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Telestreet: Pirate Proxivision

by Patrick Nagle

"Telestreet" is the name for the collective of short-range television stations in Italy that take advantage of gaps in signal coverage to broadcast their own content. Telestreet stations take advantage of the TV receiving technology's capacity to transmit signal (a practice that Enzensberger advocates in "Constituents of a Theory of Media"). Franco Berardi (a.k.a. Bifo), a founding member of Italy's first pirate station OrfeoTV, notes that because telestreet employs consumer-grade technology for broadcasting, its range is limited to a small area; thus, telestreet is not so much tele-vision as it is proxi-vision.

There is a historical precedent for pirate broadcasting in Italy set by Radio Alice, a pirate radio station started in Bologna in 1976 broadcasted from an old tank transmitter. The station was politically affiliated with Autonomism, known in Italian as Operaismo (literally "workerism"), a distinctive subset of Marxism that focuses its analytical efforts on the functioning of the workplace and the importance of immaterial labor to capitalist economies. The station eventually closed in 1979, but not before inspiring countless other pirate radio stations throughout Italy, some of which still operate.

Yet Radio Alice and Telestreet share more than an independent ethos: Franco Berrardi, who founded OrfeoTV, is an autonomist thinker who played a role in Radio Alice. Telestreet is thus part of a rich tradition of pirate broadcasting and autonomist politics in Italy. But to understand Telestreet, we cannot merely locate it in a tradition; we also need to contextualize it within its moment--Italy at the turn of the 21st century.

Italian TV has two main networks: one is state owned, the other is a private station started by Silvio Berlusconi, currently the prime minister. According to the Economist, Berlusconi, while serving as Prime Minister of Italy, has retained effective control of 90% of all national television broadcasting. He also owns a print publishing house & myriad other enterprises. We can therefore read Telestreet as a reaction against Berlusconi's domination of the media. Yet while the emergence of Telestreet is seeped in past and present Italian politics, the medium is by no means the exclusive domain of the radical left.

Broadcasted content, which varies by station, is often a mix of popular entertainment; segments by local videojournalists & documentarians; amateur ventures into video-art, film, & even traditional TV narrative genres; and programming drawn from archives and the internet. The medium reflects an incorporation of media within a medium, cross-pollinating with the internet, print, video, even local gossip. This diversity of content raises an important issue for my examination of telestreet: the medium is not restricted, in theory or in practice, to politically radical broadcasters. In fact, telestreet is a popular way of distributing pirated pay-per-view soccer games free of charge. An anonymous journalist (under the nom de plume Luther Blisset), claims that there is at least one Christian station. Telestreet thus poses a crucial question for radical media: Can a media practice be radical by virtue of its form alone?

TeleStreet seems to be poised between alternative and tactical media. Telestreet is, relatively mobile, spread easily, sometimes engages with current political issues, and flouts the law to capture unused channels within a mass medium (qualities that have all been associated with the tactical); yet stations often take the form of identifiable, relatively stable, local sources of information (often associated with the alternative). Perhaps the best way to articulate the tactical and alternative elements of Telestreet is to say that tactical interventions become possible within an alternative media source. Telestreet provides an opportunity for tactical practice that can be easily accessed / deployed by turning a TV to a certain channel.

TeleStreet does not offer any guarantee of political radicalism. Indeed, "Luther Blisset" argues that one of Berlusconi's television stations, like telestreet, is operating illegally, only using a much more high-powered trasmitter. But herein lies the difference between Berlusconi and Bifo: telestreet takes consumer-grade materials and transforms them into broadcasting systems at a relatively low cost; Berlusconi, on the other hand, leverages his political and commercial clout to further saturate the television market. There is, I argue, something radical in the telestreet form itself, but perhaps this radicalism has more to do with roots than with political ideology. Like a plant's roots, telestreet insinuates itself in whatever space is available, forging connections. In some sense, taking broadcasting into one's own hands is political - perhaps a fundamental condition for media politics. But this act alone is not sufficient. The channels thereby opened are ambivalent, open to any kind of content. Perhaps the greatest potential of telestreet is that opening new, grass roots channels within a traditionally "mass" medium provides an opportunity to shift the terrain of politics itself, to bring new issues to the fore and to experiment with alternative forms of political practice.

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