Digital artist Conor McGarrigle on BitTorrent, Vine and the ubiquity of data mining

Digital artist Conor McGarrigle on BitTorrent, Vine and the ubiquity of data mining

The Internet, as ubiquitous as it is, has yet to make much of an impact on the art world. Two works by digital artist Conor McGarrigle explore the art inherent to the 'net in unique and intriguing ways. The first, the BitTorrent Trilogy, consists of three incomplete downloads of popular TV shows -- Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones -- that utilizes the technology and culture of file sharing to produce a glitchy, surreal vision of pop culture. The second, 24h Social, splices together 86,400 Vine videos -- six-second clips shareable on Twitter -- into a 24-hour look at the world of social media that critiques the ubiquity of data mining on the web. Before his exhibit opens at Counterpath tonight, we caught up with McGarrigle to talk about the pieces, the impact of the Internet on art, and what drew him to work in a digital medium.

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Westword: You'll be showing two pieces at Counterpath, correct?

Conor McGarrigle: Yes. One of them is three parts that are related, the BitTorrent [Trilogy]. It's three parts to that, but I see it as a complete work. The other part is 24 Hour Social, which is a 24 hour video projection that comes from Vine videos. There's a bit of a backstory to that.

What I've done is basically I've scraped 24 hours of Vine. I have a Vine for every second of the day. The project plays them back at the exact time that they were posted to Twitter. It's kind of like a project by Christian Marclay called The Clock. It was a video, a 24-hour video, that showed you clips from Hollywood movies that showed the time in it. Every time you went to see it, it showed a clip from a film that had the time that was actually the time of day you were watching it. This is something similar with Vine videos. Every time you watch it, the videos you're watching at that time were posted to Twitter at that time, over a 24-hour period. I show six at the same time. They're six seconds long and I show six at a time, simultaneously, and they layer up. It's basically a day in the life of the Internet, according to Vine.

Vines are pretty creative. They're pretty wacky in some cases. They're lots of fun.

You wrote a script of some sort to scrape all this, right?

Yeah. First of all, I scraped Twitter and I ended up with about six million tweets. From that I narrowed it down to ones that had Vines in them, and parsed it to get the time of the day. Then I actually downloaded all the videos, because Vines can come and go -- they can be deleted, they can be removed. I downloaded 86,400 videos that will be shown over a 24-hour period. There's more videos than there are times to play. At any one time, I don't actually know what's going to be played.

There's an element of randomness to it, then?

Yeah, it's kind of generative. There's some randomness. At some periods of time there will only be one video to play for that second, because there was only one. Lots of times, there will be a choice and the computer will make that choice, rather than me making it.

The other work is based off incompletely downloaded BitTorrent files, right? And the results display some weird glitchiness.

Yeah, and the glitches are all to do with the way BitTorrent protocol itself, the way it downloads, the way it breaks up the file and downloads the bits in different orders, and to do with the file format itself. Most of them are MP4 videos, and the codec that goes with that. So everything is totally dependent on the the technical process and the social process of BitTorrent itself. If there's more people sharing the BitTorrent file, the results are much more aesthetically pleasing. The more popular the show is, the better it's going to look in the video.

You picked three popular shows that are widely shared, right?

Yeah. Two of them broke BitTorrent records. The Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad ones, when they came on BitTorrent they broke records for the number of people sharing them at the same time. It's kind of interesting because BitTorrent is so large. They say its 20 to 30 percent or higher of all traffic used to be BitTorrents. Now it's Netflix.

The videos themselves look great. They're really beautiful, kind of organic. I haven't done anything to them digitally, just real straightforward editing to make a video of it. Everything is in the file itself. They shift time, it mixes scenes, stuff like that. It has interesting temporal effects.

And that's all an effect of these being incomplete torrent files?

Yeah. It's just a result of the way BitTorrent breaks it into little sections, and they get downloaded the fastest way possible. So you might get something from the end mixed in with something from the start. Then the video codec will try to make sense of what it's got, put it together in a way that seems to make sense.

But it's not doing that based on human aesthetics, but on some sort of algorithm that determines that "this piece is statistically likely to be next to this piece" or whatever?

Exactly. You're kind of seeing the file format itself. We're so used to watching video in digital format, but when you start seeing it glitch, you start seeing it come apart.


I've seen some of that glitchiness in corrupted files, or when my computer was too old to play newer files. Is this the same sort of thing?

Yes, very similar. There's a lot of glitch art about, where people play with the file format itself, but this is more inherent in the file itself. I haven't done anything to it. These are found objects.

And the three shows, are they shown all at once? Or sequentially?

There are three screens, so we're going to show them on different screens on the same wall. They run at the same time, next to each other.

And 24 Hour Social will be running elsewhere in the gallery?

It'll be a large scale projection running in the basement space. It's kind of gripping because they're very short, and it's always like, "What's the next one going to be?"

Vine is like that -- it's easy to get sucked in because they're so short.

Yeah, there's always something. I've been surprised. I haven't watched the whole thing, but I've watched a couple of hours of it. There's a lot of imagination and a lot of elaborate setups going into these very short videos.

For being a six-second medium, there's a lot of high concept pieces being made.

A lot of people have put a lot of effort into very elaborate setups. I was kind of surprised. I thought they'd be more boring and kind of tedious -- an exercise in tedium. But actually it's pretty entertaining. Everyone who's seen it has been really taken by the amount of creativity that's gone into each one of them.

I was into 'net art in the early days, the early 2000s, and there was always this kind of feeling with the Internet, that it was going to be this great creative space. That didn't quite turn out, or you can debate whether it turned out like that, but I think in some ways this is kind of going back to the early days where everyone was making their own website and there was a lot of this creating going into publishing stuff on the Internet.

If we can pull back a bit, can you tell me what draws you to this sort of work?

In the early days of 'net art, where people were making work where the medium was the Internet itself -- making stuff that was seen on the Internet that was also about the Internet. I think as well, with the BitTorrent one, I'm very interested in the whole process of BitTorrent. This is a huge activity that kind of gets -- we hear about people stealing other people's copyrighted material, but we don't get into the fact that so many people do this. It's a whole enterprise that's going on every day in people's lives. It's become very integrated into people's lives. Nobody seems to deal with this in any way besides maybe the legal ramifications of it.

I kind of wanted to look at it to see if I could visualize what was actually going on with this idea. It's almost invisible. We don't see the process of BitTorrent. We don't see how it happens. But if we could visualize it in some way -- these are an effort to do that. To visualize this and see what it actually looks like. I've somehow captured the process itself. It's a mixture of social process -- what people are doing -- and then on the other end, the technical thing -- the codecs and protocols and the network activity itself. I've kind of married the events together.

For the Vine one, I've become very interested in this whole idea of data. We're getting all this data collected on us, through Facebook and whatever. So I wanted to do some data mining, to grab a whole section of data from Twitter and see what you can do with that. The one thing about Vine is the whole thing is set up so they're very ephemeral -- they last six seconds and they're gone. Of course, whatever we do on the Internet today is not gone. It's stored somewhere and someone is mining that information and making use of it.

This work is emulating that process. The value of a company like Vine -- they give you this great service for free, and it's lots of fun, but what's in it for them? What's in it for them is to collect all that data and monetize that. In a way, I'm kind of highlighting that, critiquing it, but at the same time I kind of rely on doing it myself. I couldn't have made this work, which is really great, without those 86,000 people who made videos that I then just was able to get at. I'm doing what I'm criticizing in some ways to highlight this thing. Once something goes up on the Internet, it becomes data and that data is being used in all sorts of ways we don't know about. We have no oversight or control over that. That was kind of what's behind that one.

It also fits in this whole artistic tradition of the ready-made. You make work, you make art, from what you've found, of your time. The Internet and Vine videos, they're pretty much our time. There's not a lot of artists who are working with that material, that's what kind of drove me to it.

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