Offline in Cuba

With restriction to the internet, and heavy government censorship, Cuba looked to the underground for their media fix. Started around 2008, “El Paquete Semanal” has provided those living in Cuba access to their favorite T.V. shows, movies, sports, and YouTube videos through a weekly terabyte hard drive. Showcasing this seminal movement, American artist Julia Weist teamed up with Cuban artist Nestor Siré for their new exhibition “17.(SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™” at the Queens Museum in New York. The artists sit down with Document’s Benjamin Gutierrez to talk about the paquete, the role of advertising, and the rise of offline YouTubers. 

 

"It's a massive, massive amount of data and we're thinking about how to adjust and combine this material into the context of the U.S."

 

Benjamin Gutierrez—So your exhibition “17.(SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™” at the Queens Museum just opened, what can visitors expect to see?

 

Julia Weist—When they first approach the exhibition, the first thing that visitors see is a video that gives an explanation of what “El Paquete” is, and the history behind it. We assume that it will be a very mixed audience; some people are going to be familiar with the context, others not. We worked with ETRES, which is an ad agency in Cuba, to create a few elements of the exhibition. They were really the first group to bring advertising at a national level back to Cuba since the revolution in 1959. They saw the paquete as the sort of independent platform that it is; outside of government control and outside of some of the limitations that are otherwise in place for advertising—which is not permissible in public space but does have a home in the Paquete. The first piece we created with them is this infomercial that explains the paquete to visitors and sort of sells the idea within this larger context. (In both Spanish and in English.) ETRES also created a brand for us; a visual identity that we're using throughout the exhibition, with merchandise in the gift shop and with a large indoor advertising element hung in the gallery. We then have three large-scale video monitors that show our research and our process, as well as a documentation of some of our travels. We have a lot of video and imagery from working and meeting with the distributors of “El Paquete” in every city in Cuba. The last piece is a one-year archive that captures and makes accessible every file circulated in the paquete over the last 52 weeks. It's a massive, massive amount of data and we're thinking about how to adjust and combine this material into the context of the U.S. The way we did that for the archive was that, for copyright reasons, we're making every file accessible but we're only allowing a visitor to playback up to 65 percent of any given file. We built special software to do that, and in doing so we're falling in the fair use category of copyright.

 

"Providing access that isn't nationalized, is a political gesture."

 

Nestor Siré—People only speak about the paquete’s relation to the internet, but it's also important to understand that the paquete contains three categories of information: one is the internet, the other is digitally recorded T.V. shows, and the third is Cuban-produced videos, TV shows, music videos, etc. The relation to the internet is not as strong for Cuban-produced material. If the internet was suddenly available in every home in Cuba tomorrow, the paquete would only change a little bit. There may not be a need to copy Youtube videos onto the paquete, but we would continue copying T.V. shows, Cuban-made videos, and full-HD films, because we don't have a way to buy them on the internet [because of limitations of the US Embargo].

 

Julia—One thing that's worth noting, is that it's sort of a combination; a lot of people assume the paquete is a response to the lack of internet, but in many ways it's also a response to the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Even if there was internet in every home, it would still be impossible for a Cuban to sign up for a HBO Go account or for Netflix or Hulu because, legally, those content providers are not able to serve any consumer in Cuba. The Cuban international banking system also does not allow international credit cards, so it would be impossible to make internet purchases. There are so many layers to the paquete; it's not just about "connecting." That's what makes it so interesting, because if any one of those elements change, then it might affect the paquete, but the other areas may just become more exaggerated. It's a domino effect.

 

Benjamin—It sounds like it still has a definitive place in the fabric of Cuban society and will continue for a long time.

 

Julia—It's not going anywhere in our opinion. Just the paquete being present at all, providing access that isn't nationalized, is a political gesture. One thing that's worth clarifying is that the paquete helps the government as well. One of the reasons that the State doesn’t shut paquete operations down, is that it serves a purpose in mitigating the lack of media and material. There is access, it's just a different kind of access and it's controlled . So it's very complicated because it's a political gesture, but it's also a question of who it's helping and who it's hurting.

 

Nestor—It's very easy to control the paquete.

 

Julia—Because it's a finite amount of stuff.

 

Nestor—Exactly. The paquete also doesn't include pornography or political content to reduce the likelihood of government intervention.

 

"Every single day this guy's biggest problem is that he has to turn away flocks of teenagers who come with USB sticks filled with their own content."

 

Benjamin—There are Cuban YouTubers that are popping up now, through the paquete. How did this start out, and where is there place in Cuba?

 

Julia—There are a couple of what Nestor and I are calling "micro-phenomena," within the phenomenon of “El Paquete.” There are these little groups where interesting things are happening that are very particular to the platform. For example a Cuban YouTuber group is emerging right now. There is an area on the paquete with a folder of web shows, which typically includes different YouTube celebrities with large international fan bases. Because that content is included in the paquete there is a familiarity with this type of storytelling, and the aesthetics and rhythm of this type of video. Now, a community of mostly teenage Cubans who have gotten really excited about that format and have started creating their own material in that “YouTube style.” What's super interesting about this is that a lot of these videos are never uploaded to the internet, so they are YouTubers that live offline in this very well-developed network that's not broadcast outside of Cuba. We worked with the group that creates the “OMEGA” paquete, to create our archive and they told us a couple weeks ago when we were at their offices, that they literally cannot keep up with the demand of YouTubers. Not from a consumer side, but from a provider side. Every single day this guy's biggest problem is that he has to turn away flocks of teenagers who come with USB sticks filled with their own content. They want him to put their content in the paquete, and of course there is only so much space because it can't be more than a terabyte. There are way too many Cuban teenage "YouTubers" to be able to accommodate them all.

 

Nestor—Normally the teenager wouldn't need to pay anything to show his material, but it’s just the evolution of the YouTuber. It's very interesting because, normally online you would just receive comments on the YouTube page, but since this is through the paquete, they include their personal phone number on the video and the YouTuber will receive comments directly to their cell phone or their email

 

Julia—It's like, "Leave me a text!" instead of a comment.

 

Nestor—It's a way to communicate with different teenagers in other countries. It's a phenomenon in development right now.

 

Julia—Nestor’s partner, Yainet Rodríguez, is actually the principal specialist of a museum in Havana, and she said that teenagers came to the museum, and somebody asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And a lot of the teenagers said, “I want to be a YouTuber."

 

Nestor—It's the beginning of something huge

 

 “17.(SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™” by Julia Weist and Nestor Siré runs from September 17, 2017 to February 18, 2018 at the Queens Museum. Visit our Vimeo album for more Cuban YouTube videos.