Tactical Media

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Next 5 Minutes: Tactical Media

Some points of departure

Andreas Broeckmann, V2_Organisation
Rotterdam, 18.12.1995


"It will be a decisive programmatic point of the social ecology to guide these capitalist societies of the age of mass media into a post-mass medial age; I mean that the mass media have to be reappropriated by a multiplicity of subject-groups who are able to administer them on a path of singularisation." (Guattari 1994, p.64)

Introduction: Tactical Media

The analogy between weapons and media suggested in the title of the Next 5 Minutes: Tactical Media was an important starting point for the discussions that led up to the 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?

Another starting point of these discussions was the notion of the 'media ecology' which has been criticised by others but which I would like to defend in what follows. 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.

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.

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. This interrogation, however, 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)

There is a strict 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. 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. 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.


Next 5 Minutes

The Next 5 Minutes: Tactical Media conference and exhibition is a brief and densely programmed event that tries to take stock of the current work of media artists and tacticians, and that seeks to develop a critical discourse about this work in the context of contemporary cultural and social situation, especially but not exclusively with regard to the media. The following passages of this text will be devoted to the projects that form part of the N5M exhibition at V2_Organisation in Rotterdam: Krzysztof Wodiczko's Alien Staff, Paul Garrin's MediaFilter, and Knowbotic Research's Dialogue with the Knowbotic South. The titles of the additional programmes: Translocal Media Networks and the Diaspora, Aggregates of Information and Communication, and Media Metaphors: Society / Information / the Body point to the trajectories along which we want to investigate the function and aesthetics of media art: firstly, the questions of space, non-localisation, nomadism and displacement; then the accumulation, the structuration and the productive potential of mediated data for the purposes of information and communication; and thirdly the cultural and symbolic impact of media on social formations as well as on the individual.


Krzysztof Wodiczko (PL/USA): Alien Staff

Krzysztof Wodiczko's Alien Staff is a mobile communication system and prosthetic instrument which facilitates the communication of immigrants and aliens in the countries to which they have migrated and in which they have insufficient command of the language to communicate on a par with the native inhabitants.

Alien Staff consists of a hand-held staff which has a small video monitor and loudspeaker at the top. The operator can adjust the height of the staff's head to be at a level with his or her own head. Via the video monitor, the operator can replay prerecorded elements of a conversation, an interview, or a narration of him or herself. The recorded material may contain biographical information when people have difficulties constructing coherent narratives in the foreign language, but it may also include the description of feelings and impressions which the operator normally doesn't get a chance to talk about in the new environment. The instrument can function as an interpreter both in the sense of a translator, and in the sense of a mediator. The Staff is used in public places where passers-by are attracted to listen to the recording and engage in a conversation with the operator. Special transparent segments of the staff contain memorabilia, photographs or other objects which indicate a part of the personal history of the operator and which may be used to introduce a conversation about the operator's background.

With this instruments, Wodiczko approaches the question of art and media from the perspective of interpersonal communication. He devises a performative technological design that is not directed at the transmission of general information to large and often indistinct public audiences, but that allows individuals who are normally silenced and deprived of the possibility of speech by their living circumstances, to communicate about themselves and make themselves be heard. Wodiczko's project - which has previously been realised in Paris, Helsinki, Stockholm, Warsaw, and New York - encompasses the video recording sessions, the presentation of the taped material, and the ensuing conversations with passers-by or addressees, and thus not only serves to draw attention to specific marginal groups, but also helps them to concretise mentally their own displacement, to construct themselves and to recognise their own complexity. Each story is different, each migrant has her or his own particular fate and way of handling it, but because they are all up against the same system of borders, of institutions and administrators, of residency permits, of migration laws whose main purpose is to prevent migration, and legal insecurity, their lives are forced into patterns which are then often interpreted as 'typical', further fuelling existing xenophobia.

The Alien Staff project instigates a communicative performance which is set against the stereotypification and silencing to which many migrants are subjected. It offers individuals an opportunity to remember and retell their own story and to confront people in the country of immigration with this particular story. The Staff helps to re-subjectify the migrant who is often perceived as the representative of a homogenous group of problematic individuals, he or she can reaffirm their own subjectivity and communicate this affirmation to others who in turn are confronted with the problems of migration and with the images that migrants have of the receiving country. Thus the Staff also becomes a mirror for the receiving society, revealing aspects of its 'unconscious'. The Staff operators do this not as representatives of 'the migrants', but as representatives of themselves. Beyond its actual content, their performance symbolises the disparity and individuality of what is too often considered as a generalisable set of problems.


Paul Garrin (US): MediaFilter

While Wodiczko's Alien Staff addresses the question of tactical media from the perspective of personal communication by and with migrants in the diaspora, the electronic and computer networks offer media structures which allow for the development of translocal communication. They have the potential for maintaining the ties between dispersed communities, and for forging links between newly emerging translocal communities. Their success strongly relies on the degree of accessibility that can be achieved to these networks, and on the amount of freedom that the users have in shaping the network architectures according to their own needs.

We have chosen the World Wide Web site MediaFilter, set up by a team around the New York art activist Paul Garrin, as an example for the different layers and modes of communication that such networks can support. MediaFilter provides information and facilitates communication about and for politically tense areas, including war zones, it offers analyses of current political developments, and supports various initiatives of political and art activism. A current focus lies on the situation in former Yugoslavia, where MediaFilter cooperates with the Zagreb-based Zamir network that has maintained communication channels across Yugoslavia via the German Zerberus server of the group Foebud in Bielefeld, and with the periodical arkzin, one of the few remaining independent media in the area. The site is thus a forum for discussion, for making contact, and a switchboard between a variety of information channels.

Mediafilter articulates the close relation between art, media, technology, and political action. It creates an actual site on the WWW which allows for meetings, communication and information exchange which would otherwise be impossible. The presentation of MediaFilter during the N5M will be in the form of an information centre on the first floor of the V2_Building. A number of computer terminals will be available for visiting the internet site and its links. Via cable and satellite dish, connections will be made with local, national and international tv and radio channels, and an on-site juxtaposition of different communication media (newspaper, tv, telephone, etc.) will make it possible to explore the functions of and the relations between those media. In a series of presentations, workshops, live and on-line discussions and events, we will deal with the relation between different communication channels, information and political action.

While investigating the potentials of using the WWW for dissident political and artistic activities, the Next 5 Minutes will also continuously have to raise the question of the dialectics of power that invades any kind of political activity but seems to be particularly urgent with regard to electronic networks for whose usage we are highly dependent on commercial and other, official support. Rather than seeking a 'clean' position, we must probably revert to continuous self-criticism as regards the 'tactical ambiguities' of our work. Designs and practices are needed which can subvert the homogenising, molarising currents to which work in such a charged mediatic environment is often prone. And the readiness to give up projects whose impact turns out to be counter-productive. In a conflict of ethics, aesthetics and material survival, this latter point is extremely difficult where funding sources demand the delivery of an end product that is in accordance with the proposed project. Tactical media practice should mine the advantage of flexibility, of mutability and speed, with which it can adapt to new circumstances and new insights. In an age of residual humanism, however, radicality must start with self-scrutiny.


Knowbotic Research+cF (D/A): Dialogue With The Knowbotic South

The Cologne-based artists group Knowbotic Research+cF have developed an installation that uses global electronic networks and data bases for the creation of "a public knowledge space for a potential dialogue about potential nature." In Dialogue with the Knowbotic South they assemble information about Antarctica, available from networked computer sites, by means of knowbots, i.e. dynamic interfaces in computer-based networks. In the physical installation of DWTKS, the collected information is visualised and made accessible by a variety of media: a head-set which allows the visitor to navigate to a virtual information space and access the represented data files; a large projection screen on which the collected information is represented in the form of 'clouds' of pixels; a temperature zone that translates data from meteorological stations in Antarctica into streams of conditioned air; light pads on the floor which indicate the current temperature streams in selected icebergs as recorded by measuring stations. Thus, the knowbots "facilitate sensory experiences of yet vague events in data landscapes."

DWTKS allows the visitor and user to witness an interaction between the actual, the virtual, and the hypothetical. The project traces the emergence of new aesthetic fields through shifting technological and cultural parameters, and offers an analysis of the structures and constructions in informational spaces. In the context of the N5M, DWTKS will serve as a prototypical example of how such informational spaces are ordered, how they are being used, and how they might be deployed strategically. The presentation consists of multiple layers - the agency of the knowbots on the electronic networks; the interaction between exterior scientific sources and the newly created DWTKS data bank about the Antarctic; the interactive interfaces on the computer and projection screens; and the installation which transposes specific types of information into artificial phenomena that can be experienced by the human senses. The project makes it possible to explore the notion of mediatic interactivity in a non-linear and dynamic environment. It raises crucial questions about the relation between human and machine intelligence, and about the relation between information, knowledge, and perception.

In a yet rather tentative fashion I would like to suggest that it might be here, in relation to machine agency rather than human agency, that we can start addressing the power question with regard to the media. In human-human relations the question of power is frequently obscured by the understandably large impact of emotional investment that we have in asymmetrical power relations. Perhaps it is the idealist philosophical tradition that still makes us think that 'power enjoys repression', and that it is important to hate your own or somebody else's oppressor. Would it make sense to suggest that power - as it appears here in the form of deliberate visual representations which inform a certain perception and understanding of nature - is a line of force that is generated in a socio-technical aggregate? That its effects are culturally and morally arbitrary? And that it is therefore necessary to develop both technical and cultural critiques of particular aggregates without being blinded by prejudice against certain lines of themes and products? If this was a useful model for thinking about mediated power, it might also become possible to develop from here an analysis of the tactical impact of knowbots.

The disruptive strategies that Knowbotic Research themselves seek to engineer are based on the contention that in the contemporary situation it is technology which forms the primary basis of radical agency:

"We believe that technology, the processual landscape of actions and their mediatisation, is the primary nature which we know and through which we can act. Transcendence can, joyfully, be rejected in order really to be able to play with contingency. (...) In order to reach one's own parameters one has to reconstruct the things, meanings and contexts accordingly. To extend communicative perspectives one has to find and invent places of a new art. Today these are more likely to be places of temporary intensity than institutions of permanence."

There seems to be a productive conjunction between this decentering approach to art and the invention of new strategies for media practice on the one hand, and the reconstitution of subjectivity described earlier with reference to Guattari on the other. Both take a decisive departure from a concept of subjectivity which would imply that the kernel of truth and reality resides with the continuous human subject, and suggest an active and transgressive play at the boundary of the known terrains of life, reality and humanity. The affirmation of singularity implies giving up the insistence on wanting to maintain that what we are. Siegfried Zielinski claims that subjectivity is the very product of such transgression which becomes a prerequisite of the project proposed by Guattari:

"What we need are models of working toward, models of intervention, of operation (opis=fortune, riches). This is what taking action at the boundary, that which I call subjective, targets: strong, dynamic, nervous, definitely processual aesthetic constructions, as for example, the unclosed bodies of knowledge of Knowbotic Research, are introduced into the Net, not in order to assume a virtual identity there that can then be retrieved in this or that state, but to demonstrate the impossibility of constructing identity through the exchange of pure symbols. The deficits that these constructions exhibit, namely that, quasi reeling, they have lost their connection to the real, is that which needs to be developed as their strength: they produce new, autonomous realities - in the case of Knowbotic Research, this is at the boundary between art, politics and natural science - that, daydream-like, develop beside our experiences and our experience into constructs of the mind, visionary models, precipitating meaningful interference with order, turbulence but also inertia, they irritate, they help to make greater complexity imaginable." (Zielinski, 1995)


Economy / Ecology / Subjectivity

This brings me back to the discussion about the media ecology which was left incomplete earlier. Félix Guattari insists that the concept of ecology does not only refer to nature - "The connotation of ecology should cease to be connected with the image of a small minority of nature-lovers and specialist-bureaucrats. It questions the entirety of the subjectivity and power formations of capitalism." (Guattari 1994, p.51) Therefore, the current ecological crisis does not only affect the natural environment, but it is a crisis of social, political and cultural dimension which requires a complete reorientation of the aims of the production of material and immaterial goods. "This revolution must therefore not only concern the relationships between the visible and large-size forces, but must also affect the micro-areas of feelings, of intelligence and of desires." (p.13)

The defense of the concept of a media ecology, then, takes its departure from the claim that we have to understand our work as a subset of activities that seek to tackle the crisis in a productive and differentiating way. The Alien Staff, MediaFilter and DWTKS projects define three exemplary positions within this ecology that take on specific 'sore points' and suggest aesthetic and communicative solutions in which the potential of tactical media as machines of dissident power can be tested. What Guattari outlines as the 'logics of intensities' might be taken as the programmatic starting point for an aesthetics of intensities which, given its transitory, deterritorialising and singularising nature, might be an aesthetics appropriate for the tactical media:

"The logics of intensities (...) is not only relevant for human subjects unified in their corporeality, but also for all partial bodies in the psychoanalytic sense, i.e. the transitory objects (Winnicot), the institutional corporations (the 'group subjects'), the faces, landscapes, etc. While the logics of discursive totalities aims at focussing on the abjects themselves, the logics of intensities - which could also be called the ecological logics - only considers movement, the intensity of evolutionary processes. The processual which I here contrast with the systemic or the structural, aims at an existence which is, at the same time, about to constitute and define itself, and to dissolve its self-definition (to 'deterritorialise' itself). These processes of 'becoming' or of 'being born' only relate to specific expressive parts which have finished with merely being tied in in a summary fashion, and which have begun to work at their own costs and to ban their referential frameworks, in order to manifest themselves in favour of existential signs and processual lines of movement." (Guattari 1994, p.38)


Conclusion: A New Media Ecology

The great challenge of the 1990s for our thinking is that we can see a new regime emerging in the domain of media ecology. The electronic networks, especially the internet, have opened up a huge field of interaction which partly replaces and partly enhances the functions of the old media. Generating, distributing, accessing and deploying information, or media contents in general, have all taken on different forms and trajectories. We first need to learn what the structures, the possibilities and the limitations of this new ecology are, in order then to be able to understand the agency of information which we are dealing with.

The question of how power functions in this socio-mediatic environment is of great importance. The way we have learned to understand power is modelled on linear, mostly one-dimensional formations structured according to the series: power - repression - resistance - object. Getting a grasp on one of the channels through which power is exerted, like a radio channel, was always a crucial strategy of resistance. The question now is in how far such power structures are being changed through the formations of the electronic networks, how power concentrations are reconfigured, and how institutions and structures are reorganised. Furthermore, we have to ask how we conceive of power as a line of force in a hypermediatic environment. What would a non-linear notion of power imply for the conception of tactical media? Such questions will necessitate a reconsideration of our own agency and its goals, as well as the development of new strategies of appropriation.


Bibliography and Hypertext References

Timothy Druckrey: "Wild Nature, Free Radicals, and The Nerve Sell...." Lecture held at the DEAF95 Symposium, 24 November 1995, Rotterdam, cf http://www.v2.nl/DEAF/Symposium/druckrey.txt.html

Félix Guattari: Les trois écologies. Paris: Éd. Galilée, 1989 (German ed. Wien: Passagen Verlag, 1994)

-: Ästhetik und Maschinismus. Texte zu und von Félix Guattari. (H. Schmidgen, ed.) Berlin: Merve, 1995

Knowbotic Research: In: Medien.Kunst.Passagen, 3/94: Nonlocated Online

Manuel de Landa: War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books/Swerve Editions, 1991

Siegfried Zielinski for Paris Revue Virtuelle (1995), http://www.khm.uni-koeln.de/~mem_brane/

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