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A reality check on Tactical Media?
Noortje Marres, October 2002
Discussion of N5M4's first Tactical Media Lab, at Imagine IC, Amsterdam.
"It's more useful to explain how a computer works than to explain how the world works. " Donna, who is part of a group called Genderchangers
<<http://www.genderchangers.org/>> who hold technical workshops for women, told me this during myfirst visit to the Tactical Media Lab at Imagine IC after its opening.
The point made by Donna, that specifics might get you further than generalities,
was made by many others, and in many different ways, in the days that followed. During a discussion on software patents, for example, someone (who preferred not to tell me his name) made the case for a non-ideological take on this issue. As part of the debate, broadcast by Radio 100,
and which took place on the doorstep of the Imagine IC building, he argued that
if you get hung-up on a general critique of the control over software by government and business, you easily end up obscuring rather than clarifying the current conflict around software patents. For example, it could keep you from doing something with the fact that small and medium enterprises are as
much troubled by the regulatory scheme proposed by the EU, as are politically motivated advocates of a digital commons.
At the TML the more grand and abstract narrative of tactical media, which
one knows or suspects to be hiding somewhere behind the slogan, was in many cases
explicitly put at a distance. To explore the particular features of particular technologies, to try and address particular audiences, to find a position in a very particular political configuration, this was far more important here.
Many of the workshops were focused on DIY -Do It Yourself- (or as a friend of mine put it, people left the blabla for what it was, and got down to the real work) : how to build an antenna, how to stream radio on the Net.
Also many of the discussions, in panels, and in the hallway, were oriented to what could be called a politics of practical means. That is to say, the focus was on how media actually work, rather than on their conceptual significance, on the technical (e.g. legal) aspects of a particular
technology, rather than on its general features, on engagement with people,
rather than with ideas.

The practical orientation of the TML at Imagine IC in the Bijlmer may or may
not be another example of the pragmatism for which Dutch new media culture is
said to be famous. But judging from comments picked up during the TML, and also from my
own experience of it, there was also a far more particular reason why the TML was so strongly oriented to concrete audiences, concrete technologies and concrete issues: one of the motivations and ambitions behind the project was to return to real people, real opportunities, and real problems. Thus,
the decision to have the TML in the Bijlmer was very much a decision to go local, as David Garcia stressed more than once. Also, the issue-orientation of the discussions and workshops (about "wireless", "immigration", "
women") gave the strong impression that in this TML the intention was very much to "get down to the real work." And, in as far as the TML indeed attracted visitors from the neighborhood, actually did get some people to learn about wireless, and actually touched on the stakes in current
political struggles over the issues, this intention certainly did not get lost during the event. But to the degree that the ambition to "return to the real" is very ambitious indeed, and actually quite huge, the events that made up the TML are maybe better described as "a reality check on tactial media". That is to say, as the risk was taken to go and do tactical media as practice, without taking too much recourse to a general narrative about the significance of "tactical intervention in contemporary media scapes", some important questions and problems around tactical media
were brought out.
The question that emerged during this TML as the most relevant and acute, the one that cannot be left aside by those making tactical media today, was no doubt the question about the audiences of tactical media. What exactly were the relations between the TML and the communities in the
Bijlmer, no one present did not ask that question at some point I think. It must have taken on various forms, but one way in which this question came up was this:
how to get people to visit ? The challenge of "public outreach".
This is a question that all public, and also private, initiatives face. But in the
context of the TML, it also raised the broader question about the type of
social and media associations that are required for tactical media to become
"appropriatable" for these communities. What would be a good tactical media version of "public relations", if one is to engage immigrant communities in "doing media" as a cultural and political project?
Another question that surfaced, perhaps less obviously so, was about symbolic action. In the panel discussion on immigration, Menno Grootveld asked whether Expertbase, [a database were people can offer knowledge and
services (and solicit them) anonymously ; it is a sort of anonymous competence barter scheme] was a symbolic project. Here it became clear that Expertbase performs as much a political statement as that it offers a service : it intervenes conceptually in political debates on immigration, but at the same time it must satisfy practical demands (how to deal with reliability issues ?) While nobody in the audience, I think, would want to underestimate the force of symbolic action, the capability of a project like Expertbase to respond to practical constraints clearly matters too. It needs the former to act pertinently on current political configurations around immigration, and the latter to relate pertinently to the immigrant communities that the project, after all, is for. How to satisfy at the same time, the requirement of symbolic force, and the demand to practically deal
with problems ?
What was interesting about these questions is that they ended up reversing some of the questions often asked about tactical media. According to certain versions of the tactical media narrative, TM is all about
appropriating media. But during the Amsterdam TML the important question
became : how to make tactical media more "appropriatable" ? During the TML, the tables were turned on TM. How could this event taking place in their neighborhood be of use to people in the Bijlmer (how should they deal with these visiting "vreemdelingen" that were so interested in getting in touch with "vreemdelingen" ?) How could Expertbase, irrespective of the political point it does or does not successfully make, be used ? One of the answers to the first question that the TML came up with, was a Ghanese Fashion show, in which Ghanaian immigrant girls made use of the TML to make a fashion show in which they compared Ghanaian costumes to their local Bijlemer look. Organized in the last week-end. Far from being a simple case of "good" tactical media use ("by the book"), a rather unlikely
example of tactical media was presented here: fashion, and more precisely, "the
Bijlmer look."
Of course, the above questions also point at some actual complications that troubled the TML at Imagine. Of what I've heard, the absence of interested audiences was sometimes a real problem. And the problem of symbolic action, [the problem that projects are great when you approach them as political statements, but whose practical effectiveness is not exactly self-evident]
I would say, is a problem that quite some tactical media projects suffer from. But the fact that the above questions could come up so forcefully during the TML can also be understood as an worthwhile shift in the approach to tactical media. In her essay on the language of tactical media, Joanne
Richardson argues that in an era dominated by "a politics of the message", one must dare to commit to a much more fragile "politics of the question."
If we see the TML in the light of her wonderfully clear diagnosis (plus invitation), it turns out to be a mistake to reduce the above questions to mere problems of the TML and the projects presented there. The point is rather to figure out how they can be fruitfully explored further.

The same perhaps goes for a problem that caught me while visiting the TML : it is as much a question. It's the problem of a lack of attention for the larger media context in which tactical media projects are inevitably
situated. Reference to what they do (big media) are needed to make clear what tactical media are about. But too often, I felt, the accounts that big media provide of issues were simplified too quickly during the TML. And too often, the project of making of one's own media was too quickly accepted as the effective answer to what's going on in the other media. In the debate on immigration this also became clear. Here I am definitively simplifying too, but during the discussion fairly quickly a consensus was reached on how the media deal with the immigration issue: they stigmatize, de-personalize, if not demonize immigrants. This is true, but there is lots more going on. Similarly, it was accepted too quickly, I think, that an effective response to the situation is to bring out the stories of immigrants themselves. This is far from self-evident. For example, the genre called the "personal story" is easily reduced to a cultural thing, so that it gets disconnected from the social, political, economic angles on immigration. In that sense, it seems quite important not to believe too self-evidently in self-representation, when one deals with media. Whatever gets presented in
media, acquires its significance in the particular media context in which it appears. Especially in as far as the TML is proposed to be a site of research, the development of sensibilities for these media contexts, is not something to economize on, but instead to be amplified and experimented

The question of the wider media contexts in which tactical media are mobilized, is a decidedly non-local question, and in that sense it is all too understandable that it did not become the center of all attention in this TML. However, if the intention is to further explore politics of practical
means, the question cannot be passed over: these politics derive their pertinence from the specific interventions they succeed in making in particular configurations. Some general characterization of wider media
context and the TM project here won't do. But the business of processing the output of this and other TML's might be the better occasion to address the issues of contextualisation. As this process will inevitably be one of de-localization of the projects started at the TML, it will be especially important to keep the particularity of these projects in view. To pay serious attention to the specificity of their interventions in national and global media contexts, could be a good way to do that. During a conversation, it was jokingly said that we don't really need a festival, as tactical media has longtime established itself as a concept, and as a slogan. I would say it is the reverse. Precisely because places have been prepared for tactical media in current wider media contexts, [as a cultural initiative (as " lifestyle "), or conversely, in the polarized situation that we are currently dealing with, as something dangerously close to terrorism] it becomes all important to get reflexive about this question of how tactical media acts on media. If the slogan is to keep its edge, it will have to be shifted away from these two scenario?s that have prepared for it. A festival seems exactly the right setting for getting into these questions.