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

Categories: Media, Visual Arts

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.

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