Steven Kurtz on Sat, 18 Oct 1997 17:55:34 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> CAE: Interview with Brian Springer

A tactical possibility for anti-spectacle has run its course: Puncturing
television spectacle through the downlinking and redistribution of
backhauls seems to have come to an end. With new encryption devices, the
best of the backhauls has become inaccessible to satellite pirates. For
all the empowering insights offered by Brian~s and Marko~s Makrolab
project at DX, it also showed that this form of electronic resistance
was making its final appearance. 

Given this development, CAE thought Nettime readers might like to see
where this research began. The following interview with Brian Springer
was done for Atlanta _Art Papers_ in 1989 shortly after Brian~s
residency at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo where he began
experimenting with satellite technology and collecting backhauls for the
first time. 

Colonel Noonan is a pseudonym he used for his pirate persona. The name
came as play on the name of cable television pirate Captain Midnight (a
disgruntled HBO employee who captured an HBO relay station in 1988, and
uplinked some very unflattering text about the cable giant).

--Critical Art Ensemble


CAE: Col. Noonan, could you tell us how you got interested in satellite
technology and guerrilla action using this technology?

CN: I became interested in satellite technology when I heard about these
things called "backhauls," which allow you to see TV personalities off
camera. There are two ways a backhaul can work: One is when they cut to
commercial on your broadcast station- meanwhile your satellite station
is not running the commercial. The commercial is being inserted at
headquarters, so on satellite, you still see the person on camera
waiting to go back on the air again. Another variety of backhaul is one
common to newscasts and TV magazines, such as on CNN.  In this case a
raw signal (a signal containing only the image of the host or
newscaster) is sent up to a satellite and then downlinked to a station
that will insert the graphic or tape material necessary for a completely
packaged show. But if you tune into the backhaul, you can see the person
without the graphics, or see them when the insert tape is being rolled.
This has always interested me, because you can see how the TV spectacle
is constructed.

CAE:	Where did you get your equipment to do this, and what was the cost?

CN: In 1978 a home satellite system would have cost about $120,000 -
150,000, because when the signal comes down from the satellite it is so
weak that it demands extreme amplification. At that time, the amplifiers
cost between eighty and a hundred thousand dollars, with only 20-30
being made a year. Home technology became possible when the amp could be
made very cheaply. By 1989 several generations of equipment have been
released to the public.  The early equipment, from about 1978-1982, can
be found on the back shelves of dish dealers' shops, and can be gotten
very cheaply since it lacks many of what are now considered standard
features. The amp can now be bought used for $60. 

CAE:	It was once $100,000, and now it's $60 used?

CN:	Yeah. It's come down a bit, and very quickly. Then you need a device
called a feed horn that feeds the microwave sequence into the amp. Used,
it's about $50.  Then you need a dish.  Dishes can range used from
$120-$500. If you want a mounted dish that can scan all 22 satellites,
then plan for some added expenses. A good mount, used, would cost two to
four hundred dollars, and then you have to install it. If you go for
fixed focus, where you go and move the dish yourself, you can get a
mount for about $100. If you don't need a pure clean picture, use a
six-foot dish of stamped aluminum and it will be cheap. For the whole
package, if you shopped around and knew what you needed, you could get
it for around $550-600. 

CAE:	Is this the set-up you use?

CN: 	Yes, pretty much so. The dish I use was originally made for
telephone microwave from point to point on land. It's called a landline
microwave; it uses the same frequency as satellite microwave. My mount
is made out of an old bedframe and casters.
CAE: 	Could anyone easily build this?

CN: 	Oh yeah. Go to any bookstore and get a book on home satellite
installation. It might be tougher in urban areas to get good early-model
used equipment. Most dealers want to sell you the state of the art; they
don't want to tell you that you can get something working for around
$500. You do get a noisier picture, and you're susceptible to wind, but
it will work.
CAE:	You can use these to get backhauls? 

CN: 	Yes; just take your dish and go through every satellite.  Spend a
day. There is no [public] schedule for backhauls, so you have to do your
own research to find out when the ones you're interested in come up. 

CAE:	Do you have to move the dish around your yard or rooftop?

CN:	No, once you dish is aligned you just pivot it. Most people align
their dish to Dr. Gene Scott on WestStar 5, which is usually straight
south. Get a dish, aim your satellite south then tilt it until you see
Dr. Gene. Use that point and just pivot the dish. My mount is somewhat
flawed, as I can't get a full arc on which to pick up all the
satellites. The best satellite to tune into for backhauls is WestStar 4.
On transponder 9 of West Star 4 you can get backhauls for the
MacNeil-Lehrer Report, CNN, Robert Tilden Success in Life Ministries,
and other specialized services. 

CAE: 	Can you give some examples of interesting backhauls?

CN: On Sonya Live backhauls she is always just hanging out. A huge
portion of the program consists of Sonya waiting and watching herself or
her show on monitors. This type of backhaul is interesting because you
can see different personalities watch TV.
CAE: What kind of commentary have you heard?

CN:	One time on The MacNeil-Lehrer Report, Mondale was on and he was
painfully bored. He was watching the Report on a monitor and they had
just reported that Lloyd Bentsen's father had died. With that Mondale
broke up laughing and said that Bentsen had always claimed that his
father was the worst driver in the world, and now he's the worst dead
driver in the world. He also found the Wed-Tech scandal to be hilarious.
Backhauls allow you to get a glimpse of politicians' private persona, in
a way that their public relations people can't control.

CAE:	Can you also pick up news camera feeds, if there is footage on line
from China or Central America?

CN:	Yeah. Live transmissions are good. I got one from CNN where a
reporter was at this huge fire, and she is quite upset because she can't
get the ash that was floating in the air off her teeth. So she spent
most of the feed trying to keep her teeth white. Another thing you get
is bulk tape source material before it's edited. I got a feed of a
massacre in San Salvador. It was five minutes of corpses and the town's
reaction. It's nice because you can see the event without it being
contextualized by graphics and voiceover. It's unfiltered news.
CAE: 	So with the people that appear on camera, you can puncture the
spectacle of their public persona, and with the live feeds, the ongoing
selection process  in the media is revealed. Have you distributed this
collection of backhauls?
CN:	No, not yet. I did do an installation with them. They have been
shown in Florida and in New York, but not on a widespread basis.
CAE:	Is it illegal to tap satellite feeds and backhauls?

CN:	I wouldn't think so. It's on the public airwaves. You buy a consumer
dish, turn it on, and there it is. Nothing is scrambled, no special
equipment is needed. It's public information.
CAE:	It would only be in distribution that you could get into a legal
grey area. 
CN: 	It would seem so, because you're hurting the public persona of the
TV personality, such as with some footage I have of Robert Tilden. On
camera he's praying intensely for people, and as soon as he is off the
air he breaks into a totally different personality. He wants to know how
much money is coming in, he's yelling at his studio people. I'm sure it
would upset him, because it shows what a hypocrite he is.
CAE: 	Moving in the other direction, are there ways that the consumer
can send out signals that would disrupt or jam satellite communications?

CN: 	It's impossible to override a transmission with your own picture
using consumer equipment, but it is easy to disrupt a transmission with
noise and snow. The best noise generator that a consumer owns is a 
microwave oven. A microwave has 600 watts of power; it works at a
frequency that is below satellite, but on the other hand it uses a
microwave generator that produces a tremendous amount of noise and is
very unstable; it doesn't keep on its center frequency.  Using a
properly-sized dish and the inside of a microwave properly aligned, you
could cause disruption to TV signals in the form of snow, a rolling
picture, or skewed audio. It wouldn't totally disrupt the signal, but it
would cause objectionable interference [a term used by HBO which refers
to the drop in audio and picture quality that occurs when an alien
signal gets into one-sixtieth of their power range]. However, since it
works on a wide range of frequencies, you would also disrupt other
satellite communications, like military or weather signals.
CAE:	Have you experimented with this technique?

CN:	Only on a theoretical level, and on a physical level of seeing how
hard it would be to get the microwave generating device mounted, and
that's easy. But I have never turned it on. 

CAE: Are there other methods in the realm of possibility?

CN:	Sure; marine radar on boats, or the market for used radar equipment,
would be good places to get equipment for such a project. Such equipment
would take some technical expertise to use.

CAE: Is the information available for someone willing to research these

CN: 	In a way. You have to put two and two together. The information
about objectionable interference, how to create it, and the equipment it
takes to do it is not public information. I did find some information,
but the person who published it no longer lives in the US. He is under
threat from the National Security Agency and HBO. He can't come back
into the US. His name is Bob Coop Jr. See what you can find on him.

CAE: 	Did he write for magazines?

CN:	Yeah, but just freelance. There is a book called The Hidden Signals
of Satellite Television which is an excellent book by Tom Herrington and
Bob Coop. It tells you how to tie into telephone satellites, audio
subcarriers, and business communications.
CAE:	Once again we are in extremely illegal territory--you could create
enough disruption that there would be motivation for various security
agencies to come after you.

CN:	Sure.

CAE:	How traceable is jamming?

CN:	You would want to jam 6 gigahertz-the same frequency that the
telephone company uses. So if you are in the pathway of one of these
land-lined microwave transmissions, and they could synchronize the
satellite jam with the landline signal, they would have an approximate
geographic location with which they could locate the origin of the jam.
Or if you were in the flight path of an airport, that would be a second
way. But it would be like finding a needle in a haystack from a hardware

CAE:	So in order to reduce the chances of tracing, and so as not to jam
signals that you wouldn't want to jam, such as medical communications,
you would want to go to an outlying area.

CN: 	That would be good. If you had a clear radius of around 100 miles.
Research the area through the FCC and you could find a clear grid.

Jamming the Media, Brian Springers documentary "Spin Doctor"
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: