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Tactical media. Neither good, nor bad, but necessary

Margus Tamm (1-2/2009)

Margus Tamm provides an introduction to tactical media and the examples of its use in the Estonian context
 
‘Tactical media’ is an umbrella term for various critical practices in culture – similar phenomena are also marked with the terms ‘Postactivism’, ‘Artivism’, ‘Neo-Situationism’, ‘cultural restraint’ and most recently, ‘Interventionism’ proposed by Nato Thompson in 2004.  
 
The practitioners of tactical media are mainly active in the public sphere; they work in groups, preferring temporary objects, short-lived actions and the flexibility of amateurs over lasting artworks and the professionalism of specialists. Instead of claiming the position of author, practitioners often choose to remain anonymous, use pseudonyms or act under the label of a more or less fictitious organisation. The most important characteristic distinguishing tactical media from earlier countercultural movements is that for tactical media there are no ‘suitable’ or ‘unsuitable’ means of expression; there are only efficient or inefficient ones. This means that when opposing mainstream culture, tactical media may readily apply the means, visual codes, media channels and spaces that are also characteristic of that same mainstream culture. This is the very ‘tactics’ of tactical media.
 
Context of the development of tactical media
 
The emergence of tactical media has been associated with several events in the 1990s. First, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc entailed disenchantment with the traditional Leftism that had striven for revolutionary social change. People no longer believed in the possibility of fundamental change in the liberal system: the 1990s heralded ‘the end of history’, liberal Capitalism enjoyed its dominant position and the activist movement that opposed it experienced a major ideological crisis. Since there were was no longer any force sufficient to rival Capitalism, the opposition had no other choice but to draw their ideas from the same source and attempt to confront the increasing hegemony of market economy with its own means.
 
In addition, there emerged a new social class: the creative class. Whereas post-industrial entrepreneurship made an increasing contribution to innovation, in the 1990s the art market endured a deep crisis. In addition, there were cuts to funding programmes for the arts in several Western countries and the institutional art world depended more and more heavily on private capital: for example, the Saatchi Young British Art shows and the work of the Soros Funds in the former Eastern Bloc. Of course, this was hardly helpful for improving the situation of the art world generally. A large group of people headed off to the private sector, mainly to advertising and media businesses, because for one reason or another the art world was no longer attractive enough for them. In sociology, these individuals have been described with the terms ‘flexible personality’ and ‘new bohemians’ (coined by Airi-Alina Allaste). They are active participants in culture, but at the same time they consider their professional independence to be important. New bohemians are mobile, navigating between the various fields of high and low, alternative and mainstream culture and challenging the borders between them.
 
On the one hand, such activity contributed to the commodification of all kinds of sub-cultures. On the other, it concentrated a set of skills and knowledge of unprecedented eclecticism in the hands of the new bohemians, establishing new connections and opening up new opportunities for self-expression and creative separatism. The know-how obtained in the capitalist school of life has been applied in the interest of personal, cultural, sub-cultural or political goals and beliefs. There developed a perception that communication methods developed in the tough competitive market economy are universally efficient and so they may also be applied to serve the opposite goals if necessary, turning against the dominant system. A recurring characteristic of cultural critique during the 90s and 00s was mistrust in the institutional art world and its efficacy and the new players in culture barely hesitated before they abandoned the sterile solitude of art galleries and brought their actions directly into public spaces. As British street artist Banksy said in an interview for the Times magazine: “[the] Art world… this is ridiculous. I don’t know any other field where so little is said with so many words.”
 
Some characteristics of tactical media
 
As mentioned earlier, the formal language of tactical media is not necessarily different from that of mainstream culture. In fact, it is difficult to define tactical media based on external characteristics, just as it is difficult to see a clear political ideology behind them. Although certain groups have been mainly associated with leftist movements, this is often due to the fact that the dominant ideology in Western countries was – and still is – a right-wing ideology, thus its opposing ideologies tend to be automatically associated with the left. Also, tactical media do not have a positive programme: they are indeed a resistance movement, but their aim is not to overthrow the dominant order or seize power. Rather, the goal is resistance as a process.
 
Rather than based on ideological content or visual form, it would be more appropriate to describe tactical media through their ethical attitudes and the techniques they employ. These are, among other things, based on borders and the formation of oppositional communities. Perhaps the most recurrent characteristic of tactical media is precisely that they refuse to be located. Instead of picking sides, participants decide to stand at the borders. This applies on various levels: for example, the practitioners of tactical media work in the sphere between virtual and real spaces. Typically, the hacker aesthetic is carried over to the public sphere, claiming the right to use everything that can be found there – brands, slogans, sounds and visuals – as freeware. Or alternatively, fictional events and narratives about non-existent persons are transmitted through the mainstream media, where those fictions will be transformed into seemingly true facts. They will become real and have their affect in the real world. Another characteristic is the thin line between anonymity and celebrity status: sometimes a group of people comes together to develop a multiple-use name (e.g. Luther Blissett). Alternatively, some individuals may ‘open’ their reputation (e.g. Subcommandante Marcos). Fictitious persons may become extremely popular, while the actual authors behind them mostly prefer to remain anonymous. There are dual reasons behind such behaviour: on the one hand, it helps to avoid all sorts of repressions and thus offers greater freedom to authors; on the other, anonymity is also an ethical attitude.
 
The most evident, but also the most confusing characteristic of tactical media is action on the border between counterculture and mainstream. This is because tactical media try to avoid the development of any recognisable system of signs that could be used to characterise tactical media in the way earlier countercultures were characterised. Instead, critical messages are deliberately communicated through the codes of mainstream culture, appropriating mainstream media channels. If we wish to address the society here and now, the most practical method is to speak in a language that is commonly understood and use the sign system of the dominant culture. Thus, the identity of tactical media is the identity of a chameleon constantly adjusting itself to its background.
 
Eventually, the line between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ will fade away. For example: causing a public order disturbance without at the same time breaking the law, or breaking the law (for instance, copyright law) while appealing to the community’s sense of justice. On the one hand, the aim here is again to avoid repression, while also revealing the constraints and restrictions of everyday life that are usually concealed or have become so ordinary that we hardly notice them anymore.
 
We could say that to cross a line means nothing special for tactical media; it is a common practice. The contrast becomes evident when comparing this to the solemnity and heroism that generally surround the subject of crossing lines in society. At the level of the individual, to cross a line is usually considered tragic is some way – a part of the myth of the artist and an irreversible act resulting in the death or insanity of the hero. However, at the level of the state, it is comparable to a military raid. None of these weighty implications are evident in tactical media; borders are crossed playfully, both vertically and horizontally. Yet this does not mean that they are ignored. On the contrary, the fact that borders pose such an obstacle for state structures and private organisations gives a significant advantage to contemporary counterculture. We could say that the entire symbolic battle continues to go on around the borders; although the aim is not to cross them, but to find them again every now and then.
 
Applied anarchism
 
Tactical media is the creation of grass root democracy. It is a platform for resistance, with Pavel Kropkin’s theory on anarchism as its possible historical predecessor. The acts of tactical media are mainly carried out in groups. Tactical media contribute to the sense of community and co-operation, but this is not done through institutions. Rather, a collective body is constructed – a body without organs.
 
The nature of these groupings is somewhat provisional. They may only exist as internet pages providing anonymous information or instructions concerning planned actions, and anyone can participate and consider themselves a member of the group. As ‘Cacophony Society’ declared: “You may already be a member.” Alternatively, there may not even be a website; instead, information is disseminated via public internet forums and mailing lists. In the groups of tactical media there are generally no positions and there is no clear division or roles; collectives are amorphous and temporary – we could say that instead of establishing lasting organisations coincidences are organised.
 
In fact, the practitioners of tactical media mistrust all hierarchic organisations and rigid structures; this is already inherent in their rhizomatous nature. The more it becomes evident that a hierarchy is being produced in an organisation, the more likely it is to become the object of critique for tactical media. This also explains their disdain towards cultural institutions, because these, in cultivating the myth of the genius, represent extreme hierarchy.
 
Unarticulation. Silence is noise
 
As we can see, most of the characteristics of tactical media are negative: negations, concealment, reversals and antitheses. Likewise, there are no clearly articulated manifestos or political programmes; the only recurrent ideology of tactical media is the denial of ideologies. In this respect we should bear in mind that tactical media are a phenomenon of developed Western democratic societies. This means that they originate from an environment in which freedom of speech is not a problem and everyone has the right to express their opinion or discontent with the present hegemony. There is no lack of words; self-expression is encouraged and everyone is expected to form their own opinion. We might even say that freedom of speech has developed into an obligation to respond and reveal. In such societies, failure to respond is the exception: silence is something exclusive and keeping silent already implies resistance. You have the right to remain silent… We know this phrase, addressed to a criminal suspect, from countless police movies. Such scenes indicate the link between criminality and silence.
 
Tactical media respond to the obligation to express ‘your own opinion’ in two possible ways: mute or with noise. Some public mass actions related to the practices of tactical media, such as silent discos formed by flash mobs, are very silent. People do not shout slogans, the volume is turned down, and no texts or posters are displayed. The political charge is formed by the action itself: the physical manner in which it is carried out, its context and presence as well as the determined silence around it. Among the people who apply this method is the semi-mythical Mexican politician Subcommandante Marcos. He is extremely communicative, giving speeches, making media appearances and publishing numerous essays and books. His statements are very popular. It is said that he has taken political discourse into the form of poet discourse, which – as critics have admitted – may imply that there is no substantive consistency whatsoever in his statements. These speeches are constructed from fragments of different ideologies and life philosophies – from Marxism, tribalism, feminism, democracy, etc. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to say that the Subcommandante’s controversial statements do not form some coherent worldwiew: they do, but not because of the meaning of his words, rather it is because of a certain attitude and the set of means he utilises. It is as if he uses a special keyboard with no keys to compose words: there are only punctuation marks and the copy/paste function.
 
We could say that, in tactical media, ideology has been replaced by technology: political content is either a by-product of actions (flash mobs and guerrilla gardening) or, alternatively, ideologies are merely seen as a source material that can be manipulated through mechanical acts – texts are fitted together following the rules of semiotics rather than the ideological logic of their sources.
 
In conclusion
 
It should be noted that tactical media emerged as a phenomenon almost 15 years ago and things today are no longer as they were in the beginning. Tactical media have proved enormously successful. However, extreme success – like extreme failure – is a liminal situation that imposes distinct pressures that may make it difficult to remain true to oneself. For that reason, the tactical media movement is currently undergoing an identity crisis. In this new situation, exits are sought through closure and the termination of operations, but also through abandoning ideals and engaging pragmatically in cooperation with former opponents – be they the institutions of the art world, political parties or commercial structures.
 
 
Examples from Estonia
 
Freedom of Speech
1999
Author: Mari Kartau & co.
 
For some strange reason the formerly private channel TV1 broadcast live video of Pirita road, shot from a studio window, at the end of each broadcasting day. On the initiative of art critic Mari Kartau (then Sobolev), a large slogan appeared in the camera view: “SÕNAVABADUS” (FREEDOM OF SPEECH). ‘Freedom of Speech’ lasted for seven minutes until the the camera was turned away.
 
 
Kohvirecords
2002
Author: record company Kohvirecords
 
Kohvirecords is a small local indie record label. It is driven by the enthusiasm of participants on a limited budget. In 2002, large posters appeared on prime advertising surfaces in Tallinn, featuring an image of a smiling woman with the Kohvirecords logo below. How could such a small indie label afford such an extensive advertising campaign?
 
It couldn’t. The action began when the advertising media management company responsible for the various sites attached red and yellow paper with smiling faces to the advertising surfaces during the period between two advertising campaigns. This inspired the makers of Kohvirecords. First, one of them, claiming to be a journalist, called the media company and checked that the posters were indeed just covering the surfaces between campaigns: “We did not want to risk messing with other people’s campaigns." After that, during the night, red and yellow posters with the logo of the record label were designed, printed and attached at the bottom-right corner below the smiling faces. From distance, it may indeed have looked like a single advertisement.
 
The media company was disturbed by the action, but decided not to take legal action. In relation to the incident, the Estonian press talked of ‘advertisement squatting’.
 
NPNK
2005
Author: Tank advertising agency
 
At the end of a school year mysterious posters and stencil graffiti with the slogan NPNK appeared in public places. Overnight they had spread over all sorts of advertising and non-advertising surfaces. The posters did not include any explanatory information and, although professionally designed, they were realised with the low-fi means characteristic of alternative cultures. The incident raised interest among the news media, asking who might be behind it and what they wanted to say. The Municipal Police announced that, with the help of security cameras, they had caught two persons who had been distributing the illegal posters.
 
First, it was announced that there was an unknown community of squatters behind it, trying to gain visibility and receive some kind of organisational funding for young people from the city administration. Under media pressure the representatives of the city administration promised to discuss their demands. However, a couple of days later it became clear that the action had in fact been an advertising campaign for Hansapank. This revelation earned a rather sharp reaction: newspapers published resentful articles, it was called unethical and some youth groups protested. Hansapank apologised. Nevertheless, thanks to the media turmoil the campaign gained enormous attention and was also chosen as marketing campaign of the year.
 
What connects Kohvirecords and NPNK is that some of the people behind the Hansapank campaign were also among those participating in Kohvirecords during their free time, and the media hijacking by Kohvirecords was a source of inspiration for the NPNK campaign. This demonstrates that tactical media and the commoditisation of sub-cultures are in fact genetic twins.
 
 
NOW / HERE
2004
Authors: Serge Rompza, Anders Hofgaard and design students of the Estonian Academy of Arts
 
In 2004 the Berlin designers Serge Rompza and Anders Hofgaard gave a workshop at the Estonian Academy of Arts, aimed at testing the different strategies parasitic on the existing media channels.
 
Among other activities, a small unsanctioned demonstration was organised by the so-called Clock of Freedom near Freedom Square. Demonstrators carried slogans, but there was no message, only blank white surfaces. “Estonian law requires a demonstration to be registered by the authorities. We did not ask for such permission, thereby posing the question to the system whether or not this was an illegal action,” Hofgaard explained.[1] The demonstration caused perplexity among public order authorities and raised wide interest in media. In addition, the demonstrators were invited to the talk show Seltskond on ETV, where they created their own parallel TV show, commenting on the discussions being held in the foreground. They then invited viewers to switch from ETV to Kanal 2, where one of the actionists hijacked the talk show of Urmas Ott from behind the studio window.
 
The aim of the organisers was to show that what is important is not how widely you could spread a message, but how you could do it by taking advantage of the media. Thus, it was a very successful project in which media coverage in all important publications was achieved through minimal means.
 
 
Zebra Crossing
2005
Authors: anonymous students from some university
 
In November a striped pedestrian crossing was painted on the road between the Tallinn Department Store and the Estonian Academy of Arts. This innovation was welcomed with enthusiasm because many people cross the road at that same spot every day anyway, but so far it had been done illegally and at risk to one’s life.
 
Soon, however, it turned out that none of the authorities had given permission for the zebra crossing, and that it was illegal. The new crosswalk caused lively discussion in the news media: some people declared it a sensible initiative indicating a mistake in urban planning; others saw it as irresponsible hooliganism putting fellow citizens in danger. According to the authors themselves, the aim was to “make a positive change in the city and properly execute something very natural and frequently used”.
 
The stripes were removed and a misdemeanour procedure was initiated.
 
 
Kumu / Hansapank
2007
Author: The Elfriede Jelinek School of English Language
 
The poster combines the symbolism of Kumu Art Museum and Hansapank, thus pointing to a remarkably close collaboration between the national art museum and the commercial bank.  
 
This project represents the typical methods of tactical media: manipulation of logos that are already widely recognised, the use of clichéd advertising language and fictitious authorship – The Elfriede Jelinek School of the English Language.
 
However, its impact was lost due to insufficient visual credibility. Also, it was a small-scale campaign that made no use of mainstream media whatsoever. The poster remained an inside joke which annoyed the management of Kumu Art Museum but did not prompt any wider discussion.
 
 
Freedom Posters
2008
Authors: anonymous students at some university
Printer: anonymous graphic centre
 
On a nice spring day posters with the slogan VABADUS (FREEDOM) appeared on Tallinn streets. By the next day most of them had already been removed.  
 
I was not so impressed by these cute interactive posters (“write or draw your own vision of freedom on this poster”), but the entire project was saved by the quick action of the Municipal Police who tore down the posters and initiated a misdemeanour procedure. Due to the potential threat of sanctions the campaign’s initiators, as well as the graphic centre that had printed the posters, had to conceal their identity. The city administration announced that neither the authors of the posters nor the persons distributing them were caught, but they hope to find information from security camera recordings (Kaia Sarnet, Deputy Head of Central Tallinn in an interview to SL Õhtuleht).[2] Thus, the action may be considered successful – we now have underground graphic centres secretly printing the word “FREEDOM” on leaflets and defying the prison walls.
 
 
Cross of Freedom
2008
Authors: students at Tallinn University and an anonymous architecture student at the Estonian Academy of Arts.[3]
 
Although the discussion over the monument to be erected on Freedom Square was still in progress, the government had already begun preparation works and the site, at the foot of Harjumägi, was already surrounded by a fence. The monument was planned to be completed sometime around 2009. However, already on 16 March 2008 the Monument to the War of Independence appeared on the slope of Harjumägi – albeit considerably smaller than the monument and made from much cheaper and more easily available materials than the proposed Czech glass.  
 
Since the monument appeared, just as it was supposed to look, despite its diminished size, it caused some confusion. The news media appeared on the site and city and government officials were interviewed, but no-one could explain the premature appearance of the Cross of Freedom.
 
By the next morning, the Statuette of Freedom had been removed. Its destiny remained unknown, because none of the relevant institutions wished to take responsibility for having destroyed the Monument to the War of Independence: the government pointed to the Municipal Police, the city authorities, in turn, claimed that it had been removed by Estonian Security Police. Eventually, it was agreed that the Cross of Freedom had been removed by the city’s garbage cleaners.
 
From these last two examples we may conclude that freedom is a state monopoly in our country and that self-initiative cannot be tolerated in this field.
 
The initial version of this article was published as a blog post in Artishok in March 2008 (see: http://artishok.blogspot.com/2008/03/taktikaline-meedia.html). The author has amended, supplemented and further clarified the text for KUNST.EE magazine.
 
Margus Tamm is a freelance performance and installation artist and a graphic designer.

[2] A. Viivik, Vabadust kuulutavate plakatite autorid on siiani tabamata. – SL Õhtuleht 15.03.2008.
[3] L. Luhats, Isetehtud sammas kadus Harjumäelt öö varjus. – Kalev.ee 4.03.2008 (http://www.kalev.ee/est/?news=926678).
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