MSCHF tests copyright limits with streaming project

The Brooklyn-based art collective MSCHF turns the macOS Terminal app and Windows Command Prompt into a text-based movie-streaming experience.

Called the ASCII Theatre – after the standard American encoding system – the latest “digital drop” from MSCHF streams movies directly in the computer’s terminal using a colorful grid of letters, numbers, and keyboard symbols to render each frame.

It is a pixelated and silent affair, but subtitles will help viewers to follow the plot. The ASCII Theater opened on January 30th with Barbie, last year’s highest-grossing movie.

According to MSCHF, the theater operates on a “pirate-radio model” and will broadcast a different movie each day, selected by its team. The project continues to explore the boundaries of copyright, a central topic across the art collective’s work portfolio.

“Copyright has always been conceptually productive for us. It's one of the most personally-impacting areas of legal gray area,” MSCHF said in an email.

“It's also a place where people experience subverting restrictive systems in casual life. As is often the case with constraints, copyright – and workarounds to it – are creatively generative,” it said.

MSCHF referred to Twitch users streaming sports games in the reflection of their sunglasses as an inspiration. “ASCII Theater is an ode to the spirit of such hacks,” it said.

Barbie is set to be followed by Hereditary, a 2018 horror flick. A preview on the project’s website also features 300, Pulp Fiction, Shrek, The Great Gatsby, and The Shining among other movies.

How does it work?

To stream the movie, go to the ASCII Theatre website, copy the code that is provided there and paste it into your Terminal app if you’re using a Mac, or a Command Prompt window, also known as cmd.exe, if you’re using a PC.

Type “Terminal” into a search window on your Mac to open the app. Alternatively, you can go to the Utilities folder, which is in turn located in the Applications folder, and then double-click on the Terminal app.

The movie will start playing automatically once you paste the code into your Terminal window and press Enter. To play it on PC, follow a similar procedure: open the Start menu, type the word “cmd,” and hit the Enter key to open Command Prompt. Paste the code and play the movie.

To stop playing, simply close the terminal application. There is no way to pause, rewind, or fast-forward the movie.

Screenshot of ASCII Theater website

"Crowd-pirated" movies

ASCII Theater follows a similar project from MSCHF called The Free Movie. It was released in July 2023 and prompts the website’s visitors to contribute to a recreation of the Bee Movie by drawing a randomly selected frame by hand.

According to the project’s website, over 30,500 users contributed to the “crowd-pirated” movie, which is now available to stream.

MSCHF said in a “manifesto” published on the website that “the history of America is the history of corporate copyright’s triumph over the will of the people” and that “bees are collectivist and so are we.”

It said it was “jailbreaking media” and described the recreation as a “liberated product, belonging to the crowd that created it.” It now calls visitors to contribute to the remake of John Wick 4.

The art collective’s previous works included a collaboration with musician Lil Nas X on Satan Shoes to poke fun at brand-celebrity partnerships. Nike sued the art collective for using its famous Swoosh logo in the design of the shoes. The case was eventually settled.

MSCHF is also behind the cartoonish Big Red Boots that went viral and were sold out on the day of their release early in 2023.

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