Against a blurry skin, we are caught crying

The act of pirating content isn’t only a gateway into an archive of content we fantasise about: it also ignites a wonder about who we are and what we could be.

How do I still see your melting face amidst the pixelated mountains on this screen? My gut feeling says you left three years back on a flight to Chicago, but the traces of your tears are inked on the screen of my Toshiba Libretto W100. 

My first experience watching a queer movie is hazy: a pirated copy of Fire (1996), a humid summer night, and a second-hand laptop that would glitch every two seconds. Nothing much is left of the laptop now except its non-functioning body, frozen keys, and probably an old SSD somewhere in my wardrobe with a list of torrented films and porn. 

The act of pirating content isn’t only a gateway into an archive of content we fantasise about: it also ignites a wonder about who we are and what we could be. The wonder creates layers of moments and movements through watching queerness on a blurry, subpar screen and the labour of searching for a copy of forbidden material in the bowels of the World Wide Web. I remember the feeling of hiding in the dark corner of my house to hide my screen, an impish giggle with a friend in the event of two women kissing, periods of clicking frantically to delete whatever was left of our illegal viewership and sweating in my dream about what was to come after.

Queer Theory academic José Esteban Muñoz coined the term ephemera, referring to gestural remains embedded in queer acts. He uses the example of dance performances where interactions such as flirtatious gazes, dance moves, and syncing to music are gestures used by queer people to express their sexuality. We can find these gestures in both stories we tell one another, and communicative physical actions such as the cool look of a street cruise, a lingering handshake between recent acquaintances, or the mannish strut of a particularly confident woman. Ephemera left behind from interacting with the process and actuality of watching third-party sourced LGBTQIA+ cinema, pornography, and violence is a by-product of multiple actions that surround the enjoyment of the content. It starts with a series of questions: Is this right? Do I relate to this depiction? What are the repercussions? Then it dives into the technicality of researching the form of procurement such as do we torrent it directly (if yes, do we choose The Pirate Bay, 0gomovies, or YTS?), request a copy from someone, or pay whatever is left in your pocket to access an enclosed booth in a computer cafe for two-hours of enjoyment. 

After the laborious task of accessing a movie, the queer person is burnt out by the end of it and goes back to their day-to-day life. What is left is the memory of emotions felt during the time: physically fleeting and buried to chase away the sparks of judgements from others. These emotions remain within the person and resurface in the mundanities of every day. Therefore, the queer person becomes a vessel for a multitude of ephemera that linger throughout their life and the whole performance of watching pirated videos becomes a space of knowing and feeling. Queerness manifests through the interactions of the parties involved, as individuals imitate each other and get to understand their place in the world better. Torrenting movies becomes a chain of action that people find comfort in and conversations about the watched media become a community act and exchange of ideas for people. 

What is it about blurry screens that makes the process more intense and passionate? Firstly, the materiality of it. When trying to watch a copy of Markova: Comfort Gay (2000) I was treated to the reactions of the entire audience present at the cinema who giggled at every sight of romance, gasped at the climaxes, and whispered their ideas to the one next to them. Other people’s experiences were traced upon the screen, integrating with the countenances of the characters. There was the theatrics of intervals, people passing popcorn, leaving the hall and I was a spectator of several interactions on top of the movie being played. While there is joy in being able to watch a film, the secrecy with which one has to live their identity is a daunting task. The physical layering involved in pirated content tends to be overwhelming because you are never away from an external gaze and the fear of violence that might be indicated by the overt expression of passion.

You told me you want to sit in a theatre in Manila and watch Markova, whistling to every sight of happiness. Do sounds of whistles get stored? I am sure the walls of my old room captured them.

Munoz also says that queerness is transmitted covertly, quite like watching videos on dodgy websites with pop-ups saying “are you lonely?”, “want to explore your fantasies?”, or “want to meet people like you in the area?” Being gay is immensely isolating, yet a surveillant eye follows all our digital interactions. Our thoughts on our sexuality are never the same after every act of piracy, fathoming the depiction of queer love on unclear screens, and the carefulness with which we navigate our act of watching. You are always a tap away from a computer bug, a bombardment of pornography on your screen, and being caught in the act of watching something so impure in the eyes of others.

Are you lonely? I design a pop-up for your computer with my face on it and you are two taps away from teleporting to my Toshiba. The shape of your hands resurfaces through its screen and we are in the dark caves of Torrent again. Careful, yet so raucous.

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