Felix Stalder on Mon, 9 Feb 2009 04:40:09 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> 30 Years of Tactical Media

This is a short text which appears in "Public Netbase: Non Stop Future. New 
Practices in Art and Media" edited by the fine people at the New Media 
Center_kuda.org, in cooperation with World-Information Institute / t0. We 
recently presented this book at transmediale in Berlin.

"An ultimate reference book for those who want to find out about cultural
discourse and practice from the beginning of the internet explosion in the
nineties to the present..." Brian Holmes


30 Years of Tactical Media [1]
Felix Stalder

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, politicl medial.
[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 

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 

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 

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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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. http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/6/6972/1.html

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

8. http://www.next5minutes.org/

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

10. http://www.bricolabs.net [28.02.2008]


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

Publisher: Revolver - Archiv f??r aktuelle Kunst
ISBN: 978-3-86588-455-8

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


Order from:

New Media Center_kuda.org
Novi Sad, Serbia

World-Information Institute / t0

--- http://felix.openflows.com ----------------------------- out now:
*|Mediale Kunst/Media Arts Zurich.13 Positions.Scheidegger&Spiess2008
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006 
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005 

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