Telestreets - Hacking the Infocalypse> by Luther Blisset

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The cold rain lightens passing the small twice-weekly farmers’ market, down the corridor past the Italian class for migrants, the bookshop, a meeting, the circus class. Entering into one room a web of cables crawls overhead, converging in a loft. Upstairs a small group chatters in front of computers, editing, uploading, downloading, emailing; organising a 24-hour pirate TV station. This is the Xmercato24 social centre in Bologna, Italy, home of “Teleimmagini?”, part of the Italian Telestreet movement of around 80 pirate micro-TV stations, most of which have grown in less than 2 years.

In an era of ever-increasing media concentration Italy is perhaps the most extreme example. Prime Minister Berlusconi owns three of the four main private TV channels, Mondadori - Italy’s biggest publishing group -, the AC Milan football club and much, much more. As Prime Minister, Berlusconi also has great power over RAI, Italy’s state-owned media network, giving him control of the six biggest television channels in the country and access to 90% of the national daily audience.

But his and other corporate influences are far from hegemonic. There exists simultaneously an innovative network of grassroots media that is bringing conflict to this state of affairs, and not merely reacting to Berlusconi, but providing other forms of information dissemination, new social relations that break the patronage of the entrenched media, both state-owned and corporate-controlled, as well as the traditional consumer/producer divide.

Italy has a long history of resistant media. In the 70s a host of free radios sprang up across the country as part of the Movement of Autonomy. Many, such as Padua’s Radio Sherwood and Rome’s Radio Onda Rosa, continue. As does the daily communist newspaper Il Manifesto, which prints close to 90 000 copies, 6 days a week, and has been going for 33 years. In more recent times Italy has seen an explosion in the use by activists of so-called “new media”. But these forms are by no means restricted to the net. In fact the most innovative use both traditional broadcast media forms and the new horizontal communications
networks in which much of the Italian movement is well versed.

The birth of computer networks run by Italian activists goes back to 1988-89 with the use of the bulletin board system (BBS) to transmit news and as a space for debates. These networks in turn gave rise to the European Counter Network (ECN), a network of computer infrastructures across Europe. With the coming of the internet ECN Italy became host to a variety of projects from mailing lists and web hosting to inspiring, in 1998, the now yearly Italian hackmeetings, a large gathering of hackers and activists from across Europe. ECN also formed much of the basis for the beginning of Indymedia Italy, made up of 12 local collectives, and the most popular Indymedia after the main indymedia.org page.


This deep base in the use of information technologies in Italy is also evident in the swathe of “hacklabs” (think computers/net connection/geeks) that deconstruct the technology, provide space for various projects and push the now well-disseminated ideas of free software and hacker ethic through the activist community. There are dozens of hacklabs amongst the hundreds of social centres across Italy. Social centres are usually squatted spaces that operate to serve political, social and cultural needs such as space for meetings, a bar/café, venue for concerts and events, workshops, bookshops etc. They range from occupied warehouses and apartment buildings to old military forts and greyhound racing tracks.



Walking along Via de Lollis, San Lorenzo, nothing seems particularly unusual. Enter into the crowded lobby of one of the many apartment blocks and you’ll find something very different. Around the fortified steel gates sits a group of Africans and Indians, drinking coffee and watching TV whilst kids scream and run in and out of the building. It’s their turn to be on watch in case of any eviction attempt. The whole 9 floors of this building have been occupied by migrant families and activists. On the top floor sits TeleAut, so named after the 70s free radio station RadioAut in Sicily whose founder was killed in 1978 by the mafia. In a small basic studio daily six-hour TV broadcasts are compiled from local activist productions, downloading various media from the net, and fairly impromptu live-to-camera segments. When I visited they were screening Kill Bill and South Park. On the roof of the studio sits the antenna, managing to cover a good portion of the suburb, perhaps up to 3km away.

Perhaps the most interesting tactical media initiative of recent times, the Telestreet network combines both old and new media, lo-tech and hi-tech. Telestreet is a coordination of TV micro-broadcasters that first went to air in Italy in the summer of 2002 in the form of Orfeo TV, a neighbourhood station based in Bologna. A “flashpoint for the development of critical approaches to information production and distribution” in the words of Rome’s Candida TV, who assert that what is important about Telestreet “is to meet one another, share knowledge, re-activate brains, build collective narratives.”

The small pirate stations can be constructed fairly easily. For around 500 euros you can get set up with the basic infrastructure to broadcast: an aerial, cables, transmitter and amplifier. It’s possible to transmit from an ordinary roof-top TV aerial, though many of the Telestreets use more expensive transmitters that allow them to broadcast further. On average they broadcast to around 1km, depending on the terrain. The better ones up to 3km. Only a couple, such as Teleimmagini?, broadcast 24 hours a day. Some a few hours a day, others once a week, others sporadically. The Telestreets broadcast mostly in the shadow of commercial stations, in areas where those stations’ signal is not received clearly or at all.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Telestreet is limited to the radical extra-parliamentary movement: even some Christian groups run pirate stations, as did a disabled group, DiscoVolante TV. The latter was supported by the local council and was then shut down by the national government. A legal argument, however, that the stations operate outside the law, doesn’t carry much weight. Berlusconi is currently running his Retequattro channel illegally, broadcasting on a frequency that was sold 4 years ago to Europa7, who are unable to broadcast because Berlusconi has refused to vacate the channel.

In fact Berlusconi is an expert at operating outside the boundaries of the law. Murdoch too, who has recently moved into the Italian market with Sky, has a common strategy of breaking media rules and then forcing the law to conform to him, rather than having him conform to the law. In opposition to this continuing media concentration and control the Telestreet network has grown, not pleading to the government that they enforce the law, but seeking to intervene into the tele-visual fabric by creating their own communications needs.



Perhaps the most spectacular détournement of this media has been the re-appropriation of privatised football broadcasts. Murdoch’s SKY TV has recently moved into the Italian market. One of its first moves was to buy the rights to the biggest soccer games of the season, thus requiring millions of football fans to buy a subscription to SKY. A coalition of Guerrilla Marketing and Telestreets in Rome combined to take the encrypted, privatised SKY signal of the Roma-Juventus match and rebroadcast it to the suburb of San Lorenzo for free from an apartment rooftop, immediately making the links between the capitalists’ agenda of privatisation and profit and the conflicting desire that football, and much more, be a common good for everyone.

In the ad breaks the protagonists ran their own anti-ads, pieces from various Telestreets and information on Murdoch’s nefarious background, as well as adding their own commentary during the game. If you want to make a political point in Italy, football is a very good way to make sure your message hits a huge chunk of the population. The coup was repeated a month later.

Perhaps what the action politicised more than anything else was the realm of information, making media activism not merely a process of producing alternative information, but of actually making the issue of communications and their control a node of conflict in itself. As the media and communications sectors of the global economy continue to grow, as work becomes ever more a process of communication and the concentration of media ownership continues to intensify, the politics of information become ever more crucial. In this case the weaving of autonomous communications infrastructures, distributing alternative information and confronting the media powers happen simultaneously.

This hybridisation is also evident within the Telestreets and their connection to the net. Given the time and expense required for producing television the net is used as a means to share high-quality content between stations. New Global Vision is a series of servers where local content producers upload high-resolution video good enough for broadcast. This means of sharing content gives the Telestreets sufficient material to make stations viable and regular. Much use is also made of other online tools such as BitTorrent to download the movies and TV shows and redistribute them for free in the area, thus enabling people without fast net connections or expensive computer equipment to also enjoy the materials the giant media corporations would rather have everyone pay for.

In many ways the Telestreets currently function more as actions than actual means. They serve more to bring conflict to a mind-numbing mediascape than to disseminate information across masses of people. Given their limited broadcast coverage and often “flexible” transmission hours they are still at an infant stage, lacking money and competing with a television audience very much entrenched in, but not necessarily happy with, what they are getting. Competing for attention is still a major obstacle, making guerrilla tactics all the more necessary. Intervening politely (or legally) into the Italian media sphere provides little chance of building much of an audience, as Berlusconi knows too well. For those with a message to get out more creative means are required, a field in which Telestreet is becoming a rich laboratory.

 

Telestreets video

Check out the Telestreets documentary on Undergrowth's Motion Pixels by Tim Parish and A-Lo.