30 Years of Tactical Media

This is a short text [1] which appears in "Public Netbase: Non Stop Future. New  Practices in Art and Media" edited by the fine people at the New Media, in cooperation with World-Information Institute / t0. This book was presented at Transmediale 2009 in Berlin.

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, political media. [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.


1. This text benefitted from feedback by Konrad Becker, David Garcia and  Patrice Riemens.

2. Lovink, Geert; Garcia, David (1997): The ABC of Tactical Media.

3. Althusser, Louis (1971). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses  (Notes towards an Investigation), (trans. Ben Brewster) in: Lenin and  Philosophy and Other Essays, Monthly Review Press

4. Wikipedia: Rodney King.

5. Yablonska, Linda (1993). Deep Dish TV. High Performance #61, Spring

6. Lovink, Geert; Riemens, Patrice (2000). Amsterdam Public Digital Culture  2000. In Telepolis, 18.08.

7. Certeau, Michel de (1988). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley,  University of California Press


9. Wark, McKenzie (2002). Strategies for Tactical Media. In: Proceedings  from the South Asian Tactical Media Lab. Nov. 14-16. Delhi. lab/strategies.PDF

10. [28.02.2008]


Public Netbase: Non Stop Future New Practices in Art and Media

Publisher: Revolver - Archiv für aktuelle Kunst ISBN: 978-3-86588-455-8

Editors: New Media In cooperation with World-Information Institute / t0

Order from:

New Media Novi Sad, Serbia

World-Information Institute / t0