How do gatherings sometimes become “happenings,” that is, greater than the sum of their parts? If history without progress is indeterminate and multidirectional, might assemblages show us its possibilities?
—Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World
The battle to establish what Telestreet is and what media activism does unfolds in a clash of statements, of propositions and compositions, where the intangible power to define held by some has tangible effects on the existence and practices, the compositionality and movement, of others. Definition is fraught terrain.
Early on, the very definition of Telestreet was politically charged. In 2004 the Italian Ministry of the Interior’s “Report to Parliament on Police Activity, Public Security and Organized Crime” included Telestreet in its special section on “Terrorism and Subversion,” identifying it as “close to the squatters movement, broadcasting alternative programs that aim at creating a global network of independent channels for antagonistic movements” (Ministero dell’Interno 2004). This layered and loaded proposition defined Telestreet as a security threat while framing media activism in general as an oppositional force contra the state. In the Ministry of the Interior’s report, state institutions, using their power to classify, compose a broad spectrum of media activists into a narrow (and hostile) ideological framework: “These diverse initiatives . . . are part of a larger project called ‘Global Network’ that involves the creation of a web for alternative communication using media channels (press, radio, television) . . . to promote ‘bottom up communication practices that can crack the monopoly of local powers on the communication system’” (Ministero dell’Interno 2004, 16). In effect, the report recontextualizes the words of media activists with the aim of providing the state with a basis for dealing with groups like Telestreet using strategies reserved for terrorist or subversive threats.
This was all part of a broader, globalizing trend in securitization that is by now well known. The framing of security issues in the media and the new categorizations of threats by police and secret services have provided the language to define the activism of the extraparliamentary left as a form of extremism that threatens security (Monaghan and Walby 2011). These discourses function within a wider web of legal and juridical statements—both national and international (Braman 2011)—justifying the “security packages” that allowed the Silvio Berlusconi government to shut down, filter, or fine websites hosting antagonistic content.1 While Telestreet was never directly censored, the security packages have allowed the police to surveil the communication and seize the data from the server they share with other groups and NGOs who rely on movements’ tech collectives for their communication infrastructures (Autistici/Inventati 2017, 89). The policing of media activism is but one of the many threads tying Telestreet to activist projects that preceded and followed it.
Left-leaning parties and personalities placed Telestreet in the crossfire of institutional political battles between Berlusconi’s ruling majority and those in the opposition. Green Party MP Mauro Bulgarelli was one of the politicians attempting to legalize Telestreet’s status, recognizing its value for local communities and for the broader Italian mediascape: “These autonomous, nonprofit experiments should be supported and funded by the state, not depicted as dangerous breeding grounds for terrorism” (ANSA 2005). Unsurprisingly, Bulgarelli’s denouncement of the government’s attempt to criminalize social movements had no impact on state repression.
I say “unsurprisingly” because Telestreet does not simply exist in the fields of statements tended by activists and politicians. Discursive feuds in the form of proposition-counterproposition are part of a complex environment that engenders activist formations. All control, resistance, and subjectification processes unfold in unstable environments wherein activism becomes in the tension between being formed top-down (as “dangerous subjects,” say, or cultural commodities) and the bottom-up process of proposing new visions and functions for society. At the same time, the discursivity of activist formations is but one element in a wider milieu of forces and relations that engender individuals and collectivities. One could say that this environment is metastable—it is in “a state that transcends the classical opposition between stability and instability, and that is charged with potentials for a becoming” (Barthélémy 2012, 217).
The metastable milieu holds activist formations forever open to their capacity to change. Social movements and other activist formations, including the ones that form around technologies, are therefore themselves metastable. Telestreet does not come after some discourses took hold but emerges and exists simultaneously with them, shaping and being shaped by the available technologies, the cultural and political practices, and the subjectivities the latter are tied to. Thinking about Telestreet in its ability to recompose (compositional thinking) versus thinking about it as an object to define (propositional thinking) refocuses the observer’s attention on the capacity of activist formations to change. What follows in this opening chapter, and indeed in the rest of the book, is a way of defining, or better, making sense of, the movement and compositionality of Telestreet. The propositions I form describe some of what we know about Telestreet’s features and history; the compositions then show what these propositions hide. The compositions are not negations but extensions that make an affirmative pass through the logical binary true/false typical of propositional thinking.2 Each composition focuses on the emergence of differences or, if you like, singularities—on less obvious links between Telestreet and minor political and cultural histories like Tactical Media and the Situationists but also on events and technological affordances like media jacking.
I build on Gilbert Simondon’s theories of emergence; his concepts of individuation, information, and transduction are useful in pursuing Telestreet as a happening rather than a thing. With Simondon, I contend that taking the reality of groups as a given misses what engenders the collective (and individuals, simultaneously) and distracts from an investigation of how societies and their groups change along certain conditions of quasi-stability. Thus, to understand change as emergence, or individuation, one might ask: “How do street televisions compose, pose together, in ‘conposition’? How do they connect, disconnect, and reconnect?”
Proposition One: Telestreet Is a Social Movement
In publications ranging from the “culture jamming” magazine Adbusters (Bronson 2004) to the International Herald Tribune (Monico 2002), Telestreet has been celebrated as the forerunner of a new movement for communication democracy: “Street TVs have an extremely limited broadcasting range, covering just a block or two. But a blazing-fast growth rate combined with a very ambitious plan indicate they may soon start contending with bigger TV networks for local viewers,” claims the Hollywood Reporter (Davidkhanian 2004). This is but one of countless enthusiastic responses to Telestreet from the national and international press. In many articles, “microtelevision” is posited as a neutralizer of mass media consolidation, not only in dystopian Italy where the government controls more than 90 percent of the media but everywhere it could be needed in the future. With this model, television is propelled out of the professional studio to crash the heavily guarded gates of cultural production.
Starting in 2002, public and private broadcasters and print media from the UK, France, Germany, and even Australia celebrated this David and Goliath media battle in Italy. The journalists marveled at the DIY street weapon Italians were using to sling shots at communication giants of the mainstream media. But a few months later, public attention toward the project faded, together with the international disdain for a prime minister who ran a European country despite having countless trials in criminal court, additional police investigations, and a blatant conflict of interest in his media ownership. If things do not change, they stay the same: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with his media empire was active, but so was Telestreet. Yet, while Berlusconi was smiling for the cameras, standing next to those politicians who once felt good decrying the undemocratic turn of their neighbor, Telestreet was struggling and gasping for air in the gray underbellies of legalization disputes and resource allocation. In the mayhem of parliamentary politics, bills to legalize the network gathered dust while many of its nodes lacked the resources to scale up their transmission. Nodes sprang up; some foundered, and others were set up elsewhere, from garages to schools. Shutter speed and lens aperture swiftly altered the narrative depth of field of Italian politics, leaving only some parts of the photo in focus while the background was thrown into a beautiful blur.
The Telestreet group of activists and citizens has been described as defending freedom of expression and information with a bottom-up communication model that promises to take the broadcasting frequencies and media power distribution by storm. Many social movement scholars would say that Telestreet is a perfect example of how civil society works: if it is not the social capital of Telestreet that will lead the state to adjust its policies (Purdue 2007, 11), certainly the network’s presence will at least function as a symbolic gesture by Italian citizens claiming their right to free communication (Tarrow 2004). Sure enough, parallel to the birth of Telestreet, a plurality of organizations from civil society coalesced around a series of actions and interventions against media monopoly. Telestreet became the poster child of this resistance.
Protests against Berlusconi’s media monopoly ranged from the so-called Girotondi to events denouncing the purging of journalists and comedians from the mainstream media because they were critical of his administration. The Girotondi—the game of Ring-a-ring-o’-roses—started in 2002 to defend endangered media institutions: people gathered around the main studios of the Italian public service broadcaster RAI in nineteen Italian cities to protest Berlusconi’s meddling in its administration (Societacivile.it n.d.). Many of the Italian interventions during the first and second terms of Berlusconi’s government brought together different groups beyond traditional left-right political divisions. They did so partly with the help of creative organizing strategies and partly because their discourses focused on safeguarding basic civil rights rather than pushing a specific political agenda. These moments of contestation articulated political claims through contentious politics (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001), often innovatively, like with the No Berlusconi Day, where thousands of people dressed in purple turned out in the streets on the same day (Mancini 2009).
In the context of Italy’s climate of unrest against Berlusconi, Telestreet was a megaphone for the rights to media freedom that groups articulated in “an idiom that local audiences will recognize” (Tilly 2004, 4)—homemade television. This language spoke of a more democratic management of the Italian mass media and called for solutions to Berlusconi’s conflicts of interest (Purdue 2007, 7). It also provided an alternative, where neighbors produced shows collectively for themselves and other neighbors. Telestreet became a badge that politicians and interest groups could wear as supporters of the freedom of communication and as critics of the Berlusconi government. Some Italian politicians and sidelined TV personalities praised the project and supported it very publicly (and pompously). This is because social movements often possess social capital that can be used as a bargain chip. With all this media hype and political attention, one could say that Telestreet posed as a social movement—it assumed a particular attitude or stance. Telestreet won awards at international art and activism festivals; its members were invited to teach media literacy workshops, they were at protests and in squares, magazines wrote about their hacks, and students flocked to the gatherings to write theses about them. This stance benefited the network and grew it considerably. And still, as is often the case with many social struggles, the Berlusconi government ignored all the actions and celebrations of Telestreet and the larger movement it represented. This comes as no surprise when scholars like Douglas McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly, for whom social movements are the carriers of social change (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001), find it harder to conceive of a successful relationship between collective action and change in the present context of neoliberal governance, where strong alliances between a few very large corporations and a class of mostly wealthy politicians seem unbreakable (Harvey 2005; Klein 2008).
The Berlusconi government’s tax cuts and privatization of services is strictly tied to neoliberal ideology and governance while the prime minister’s backdoor connections between industry and politics have allowed him to become one of the richest men in Italy, with a staggering monopoly on media and a sprawling financial empire. In turn, politicians in the Berlusconi government have been able to design policies that undermine civil liberties and further widen the gap between the rich and the poor. With a stronghold on the media, they have attacked any opposition as personal persecution of the prime minister, jealousy, or “communist connivance” (e.g., Schrank 2009). The Berlusconi government has been a master at dismissing collective action and other accountability mechanisms. Calling Italian judges communists and dismantling the judiciary system to evade trials, Berlusconi is always smiling in his photographs. He also, still, smiles and promises happiness to all Italians through his suite of national channels, of which Rete Quattro long transmitted on frequencies legally assigned to a less powerful television channel (Kohl 2003). In this climate, it is not hard to imagine how the agency of social movements that function through oppositional politics is severely diminished. Telestreet’s was no different.
If things do not change, they stay the same: Berlusconi smiled, but so did Telestreet, only not in photographs because people forgot about its presence. Once the momentum slowed down, the climate of political and social conflict fell into stupefied torpor, groups protesting refused to negotiate with those in power and were brutally repressed, and attention moved to the many scandals connected to Berlusconi’s political life. But has Telestreet triggered no change? Telestreet’s Cheshire cat smiles are not visible in pictures, but things do change, even when they seem to stay the same.
Composition One: Change as Individuation
Take two: Telestreet poses as a social movement but to pose does not mean to pretend; instead it is akin to pausing: “to assume or hold a physical attitude,” to stand in a position for someone to observe. Press coverage, politicians’ attacks and praises, art reviews, and award statements mediate the interaction between Telestreet and its observers. They all tell the same story of these humble citizens bravely fighting the embarrassing media giant and eventually, hopefully, succeeding. Posing, pausing, positioning: Telestreet is motionless in this picture, which still turns out to be out of focus because it was taken hurriedly on the way out to a new darling. This framing of Telestreet as an anti-Berlusconi movement positions it away from the daily experiences of producing media in the street where so much happens. Positionality is opposed to movement, and yet, is it not the latter that constitutes change—including the neighborhood’s imperceptible, bracketed, qualitative change that precedes systemic shifts, ruptures, and visible transformations? How does positionality account for people meeting each other at a Telestreet event, people with disabilities making TV, children filming interviews that show on screen? The movement of subtle change triggered by OrfeoTv, Teleimmagini, TeleAut, and others is hard to see because the analysis of resistant collective actors takes place through the coding of a group’s positioning on a social grid of signification, and all one can look at is their beginnings (we do not want Berlusconi) and ends (we still have Berlusconi). Here, one never sees movement itself (Massumi 2002, 2–3). So, while the exchanges that take place among the Telestreettari and their communities are fertile, lively, and hard to categorize, the social grid enables their representation via oppositional identities and discourses (as a framing of political messages). This is often the case with the actions and campaigns of social movements, like those advocating for environmental protection, gender and racial justice. Telestreet was a movement against Berlusconi’s media control. Berlusconi’s monopoly is intact; there was no change. I struggle to point at what changed with Telestreet because I am watching it pose (almost as a warrior stereotype) and I cannot see it move.
I could reconstruct what has happened in-between the day a manifesto for street television appeared online and the day an email announced the demise of the network: What were the terms and conditions of this change? Where is the change to detect? When I subordinate Telestreet’s movement to the moments in time it connects, I still miss a notion of movement as qualitative transformation that attends to the changes in peoples’ subjectivities, in their bonds with others and with places. This seeding of minute change among people, across the layers of affects, emotions, individuality, and collectivity, transduces behind or beyond what is visible every time a grandma shares her famed pasta recipe on TV while her grandchild is filming. In other words, I miss the individuation of Telestreet within its milieu. So, in order to look at the dynamism that constitutes change in Berlusconi’s Italy, it is necessary to assign primacy to movement and consider position (or the finite product or object) as its derivative.
Relation is what happens before the coordinates appear; Telestreet emerges out of, and changes with, myriad relations among disparate components: the tools, the planning, the learning, the spaces, experiments, food, footage, family, and friends. Who asks the questions in an interview? Who holds the microphone and the camera? What if the interviewer and interviewee switch roles? These relations are at the basis of an ontogenesis of the social and of culture that leads to what is perceived as specific forms of culture and sociability (Massumi 2002, 9).3 As I focus on the relations among the media objects and those who engage with them, I move away from a study of social morphology (of the dots on a grid) toward a conceptualization of emergence in process. My emphasis then shifts from describing how Telestreet and the Telestreettari retain their stability—their identity, configuration, and initial purpose—to how they cannot do so, passing thresholds after which they cease to be or take on different structures (Simondon 2006, 73).
The seeding of almost imperceptible transformation across the layers and components of the Telestreettari perception and individuality, their network and its milieu, is called transduction.4 Transduction refers to the exchanges of energy and information between a system (a crystal, a cell, an individual, a group) and its milieu, causing change and becoming (often something different). In media too, transduction transforms different types of energy; for instance, a microphone transforms sound into an electrical signal. Transduction conceptualizes the level-specific process of emergence (the reorganization of a system) and its transmission of generative impulses to other levels or systems while allowing differentiation to the nature of these serial transformations. Transduction is the connecting thread of movement energetics, looking at the relation between Telestreet and its milieu. The energy traversing the network is what gives it the consistency that the coverage described cannot capture.
If one takes into consideration the networked aspect of much activism (Castells 2012), then it becomes useful to conceptualize the transductive relations that shape and engender Telestreet’s nodes, other groups, and their environment rather than simply focus on their constituted parts. What engenders a network? What makes a node? If contemporary societies are increasingly built upon functional networks connecting different processes, resources, and parts (networks of activists, communication means, technologies, economies, institutions, and so on), then it is crucial to understand how to talk about the changing relations rather than just focus on Telestreet’s repertoire of contention, how it makes video, and what the videos say. There is value in using and then discarding the category of social movement, as Telestreet did. Telestreet is a social movement; for a while, at least, it was positioned as one because it stood in for everyone who opposed Berlusconi. Most importantly, Telestreet poses the question of movement in the social—that is, the question of individuation and becoming social in composition.
Proposition Two: Telestreet Is Tactical Media
In the week leading up to September 21, 2003, the walls of Rome’s historically working-class district of San Lorenzo were covered in posters declaring “Totti libero!” “Montella libero!” (Free Totti! Free Montella!). Puzzled by the enigmatic incitation directed at their football stars, the inhabitants of this Roma FC–mad area tore down some of the ads, until another campaign of flyers explained what was happening (Anonimo 2003). These new posters and flyers announced a free broadcast of the Juventus-Roma match on UHF channel 26 the following Sunday. A decryption card connected to a television transmitter made the game available without paying a subscription. This was a protest against the media monopoly and allowed thousands of underprivileged football fans to once again afford to be an audience. The groups behind the action included some street television channels—SpegnilaTV, TeleAut, AntTV, OrfeoTv—and the subversive communication agency Guerrilla Marketing. On the day of the match, polls conducted through the houses’ intercoms made sure that the enthusiastic inhabitants of San Lorenzo were receiving a clear signal while they enjoyed a free performance of their favorite team. At the bottom of the TV screen, the logo of Disco Volante TV declared solidarity with the disabled-run Telestreet channel shut down by the authorities a few days earlier. The show also opened with a communiqué denouncing the planned eviction of more than one hundred Italian and migrant families from an occupied building in the area. The advertising intermission showcased Telestreet’s own video spots and an interview with Roma FC fans denouncing the commercialization and enclosure of football through pay TV and unaffordable stadium tickets (Anonimo 2003). The independent broadcasting of the game, facilitated by Telestreet, was also interspersed with information on the background of Rupert Murdoch—who owned the Italian sport pay-TV channel Sky—and with homemade commentary on the game (Blisset 2004). Match score: Juventus 2, Roma 2.
Already in the press release that preceded the action, the coalition had drawn attention to the underlying connections between intellectual property and the consolidation of monopolies on information, as is the case with football. It is precisely at this intersection that the groups involved saw a perfected separation (Debord 1983) between the business and spectacle of marketed football and the sport as a moment of sociability and popular culture, constantly produced by fans around the world. For the groups involved, “no monopoly should be allowed to encrypt the richness of the streets and of the stadium terraces. . . . The public is not for sale” (AntTV et al. 2003). The hijacking of the encrypted signal of the match created an interference with “the massmediocritised communication flux” (AntTV et al. 2003) and made immediately visible the separation between football as business and spectacle and football as a catalyst for aggregation. The combination of television transmitter and a rigged decoding card materially inverted the power relations organizing the functions and qualities of the sport. Its operation decrypted and broke down the links among football, business, and spectacle in which the form of content (capital) and the form of expression (sport) are seen as necessarily coupled. Sociability and popular culture once again were expressed in football.
On Monday, February 2, 2004, I received an email from the Telestreet listserv passing on the news about a similar decryption action a day earlier in Scampia, one of the most degraded areas of the Neapolitan outskirts. Ma.gi.ca TV, named after three historical stars of the Napoli FC football team—Diego Maradona, Bruno Giordano, and Careca (Antônio de Oliveira Filho)—had delighted its audience with another free match, as well as with footage of local kids’ games. Although Napoli FC lost, “Sky must’ve had its grief too,” the email joked. Match score: Telestreet 2, Sky 0. At another level of this sociotechnical formation, one that ties broadcasting dynamics to dominant cultural production, Telestreet triggered a similar inversion of power, this time through the simple switching of two connectors in an antenna’s box. The switched cables changed the device from a receiver of signals to a sender—from passive to active medium. This reverse engineering of media and its social functions, for Telestreet node CandidaTV, points at “the intention to radically remold the perception of media, which means eliminating the prejudices about its non-interchangeability. Instead of one-way communication, from one to many, . . . communication going from many to many” (CandidaTV, qtd. in Janković 2004).
These actions blow up the traditional communication model: the big bang of Telestreet forms a complex assemblage—a heterogeneous sociotechnical system that synchronizes behaviors, desires, languages, and ways of thinking. Assemblages describe specific interlocking and overlapping territories made of biological, social, and technological fragments that present unique properties that emerge from the interaction between their parts (practices, power, etc.). Within assemblages, technological elements are interwoven with elements of the social and with bodies, producing emergent unities (Deleuze and Guattari 1986). Defined in this relational manner, media are assemblages, institutions are assemblages, networks are assemblages, and so are nation-states and what we call “society.” Simondon (perhaps ventriloquized by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari) would say that assemblages individuate. Their components clinch together, turning into something more powerful than the sums of their parts. At this moment of media jacking, the Telestreet assemblage emerges from tech rigs, traditions of resistance, and discourses about consumption, among other things—it achieves the power to reverse power.
Temporary reversals of power are what characterize the practices of rebels who use tactical media “as a set of tactics by which the weak make use of the strong” (Garcia and Lovink 1997). “The ABC of Tactical Media,” a manifesto for DIY media tacticians, is one of the many texts that call for creative resistance from those who are excluded from the wider culture (Garcia and Lovink 1997). Inspiration comes from the work of the Situationist International, with their subversive habit of détournement, which appropriates the existing means of consumer cultural expression to critique the “society of the spectacle” (Debord 1983). Tactical media engineer hit-and-run actions, ad hoc stunts, and pranks that can cause a shift in the perception about dominant forces (Raley 2009). The tactical media assemblage is a temporary grouping of people and technology who compose around an action, only to disperse again and maybe regroup under a different guise for future undertakings. What the Situationists wrote in the sixties found a captive audience in the nineties, when consumer electronics, digital media, and DIY technology enabled artists, hackers, and activists to rethink the role of communication and media as tools to confront dominant powers.
Telestreet comes into a world of tactical media; it suitably assembles in a milieu that Gilles Deleuze (1995b, 178) famously called societies of control, where individuals enjoy a high degree of freedom while being subjected to indirect yet equally powerful forms of control. Control societies center computers and other information technologies with their shift from production (of goods) to metaproduction, selling services and buying activities. Here, the transition of waged labor from factories to cognitive and affective labor—the service and creative economies—blurs the boundaries between work and leisure and sets the ground for the new arrangements of power and control, pervading society like a gas (179–81).
In a society of control, the commodification of information and lifestyles is inextricably connected with the development of cybernetics—“a theory of messages and their control” (Crary 1984, 292). The new social functions of television take root at this intersection between information technology and information as commodity, increasingly overlapping and networked with other forms of cross-platform consumer electronics, especially computers. Television’s content no longer merely constitutes a simulacrum of life but reduces all signs to free-flowing elements that can be made compatible and sold with the rest of the available information flows (287–89). The increased connectedness among different information distribution media and the content transmitted have effects that range from the boom of the entertainment industry thriving on these flows to the creation of a mass-mediated social imagination based on consumer identities—a society of the spectacle on steroids, pace Debord. Production in the society of control is directly the production of social relations for capitalist accumulation, and the “raw material” of the new forms of labor is subjectivity itself, as well as the environment in which subjectivities are reproduced (Lazzarato 1996). Affect, before emotion, is the vector of information to the brain of individuals. Affect is the vector of psychosocial individuation of the subject—it carries information.
The transduction of affects across the circuits of interoperable television involves complex, multiscale dynamics that reach deep into human perception and desire (Lazzarato 2014) and deep into the material circuits of information distribution.5 The sensory and cognitive stimuli that circulate between individuals and machines establish a relationship between interiority and the world that becomes a site of governance. As Richard Grusin demonstrates in his book on affect and mediality, we can think in terms of affect, beyond signification, to conceptualize how “media function on the one hand to discipline, control, contain, manage, and govern human affectivity and its affiliated things ‘from above,’ at the same time that they work to enable particular forms of human action, particular collective expressions and formations of human affect ‘from below’” (2010, 79). Information is not just the commodity of contemporary capitalism; it is also what transduces across organic and inorganic elements of an assemblage. Information is data, content, and perceptive stimuli. It produces meaning across culture, the economy, computation, and subjectivity. Information makes different relations possible precisely because it entangles a variety of elements and processes.6
Tactical television tackles control societies’ expanding grid of control by constantly intervening in these information flows and in the power relations they sustain. The capture and co-option of symbols and practices for market purposes become the main reasons to opt for ephemeral and nomadic structures. So, then, tactical media’s purpose, if there is a clearly definable one, is nomadism, mobility, always opening up new cracks, platforms, and channels for rebellion and questioning: “Once the enemy has been named and vanquished it is the tactical practitioner whose turn it is to fall into crisis” (Garcia and Lovink 1997). Tactical media practitioners study “the techniques by which the weak become stronger than the oppressors by moving fast across the physical or media and virtual landscapes” (Garcia and Lovink 1997).
Tactical media thrived in Italy’s vigorous society of the spectacle. Telestreet’s second national meeting, Eterea II, was held in Senigallia in March 2004, in support of its node Disco Volante TV, based in that town and closed by the authorities a few months earlier. The founding members of the tactical media movement flocked to Eterea II to learn about Telestreet, now almost two years old. In the first interview I conducted on behalf of Telestreet, tactical media guru David Garcia foresaw the end of Telestreet once the Italian political crisis was over (Telestreet 2004). It was not to take on the infamous prophetic role of Cassandra but in the spirit of tactical media that Garcia celebrated the reversals of power brought about by Telestreet, while emphasizing that it could only uncover the problematic arrangement of media in the country. Unless new effective strategies were developed, Telestreet’s endurance and potential institutionalization would inevitably constitute its capture and demise. Two more years and the media tactician pronounced the death of tactical media as an effective activist practice because of the commercial cannibalization of creativity. For Garcia, neoliberal rhetoric of freedom and creativity have reopened an old fault line between artists and activists, depoliticizing tactical media. As mere epiphenomena of communicative capitalism, tactical media are not only tolerated but also consumed with glee (Garcia 2006). Garcia (2006) called for new connections between short-lived tactics and more sustainable strategies of dissent. The Situationists’ strategies to undermine the spectacle in society have turned themselves into a spectacle—RIP, tactical media.
Composition Two: Assemblages and Transindividuation
If mere inversions of power and constant movement are no longer enough to effectively resist in a society of control, what is Telestreet’s purpose? And how does it function? Garcia’s call for sustainable strategies has not gone unheeded. Or better, long before Garcia’s pronouncement, activists had already incorporated aesthetic tactics into their modes of protest, and Telestreet is not just an attempt to invert power. Telestreet doubles the bet, moving beyond temporary inversions of roles and power by embodying both social critique and a possible solution to the problem it addresses. Tactical media appropriate signs and symbols to deterritorialize the codes that fix the social imagination along the logic of the market. Telestreet détourns tactical media; it pushes this practice to its limit by being the medium that others can use: “We are television and we circulate messages that disturb and change the spectators’ usual perspective. In this way we . . . create visions of multiplied reality,” says Agnese Trocchi of CandidaTV (Janković 2004).
Media activism is often associated with the discursive, with attempts to portray events as unfiltered from the bias of corporate media and the codified language of media industries in general. Yet, since the language of television is never neutral and always manipulative, many street television channels openly, humorously, and purposelessly embrace this manipulation, offering visions of possible worlds that push manipulation into creation. We can think of Telestreet and other similar assemblages as milieus for the individuation of different collectivities, as I will argue in more detail in the next chapters.
Whenever I browsed the Telestreet video archive, I marveled at the quirky, deliriously creative character of many of the shows: EmisioNeokinok.Tv’s experimental television, OrfeoTv’s performances live on screen, CandidaTV’s programs made by children from the Roman periphery, and the adventures of pot-smoking Rotsuma by Teleimmagini are only a few examples that break the mold of what it means to make television—together, as friends. In these videos, criticism and creation go hand in hand, but criticism is only implicit in the process of creating something outside of what is allowed on TV. This means that to tell the story of Telestreet as an anti-Berlusconi movement, or as tactical media, is to tell only part of the story because Telestreet’s productions do not aim to make evident and fill the gaps left by a media monopoly on information. Defying much of the media attention that hyped the project, the Telestreettari do not strictly see themselves as the paladins of the antimedia consolidation crusades. Granted, they developed as Berlusconi rose to power in the government and are critical of him, but Telestreet shows are very, very distant from the entertainment and news that are typical of Italian mainstream TV, be it Berlusconi’s or public service broadcasting.
With the traditional television model morphing into a networked grid for the flow of heterogeneous data, symbols, and codes, it becomes harder to talk about a simple reversal between spectators and creators of content, consumers and producers of desires and lifestyles—what Axel Bruns (2008) has called produsage. Could one argue that a remolding of this medium takes place with a simple reversal? Through the antitelevision model of communication “from many to many” taking over the traditional broadcast system, Telestreet investigates the interoperability of television with other forms of accessible technology (P2P networks, Linux Operating Systems, social media platforms, etc.) but also with alternative modes of socialization that surpass communicating and distributing information: “If television killed the streets, we return it to the site of the crime. . . . Television is a weapon. The screen reality must be squatted. Weapons are in our hands, beware! If there is a big brother, Candida [TV] is his little sister” (Janković 2004). CandidaTV words set the record straight. Squatting sometimes requires weapons and, for Telestreet, the weapons are psychosocial as much as technical. I present these weapons as partaking in a technical individuation, where machine components come to assemble a technical system that is conducive to sociotechnical individuations (Simondon 1989).
Street television materially and figuratively becomes a way of (re)directing codes and flows of meaning and relaying multiple realities. Street television pushes past reversal, in order to connect, interface, and more efficiently relay these multiple realities. Telestreet détourns tactical media. It hacks the television system and its monopoly on shaping reality, moving from symbolic temporary inversions of forces between mainstream and independent media to a perversion of the television model into an interoperable assemblage always in motion because it is rooted in its collectivism. Way before dominant television took over multiple platforms, the interoperability of the pirate television assemblage displaced TV to a variety of contexts (community centers, the streets, the neighborhood, the art gallery, the protest, etc.). This kind of interoperability supports the strategic embodiment of plural experiences through “active participation in socialized knowledge” (Virno 2004, 13). The knowledge is partly created in the act of working together and partly in that it is connected to existing spaces and practices of resistance: for instance, using the production of a show to engage youth at risk. Thus, the Telestreettari find their fulfillment in the pleasures of being together and not in any specific content production. To paraphrase the Situationists one last time, Telestreet refuses traditional forms of communication but also turns this refusal into a constructive project (McDonough 2004, 134) of collective creation. Telestreet is not a tactical media practice but it draws on it and hacks it into a strategic, autonomous medium for the creation of multiplied reality, transforming those who come into contact with it—transindividuation. In a milieu of transindividuation, individuals and groups become in relation to each other and to media technologies.
Proposition Three: Telestreet Gives Voice to the Voiceless
Telestreet announced its irruption into the mediascape with the following manifesto (and a few more followed).
One, two, three, many . . .
Street TV, housing estate TV, neighborhood TV, condo TV, micro TV, personal TV . . .
The televisual ocean we swim in seriously smells of monoculture
A single type of fish has taken over the waters of the info-sphere
Biodiversity has been wiped off
The banana fish is eating all the others
CALL FOR ACTION
To all free and strong fish which still love swimming
Empty your hearts of all sorrow
Let your imagination and creativity find their power again
Let friendship and risk lead us into the open again:
Where danger is, there grows the saving power
It is high time we came out of the fish tank
Let’s go down the street, let’s call our friends, our life companions, all those still alive, who have a mind and voice, let’s buy an aerial, a modulator and a TV transmitter, let’s find a room, a garage, a shed, let’s gather our Sunday video cameras, a VHS from home, a TV set, some lamps for a bit of light.
We can start now . . .
The first four lines of the text denounce the dire situation of media monopoly in Italy and justify the birth of the project as a rebellion against hegemonic and oppressive media powers. The remaining part of the manifesto calls to those who feel alienated by the tyranny of Berlusconi to no longer feel powerless and appropriate broadcasting technology for independent transmission. For researchers of bottom-up communication models, the narrative of Telestreet’s empowerment and “giving voice to the voiceless” (Ardizzoni 2008) is a compelling one (and often rightly so). Clemencia Rodríguez (2001), Chris Atton (2002), Nick Couldry and James Curran (2003), and John D. H. Downing et al. (2001) have all discussed the power of citizen media to open up the space for minority groups challenging social codes and legitimizing their identities.
In my own interviews with Telestreet’s members, I have been exposed to similar narratives. For instance, in one of the most exciting conversations about the becoming of a media activist, my interviewee told me of a 2003 summer camp to protest the presence of detention centers in southern Italy, where, more or less by chance, Nicola ended up with a video camera in hand while gate-crashing a detention center to document the infrastructure of the camp and the stories of its inmates. Still more or less by chance, Nicola managed to hide the tape with the footage before the police destroyed all visual evidence of the event. In the confusion caused by the invasion, some inmates escaped. Rumors have it that one of them is now a football player, and others found work. The video circulated widely, marking an important moment in Italian No Borders politics (Frassanito Network 2004). “Ale, since then I could not put the camera down” (interview with Nicola, 2008) is all Nicola needs to say. It is evident from the tone that there is a feeling of power in wielding a camera as a weapon against those who have a monopoly on the definition of violence.
I examine the video of the detention center action (Noborder 2003). I watch a fence, and pliers cutting it. I watch people sneak in with their cameras and a banner. I hear them chant, “No borders, no nations, stop deportation,” and the detainees’ answer, “Freedom! Freedom!” I am made into a witness to the bruises the migrants have from the police beatings, seeing them through the metal mesh of the dehumanizing cages they speak from. I startle at the sight of the soldiers and police appearing to arrest the protesters, and through that experience I am able to connect to those defending the rights of migrants and their autonomy to choose freedom of movement over artificially imposed borders. From the late nineties on, activists have been increasingly using cameras for documentation purposes but also to produce proof of police brutality during rallies and on other occasions. Simultaneously, the independent, grassroots documentaries available online and through activist networks have multiplied. Migrants to Italy have also moved behind the cameras with some Telestreet nodes. Whether it is explicitly for political purposes, to reveal the hidden or forgotten, or for community cultural production, there is power in autonomous media production. I have myself been there and felt it. This excitement goes to the core of the self, as Rodríguez (2001) emphasizes: it boosts a person’s identity—whether it is a minoritarian identity or that of a Telestreettaro or Telestreettara. Telestreet empowers, (in some cases) gives voice to the voiceless, challenges in its own (small) way the monopoly of the banana fish swimming in the televisual ocean, and emboldens the little fish. Still, as I pop my head out of these metaphorical waters, my field of vision expands past the immediately visible social categories and identities of citizen media. I consider the information flows traversing Telestreet—the content, affects, and other perceptual stimuli—and how these do not only shape people into a coherent public.
Composition Three: Repurposing Media for Connective Activism
There is more to the No Borders camp story, more about the transformation from an activist camper to a member of insu^tv. In the same interview, Nicola tells me about joining the camp to cure activist burnout without completely disengaging from politics; Nicola had felt disillusionments with crystallized and stagnant local discourses on organizing and needed a break (interview with Nicola, 2008). Once the activist chanced upon the camera to document the treatment immigrants receive when they land on the shores of the so-called garden of Europe, the energy generated triggered some imperceptible change: the individuation of Nicola-as-media-activist-part-of-a-movement-of-media-activists (psychosocial individuation) and that of the camera-as-weapon (technical individuation). Assemblages are compositions that individuate and possess a kind of sociotechnical agency; they can become political.
The camera mediated a system of relations between the individual and the collective that are not pregiven but are exactly what shapes both terms through interaction: the media activist and media activism. This means that individuation, both personal and collective, takes place through practice—in this case, media practice. Simondon points at information and communication technology as important factors in processes of individuation, resonating with memory and social intelligence but especially with sensibilities and affects. Key here is the role of technical objects: a technical object expresses mediation between a person and the natural world (Simondon 1989). This kind of mediation implies that the technical object is endowed with a potentiality that can inspire a reconfiguration or creation of sociotechnical assemblages. The capacity for technical mediation, as is the case with the camera, is revealed when a certain kind of culture of technology grasps its effective reality and implications for human beings and for the social field in general. However, despite its potential to affect social dynamics, the technical object that is reproduced and marketed by industries often loses its singularity and potential. When the technical object is a mere tool, it does not have the same meaning for the individual: most technical objects take on a specific role when they establish themselves in society, becoming normalized (Simondon 2006, 251–53). Television in Italy is certainly an example of this habituation—until Telestreet.
Nicola and Telestreet more broadly show that it is possible to rediscover an object’s “essence” by drawing on a specific sensibility and creativity that enables one to move beyond its function as a tool (Simondon 2006, 263). This is where I start seeing the deeper effects of the encounter between Nicola and the camera: the creation of new relations and eventually the emergence of a Telestreet node. Importantly, mediation here refers to the ability to bring about, to foster new assemblages, not to the memetic ability to reproduce reality. The rediscovery of a creative attitude toward technology is a repurposing of sorts. It requires people to come together around a technological fix, often moved by specific events like the No Borders camp, or a Telestreet convention, or a hack of a pay-TV card. Other campers and activists joined Nicola to create Ma.gi.ca TV in Scampia and then insu^tv. I describe the practices of Telestreet nodes like insu^tv as repurposing media. Repurposing functions on multiple levels and at multiple scales to describe the hacking of media, sociality, and knowledge production.
First and foremost, of course, Telestreet repurposes available technologies (antennas, computers, etc.) and spaces (airwaves, the streets, etc.) and yet the repurposing is less about the reuse of discarded technical objects or neglected spaces and more about the harnessing of encounters and events within an expanding field of social relations. From this perspective, repurposing describes a set of alternative media practices that bend and hack what is available to foster social cohesion rather than communication—the stress here is on the purposing more than the re. Repurposing becomes a way of folding technology into new sociotechnical assemblages that, in turn, enter into composition with their environment, forging connections with other groups and individuals. For example, the documentary on the illegal dumping of toxic waste in Naples that insu^tv produced does not simply remedy a lack of information about this issue, nor does it just give voice to the communities protesting the garbage crisis (insu^tv 2009d). Wasting Naples is the culmination of years of outreach activities and technical and political support to bring people together around issues that affect them directly; this outreach is then reabsorbed into community organizing through screenings and a variety of thematic collaborations. This is part of the set of practices that I have come to understand as connective activism.
The following chapters will get into the details of how the repurposing of media fosters porosity among activist groups, how it draws on a variety of histories, traditions, and technological resources to build community and foster dissenting subjectivities. It is no coincidence that insu^tv views itself as a media connective instead of a collective: for this group, the engagement with DIY media production acknowledges the need to create and tend to the spaces and infrastructures where collectivity emerges through a set of shared creative practices. Repurposing also speaks to the movement of individuation that connects the individual and the collective at different scales, the I and the we that co-individuate. When seen as a way of connecting activist groups and communities, the repurposing of media brings to the fore the value of media activism for the creation of social assemblages in which the “media” literally mediates between individuals and among individuals and their environment, instituting and developing new relations (Simondon 1989). In this sense, I mobilize repurposing as a way of conceptualizing the unique, creative character of some struggles over social reproduction that autonomist feminism calls for (Serra 2015; Thorburn 2016). I offer up the concept of repurposing as one of the core practices of connective activism. This concept is a means for thinking with Telestreet, especially its node insu^tv.
I started this chapter with an analysis of the discourses and categorizations that support criminalization and surveillance; their force often drives the decomposition of social movements but it also triggers recompositions into new assemblages—this is what resistance looks like when one considers it from the perspective of ongoing change. Each transformation leaves a residue and plants new seeds. In a sense, the seeds that generated some of the practices of connective activism came from repression. Insu^tv was born from the burnout and fragmentation that followed the crackdown on the global justice movement after the protests at the 2001 summits in Naples and Genoa (interview with Asterix, 2008; interview with Sara, 2008). Steering away from any form of movement organizing and identitarian stances, the insulini (people from insu^tv)—video camera in hand—chose to coexist, conjugate, and connect with the most disparate assemblages, ranging from parishes and fair-trade associations to No Borders organizations. As it rejects identitarian positioning, insu^tv coexists, conjugates, and connects on a plane on which there are no dots that indicate their position—their closeness to or distance from others. To coexist, conjugate, and connect are the modes of an antidialectic, strategic logic that promises no resolution in a unity. This is not only a theoretical shift from position to relation but, especially, a practical move from position as a form of organizing alliances in movements to composition as a mode of sociopolitical relation (and consolidation) among heterogeneous groups—a movement building of sorts. It is particularly pertinent at times of fragmentation and crisis. In some cases, Telestreet may give voice to the voiceless and be a megaphone for identity. Still, before form, there is process and that process is part of political engagement in the form of repurposing media for connective activism. To fully understand Telestreet as a happening, it is necessary to investigate its historical and political origins first. Similarly, it will take some forays into the past to find the taproots and seeds of the intimacy, care, and friendship that instill energy into connective activism. By the end of this book, connective activism will have transduced from this initial composition to a fully fledged phenomenon that connects media practices and projects across time and space, entering through Telestreet and the example of its node insu^tv.