Interview with Nestor Siré [Part I]

December 2020

Marloes de Valk is a software artist, writer, PhD researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image and thesis supervisor at Experimental Publishing at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam.

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This interview is part of Imagin[in]g Networks, a year-long programme exploring the existing and potential networks that use images to enable human and machine interactions. Over the next 12 months Imagin(in)g Networks will interrogate the role and impact of the networked image. The programme aims to revisit discarded tools, analyse both the current beneficial and harmful ramifications of existent technological ecologies, explore experimental offline and online approaches, and imagine what potential new models of visual networks might look like.

Nestor Siré and Marloes de Valk discuss Nestor’s artistic practice and how he has engaged with the development of alternative networks that arose in Cuba, from book rental shops to El Paquete Semanal and SNET, the country-wide Wi-Fi mesh network run by gamers. This is part one of a two-part interview.

Marloes de Valk

Let's start with the most important question: how are you and how are you holding up in the pandemic? Is there something like Zoom fatigue in Cuba?

Nestor Siré

I am fine. These last few months have been complex and not just because of being isolated at home. I have been very active in my studies and this has helped me to develop some things that I had left pending. Nevertheless, I have felt overwhelmed by worries about changes in day-to-day life here; the dynamics of Cuban society have been radically affected.

ZOOM is unusable here because of the slow network connections. However, if I were to think of a digital fatigue that marks the present moment, I would say it’s the Telegram alert groups related to the purchase of food and other basic necessities online, on the state-owned TuEnvio webshop. Users spend hours looking at the app waiting for updates.

Although Havana was in quarantine, human contact was never lost. It’s cultural, linked not only to our way of showing affection but also to survival in times of crisis; we are convinced that it’s only possible to overcome crisis' with the support of those close to us.

Marloes de Valk

For those of us who do not know you, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your work as an artist and researcher?

Nestor Siré

I am a 31-year-old Cuban artist born in Camagüey, a city located in the centre of Cuba. I have been living in Havana for more than 10 years now. I have an academic background in visual arts.

I’m interested in unofficial methods for circulating information and goods, such as alternative forms of economic production, and phenomena resulting from social creativity and recycling, piracy, as well as a-legal activities benefiting from loopholes.

More specifically, the idiosyncrasies of digital culture in the Cuban context; which has seen alternative forms of networking emerge in a country that has been completely disconnected from the Internet until recently. When I look into these phenomena, I pay particular attention to those dynamics deeply related to identity, memory, as well as cultural and historical amnesia.

Marloes de Valk

You mentioned alternative forms of networking, which emerged in Cuba. What triggered and motivated you to create work about these networks?

Nestor Siré

I think my family experience had a big influence. My grandfather was one of those Cubans who started the business of renting entertainment materials in the 1970s. He started his business illegally by renting out western and romance novels. He established his own novel rental store, including many books by writers such as Corín Tellado and Marcial Lafuente Estefania. I consider the so-called “Banco de alquiler” (Rental point) the first step in the underground phenomenon of distribution of entertainment materials outside of government structures.

Among my earliest childhood memories is this image of customers coming home for novels and the way my grandfather would show them his copies. The clients used to mark with signatures on the last page of the novel to remind them that they had already read it. In addition, my grandfather would line the covers of the novels with nylon to extend their life and protect them from the hundreds of hands they were exposed to.

Marloes de Valk

How did you get involved yourself?

Nestor Siré

After my teenage years, between 1995 and 2000, I became involved with the process of creating copies of films on VHS cassettes. We used two video cassettes connected to each other to create copies. We would record in EP (low quality) format and would sometimes cut the credits and part of the introduction of the films in order to fit more films onto one cassette.

The first organization of an audio-visual media package was consolidated then, that distributed from Havana to the provincial capitals and cities of Cuba. It was the beginning of what we know today as the El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Package).

Marloes de Valk

Can you explain what El Paquete Semanal is?

Nestor Siré

El Paquete Semanal is one-terabyte of, mostly pirated, entertainment media that is collected weekly in Cuba and distributed throughout the country, through hand-to-hand file exchange. It contains between 15,000 and 18,000 files and covers a wide variety of formats and digital entertainment media, as well as advertising for different national services. It operates outside government control.

El Paquete Semanal is often described as a solution to the lack of Internet or fast connections in Cuba, but it is actually the result of the way entertainment media have circulated in the informal economy since the 1970s. The format of the available media evolved: from books to VHS and Betacam videotapes, CDs, VCDs and DVDs, and finally to USB sticks and hard disks.

Marloes de Valk

What happened to your grandfather’s shop after VHS?

Nestor Siré

By the mid-2000s, cell phones, computers and DVD players could be bought on the black market and many families acquired them. So, with the absence of the Internet, businesses like my grandfather's started renting audio-visual materials for home-entertainment.

One of my first projects as an artist in relation to these phenomena was a video of how my grandfather catalogued his film inventory on records. This video, called "VCD Banco de Películas" (Video Bank), documented the copying process, the creation of the disc boxes and their archiving system. I believe that these experiences awoke a curiosity in me about these conditions of digital distribution as well as the ways in which this affects the social imaginary.

Marloes de Valk

Where did this curiosity lead you?

Nestor Siré

All this life experience allowed me to develop an in-depth investigation in relation to the phenomenon of El Paquete Semanal. For this research, I travelled to all the cities in Cuba with Julia Weist, an American artist with whom I have been collaborating for more than 4 years.

Furthermore, in 2015 I became interested in researching the gamer communities in Cuba and got involved in a mesh network called SNET.

Marloes de Valk

What is SNET?

Nestor Siré

SNET is a community-run, Wi-Fi mesh network born out of the need of young Cubans to play online games in a country with no other means to connect. It is a local network, with no connection to the Internet. It has evolved organically in Havana from hundreds of LANs (Local Area Networks) that started to connect to each other.

Focusing mainly on video games and digital social interactivity, it allows users to play games, chat, send messages, debate in forums, share files in FTP or host blogs and websites. By early 2019, about 120,000 people in Havana interconnected through SNET, making it the largest offline community in the world.

The network functions as a kind of cyber kibbutz, an offline-online farm where specialized volunteer work and citizen collaboration keep it alive.

Marloes de Valk

SNET offers emulations and copies of commercial services such as a platform similar to Instagram and of course MMORPG's such as World of Warcraft. However, it lacks the pervasive surveillance and algorithmically generated feeds of the commercial Internet. In Europe, conspiracy theories are proliferating and social media has been added to the list of official types of addiction. Have control and surveillance entered SNET?

Nestor Siré

Only a few months ago the Cuban State started selling products and services, which are in low supply online, through a virtual sales service called TuEnvio that no other companies are allowed to use. 'Big data' collection is still something that lacks utility beyond ideological control.

Teamspeak (TS), a voice conferencing software that allows users to communicate with each other via voice and text, is the closest thing to a social network on SNET. Although it could be used to gather user information, it is important to understand that the network is decentralized and each NODE has its own servers, so it is not so easy to acquire data from all users.

Marloes de Valk

Are things changing now that Cuba is slowly getting access to the Internet?

Nestor Siré

There are attempts to formalise laws of radical ideological control in relation to the particular use of social networks, and we have to keep a close eye on how these measures will be developed in the coming years. In the last few months, SNET is in the process of merging with a state entity called Joven Club (Youth Club) and the services are, little by little, migrating to its servers, centralising them.

It remains to be seen how this process of centralisation evolves in parallel with the evolution of private businesses and the imminent development of advertising in Cuba.

Marloes de Valk

What about isolation and loneliness?

Nestor Siré

The online experience of SNET requires human contact, as almost every aspect of network configuration requires direct contact with a NODE administrator [1]SNET is a mesh network of Wi-Fi routers. Users connect to local servers called nodes, which in turn connect to one of nine regional pillars that are interconnected using long-range directional Wi-Fi routers. Some services are hosted on the pillar level, while local nodes provide FTP servers so users can share content locally.. The network also promotes group events where players meet to socialise and get to know each other physically. The digital experience in Cuba is very collective. Until very recently, even the Internet was a public and collective experience, because the lobbies and exteriors of hotels and Wi-Fi parks were the only access points.

This was part one of a two-part interview. Read the second part, here.

References

[1]

SNET is a mesh network of Wi-Fi routers. Users connect to local servers called nodes, which in turn connect to one of nine regional pillars that are interconnected using long-range directional Wi-Fi routers. Some services are hosted on the pillar level, while local nodes provide FTP servers so users can share content locally.