Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Pirate Cinema: Hacking, torrents, and boundaries

In thinking through some of the themes from this week and the week before, I was reminded of an installation that went up at a gallery I worked at in Montreal in 2013. It was called "The Pirate Cinema," by hacker artists Nicolas Maigret and Brendan Howell, and was comprised of 3 screens set up in a room that live-streamed peer-to-peer media in real time. Here was the artists' statement during the festival: 

"In the context of omnipresent telecommunications surveillance, “The Pirate Cinema” makes visible the invisible activity and the geographic implications of peer-to-peer file sharing. The project is presented as a control room, which instantly reflects P2P exchanges happening in real time on networks, which use BitTorrent protocol. The installation produces an improvised and syncopated arrangement of files currently in exchange. The immediacy of the presentation of digital data, including fragmented information about source files and their destinations, depicts the topology of digital information use and the global reach of data dissemination.

Having seen the installation firsthand, I can attest to its mesmerizing quality, somewhere between the experience of flipping channels -- surrendering a certain amount of control as a viewer, unable to choose what came next -- and scrolling through a website like Tumblr, moving quickly between snippets of diverse content. Watching media -- predominantly American television, pornography, and music videos -- travel quickly across the globe, very often through networks that never required a file to pass through the United States, was a fascinating way to think about sharing of media and the ways that online media feels utterly divorced from its real-world origins and history of circulation once it gets to us. Who are these "peers" with whom we enter into contractual, anonymous agreements about sharing media? 

It seems that the official website for the installation is still live: if anyone is interested.

I think this piece raises a lot of interesting questions not only about rights and surveillance, but about the ways that the Web both is and is not a community, the ways that dominant discourses reproduce themselves across national borders and the ways that the Web can undermine those borders, and equally, what it might mean to think about the Internet as art, as performance, as a site of resistance, and as a form of the televisual. I'd love to hear what you guys think of it!


  1. Great post about torrents! Legal complications notwithstanding, I claim a place of privilege for torrents (it literally made cinema studies possible) wherever I came from. The Pirate Cinema project sounds fascinating and it reminds me of a Berlin based group called "0x2620" who presented on their collaborative projects in my previous University. They have come up with collaborative online, alternative cinema databases such as ( and 0xdb ( that emerged originally from "alternative" cinephilia (read pirate clubs) that also hosted small screenings of films. From their discussion it became evident that ideals of the perfect image and pristine sound quality that were demanded from the old cinephilia were not as important in these new, networked enabled routes of sharing. What matters more here is the imagined cybernetic community, a sort of an "in-group" that knows how to appreciate content and values its free-form sharing. Also explains why my only experiences of watching American television shows were binge-watching experiences.

    1. Darshana, this is super interesting! I think your comment relates interestingly back to the conversation on my post about the Web and taste - there are ways that communities can take pleasure in a text that are predicated on a feeling of mutuality and sharing itself rather than shared understanding or shared recognition of "quality". In terms of legal issues, it is interesting to think about the rights of those who create content (artists who stand to lose royalties if their work is shared through underground networks) and those who receive it - when, if ever, does the consumer's right or desire to interact with media outside the capitalist market trump the artist's right to be compensated for their labor? Is there a way out of this consumer quandary?

  2. As someone who has been guilty of pirating from time to time, I know I end up making a lot of ethical rationalizations for why I do it. I do purchase many films, but the fact of the matter is that I've found some of my favorite films through the pirating process (I buy them later if I like them) and have found it an invaluable resource for pulling clips.

  3. Nice post, Emma! Thank you for talking about rights and surveillance. As we know, this topic is not new, but, so far, there is no effective way to solve the movie piracy problem, and the development of internet even provided this behavior a more convenient way. I would like to recommend you a research article, Reel piracy: The effect of online film piracy on international box office sales (Danaher & Waldfogel, 2012) used the examining product-level data strategy to study if the movie products which people downloaded a lot are purchased less. The article introduced the film industry and piracy the time from pirated DVD on black market to online film piracy, BitTorrent, it clarified that if a person who thinks a film value lower than the ticket price downloads the film, this behavior is not displacing a ticket sale. However, when the person valuates the film higher than the ticket price, then his downloading behavior is displacing a ticket sale. The research observed data from top 10 movies in 17 countries. The result is very interesting; it shows that there was no evidence showed that the illegal online viewing replaced viewing in the theater in films exporting countries, while the research claimed that the international release lags drove the other countries’ box office returns lose to piracy. Please take a look~