards hosting, which in fact amounts to artistic philanthropy (that is if art can really help the beneficiary). Was this change caused by the fact that the rather shallow formula of “only taking”, of arrogance and careless egoism was quickly exhausted? Or did it stem from your conscience and your unwillingness to work only within the limits set up by the art world? In my opinion, all of those reasons did play a role, which also explains the instability of your projects – their potentially interesting beneficiaries draw you to themselves. And the more interesting they are, the bigger challenge or adventure they constitute, the more involved you become in a new place, new city and public financing.

AP: My programme is based on the dissonance between parasitizing and hosting. But perhaps I only create an artificial situation, which no longer constitutes the essence of my art. Hence my question to you: what, in your opinion, is its essence? I try to ask myself this question fairly regularly but I will not deny it that it is nice to hear it from someone else.

MZ: Perhaps I am going too much into psychoanalysis here, maybe my interpretation is skewed by our friendship, but this is probably what conversations between two close friends about art are all about. Anyway, the mere fact you ask about the essence of your art shows that you are open to others and quite mature. And maturity is something people have denied you for a long time, claiming that the parasite was just a clown, a cheap provocateur. Perhaps, despite the current dominance of distance and irony, if your art deals with the most fundamental problems of life in the 21st century, you should not be so down to earth and focused of the material aspect of your works? Critics adore artistic reflections on the world pain, which are obviously more intellectually appealing than 500 zlotys given to a single mother and earned by selling a picture painted with children or to a homeless person who can have a coffee and paint still lifes in a sheltered space. This anti-intellectualism is possibly what constitutes the essence of your work. By anti-intellectualism I do not mean of course populism or disdain for all educated people, but rather the way of thinking about art, the artist’s role in it and in the world. In your case this is a combination of your desperate need to be socially useful and your ambition to create artistic situations based almost solely on your own experience. All attempts at heavy theorizing, building complex intellectual constructs or complicating various contexts do nothing but dilute your work, deprive it of its power and potential. They also bring it closer to that tiring, insipidly decadent gallery art, which you avoid at all costs, don’t you?

AP: That is right but there is no point talking about gallery art. I am probably not going to be able to avoid it completely, after all I do those paintings. But let me come back to precarity: how close is my art to this theme?

MZ: In my opinion quite close in that your art is inextricably connected with your status of a poor, young artist without financial means. Obviously the figure of an artist does differ in certain respects from that of a precarian but generally speaking, because you explore those themes, you have to be close. Anyway, this can be seen as the most recent wave of the avant-garde: contemporary art with its unstable and exploitative market was the vanguard of late capitalism. On the other hand, the fact that you now have a personal assistant in Lublin, someone to do your photocopying, buy supplies or run errands, definitely excludes you from the new poor. You are now amongst adults with certain status, serious citizens – that is in the world to which you allegedly would not like to belong. But the need for efficiency outweighs the desire to do everything, from pumping your bike to buying every last can of paint, single-handedly.

AP: All right, so if my work is so close to the material world and ordinary people, it can potentially influence them. Do you think it does?

MZ: Here again I am going to sing your praises. Or rather, I want to draw attention to the distinctiveness of your art. I feel slightly awkward to speak in such positive terms given that I am known to be quite a harsh critic of certain concepts. But then again I myself am an example of such influence. I am happy to see artistic projects that are very close to non-artistic endeavours. And whereas your manifesto or comments on the art world are not too profound (your motivations are quite prosaic), the way you work with people is valuable. Whilst carrying out your projects or during your artistic residencies you are close enough to the participants/co-creators that the notion of artistic agency is expanded. You give away a lot of agency to others, sometimes even without them realizing. The excess, the unforeseeable artistic effect becomes visible only afterwards, when one is watching from afar (for example in a gallery or online). Because of that this is not an immoral exploitation of people – they have an awareness that they cooperate with the artist. Even when they do not do anything, their mere presence, which is then used in making records or creating narratives about the action, becomes an element of the artistic jigsaw. And this is probably where your influence is the greatest: you give people the opportunity to touch art, whilst at the same time creating situations that benefit them financially or socially. Possibly this down-to-earth, intuitive and natural way of offering art to others is what works and stays with people. In my view, this is why you attract more interest as a social activist who carries out “projects” than as an artist who can quite adroitly and doubtless in a way that attracts the media raise a rankling social issue. A few years ago, you would probably be upset to hear this, but now you have found your bearings and built another persona for yourself: an export painter. A painter, an emigrant, a social activist and a nomad – and, given all this, maybe to some extent also a precarian?

Of course, your projects are not without controversy. Moving into a homeless shelter in order to gain a better understanding of the people who live there and develop ways of working with them may meet with resistance. It may be seen as pretentious and unduly theatrical. Worse still, sometimes it turned out that such an intriguing and, in theory, laudable strategy based on empathetic conversation failed to attract participants. People simply refused to engage. Was it because your ideas were far-fetched and the social context ill-chosen? Or was it due to your good-natured naivety? This is an open question. After some time it would be worthwhile to ask the Roma from Brno or the workers from the butcher’s in Nowe Miasto Lubawskie what they think about that strange guy who a few years before was so desperately trying to help them in anything he could.

Translation: Dorota Malina

[i] DOM [Polish for house] consisted in building a dwelling in the public space exclusively from materials that have been found and collected.
[i] Arek Parasite DOM, part of the 2013 Awakening programme, Art Centre Gallery EL, curated by Karina Dzieweczyńska