Artist's Statement: Nicolas Maigret talks spying on BitTorrent in The Pirate Cinema

By Ben Miller | 04 October 2013

Artist’s Statement: Nicolas Maigret on The Pirate Cinema at FACT in Liverpool...

A photo of a man standing in front of some screens
“We can approach the project from many directions. One is the approach of surveillance: you can say that this project is a kind of deviation from the surveillance system, it’s actually a programme which is spying or making interceptions on the peer-to-peer networks.

The installation as it is exhibited right now is spying on the top 100 torrents based on the Pirate Bay daily list. What you can see is the fragments as they are exchanged by users, so each time a small piece of film is going from one user to another it is directly screened with the information of the country it is coming from, the IP and the country it is going to and that IP.

The IP is the personal identification of one computer. We have to know that the torrent file-sharing system is based on the fragmentation of the file, so when you download the file you don’t have it in continuous order, but you will get the fragments in a totally random order.

It will be recomposed slowly, part-by-part, until the file is complete. So what you see is this exchange of parts coming from all over the place.

As it is surveying 100 files you have this changing composition, like a collage of files and different movies coming together. We can see it as a cut-up approach as well.

I work with an American developer called Brendan Howell. Together we have been hacking a BitTorrent server in the client.

We made a piece of code which is a combination of torrent server and client. It acts like a man in the middle. Based on this, we can monitor what the requests are.

Writing the code is totally legal. Possessing one of these files is, for sure, not legal in most countries. What is interesting is that the way we did it is very close to the way copyright owners are doing it.

Copyright owners have been developing surveillance devices which are very close to it. They are just sniffing the peers that are owning specific files, and based on this sniffing they can go to court with the IPs and say which people are owning the last blockbuster. You can even request to have the identification of the people behind the IP.

For about ten years I’ve been involved in listening to networks and listening to waves and so on. I did a couple of projects that were making discreet, invisible activity on the networks tangible.

I really wanted to bring back the user, the human position in the centre of the project – not just to listen to the digital content, but really to feel the human presence behind it.

Recently the internet has been getting more and more centralised. Everything you do will go through the corporate servers first. That’s not at all peer-to-peer any more.

For me, peer-to-peer is something symbolic as well, because it’s a kind of alternative to this horizontal sharing and distribution protocol.

I’ve been in China this summer, showing this project and another one which was spying on a Wi-Fi exchange of people. What I noticed is that they are not using the Bit Torrents that much because there are existing businesses for it.

In the streets or in specific shops, for example, you can buy surprisingly well-done packages of DVDs from independent directors. You have all the documentation, the interviews, they’re great pieces of work and cost only a few Euros. You can buy David Lynch or Woody Allen films.

It takes another form in China, this free distribution of culture products. Each country has a different way of reacting to the changes in society.

This trend of fake CDs and DVDs existed a while ago. For instance, in the eastern countries you could find a lot of fake Russian DVDs and CDs ten or 15 years ago. It’s not specifically a new system there.

China is not at all like I had pictured it. The technological breaks between the generations are not that big at all. Technology in China is a local product – we have wine in France, we have beer in England, and in China you really feel that everybody has an uncle, cousins or a son making what they call ‘junkware’ there. You feel that it’s part of everyday life.

As this is the top 100 on a global scale, it’s mainly blockbusters, TV shows and video clips. It’s mainstream consumption.

One of my future ideas for the project is to focus on highly political content or polemics, to see how those types of content – such as propaganda – spread.

Geographically, it’s like producing a mental map. It’s not cartography, but it’s somehow a mental cartography of the dynamic of the exchange. You could even focus on only one file and study the way that it spreads, the way it disseminates around the globe."

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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