Andreas Broeckmann on Thu, 16 Aug 2001 22:59:28 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Garcia/Lovink: The GHI of Tactical Media

[this text will be published in: transmediale.01: DIY Media, Berlin 2001
(forthcoming, autumn 2001); it is posted on the occasion of David's
half-centenial birthday!]

David Garcia and Geert Lovink

The GHI of Tactical Media
An interview by Andreas Broeckmann, July 2001

ab: In 1997, you wrote The ABC of Tactical Media, and at that time the
concept of 'tactical media' was already a few years old. It had grown out
of the cooperation of media artists and activists in Amsterdam and has
been closely identified with the Next 5 Minutes conferences, although
important models of tactical media usage have also come from elsewhere.
And then the concept was first related mainly to video and TV activism,
which have been eclipsed in the last years by the Internet. A follow-up
that you wrote in 1999, The DEF of Tactical Media, tried to sketch some of
these changes. Do you think that it makes sense to speak of Tactical Media
as a general attitude and practice that pervades different media, or is
Tactical Media a summary term for a whole host of different media
practices, each with their own culture and politics?

gl: Or even aesthetics? No, I don't think so. Tactical means tactical.
It's a really open, short-term concept, born out of a disgust for
ideology. It is pretty much a post-1989 phenomenon, surfing on the waves
of events, enjoying the opening up of scenes and borders, on the look out
for new alliances. Curious, not afraid of differences. I am not sure if
tactical media are bound to certain media or platforms. It is about a form
of art meets activism with a positive attitude towards contemporary
digital technology. It is more exploratory than confrontational. To some
extent self-reflexive. There are a lot of rituals and phrases which have
to be thrown out in order to be able to make new start and reach new
audiences. Let's face it. This excitement has grown and resulted in a
whole new generation of (net) activism, covered by the mainstream media.
We are living in interesting times. This cannot be said of new media arts
which was at its height in the early to mid nineties. Today's activism has
profited from it, though. There is no fall-back noticable towards a grey
dogmatic non-aesthetics, which really surprises me.

ab: The 'grey dogmatic non-aesthetics' of earlier tactical media? Is this
the result of a more 'pop'-oriented attitude in activism? A new generation
that is less tied up in clean, fundamentalist ideologies? Java activists
versus the telnet-generation?

gl: No, I think the distinction is a more primitive one: online versus
offline (which, by the way, are not contradictory practices). It is not
even punk versus techno. The DIY aesthetics I am referring to here is one
which cares for the self (image), it has grown out of a curiocity, and is
done with precision. It is against the sloppy attitudes which implicitly
say that form doesn't matter anyway. I am talking about an activism with
style. Not a particular style. Having, and maintaining, a style is quite
something these days. It is hard. I am not sure if I would call it 'pop,'
because that term, for me, is refering to 'popular.' That's not what I
mean. Sophisticated and rich styles activists use often are unpopular. The
aesthetic program does not even have to be about a certain 'look.' I am
talking about a higher, critical awareness of style rather than the
correct usage of this or that contemporary icon, software, color set,
patterns or typography font.

ab: David, you have always strongly advocated a tight linking of media
activism and art. This relationship has been very strong in a particular
segment of media art practice, but it has sometimes fallen between the
camps of established contemporary art and political activism. How would
you describe the link between the two - or the complex in which they
articulate each other?

dg: Yes, this is true and the reason for my position is not theoretical
but the result of my first experience of seeing tactical media at close
hand, in action in what I still believe to be one of the most important
and effective campaigns of recent years. This was ACT UP a mobilisation
against the AIDS policy of the Reagan administration of the time, which in
choosing to ignore AIDS was a policy of silence. Artists played a critical
role in both organising and giving shape and a kind of charismatic
momentum to ACT UP. I believe it was the artist collective Gran Fury in
their exhibition Let the Record Show who created the slogan (or equation)
that became the symbol of the AIDS activist movement world wide:

                       SILENCE = DEATH

An activist carrying this statement on banners or wearing it on badges or
sweat shirts were not delivering a simple polemical message from an
earlier era of politics with its rigid command structures. They were
developing a new language for the era of communicative networks. The
activists were "wearing" a statement which required completion by others,
to wear this logo was to draw people into conversation. Not a command but
an invitation to discourse. Intimate media, a "user language" for both
activism and the visual arts. This took the rhetorical tropes of the likes
of Jenny Holzer and Barbera Kruger into a new and tactical dimension.

ab: Do you mean what Geert refers to as a 'style' - tactical media as an
attitude more than a technical definition?

dg: Yes, rather than the use of any particular medium it is this quality
of creating effective user languages (virtual or otherwise) that *engage*
and *deploy* rather than *authorise* and *require* that characterise the
tactical practitioner. The posters, videos, installations, murals graphics
and television channels such as The Gay Men's Health Crisis were not only
successful as art and as activism but were successful as art BECAUSE it
was effective activism. The AIDS tactitical practitioners, collectives
like Gran Fury or individuals like Greg Bordowitz (who is still working)
are true hybrids leaving behind the older categories to forge something
else, something necessary, something which required a name. In N5M we
chose to call it tactical media. Maybe the term itself is a tactical
solution, an improvisation that has proved a curiously successful stop gap
measure like the X in algebra. There is a text by the Critical Art
Ensemble which encapsulates what I think is still the best take on
tactical media: "There has been a growing awareness that for many decades
a cultural practice has existed that has avoided being named or fully
categorized. Its roots are in the modern avant garde, to the extent that
its participants place a high value on experimentation and on engaging the
unbreakable link between representation and political and social change.
Often not artists in any traditional sense refusing to be caught in the
web of metaphysical, historical and romantic signage that accompanies that
designation. Nor are they simply political activists because they refuse
to take a solely reactive position and often act in defiance of efficiency
and necessity ... For those of us who are involved in tactical media felt
a kind of relief that we could be any kind of hybrid artist, scientist,
technician, craftsperson, theorist, activist, could all be mixed together
in combinations that had different weights and intensities. These many
roles of becoming artist becoming activist, becoming scientist, etc.,
contained in each individual and group, could be acknowledged and valued.
Many felt liberated from having to represent themselves to the public as a
specialist and therefore valued." I can't put it any better so I won't
try. But I will add that this model and its continued use makes it
something more than simply a "short term concept".

ab: Geert, in a new text called The New Actonomy which you wrote together
with Florian Schneider, you describe the new possibilities of media
activism that are emerging, but you also point to the potential dangers
that people have to be aware of. The Internet as the master medium of the
1990s has, in the last two or three years, fallen into what looks like a
depression. Some say that the party and the hype are simply over, others
that we are entering into a more realistic stage where the importance of
the Net as a medium will continue to grow, while the utopian hopes subside
in the face of all sorts of critical reality checks. These reality checks
are also closely tied to a crisis of the general belief in globalisation
and the fast-aging 'new economy'. Does this crisis create room for
tactical media practices, or does it make the life of media activists more

gl: It is indeed true that advanced net activism (not the adolescent
'hacktivism') is much closer to dotcom business than many would suspect.
The new actonomy is open for business, constantly searching for funds,
just as tactical media no longer fully depend on state funding. For a good
reason: there is a common interest in innovative net concepts, software,
interfaces, usage of streaming media, free software and open source etc.
This might mean that the current wave of net activism will face a setback
in a little while because it's just behind the dotcom wave. The stagnation
of bandwidth is a real concern, for example, also for activists. The same
counts for the e-cash crisis and the absence of a functioning micro
payment system. Activists, sitting on their explosive content, would
really benefit from alternative e-commerce systems, not based on credit
cards. It is of course good for social and political work on the Net that
the cyberselfish robber mentality of the dotcoms has gone. But do not
forget the flip side of this. With libertarianism losing its hegemony
there is also the danger of throwing away the baby with the tub water and
giving away the cyber freedom to corporations and the state. That should
never happen. It is also up to activists to fight against censorship,
lobby against the flood of desastrous legislations etc.

ab: The French theorist Felix Guattari has used the term 'post-media' to
describe a potential system in which the mass media are pushed aside by a
multiplicity of small, heterogeneous, digital media, a network or rhizome
of practices that foster the emergence of more differentiated, less
homogeneous subjectivities and group subjectivities. Howard Slater has
taken this idea up and points out that the cheerful clutter of independent
media activities on websites, music labels, in zines, at demonstrations,
mailing lists, etc., are the kinds of post-mdeia operations which Guattari
saw the beginnings of in the Minitel and free radio movements in France in
the 1970s and 80s. However, rather than fulfilling Guattari's utopian
hope, the mass-medialisation of digital media seems unstoppable and
threatens to turn the Net, as well as the computer in general through the
software door, into a one-way medium. Is the hope for 'DIY media', which
we also tried to promote through the transmediale.01, futile?

gl: Not futile. It's a struggle. You don't get media freedom for free. And
most of all: you can't buy 'technological freedom.' It doesn't come with
the equipment or even with the software. It is only a matter of time until
we will see the first full-scale civil war, fought with Linux software on
both sides, causing thousands of deaths. Why not? Is there something like
inherently good software? No. The Internet is beyond good and evil and
simply mirrors human nature with all its flaws. A radical and open,
independent media infrastructure is produced by people and their ability
to connect with each other and create a "culture." DIY media do not go
anywhere if it just means Do It On Your Own. The trick is to create loose
ties and provide a relative autonomy for seperate units. The units can be
individuals, groups, collectives, associations, circles of friends, from
the same discipline and generation, in contact with the rest. The opposite
of DIY is DBO, Done By Others. There is indeed a danger that Internet will
become a professional medium, in the hands of others. But that's only the
case at the macro level. On the micro level there is still so much
possible, especially for those who wanna stay off the radar for a while.

ab: David, in how far can education play a role for this kind of
post-medial practices? You have been teaching at the art academy in
Utrecht for several years now: has it been possible for you to translate
the attitudes of art and media activism into the curriculum?

dg: Actually where I have been teaching is the department of Interaction
Design in a building far away from the main art school and devoted to Art,
Media and Technology. To my surprise I have found key questions within
interaction design highly applicable to the central problems of art and
activism. These are the problems of action in relationship to observation.
Historically there was a separation of observation and action in 17th
century science and was mirrored in the same period by artists stepping
out of the workshops of the artisan and into the isolation of their
private studios. But in all areas of science and culture interest has
again returned to the one area that was excluded namely action. This can
be seen by analysing the discipline of interactive art and design as
action or 'behaviour' lies at its core. Earlier forms of art could be
perceived as constructed out of three primary components: appearance,
content and structure. To this triangulation interactive artists and
designers have added a fourth and defining component, "behaviour". Not
simply the behaviour of the user but of the system as a whole which is
made up of machine AND users. In this model, the work of art includes the
whole system, the machines and the people. Success in these new forms of
interactive art depend on being able to integrate a visualisation of the
behaviour or action of the system into the work itself. It is in this
context in both interaction design or tactical media that I apply the same
maxim "visibility is not achieved through prediction, but through
support". This summer at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the artist George
Legrady and the computer scientist from Helsinki Timo Honkela worked
together (with others) to produce the installation, Pockets Full of
Memories ( in which neural networks are used
to create an artwork that evolves over time, refining its decisions in
relationship to the different contributions that each museum visitor makes
to the system. This is an artwork - and a supportive environment - that
learns! Works like these are creating a new chapter in the history of
culture. But we are confronted with the fact that along with this new
chapter comes a new set of problems. As Gerard de Zeeuw, an important
teacher and intellectual who recently retired from Amsterdam University
wrote : "Action remains the area of the unexpected, of the invisible, of
that which changes without pattern. Stepping into the river still seems as
unique as it was 2500 years ago!"

ab: For me, this conflation of interactivity in media art, action in a
political sense, and behaviour - which seems to be a form of action that
is non-subjective and driven by outside forces - is not unproblematic and
I wonder whether it is possible to get all of this under the umbrella of
'tactical media.'

gl: No. For me tactical is the expression of a nineties temporality, in
search of new a alchemy, to break out of the high art versus raw activism
of the outgoing eighties with its dogmatic infightings and
institutionalized new social movements. For me the whole idea of tactical
media geared up towards Seattle and the IMC phenomena. There's a
phenomenal renaissance of media activism going on around the globe. I was
just at the second Media Circus conference in Melbourne
( I also attended the first one, in
September 1999, a one day event, during the East Timor crisis. Media
Circus doubled in size. There were 350 mainly young people during the
weekend. Last night, in Sydney, there was the first Active Sydney Fair
(, with a crowd of at least 500. Naomi Klein
spoke and she warned of summit tourism, the crackdown of authorities
against the massive street protests. There is a gap between abstract
topics of third world debt, world trade agreements, financial policies and
the daily misery, with its concrete, local struggles. I don't think
internet activism, or tactical media for that matter can fill that gap.
What we can do exchange concepts. The rapid growth of anti-border groups,
supporting illegalized migrants, is a good example there. A fight in which
the tactical imagination plays a key role (see:

ab: David, when you started the Next 5 Minutes series 10 years ago, you
were a free-lancing artist, whereas now you are teaching at an academy. Do
you see areas where the academic system is opening up for more diverse and
critical approaches to media in art and design?

dg: Recently my possibilities in the academic framework have been greatly
expanded with the founding of the Ph.D. program Design for Digital
Cultures which is a European doctorate sited at three very different
European colleges, the Merz Akademie in Stuttgart, Utrecht and Portsmouth
University. My objective over time is to make spaces for the people,
theory and materials which have emerged from tactical media into an active
component within the Digital Cultures program. This is not simply a
question of curriculum it is a question of supporting and enabling the
researchers who are part of the program to contribute to tactical
campaigns, projects and conferences. For me this program will only be
successful if we are involved in *action orientated research*. The first
stage of this will include explicitly linking the program to the
development of the Next 5 Minutes edition 4. The ball started rolling in a
recent seminar in which I participated at New York University where they
have launched a research program on tactical media, from this event came
the notion of N5M4 as a loose alliance of rolling research groups. The aim
is that these groups should form an active network of research nodes, each
of which would be working on a specific synergy theme - ideally it should
include groups such as NYU - Sarai - Critical Art Ensemble - Open
Streaming Alliance - Technics (UK) - to name but a few. The process would
involve a structure of regular "development meetings" and smaller planning
meetings (on-line is fine but not enough - face to face is still the
highest bandwidth -) to ensure that the nodes keep each other informed and
are able to borrow freely from each other. In contrast to many previous
tactical events I favor experimenting with an approach in which the
meetings identify *objectives* and come to (fasten your seat belts)
*conclusions*.  Under these circumstances The Next 5 Minutes
Conference/tribal gathering would remain but be informed by less random
approach. N5M would be the platform for presenting the results of our
researches. The results could take many forms and be in many media but it
would also include programming the conference itself which would obviously
want to draw from beyond its own network. I envisage this process
beginning November 2001 with research and meetings proceeding throughout
2002 and would culminate early in 2003 with The N5M4 event and conference
in Amsterdam with possible related events in other locations.

ab: A final question. What David describes in relation to the development
of the Next 5 Minutes as a research movement raises the question of the
sites, institutional and informal, of tactical media practice. While
institutions are no doubt necessary for creating a sustainable practice
and infrastructures, the tactical always also seems to imply a
'hit-and-run' attitude which cannot be tied down in such structures. How
would you see this tension and how do you think the field can be developed
most fruitfully? Do we see the emergence of new, stronger alliances?

gl: I do not see it as a tension yet. Institutionalization is a problem
which only comes in time. Let's say after five or ten years when an
original scene has broken up into fragments. There are indeed people who
dig in and do not know how to move on. They are the power brokers. They
end up taking all the credits, taking the money from ministeries,
foundations and sponsors. But in most cases it's power over a dead
territory. Creative individuals can't deal with the kind of bureaucracy
that comes with today's institutions. I would love to see more hit and run
companies taking off in the new media arts and activist sector. In that
sense the dotcoms can be a good lesson. This is mainly because the arts
and culture still depends on government resources. It hasn't found ways to
generate its own income, nor does know how to negotiate with sponsors. The
result is an incredible waste of time. I would love to see a fund where
you could apply and get an answer in a few weeks time. We need art and
activist ventures. The only way to do something quickly and initiate
something new these days is to do it without any money, which sets off the
well known self-exploitation cycles. There must be ways to break out of
that logic.

dg: I want to emphasize that when I see N5M as a research process I mean
*action orientated research* not research for its own sake. To Geert's
emphasis on speed and mobility I would add (not substitute) a slowing down
to analyze, reflect and evaluate; not so much digging in, as digging deep.
Let me demonstrate with some local media archeology; I have been
re-reading the proceedings of the first event where I met and worked
alongside Geert. The Seropositive Ball, held in Amsterdam in 1990. The
project arose out of a necessity for something beyond the perception of
AIDS as an exclusively medical problem. It combined activism and all the
arts with an embryonic culture of computer mediated communications. But at
the time we were heavily and to a degree justifiably critiqued by New York
activists. This is what Gregg Bordowitz said to us more than a decade ago:
"the way the conference is organized is based on a utopian notion of a
free exchange of information, instituted through technology. A use of
technology that is unquestioned, uncriticised, unproblematised. The notion
that a universal space can be established through phone links, faxes and
modems. If there is one thing that is established through the kind of work
we do is that there have never been such things as universal categories,
principles or experiences. In future I would like to see conferences which
reflected the interest of the people with the most at stake, in which
there was some acceptance of difference that isn't evened out or erased
through some notion of free exchange through some neutralmeans that remain
unquestioned ... To me this destroys community ... collectivity." Next 5
Minutes 1 (1993), which followed The Sero Positve Ball at the Paradiso,
was to a degree driven by a desire to answer this critique. But I am not
sure whether any of the N5M conferences have yet been successful.
Interestingly I recently re-met Gregg in the tactical media seminar in New
York. He has remained a AIDS activist and video-maker and has been part of
the successful campaign that fought the drugs companies who were trying to
prevent the use of cloned drugs in South Africa (a case where the issue of
intellectual property is a matter of life and death). Gregg is still
committed to fight AIDS world wide. To me the continuity of this struggle,
this "digging in" with values other than "hit and run" is inspiring.
Personally I also found value in a closer scrutiny of the past of what
Geert described as our fragmented "scene" not for history's sake but for
the sake of making us less likely to repeat mistakes and re-invent the
wheel. Time has come to question the assumption that ephemerality must
always be a virtue. Manifestos of the tactical (including our own) assume
that we must reject the permanent, the monumental. Defacing public
monuments is a knee jerk reaction of many street protests. I think there
is something to be learned from the American Civil Rights movement and
Martin Luther King when they appropriated the Lincoln Memorial as a means
of tapping into a broadly based community memory. In Amsterdam we also
have a great example, the Homo Monument which is a beautiful and effective
public site for reflection and mobilisation. On the question of the
tension between informal tactics and institutionalization, like Geert I
also don't see tension, but for different reasons. The perceived tension
is based on the misapprehension that tactical media is by definition
always on the outside of institutional power. Power exists where it enacts
itself and that may or may not be within institutions. I know plenty of
"power brokers" who operate on the outside of institutions. Nor do I
accept the romanticism of the statement "creative individuals can't deal
with bureaucracy".  An important reason for introducing the term tactical
was to leave behind the rigid dichotomies of mainstream vs underground,
amateur vs professional, or even "the creative individuals vs uncreative
individuals". From Paper Tiger to the BBC's video diaries we discovered
that the tactical cuts straight across the marginal vs mainstream
dichotomy. It is the contexts in which tactical media are made that
influence the tactics deployed, and these contexts (and their tactics) are

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