Material as Witness

The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen June 11-12 2015

Copenhagen Workshop

Workshop led by Susan Schuppli at the invitation of Angela Melitopoulos

Guiding conceptual provocation: How does a legal term such as the “material witness” become an operative concept within the arts and humanities? Within a legal context the material witness is a person who is deemed to have information germane to the subject matter of a lawsuit or criminal prosecution that is significant enough to affect the outcome of the trial. In other words the witness, by means of the information they may possess, is considered sufficiently pertinent to the legal proceedings such that every effort must be made to procure their testimony. Humans become witnesses when their knowledge or experience positions them as semantically ‘material’ to a case.

Our particular usage, in contrast, takes the concept quite literally: material as witness. In order to ensure its operative nature, the material witness must remain vigilant against any tendency that would consign it to metaphor, which is what often happens when concepts are migrated from one domain to another. To borrow the legal concept of the material witness and then rework it through a model of non-humane agency is to consider evidence not solely in terms of what it describes perhaps somewhat metaphorically as the testimony of things, but also what it can also do as a set of aesthetic and political operations. Which is to create a space wherein matter and evidence converge to pose questions about what can be established as a “potential fact” and what can be envisioned as a “propositional fiction”.

“I’d like to reply by saying there are two sorts of scientific notions, even though they get mixed up in particular cases. There are notions that are exact in nature, quantitative, defined by equations, and whose very meaning lies in their exactness: a philosopher or writer can use these only metaphorically, and that’s quite wrong, because they belong to exact science. But there are also essentially inexact yet completely rigorous notions that scientists can’t do without, which belong equally to scientists, philosophers, and artists. They have to be made rigorous in a way that’s not directly scientific, so that when a scientist manages to do this he becomes a philosopher, an artist too.” —Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990). P. 29.

Lecture by Susan from her forthcoming book Material Witness (MIT Press, 2015)


  • Material Witness, 2014 (experimental documentary Kosovo, Sri Lanka) 35 mins.
  • Nostalgia De La Luz. Dir. Patricio Guzmán 2011, 87 mins. (evening screening)