March is a journal of art & strategy.

iTuneZ: A Playlist Project for Radio Materiality

Hakan Topal

December 2022

Since the early 2000s, I have been working on projects that explore issues of containment, repression, and control vis-à-vis neoliberal transformations. In our lifetime, neoliberal capitalism has spread like wildfire – or, like a virus – worldwide, breaking borders, altering local rules of conduct, and ultimately destroying the social fabric. Within this context, while the global distribution of labor and production was made possible by large-scale shipping over the world’s oceans, peoples of the Global South have been increasingly subjected to extreme police control and containment. According to neoliberal logic, capital must flow freely – like a tsunami – whereas people, specifically those who do not have the proper credentials or money, must be contained in their “homelands,” and if required, they need to be contained with brute force.

In the summer of 2013, Vessel invited me for a short residency in Bari, Italy, to produce a work for their Radio Materiality project, which was imagined as a web radio platform to create a hub for cultural exchange and to initiate intellectual and artistic dialogue between the Puglia region and the wider Mediterranean area. I proposed to develop playlists for the radio composed of MP3 music files collected from migrants in Bari. I called the work iTuneZ [immigrant tunes], referring to iTunes, the computer software developed by Apple and used to create music libraries and playlists where users can share their content within their households. “Z” instead of “s” suggests hacker culture and signifies piracy, free access, and sharing; at the same time, “z” refers to a state of “illegality” as the music gathered and played did not have any permission from the music industry.1 In short, iTuneZ was imagined as a direct gesture to point out an extra-legal space to listen to what migrants play for comfort.

For this reason, when I arrived in Bari I was particularly interested in talking to migrants. Together with the Vessel team, we visited refugee camps, parks, and other public spaces where bodies assemble. We conducted interviews and gathered music for the radio. Bari certainly provided a curious backdrop for my project; as a Turkish citizen living in New York for decades, it felt both familiar and remote at the same time. Defined by millennia of cultural exchange, people around the Mediterranean basin share a common history; our social, political, and economic destinies are tied together in various tangible ways.

iTuneZ was a continuation of the research I conducted as xurban_collective between 2009 and 2011, from which we realized The Sea-Image project on global waters. The Sea-Image was composed of a series of exhibitions, a symposium, and a book project focused on port cities worldwide. To research these contemporary port cities, I was hosted in residencies in Marseille, Athens, and Istanbul, where I explored the old ports and new developments along the waterfronts.

Arriving in Bari, I already had many questions. Contemplating the sea as the enabler of contemporary capitalism, I was particularly interested in the idea of freedom of movement concerning the ongoing refugee crisis. When asylum seekers cannot move further to their intended destination, they are stigmatized and exploited. When individuals looking for a better future can cross borders to an intermediary port city such as Bari, they are subjected to lengthy legal procedures. Yet, a migrant usually cannot speak the language of the law, let alone the local language. The state apparatus intentionally creates precarious conditions for those individuals by delaying necessary paperwork – essentially rendering them “illegal” through prolonged bureaucratic procedures and convoluted legislation. These temporary living conditions become permanent. In other words, the permanency of the temporality that a refugee faces only reinforces the idea of “illegality” concerning constitutional rights and their exceptions. The goal is to suspend any possible citizenship privileges.

The iTuneZ project, composed of interviews, playlists, and video documentation, was presented as part of the Radio Materiality project organized by Vessel in Bari, Italy (June-July 2013) and the 2014 Athens Biennial.

For the iTuneZ project, I wanted to contribute to the idea of radio as a transnational space; yet, I am aware of the fact that within the current juridical-political framework, local laws and legislation play a considerable role. Despite difficulties, a transnational space can be claimed in a temporary exhibition setting, where piracy becomes a possibility under the umbrella of contemporary art. In other words, pirate radio is put forward as a legitimate action against the notion of the illegalization of people.

During the early days of the World Wide Web, it was considered a free, utopian, transnational space where information could flow freely across borders. What happened to the web is a sad story. Multinational corporations took over a large portion of the web (web 2.0) and turned it into a neoliberal dystopia (Facebook, TikTok, Instagram). Yet, this dark situation does not mean one should give up. Piracy is still practiced worldwide and offers a possibility, especially when people take charge of their tools of the trade. Hacking, cracking, and reverse engineering systems of control are part of an important mission to claim new spaces of freedom.

I spent ten days in Puglia, visited sites, and attended talks and workshops; together with other artists and curators, we collectively explored some uneasy political subject matters and issues. Vessel provided a platform for exchange, defined by their warm hospitality. Their dedicated organizational work allowed me to connect with the local context; I had conversations with migrants from Africa and Eastern Europe. Developing a project in a short period poses many challenges; Vessel’s Anna Santomauro’s steadfast efforts to connect with different actors in the refugee camps and with street vendors at the public parks made a considerable difference. It was a collective effort that made the translation of cultures possible. By participating in the Radio Materiality project in Puglia, I encountered a diversity of voices and different narratives. In that regard, working collaboratively with Vessel was vital to learn about Bari and its unique context.

Many anecdotes remain from my visit. For instance, we talked to Abdou, a migrant from Senegal, who kindly shared his experience with us and let me download his music from his cell phone via Bluetooth.

I thought I would have had a family, but the world is no more the same, so I don’t think any more about creating my family. But I care much more about experience now. You are having your experiences, so I can learn from you. I don’t think about finding a wife; experience with people is what I think is important now, even if I don’t have a job and I live like this. So, don’t forget to look for the song. I don’t want to write it because I am afraid that I will make mistakes. The singer is called Pako Diaz; the song means “My child.” This is my name and my surname. I’m on Facebook. I don’t sing; I prefer to play traditional music. I don’t like songs that speak about silly things. I listen to songs from my country that speak about tradition, culture, respect, and love.

The right to travel is liberty. An asylum seeker moves light, only carrying a limited number of belongings; a cell phone might be the most valuable asset. A cell phone provides a multitude of functions; it is a repository of contacts, a photo camera that documents daily life, and a music player, bringing along tunes of the homeland. Music is a cultural anchor, and it provides an essential space for reflection, contemplation, remembering, and healing.

After I left Bari, Anna Santomauro continued the research, reaching out to more people and collecting tunes to be played on the radio. Anna talked with Georgian ladies in the park who are usually employed in domestic and social work. They provided her with a few titles of Georgian and Italian songs they love. Esther was the one mostly talking to Anna, but suddenly a group of women gathered together around her, and all were suggesting titles. As Anna points out, “It suddenly became a collective work.”


  1. In computer slang, hackZ, crackZ, or scriptZ refer to computer programs produced to bypass or disable a password, copyright protection, or digital rights management (DRM) of an “intellectual property” (IP) such as a piece of software, video or audio files, or to access private information. Adding “Z” to such action words delineates intention. WareZ groups are teams or collectives who put together an organized effort to “reverse engineer” DRMs to provide uninterrupted access to intellectual properties – such activities are considered illegal in most countries.

Hakan Topal is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. In 2000, he co-founded xurban_collective (2000–12), an international art and research group, and he has presented his personal and collective work at leading art museums and biennials. He represented Turkey in the 49th Venice Biennale, participated in the 8th Istanbul Biennial, Greater New York at MoMA PS1, the 9th Gwangju Biennale, and the 8th Bucharest Biennale. Topal received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the New School for Social Research, New York. He is currently an Associate Professor of New Media and Art+Design at the State University of New York at Purchase.