evolving ecological media culture(s)

Week 8: Culture jamming & tactical media


Adbusters’ 2012 Meme of the Year video

This week we begin looking at some case studies of media uses — specifically, by “tactical media” activists such as “culture jammers” and other “hacktivists.”

The readings are as follows. As mentioned in class, this is a long set of readings (though they are generally easier to read than the last few weeks’ readings have been!). Since you have an extra week — until March 26 — to hand in your critical media analysis projects, please try to do the readings in time for Tuesday’s class. Feel free to keep your blog posts short this week (and be creative, linking to other appropriate online content, if you wish), but come prepared to discuss the readings in class. I’ll identify a few more specific things to focus on in my comments below this post.

1. Christine Harold, Introduction and Chapter 2 from OurSpace: Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2007).

The Introduction can be read here (pdf warning) or here.  It provides the general overview for the week, so please read it first.

Chapter 2, on the form of “culture jamming” practiced by Adbusters magazine and the Media Foundation, will be uploaded to the course Blackboard site (sorry, it’s not open-access), but I recommend buying the book.

2. Rita Raley, Introduction from Tactical Media (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2008). Read the first half of the Introduction, pages 1 through 12 or 13, which can be found here or from the link on this page.

Raley’s book was one of the first book-length analyses of the tactical media (TM) movement, though the movement is recognized to have existed for several years before Raley’s book came out. This excerpt gives us a flavor of a certain strand of tactical media work. Raley’s focus is on “the aesthetic strategies of artist-activists producing persuasive games, information visualizations, and hybrid … forms of academic criticism.” This doesn’t cover the entire TM milieu, and Raley has been criticized for ignoring the interaction among media activists and public space activists — such as in the Occupy Wall Street protests and the many “revolutions” that have transpired in places like Tahrir Square (Cairo, Egypt) and elsewhere. We will focus more on those next week.

(One version of this critique is found in Eric Kluitenberg’s and the Institute of Network Cultures’ very useful report Legacies of Tactical Media — The Tactics of Occupation: From Tompkins Square to Tahrir.)

3. Yates McKee, “Tactical media, sustainability, and the rise of the ‘new green revolution’: From Neo-Situationism to nongovernmental politics,” Third Text 22.5 (2008), 629-638.

Read the article here or here.  McKee is responding to a critique of Tactical Media by relating it to various forms of environmental media activism, including the popular “neo-green” movements associated with Wired magazine, Worldchanging.org, Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth film (and book), et al. (Also of interest is Yates McKee’s blog.)

[Note: Before reading this article, see the update in comment #1 below.]


Further background and questions to think about

Here are links to a few of the TM interventions and activists Harold, Raley, and others discuss:

Adbusters Culturejammers Headquarters (and see their spoof ads and their YouTube channel)

Critical Art Ensemble

They Rule (explore it a bit)

Oil Standard (Firefox plugin)

Tuboflex by Molleindustria

Bureau of Inverse Technology

The Yes Men

Institute for Applied Autonomy

We’ll explore some of these and others in class. Feel free to post links to others — activists, organizations, or specific media projects — you have found interesting!

In a 2005 article on “Tactical Media, the Second Decade,” prominent media theorist (and director of Amsterdam’s Institute of Network Cultures) Geert Lovink wrote:

“All too easy the energy of the tactical media practitioners is getting lost inside the Internet that we all love to hate. It is tempting to get lost there and believe in the teleological development of the Internet as a ‘medium to end all media.’

“What tactical media makers do is to disencourage high expectations around the ‘liberating’ potential of all technologies, both old and new, while not falling in the trap of cultural pessimism. Instead, we’re looking for ways to connect the banal with the exclusive , the ‘popular’ with the ‘high art’ , ‘trash’ with expensive brand commodities.

“On a technical level this means finding ways to connect, relay, disconnect – and again reconnect – a multitude of flows of pirate radio waves, video art, animations, music jam sessions, xerox cultures, performances, cinema screenings, street graffiti and not to forget computer code. There is a lot of mutual aid in building up centre and networks, up to the point when it is time to leave them to others, to history, and move on.”

This kind of connecting takes time and sustained effort, and one of the debates among tactical media activists (and other activists who aren’t convinced by the tactical media approach) has been whether and how to build a sustainable media and informational infrastructure to support the movement. One place in which this connecting initially occurred was the series of gatherings known as the Next Five Minutes (N5M) festivals, which took place in Amsterdam between 1993 and 2003. (For a flavor of these festivals, see the Reader from the 2003 festival.)

This question gets to the debate over the role of “tactics” versus “strategy,” which both Raley and McKee discuss in reference to French sociologist Michel De Certeau’s distinction between the two: “strategies” require the creation of institutional spaces for political action, while “tactics,” being the “weapons of the weak,” make use of existing spaces to challenge, deconstruct, and transform them from within.

There are some who have argued that TM as a self-conscious and politically motivated movement is no longer coherent: tactical media interventions have become more and more common and widespread everywhere, but they no longer signify opposition to anything specific. Furthermore, they are easily co-opted by the economy of commodities, brands, and marketing ventures.

What do you think of the effectiveness of the tactical media strategies employed by some of the artists and activists discussed here? Is there a point at which political action becomes pose, style, or fashion? Are today’s rebels, as Heath and Potter suggest, tomorrow’s capitalist style leaders? Is that necessarily bad? What kinds of strategies can prevent that from happening?

What is, and should be, the relationship between tactical media strategies and the larger socio-political and/or environmental movements that they appear to be affiliated with? What should the relationship be between these kinds of media activism and political activities taking place in the public (and private) spaces of “non-media” life? How is all of this related to the political economy of neoliberal capitalism, and to Deleuze’s “control society” and Hardt and Negri’s “Empire”?



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