The title of this exhi­bi­tion refers to a line in Mary Shelley’s nov­el Franken­stein: I felt the nev­er-dying worm alive in my bosom.” Guid­ed by new sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies and an obses­sion with breath­ing life into inan­i­mate mat­ter, the young, ambi­tious Vic­tor Franken­stein brings to life an autonomous crea­ture, assem­bled from dis­parate body parts col­lect­ed from char­nel hous­es and dis­sect­ing tables. He is inspired by out­dat­ed sci­en­tif­ic trea­tis­es and by such dis­cov­er­ies as gal­vanism, where­by an elec­tri­cal cur­rent appeared to bring to life the mus­cles of dead frogs’ legs. Sim­i­lar­ly, Franken­stein elec­tri­fies cob­bled togeth­er human body parts into undead­ness: I suc­ceed­ed in dis­cov­er­ing the cause of gen­er­a­tion and life; nay, more, I became myself capa­ble of bestow­ing ani­ma­tion upon life­less mat­ter.” With the creature’s shud­der into exis­tence, Franken­stein is hor­ri­fied by what he sees (he had hoped for a beau­ti­ful being), and runs imme­di­ate­ly from the room into the night. He avoids his apart­ment until late the next day, dread­ing an encounter with the hideous crea­ture. He refus­es to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for this seething unpre­dictable life form he has unleashed into the world, and thinks that run­ning away from it will some­how solve the prob­lem. Con­fused, afraid, and ostra­cized at every turn, the mon­ster stum­bles about the world and is con­front­ed time and time again by a repulsed, cru­el and uncom­pre­hend­ing pop­u­lace. Noth­ing of its appear­ance had ever been seen in the world. It is noth­ing short of bare life.

Upon learn­ing whom the heart­less cre­ator is the angry crea­ture decides to take his revenge upon Franken­stein. When an inno­cent maid is blamed for his brother’s death, Franken­stein knows it is the creature’s doing, and yet he remains mute, keep­ing his guilt secret. It is with this first mur­der that he feels the nev­er-dying worm squirm inside of him. Here the worm could sig­ni­fy any num­ber of things. One pos­si­bil­i­ty is an inter­rup­tion in the flow of real­i­ty, a glimpse into the abyss of the Real,i which will for­ev­er haunt the pro­tag­o­nist. Or one might also imag­ine the worm being the mon­strous homuncu­lus of his imag­i­na­tion. The more he tries to for­get his grotesque cre­ation, the more the crea­ture sticks to him like glue, killing every per­son he ever loved, an act of revenge for not tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for his own creation.

Shelley’s Franken­stein is a cau­tion­ary tale not only for the time in which it was writ­ten, but espe­cial­ly for our own era. Humans have treat­ed all ter­ri­to­ries and life forms as things to con­quer, col­o­nize, con­trol, and recon­fig­ure. So long as the con­se­quences of these actions can be framed as progress,’ or remain invis­i­ble or con­ve­nient­ly ignored, then the humans can go on liv­ing (the priv­i­leged har­bour­ing a tac­it faith in cap­i­tal­ist pur­suits of tech­no­log­i­cal progress’). So long as sur­plus wealth can be pro­duced under the illu­sion of enlight­en­ment, then humans can for­get the con­se­quences of absurd and destruc­tive actions. So long as new life forms cre­at­ed by the biotech indus­try can be pitched as fur­ther­ing the inter­ests of human life for the imme­di­ate future, then there is no need to ques­tion any ulte­ri­or motives or long-term reper­cus­sions. Per­haps the worm is some­thing that pre­cedes con­scious­ness, or even cre­ation, a genet­ic or myth­ic vio­lence that is passed on from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. Or maybe the worm is the prod­uct of repres­sion, the result of some law-pre­serv­ing vio­lence one con­forms to.ii What hap­pens when, when one least expects it, the worm is seen final­ly rear­ing its head? What does one see, and more impor­tant­ly, what does one feel?

This exhi­bi­tion was ini­tial­ly con­ceived as an explo­ration of uncon­scious mate­ri­al­ism or a mate­r­i­al uncon­scious. How do mate­ri­als and objects with­in art­works con­vey some­thing about what is repressed in the uncon­scious (sub­jec­tive or col­lec­tive), or how might mate­ri­als or objects speak to the trau­ma or desire con­sti­tu­tive of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty? How­ev­er, as I re-famil­iar­ized myself with these artists’ works, I found this con­cept of uncon­scious mate­ri­al­ism want­i­ng. How to con­vey some­thing deep­er still that relates to the cri­sis, not only in art or of the sub­ject, but also in the world at large. This cri­sis relates to our rela­tion­ship with mate­ri­als, and how new a ective rela­tion­ships to mat­ter can insti­gate unprece­dent­ed futu­ri­ties. In focus­ing on abstract notions of progress and accu­mu­la­tion of wealth, we have neglect­ed the rest of the world around us. Con­trary to the belief we have inher­it­ed from cen­turies of philo­soph­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic dis­course – that mat­ter is inert, and that the best response to under­stand­ing mat­ter is to unlock its secrets and mould it into ever-new use­ful con­fig­u­ra­tions – mat­ter exists as a het­ero­ge­neous, com­pos­ite enti­ty, vibrat­ing with poten­tial, deeply a ect­ing our minds and bod­ies in unfore­see­able ways. The same can be said of works of art. We tend to think that the artist con­trols mate­ri­als in order to make art­works say some­thing, but in actu­al­i­ty the mate­ri­als speak to the artist (who responds to them rather uncon­scious­ly), and the fin­ished art­work def­i­nite­ly has more e ect on the human agent (view­er or artist) than the human agent has on it.

Jim­mie Durham has point­ed out that it is more pro­duc­tive to make the object talk, on its own, with me, and with the audience.”iii I would go even fur­ther and say that the object itself says plen­ty that the artist was nev­er even con­scious of. On the one hand mate­ri­als have a life inte­gral to human devel­op­ment. Buried in mate­ri­als and objects is a mem­o­ry of how human sub­jec­tiv­i­ty has been shaped in myr­i­ad ways. On the oth­er hand, mate­ri­als have their own his­to­ries, and their own forms of expres­sion. There is mate­r­i­al intel­li­gence in the world, and it is not nec­es­sar­i­ly depen­dent on humans for its exis­tence (as if it were con­tin­gent on humans to unlock matter’s untapped poten­tial). The idea of mat­ter being inert dead stu to be manip­u­lat­ed and made use­ful to humans has dom­i­nat­ed think­ing for cen­turies. Such thinkers as Freud and Bataille have pos­tu­lat­ed that, long ago, start­ing at some unknown moment in the Pale­olith­ic peri­od, per­haps even before tools and artis­tic expres­sion were con­ceived of, mat­ter was under­stood as ani­mate, pos­sess­ing pow­er out­side of human agency. And now that we have arrived at a turn­ing point in bio­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion, this great biopo­lit­i­cal par­a­digm shift insti­gat­ed by human greed, fear, and curios­i­ty, it seems exceed­ing­ly urgent that non-human agency be brought back into the pic­ture. This exhi­bi­tion approach­es mate­ri­als and objects with this non-human agency in mind: a desire to open human think­ing rad­i­cal­ly toward the vital­i­ty of all mat­ter, which could serve as grounds for a new polit­i­cal ecology.iv

There is a ten­den­cy to think that human cul­ture has made every­thing into sec­ond nature, and that nature has very lit­tle e ect on us any­more. But things do have an e ect on us. Think of the weath­er and shift­ing tech­ton­ic plates as exam­ples of nature’s e ect on human devel­op­ment and his­to­ry. Think of the microor­gan­isms that out­num­ber our human body cells. Each of us is a walk­ing ecosys­tem, one-tenth human cells and nine-tenths oth­er microor­gan­isms. Alien life forms have col­o­nized us, unbe­knownst to us, and we could not live with­out them. Worms are a case in point. Jane Ben­nett writes: the human immune sys­tem depends on par­a­sitic helminth worms for its prop­er functioning.”v Else­where in her book, she explains Darwin’s dis­cov­ery of the earthworm’s inte­gral role in the health of the plan­et; it is not a mere bio­log­i­cal automa­ton, but an inten­tion­al being, essen­tial to human sur­vival. Healthy soil is ensured through its being processed through the worm’s diges­tive tract. Ben­nett goes on to say that worms make his­to­ry by pre­serv­ing the arti­facts that humans make: worms pro­tect for an indef­i­nite­ly long peri­od every object … which is dropped on the sur­face of the land, by bury­ing it beneath their cast­ings, a ser­vice for which archae­ol­o­gists ought to be grate­ful to worms.”vi There are of course instances where worms can be nui­sances. I remem­ber one of my first medieval lit­er­a­ture class­es. The pro­fes­sor had brought in an old medieval codex, painstak­ing­ly hand­writ­ten by monks, in which whole lines of writ­ing had dis­ap­peared. Par­a­sitic worms had eat­en lat­er­al­ly through a line of text, leav­ing behind gap­ing fis­sures (the pages were made of goat skin which attract­ed parasites).

To most the worm is an abject thing. Com­pared to us, it is a pri­mal life form, its mouth and anus bare­ly dis­tin­guish­able from one anoth­er. It is ugly and bur­rows tena­cious­ly yet pathet­i­cal­ly in the dirt. It is filthy, leav­ing behind a mucousy trail. It feeds o decay­ing mat­ter such as corpses. Yet Niet­zsche writes: You have evolved from worm to man, but much with­in you is still worm.” The worm is abject per­haps because we know this some­how. The idea of a nev­er-dying worm is per­haps relat­ed to this con­scious­ness of our prox­im­i­ty to the worm, to the crea­ture. But as con­scious beings we have sub­li­mat­ed this real­i­ty out of mind. Sub­li­ma­tion, or the process of ide­al­iza­tion or repres­sion of instincts and dri­ves, could be under­stood as the process that rei­fies every­thing under the log­ic of instru­men­tal rea­son. The same hap­pens with mat­ter. Mat­ter is trans­formed specif­i­cal­ly for human use. To desub­li­mate mat­ter would entail see­ing the world as an assem­blage of vibrant mat­ter-ener­gy and giv­ing agency back to non-human actants.

The art­works with­in this exhi­bi­tion reveal the mul­ti­ple forces at work on mat­ter (vio­lence) and with­in mat­ter (as vibrant poten­tial). Through con­scious and uncon­scious manip­u­la­tion of objects, images and mate­ri­als, the artists reveal these forces at work: mul­ti­ple forms of mate­r­i­al intel­li­gence bloom from strate­gies of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion and desub­li­ma­tion in an attempt to rep­re­sent what is unrep­re­sentable, or beyond the pale. The mate­r­i­al turn in art speaks to this new con­scious­ness of the pow­er of things to not only a ect us, but to strike back against the impulse toward crass exploitation.


i The Real is that which is out­side lan­guage, resist­ing sym­bol­iza­tion. It is that which is impos­si­ble to imag­ine and inte­grate into the Sym­bol­ic. Frankenstein’s crea­ture is shunned from soci­ety but is still part of the sym­bol­ic realm, in that it was imag­ined and cre­at­ed by human inge­nu­ity. The worm” inside Franken­stein approach­es the Real how­ev­er, in that it could sig­ni­fy that which out­lasts all humans, and yet haunts us from birth: e.g., the brute mate­r­i­al crea­ture­li­ness of our being amidst the sense of a void which pre­cedes sym­bol­iza­tion and the order­ing of per­cep­tion. The worm here could also relate to Frankenstein’s guilt, which points to the type of greed and irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty that haunts our present biopo­lit­i­cal era: the shirk­ing of respon­si­bil­i­ty vis-à-vis the new mate­r­i­al life forms being unleashed upon the earth, regard­less of the con­se­quences. The worm is also relat­ed to the Real in that we have di cul­ty fac­ing up to the notion of death. Not only does Frankenstein’s cre­ation point to the greed of sci­en­tif­ic break­throughs and their atten­dant fame, but in many ways points to the human desire to defy death.

ii These two notions of myth­ic and law-pre­serv­ing vio­lence are cen­tral to Wal­ter Benjamin’s essay Cri­tique of Vio­lence”, Reflec­tions, NY: Schock­en Books, 1978.

iii Jim­mie Durham inter­view with Miwon Kwon, Annette Michel­son, Michael Taus­sig, Jim­mie Durham, Phaidon, 1995, p. 119.

iv Jane Ben­nett, Vibrant Mat­ter: a polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy of things, Durham: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010.

v Ibid., p. 120.

vi Ibid., p. 96.