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It’s impossible to avoid the internet in Queens these days. It’s an integral part of our work, commercial, and social lives. But what happens in countries whose governments restrict access to cyberspace?

El Paquete Download” at Queens Museum provides an answer to this question. Julia Weist and Nestor Siré’s ongoing exhibition is open to the public through Sunday, Feb. 18, and there’s a public program on the final day from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

In Siré’s homeland, Cuba, public access to the internet is limited, controlled, and monitored. A few public WiFi hotspots exist, but the communist island’s web penetration rate is one of the lowest in the world. However, the general population has an unquenchable thirst for technology and connectivity.

These clashing realities have led to the grass roots development of El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Package), a cultural and economic phenomenon during which digital video, apps, music, photos, and other information is aggregated weekly and circulated across the country via in-person file sharing.

Weist and Siré explore the Paquete, the only national media format outside of government control, and its vast distribution structure. The centerpiece is a 64-terabyte server containing 52 weeks of Paquete material gleaned from August 2016 to August 2017.

A 16-minute video, “Infomercial 2017,” is at the exhibition’s entrance. With a voice over in English (and then Spanish), this short film explains the history and circumstances of the Paquete. Attendees learn that Cuban people have been sharing banned media (i.e. magazines, newspapers, DVDs) for decades. In fact, Siré’s grandfather was an early “circulation entrepreneur” in the 1970s.

Attendees also learn that some Paquete material originates from the government hierarchy, and that it is spread via storefront distribution centers and bus drivers to all the island’s provinces. Plus, it has drastically changed the local economy and led to the rise of ad agencies. (The government controls the media, including billboards, but local businesses can pay for air time and create content for a Paquete.) The general price is two U.S. dollars to copy an entire Paquete. However, it’s only 50 cents to fill up a 16 giga-byte USB stick.

Weist and Siré have amassed the world’s only formalized archive of the Paquete. The exhibition’s construction and deployment were designed around the legal and logistical restrictions of the changing U.S.-Cuba relations over the last year. (Visitors to Cuba are not allowed to carry more than two drives in their luggage per trip, and Paquetes cannot include political content or pornography.)

On Feb. 18, a paquetero (Paquete expert) will be available from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. to guide visitors through downloadable content that they can take home. Visitors can bring USB sticks to download content of their choosing from the catalog or a hard drive for the entire catalog.

Weist is a recipient of the 2016-2017 Queens Museum/Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artists. The Cooper Union graduate is also the author of several books, including the 2008 novel “Sexy Librarian” and the 2015 work “After, About, With.”

Siré has participated in residencies such as Dos Mares in Marseille, France, and The Ludwig Foundation and LASA, Havana. His work has been exhibited at such venues as the National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana; Hong-Gah Museum, Taipei; UNAM Museum of Contemporary Art, México City; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Images: Julia Weist

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