(Interview) TV Commons: A Requiem For Analog TV Broadcasting

New media practitioner Stephen Fortune reveals potential for guerilla appropriation of former analog airspace that is also a precious commodity for companies like Google, Microsoft and Dell.

As we continue to frame ourselves as a “digital” culture, older forms of media recede out of our consciousness. Yet, for instance, analog signaling continues to operate in our air space. With the switch from analog to digital signals, the former radio frequencies that used to broadcast our television have become a veritable no man’s land for pirate television.

This is where new media practitioner Stephen Fortune has begun researching with his TV Commons project, which is on view as part of Heterotopia Provocation in London until Friday. One part practical research, one part media art, the project locates itself in a fictive future where he speculates a pirate TV community might flourish. We caught up with Fortune to discuss the value of this radio frequency space, its cultural and political potential, and where he plans to further take the project.

Explain the basic background of the project. How did “Hertzian space” and its potential to form a guerilla network of broadcasters come to interest you?

TV commons is basically a future design fiction spun out of the notion of a thriving pirate TV community developing as the radio frequency range over which analog TV is usually broadcast is vacated in preparation for the digital switchover. The digital switchover is ultimately all about maximizing the UK’s digital dividend, squeezing more potential out of the electromagnetic spectrum (or “Hertzian space”) over which data (be it TV broadcasts, Wi-Fi or even cordless phones) can be transmitted. The 200 MHz of cleared RF (radio frequency) spectrum will be auctioned off to the highest bidder but there is likely to be at least a 12 month window where large swathes of the British countryside (mostly the west coast) will have their analogue spectrum ‘lying fallow’ so to speak. The inspiration from the project derives in equal measure from some of the pirate TV stations set up in the US in the wake of its digital switchover in 2009 and also from the Italian Telestreet movement.

So, where did you decide to take the project in terms of documentation?

This project has been constructed in an ultra low-fi manner, by modifying two VCRs to act as short wave analogue TV transmitters (accomplished via linking two VCRs to two signal boosters and then using simple old school rabbit ears to transmit video tape signals to a TV placed in the middle of the 2 VCRs radius). From there it was a pick and mix approach to broadcasting whatever VHS tapes we could get a hold of.

Where do you plan to develop the project from here?

The resulting content is a strange kind of static interference you usually wouldn’t see on TV. It’s also a sort of interference that will disappear once digital TV and it’s digital cliff (where all picture and audio is lost once the transmitted signal drops below a certain strength) populates the TV experience, and in that way the project is a requiem for a lost medium in advance of it’s passing. I am very interested in exploring the digital cliff of DAB radio and Digital TV and its contrast to the slow signal decay, and tangibility of static of analogue transmission.

This project could be viewed as slightly esoteric as the medium will be privatized, and there are digital means for guerilla broadcasting that would probably have the potential for a wider audience. Why do you feel it’s culturally relevant? Why should someone be concerned with the regulation and ownership of these mediums? Are there political ramifications?

For me, I feel it’s culturally relevant given that it’s the first occasion in a long time that a significant reshuffling of the radio spectrum has occurred. As I mentioned already, people are switching to digital (and often encouraged to take on unnecessary extra costs such as upgrading aerials) so that more money can be squeezed out of this spectrum. This is a spectrum that surrounds all of us, is incredibly closely regulated, and yet passes by our senses most of the time. And soon a very significant amount of that space will be sold off, for private gain, so I felt that this brief window of Hertzian space being open for wild west style appropriation needed to be highlighted.

On another level the switch to digital means that operating any kind of pirate station (radio or TV) will be much harder, in that their signal will be very easy for Ofcom to triangulate and trace. So, the video reflects on the literal passing of static from the TV viewing experience, but also mourns the foreclosing of avenues into this spectrum for those least capable of acquiring a license for its use.

I do feel it important to stress that aside from opening people’s eyes to how easy it would be to harness this spectrum to their own ends if they so wished the ramifications for a project like this are less overtly political than what Telestreet undertook.

Finally, could this space have a potential for a type of warfare?

Contesting the digital switchover definitely offers up an arena for warfare, though a guerilla approach would have to be adopted. Ofcom never mess around with broadcasting infringement, and they come down like a ton of bricks on those that they catch. The video art element of TV commons is intended to act more as a call to arms, a reminder of the experience of television (static) that will vanish once the digital switchover (DSO) takes place.

For me, one site of contestation will be the ‘White spaces’ in the electromagnetic frequency that occur once the Hertzian space is all auctioned off. (They occur as a result of digital TV channels broadcasting in a narrower bandwidth than their analogue equivalents). A glance at the White spaces coaltion (composed of electronic giants like Microsoft, Google, Dell, HP, Intel, Philips, Earthlink, and Samsung Electro-Mechanics) and the opposition mobilised against it in the US illustrates that white spaces are (and will be) a site of contestation. Given the way this is proposed to be monitored (via a geolocative database) there is a definite scope for this space to be disrupted and utilized on a low scale level, and potentially much easier to fly under Ofcom’s radar.

Heterotopia Provocation

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