Art

Delivering the Internet, an Underground Network Keeps Cubans Connected

At the Queens Museum, an exhibition by Julia Weist and Nestor Siré explores Cuba’s underground media-sharing network.

Installation view, 17.(SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™ (photo by Hai Zhang, courtesy Queens Museum)
Imagine a world without internet, where, after a long day, you can’t unwind at home on the couch by mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or Twitter on your smartphone, or by bingeing episodes of your favorite shows on Hulu or Netflix. On television there’s only a handful of state-sanctioned channels — no cable, no DirecTV, no ability to order DVDs from Amazon. Now imagine that, in lieu of an internet service provider, an underground distribution network delivers all of your favorite content — everything — from movies to television, magazines to manga — right to your door in exchange for cash. It’s peer-to-peer file sharing, but literal. And this longstanding arrangement, almost half a century old, is the primary source of entertainment for millions of people.

In fact, this scenario is not some dystopian, Black Mirror premise: it is the present reality in Cuba, where home dial-up and broadband connections are illegal and public access remains limited for the majority of the population. A new exhibition at the Queens Museum in New York, 17.(SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™ takes a comprehensive and penetrating look at what’s known as El Paquete Semanal (“The Weekly Package”), a one-terabyte collection of digital video, apps, music, photos, and publications that’s compiled every week, loaded onto hard drives, and then disseminated across the country. The show’s centerpiece, a 64-terabyte server containing 52 weeks’ worth of Paquete material from August 2016 to August 2017, represents a year of labor by American artist Julia Weist and Cuban artist Nestor Siré. Theirs is the first project of its kind to comprise of not only research and investigation, but also conceptual interventions into this intricate system.

At the entrance to the show, “Infomercial” (2017), a 16-minute video, uses colorful motion graphics and voiceover (first in English, then Spanish) to contextualize the Paquete’s history: although its economy was formalized in 2008, an informal circulation of media has been around since the early 1970s, a decade after the Cuban Revolution, when people began renting out paperback books and novels left behind by foreign travelers. In the 1990s, the network evolved to include magazines and VHS tapes, and later CDs and DVDs. These person-to-person exchanges served as the foundation for the current network, which essentially functions as a physical, offline version of the web. Siré’s grandfather was among those enterprising individuals who capitalized on the media circulation business early on, before retiring when the technological demands increased and thus became more costly. Having “lived this process from inside” through his grandfather’s experience, the Havana-based artist has created various works pertaining to information circulation, piracy, and other cultural phenomena since 2012.

By teaming up with Siré, Weist was able to shadow OMEGA, one of the major Paquete distributors, or matrices, in Cuba. The hierarchical distribution structure begins with a team who collects and curates the content that goes onto each 1TB hard drive. Satellite TV antennas provide a primary source for pirating broadcast entertainment, news, and sports, while downloaded materials usually come by way of individuals who have internet access through either an institution or political office. These drives then travel West to East, from Havana to the farther provinces. Here, the pre-existing network for media circulation demonstrates its efficiency, as the disguised package might be handed off to a bus driver who transports the Paquete along his regular route between Havana and Camagüey. Weist and Siré documented each stage of this process, displayed as video in the exhibition. In one screen capture, an anonymous OMEGA employee, joking about the illicit appearance of these packages, is quoted as saying, “This one looks the most like a shipment of drugs.” Once the hard drive arrives at a distribution center, it gets copied over and over again. Those copies then go to a point of sale, such as a storefront, or with a paquetero who provides home delivery. For $2 (USD), clients can copy the entire Paquete. They can also customize their order by selecting which files they want: 50 cents to fill up a 16GB USB stick, 75 cents for 32GB, with prices breaking down even further at 5 cents per TV episode and 25 cents per film. Customers have also been known to re-sell and share the Paquete with others.

Preparing the Paquete in Holguín, Cuba (image courtesy the artists)

Getting the files to the US proved to be one of the greater logistical challenges, since visitors to Cuba are not permitted to carry more than two drives in their luggage at a time. In the project’s documentation, Weist includes a plethora of travel forms she was required to fill out for her trips back and forth from New York to Havana. According to her, the total amount of video and audio alone is 3.5 times more than a single person could consume in their lifetime, even if all they did is watch 24 hours a day with no breaks. Museum-goers can navigate through the 64TB server on display. As the government does not crack down on intellectual property laws, the Paquete needs only to meet two basic rules: no political content and no pornography.

The widespread success of the Paquete has shaped an entire economy built around producing original content geared toward the platform’s audience. Production companies churn out programs like MiHabanaTV, a popular lifestyle show focused on celebrities, local culture, and news. Cuban reggaeton artists create music videos for Paquetes. There’s also a market for apps that don’t require internet connectivity. And because the government controls all print, independent publishers issue digital magazines specifically for the Paquete. “It’s a whole world, basically,” Weist said. She and Siré even generated their own videos: one featuring Mark Ruffalo talking to the camera while browsing the internet, and another of 19-year-old Cuban Instagram “influencer” Carlos Alejandro Sánchez Rodríguez. By using recognizable celebrities, the artists could submit their videos for inclusion in the Paquete, although Weist concedes that OMEGA did have to edit out one potentially political segment in which Ruffalo remarked, “A real free society passes information around freely.”

Hardware for preparing the Paquete (courtesy the artists)

Perhaps the most surprising phenomenon to appear in the Socialist country, where no promotional materials of any kind physically exist and billboards proclaim only government propaganda, is the rise of ad agencies based solely around the Paquete. With the ability to advertise digitally, entrepreneurs who have received licenses to operate, including the matrices themselves, now have the need for creative services. Working with ETRES, the first post-Revolution ad agency founded in 2013, Weist and Siré conceived of their own matrice, which they named “WeistSiréPC.” Hanging in the middle of the gallery, a large yellow cube represents the custom-designed packaging, while a “Promo Manual” (2016 – 17) envisions other branded swag like tote bags, coffee mugs, hard drives, and USB sticks.

17.(SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™ certainly raises complex questions about the geopolitical relationship between the US and Cuba, as well as larger questions about consumerism, free speech, and technology. For Siré, however, the Paquete serves as an emblem of “social creativity.”

 

17.(SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™ continues at the Queens Museum (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens) through February 18, 2018.

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