Though their work is dubious at best, ethically speaking, in terms of sheer day-in, day-out dedication, the people who package illegal copies of new movies and TV shows deserve a congressional medal. In a largely thankless (and presumably extracurricular) job, these shadowy individuals work with astonishing speed and total reliability, serving up perfectly encoded copies of programs and films good and bad, night after night. Basically, if it’s aired in public, either in a movie theater or on a TV screen, you can find a torrent for it. And only then does it premiere in The Pirate Cinema.
The project, created by Nicolas Maigret and Brendan Howell, gives viewers a continuous, fragmentary overview of peer-to-peer activity transpiring on the web at a given moment. A piece of custom software periodically checks the Pirate Bay, an illegal torrent haven, for the top 100 most active files, and then splits up downloading duties between five computers. The computers play the files back on a big screen as they download, resulting in a frenetic audiovisual mashup that plays out across several big screens. The visuals range from clips of classic films to snatches of pulpy reality TV. The only common denominator is that they’re being pirated right now.
The piece, the artists explain, is a way to visualize the massive but largely invisible world of peer-to-peer file sharing, both literally and conceptually. At this point, the P2P phenomenon is totally commonplace. On Sunday nights, just as the TV presentation is wrapping up, the cable-less among us flock to torrent sites to download Mad Men and watch on time delay. We don’t think much about it. But what we seldom stop to consider is how that normal, personal interaction rests atop a mind-boggling global network of files, constantly coming and going under the ground and through the air around us.
"We clearly took part in a crazy 15-year period since late '90s, where access to diverse and often rare content has never been so simple," Maigret says. "For many people, it really seems like something normal now. But with recent legal changes and the different plans for Internet 'regulation,' there is a possibility that this massive sharing culture won’t continue to exist in the form we now know." In this way, you could see the The Pirate Cinema as a unique document of the golden age of torrents.
But the installation also gives the rare chance to dip into peer-to-peer transmissions on a broader level, where you’re not explicitly one of the two parties involved. It lets you see what other people are interested in. And if the promise of P2P is a decentralized, direct connection between you and another Internet user, The Pirate Cinema is also a reminder that hiding in plain sight comes with the risk of being watched.
"This is totally an echo to the surveillance devices used by authorities and copyright corporations," Maigret expalins. "A sort of all-seeing eye tracking the flow of data, as well as a sort of peer-to-peer wiretap system."
And what does that wiretap look like? Chaotic, for one thing. Since torrents download piecemeal, the videos play back one asynchronous chunk at a time. Still, there’s occasionally serendipity found in all the action. "The visitors were really surprised by the chance combinations of those random mashups," Maigret notes. "It can be calm for some time, then really vibrant." But ultimately, the raw material is limited to what people are actually downloading, and that, Maigret says, is remarkably consistent: blockbusters, contemporary TV, and porn.