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FRAMING TACTICAL MEDIA

Critical Art Ensemble


Anyone involved with "tactical media" (TM) before its famed christening in 1996 at the Next Five Minutes had to know that naming this cultural/political tendency was going to have some very negative repercussions. The naming was the first step in doing what TM feared the most - claiming cultural territory doomed to house haunting archives. Once given an official title, so many nasty processes could begin - most significantly, the construction of historical narratives. So many narratives already exist explaining this ephemeral, immediate, specific, and deterritorialized process of cultural production that seemed so urgent to so many radical subjects in the early 90s. To name but a few of these explanations: strategic political movements were in a valley period; postmodernist thought had connected the strategic to the repulsive category of the universal; after the fall of the Soviets, the global capitalist juggernaut appeared uncontestable, leaving immediate micro-subversion as the only effective option; or even the growing interest in developing new interdisciplinary research methods that encouraged dialogue among forces of knowledge production.

The list goes on and is as varied as the individuals who drifted into tactical forms of production, unfortunately what was originally a long, diverse list of causalities will in all likelihood be shortened and homogenized. Perhaps there are more immediate problems since bureaucratization and historicization are slow. First, rather than being refined into a pure consumable unit, TM is currently an unruly catch-all. To borrow from Naomi Klein, TM is the "alt.everything" of culture/politics. Tacticality is only one of the many currents of resistant possibility converging at a cultural/political vector of resistance that for lack of a better term is now called TM. Is anyone really surprised? Wherever there is energy and action there is also a tremendous attraction by many different cultural vectors to this form of postmodern wealth - this is the process of decadence (not meant in a moral or pejorative way, but in the Spenglarian sense, or perhaps now the Negrian sense) in its most simple form. Within this enclosed environment of cultural and political sprawl, possibilities can appear as competitors, and with that appearance comes counterproductive binary separations and a desire for a past singularity that never existed. Again, there is nothing shocking in this situation; rather, it is a very easily recognized pattern that has been spoken about for a long time. Indeed, a very long time.

> Egoism and Collectivism

CAE would like to revisit a very old argument that flared most intensely when the Anarchist movement was at its peak (1890-1910) - the contradiction between the egoists and the collectivists. While they were all a part of anarchist coalitions, they never really trusted one another. On the one hand, from Bakunin to Berkman, the collectivists insisted that the only real power that the revolutionary class had was their overwhelming number. (A very smart assumption at that.) Given that the mass is its own weapon, its power could only be realized through organization. Without organization, and without the individual knowledge gained in the process of organizing (knowing oneís true relationship to the forces of production), no revolution (only uprisings - uninformed, nonsystematic resistances) could occur. From this position, the collectivists believed that the egoist privileging of the individual is naive if not counter-revolutionary. The egoists had carried the principle of decentralization to a point of absurdity. For the collectivists, decentralization was a social category that could manifest as limited in number and modest in locality, but could never be reduced to the individual. After all, humans are social animals (Aristotle lives on).

The other problem for the collectivists was that the egoists had no future vision. If capitalism was overthrown, then what was to be done? The egoists had no answer. The collectivists, like the socialists and the communists, had their utopia planned and ready for inspection. And how could they not? If a revolutionary force wants to convince people to fight for a social cause, they better have a final cause to show why it is in the interest of the people to participate. The lack of a utopian model puts one at a significant disadvantage whether one is struggling against a glorious eternity in heaven or the American dream. As Stanley Aronowitz bemoaned at the beginning of the Reagan Revolution, what does the left (having rejected all concepts of utopia) have to offer besides a vague concept of social justice that lacks concrete social structure?

On the other hand, the egoists had just as little sympathy for the collectivists. As John Henry Mackay argued in "The Anarchist", the collectivists are anarchists who are unaware that they are really communists. The egoists, guided by the works of Stirner and Nietzsche, believed that the foundation of anarchism was the liberation of the individual - the right of the individual to he/r given sovereignty, or conversely, not to be a slave to any social institution or convention. Nothing came before this principle, because it was the only way to be sure that oppressive relationships inherent in
institutions and social systems would not reassert themselves. The collective represented just another form of institutional oppression, especially in the way it was conceived as functioning after the revolution. The egoists had a
vague idea of what we might call a self-organizing system today (probably a variation on mutualist notions of social organization), but they had no real plans for the revolution or life after it.

What annoyed the egoists even more was the disciplinary sensibility of the collectivists. The Enlightenment "man as machine model" was seen as an insult to human dignity. Questions of individual desire had to be addressed and desire itself had to be expressed (and in more ways than "free love" could accommodate). Efficiency and rationality should not be oneís sole guides to life. The nonrational side of individuals must have a significant place in all matters of production. This was an early call for the marriage of the political and the poetic that Gregg Bordowitz has recently insisted on reviving. Mackay would be a mythic example of this possibility.

> The Debate Continues

The argument between the collectivists and the egoists seems very similar to the current division between the strategists and the tacticalists. To be sure, real differences do exist between the two that tend to reside in their respective functional tendencies. These tendencies have to be recognized if some of the current confusion around "alt.everything" is to be cleared away. At present, resistant strategy has two key interests: quantity and reactivity. (Hopefully, the latter will be transformed at some point.) The situation is the same as early in the last century. The power of the multitude is in number, and the goal of the strategist is to organize it (perhaps network it) so that it can effectively react to what global or localized capital does to further consolidate its power over it. Given strategyís relationship to reactivity it connects best to a specific set of principles that are reminiscent of collectivist action. Strategy requires efficiency (rationalization) - now more than ever (this is not to say that it achieves optimization). The speed at which pancapitalist vectors move demands instant response or else one is left gurgling in the backwater. (This was one of the lessons learned from the first gulf war - full mobilization has to take place before the event to be resisted occurs. And the peace movement is far better organized this time around due to learning this lesson.) With efficiency comes discipline. The important point to remember here is that this type of discipline is grounded in voluntarism as opposed to a threat of violence. If problems over discipline arise, they tend to occur when different regimes of discipline meet in an action-based coalition (for example, the pro-violence/no violence contradiction). Happily, this problem has been recognized, and steps are being taken to reintroduce harmony into the ranks, or at the very least tolerance.

Resistant tactics share the interest in reactivity, but do so in a qualitative manner due to their relationship with specificity, immediacy, and at times intimacy. Consequently, tacticality is more fluid because it does not have to be focused on efficiency and optimization. It has a place for the nonrational; it has the luxury of seeing individuals as more than a force to be brought to a field of contestation. And finally, tactics can fail without necessarily leading to the demise of a front, movement, or campaign. If this version of tacticality is accepted, a much clearer role is established for TM. It is the experimental wing of a(ny) given movement. For example, while the strategists decide how to construct and deploy a communication network, the tactical media practitioner (TMP) is working on the tools to optimize it. A given tool in this case can fail; the system itself cannot. The TMP in this model has a three-fold charge: to develop material, organizational, or conceptual tools of resistance that meet specific or generic needs; to perform micro-tests of the tools in the field; and if a tool is shown to be effective, to teach others who are interested how to use it, and assist them with deployment operations.

Having made these distinctions, however, we should not fall into the same binary trap as the egoists and the collectivists. While there are clear differences that should not be ignored, these two vectors can and *must* work in harmony. This situation does not require that one be chosen or prioritized over the other. TMPs make the tools, and the strategists activate them on a mass scale. Every movement needs research and development if it is not to stagnate, or worse, become nonfunctional because no new tools have been designed and what they did have was reappropriated back into the system. Every movement also needs the strategic contributions territorial mapping(s), logistical organization, coalition/network construction, and communication systems.

Where then should individuals position themselves on this long continuum? That depends on a personís situation. Assuming that overwhelming majority reading this essay are not in a situation that forces them to maintain unrelenting, maximum resistance, CAE suggests the following. First, remember that we are all becoming many things all at once. We are both becoming strategists and becoming TMPs, so itís not an either/or choice on a personal level either. One can be writing software one day and helping to organize a demo the next. At the same time, there are always preferences involved. CAE, for example, due to its own egoistic leanings, tends to work independently of particular movements or campaigns. On the other hand, Gran Fury (graphic wing) and Testing the Limits (video communication wing) worked exclusively for ACT UP. Either way makes a significant contribution. Rather than "from each according to h/er ability," it would be better to say "from each according to h/er desire." Without desire, burn out is inevitable - an experience I am sure many readers here can give witness to. Long-term commitment to any voluntary movement requires self satisfaction as well as social satisfaction. Pleasure and altruism do not have to be in contradiction with one another, but for this to happen, sacrifice must be eliminated from the formula.

> Asking Questions

Geert Lovink and Florian Schneider have recently reframed and revitalized Leninís question of "What is to be done?" Accepting the idea that neoliberal globalization is a distinct set of flows that dramatically differs from those common to the nation-state, it would only follow that new strategies of resistance and new logistical considerations will be needed in order to battle this new power configuration. The operative word in the previous sentence is "strategies." A question is only useful if it is addressed to the appropriate source. The intelligence and knowledge resources of tacticality are going to have little to offer, much as egoists had little to offer concerning the social structure and dynamics of utopia. These statements are not a criticism, nor do they highlight a deficiency; CAE is only saying that tacticality does not think in such general terms. Its tendency is toward the concrete. One shouldnít ask a cabinet maker how to build a house. A better question would be to ask about storage, and save the house-building question for an architect.

There is no doubt that when facing the trauma of neoliberalism, many an architect is needed. So many issues need to be identified and sorted. The problem of utopia returns once again. How can we design new strategies without some concept of what a nonimperial world will look like? How do we imagine globalization without empire? Negri and Hardt claim that one way to visualize it is as a place where the smooth space of the commodity is transformed into a smooth space for people, thus allowing them friction-free nomadic movement. That sounds reasonable; people will labor for that cause (in fact it has quite a long history). Now the strategists have to identify all the primary barriers and develop a general plan of action with timetables, logisitcal support structures, labor resources, etc. The tacticalists will provide the plans to knock down specific barriers in a particular situation.

What CAE is attempting here is to wash away the despair that comes from the thought that TM is deficient because it canít solely combat globalism: of course not, it is only a part of a larger system, but within that system it is quite useful. If we go back a couple of decades, this issue was framed along the lines of how can art change anything? Individual works of representation cannot do much, but flowing collective bodies of work can change the symbolic order (and sometimes for the better). Changing the symbolic order is not enough to completely transform a cultureóthe material order has to be reconstructed as wellóbut shifts in the symbolic realm are a necessary contribution to an overall agenda of change. TM functions in the same way. It is only a part of the system of resistance; it is not the system
itself.

> What Would a Tactical Media Festival Look Like?

Let us start with what the festival would not be. It would not be a place to pontificate and theorize on how to defeat neo-liberalism or pancapitalism. This comment is not meant as a theory bash, nor as a call for the separation of theory and practice; it is only to say that with limited time and resources the immediate task at hand (tactics) should be given priority. The festival would also not be the location for organizing large strategic networks. Andreas Broeckmann has already spoken quite eloquently on a couple of different occasions on why the tactical should not bleed into the strategic, so we will leave it at that. With negatives said, a more positive plan may be suggested. The main tendency of such a meeting would flow toward mechanics. The question at a TM event is not what is to be done (that is an important question, but it should be posed in another context), but *how do we produce and under what conditions*? How do we produce software, gizmos, robots, wetware, graphics, theater, video, radio, etc? How do we hack, pick locks, graffiti, build barricades, etc? The TM event could in part be thought of as a series of small workshops. The second element is to include demonstrations of how tools work in particular contexts. These presentations (intimate and individual as opposed to panels) would not just highlight successful uses of tools and skills, but failures as well.

The final element would be on research models. Presentations on methodologies for skill and knowledge acquisition that are an alternatives to school/university are essential. With a more qualitatively oriented and intimate form of presentation perhaps we can capture the best element of festivals and conferences all over - the discussions that happen in the hallways, bars, and cafes. This always seems to be where the most useful information is exchanged. Formal presentations in large halls are antithetical to this type of informed, relaxed, convivial discussion. Further, these meetings should not be the spot to promote careers or reinforce the cultural star system, and the physical architecture and the social organization of the meeting should reflect that. The space should be arranged to foster dialogue and to do little more than that. If we take some time to make a couple of theoretical distinctions, and organize events around function, we should be able to remove the alt.everything tag that has attached itself to TM.

This text was written as a response to a series of questions David Garcia asked CAE at World-Information. He was interested in polling the different N5M4 editors at the exhibition to see what they thought the festival should like this time around. It was forwarded to the N5M4 editorial list to contribute to the discussion about organizing the festival in Amsterdam


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