Mak­ing art is dif­fer­ent from oth­er forms of work. Some would ques­tion whether it is even work­ing at all. Georges Bataille speaks of art as squan­dered ener­gy, offered with­out instru­men­tal pur­pose, counter to that pro­duc­tiv­i­ty con­tribut­ing to sur­vival and to social life.

Accord­ing to Eliz­a­beth Grosz, an aes­thet­ic expres­sive exu­ber­ance orig­i­nates with ani­mals, in the many evo­lu­tion­ary strate­gies under­tak­en by sex­u­al selec­tion. The extra­or­di­nary bio­di­ver­si­ty aris­ing on our plan­et express­es itself accord­ing to which bod­ies suc­ceed in pass­ing on their genet­ic infor­ma­tion in new com­bi­na­tions in any giv­en envi­ron­ment. Cer­tain traits will be deemed more advan­ta­geous while oth­ers more attrac­tive, these qual­i­ties get­ting passed on through the sex­u­al repro­duc­tion. Some traits are more behav­iour­al and there­fore passed on by imi­ta­tion (e.g. cul­ture). These expres­sions of life were made pos­si­ble by the con­di­tions on our plan­et, sit­u­at­ed in a Goldilocks zone—perhaps noth­ing more than a glitch in the his­to­ry of the uni­verse. The sun gives freely of its ener­gy, throw­ing into being an inor­di­nate range of life forms, and an abun­dance of con­sum­ables. This excess is expe­ri­enced as aes­thet­ic sen­su­ous plea­sure thanks to an infi­nite num­ber of mate­r­i­al com­bi­na­tions for dis­play, manip­u­la­tion, or expenditure.

While expres­sive extrav­a­gance in nature might be large­ly lim­it­ed to chem­i­cal affin­i­ty, and flo­ra and fau­na biol­o­gy, it extends itself pros­thet­i­cal­ly for humans in the pro­duc­tion of cul­ture. Bataille speaks of cul­ture negat­ing nature:

I sub­mit as a prin­ci­ple of incon­testable fact that man is an ani­mal who does not sim­ply accept the nat­ur­al giv­en, [But] who negates it. In this way, he changes the nat­ur­al exter­nal world; he derives from it tools and man­u­fac­tures objects that form a new world, the human world. Con­cur­rent­ly, man negates him­self; he trains him­self; he refus­es, for exam­ple, to give to the sat­is­fac­tion of his ani­mal needs, that free course on which the ani­mal places no restraint. It still must be grant­ed that the two nega­tions by man—of the giv­en world and of his own animality—are linked.”1

Human nega­tion of nature and of their innate ani­mal­i­ty aris­es no doubt from an acute sense of mortality—a reac­tion that might explain Bataille’s use of the word accursed” in the title of his three-vol­ume work The Accursed Share (La part mau­dite, 1949). The accursed share” points to the un-recu­per­a­ble expen­di­ture of mate­r­i­al ener­gy at the foun­da­tion of art (as well as non-repro­duc­tive erot­ic sex­u­al­i­ty), but also points to a com­mon desire to sur­pass one’s nat­ur­al lim­its. It is what humans come to share based on social implication—involvement in any num­ber of cul­tur­al rit­u­als. In for­mer times, this share would have expressed itself in the form of sac­ri­fi­cial offer­ings of pre­cious food­stuffs, objects, ani­mals, and even human life, to please or appease the gods. Art like­ly arose as activity/legacy co-exten­sive to such cult rit­u­als. Cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion of pros­thet­ic, sim­u­lat­ed, and arti­fi­cial life-forms also belie an accursedness—the desire to sur­pass and/or sub­sti­tute what is nat­u­ral­ly giv­en through manip­u­la­tion and con­sump­tion of life’s surplus.

While the abstract notion of nega­tion cen­tral to human cul­ture (of the Euro­pean vari­ety at least) is rarely rec­og­nized out­right as humans go about their day-to-day exis­tence, philoso­phers with a sur­plus of con­tem­pla­tive time on their hands have claimed nega­tion as foun­da­tion­al to the progress’ of human thought. No longer lim­it­ed to a life of labour or mere sur­vival, cul­ture binds social being under a com­mon accursed­ness, in a com­mon desire to over­come nature through mak­ing changes to the nat­ur­al exter­nal world.” At present, we find our­selves accursed with the fruits and dregs of these excess­es under the dom­i­na­tion of capital—no longer sim­ply nega­tion so much as ensur­ing the future death sen­tence of myr­i­ad species.

Sac­ri­fice was the first line of defense against all-out con­flict and dis­as­ter. The sun was seen to regain its bal­ance dur­ing care­ful­ly exe­cut­ed rit­u­als and trans­gres­sions, to ensure smooth tran­si­tion between sea­son­al cycles. A lit­tle spilled blood kept forces in bal­ance, any cat­a­clysm at bay. Once the ani­mistic dreams had fad­ed, any deeply felt rela­tion to the sacred was large­ly obfus­cat­ed by an even more elab­o­rate sys­tem of sub­sti­tu­tion and exchange based on accu­mu­la­tion. Earth­ly trea­sures were extract­ed, uti­lized, and wast­ed in the name of human inter­ests. There evolved a faith in human com­mu­nal­i­ty, enhanced by human works and labour, with­out any need for divine inter­ven­tion or any recog­ni­tion for the sur­round­ing biosphere’s intri­cate web as foun­da­tion­al to life. Sac­ri­fice remained a hid­den real­i­ty deci­pher­able in such rit­u­als as con­sum­ing the dai­ly news.

Art’s squan­der­ing of ener­gy and mate­ri­als to unpro­duc­tive ends plays a large part in our shared accursed­ness. What posi­tion do humans occu­py when they exit the realm of the ani­mal? One might deduce quite gen­er­al­ly: the realm of the law. It is how we came to nego­ti­ate a shared human con­di­tion, for bet­ter and for worse. Trans­gres­sion breaks the ten­sion of repressed desire and the tedi­um of abstract labour. Large­ly this is the labour one might not nec­es­sar­i­ly care about but which one under­stands as one’s social duty, one’s con­tri­bu­tion to the economy—fulfilling the required hours in exchange for a pay­cheque. But then there’s the type of work that takes the form of a project to construct/project a vision of the pos­si­ble’ that breaks the cycle of social apa­thy and injus­tice. When cap­i­tal gets its hands on it, the eth­i­cal nature of this activ­i­ty large­ly disappears.

Art shares its accursed­ness with the law, in the defin­ing of rules and lim­its, but art also takes on the role of push­ing up against the law, point­ing to trans­gres­sion as a way for­ward, toward new free­doms. Art is use­less to prac­ti­cal or instru­men­tal con­cerns, and yet it is an essen­tial sign of what it means to be human; when exe­cut­ed thought­ful­ly it express­es some­thing inher­ent­ly sin­gu­lar and his­tor­i­cal­ly con­tin­gent. It finds its most basic expres­sion in mate­r­i­al play—complexity accret­ing through tech­ni­cal inno­va­tion and his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness. One might sense that the play’ aspect has large­ly been rehearsed’ and iter­at­ed,’ as tech­nolo­gies are designed and come to be used by peo­ple in pre­dictable ways. This is revealed when an artist asks, How are social forces embed­ded in the body, and how do they find mate­r­i­al form?”2 How to address this in an artwork?

After cen­turies of cal­ci­fied social con­ven­tion and an increas­ing align­ment with exhi­bi­tion val­ue, art came to claim an avant-garde sta­tus, mak­ing it its mis­sion to counter high cul­ture through prop­a­gat­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideals mate­ri­al­ly, with the ulti­mate goal of social upheaval, change, and even utopia. Not just desir­ing what the oth­er desires (social mime­sis) but break­ing that cycle toward tak­ing greater respon­si­bil­i­ty in enact­ing dif­fer­ence, even shift­ing the course of history.

Art’s ontol­ogy is root­ed in humanity’s com­mon lot and com­mon ori­gins. It has con­tin­ued to be one of those sanc­tioned spaces of excess and con­tem­pla­tion, allow­ing the Peo­ple to par­take in shared expe­ri­ences that delve, quite often, into big­ger ques­tions. While art con­tin­ues to bring peo­ple togeth­er around a shared lan­guage of mate­ri­als, images, and affect, any notion of the sacred might now be trans­lat­ed as some fleshy remain­der”3 once cen­tral to sac­ri­fice. At best, art’s respon­si­bil­i­ty is to this fleshy remainder.

I offer this essay as a frame­work for think­ing about what these art­works might share despite their respec­tive dif­fer­ences: a height­ened sense of mate­r­i­al aes­thet­ic sen­su­ous­ness and accursed­ness as point of depar­ture. Works by Aleesa Cohene, Deb­o­rah Edmeades, and Derek Dun­lop share a com­mon desire to tap into the expres­sive vital­i­ty found with­in inan­i­mate matter—how, through process­es of artis­tic trans­for­ma­tion, new affec­tive mate­r­i­al forms come to res­onate in us. Brought togeth­er, these works shed light on the foun­da­tions of human rep­re­sen­ta­tion in sur­plus, com­bined with attempts at redemp­tion through intel­lec­tu­al engage­ment with this mate­r­i­al sur­plus. In a world where vir­tu­al­ly all life has been sub­sumed to cap­i­tal­ist ends, these art­works offer resis­tance to instru­men­tal modes of think­ing, mak­ing, and act­ing through high­ly idio­syn­crat­ic, mate­ri­al­ly sen­si­tive modes of feel­ing and understanding.



1 Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, vol. II & III, NY: Zone Books, 1991, pp.52–53

2 Derek Dun­lop: End-forms,”

3 Inspired by Eric Santner’s use of the term in On Crea­ture­ly Life (2006) and The Roy­al Remains (2011).