Torrential Forms is a series of investigations and art installations dealing with the omnipresence of file-sharing traffic in our surroundings.
During the recent years, file sharing has become increasingly integrated in everyday life in many parts of the world. Its legal implications for intellectual ownership and copyright are thoroughly debated among policy-makers and in the media. Some are pushing for stronger regulation, whereas others insist that “information wants to be free”. But few doubt that file sharing as a technology and cultural phenomenon is here to stay, in some form or another.
File sharing or so called peer-to-peer networking (P2P) today represents around half of all network traffic according to recent measurements. Its voracious appetite for bandwidth stems not only from its popularity, but also from the fact that downloaders are involuntary uploaders, and continue to be so even after a completed download. While peers use the network to get hold of content, the network seems to use the peers to survive and expand. BitTorrents self-duplicate and their networks self-organize in lifelike manners, constantly expanding their reach and efficiency.
The most popular file-sharing technologies are based on decentralisation, where pieces of data are transmitted in non-linear order and across multiple peers spread around the world. This process not only increases transmission speeds, but also constitutes an invisible recomposition of the shared content. In fact, if one could listen to a transmission of a song or audio book as it occurs at a particular node in a network, one would hear a rearrangement of the original recording, where playback of different segments overlap in time forming clouds of sound. These sonic patterns would reflect momentary flows in the network traffic as well as the constantly fluctuating shape of the swarm of users participating in the transmission.
Like the vast networks of sewer pipes and tunnels beneath our cities, file-sharing traffic is a hidden infrastructure whose inner mechanisms few seem to reflect upon. As an art installation, Torrential Forms exposes these invisible flows of digital content that pass through the cables and air around us, and the patterns formed by these flows. By doing so, the work focuses on an aspect of file sharing which has not been as widely investigated as its ideological and economic dimensions, namely its form. This form emerges organically as result of the algorithms that dictate file-sharing, and transforms shared content – music, films and audio books – in a manner which constitutes a kind of “composition”.
By exposing these patterns acoustically and visually, the artwork not only gives the audience a glance into what kind of content is currently being downloaded and shared by people in the surroundings. It also illustrates how file-sharing is physically all around us, and how the technology which is used to share digital media constitutes a kind of organism or artform in itself.
Torrential Forms offers glimpses of the P2P “super-organism”, raising issues about ownership and agency: Who “designed” and “owns” the complex patterns that emerge spontaneously in P2P traffic? Do these torrential forms express anything by their own force, perhaps an intent or desire?