Looking for the Parasite
Conversation between Gabriela Acha and Richard Sides
by Gabriela Acha Richard Sides

Richard Sides, Dwelling, 2019, Photo by Stefan Stark

Gabriela Acha: We started this conversation one year and a half ago, in the frame of the Ars Viva Prize 2021, which you won along with Rob Cross and Sung Tieu and it feels like life as we knew it had shifted dramatically ever since. In 2019, I visited your exhibition „Dwelling“ at the Kunstverein Braunschweig even before that, before the pandemic. I want to look back at this moment in time to set a frame of reference for your work, as the questions you bring up, such as the existential anxiety caused by information overflow, lack of control and mindless consumption, only became more relevant with time. 

In your use of film and architecture you look at socially excluded forms of living to evade this angst. In the past years we have become too familiar with this confinement format, yet what we have encountered differs essentially from the search of a deeper, more meaningful and pure existence of the hermit [1]. Topics like hermitage, primitive hut architectures and life at the edge of society are examined by Ann Cline in A Hub of One’s Own. Characters such as Japanese poet Kamo no Chōmei [2], who secluded himself and lived in solitude for years are influential in your way of approaching “marginal” architectures of reclusion, exclusion and withdrawal. You seem to develop ways of observing social structures through your approach to architecture. Can you expand on this? 

Richard Sides: Our common understanding of aesthetics is often an educated one, perhaps a stuffy way of thinking, but in the realm of architecture it quickly gets nerdy. Its language is extravagant and illustrative and we can observe where there is a line between a need for basic functionality and dominant architectural tropes. Initially for the project Dwelling – if there was an objective – was to dissolve the strategic “frameworks” that are inherently at play in everyday relations to architecture, and more importantly property. Architectural installation and video were the outcome of this. 

Ann Cline’s thesis seemed relevant to thinking about “enclosures” and my plans to build a makeshift hut. Many of her questions about where architecture ends and her research into the history of the hermit I found insightful. It led me to think about the diametrically opposite points of the folly (the decorative) and the makeshift hut (something arguably on the edge of, or outside of, architecture). These boundaries informed the relationship between the installed elements in the exhibition. Displayed inside the structures, videos proposed narrative structures that riffed on issues of control, technology and individuality, and what we’re talking about here into a representative form.

GA: Indeed, at Kunstverein Braunschweig’s remise the figure of the hermit was present in Dwelling (2019), the wooden hut which took over most of the exhibition space, in which the film Midnight in a Perfect World (2019) was looped. The film narrates the parallel stories of two characters who appeal to isolation from society as a way to transcend the overwhelm of hyper consumption and fast pace of western life. You mentioned Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, as a background influence in your work for Peter’s character. Kaczynski was a promising mathematician who, after being the object of experiments by the American intelligentsia and getting fed up with the misuse of technology, escaped to a remote spot and devoted his life to sending bombs over the mail. Do you think of hermit forms as mechanisms to escape burnout and lack of control over a reality informed by chaos, misinformation and consumerism?

Richard Sides, Midnight in a Perfect World, Video Still, 2019

Whilst producing these works, especially the video, the conversations leading up to shooting were repeatedly coming back to questions around withdrawal – withdrawing from specific social “pressures” or ways of living and whether this is a viable option. To me, this quickly becomes moralistic, and generally problematic; a dichotomy I am particularly forced into living as a generational Millennial in Western Europe. There’s a scale one can imagine that slides from one end where collectivity sits – with its ideas for living and working together, to the other – there sitting the individual. That feeling married with a reality that is “on the clock” then a political identity is felt, engrained and engendered into everything we do, and of course for the majority of citizens experiencing life within the 21st century Western society, we have to have our own place to dwell – a home. Obviously this works out pretty well for a fair amount of people, a lot of my friends and colleagues included, but with this being the dominant aspiration (buying property) it makes for a dissonance where many, if not most people, are being left behind and told to either accept this and get on board, or to fight and expect a potentially very hard time if you expect progress to be made towards a more inclusive management of capital. 

Midnight in a Perfect World was a sardonic, and slow exploration of some of these feelings and observations; a tendency to find ways of surviving whilst still saving face and appearing normal, rather than desperate. There’s an inane drive to find a language for this, be it philosophical, religious or more pragmatically political. Throughout the film the conversational tone slowly leads us through fictional relationships where what’s at stake has to change – how one lives drives one character to “go offline” after already experiencing living in a “pod” as an alternative – a pod in which themselves and co-workers are being experimented on with collective consciousness. How can one maintain an ideal within which collectivity seems like something to strive for, yet conservative individuality is sold to us as the only realistic way one can truly survive?

In the video, these moral aspects end up in the slipstream of a more humorous tone. The works depicted how withdrawing might be, with an emphasis on why and from what or who. Here, the “who” is a fictional character, the protagonist’s coercive boss, Mark. In that sense, it becomes more focussed on challenging the psychological stresses that arise from manipulative information streams and the status quo of “being in control”; perhaps why we too often feel the need to make sense of social codes that lead to power dynamics outside of one’s “control”. In particular reference to Mark, he symbolises the oppression, and perhaps suppression that Peter (the protagonist) feels enticed by but yet victim of. Something often implied as part of one’s responsibility and to put it more simply: if we disconnect from society with frustration and disgust, is it still a form of apathy?

GA: Indeed, power dynamics that affect people but can’t be controlled nor made sense of might lead to withdrawal but far from apathy, some forms of withdrawal can serve, as Cline puts it, the road to modern longing. She recalls the dusty highway to Paris, Texas, that through Ry Cooder’s guitar exists in our minds as “invisible, untraceable landscapes of existential authenticity and imagined fulfilment”. [3] In your work, popular culture material such as Parasite God (Mortiis), In Every Dream Home a Heartache (Roxy Music), Reckless (Australian Crawl), The Jinx (HBO miniseries) provide narrations on their own. They act almost as sub-narratives telling stories within the stories. Could you expand on the deliberation in these choices and how they interact with the overarching narratives?

RS: Thanks, that’s a compelling way to think about it. Deliberate semiotic allusions formed when using particular music, the lyrics and historical contexts, can for sure expand the intention of the edit – a meta-narrative perhaps… I like to think this is a critical question directed towards popular “manipulative” techniques within Cinema: Melodrama, Tarantino, Wong Kar-Wai… from post-modern 90s films to mainstream television, subliminal advertising etc. I also like what happens when you realise how much the relationship between image, sound and “reference” can lead somewhere more abstract than initially expected. It’s also a bit pathetic how much power certain kinds of affect hold. In the case of Midnight in a Perfect World, some of the choices were much more calculated and imply a “Po-mo”, overcooked editing style. As soon as you hear Roxy Music over time-lapse footage of the rising sun coming into an apartment, you might start to think it means something. The question of whether it is just enough when left open-ended without additional music – to play with varying densities of information is a challenging compositional approach: what is intentional and what happens by chance?

Richard Sides, The Argument, 2020, Phone photo by Richard Sides

GA: Some other artists have implemented chance in their work to bring it closer to life, such as John Cage, who was interested in the unexpected as a system of composition, but once a composition is out there, it is unavoidably exposed to randomness. Same happens even with objects designed to serve a purpose, as for instance when furniture in public space is not necessarily used as intended. Your installation The Argument (2020) is inspired by public space benches meant to exclude certain marginal groups in society. These forms of hostile architecture reference the clash between intentionality and usage and the meaning of “public” in the public space. What are your thoughts on this and how do forms of random (civic) insurgency inform your work?

RS: For The Argument I made a series of benches that morphed in shape and design. They were made for the MAK in Frankfurt as a response to, firstly not being allowed to install benches outside as I had proposed, but then inside the building not being able to hang works on the walls due to architectural law.

Hostile architecture is usually integrated into public benches to stop bodies from lying horizontally and sleeping. Frustrated by this and the situation I built seating that didn’t integrate these all too common obstacles. In fact I made a series of five benches, all from the same materials, that evolve from the shape of a basic single bed through to a more classical, ergonomic park bench. Here, I also liked to think about how the benches shapes reference those ubiquitous t-shirts which show the evolutionary cycle of man slowly standing upright and turning towards something more daft or dystopic, i.e. hunched over a computer doing bureaucracy. 

The benches were then hosts to smaller “box” sculptures, perhaps parasites, that allude to various “mental blocks”, groups of people, diagrammatic vignettes and contradictory subjects. There was also a sculpture of a robot and the sequence of objects started with a water inlet and ended with a water outlet; flows in a system. The benches became the host to an argument, or perhaps the whole work is argumentative in an irritatingly passive way by diverting any logical narrative or clear set of references – what could seem initially a coded set of statements but ultimately appearing guarded and aloof. A bit like someone who can retain information but struggles to form coherence and listen to others when discussing. Arguments build from frustration, ideological opposition and a lack of managing one’s response or expectations. 

I also thought a lot about how you might often choose to use the ease of a public bench for an uneasy discussion outside of a more personal, domestic space. Which could lead back to “insurgency” and in this sense, the “misuse” of public architecture that ranges from reappropriating space for gathering, vandalism/graffiti, protesting, pissing, sleeping and living in public space. Not all of these are political with a capital ‘P’, but they are what represents the community attributed to a public space. It seems too often that the ideological functions of public spaces – the architecture, the demographic, the maintenance – oppose who is engaging within them. It manages aspiration counterintuitively, designing certain people and others’ needs without fostering for all. Can we adapt? I recently moved into an apartment in Berlin and on the contract the landlord had worked out the price for the rent based on an equation including many factors, one being a percentile function based on the area being “simple”, which in the city there are three: simple, desirable and awesome! Someone is willing to accept that in the office.

Richard Sides, The Daily Mirror, 2021, Photos by Stefan Korte

GA: Today, whoever is not considered productive under specific standards is regarded as a parasite. Getting value without returning it is socially dismissed and a reason for exclusion. Michel Serres thinks parasitic relations are interceptions in a system and are not unidirectional, questioning who in these social entanglements is the actual parasite. Are we not all in a way? Is Midnight in a Perfect World’s ghost character – and sect leader Mark – the ultimate parasite? Who and where is the parasite in your work? 

RS: I like this idea of trying to draw out systems from the world and how flow is vital for a system to work, but the design of a system isn’t always the most efficient – how pathways often get formed off the beaten path, or how slime mould will find more direct routes around systematic obstacles, ants etc. It’s more about adaptation and a question of what can be adapted? An argument is a form of adapting.

Everyone is a parasite to a system based on participation: the symbolic flow (capital, politics, personal statistics, energy etc.) gets absorbed and utilised based on need. As an artist I am in many ways the parasite, I often appropriate found media and edit it into something that redirects its original function. The drive to do this isn’t a function I think of as ethical or in most situations appropriate in response to context - I don’t really make art with preconceived intentions, so to lament on what I do, it feels dishonest to I am a reliable participant.

Going back to Mark, he is a powerful kind of parasite and alludes to the regulator of a system, in the way they absorb the work, energy, ideas and even experiences of their colleagues. They live vicariously through others. It’s a very privileged idea of excessiveness – beyond need. I think of this character as an emotional vampire whose only interests are a kind of nihilistic hedonism. I’m also open to the idea of this character as a bot: an artificial intelligence that mines Peter for his opinions and work ethic, a reversal of the master-slave dynamic. To be bold, maybe the cybernetic binary of the parasitic is an outdated idea now and the flow of needs and codependency is more complicated in all walks of life. It’s also quite nightmarish to think how many suggestive seeds of information and data interpretation goes into ubiquitous personal technology platforms, especially since knowing of the likes of Cambridge Analytica and an abundance of domestic time to waste during the Covid-19 pandemic. It's how most people navigate the world and a thriving economy which we can only hope is a fad.

Richard Sides, The Daily Mirror, 2021, Photos by Stefan Korte

GA: The Daily Mirror film, shown at Fluentum in 2021, is a continuation of Midnight in a Perfect World. The first was produced during one of the lockdowns, and the latter prior to the pandemic. Almost visionary, Midnight in a Perfect World captures certain topics that have become today’s status quo but which entail a very different nature, both turning our gaze inwards, to the objects and actions of the everyday – looking at everyday objects so closely that they lose their apparent meaning. The film points at altered states of mind and psychedelia as a form of insurgency, and your characters get rewired through evasion and presence. Their delusional states can be both a form of breakdown or healing and the references to The Matrix and other dystopian narratives are recurrent, which perceive life as a simulacra happening solely in our brains. Can you expand on the idea of the glitch and how our cognitive wiring affects our perception of the overwhelming information streams? What role does this play in your work and is delusion the only “way out”?

RS: Dwelling and Midnight in a Perfect World are somewhat studies of solitude and withdrawal, and through the lockdown and eventual change in social dynamic they mirror that. As social reality has shifted, I wonder how tested any desires to withdraw have become. It isn't desirable for Neoliberal economics that its enlightened workers are given too many reminders of Enlightenment’s evil twin: meaninglessness. Can we find meaning in our inner space when withdrawing becomes more real? 

Previous western traditions that package mortality fail and the potential for falling into the Pit of the Void has become more universal. This enables us to think that the stigma around ‘no self’ and the idea of existential dread can now be looked at without being thrown into the awkward frame of mental instability. This is a theme in Midnight in a Perfect World which was framed as a more rebellious, self-initiated act, a seemingly pathetic problem. Instead of just working on one’s self, coming to terms with ‘no self’ is probably a collective issue in a post-traumatic kind of way. By normalising and sharing experiences of collective despair we can maybe achieve stronger bonds that allow us to understand our humanity in more complex and fulfilling ways. Or perhaps it’s a confrontation that we quickly forgot?

The Daily Mirror followed an idea of conversation as a was to bounce desires and personal experiences off one another. It seems impossible to know right now what the lasting effects of Covid will be. But we know our lives have been historicised as before and after the pandemic. In that sense, it’s tricky to really place things in relation to the evolving situation. Capitalism acts as a virus in its hacking of the brain, pushing it to be more and more productive and although this was abruptly interrupted with the need for new perceptions in the absence of work, I wonder what develops out of that helps us to forget. We were also starved of certain kinds of socialising that we had taken for granted. Something it proved was spontaneity can be given more space, fostering new forms of collective identity, whatever that may be. People can be the change they want to see in the world? It’s scary to think things can happen unregulated, but maybe it’s the only relative way to learn things for real, with real consequences. Some of the protests and ideological shifts have already proved there’s potential for social progress.

[1] Ann Cline, A Hut of One's Own: Life Outside the Circle of Architecture, 1998, MIT Press
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.