5. April - 10. August 2914
No one, it seems, with the exception of the US Department of Justice, knows exactly how many files Aaron Swartz downloaded from JSTOR, nor does anyone know what files he chose to download or why he downloaded those specific documents. Various court documents show that he downloaded approximately 70 gigabytes of data, 98% of which was from JSTOR,[i] which translates to approximately 4.8 million articles.[ii] Yet we don’t know what constitutes an “article” — articles can range from a paragraph to dozens of pages. The size itself is an abstraction: certainly we can’t conceive of what 4.8 million “articles” might look like, never mind what we would do with them were we to actually have them in our possession. It seems that all we know for sure is that Swartz downloaded a lot.
The day after Swartz was criminally charged by the US Attorney General’s office a free culture gesture appeared on The Pirate Bay by a user named Greg Maxwell, which was a torrent of “18,592 scientific publications totaling 33GiB, all from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society”[iii] which were procured legally from JSTOR. Maxwell released a lengthy statement echoing Swartz’s sentiments, decrying the paid cloistering of knowledge that should, by all rights, be made available to all. In this parallel gesture, Maxwell enacted that which Swartz was unable to, symbolically completing Swartz’s aborted liberation of knowledge. To this day, Maxwell’s torrent is still active, available for all who might want to possess it. From Maxwell’s example, it can be deduced that had Swartz uploaded his torrent, his content most likely still would’ve been around. Maxwell’s gesture is at once a ghost of, and at the same time the only concrete realization of, Swartz’s vision, both symbolic and pragmatic. In the digital age, the factness of a cultural artifact is its content. No one will ever read Maxwell’s trove (same with Swartz’s), but the fact of this material — and its ever-present availability — outweighs what practical applications we might render from it.
Sidestepping the overly-discussed psychological and biographical narratives surrounding Swartz’s death, Papers from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf will provide us a materialized window into Swartz’s pure gesture. For the show, Maxwell’s 33 gigabytes of JSTOR papers — totaling more than 230,000 pages — will be printed out and displayed, stacked on tables, giving us, for the first time, a glimpse into the scope and immensity of Swartz’s vision.
For the past twenty years, my own literary practice has been exploring the issues of quantity, with a particular emphasis on materializing the ephemeral. My early books were collections of words: every word I spoke for a week from the moment I woke up on a Monday morning until the moment I went to bed the following Sunday night; every move my body made over the course of a day; a years’ worth of weather reports as they were broadcast on the radio; the retyping of a day’s newspaper into a 900-page book.
This project grew out of a previous project of mine, Printing out the Internet, which was the first-ever crowdsourced attempt to literally print out the entire internet. Over 20,000 people from around the world contributed tens of thousands of pieces of printed internet, which was displayed in a six meter high pile in a gallery in Mexico City during the summer of 2013. The project — which sparked a global debate about materiality, immensity, and the environment — generated headlines the world over, amounting to over 1000 pages of press and commentary. Images and documentation can be found on this blog.
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