30 Years of Tactical Media
Felix Stalder

Tactical media as a practice has a long history and, it seems save to predict, an even longer future. Yet its existence as a distinct concept around which something of a social movement, or more precisely, a self-aware network of people and projects would coalesce has been relatively short lived, largely confined to the internet's first decade as a mass medium (1995-2005). During that time Geert Lovink and David Garcia, two Dutch media activists/theorists at the heart of this network, defined Tactical Media, as

what happens when the cheap 'do it yourself' media, made possible by the revolution in consumer electronics and expanded forms of distribution (from public access cable to the internet) are exploited by groups and individuals who feel aggrieved by or excluded from the wider culture. Tactical media do not just report events, as they are never impartial they always participate and it is this that more than anything separates them from mainstream media.2

Like so many other things that are now common in our informational lives, the roots of tactical media lie in the cultural innovations of radical social movements that sprang up in the late 1960s. Not only did they begin to exploit technological changes enabling to self-produce media but they created entirely new ideas of what the media could be: not just conduits for more or less sophisticated state propaganda (as in Althusser's famous analysis of the “ideological state apparatuses”3) or as a source of “objective” information provided by a professional (enlightened) elite. Rather, they reconceptualized the media as means of subjective expression, by people and for people who are not represented by the mainstream.

Given the still significant technological hurdles to autonomous media production and distribution which existed deep into the 1990s, the first wave 'do-it-yourself' media thought of themselves as “community media” representing local social, cultural or ethnic minorities. In the US, community media centered around public access television (and radio). They were made possible by fortuitous legislation which required cable companies to provide one channel for local, non-commercial programming. This created the technological and financial basis for community activists to run a (low-budget) TV channel. Across the country, local TV stations sprung up, giving a platform to various community groups to produce programming by and for themselves. During the 1970s, video technology developed at a rapid pace, reducing the bulk and the costs of the equipment while improving the quality of the recordings and the means of post-production. In the 1980s, this peaked in the “camcorder revolution”, referring the small, cheap video cameras/recorders that became widely available. They seemed to offer the possibilities to engage in “counter surveillance”, i.e. the ability to document abuses of power. As the case of Rodney King showed in the early in 1990s in Los Angeles, the consequences of such “counter surveillance could be dramatic.4 At the same time, new satellite transmission technology made it possible to start nation-wide, rather than local distribution of content. This was spearheaded by Deep DishTV, founded in 1986. Its aim was to “do what broadcast media cannot do for itself: identify and amplify, without alteration or limitation, the voices of the disenfranchised cultures who struggle for equal time.”5 In the Netherlands, public cable TV enabled an lively pirate TV and radio scene which developed in parallel with the early public access Internet projects such as Digital City of Amsterdam creating a rich local culture of experimental, politicl medial.6 In the rest of Europe, partially because of a different regulatory environment, public access TV has played less of a role, whereas community radio, or, in the UK, pirate radio, has flourished since the 1970s. Today, the public access model is still relevant and even expanding. In Vienna, for example, a new public access channel (Okto TV) opened in 2005. Yet, the TV environment has changed significantly over the last 30 years, and public access TV is threatened to become just another narrow-caster among a near infinite number of channels.

By the mid 1990s, the costs of media production had further come down and the internet was beginning to offer a credible promise of an alternative distribution platform. It made possible to avoid some of limitations of broadcast media with their hardwired distinction between sender and receiver, which not even community media could overcome (even if they if they lowered the hurdles to becoming a producer oneself). A new generation of media activists began to experiment with the new possibilities of open communication networks, which were, by and large, still a promise to be realized, rather than a readily-available infrastructure.

They radicalized the ideas of community media by challenging everyone to produce their own media in support of their own political struggles. This new media activism was motivated by three key insights. First, cultural theorists had been calling for a reevaluation of how individuals dealt with media products. Rather than seeing them merely as passive consumers, they were understood as tactically appropriating them.7 New media could transform this practice from an individual to a social level. Hence the term, tactical media. Second, it became understood very clearly that all politics are, to a significant degree, mediated politics and that the long-held distinction between the “street” (reality) and the “media” (representation) could no longer be upheld. On the contrary, the media had come to infuse all of society and in order to challenge the dominant society, it was necessary develop new means of producing and distributing media. Not as a specialized task separate from the social movements, but as key activity around which social movements could coalesce. Finally, the media environment characterized by a broadcast logic of geography was being supplemented with an environment characterized a many-to-many logic of access.

In such an environment, networking came naturally and some of the key networking events were the large scale social protests that tracked the international policy gatherings of the WTO (World Trade Organization), G8 and similar “free trade” organizations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This inspired the creation of an international network of local media projects under the name of Indymedia which, at least initially, understood itself as the media arm of the anti-globalization movement. However, while Indymedia currently still lists close to 200 local, regional and national network nodes, it never really managed, and probably never intended, to match the full breadth of a global movement. Rather, Indymedia seems to flourish where the nodes are deeply rooted in local communities, privileging concrete local struggles over abstract, global policy.

Even before Indymedia attempted to establish global alternative media network, a series of conferences were held in Amsterdam (1995 - 2003) called “The Next Five Minutes” (N5M)8. They brought together many of the early internet-based media activists and connected them with previous generation of public access TV producers and independent film makers, reconceptualizing the whole movement as Tactical Media. These new media projects were understood as tactical because they were not geared towards setting up long-term structures, but towards quick interventions that could be realized with high ingenuity and low budgets. It was practice over theory, partly as an attempt to sidestep the exhausting debates about identity and representation that had been raging for more than a decade now.9

Such a short range approach was well suited to experimentally explore the new media environment which was rapidly emerging but was still largely unstabilized. Technology was being developed at an extremely fast pace during this hyper-growth phase of the internet, and a global civil society was just beginning to be forged. Thus, many of the Tactical Media projects where even more marginal than the community media of the previous generation, but they nevertheless played an important role in the experimentally establishing media practices adapted to the new conditions of open networks. For a few years, and mainly do to intensive networking at conferences such as N5M, Tactical Media flourished as a distinct, self-conscious practice of media activists interested technological and political innovation.

However, as the technologies of the Internet began to mature, some of the inherent contradictions of the Tactical Media concept became apparent. For example, providing infrastructure for projects is a long-term rather than a tactical task that quickly overburdens loose networks. Indymedia has been here the exception to the rule, but mainly because it turned closer to community media, made by and for a relatively distinct subset of the larger anti-globalisation movement. Publicly-funded organizations active in this area, such as Amsterdam's De Waag, either lost interest, or, as in the case of Vienna's Public Netbase, had their funding cut, leaving the field to smaller, more specialized organizations. More importantly, however, was the conceptual contradictions between integrating media production into all forms of grassroots political movements as part of their tool kit, and building a particular identity around this increasingly common practice. The movement as a whole began to dissolve as increasingly people were doing tactical media without thinking about Tactical Media. In a way, Tactical Media was so successful in establishing new political practices that it could no longer serve as a distinctive approach would define a particular community.

This makes the current state of affairs decidedly mixed. On the one hand, production technology has become even more accessible, both in terms of price and ease-of-use. With the advent of commercial hosting companies for blogs or videos distribution has been professionalized to a very high degree. As an effect, it has become very simple to shoot, edit and distribute rich media to audiences large and small. This is very good news, particularly for activists in developing countries. At the same time, the commercial capture of the infrastructure is creating new bottlenecks where censorship and control of media content can and does function efficiently.

Thus the autonomous production of media for grassroots campaigns has been widely established as a core concern for contemporary political movements, not the least thanks to the Tactical Media pioneers of the 1990s. However, its increasing reliance on commercial infrastructure is introducing new points of failure are becoming apparent as the policing of the commercial platforms is getting more intense.

Partly as a reaction to the shortcomings of tactical media and the pressures of the commercial platforms, there is a renewed interest in infrastructure among politically-minded media developers. One example is a global network of initiatives called “bricolabs” which describes itself as “a distributed network for global and local development of generic infrastructures incrementally developed by communities.”10 Bricolabs, in a way, combines the two strands of Community Media and Tactical Media, by seeking ways to network local communities to support each other in the development of alternative infrastructures for media production. How far this goal can be realized remains to be seen, but it is clear that despite the decline of Tactical Media in the narrow sense, the social practice of autonomous media production continues to be adaptive and innovative.

Published in:
Kuda.org/Branka Curcic/Zoran Pantelic (Hg.): Public Netbase: Non Stop Future - New practices in Art and Media. Frankfurt am Main: Revolver - Archiv für aktuelle Kunst 2008, pp. 190-195

-> http://t0.or.at/nonstopfuture/