Legality, participation, access and distribution in the digital realm have always been hot topics in the Berlin media-art scene, be it in connection with the setting-up of independent cultural FM radio or open wireless networks, taking over old spaces, or archiving software/media. Discourses ranging from the critique of cultural production under the neo-liberal economy to projects like Creative Commons created an environment for projects resembling sustained balancing acts, avoiding both institutionalization and commercialization (or at least its compromises). Pirate Cinema and kanalB are probably some of the most illustrative examples of this, each at a different end of the spectrum.
Pirates with a Noble Cause
(Interview with Sebastian Lütgert and Jan Gerber)
Berlin's media-culture discourse center »bootlab« is a must-see for all international visitors passing by, and friends are expected to spend an afternoon there to catch up with some of the key networkers, programmers, and cultural producers behind the organization. Sebastian Lütgert (theorist and media artist, copyleft advocate, known widely for web projects like http://www.textz.com) and Jan Gerber (software developer, free software advocate – the developer behind http://www.v2v.cc) have been a driving force behind the most recent activities as well as the daily operations of this low-maintenance cultural lab. Pirate Cinema was initiated by the two of them in July 2004: they got hold of a film that was having problems with cinema distribution, and decided to screen it at bootlab. As with many other projects, it emerged from personal obsessions (here, with collecting video material from p2p networks) to become a way of radically opposing ever more unsatisfying cinema experiences (in all of its shapes and forms) and recent copyright pressures from the industry. At the same time, it is a network infrastructure (a sparsely designed ASCII website with a complex database and big storage capacities), a public screening program (last year, screenings in bootlab took place on Sunday evenings), but also a specific discourse inspired by the screenings. In addition, visitors can get digital copies of the screened program burned on CD/DVD before, during and after screening.
The atmosphere brought about by the screening carefully selected programs, contextualized in introductions by Sebastian Gerber, of very heterogeneous material – ranging from short videos to longer films all within the course of a few hours - makes the Pirate Cinema an interesting space for social interaction: anything from ten to 100 people go in and out and discuss the programs over a drink.
Previous programs included screenings of classic works by Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Abbas Kiarostami and Theo van Gogh, but also of »Team America - World Police,« »The Simpsons - The Ten Best Episodes Ever,« and »The KLF - The White Room - The Movie.«
Zeljko Blaçe: How did it all start?
Sebastian Lütgert: Conventional cinema is fucked up and useless...
Jan Gerber: But we started off because one of the films we had hadn’t been distributed and we wanted to have it screened . Our strong opinions about copyright and restrictions on distributing digital data always surfaced in Pirate Cinema events, with their motto: »Free admission, cheap drinks, and bring a blank CD.«
Blaçe: The Pirate Cinema archive has been growing steadily for a while now, feeding mostly from digital video content scooped from different peer-to-peer networks. Currently (in late 2005), it contains over 800 GB of compressed, tagged, sorted and searchable video material. What makes you decide to download something and add it to the Pirate Cinema database? What are the selection criteria for screening programs and organizing the database/archive?
Lütgert: We have never thought in genres and it has never been about questions of cinema.. The most important thing was the fast and up-to-date programming, responding to the current context, that we could get from a large archive. But in the end, availability of material was always the question. Collecting anything from TV cartoon shows to »Machinimas« (a type of DIY digital video produced with the use of computer-game engines), as well as art videos and documentaries, makes the collection huge, but also opens new paths for developing quality programs. A lot of our archive consists of French cinema, American cinema, digital cinema; there is very little German cinema.
Blaçe: I remember seeing some of the consequences of such decisions in the tagging system, where one of the keywords was »toilet scene« (which connects all video material inside the database with a toilet scene). How is the website useful to the people interested in Pirate Cinema (since it does not host video files itself)?
Gerber: The website was a result of the programs. It catalogued the program announcements, which were always sent just three days in advance. We were developing a comprehensive database and web-search interface to access information on available material so that any potential subsequent Pirate Cinema event would have a source of fresh and relevant information. Since the original event, the Pirate Cinema idea has spread to a number of cities across Europe and has been adapted and presented by locals in their own way and with their own dynamics (London, Copenhagen, Weimar...). We are always open to invitations to go to new places to promote and help set up local nodes with fresh copies of the archive (Cologne, Paris, NYC, Zagreb, Tarifa, Munich...).
Blaçe: How do you see the future of Pirate Cinema and its network of nodes? Is there a grass-root copyleft cinema scene developing among young film enthusiasts that would be comparable with or connect to hacker culture among geeks or party culture among electronic music fans?
Lütgert: There are a number of illegal screening events, but most of them have less of a political discourse, aside from the obvious violation of copyright. File-sharing was important as a production method in social networks. For us, too, getting people to interact during events and exchange files is one of key components of the program.
Gerber: We try to keep Pirate Cinema going with as low a work load as possible, and develop it so that it doesn't eat all of our time, as we run it exclusively from our own pockets. Without the bootlab infrastructure, it would be impossible.
Blaçe: How do traditional film makers and film critics react to your work?
SL: Film people have always been positive in their feedback about the ideas. About one-third of film critics in Berlin have been to Pirate Cinema screenings.