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Tactical Media
Excerpt from a text "Some points of departure", written on occasion of "Next Five Minutes"-Conference on Tactical Media, held in Rotterdam in 1995.
 
Many media practitioners find themselves in a rather frustrating situation. It has been decided that what they are concerned with are 'old' media - a fatal verdict in an age where the average attention span seems to be no more that 30 seconds. The 'new' media are those which use digital computer technology and of which one can be sure that in less than four years they will not only be old, but hopelessly obsolete. 'New' is, in this case, not a signifier of actual novelty - it is unlikely that anybody would identify the recently invented wind-up radio which makes radio reception independent from power supply through cables or batteries, as a 'new medium', however revolutionary it may prove to be in areas with little or no electrical infrastructure. 'New' is an indicator of speed, both of transmission and of aging. Say 'media', and the in-crowd immediately translates this as Internet, cellular phones, cable television, or even worse: World Wide Web sites.

Computers have clearly had a huge impact on recent developments in media technology, but digitisation and the politics of electronic networks are not necessarily the most important factors for an evaluation and the critique of contemporary media practice. Take, for instance, Shotgun TV, a new medium invented and built by the group Contained from Linz in Austria. Shotgun TV is an automobile video-weapon with a camera and projection unit mounted on a pickup truck. Two VCRs, a headmounted surveillance camera and a camera on the "Big Gun" give the input for the projections from a large LCD beam next to the driver's window and a small LCD beam on the small gun which also has a loudspeaker. The audio-part has various inputs for tape recorders and microphones and is connected to a transmitter with a range of about a kilometre. If the tactical media accept an inherent affiliation with certain military dispositions and traditions of piracy, this is a machine that media tacticians can be proud of. (Shotgun TV will, unfortunately, not be available for the Next 5 Minutes.)

Yet, the analogy between weapons and media suggested here has also been an important topic of discussions in the run-up to the second Next 5 Minutes conference. Is the military metaphor appropriate for describing what media artists and activists do? Doesn't the metaphor jeopardise efforts for more peaceful, more thoughtful, also more compassionate approaches in the independent media which are often directed precisely against the suppressive and violent practices of the media conglomerates and the Powers That Be?

I won't try to find an answer right now, but will first unfold some of the issues that seem important for an analysis of the function and functionality of tactical media today. A definition of what tactical media might actually be will be attempted in rather abstract fashion in a moment, and I will then move on to describe some of the projects that will be presented by V2_Organisation during the N5M, outlining their tactical impact. I will end with a defense of the term 'media ecology' which has been criticised by others as being an inappropriate and unwelcome metaphor.

Media ecology as I understand it describes an interrelated series of material, practical and theoretical trajectories which constitute a 'formation', a stratum, a spatial and temporal machine which is driven by other machines, as much as it helps to drive them. If this definition is accepted, the contentious issue is whether we should use the eco- prefix for something that is unrelated to the natural environment. I believe it is worth recovering a wider meaning of the notion ecology where it denotes not so much the relation between humans, animals and plants and their natural environment, but the knowledgeable engagement with, as Félix Guattari calls them, the three ecological registers, that is the environment, the social relations, and human subjectivity (1994, p.12). It has become virtually impossible to think nature without culture: "We have to learn," writes Guattari, "to make our thought traverse the interrelations and mutual influences between eco-systems, the material world, social and individual relations." (p.35) The critical understanding of the media ecology, which Guattari calls ecosophy, is a way for media activists and artists of enabling themselves to conduct their social and political lives in a considerate and responsible way. But more on that later.

Some remarks about the notion of the tactical, and about its application in relation to media practice. The Mexican-American writer Manuel de Landa, in his book War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), describes the military as

"a 'machine' composed of several distinct levels (...): the level of weapons and the hardware of war; the level of tactics, in which men and weapons are integrated into formations; the level of strategy, in which the battles fought by those formations acquire a unified political goal; and finally, the level of logistics, of procurement and supply networks, in which warfare is connected to the agricultural and industrial resources that fuel it." (p.5)

The main objection perhaps to the implied analogy between military and media tactics is that the military scenario described here is based on a situation of confrontation and struggle against an opponent, whereas the use of media like television, printed matter, or electronic networks often has the function of communicating, of linking, of bringing together. More specifically, the military machine is tuned to operate in the exceptional and limited spatio-temporal continuum defined as 'war', whereas tactical media are used under everyday conditions as well as in more extreme social and political situations.

Nevertheless I feel that the analysis taken from the military scenario can help us understand at which operative level media tacticians are engaged - whether their cause is the dissident struggle against an oppressor, or the attempt to create a new social form at a juncture of need and possibility. Let me paraphrase de Landa's section just quoted:

The media ecology is a machine composed of several distinct levels: the levels of media and related tools and instruments; the level of tactics, in which individuals and media are integrated into formations; the level of strategy, in which the campaigns conducted by those formations acquire a unified political goal; and finally, the level of logistics, of procurement and supply networks, in which media practice is connected to the infrastructural and industrial resources that fuel it.

The analysis still has its short-comings. It is purely formalistic and, more crucially, suggests a primarily operational function to the tactical level, while the political thrust of media practice only comes into effect at the strategic level. However, de Landa continues to argue that the possibilities of decentralising command structures by the means of telecommunication media have, in the 20th century, shifted the emphasis of military activities away from the larger strategic units of armies and divisions, towards the tactical level of platoons. The effectiveness of strategic media is highly doubtful. Just as it will remain highly doubtful whether the strategic nuclear weapons stationed during the Cold War have, on a political level, ever been more than expensive junk.

What I regard as crucial for the assessment of tactical media practice as it is being attempted by the Next 5 Minutes, is the realisation that the relative structural weakness of a tactical approach and the absence of a unified political goal among media tacticians has its strengths in the flexibility, in the compatibility with other initiatives, and in the ability to form alliances notwithstanding political and ideological differences. We will see in a moment that this does not only account for guerilla-style media activism, but for any practical approach to choosing one's path through and making one's mark on the media ecology.

Let me emphasise the importance of the hardware, that is the tools as well as the infrastructure, that supports media practice. The work of many media tacticians shows that the medium is not (necessarily) the message, and that the contents of messages can point far beyond the narrow circle drawn around the games of technological innovation. This does not take away, however, the need to consider the dependence of these practices on a particular technical equipment, the functions of which determine a lot of the possibilities of our work. The limitations of the ready-made software packages are at times as stifling for computer users as the compatibility problems that video makers regularly have to struggle with.

What is at stake in a critical consideration not only of media practice, but of hardware as well, has been pointed out recently by Tim Druckrey: "Questions of machine intelligence and political empowerment are becoming questions of artificial life and massive, albeit invisible parallelism. Rather than an encounter with technology as the crucial mechanism in the culture of the late 20th century, the discourse is shifting into the implementation of software solutions that veil the staggering impact of machine culture. Instead of radical questions concerning the sundering of ethics and the refiguration of communication, we are hypnotized by innovations in imaging and processing that unhinge so many of our assumptions about the fallacies of progress that yet hold our imagination in the balance." (1995)

Such considerations led to the decision to open the Next 5 Minutes with a programme about "The Matter of Media", a programme that highlights the complexity of the hardware we are dealing with, and of the depth of its influence on our being. The original idea was to do something about cables, about the heat generated by electric circuits, and about the power cuts (!) that are so fatal for many of our everyday activities. The programme will eventually get us there, but we will start at the high end of technological development to work our way down to the level of rooted activity. Kevin McCoy who, together with Jennifer Bozick-Mccoy, will be presenting the performance "Achieving Sufficient Fluidity - Tactics in Implementing Advanced Media Strategies" during the opening evening, writes: "The new media seem to require us to endlessly aquire new vocabularies and levels of technical expertise. For the artist who's goal is to communicate specific messages and create alternative experiences, these new media seem to provide promise. The down side is the incredible distraction and sense of dizzying confusion this technology produces."

Where the McCoys work through critical affirmation, the Critical Art Ensemble ruthlessly exposes the excesses of cyberculture as it preys on the human body: cyborg slaves, data body, and tongue spasms. The CAE suggests a series of tactics, through which these invasions can be irritated, if not countered: countersurveillance, data body infections, and electronic civil disobedience. On the same evening, and in order to offer - on a lighter note - a few practical examples, we have invited the submission of drawings, prototypes or verbal descriptions of Techno-Parasites whose main aim in life is technological disruption on all levels. These suggestions will be on display during the opening evening as well.

The warning that "The Matter of Media" tries to formulate goes out to media artists in particular who, while more readily than others accepting some kind of wider moral responsibility for their actions, are at the same time more prone to fall rather naively for some exciting piece of hardware. In a strong trend within the scientifically informed section of the current discourse about electronic art, the technical equipment (as well as, besides, the human body) is conceived as a mere shell of immaterial possibilities, as though the hardware was uneigentlich, something that we will get rid of if we can just make a little step forward, and something that we can now already ignore, just as we are told to ignore the cultural and psychological baggage that we bring into the simulations with our desiring bodies. Druckrey cautions us not to follow that logic, and reclaims a position of critique which questions its own means of production:

"The promises and pitfalls of a cybersphere obstruct some of the essential cultural issues of digital media in the yet vague hope that matters of access and meaning will fulfill themselves in the future. This is a difficult presumption of technology and creativity linked with the scientific view that a problem is not so much surmountable as it is contingent and evolving. For so much work utilizing electronic media, the characteristics (often seen as limitations) of the delivery system represent a hurdle to be overcome rather than a form to be interrogated."

Yet, this interrogation of our tools should not lead into a new form of Luddism. Seeing the symbolic and political implications of certain technologies is an important prerequisite of identifying the cracks in the system, for identifying the breaks where usages can be moulded into new and productive forms and strategies. For this the media have to be understood both as physical and technological apparatuses, and as cultural tools of communication. On both levels their applications have to be tested against the background of content, context and impact.

Siegfried Zielinski has drawn the consequences from such an approach for the activities of artists on the Internet, while the same can easily be said of other forms of art that engages an attitude of responsibility: "It is our aesthetic duty to take that which is versus, that which is turned over, that which is turned inside out, seriously and to combine it with multiplicity and incalculability. However, this is only feasible if you take up a basic position that is split: facilitate the symbolic expression of locality, of heterogenous events, in the global Net, use the Net to strengthen local events but at the same time keep the option open to do without it. To be inside and to be able to imagine what its like outside, to be outside and think the inside: it is the action and the movement at the boundary that make such a stance possible. That's what I call subjective."

Approaching a more generalised definition of media we must first recognise their inherent dialectics of conjunction and separation. To the degree that media connect and facilitate communication, they affirm difference. The assessments of such a differentiation vary quite considerably. Paul Virilio's interest in and disgust for the media is based on their function as 'trajectory machines' that produce separation and, according to him, increase the physical distance between the subject and the mediated object. The mediatic distantiation destroys the human individual's ties with material reality. Félix Guattari talks of 'transversality' rather than of trajectory and relates it to more processual, more immaterial and streamlike formations in which distance is a mere temporary inscription and in which differentiation is not per se an objectionable event.

In a line similar to Zielinski's, Guattari defends disruption and singularisation as two crucial tools of contemporary cultural practice:

"Far from the search for a stupefying and infantilising consensus the aim will in the future be to nurse dissent and to create singularity." - "The ecological registers are subject to what I have called a heterogenesis, that is a continuous process of resingularisation. The individuals must, at the same time, become solidary and ever more different." (Guattari 1994, p.46-7, 76)

From the previous discussion, the pertinence of his remarks for the development of non-hegemonic media practices that prefer to operate on a tactical rather than on a strategic level will be immediately clear.

"The many practices should not only not be homogenised and combined by a transcendental guardianship, but should sensibly be taken into a process of the production of dissimilarity, of heterogenesis. (...) It is appropriate to allow for the unfolding of cultural specificity while inventing new agreements about citizenship. It would be useful to maintain singularity, exception, scarcity, alongside the least weighty state order." (Guattari 1994, p.49)

The potential of media to be machines of difference, to be machines of heterogeneity must be exploited by media tacticians in ways that find creative solutions for specific situations. In this, subjectification can function as a useful guide-line for the choice of tools and strategies. Again Guattari:

"It is important to concentrate on those dispositions which can be useful for the production of subjectivity, and which work towards an individual and/or collective reconstitution of the self, instead of furthering the business of the mass-medial machine which represents a permanent state of emergency and desperation." (1994, p.21)

These things require passion, enthusiasm and an almost perverse kind of optimism whose main rhetorical tool is the word 'despite'. Just to remind us what we are up against, Druckrey describes the drives towards homogenesis which subvert any notion of public space and independent action, and replace it by strata of predispositioned behavioural patterns:

"Subsumed in the immaterial space of information, culture, the sphere of public action, is destabilized as a sphere of knowledge, a sphere of discourse, and a sphere of difference. Ubiquitous computing, the intelligent ambience, the wired world, only serve to suggest the clear fact that the triumph of technology has already occurred, that the shift from agency to behavior has become the focal point of technology research. Rather than liberating, the trajectory of so much of this work is to map, to record, to simulate, and to produce behavior." (Druckrey 1995)

This again suggests the need for a renewed critical analysis of the social and cultural terrain in which the media operate, and to formulate an aesthetics of media practice that is, at the same time, an ethics and a politics. Forgive me the philosophical crudity, but if we can describe media are relays of power, I would like to suggest a definition of tactical media are relays of dissident power, of disruption and singularisation.

Maybe Guattari is right in suggesting that the artist (and not only the male artist, as Guattari may be accused of suggesting) is particularly well-equipped to conceptualise the necessary steps for this work, because he or she "can be led to completely rework his piece because of the intrusion of a chance detail, an event or accident which makes his project suddenly change its course to drive him far away from his earlier perspectives, however well-founded they may have been." (1994, p.50) In any case, the claim made here for allowing for disruption, reversal and reworking in any process is an important pointer to the attitude that is needed for the development of effective media tactics: not to take anything for granted, and not to insist on stability and continuity where dynamic behaviour is required. The tools have to be melted down and recast whenever necessary.
 
Source: http://www.dds.nl/~n5m/texts/abroeck.html
 
Text: Andreas Broeckmann



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