Can We Get a Witness?

A proposal and some notes

The Burrell Collection comes from the accumulated property of an individual, which has passed into semi public ownership. As a collection it holds a vast array of physical objects from a wide range of cultures expressing the subjectivities of one man. With the proliferation of digital technologies we are now in a situation where we are all accumulating vast immaterial collections that would have never been possible before, expressing our subjectivities. With this in mind I am proposing the insertion of a new collection to sit alongside the extant Burrell Collection. Can we get a witness? is an intervention and new permanent part of the Burrell Collection.

  • Can we get a witness? is a server located within the Burrell Collection, freely accessible by all publics to add to and take away whatever they wish.
  • Publics are given full access to all the contents of the server.
  • Access will be granted through a closed wireless network, only operable within the walls of the Burrell Collection, with no password or restraints to access.
  • There will be pen drives available at cost price, to use on permanently installed machines throughout the collection.
  • Initially there will be a curated selection of digital files that address questions of ownership, copy protection and the distribution of information through networks. This will then be added to by anyone who wishes, whether relevant to original intents or not.
  • Publics are then free to take whatever they wish.
  • Publics are free to reorganise the data in anyway they wish.
  • When something is taken it will not be deleted.
  • No file will ever be deleted.
  • When full a new hard drive can be added and as technology progresses entirely replaced, transferring all content.
  • The hard drive will be an accreted collection wholly owned by the public.

A subtle but important distinction must be drawn between the difference of public and public-access space.

US Embassies worldwide increasingly resemble medieval fortresses. In this context public-access space is an enormous resource, and we need more of it. But let us not confuse public-access space with public space. The latter requires making – through the subjectivities of people. Through their practices, users of the space wind up making diverse kinds of publicness.
In brief, several trends are coming together, enabling practices and imaginaries about making, rather then merely accessing public space. One concerns some of the conditions discussed above. Specifically, the fact itself of today’s wider unsettlements of older notions of public space. These unsetttlements arise from the public-space-making in monumentalized spaces as well as from the shifts towards politicising urban spaces and weakening civic experiences in cities. Both conditions produce openings to the experience and the option of making.

Saskia Sassen – public interventions Open 11[i]

We are seeing more and more public-access space springing from the ashes of the commons as the logics of neoliberalism further embed themselves. In 1989 two events took place that have dictated the development of our understanding of what it means to be public. The first of these is the fall of the Berlin wall ushering in the collapse of Eastern European communism. The same year saw the initiation of the World Wide Web at CERN in Switzerland. These events embedded a western model of democracy in the world with its ideology of freedom as being delivered through individual choice and conspicuous consumption.

The project seeks to implicate itself within questions on the notion of ownership and the public. Using the potential of a shield being generated by arts supposed autonomy from legal systems actively, against the expropriation of the commons by the market.

The question of “intellectual property” is not if the producers of creative works should be denied their right to material reproduction through their creative work, or if the temporary owners of such works should be hung by the guts of their lawyers. The question of “intellectual property” is when it will finally be acknowledged that the people have a universal right to the reappropriation of the means of production, that creative works – however privatized and commodified they may have become – are a such means of production, and that their reproduction is a fundamental and fully legitimate form of production itself.The Berlin Foundation for the Advancement of Production and Reproduction

Free Adorno, Free Benjamin — An Open Letter case — 04.30.05[ii]

The Internet and its abilities to distribute information is often cited as the largest information revolution since Gutenberg developed movable type. We are still in the infancy of the Internet and its destiny is not fixed.  We are seeing the increasing closure of paths of access to information on the basis of ideals of ownership applied from above. It is at this point that we need to make a decision on how we live together and who owns the cultural objects that produce us.

Some history of other interventions using sharing data

Festival of Plagiarism[iii]

Stewart Home in the 80’s whilst still involved in the International Neoist Alliance organised the ‘Festival of Plagiarism’ this involved the introduction of Home Taping Day on January 30th in an attempt to kill the music industry.


Superflex’s ongoing project Copyshop moves from space to space offering a library of information on notions of copyright that can then be photocopied and taken away.[v] is a now defunct website that distributed theoretical texts. It was shut down in 2005 by a private individual who ‘owned’ the rights to a text by Adorno that was hosted on their servers.[vi]

A website associated with the Public School programme run by the Telic Arts Exchange in LA. It focuses on the distribution of digital files of texts in the fields of theory, philosophy, art and politics conceived as a conversation platform for the development of critical discourse outside of an institutional framework.


Uncloud is a project developed by the critical research group INTK that operates as a piece of freely distributed software that generates a localised network from your computer which you can then freely share any data you wish with those around you.

Dead Drops[viii]

Dead Drops is an ongoing project by Aram Bartholl in which people insert USB flash drives in public spaces with the locations then logged on a website so anyone can access them and share files.

I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.

Courbet from Wikipedia[ix]

‘The Charity of the Beggar at Ornans’ by Gustav Courbet sits in the collection of the Burrell. It represents a beggar giving coins to a child in an act of redistribution. The painting was widely derided at the time and subsequently for the representation of the subjects in a non-romantic manner. Courbet was a highly politicised artist seeking to represent the world around him in a defiantly realist manner. This position finds sympathy in Can We Get a Witness ? in attempting to portray the political realities of today, where our social relations are governed by abstractions.

Some examples of potential content to be loaded onto the server initially:

Caught Can We Get a Witness – Public Enemy[x]

A song that engages in the questions of copyright that were coming to the fore at the time due to the development of hip hop and it’s reliance on sampling culture.

A Tour of the AC-1 Transatlantic Submarine Cable – Lance Wakeling[xi]

A video work visiting the landing points of the Atlantic Crossing 1 a data cable that passes through New York, England, The Netherlands and Germany.

Free Culture – Lawrence Lessig[xii]

A book that addresses the existing legal structures that govern our relationships to cultural production that makes suggestions of new ways to progress.

All links accessed 09:00 03.04.2012