Article | Unruled Audiences, Institutions and Pirate Media Ecologies in Brazil | esse arts + opinions

Article | Unruled Audiences, Institutions and Pirate Media Ecologies in Brazil

  • Cine Falcatrua, présentation de | screening of Kill Bill I, Federal University of Espírito Santo, Vitória, Brazil, 2004. Photo : Gabriel Menotti
  • Cine Falcatrua, présentation de | screening of Kill Bill I, Federal University of Espírito Santo, Vitória, Brazil, 2004. Photo : Gabriel Menotti

Unruled Audiences, Institutions and Pirate Media Ecologies in Brazil
By Gabriel Menotti

The advent of modern media supplemented artistic production with its potentially infinite reproduction capabilities. Walter Benjamin saw this change as the erosion of the artwork’s unique aura. Conversely, we could see the aura being substituted by an emanation of the authority that regulates the art circuit, which enables the shift of creative power from author to editor. This can be better understood by looking at cinema, the modern media vehicle par excellence. The seventh art has been made possible by the same technological conditions that disrupted the artwork’s classical hicetnunc ontology. The film’s “aura” is grounded on the experience of watching, which cannot be separated from the film instantiation and, ultimately, from the socio-economic underpinnings that enable its reproduction. Thus, cinema becomes an effect of the multi-layered consistency of the cinematographic apparatus — a consistency that is made possible by its regulations.

This situation creates a tension between authorship and authority that will never be completely solved within creative practices, as long as they adhere to the belief in the inherent subjectivity of creation. Even in cinema, an industry where every piece of work is inevitably collaborative, individuality becomes an issue for anyone interested in more “artistic” work, which opens the way for independent filmmaking and films d’auteur. Hence, the definition of authority is expelled to the infrastructural outskirts of the circuit, preserving the sanctity of authorship.

However, this segregation becomes fragile once reproduction can no longer be completely regulated, and the ownership of infrastructure no longer guarantees authority over the circuit. The present media ecology promotes such a situation. Within digital media, copies are no longer derivatives. In fact, original and copy are ontologically equivalent. Due to the particular materiality of computation, the work is only produced once it is finally instantiated in display. So, production and reproduction become a continuum, fictionally separated by cultural interfaces.

The only way to author such a structure, as Alex Galloway points out, is to distribute control in the guise of a protocol, which can even be incorporated into the works themselves — for example, as digital rights management technologies. But one side effect of this protocolization is the further pulverization of authorship throughout the circuit. Since the work is only realized in its (often private) regime of consumption, the final saying over it — over the very original — seems to lie in the hands of the audience. In a book aptly called Postproduction, curator Nicolas Bourriaud highlights the recent shift of creative practices to this level of operation. This would make the interactions between artistic creation and economic infrastructure even more complex, since it reduces authorship to a vague perspective over a network of uses and practices.

Once again, these developments are easier to perceive if we analyze how art production suffers from one of the most controversial side effects of the present media ecology: the proliferation of piracy. Pirate circuits are viable precisely because they prey on authorized ones, stripping works of their symbolic value, reducing them to their material cost. Nevertheless, being one of the most intense points of contact between the local circuit and global markets, they play a big role in the configuration of the cultural scene of emergent countries such as Brazil. Their effects are inevitably felt in cultural institutions such as contemporary art museums and galleries in three different ways: a) as an unofficial curating resource that is publicly available; b) through the work of artists who use these unauthorized circuits as their prime matter or topic; and c) by the way they educate the general audience in how to relate to symbolic production.

We could get an idea of how these different levels interoperate and what kind of effect they have on the Brazilian cultural scene by referring to the case of Cine Falcatrua (Cine Hoax). Cine Falcatrua was a grassroots film society formed by undergraduate students of the Federal University of Espírito Santo around 2003. Throughout the years, the group expanded its activities outside the university, into fields such as new media and contemporary art.

Originally, Cine Falcatrua was engaged in a practice that nowadays is commonly known as “pirate cinema”: it consists of downloading movies from the Internet, subtitling them and screening them for free in public places. The division of roles between the organization and the audience was very fluid; it wasn’t rare that people brought their own films to be screened and helped set up the equipment. Along with the exhibitions, the group also organized workshops to teach such techniques to anyone interested.

In all these activities, Cine Falcatrua embraced unauthorized online structures (from open p2p networks to more “serious” websites like UbuWeb) as rich curating resources. Doing so, the group of students managed to be more efficient than the actual cinematographic institution. More than once, Cine Falcatrua was able to exhibit a movie to an audience of hundreds of people, months before its official release in Brazil. Likewise, the group brought to the big screen Internet movies, along with dozens of independent and/or alternative titles that had been censored or forgotten, or that distributors simply weren’t interested in bringing to that particular part of Brazil.

Of course, none of these screenings were legal. Thus, in mid-2004, as Cine Falcatrua gained nation-wide popularity, it also received the attention of the Brazilian film distributors who owned the copyrights for some of the works that the group had exhibited. This resulted in a couple of lawsuits totalizing half a million Brazilian R$ (around US$250,000) and a criminal complaint for copyright infringement against the participating students. Fast-forwarding to 2008, when the legal quarrel was over, we finally learned that the University was held responsible in court, and had to compensate the film distributors with a much more modest fee (around US$1,000).

As for Cine Falcatrua, it also had attracted the attention of other institutions. By coincidence or not, in the following year the group was selected by Rumos Artes Visuais, a biennial project that highlights young artists in Brazil, to participate in contemporary art exhibitions all over the country. In other words, while the cinematographic institution was criminalizing Cine Falcatrua’s activity, the art world received it wholeheartedly as an emerging aesthetic trend. Between 2005-2008, without giving up on the pirate screenings, Cine Falcatrua worked in partnership with respected cultural institutions and exhibited work in some of Brazil’s most traditional art venues (such as Paço Imperial, Paço das Artes and Museu da Vale). In this new context, the film society inevitably took on the role of an art collective, and was treated accordingly. Although Cine Falcatrua’s activities hadn’t changed, they were completely re-qualified from curating cinema to producing art. Piracy, which was the method of the former, was turned into the distinct subject of the latter — the characteristic that made Cine Falcatrua’s practice particularly meaningful and valuable as art.

Finally, it is interesting to consider how the group attempted to resist and remain critical about the dynamics of authorship and authority of the art world, by playing with the public expectations over the ideological character of its own activities. In that sense, the project organized by the group for the 2006 Rumos exhibitions, a film festival called CortaCurtas, bears mentioning.

The idea behind CortaCurtas was that it would be a festival without restrictions or pre-selection: every work sent in response to the call would be included in the programme. In this sense, the project seemed to open a free, “democratic” curatorial window in the prestigious Rumos exhibitions, allowing anyone interested to participate. However, there was a catch: in the festival regulations, it was specified that the participating works would be exhibited “according to the will of the projectionist.” This literally meant that, even if a work was included in the programme listing, it risked not being exhibited — and, if it were, it would certainly not be pristine. The regulations allowed the projectionist to do whatever they wanted during the screenings, even interrupt or remix movies entirely. These things actually happened, and some filmmakers were not very happy about it. However, there wasn’t much they could do: by submitting their works to the festival, they had accepted its regulations, even if they had not paid proper attention to them beforehand.

Therefore, there are two ways to qualify CortaCurtas: first, positively, as a sort of collaborative remix piece, in which all participating works were combined and activated to produce new audiovisual forms. However, the festival is simultaneously a sort of control structure through which Cine Falcatrua seized authority over other people’s works, by establishing a perverse protocol of participation. Through this double nature, the CortaCurtas festival demonstrated that piracy does not have by definition a poetic dimension and that legality is not necessarily moral. Thus, Cine Falcatrua attempted to show the different levels of contamination between pirate circuits and art institutions, exposing the complex negotiations of authority and value between both settings.

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