Tactical Media, the Second Decade

The tactical media concept originates in post-1989 Europe when political change coincided with a wild phase in thinking about media technologies. It was the decade when both artists and activists started to discover digital technologies on a massive scale. Prizes dropped and expectations rose to incredible heights.

Let's not repeat all the definitions of 'tactical media' that are floating around. What is worth mentioning is the way in which this term has been adopted by numerous groups and individuals, worldwide. Besides the rich tactical media scene in Brazil, featured in this publication, one could think of Tactical Tech, an Amsterdam-based network of free software open source developers in non-Western countries, or of the Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan, whose Makrolab has been given the 'tactical media' adjective. In his book Protocol Alex Galloway mentions a few more projects, from computer viruses to cyberfeminism and games. What brings these tactical initiatives together is their carefully designed workings, their aesthetics beyond the question of taste. Being neither cute nor ugly, good or bad, tactical media appear, strike and disappear again. Instead of the old school rituals of negation and refusal, tactical media engage both makes and users, producers and viewers, into a game of appearances and disappearances.
The origins of tactical media goes back to the Next Five Minutes (N5M) festival in Amsterdam, a new media event with a clear political angle. N5M took place in 1993, 1996, 1999 and 2003 but it never culminated into an organization. It did not become an annual or bianual event and not even  got a legal structure or stable website. From the beginning N5M had been a temporary coalition of individuals and institutions that come together to organize the festival--and then separate. Also remarkable is the fact that the event so far has not resulted into a (sustainable) network. To some extend Indymedia has taken over this role, but what lacks Indymedia is an imaginative and artistic agenda.
There is not even an electronic mailing list that brings together tactical media practitioners. Nettime, Spectre and Fibreculture might do this, in part, but none of these lists are explicitly for media activists. Agreed, tactical media makers meet up every now and then, but rarely create networks amongst themselves. They seem to have other identities--and priorities. It is a remarkable historical detail that if you type in a search engine "tactical media network" you end up on a red empty page, produced mid-1997 for Documenta X in Kassel by the Amsterdam N5M, a page, which doesn't lead nowhere. What we find there are definitions, not a network. What is being stressed is the 'provisional' character. The nineties' Internet generation was--and still is--wary of institutionalization and love to operate undercover. The weak links between fellow artists and activists are carefully being conserved.
This publication was supported by the so-called Waag-Sarai platform. This group of new media centres assists similar initiatives in the process of institutionalization. New media may be virtual but what they, in fact, need is not a further virtualization but a grounding in everyday life. The Waag-Sarai platform started in 1998. The Dutch Waag Society, based in Amsterdam's oldest building in the very centre of the city, opened in 1996 and can be seen as a product of the squatters movement, the public access groups that were involved in local cable television, pirate radio groups and computer hackers. It is a new media lab, which is focused on the development of 'cultural applications' for kids, mentally handicapped, schools, museums, etc. Sarai in Delhi, India has a more academic background and builds on top of a sophisticated film and documentary film tradition. In first instance, Dutch development aid money, in the past mainly used to build water pumps in the rural areas, was used to establish the Sarai new media centre, but quickly other sources of income were found as well. In 2004 a second phase of the exchange started, when other initiatives were invited to form a platform. In 2004 the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, India became the third node in the network. From late 2004 conversations with Brazilian groups started, Besides the financing of this publication, the Waag-Sarai platform is also a sponsor of the Submidialogia conference in Campinas (October 27-30, 2005).
Within the tactical media context, what does it mean to create a 'global platform'? Isn't that pure ideology? Are we merely nostalgic revolutionaries that dream of revitalizing the good old international solidarity that communist functionaries once preached? On a Waag-Sarai website we can read the following, long passage: "Finances have to be organized, technology installed, content curated. A well functioning interconnected system may be the proud result of the intense exchanges of ideas, software and other resources. yet, the network itself remains fragile and unseen. it is the metaphysical entity of our days (Ôceci n'est pas une reseauÕ). The techno-civic maze always remains under construction. Networks are never merely tools. They are sensitive environments, mutating organisms where people and institutions constantly negotiate, question, argue, contribute, feeding each other with an ever growing stream of information. Networks are never finished channels of Babel. They are an intercultural grid, always in flux, grown out of a never-ending passion for coding and streaming, designing and writing. we have passed the stage of the one-way Ôtechnology transferÕ and arrived in the age of global collaboration. This is not to say that worldwide economic inequality has all but disappeared overnight due to the arrival of the computer. However, the image of the "digital divide" is a much too passive description for the titanic turmoil caused by proliferation of new technologies on a planetary scale." ( So, without wanting to be imperial or na?ve, what is exchange between new media centres and practitioners on a truly global scale?
All too easy the energy of the tactical media practitioners is getting lost inside the Internet that we all love to hate. It is tempting to get lost there and believe in the teleological development of the Internet as a 'medium to end all media.' What tactical media makers do is to disencourage high expectations around the 'liberating' potential of all technologies, both old and new, while not falling in the trap of cultural pessimism. Instead, we're looking for ways to connect the banal with the exclusive , the 'popular' with the 'high art' , 'trash' with expensive brand commodities. On a technical level this means finding ways to connect, relay, disconnect--and again reconnect--a multitude of flows of pirate radio waves, video art, animations, music jam sessions, xerox cultures, performances, cinema screenings, street graffiti and not to forget computer code. There is a lot of mutual aid in building up centre and networks, up to the point when it is time to leave them to others, to history, and move on.


Preface to the Brazilian Submidialogia publication
Geert Lovink October 2005