Tens, hundreds, thousands of Aguascalientes, we would say out of habit from past movements.
—Laboratorio Occupato SKA and C. S. Leoncavallo, El Sup
In Genoa in July 2001, internet radio Radio Gap was taken down with a similar live broadcast police raid that had shut down Radio Alice in 1977. Radio Alice’s groundbreaking use of phone-in announcements had become a coordination tool for protesters, allowing for efficient two-way communication between the radio hosts and the crowds on the streets of Bologna, where they were protesting the killing of Francesco Lorusso at the hands of the police. Similarly, Radio Gap, reporting with Indymedia from G8 Summit protests, was covering the police killing of Carlo Giuliani. Such seemingly smooth progression from the free radios in the 1970s to the global justice movement’s alternative media (and little change in police tactics) easily obfuscates the nonlinear trajectories of twenty-five years of media-based political organizing. And yet it is important to behold complexity to fully grasp the emergence of this kind of media projects. Telestreet, a heterogeneous network of pirate television channels using both digital and analog hacked technologies, came about in similarly unpredictable ways, within an environment where familiar activist histories met wandering stories, local events bore the weight of geopolitics, and economic trends and new alliances bred surprising technical solutions.
Investigating the intercommunication between circulating “energies” and political invention provides precious insights into the context of emergence of projects like the free radios, Indymedia and Telestreet, whose seeds and reverberations extend them across time and spaces—before and after the divergent energies have come together to generate them as specific political assemblages. Importantly, the teeming of contingencies and reverberations that cut across the narrow boundaries of what self-defines or is defined as “a movement”—or simply a project—should also remind anyone interested in examining the impact of activism that questions of successes and failures promote a reductive understanding of how social change takes place. Narratives of successes and failures mostly focus on visible transformations at specific times and in specific spaces.
The achievement of social justice is a long-term endeavor; it spans multiple cycles of struggles and it often exceeds the brief existence of an experiment. Activist assemblages traverse cycles of struggles visibly, sometimes, and in more subterranean ways in other cases. In surprising fashion, they recuperate past histories and repurpose practices as they recompose. This chapter charts the environment and conditions of becoming for experiments like Telestreet as they struggle within an information-rich environment, heavily shaped by communication technologies and cognitive capitalism—what chapter 3 shorthanded as the neoliberal-Berlusconian milieu. I move through the stories of other media projects that preceded Telestreet with an eye on complex encounters in order to add new dimensions to the milieu of emergence, or individuation, wherein Italian and international movements shaped and were shaped. In many ways, grassroots engagements with technology set the stage for future uses of social networks and media tools, which were quickly absorbed into corporate mainstream tech products. They also offer a view of a proto-networked society before it became a reality for a large part of the world. Some of the phenomena I link with Telestreet and insu^tv are well known, like the communication guerrilla of the Zapatistas in Mexico, Indymedia, the momentous battle of Seattle at the WTO Summit in 1999, and the tragedy of Genoa at the 2001 G8 Summit. Others have almost been forgotten, like the student movement and the renaissance of the Centri Sociali Occupati Autogestiti (CSOA, Self-Managed Squatted Social Center) in Italy that started in 1989. In my account, events, technical infrastructure, and spaces are important conduits for the circulation of different kinds of information that triggers transformation.
Information, here, acts as a structural force. Traditional models of communication that view information as the content of a message tend to underplay the indirect impact of informational dynamics on cultural and political expression, which is shaped as much by information resonance, proliferation, and interference as by events that the distribution of content can trigger (Terranova 2004). This is why, in this chapter, information takes center stage through multiple conceptualizations and roles: it is regarded as a good and a coveted resource in a transforming economy; it is a drive for new architectures of communication; it is psychosocial energy that triggers the reorganization of existing systems and formations (transindividuation). There is no recomposition of sociotechnical assemblages without information in all these different forms. There is no milieu of emergence without information.
Tools for Change and the Hacking of Communication Channels
After a decade of activist slumber in the 1980s, following the crackdown on the autonomist extra-parliamentary left, many Italians woke up to a country with a privatized national infrastructure, a weak welfare state, outsourced industry, and the new, more precarious service-oriented economy—a dystopian version of flexible employment that had been part of the autonomist theorization of the refusal of work (Berardi n.d.). With the crisis of communism, for many, the awakening was also a rallying cry for new modes of political critique and struggle. What’s more, the deep-reaching economic transformations and the rise of the tertiary and financial sectors had placed a new resource, information, at the center of the struggle for accumulation and power. Then, in December 1989, students in Palermo rose up to protest the privatization of research funding and the inclusion of private stakeholders into the university councils, a measure that would allow corporations and the information economy to thrive at the expense of public education. The students also advocated for the right to access free and independent information and opposed Berlusconi’s attempts to consolidate his monopoly on the mass media with the help of Communication Minister Mammì (Delisa 2012). By January 1990 the movement had rapidly expanded throughout Italy, taking its name from an undetainable runaway zoo animal sighted at the outskirts of Rome—La Pantera (The Panther). The Panther students declared themselves “political without party affiliation; democratic; non-violent; and anti-fascist” (Delisa 2012). They occupied buildings, self-managed classes and groups in collaboration with some professors, and experimented with available communication channels to reach out to broad audiences. They would also become the first Italian movement to tell its own story through video (Albanese 2010).
With the mainstream media mostly spreading misinformation about the occupations, and audiences recalling a not-so-distant past of political terrorism, La Pantera was so confusing for Italians that some action was needed.1 This is when two veteran activists from the 1977 student movement who had become successful advertisers (Ferri n.d.) donated to the students of La Sapienza University in Rome a slogan and a logo (La Pantera siamo noi! [The Panther is us!]) for a public relations campaign of sorts. “No one knows where it [the real panther] came from, like this movement that bloomed at a time when there is little space for dissent. . . . And it is also unpredictable, with many faces and it is still hard to pin down its ideology,” explained advertiser Fabio Ferri to the newspaper La Repubblica during those days (Pucciarelli 2010). The logos, videos, comics, and other media stunts that snowballed from the initial design may have not been everyone’s tactic of choice but they certainly succeeded in circulating images of the occupation through what would now be considered memes or viral content.2 Posters, stickers, and banners turned up everywhere across the country, as they traveled from one faculty to the other. This communication approach was the first of a kind in the history of struggles in Italy.
At that time, I was a high school student joining the occupations in solidarity and being introduced to activism at the Faculty of Architecture of Federico II University in Naples. My own first encounter with this circulating content was a video ad about the real panther on the run. The ad mixed footage of the feline with images of people asking who is afraid of the panther. About the students, poor people, and social justice activists depicted, the male voice-over suggested with a reassuring tone, “Lui no, loro no . . . [Not him, not them . . .],” but over the images of people like Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, Education Minister Antonio Ruberti, Fiat owner Gianni Agnelli, and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, the voice decidedly declared: “Lui si, loro si [Yes him, yes them].” “La Pantera siamo noi [The Panther is all of us]” was the punch line at the end of the ad, interpellating audiences to identify with the movement. Many of those I asked could recall the ad but not its origin. It seems safe to assume that it came out of the many experiments that were possible once students could access the expensive technology of some university media labs, and it traveled on VHS tape from city to city. Other slogans on banners, on walls, and at rallies drove home the political message. Students chanted: “L’università privata, la pantera s’è incazzata [The panther is pissed off about the privatized university].”
Public relations aside, in activist circles, it was very clear that the image of the panther, which reproduced the logo of its U.S. predecessor, drew a direct connection with the struggle of the Black Panther Party (Ferri 2017) and with the fight against oppressive powers celebrated by rap musicians like Public Enemy (Philopat 2006). Amid a climate of contamination between mainstream consumer culture, global politics, and imported countercultures, the occupied faculties drew people en masse, from high school students like me to activists from the CSOAs who supported the organizing process. These vibrant spaces, filled to the brim 24/7, offered a gamut of tools for self-run seminars, discussion groups, and experimentation with a variety of communication practices. Out came magazines, radio features, and video newsreels like the Videogiornale Pantera (La Pantera 1990). Some of the members of the historical free radio Radio OndaRossa in Rome founded OndaRossa Posse, one of the first hip-hop collectives in Italy (later called Assalti Frontali). The Posse and those who followed inextricably linked the production of this musical genre to the political scene of the Italian social centers (Giurdanella 2014). People sang OndaRossa Posse’s “Batti il tuo tempo” (Keep your rhythm / Beat your time period) during the occupations and rallies, as enthusiasm ran high, for the young who had never experienced the thrills of collective action and for the veterans, who had lived without it for a long time.
With the PR campaign, but also with its attempts to control mainstream media messages through tactical interventions, La Pantera entered a terrain of struggle over information channels that would expand significantly in the nineties activist circles. It attempted to create a leveled playing field with the strategic communication and marketing approaches that overtook the communication industries and politics alike. Theories of differential accumulation (Nitzan 1998) are helpful to understand the backdrop of these new practices of resistance. In service-oriented economies, owners can leverage technical change as a tool of power and they can reorganize power directly by buying and selling ownership claims over the information that is produced and circulates while simultaneously capitalizing on the infrastructures that sustain it. Examples of these dynamics today are the struggles against piracy and the battles among internet service providers (ISPs) against net neutrality, where powerful stakeholders attempt to gain an advantage—or even total control—over available information dissemination channels. A fundamental part of the competition among capitalists also unfolds through the constant engagement with the diffusion of information to ensure that messages are not distorted or dispersed. In oversaturated environments, where capital is competing for niche markets to sell products and services (together with the lifestyles that require them and the political discourses that legitimate them), the shorter the message and the faster information reaches its target, the more chances of success. During these struggles to prevail over each other, information distribution patterns and circulating information in the form of short slogans and ever-present logos reshape the informational milieu outside simple channels of communication.
The modulation of signal to noise increasingly takes precedence over the delivery of meaning in this information-rich world (Terranova 2004, 54–58). This is how, as the organization and circulation of information take on more importance for the economy, creative informational practices of resistance establish themselves alongside the rallies, strikes, and blockades to compete for attention. Tactical media stunts and virtual sit-ins (Meikle 2002), the antibranding “culture jams,” and “subvertising” (subvert + advertising) campaigns that support corporate boycotts (Klein 2000) gained popularity in the nineties because they enabled activists to target the new enemies, often powerful corporations, with humorous and popular campaigns that threaten their power to accumulate and appeal to a wide public. Some of the seeds for informational guerrilla were planted earlier on.
In the late eighties and early nineties, new technologies met DIY punk ethics at the same time as activists had started to understand the shape-shifting character of capital. Their experiments showed the effects of practices of resistance that repurpose available communication channels (faxes, billboards, internet websites, etc.) and use the familiar language of consumption and advertising to gain visibility in the mainstream media, reaching wider audiences than the restricted activist crowd. During the student strikes, La Pantera pioneered some of these tactics, tapping into marketing strategies and the aesthetics of communication typical of the current phase of capitalism. These experiments catalyzed creations and transformations that exceeded the act of communicating: as information circulated through the new and repurposed information infrastructure, it set off a series of relays between the technological and the social, pushing the limits and options for supporting social change by drawing on technology to develop social practices and vice versa. The new formations that emerged were not only the result of attempts to clear out channels from noise; information was also an attractor for creations that are the outcome of interactions within an information-rich field.
Information as a Structuring Force outside Its Channels: Okkupanet and Networked Activism
When the students of La Sapienza in Rome entered the office of the dean to ask for the keys to the Faculty of Letters, they also asked for the fax machine. After a bit of arguing and some resistance, the dean conceded, “Do you know how to use it?” (Albanese 2010). La Pantera became known as il movimento dei fax (the fax movement), named after the internal fax grid they developed. In 1989–90 faxes were essential for the students coordinating actions among universities across the country. Faxes were used to circulate mailing lists with updates on the occupations but they were also critical to break into dominant information circuits and reach government and press directly in their offices. It is no surprise that the dean tried to hold on to his fax machine.
Even more groundbreaking was the appropriation of the Virtual Address eXtension (VAX) computer network in the science departments, which were part of an entirely different, dedicated, cable network. This network was much more powerful than the more common telephone cables used for technologies like bulletin board systems (Botti 1990). The political use of VAX computers from the DECnet grid is an identifiable threshold for the recomposition of the field of Italian media activism. As recounted by Andrea Mazzucchi (2009), one of the students spearheading the effort:
Those of us in Physics [departments] had one more tool [in addition to faxes]: the VAX grid based on DECnet, a proprietary system by Digital [Digital Equipment Corporation or DEC] that allowed us to interconnect VAX and microVAX computers all around the world. At the time, this was space age technology, way more developed than the internet. In addition to performing maintenance and circulating updates, the grid allowed us to use remote hard disks, manage mailing lists, chats and so on. . . . So, me and another nutcase, Simone Botti from Chemistry [department], decided to integrate the fax net with something more exciting. This is how Okkupanet was born.
Okkupanet connected VAX computers into the infrastructure of the occupation.
Before Okkupanet was created, DECnet had already become an important point of connection and information exchange with China, where students were protesting against their government in Tiananmen Square. When the government shut down all communication and blocked every source of information about the events, Chinese state censorship was unaware of DECnet, which remained active during the unrest. Every day, the Italian students had cleaned up the messages from their masking headings and passed them on to the mainstream press: “It [Okkupanet] could have just been a techno-elitist experiment but it quickly turned into something different. . . . The students of La Pantera organized themselves into ‘commissions,’ and I, as the person in charge of the ‘Press Commission’ was in daily contact with journalists. Probably, some functionary of the Chinese embassy went crazy trying to figure out how it was possible that Italy got such timely updates!” (Mazzucchi 2009). Mazzucchi remembers this event as a trigger for the political transformation of DECnet.
Beyond the transmitted content of the messages, circulating information established a material connection between China and Italy and sowed the seed for further use of computer networks, inspiring the movement to use Okkupanet.3 The repurposing of VAX computers to discuss politics became a testing ground for some of the features of contemporary social media, enabling horizontal and open communication and the easy archiving and distribution of content. Okkupanet’s features were shaped by the prefigurative politics that activists aimed to affirm in society at large: consensus decision-making, diversity of practices, horizontal organizing, and so on.4 It quickly developed into an active political network where interaction was structured along the democratic organizing principles of conduct of a movement striving to foster participation. According to Simone Botti, the discussion of the practices and potentials for the network went hand in hand with an analysis of the features and reach of the VAX computer network and with a reflection on the needs of the movement.
At the beginning it functioned as a simple system for email, then the evolution begun. Like a growing organism, first we tried to connect as many synapses as possible, then we started to study “introspectively” all the levels of connection in the physical space of the grid and in the space of relations. . . . Okkupanet was put to work for the movement 90 [The Panther], creating a permanent national archive of all relevant documents that came out of the different commissions, and presenting itself as a mass communication tool that is much faster, more flexible and more powerful than the fax. (Botti 1990, 12, emphasis added)
The introspective analysis considered, for instance, the complexity of the levels of communication and how the software and hardware architecture established relationships among users. It examined how power could be negotiated between network nodes and system managers that were located in different university laboratories and had the ability to moderate interaction and exclude users (Botti 1990). The reflections were at the basis of a code of conduct for users and administrators—one that “made explicit its being informatically non-violent” (Botti 1990, 12).
VAX computers had a “phone” command that allowed users to have a “phone call” in real time in the form of a text. This feature fostered a shared language to communicate in a radically new environment that influenced grammar and syntax and allowed for experimentation: the use of real-time chat channels where mundane communication mixed with lengthy discussions about politics, straddling different genres, styles, and registers, was something activists had never been exposed to before.5 The students involved in Okkupanet discussed its potential for autonomous collective knowledge production, exchange, and distribution, something that will become the focus not only of media activist platforms but also commons-based projects ranging from Wikipedia to archive.org and Aaarg.
In the context of the student movement, this discussion extended to the creation of infrastructure for a more participatory relation between the institution and its student body, and more generally for a recomposition of the field of activism into assemblages whose emergent identity is not predicated on flattening out the identity of its components.
Because [the network] is open to all components, its contribution goes beyond the occupation, becoming a nervous system and a vector for all the actions and reflections that allow us to rebuild the sites of information production as autopoietic systems, rather than as autonomous ones. These systems could retain within themselves a permanent equilibrium among the relations that characterize their identity. These relations, in turn, need to emerge from the contribution of each and every component and subcomponent, as it retains its own [identity] and gets to understand it more intimately. (Botti 1990, 12)
Ultimately, beyond what was achieved at the level of policy, Okkupanet, and the occupations themselves, turned out to be about the ability to create a space for new ideas and practices to emerge and provide the infrastructure where different components of the activist assemblage could define themselves and their relation to each other autonomously.
The space of relations and the infrastructure to foster them are both crucial elements in the emergence and recomposition of political formations. Botti draws on theories of autopoiesis to consider the potential of networks to facilitate new activist assemblages characterized by a different kind of relation between its components—heterogeneity.6 And while the metaphor of a self-regulating system will turn out to be inadequate to conceive of the transformations of an activist field that undergoes constant crisis and reshaping instead of regeneration, Botti’s discussion returns us to considering the relation between an assemblage and its milieu of emergence. This relation involves more than space and infrastructure and is at the basis of processes of recomposition that an energetics of movements can foreground.
The experience of Okkupanet speaks to the materiality of information but also to its milieu—the information environment. From now on, and for the remainder of this book, it is no longer Claude Elwood Shannon’s information theory but Gilbert Simondon’s conceptualization of metastable systems and their environments that moves my inquiry forward.7 To investigate media activism’s relay between the technical and the social within an information-rich environment, I conceive of information as a set of inputs affecting metastability, that is, affecting the equilibrium between what is being individuated (the project, the movement, etc.) and its milieu of individuation (the spaces, the events, the economy, the discourses, etc.). For Simondon, information is involved in a process of restructuring and containing systems—technical, biological, human, social—which are always open to new restructuring processes whenever new elements trigger a “crisis” in their structure. In other words, information is a process of giving form, which unfolds at multiple interconnected scales, from individual perception to the modulation of social dynamics—all systems that undergo ongoing change.8 Looking at political assemblages this way, the question is no longer how assemblages fail to retain consistency but how they constantly change in a shifting milieu.
In the case of Okkupanet, informational diffusion indirectly impacted cultural and political expression as a series of exchanges between what was technically available, what could be reprogrammed, and the circulating political needs and discourses. I see Okkupanet as an important component of the assemblage that, under the name of La Pantera, set the conditions for a broader recomposition of Italian activism but that also resonated with parallel experiments in other countries. Although it disappeared with the end of the protests, leaving little record of its existence behind, the process of development of this proto-social network as a wide reaching “nervous system” had already provided some information channels and raised important issues about the potentials and challenges of shaping autonomous communication infrastructures that reduced hierarchies within the movement and facilitated participatory decision-making (Botti 1990; Escobar and Alvarez 1992). By shaping language and mobilizing affect, Okkupanet triggered transformations in activists that will influence following media activist experiments. The affordances of the technologies, the emergence of information-based economies, the new targets of struggle, and the needs of movements that were recomposing away from the structures of parties, unions, and factory floors were all part of the milieu where the technical and the social were entangled at this specific point in time. Okkupanet came of an information milieu and itself was a milieu for new projects, practices, and subjectivities.
This Is What a Milieu of Emergence Looks Like
Despite its cutting-edge analysis of the neoliberalization of the university and some initial victories, La Pantera could not retain its momentum to develop sustainable political solutions to the crisis of education, and therefore it fragmented into new sociopolitical spaces. However, both La Pantera and Sabotax—its 1994 iteration—pumped new energy into political spaces. This change is perfectly summed up in the testimony of a veteran organizer.
Since the university buildings had become de facto social centers full of activists, after the end of the occupations, many activists were going cold turkey . . . because addiction is not just caused by drugs but also by some experiences. . . . So the CSOAs all of a sudden got really full and were recognized as a driving force . . . also because by then Italian rap was developing, new inquiries and the use of new technologies. . . . Well, many had noticed, and not only on the left, that we were producing something substantial, sometimes even innovative . . . shareable experiments. (Il Duka, qtd. in Philopat 2006, 64)
In addition to the student movement, other events boosted political activity. Police crackdowns on occupied spaces garnered more support from sympathizers when images of the CSOA Leoncavallo in Milan successfully resisting a police siege circulated in the media (Autistici/Inventati 2017, 24). The year 1990 also saw the first demonstrations against the Iraq war that brought more people into the streets.
Space was extremely needed and important for this political renaissance (Bianchi, Luppichini, and Balestrini 1994). The CSOAs, self-run autonomous social centers, were key to relay energies, develop new practices, and foster collective resubjectivation. Some of these CSOAs still function as large-scale infrastructure for education, the arts, cultural production, entertainment, and care.9 They have been the home base for the coordination of resistance movements ranging from student movements in the first decade of the twenty-first century to struggles against military bases like the Molin in the Veneto region and Muos in Sicily (Piazza 2015, 200–201). Recently, as real estate speculation increases worldwide, CSOAs also function as outposts against the gentrification of the neighborhoods they are located in, supporting movements for housing rights, often in collaboration with migrant justice groups (Mudu 2014). Although CSOAs are by no means strife-free sites, the socialization of political life through activities of social reproduction is a fundamental aspect of the process of subjectivation that takes place as people debate and experiment with forms of deliberation and collectivation that are rooted in anticapitalist principles. In addition to the social centers, scenes developed around radical presses like Shake and magazines like Decoder and started discussing hacking, computer networks, and cyberpunk literature.10 Italy was the first country in southern Europe to organize hackmeetings and set up spaces for hackers—the proximity of these political and cultural experiments brought many facets of hacker culture into activism and radical politics into hacking. The CSOAs often hosted international and national meetings and harbored hacklabs that developed free software, built computers out of recycled parts, and offered courses in computer use and programming (Autistici/Inventati 2017). As the hacking and cyberpunk cultures fed new experiments in the social centers, activists shared knowledge and collaborated on projects and infrastructure during conventions, workshops, and festivals. Technology in these spaces was never a virtual affair but a material, social entangling of bodies and machines.
The first political bulletin board systems came on the scene in the early nineties and were hosted by historical free radios like Radio Blackout in Turin. The connection between old school radio activism and hacking was not coincidental but was the result of an active discursive environment where the potential of communication was constantly being redefined. The European Counter Network (ECN) was founded after a series of Europe-wide meetings of activists in 1989 as a BBS network of national nodes for debate, sharing, and experimentation on the political use of new technologies. The first active Italian nodes of ECN appeared in 1990 in Rome, Milan, Bologna, and Padoa (Di Corinto and Tozzi 2002, 225), all cities with politically active student movements. In 1993 various Italian BBSs like Hacker Art and BITs Against the Empire were networked into Cybernet, an open network for posting political content that linked Italians from the Alps to Sicily. In 1994 AVvisi Ai Naviganti (Avana) (Notices for Navigators) started providing BBS as well as training and discussions on emergent media (244–49). In the same year, a government crackdown on hacking and piracy closed more than 150 BBSs, including the server of Peacelink (Gubitosa and Peacelink 1999). Following this crackdown (the first of many to come), in 1996 Isole nella Rete (Islands in the Net) was created, transforming ECN’s BBS into mailing lists for the radical left and functioning as an independent internet provider. Isole nella Rete was one of the first autonomous structures serving internet to Italian activist groups who needed anything from mirroring and anonymity services to listservs and discussion sites. Bridging the digital gaps with analog technology, communication among BBS nodes was often integrated with the help of fax machines, radio, and print media. Hacktivist Snd reminisces: “We felt that it had great potential, so much so that in 1993–1995 we tried to give birth to a parallel experience, a sort of AP of the radical left and a service for the movement’s radio stations” (Autistici/Inventati 2017, 34). Zines and bulletins connected to networks like ECN also played an important role, with a circulation unseen since the heydays of autonomia. Before they were formalized into the corporate and state institutions of the so-called network society (Castells 1996; Van Dijk 2005), digital technologies were already key to interconnect grassroots activist networks transnationally.
The connection of hacking and political activity was inspired and advanced by many of the ideas summed up in the 1995 handbook Digital Guerrilla: Guida all’uso alternativo di computer, modem e reti telematiche (Digital Guerrilla: A guide to the alternative use of computers, modems and telematic networks) published by ZERO! and BITs Against the Empire Labs. The handbook proposed that new technologies can facilitate communication for political change but it also advocated for the creation of public terminals in social centers, infoshops, and bookstores, and the distribution of the same content in print form. Importantly, Digital Guerrilla started pointing to the role media activism can play in fostering new forms of sociality: “Such tools are not only great counter-information agencies for traditional militant collectives, they can also give rise to novel community forms” (Autistici/Inventati 2017, 29). This was no cyberutopia: the contribution of tech collectives responsible for the spread of hacking and tech literacy in Italian social movements goes far beyond the circulation of information and coordination; tech collectives were involved in the social reproduction of activists (Serra 2015) away from the corporate mass media and toward the repurposing of media into an interconnected nervous system along the lines of what was envisioned with Okkupanet. This autonomous nervous system supported, protected, and harnessed communication and entangled bodies and machines then as it does, perhaps to a reduced extent, today.
The tech collective Autistici/Inventati, or A/I, was founded in 2001, shortly before the protests of Genoa. Its history is inextricably linked with the Italian (but also international) extraparliamentary left and its political activity both online and offline during this time of ongoing change.11 It is important to stress how tech collectives like A/I have been performing the work of caring for the political, cultural, and affective networks of communication of movements for decades, not only behind the interface but also away from the keyboard, at meetings, in workshops, and at parties. This is because, like other vital forms of affective and care labor, such work is less visible than other forms of organizing, even when it is an important part of the milieu of composition and recomposition of movements. As Maxigas points out in his vivid introduction to the history of A/I, “radical technology collectives build political solidarity and nurture security behaviors within and between activist groups in addition to providing things like email and putting the right cryptographic algorithms in place. . . . Implementation, maintenance and repair is just as important for changing society—or even just technology—as innovation” (Autistici/Inventati 2017, 12–13). Before they take on further consistency in Telestreet and, especially, insu^tv, the traces of practices for connective activism grow more visible here, within these sociotechnical spaces that function as infrastructural points to relay energy.
In terms of a milieu of emergence, we can say that these spaces, events, and practices cross each other to enable a reorganization of the system, engendering new possibilities for activism and for being. Within a vibrant milieu of political action and autonomous cultural production, information technology fed these spaces for experimentation with new lines of subjectivation. The energy of the social centers was stoked not just by new technologies but also by maker spaces for printing and building and by new trends in punk, hip-hop, and techno. In the grassroots recording studios, at the independent labels, and in the event venues of the CSOAs, political international styles like hip-hop and reggae were sampled with traditional local folkloric tunes producing exciting new blends of music, like the etno-beat mediterraneo (Mediterranean ethnic beats). Bands such as Assalti Frontali and Almamegretta sometimes played concerts for ten to twenty thousand people at rallies and cultural events. They sold equally as many records. These bands and parties not only functioned as very efficient vectors for the circulation of political messages; they drew young people to sites of politicization and were a source of revenue for the CSOAs and their musicians, who wanted to stay outside commercial circuits.
In the cyberpunk rave scene, media activists often dubbed as VJs (video jockeys) turned to media production outside the party scene. With this strong socially useful basis, social centers opened up to new forms of anticapitalist collaboration and solidarity with other grassroots groups that included fair trade associations, cultural groups, migrant organizations, and farmers markets. Some of these centers have even succeeded in becoming reference points for entire neighboring communities through the institution of services that range from child and health care to libraries and language courses for migrants (Casagrande 2009). In the nineties, cross-pollination was everywhere, constantly in-form-ing, networking, and chancing unlikely encounters—linking disparate elements that expanded the milieu and fed the recomposition. As a student during La Pantera and someone who joined in the occupations of the COSAs, I saw many of these patterns of collaboration, knowledge sharing, and political practice emerge before they coalesced in the Italian node of the Indymedia network and then in Telestreet. But before I get there, it is worth noting how this cross-pollination was by no means contained within the nation-state.
By 1994 Berlusconi was winning the elections to the football-like cheers of his new party, and Italian students were once again in the streets to protest educational reforms and tuition fee hikes under the banners of the Sabotax movement: “La rivoluzione non russa [Revolution doesn’t snooze or Not your Russian revolution]” and “Against the financial reform, for work, for the welfare state and the right to study.” Further away, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, Zapatista Army of National Liberation) had declared war on the Mexican government and on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which threatened its common land and traditional way of life (Castells  2004, 78). The EZLN was one of the first groups to connect and fuse anticolonial, local struggles with a clearly articulated critique of global neoliberal oppressive economic mechanisms. The novelty of this approach was accompanied by another innovation: guerrilla communication through stories and communiqués that were circulated on NGOs’ BBS networks and on the internet. The Zapatistas were able to wage infowar thanks to La Neta, a communication network established by NGOs like the women’s group Mujer a Mujer and Servicios Informativos Procesados (SIPRO), which had been looking for more affordable media than fax machines to spread information (Martinez-Torres 2001, 351).12
The information war brought the case of the Zapatistas to global attention and fostered a solidarity movement that prevented the violent repression of the EZLN (Wolfson 2014). In particular, the stories of the Zapatista leader—the masked, pipe-smoking Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos—spoke to minority groups all over the world. These stories bridged the gap between an isolated problem in the jungle of Chiapas and global civil society by making visible the direct connections between neoliberal policies and their effects on the territory. In 1996 more than five thousand students, workers, independent journalists, activists, and NGOs from forty-two countries flocked to Chiapas for the Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, also known as the Intergalactic Meeting (EZLN 1996).
Despite the difficulty of translating different realities into a common language, the event sowed the seeds for new alliances and networks, facilitated by information technology (Cleaver 1999). The meetings at Aguascalientes also spurred a number of transnational collaborations with Italian CSOAs, which helped set up medical facilities and farming infrastructure (Laboratorio Occupato SKA and Leoncavallo 1995; Pacos & Rio 1997). The Zapatista practices of resistance left an indelible mark on the activism of the global justice movement, while in Italy they also resonated with familiar autonomist and anarchist practices. It is no coincidence that the opening epigraph of this chapter references both Aguacalientes in Chiapas and the past movement of ’77. In particular, the EZLN and autonomists shared an orientation toward community building away from state power, and the subversive use of the dominant language to expose power.
In January 1998, in solidarity with the Zapatista struggle, an Italian group of activists, the Anonymous Digital Coalition, called for a globally coordinated Net Strike, that is, a virtual sit-in at five Mexican financial institutions’ websites (Anonymous Digital Coalition 1998). The sit-in consisted of continuously clicking on the browser’s reload button for the websites to bring down the servers. Within a few hours, the sites were shut down, wreaking havoc among shareholders. Inspired by this action, the Electronic Disturbance Theater, a U.S.-based group of media tacticians specializing in electronic civil disobedience (ECD), developed FloodNet, a software that sent an automated reload request every few seconds, blocking websites more efficiently. These actions showed how informational guerrilla could be “a source of resistance more powerful than bullets” (Martinez-Torres 1997) and made “swarming” a tactic in struggles for social justice.13
Practices of informational guerrilla, including Electronic Disturbance Theater, tactical media, and viral culture jamming, became part of the global justice movement repertoire in the following years, when excitement about the internet ran high and protest on the street seemed to have become less effective. From Mexico to Australia, new experiments with emerging technologies were crucial to stimulate a lively collective discussion on how to struggle and in creating resonance among different instantiations of resistance. At the same time, many of the nonhierarchical organizing principles of the Zapatistas and their allies became the backbone for the global justice movement. It is important here to point to Dorothy Kidd’s indispensable work, tracing the origins of practices of resistance to neoliberalism in countries of the Global South and, in particular, in feminist and indigenous resistance and community radio. This history has been mostly erased by more North American–centered accounts of the emergence of the global justice movement in the white American middle class (Kidd 2004). The information-rich milieu engendered a global recomposition of assemblages that cut across social formations and provided a series of victories and incredible momentum for social, economic, and environmental organizing—until 2001 in Genoa.
From Seattle to Genoa: The Ups and Downs of Movements
In 2001, when he gave orders to turn the colorful anti-G8 protests in Genoa into a theater of repression, Prime Minister Berlusconi had just won the elections for the second time and was out to set an example for everyone who was watching. And many were indeed watching, glued to mainstream media channels that looped endless images of Black Blocs attacking corporate property. Many others were getting their news from Indymedia’s websites, which had become a popular point to access alternative information since the protests against the WTO in Seattle in 1999. From Genoa, free radios coalition Radio GAP and the multilingual entries on the Independent Media Center (IMC) web pages circulated worldwide information about the anti-G8 convergence, the raids at the Media Center and the Social Forum building, the police killing of Carlo Giuliani, the inordinate amounts of tear gas and water cannons, and the brutal beatings of protesters and journalists alike (Indybay 2001). For IMCista Bomboclat, “in substance, the G8 opened the ‘era of Indymedia’ and with it a completely new political paradigm” (Autistici/Inventati 2017, 69). This paradigm located media activism and infowar at its core and, accordingly, when, only a couple of months later, 9/11 antiterror legislation intensified what Berlusconi had begun with the unhinged repression in Genoa, media activists and organizers for the global justice movement alike were heavily targeted.14
Over the years, I have asked many activists around the world what they thought had gone “wrong” with the “movement of movements” that garnered global attention in Seattle: the systematic repression of dissent that followed 9/11 is often at the top of the list but many also mentioned the inability of the massive mobilizations to prevent the Iraq war and “summit hopping” (the habit that activists developed to go from one summit to the other, investing less time in local organizing) as other damaging forces. Organizing large-scale protests requires a high degree of coordination, resources, and labor, and after a countersummit, local activist groups often found themselves depleted of labor power and funds, especially if many had been arrested and were in the grip of the judiciary system. I have also heard countless accounts of how difficult it was to harness the energy that had been generated when a heterogeneous group of people had shared the streets and banners.
Because of the transitory character of the summits, visiting activist groups seldom invested in supporting local struggles, local activists had to focus on the protest planning rather than on their daily organizing, while the hosting process itself often opened up rifts among groups and made it difficult for the movement to grow past summits. The disagreements between supporters of a diversity of tactics, and those opposed to more disruptive direct action, became harder to handle within the movement, suffering of burnout as police attacked protesters and violence took over the mainstream media framing, scapegoating radical groups to justify police repression.15 Still, this fragmentation by no means signaled the end of coordinated global resistance: (smaller) crowds continue to fill the streets in every city where transnational summits take place (Juris 2008, 161–98). At the same time, more local groups have invested their energies into localized work while thinking “globally.”
Many of the elements that made the global justice movement novel also played a role in its defusing: horizontality, in many cases, became “tyrannical” by obfuscating power relations and precluding discussions on hierarchies (Freeman 1970); the intense engagement with information circulation caused information-overload (Wright 2005); and online interaction weighed down face-to-face collaboration between groups (Fenton and Barassi 2011). As the global justice movement grew and changed, Indymedia.org also experienced its ups and downs, in particular in places like Italy, where it grew to an unmanageable size almost overnight after Genoa (Beschi 2005, 94). At the same time, IMC nodes around the world established themselves as reference points in many communities while they could not grow in others (Giraud 2014).
Indymedia Italia is one of the nodes that started strong, and then experienced a series of hurdles to eventually close down in 2012; its erratic trajectory is a parable for the transformation of the milieu of media activism, where processes of recomposition fold in elements and experiences that spanned the multiple sites and histories I have described—from the free radios to the hacker and cyberpunk culture emerging at the same time as La Pantera in Italy and abroad. In this milieu, information and its circulation vectors fed the change at many levels: autonomous information and communication technologies connected a worldwide network of activists and movements, F/OSS powered its digital infrastructure, the architecture of platforms for open publishing translated the horizontal and open participatory principles of prefigurative politics into communication practices, and the production of counterinformational content catalyzed processes of subjectification of the activist and media activist.
In this milieu, it is also no coincidence that, initially, many members of A/I were not only involved in setting up the computer infrastructure for Indymedia but also contributed content to it, recognizing that the increased role of communication in political struggle required that they also pay more attention to media activism. For A/I member Bomboclat, “It was during those years that the figure of the media activist emerged. Politics and technology merged, thanks to the glue of the digital possibilities. From the idea of producing alternative media we switched to the idea of being the media. Defining propaganda as everything that comes from television, we created our own concept of media” (Autistici/Inventati 2017, 59). With the emerging subjectivity of the media activist came a variety of conundrums that were often tied to the use of technology itself—issues of inclusion and diversity of voices, control and moderation of newswires and lists, and distinctions between being political activists and/or journalists, among others (Beschi 2005; Autistici/Inventati 2017). These rifts constantly fed information, that is, divergent stimuli that disturbed the equilibrium of the collective and eventually decomposed it into other projects.
Indymedia Italia was particularly involved in covering the trials of people arrested at the protests in Genoa, organizing the Florence Social Forum in 2003, coordinating Media Democracy Day, promoting solidarity with and reporting from Chiapas and Palestine, and, in general, covering political events all over the country (Beschi 2005). Not unlike other nodes around the world, which experienced problems with the decision-making and participation process (Pickard 2006; Wolfson 2014), Indymedia Italia often found itself devising new solutions to solve the challenges emerging from the practice of open publishing, interrelational issues, unspoken hierarchies, lack of diversity in the groups, bullying, and flame wars that erupted on the various coordination lists and IRC channels. Many of these solutions involved creating additional channels of communication, forums, and working groups that allowed coordination in-between the few national meetings. Eventually, they morphed from being a national node in the global network, with collectives working in various cities and publishing on the national site, to being a local network that fed content into a national “aggregator” page, Indymedia Italia Beta (((i)) 2008; ((i)) Italia 2008). For some, like this anonymous Indymedia activist, fostering proximity of bodies was important to reduce the crises: “It is nice to put a face to those loved/hated nicknames from the discussion lists; to look in the eyes of the people you shared autistic nights to update an ftp or simply to hang out in a chat room; to share once in a while not only skills but a bowl of pasta, a beer, a couch to crash on” (Beschi 2005, 176). For ex-Indymedia and insu^tv member Wadada, “These experiments eventually led to the reorganization of the network as multiple citywide nodes to improve collaboration” (interview with Wadada, 2008).
Todd Wolfson (2014) has discussed Indymedia’s consensus-based decision-making practices and its decentralized network structure as the two main features that undermined the project in the United States.16 Although I cannot speak to the specificities of the American cases, for me, the Italian attempts to reconfigure are a testimony to the network’s awareness of the pitfalls of technical solutionism to support the decentralized network structure. Having to toggle between the technical and social to prefigure a radical democratic assemblage does not prove the inadequacy of consensus-based decision-making and decentralization but draws attention to the structuring force of information without devaluing human agency. Neither technology nor political practices alone can make movements scalable and sustainable without careful and ongoing consideration of the interaction between these key elements and others.
It seems to me that the loss of strength of the global justice movement and Indymedia was due to a much more complex configuration of their conditions of existence, which included minor differences that were highly destabilizing as well as larger policing and technocultural shifts that seriously impacted these formations.17 In Italy, as much as in many other non-English-speaking countries, some personalities could be destabilizing more than the structure of the project; moreover, nodes found it hard to participate in the network-wide discussions due to the widespread habit of contributing long posts in English (Beschi 2005, 84). As mentioned, Indymedia suffered a paralyzing repression backlash both locally and internationally, with police raids, arrests, blocking of websites and seizing of servers, and even their exclusion from the news.google.com news sites (Babylonian 2003; Indybay 2003). The protests in Genoa had been the most filmed and photographed in the history of political dissent in Italy, and the trials that followed often used some of this material to incriminate activists. After the Genoa IMC was targeted by police in a brutal raid that left technology destroyed and news material seized as evidence, police continued to take the computers used by Indymedia in 2002 from many CSOAs, looking for audio and video about the Genoa G8 protests (Indymedia Italia 2002).18 Over the years there have been various attempts to shut down Indymedia and seize their servers in various parts of the world. In Italy, in 2004, 2005, and 2012 there were attempts to shut down the website by targeting its hosts in the United States and Brazil, using a law that allows the state to censor offensive content (Morandi 2005; Indymedia Piemonte 2012). Many of the searches were legitimized by post-9/11 antiterror legislation and have given police a chance to target and intimidate activist groups indiscriminately. In 2004 the Italian Ministry of the Interior’s “Report to Parliament on Police Activity, Public Security and Organized Crime” legitimized unlawful seizure of data on servers and police crackdowns on the extraparliamentary left by pointing at media activist groups like Indymedia and Telestreet as potential terrorist threats (Ministero dell’Interno 2004; ANSA 2005; Autistici/Inventati 2017, 89).
Repression takes a huge toll on groups. The final blow for the Italians arrived with what came to be known as the “Italian Wikileaks,” when, in June 2012, judges preventatively seized the websites and shut down the more active Indymedia nodes. Starting in 2008, Indymedia had published a series of investigative reports on illegal activities by a Genovese international corporation that involved powerful individuals from the world of Italian high finance, who filed a defamation lawsuit against an anonymous author and the hosts of the article (Redazione 2012). Eventually, Indymedia Italia shut down, drained of energy, resources, and finances, and, sadly, unable to even cover the costs to preserve its own archive. Repression is dangerous for movements not only because it cripples their resources and members but also because it exacerbates internal strife. In 2017 Linksunten, the German node of Indymedia, was unlawfully shut down by authorities following the anti-G20 protests in Hamburg (Knight 2017). They will be dealing with the German judiciary for months, if not years, to come.
Crucially, the growth and diffusion of so-called Web 2.0 and the adoption of social media platforms by many media activists around the world made open publishing less relevant. Although many of these “interactive” web platforms were made possible by the visionary design of the IMC Open Source tech tools, the new, for-profit platforms quickly took over the communication-scape of radical activist groups and NGOs alike (Indymedia Montreal 2016 Convergence Working Group 2017). As new free and ready-made tools made it easy to post content on blogs, set up websites, and add content to multimedia channels like Flickr and YouTube without requiring design and programming skills, there was less interest, energy, and audience for projects like Indymedia. Wolfson’s detailed history and analysis of the network seems to hardly pay any attention to these factors that were by no means peculiar to the Italian case, so that, despite his exceptionally vivid account of the project in the United States, readers of his book are left to relegate Indymedia to the historical closet of obsolete media projects. This framing obscures the dynamic transformations of activism and media activism at the turn of the century for which the IMCs were extremely important carriers of a rich history of encounters and collaborations. Moreover, Indymedia was also a vector of innovation whose technology was quickly captured by corporate giants and whose journalistic practices have now been widely adopted in the field. Once new struggles developed, other movements spawned from networks like Indymedia and recomposed around different infrastructures of communication, sometimes for the better and in some cases for the worse but never without leaving an important legacy for the movements to come. Paying attention to the circulation of energy across these global and local networks of technology, spaces, and practices provides a more nuanced account of the recomposition of the field of activism in its complex environment.
Transition: A Short Note on the Precarity Movement
The milieu I have described was significant for the emergence of new communication practices, and Indymedia was an important threshold after which information production and circulation became modes of resistance in their own right. The final phase of this moment of energetic reconfiguration was more chaotic. In the early twenty-first century many hacklabs were being closed down in a new wave of crackdowns on social centers just as a large sector of the information economy grew around the monopolies of the soon-to-be giants that had survived the dot-com crash—Amazon and Google. At the same time, small tech start-ups co-opted many of the participatory design features of activist platforms (open publishing, blogging, commenting, free hosting of images and video, etc.) into what will become Web 2.0 and social networks (Indymedia Montreal 2016 Convergence Working Group 2017).19 Blogging became widespread for many political organizations and other subjects that would have otherwise relied on platforms like Indymedia. MySpace appeared as a new site for socializing and kicked off the transition to social media networks, absorbing much of the independent music scene.
Because of the strain the global justice movement experienced after Genoa, groups started focusing on local challenges. In Italy, the energy that had propelled forward the cycle of struggles in the nineties exhausted itself and many movements and projects went dormant, drained by a climate of dissent mostly focused on critiquing Berlusconi. With space and tech infrastructure undergoing reorganization, the information milieu changed considerably. At the level of discourse, a more sober attitude to communication technologies followed the crash of the dot-com economy and placed many media activists on the fence between movement media and proprietary platforms.
In this new climate, the largest movements to emerge were the No TAV, opposing the construction of high-speed trains all over Italy, and the precarity movement. No TAV—treni ad alta velocitá are high-speed trains—had started in the nineties to contest the disproportionate investment in an infrastructure project that served few and impacted the health and environment for many. The precarity movement emerged in 2001 around the MayDay network first and EuroMayDay, often focusing on the precarious conditions of workers in the service industry, the exploitative conditions of knowledge production in research institutions and universities, and migrant care work. Its signature colorful protests grew exponentially, especially after the G8 in Genoa, as activists converged on Milan each year and started parades in other cities of Europe. The labor organizers, tactical media artists, radical researchers, and precarious workers of all kinds were interconnected through semantic networking of signs and symbols, message delivery through humorous stunts, media interventions, and the provision of services for autonomous labor organizing. Saint Precario, the patron saint of precarious workers, made its first appearance as a symbol of the precarious neoliberal subject in 2004 thanks to the Rete di San Precario (Saint Precarious Network).
At the head of the MayDay parade one could often see a statue of Saint Precario, in full regalia (a fast-food worker uniform, a call-center headset, and holding a variety of different work tools that mimicked the pose of church statues). The procession used familiar religious symbols to reach out to passersby with a powerful message: “We are all precarious and need to organize together.” This shape-shifting figure brought the issue of precarity to debate and helped form a collective subjectivity (Mattoni 2012; Gherardi and Murgia 2015). The processions took over cultural events, factory and call-center pickets, and supermarket chains. As a signifier for a shared condition and as a catalyst for action against the increasingly precarious conditions of life under neoliberalism, Saint Precario stood as the visible face of a set of circulating discourses against the normalization of flexibility and exploitation (Renzi and Turpin 2007). Blazing through the informationscape, Saint Precario reappeared for years on stickers and prayer leaflets (Chainworkers.org CreW 2004), in videos by Telestreet and others (e.g., Obino 2005), in card games and video games, and in drag as a Japanese female designer at the Milan fashion week.20 The precarity movement condensed much of the communication strategies developed during the nineties to appeal to a wide audience that had no political language as a reference point. As I joined Telestreet, there was intermixing and overlapping among movements: precarity activists, Indymedia, and microtelevisions often covered protests and interventions, and produced fiction around the issue of precarity. The precarity movement built on existing activist networks critiquing neoliberalism and expanded them through a shared popular language, sets of tools for critique, and a web of spaces for labor organizing, education, cultural production, and research that crossed borders and constituencies. Organizers in previous projects joined the movement, bringing with them their experiences and critiques.
Complex Assemblages Demand Multidimensional Accounts
The end of the nineties was an exciting time for movements around the world; opposition to neoliberal policies and the ability to shut down economic summits like the one in Seattle provided great momentum and protests expanded rapidly, with the help of large coordinating networks that worked online and on the ground. Organizers shared their protest strategies and tools as they hopped from one summit protest to the other, from Social Forum to Social Forum, and from Independent Media Center to Independent Media Center. Each site and event was the result of the synergy of local and foreign groups that gave vitality and reinforced the collective identity but eventually also led to burnout and fragmentation. Much happened to this movement that led to its energy drain, even in the brief three years between Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001—too much to discuss here in a satisfactory manner. But if one is to acknowledge the complexity and multiple trajectories of the recomposition of movements, it is also necessary to attend to the materiality of information in its different instantiations. Seen as a set of inputs (social, technical, affective) that impact the (meta)stability of projects, circulating information is what sustains the relation between movements and their milieus of individuation—it is energy that keeps processes of restructuring open. The case of Italy foregrounds some general tendencies toward ongoing recomposition around new tools, needs, and challenges. The recompositions are triggered by a mix of needs, desires, and constraints—they function as in-form-ation.
Ultimately, the lines of development between contemporary activism and projects like Radio Alice and Radio Gap, autonomia, and the global justice movement are not of direct filiation but rather comprise a nonlinear process of energy relays and positive feedback between the technological and social realms; among spaces and sites of encounter; and between micro- and macrolevels of formations: from a chat over a beer to a full-blown experiment at a CSOA; from the forests of Chiapas to tinkering with technology; from a free radio to a BBS hosting space; from ravers to media activists; from a critique of corporate capitalism to an attack on Berlusconi’s media control; from the streets of Bologna to those of Genoa—where this chapter started. My analysis of the use of technology and reconceptualization of the material impact of different kinds of information has emphasized the relation between assemblages and their milieu of individuation. As I move on to discuss the emergence of Telestreet, it is important to retain this understanding of the metastability of projects that are always only existing in tension between what they already are and what they become as they engage with their outside. When the tension releases and components scatter, one finds their traces where least expected. This, for some, is failure. For me, it is what speaks to how movements change across networks worldwide, and resistance continues.