17. (SEPT project) [By WeistSiréPC] ™, an exhibition by Cuban artist Nestor Siré and American artist Julia Weist, has taken up residence at the Queens Museum. The project consists of creating the largest archive currently in existence for el paquete seminal—the weekly package—familiar to many as the system for distributing content throughout Cuba.
Direct from the island's “offline Internet,” the exhibition exports to New York all the information that was distributed, by flash drives, from one end of the island to the other over the course of one year. The two artists collected every file contained in the weekly editions of el paquete from August 2016 to August 2017. The exhibition emerged from Weist’s Queens Museum-Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artists, awarded for 2016–17.
"This project speaks to both US and Cuban audiences," said exhibition co-curator Sophia Lucas in an interview with Cuban Art News. "It is important to have the opportunity to imagine alternative realities. I shy away from the words 'progress' and 'advancement,' but powerful and redemptive changes can be made when new systems are visualized."
Physically, the work connects a 64-terabyte content server of content with three television monitors and two projectors. Visitors use remote controls to browse the server files.
To compile the information, the artists began working together about two years ago. They traveled to every Cuban province to see how the process of creating the paquete is accomplished throughout the country.
In each province they searched out the individuals who download content from the Internet and send it on its way. On that trip they verified that, as they suspected, content flows from Havana, except for a few spots in Santiago de Cuba and Granma, where content is also downloaded. In a video that is also on view, Siré and Weist documented the route that the distributors (and their content) followed from one province to another.
As the video shows, paquete distributors utilize all possible types of transportation, from cars and motorcycles to aircraft. They leave Havana at 3 a.m., and by 8 a.m. el paquete has arrived in every part of Cuba. "The reality is that distributors do not sleep," says Weist.
As Siré describes it, his collaboration with Weist flourished from the start, based on the similarities they saw in their creative approaches. "We are like twins in terms of processes," he says. "Julia uses the same procedures I did, even before we knew each other.”
Weist has a background and training in information sciences, which proved especially useful for setting up the installation and organizing the framework for the hard disk, where everything is stored. What in Cuba is an entirely physical process—an information exchange between people via USB devices—has become, at the Queens Museum, a system of interconnected servers, which Weist calls "RAID" (redundant array of independent disks). This term refers to the repository, stored on multiple units on hard disks, among which the data are distributed or replicated.
But, says Siré, "the project is not intended to present el paquete in New York. It’s an extremely contextual phenomenon, and it would be impossible to just copy and paste it here.” Instead, he says, the exhibition offers “metaphorical interpretations of various procedures that are used around this phenomenon in Cuba."
Siré's relationship with el paquete follows something of a family tradition. Like most Cubans, he had known previous stages and platforms for content distribution before el paquete. As a child he helped his grandfather, who ran a home-based service circulating movies and telenovelas on VHS and later CD and DVD.
More recently, Siré began to participate in el paquete as the curator of its art section. With this project, he has the liberty of choosing from a variety of sources: magazines, newsletters, Internet news bites, calls for competition entries, documentary films, and books, all relating to contemporary art. Under the title “!!!Sección ARTE,” the folder has been uploaded on a monthly basis—an experience that has shown him the best ways to present content within the diversity of a paquete. Users can request whatever they’re interested in, and tastes run from the most popular trends of the moment to obscure jazz.
At the start of their collaboration, the two artists focused on producing original content for "!!!Sección ARTE” from outside Cuba, following the paquete’s cardinal rule of "no politics, no pornography." Then they came up with the idea of making videos about how different people use the Internet on a daily basis, in different contexts.
In one case, they asked: What’s the daily Internet routine for US actor Mark Ruffalo, known in Cuba for portraying The Hulk in the “Avenger” movies? What does he Google and read in private? The resulting 10-minute video was included in el paquete and is now in the installation. Weist and Siré chose Ruffalo for his status as a celebrity, which would not be mistaken for a political gesture, and could integrate smoothly with the rest of the content. A folder with the actor´s filmography was also distributed as part of the paquete.
In terms of US-Cuba relations, 17. (SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC] ™ has a special significance, in that it covers the period of the United States´ change of administration and its impact on diplomatic relations between the two countries. During this time, what content and information did Cubans consume, copy into flash drives, and download from the network?
In the changing climate of Cuba at the moment, could we say that we are living the last days of el paquete—similar to what unexpectedly happened with 3D cinemas in 2013?
"I was one of those people who thought it was impossible for 3D cinemas to close, as indeed did happen," says Siré. "The difference between them and the paquete is that 3D cinemas were a Havana phenomenon, but el paquete is national."
El paquete does not have legal status in Cuba, but like many other businesses, it works in an informal way. Paquete distributors use licenses issued to disc vendors. As in all areas of life in Cuba, a government decision can outlaw its existence from one moment to another.
"I do not think even with full Internet in Cuba, el paquete will disappear completely,” says Siré, pointing out that it contains more than Internet downloads, including pirate channels from satellite antennas. "In order to access these, Cubans would have to pay online with credit cards—a Google service that is currently blocked for Cuba. After all is said and done, let’s see if el paquete continues to be effective and useful.”
As part of the exhibition, Weist and Siré have produced a catalogue of the content that is available for visitors to download.
"In order to create this 'legal package,' the artists sent thousands of emails to secure permission from copyright holders of content from the week of August 8, 2016,” says Sophia Lucas, “making this distribution permissible according to U.S. copyright laws.” A computer (with no Internet access) that allows copying access to this catalogue is stationed outside the museum's gift shop.
"This location was chosen to emphasize the transactional aspect of getting content," Lucas says. Once a month, a paquetera, or paquete expert, is on hand to guide visitors through content. On other days, visitors are able to search and copy content freely.
Weist and Siré also worked with an advertising agency to develop a brand identity for the project. The museum store is stocked with this branded merchandise, which includes not only mugs and tote bags but USB sticks and hard drives that can be purchased for downloading content from the package.
17. (SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC] ™ is on view at the Queens Museum through February 18. It was co-curated by Hitomi Iwasaki, director of exhibitions and curator at the Queens Museum, and Sophia Lucas, assistant curator at the museum.