At any given moment, there are thousands of people—millions, maybe—downloading movies and television shows online. Now, thanks to The Pirate Cinema, you can watch these transfers as they occur frame-by-frame right now, in real time.
An art project that started as a physical installation at Montreal's Sight + Sound Festival in 2013, artist Nicolas Maigret and software developer Brendan Howell describe The Pirate Cinema on their website as "a cinematic collage generated by peer-to-peer network activity"—basically, a streaming video mashup of frames from popular movies as they hurtle across the internet over the BitTorrent network.
Until this week, the only way to experience The Pirate Cinema was in person, at various live installations that have been held worldwide. Now, the pair have made an at-home experience available to stream online. The effect is jarring, but just try to look away—a fragment of The Grand Budapest Hotel here, a vowel-length utterance of Frozen dialogue there, the whole thing awash in the tell-tale blips and glitches of compressed video frames cleaved apart in transit.
Files exchanged via BitTorrent are actually split into hundreds, sometimes thousands, of smaller fragments or chunks. Rather than download a file linearly, from start to finish, a BitTorrent client will grab whichever chunks it can get its hands on first until it has them all. Because of the way video files are encoded, its possible to view at least some of the frames that are contained within each chunk without having to download the whole file first.
The Pirate Cinema's server downloads the most popular torrents of the moment, and observes all of the other computers downloading those torrents, too. When the server downloads a fragment from a computer in, say, Italy, it displays the video content of that fragment on-screen—and, at the same time, uploads that fragment to another computer. The IP address and country of the computer that sent the fragment, and the computer The Pirate Cinema's server is sending the fragment to, are also overlaid on top of each frame.
As TorrentFreak pointed out when writing about the project in 2013, most users don't realize that, "at any given time there are dozens of organizations monitoring torrent swarms, sucking up and storing IP addresses, file hashes and timestamps for all kinds of reasons, from genuine research and 'six strikes' educational programs, to the preparation of lawsuits."
"The fragments are shown as they arrive, in the same order, size, rhythm. We just show as much as one video channel can decode and play," Maigret wrote in an email.
"As the process is really raw, some of the fragments tends to be misinterpreted because of missing data."
Live installations of The Pirate Cinema are a little different than the online version, Maigret explained. In art galleries and spaces where project has been presented in the past, up to five computers monitor different categories of files, and project the fragments onto three screens. Having different categories of files also allows The Pirate Cinema to be "performed," in a sense, where an operator can choose between, say, older torrents, or different versions of popular videos being shared.
The original installation was also powered by The Pirate Bay's top 100 most downloaded torrents—but given The Pirate Bay's demise, Maigret said that the stream is now culling torrents from a combination of thepiratebay.cr and oldpiratebay.org.
"We really hope that the stream will stay for a long time," Maigret wrote. "We plan for a year or two at least."
In the mean time, enjoy the show while you can.
Update 22/1: This article has been updated with responses from the artist.