Orit Gat and artist Julia Weist travel to Havana in search of El Paquete Semanal, the Cuban offline internet
It’s the end of May, 2016, and the artist Julia Weist and I are sitting at a bar in the West Village, in New York. We’ve just ordered burgers and French fries. We’re hungry because Elio Héctor López just stood us up for dinner at a nice restaurant nearby. ‘I’m not well-versed in international mystery,’ Julia says, as we try to speculate why the man behind the Cuban offline internet, El Paquete Semanal or ‘the weekly package’, didn’t show up.
This story has two beginnings. The first is an email with the subject line ‘Collaboration?’, in which Weist explained (in parenthesis: ‘it’s a bit of a long story’) a project she was working on that would eventually find its way into her two-person show with artist Haim Steinbach. For part of the piece, titled After, About, With (2013–15), she worked with art writers to plant false online references, or ‘easter eggs’, claiming that Steinbach’s vinyl wall text And to think it all started with a mouse (1995/2004) was originally about Walt Disney. For over a year, Weist manipulated Google results on the work, bringing up the question of artistic intent versus cultural record. If Steinbach’s intentions were undocumented, then Weist’s reading became the work’s meaning – at least if you googled it.
The second entry-point, at least for me, is an article published on Motherboard, the Vice channel dedicated to technology, titled ‘What It Looks Like to Use the Internet for the First Time’, a photo-essay documenting the introduction of public Wi-Fi hotspots in Cuba. There are currently 35 Wi-Fi connections in the country, first introduced in 2015. ‘My friends have been talking about the internet for a long time, so I decided to come with them to see what it is’, says Luis, a Cristiano Ronaldo lookalike teenager in a red T-shirt and gold watch. ‘They tell me I need to make a Facebook page so I can make friends in other countries and talk to them’. It was such a simple human-interest story: people travelling for hours to connect and talk to relatives online; groups of youths sitting in circles around laptops, watching the internet unfold.
This year, Weist was one of three artists to be awarded the Queens Museum-Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artists, which comes with a show at the Queens Museum in 2017 and a stipend to produce a new work. When she told me she was thinking of going to Havana on a research trip, my immediate response was: ‘Because of the internet?’ Obviously, because of the internet. Since the Steinbach project, Weist has produced a number of long-term projects researching the way that internet culture and search engines shape knowledge. Her last exhibition, ‘Parbunkells’ (2016), was the result of a long and convoluted project that began with a simple proposal: to introduce the internet to a word it didn’t know. That word was parbunkells, a nautical term meaning ‘coming together through the binding of rope’ and one that Weist emblazoned on a vast white billboard in Forest Hills, Queens, as a part of a commission for the public art organization 14x48. The intention was for curious viewers to google the word and experience the special singularity of a single Google result: Weist’s own website and a short text, starting: ‘This is where I come to be alone. We’re here together now.’ The internet, however, is not a place for singularities. The word parbunkells exploded. It went from zero results to 20,000 within a week. It appeared as merchandize, on T-shirts and mugs, as well as fine art prints (which Weist then appropriated and exhibited as part of the project). All of this, along with an audio guide produced by calling New York Public Radio station WNYC and describing the project during a programme about accidentally going viral, was shown at 83 Pitt Street, New York, in January 2016.
Skip forward a few months, and Weist, her husband artist Andrés Laracuente and I are staying in an Airbnb in Havana. How is Airbnb even present in Cuba? CEO Brian Chesky went to Havana at the same time that President Obama made his historic visit in December 2014, and Airbnb quickly became one of the first US companies allowed to operate in the country. There are obvious limitations: most Cubans have little internet access, and they cannot accept money from an American company, but in Cuba there’s always a workaround. The country already has a system of 20,000 casa particulares (private houses), which allows Cubans to rent out their homes, and around 4,000 of those are already listed on Airbnb. Our hosts’ daughter, who lives in Mexico, manages their reservations, and the money we paid to them goes straight back to the Cuban government. With Raul Castro’s introduction of what locals call a ‘mixed economy’, citizens can get a license to work outside of their government jobs – to freelance, basically. About half a million Cubans have such a license, and they pay 50 percent tax on all earnings if they make more than 50,000 pesos (USD$2,000) a year.
Once we arrived in Havana, our first order of business was to get a copy of El Paquete Semanal, or El Paquete, as everyone calls it. In Cuba, one of the things you hear in almost every conversation is how entrepreneurial and creative Cubans are, and the Paquete might be the prime example. It’s a weekly collection of one terabyte of information – television shows and movies, sport highlights, mp3s and music videos, PDFs of magazines, even apps to download to the smartphones so many people in Cuba have though they’re rarely connected to the internet – downloaded onto hard drives and distributed door-to-door. Your Paquete guy comes to your house and leaves you a hard drive, from which you can copy as many things as you like onto your computer, and pay per gigabyte. The prices range: an episode of a television series is 1 Cuban peso, a full flash drive (between 2 and 8 gigabytes) is 15 pesos, and the whole Paquete is CUC$2. Cuba has a double currency: Cuban pesos (CUP) and Cuban convertible pesos (CUC). At the time of writing, 26 Cuban pesos equals 1 Cuban convertible peso, which is pegged 1:1 with the US dollar. Wages and most staple groceries are paid for with pesos, which the government controls, but tourists and locals use both CUP and CUC interchangeably.
According to the 2015 Freedom of the Internet Report, Cuba scores 81 on the 1-100 scale of freedom of the net. 100 is the worst.
A few more numbers: the average salary in Havana is CUC$20-30. An hour’s connection to the new public Wi-Fi connections is CUC$3, although I have seen it rise to CUC$10. Internet cards can be bought from ETECSA, the state-run communication company, but when lines are long or offices are closed the street price for an internet card rises accordingly. Due to this limited affordability, the internet penetration rate in Cuba is between 5 and 30 percent – it’s hard to gauge exactly. According to the 2015 Freedom of the Internet Report by Freedom House, a non-profit watchdog that researches and advocates democracy, human rights, and political freedom, Cuba scores 81 on the 1-100 scale of freedom of the net – 100 is the worst. Cuba stands far below Angola (39) and Russia (62), but just above Syria or Iran (both 87) and China (88). The organization has charted an improvement from previous years, but not a big one: in 2014, Cuba scored 84; in 2013, 86; and in 2009, the date of the first report, it scored 88. At this pace, Cuba will match the UK’s 24 in over 30 years. The Freedom of the Internet Report charts obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. Cuba failed on all of these accounts.
The Paquete does not challenge any of the above. In fact, for all its physical, offline duplication of the network, one of the key indicators that the Paquete, which pirates a huge amount of material on a weekly basis, is mindful of its legality is that it includes no pornography. Porn is such a big deal in Cuba that the customs form you fill in prior to landing includes a check box for ‘Pornography’ alongside the standard restricted items to declare – arms, drugs, live animals or animal products – and the less standard, like ‘satellite communication equipment’. What the Paquete does do is allow Cubans access to culture that most of us, who have regular access, associate with the internet. Imagine an internet trimmed to a fraction of its size (one terabyte is 1000 gigabytes, and according to internetlivestats.com, an average day sees about 2 billion gigabytes of traffic online), offered on a hard drive, curated by a small group of people.
Who are these people? Julia and I end up meeting Elio Héctor López near Times Square the morning after he failed to show up for dinner. After he texts, we rush to the subway and meet him at a Junior’s (a small chain originating in Brooklyn that pushes its ‘world-famous’ cheesecake so much that its URL is juniorscheesecake.com). We bombard him with questions, and get some basic details about how the Paquete is made. According to López, the Paquete is organized by himself and three other people, each of whom are in charge of a different field (López’s is music), and it’s compiled entirely in Cuba via a satellite connection (which is illegal). The reason to work in Cuba rather than, say, Miami is A: that the fast-pace of curating 1TB a week doesn’t allow them the time to communicate with collaborators outside of Cuba, and B: that only a Cuban can have a comprehensive understanding of what Cubans want to access to on the Paquete. (There may be a C, though: Cuba’s copyright laws are obviously much more lax than the USA’s. López wouldn’t mention the word copyright, and when we raised it, he pretended that he didn’t understand.) This understanding of Cubans’ pop culture preferences he described in terms like ‘trending’ and ‘rating’: they track what is most downloaded and accept email requests. Once a thing has become popular enough, López explained, it ends up in a ‘classics’ folder, which remains on the Paquete from week to week. What’s in the folder? The movie Matilda (1996), for example, as is King Kong (1933). Topping the list of most popular downloads is Game of Thrones (which, unsurprisingly, is also the most pirated TV show globally, with an estimate of 14.4 million downloads per episode).
We thought López gave us the inside scoop, but in Havana, we were told that López is a scammer who has pretended to be the originator of the Paquete since noticing the increasing international interest (he’s been interviewed to Forbes, for example, for a piece about Cuba’s ‘tech revolution’). The muddled truth is that there are different versions of the Paquete in different parts of the country, all with telling names: the Paquete that Julia and I bought – taking four hours to copy while sitting in a cellphone repair store, a known front for Paquetes – is called ABC. Another we saw is called Genesis.
The history of copyright is long and complex, and in Cuba, the present is too. While the internet has obviously affected copyright law and enforcement throughout the world, in Cuba even the state television is largely pirated, since the US embargo makes it impossible to pay royalties, at least to American content providers. The material on the Paquete, however, doesn’t last. Hard drives are regularly overwritten for the next installment, which means that a large part of the current cultural history of Cuba is erased each week. One of the projects Weist is working on now, in collaboration with Cuban artist Nestor Siré, is to archive one year of El Paquete. Since returning to the US from Cuba in June, she’s been transferring Siré hard drives in order to build a super-server on which they could eventually archive 52 terabytes of media.
What kind of contribution can an artist make in this system? Weist is careful not to over-determine the result of her research; not to be a visiting artist who simply extracts a Paquete from Cuba and displays it elsewhere, out of its original context. Instead, Weist wants to make work that resides within the preexisting system, navigating the very challenges and particularities of distribution that it discusses. It’s a twofold question: How do you make work about this Cuban particularity, while also making work for it?
The project Weist is currently developing will be embedded in the Paquete through a folder of contemporary art in the Paquete, the Seccióne Arte, curated by Siré, who has been inserting contemporary art projects into the Paquete for over a year. Her work will see video screencasts of people using the internet, superimposed with audio files of them talking about their relationship to the web and what they look for – and at – online. This format has proven hugely successful for digital video gaming: millions tune in to screencasts called Let’s Play to watch gamers narrate their ‘playthrough’ with commentary. The videos Weist is producing will be of people that Cuban citizens are interested in – musicians, athletes, actors – and will potentially show personal reflections on a very different internet. Since the introduction of public Wi-Fi spots, the internet feels very material in Cuba. The network is a physical geography, and when exploring it you take mental notes. When I passed by this building, I saw people huddled around using their phones; when I walked by that street corner, there was a sign advertising internet cards; when I met someone on the street they said that in this-and-that park there was Wi-Fi. Like the scent of a bakery, you follow your memory, your instincts, your senses, looking for a connection. But overall, it was far from what I imagined: not groups crowding around computers, navigating the internet together, but rather people alone on mobile devices. The feeling is less of publicness than of dependence, in a way: people sitting on uncomfortable ledges, standing under awnings, by doors, looking for a connection. (Rumours are that there’s an inter-Havana mesh network, basically a homemade internet connecting 10,000 people via an illegal satellite connections, but I never saw it in action.)
Weist’s idea of creating videos of people using the internet is a way of sharing what it could be if it were widely available. When you log in for the first time in 2016, when there’s very little time to connect, what does the internet look like? The Facebook homepage. When I was in Cuba, I used the internet sparingly: we would find a connection, pull out our internet cards, and in 20 minutes I would check my emails (but not reply to anything), text my friends and family, refresh my Guardian and New York Times apps so I could read them offline, Facebook for a minute, and then I was done. When there’s so little time online, there’s no sense of wandering, no sense of wonder: the curiosity and excitement of following links to discover new things; the time spent reading Wikipedia or a foreign magazine you never heard of until then; discovering new music by suggested YouTube links.
This is how we consume now: the content is regulated, fed to you, never unexpected.
Weist’s screencast videos may also reflect on something pertinent to us regular internet users: the idea of surfing the web. It’s something we should all be thinking about: the world wide web used to seem like a network of links, but with the rise of social networks the feed has taken over. You are fed a series of tweets in a chronological order. You scroll down past posts on Facebook. Your news is brought to you in a ‘live’ blogroll with endless, real-time updates. This is how we consume now: the content is regulated, fed to you, never unexpected. To show what the internet means to you and talk about how you experience it could be a way to reflect on these changing attitudes, to take a step back and think about what we lost with the rise of the social web. That said, there’s something almost heartening to Facebook; something to the fact that whenever I glanced at people’s screens in Havana, they seemed to be on Facebook; something to the fact that, when offered access to an almost endless source of information, all people want to do is connect with one another.
Weist is currently looking for celebrities to feature in her Paquete project. Currently, her Google Doc includes Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (category: futbol), Reggaeton star Daddy Yankee, Alexis Texas and Angelina Jolie, the cast of Game of Thrones (comment: ‘any actor’), and Cuban baseball players who have defected to the United States. This list, developed by Siré, includes some of the names one would expect, but also individuals with a political charge. As long as they talk about the internet rather than the expensive cars they own now that they live in the United States, the Cuban athletes can be included, since they are not performing a politicized role. However Texas is a pornstar, and Raggaeton music was banned for public broadcast by the Instituto Cubano de la Música because it was considered demeaning to women. The Paquete playbook is full of contradictions.
When I told friends in the United States that I was going to Cuba many said that I should go before ‘America goes in and ruins Cuba’. This idea of the US ruining Cuba is definitely complicated and perhaps overdramatic, but we did go at a time of flux. Cuba is one of the last dark zones on the planet, but is slowly beginning to open up. In Havana, Julia spent her time running a test developed by the Open Observatory of Network Interference, a Tor Project (Tor is a free browser that allows users to access the web anonymously by rerouting their activity via a random, encrypted path to a few servers) subsidiary meant to observe and record censorship, surveillance, and traffic manipulation. It basically taps into your connection and tries to establish connections with a series of predetermined websites, from a list of mainstream news outlets, local political groups, online marketplaces, social networks, and so on, in order to see which ones function, which return errors that are recognizable as censorship (we saw a lot of ‘error 104: connection reset by peer’ messages, which we then researched and learned is often because the site was intentionally blocked). In Cuba, we ran into errors looking for porn, some news and entertainment sites like the homepage of American Spanish-speaking television channel Univision, and almost every anti-government website that the deck tracked (as well as some we searched for on our own, by following Twitter links, since Twitter isn’t blocked in Cuba).
The test results were pretty bad, but not as bad as we expected. As a country, Cuba may score low in terms of both affordability and freedom of the internet, but the conclusion we came to is that censorship mainly takes the form of a limitation of access. This makes me wonder if part of the reason the government turns a blind eye to an operation as large as the Paquete – the estimate is that it reaches 95 percent of Cubans and is the largest employer after the government – is that it serves a kind of bread-and-circuses role. The government tried to introduce its own Paquete at a certain point: it was called mochilero (‘backpack’) and included more highbrow things than Game of Thrones (sorry!). It was marvelously unpopular, possibly because a Ministry of Culture does not think in the terms of ‘sensibility’, ‘trend’ and ‘rating’ like Paquete organizers.
The times are changing and Cuba is finally, slowly, changing with it. The kids don’t play baseball in the streets anymore, Fernando, our Airbnb host complained: all they want to do is play football, like Messi or Ronaldo. Fernando doesn’t get the Paquete: he is interested in books, in European cinema. Sometimes he’ll go to a street stand called copia series, and leave with a USB key containing the whole of Breaking Bad. I don’t need the entire Paquete, he says, as we sit in his backyard drinking Havana Club rum; Fernando ties the Paquete with the need to protect one’s culture, especially in front of changing technologies, he explains and uses the example of the Great Firewall of China (one of few countries in the world to score lower than Cuba in the Freedom of the Internet test). He says Cuba will find other ways to protect its local culture, but all I can think of is why is this man – this educated, English-speaking, Breaking Bad-watching man – finds more affinity with China rather than his direct neighbours, like the US and Mexico. But maybe once it’s introduced, change cannot be stopped: the Paquete’s reach reflects people’s curiosity. The way forward is only more access, more connectivity. Cuba will see the same problems we all recognize online: financial models based on advertising that lead to a submarket of personal data, privacy issues originating from both government and multinational corporations, inequality of access, changed labour conditions with the need to be connected 24/7, the list goes on. But Cuba will deal with these issues like and with the rest of us: online.