Eric Kluitenberg on Sat, 9 Jul 2011 17:45:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Tracing the Ephemeral: Tactical Media and the Lure of the Archive

Dear nettimers,

The following short text was written together with David Garcia at the
occasion of the start of the Tactical Media Files Blog, which was launched
a short while ago. The text repositions some ideas about the Tactical Media
phenomenon and the relevance of the term today, as well as its inherent
contradictions. We focus in particular on the aims of the Tactical Media
Files as a documentation resource for the practices of tactical media, and
the problems this inevitably invites.

The Blog can be found at:

The Tactical Media Files website can be found at:

Enjoy the read!



Tracing the Ephemeral: Tactical Media and the Lure of the Archive

by David Garcia and Eric Kluitenberg

     "Tactical Media emerged when the modest goals of media artists and
     media activists were transformed into a movement that challenged
     everyone to produce their own media in support of their own political
     struggles.  This "new media" activism was based on the insight 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. 

     To challenge dominant (strategic) structures in society, it was
     necessary to develop new (tactical) means of producing and
     distributing media. Not a specialised task separate from the social
     movements, but a key activity around which social movements could
     coalesce." [1]

     (From "About the Tactical Media Files", October, 2008)

In 2003 media theorist McKenzie Wark wrote ?Tactical media  has been a
productive rhetoric, stimulating a lot of interesting new work.  But like
all rhetorics, eventually its coherence will blur, its energy will
dissipate. There's a job to do to make sure that it leaves something
behind, in the archive, embedded in institutions, for those who come
after.? [2] 

The Tactical Media Files, operating as a repository of ?traces? of
experience,  knowledge and tactics goes some way to answering this call for
?something to  be left behind in the archive?. But the archival must feed a
living stream of practice. And so McKenzie  Wark?s text requires some
qualification, nearly two decades after its initial  articulation the
rhetorical energy of the tactical has not entirely  ?dissipated or
blurred?. Though full of contradictions Tactical Media has remained
strangely persistent. In part because it is more than a rhetoric it is
above all a practice. In the era of WikiLeaks and the Arab Spring it is
clear that rumours of its passing have been greatly exaggerated. The fusion
of smart encryption, smart phone movies and social networks transmitting
and receiving in real-time has redefined tactical media from ?contingent
and local? to being no less contingent but now, certainly global.

The opening sentence of The ABC of Tactical Media (1997)  remains accurate
"Tactical Media are 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 is literally "what happens", it is factual,
indexical, pragmatic, something that can be observed, an outcome of the way
certain processes in society and culture connect to evolving technological

Tactical Media activities have the greatest impact when two apparently
contradictory, imperatives are, not so much resolved, as held in dynamic
equilibrium. On the one hand there is the imperative to ?engage the
unbreakable link between representation and politics? (CAE) and on the
other hand the recognition that the politics of representation ?are badly
adapted to an understanding of the increasingly infrastructural nature of
communications in a world of digital media? (Matthew Fuller. Towards an
Evil Media Studies). [3]

As for this Tactical Media Files  - it is a documentation tool for these
ephemeral and fleeting processes - it is not an anthropological
undertaking, because it participates actively in what it documents. It is
not a science, not an institution, but much more of a tool, an
intervention, but one with more long-term aims. More practically we want to
create something of a memory, however incomplete, of the practices of
tactical media, knowing that these practices are always in a hurry to 'move
on'. .

Tactical Media has always existed in an uncomfortable space between a
fluidity of practice that by its nature resisted or outright refused to be
named, and the recognition of constantly being 'saddled with designations'
by those who are uncomfortable with the unnamed (CAE). More than a desire
this fluidity of practice has been recognised as a necessity to continue to
be able to deploy a nomadic practice that can engage seemingly unalterable
social and political practices, and avoid being captured or co-opted by the
very forces that Tactical Media practitioners set out to critique and

CAE observe that "traces and residues are far less problematic than
strategic products, which come to dominate the space in which they are
placed". 'Monumental' works are for them the 'great territorialisers', that
refuse to even surrender space. For CAE they are the 'great negaters of
generative difference', the 'engines of alienated separation' [4]. The
operation of freezing living practice and everyday life in an authoritative
archive embraces the monumental to impose its reading on history. It is the
embodiment of strategic power and in every aspect the very anti-thesis of
the 'tactical operation' and hence of Tactical Media. And yet we know from
historical experiences that the monument can be appropriated to become a
key-site for social struggle and transformative change.

Our ideal has been to be able to construct a 'living archive for tactical
media', a task we have as yet not achieved and one we may never be able to
fully live up to. With the notion of a 'Living Archive' we aim to create a
model in which documentation of living cultural processes, archived
materials, ephemera, and discursive practices are interwoven, drawing on
the possibilities opened up by open source on-line database and content
management systems, and digital audio and video technologies. Documenting
the ephemera of Tactical Media thus becomes a dynamic open ended process
that acts upon present and future events and is simultaneously acted upon
and rewritten by these events and their outcomes. The Living Archive can
never become an immutable repository creating a stable foundation for the
?production of meaning, but instead acts as an active discursive principle
emphasising the contingency of historical development.

Based on this ambitious and probably unattainable but nonetheless necessary
theoretical starting point we accept that we can only move forward with
small steps. We look upon the Tactical Media Files website as a inevitably
incomplete documentation resource for tactical media world-wide, not a
definite repository that crystallises or defines a field of practice. It
was born out of the need to trace a rich interdisciplinary field of
cultural and political practice that was fading fast amidst the violence of
the ubiquitous real-time presence of the present and its destruction of
(the possibility of) memory.

Creative imagination requires a degree of forgetting, but critical
awareness equally requires a degree remembering. The Tactical Media Files
has to navigate this precarious balance.

Modest steps towards an active engagement

We write this short text to mark the start of a new and rather unassuming
extension to the Tactical Media Files, by starting up a Tactical Media
Blog. This blog will allow us to trace  and indicate more flexibly relevant
activity that connects to the sensibilities of tactical media's evolving
practices. The blog is also an appropriate space for commentary and
personal observation, and perhaps for discussion.

The distinctive triangulation of hacker culture, experimental art and
radical politics, and its manifestation in the streets, remains the
essential circuitry from which tactical media draws its energy. The fact
that ?new media? are not new any more is precisely the point. Clay Shirkey
was correct in pointing out that  ?Communication tools don't get socially
interesting until they get  technologically boring.? The real political
opportunities inherent in DIY media politics arise precisely at the moment
that they appear most banal to those always anxious to move on to the next
big thing.

The question remains how and where to construct a space for dialogue and
social interaction, a dimension that a living archive would certainly
require. As much as we believe that the distinction between the street and
representation can no longer be upheld, we also do not believe that the
'social' can emerge through the purely disembodied and mediated encounter
in electronic circuitry - we need physical interaction. 

Scale and infrastructures

We have to tread carefully in order to be able to move in the direction of
the living archive - we can organise smaller scale meetings, and
appropriate temporarily, in a continuous nomadic movement, existing
infrastructures, but the real challenge is to build a sustainable
infrastructure for the ephemeral.

One thing that has been learned is the importance of scale, of reaching
beyond he safety of true believers. WikiLeaks has demonstrated he power of
operating globally, and engaging uncompromisingly with mainstream media,
reshaping their practices by beating them at their own game. But these
gestures remain tactical in that they are temporary, nomadic and ultimately

Felix Stalder has accurately described some of the inherent contradictions
of the Tactical Media concept, pointing out that ?providing  infrastructure
for projects is a long-term rather than a tactical task that  quickly
overburdens loose networks.? [5]  We must be aware that in tracing the
ephemera of tactical media practices we can never beat the 'monumental'
archive at its own game, nor should we want to do so. It is necessary to
develop a sustainable space rather than a monumental one.  And this we
would argue is our task, to build a strategically sustainable
infrastructure in order to remain tactical....


1 - About the Tactical Media Files:

2 -  McKenzie Wark, Strategies for Tactical Media (2003)

3 - Towards an Evil Media Studies
     (for The Spam Book, Jussi Parikka and Tony Sampson eds., 
     forthcoming, Hampton Press, New Jersey)
     Matthew Fuller, Andrew Goffey

4 - Critical Art Ensemble, Digital Resistance (2001)

5 - Felix Stalder, 30 Years of Tactical Media (2009)

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