Julia Weist is a New York–based artist and 2016–17 Queens Museum/Jerome Foundation Fellow. For her fellowship exhibition, on view at the museum through February 18, 2018, Weist traveled to Cuba and collaborated with Cuban artist Nestor Siré on a project exploring El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Package), a hard drive loaded with a mix of media, including films, TV shows, games, and software. For most Cubans, the internet is only accessible via Wi-Fi hot spots, and content is censored by the government. The Paquete, circulated and sold extralegally each week, serves as a replacement for in-home internet.
EL PAQUETE SEMANAL is distributed through a complex and decentralized network spread across Cuba. Every week, Paquete creators in Havana aggregate and package one terabyte of data, then send it by plane, bus, or motorcycle—any form of transportation imaginable—to regional distributors who copy it onto many more hard drives for local sale. Some customers take the full terabyte of information; others pay to fill just one USB stick. If you are not used to thinking about digital materials in a physical sense, it is interesting to see how this competitive trade could develop based entirely on physical movement.
Using the island’s transportation infrastructure to share media began in the 1970s, when similar networks were created for books, magazines, and, later, VHS tapes, CDs, and DVDs. Nestor’s engagement with the Paquete runs very deep because he helped his grandfather distribute tapes and DVDs as a teenager. Julia has a background in library and information science. Both of us have spent a lot of time with processes that help people access information and knowledge, and in our work, we tend to approach concepts through the systems that shape them. How do systems define meaning and experience? How do they mediate the way content is presented or consumed?
The centerpiece of our exhibition at the Queens Museum is an interactive archive of fifty-two weeks of the Paquete. You can navigate through it to view any single moment from the past year—any folder, any file. Another major component is a three-channel video documenting our experience researching and working with the Paquete during the past year and a half. It includes original content we made for insertion in the Paquete in collaboration with Paquete makers, who helped us to identify top entertainment trends and celebrities in Cuba. One trend we worked with is a new interest in web shows—the videos we would associate with YouTube. We also got the actor Mark Ruffalo to make a screencast of his daily internet routine. The Paquete is Cuba’s only independent media platform and has two content limitations that help prevent government interference: it cannot have anything pornographic or explicitly political. Ruffalo’s video was accepted with just minor edits because he is so famous that it was considered pop culture. We were able to make a similar video with Cuban Instagram “influencer” Carlos Alejandro Sánchez Rodríguez, too. He has fifteen thousand followers, which is astonishing in a country with such restricted internet.
Part of understanding systems is finding their boundaries. When does a mass amount of content approximate the internet or not? Cubans call the Paquete the “internet of Cuba” as shorthand, but it’s not really that, and Cubans understand this. For example, there are no news articles as you would normally find online. People outside of the country try to equate the Paquete with the internet, however, we see it as closer to a streaming service like Netflix or Spotify—with one significant difference: With the Paquete, content becomes popular and discoverable primarily by word of mouth. There is no algorithm saying, “If you liked this, you will also like this.”
We did a statistical analysis of our archive and discovered that each edition of the Paquete contains far more time-based media than one person could possibly consume in one full week. That gives some perspective as to the amount of choice someone has in selecting content. We were also surprised by the statistical percentages of Cuban material, such as off-line phone apps, magazines, and TV shows produced specifically for the Paquete. It is oftentimes described in the US press as “Hollywood downloaded,” but it is so much more than that.