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”?



  1. Okay, here’s an update: Because the readings are long this week, let’s make the McKee reading optional. We will read and discuss it when we get to the “ecomedia” topic later in the course. (So feel free to read it now; it won’t be wasted.) Our focus this week will be on tactical media in general, and culture jamming more specifically.

  2. I think it was very interesting that the chapter in Harold’s book explicitly points out that without the creative time and energy that large corporations invest in ad campaigns; the Adbusters campaigns themselves would be wildly less effective. Harold uses the phrase, “…using the master’s own very expensive and shiny tools to dismantle the master’s house.” Which I think is a pretty accurate description of the Adbusters movement on to large media advertising. Without the bright, flashy techniques of the ads themselves, Adbusters would never be able to draw attention to the underlying problems of the consumer product itself. That being said, I think that Adbusters has done an effective job in creating an awareness and interest in finding the “bigger picture” behind common consumer goods, but I don’t think the consumer is given much credit by consumer driven corporations, or by tactical media culture jamming groups. I am not suggesting that all consumers deserve consumer credit, and I think most of us don’t take the time that we need to when evaluating our purchasing, however, it seems like pushing ideas and beliefs onto consumers is something that is happening at both ends of the spectrum. It seems that consumers will forever be fed ideas and desires that they will assume as their own, and Adbusters is pushing an alternative message, but it is still pushing a message. In the very beginning of the chapter, the author talks about Adbusters’ attempts at giving high school students a “caustic rhetoric and provocative images meant to fuel homegrown dissent against marketing culture.” I know that in high school, I was even more impressionable than I am now. These seems like the same time of media marketing that is pushed onto little kids at a young age to help create bran consciousness. This almost seems like taking impressionable minds, and filling them with ideas that Adbusters’ deemed necessary. I wonder if it is possible for a consumer at any level to generate their own views and opinions without being influenced by either end of the advertising spectrum.

    • I think consumers might not be able to generate their own views or opinions without advertising influence unless they are totally removed from society. There is only so far our conscious choice to avoid advertisements can take us in our modern society. If I go for a walk downtown, there are hundreds of advertisements and calls for my business that I may or may not even notice. And even if we live in a rural area and are barely exposed to this, we’re influenced by other people around us, and they consciously or subconsciously have been influenced by advertising. As Harold was talking about, brand-marketing and selling an image is the primary way that businesses operate today. Think about a product as innocuous as Coca-Cola: it’s pretty much carbonated water with lots of sugar. But through selling an image of “happiness in every can”, and associating good times with drinking Coke, they get it to be sold.

      I think part of freeing ourselves (to the extent that we can) from the saturation of the marketplace and our consciousnesses by brands and images, including those peddled by groups like Adbusters, is finding shared positive images. As Harold said of Adbuster’s style of critiquing market culture, “it reduces persuasive opportunity to a simple encouragement of consumers to finally see clearly and resist the marketing charlatans. It does not offer a new locus for the desires the market currently seems to satisfy – desires for community, identity, and beauty, for example.” Perhaps the sort of work Adbusters does is more geared towards making people DISsatisfied with business-as-usual, which can be helpful and necessary as long as this “countercultural” resistance isn’t seen as the be-all end-all of the movement.

  3. Although there were some good in Harold’s chapter 2 on Adbusters, I have a hard time fully agreeing with his thesis. I agree that particularly Adbusters has possibly become so immersed in culture-jamming and parody, that they themselves have become a culture of opposition. At the same time, this can be said of any group, company, or idea. Nothing is truly original, and even those who reject an idea have taken part in the group of other “idea rejecters.” To a certain extent Adbuster’s is effective. Media literacy is extremely important, and if they are able to read in between the lines for some audiences who normally wouldn’t see the truth, this can be an effective activism tool. In addition, although satire and parody tend to have a cynical vibe, I have personally always found it to be clever. To me, cleverness is a motivating factor, it’s something that makes me laugh a little and gets me fired up to research more on a topic or get more involved.

    I know that a group is doing a project on culture-jamming and anonymous CAE artists like Banksy for their critical analysis, but I have been following his work for a while, so I find it worth mentioning in my post briefly. His work definitely creates this idea/following/culture of “cool” mentioned in the Harold piece. Some may say his art is pointless and quotes like from Michael Hugh Anderson, “You self-righteous, self-important wretches! You high-and-mighty crapmongers!…What precisely do you suggest we all do? Any helpful suggestions at all” might seem to be a response he’d get about his work. But I disagree. I find his work to be very successful. The political/social/environmental issues he projects in his work reach an audience of followers that might have never been exposed to that information otherwise. For this reason alone I find street art in the form of culture-jamming and CAE to be crucially important.

    Here are links to two of his pieces

    Called Pier Pressure, in response to an oil spill


    Called Pet Shop, about animal cruelty and the industrial meat industry

    Lastly, I think that art is a fantastic tactic for a movement/rally/protest. It cannot be the only tactic for success, however it is a vital component. Visual stimulation can intensely affect human emotion, and the combination of art (graphic, 3D/installation, or fine arts) in media and movements can be a crucial catalyst for creating change. It can be a tool for uniting people towards an issue, uniting a community, or causing attention to an issue for the public.

    The idea of using culturally recognized images to relay an idea does not always have to be in a parody form. For example, (one of my MOST favorite artists) Candy Chang uses the familiar image of “Hello My Name Is” sticker to create awareness on an abandoned community of New Orleans.


    or http://candychang.com/neighbor-doorknob-hanger/

    ^ which takes the recognized “Do Not Disturb” sign and creates projects for connecting neighbors and creating community. This could be seen as culture jamming for it’s using the idea of “Do Not Disturb” to critique our societies tendency to be too individualistic, every-man-for-themselves, and uninvolved in building social capital (only economic capital). However, it approaches this issue in a positive and much lighthearted way.

  4. I find both Katie’s and Diego’s ideas about the power and efficacy of groups like adbusters fascinating. Is Adbusters is simply employing the same techniques that large ad companies do and is thus just as bad? Do we have to completely disassociate from advertising and media in general in order to “escape” and “be free”?

    Christine Harold’s article “Legacies of Tactical Media” focuses on the barrage of new media forms and the plethora and overwhelming force of voices on the internet. Although the internet has seemingly democratized media and advertising in many ways, it has only lead to a more complex and tangled mess of ideas.

    Groups that seek to reduce the effects of advertising by using more advertising and mass media are, in my opinion, only contributing to constant buzz of the internet and the indecipherable cloud of information within it. Furthermore, by using fire to fight fire, they are only contributing to the overall strength of the internet as an advertising force.

    The way to combat and undermine mainstream media, advertising and ideas has not changed since the days of Socrates. Education and a healthy skepticism is the only true antidote to advertising. If groups like adbusters really want to help the public and resist advertising, maybe they should promote education rather than counter culture. If someone is well informed and well read they will hopefully put thought into their decisions and be less easily swayed by obvious marketing schemes.

    I think the articles we read for this week give way to much credit to the power of advertising and make it out to be some ominous force that controls us all, when in fact, it only has as much power as we let it if we just stop to think about our actions.

    • Every point I have read in this thread has made me say, “I was just going to say that!” Which excites me. I like Max’s suggestion that skepticism and education are the way out, and this leads me to a few points that interested me from the Adbusters website itself (https://www.adbusters.org/).

      Their storefront page is titled “culture shop”, which I think speaks to Adbusters parodying its own complicity in consumerism, as if to say, “Because we are warning you that we are capitalists instead of lying to you and saying we aren’t, it’s all ok. Now buy our stuff.” Clicking the link, we find a number of products that really speak to contradictions outlined in Harold’s chapter. In one section we see the Media Literacy Kit, with a description: “Hey Teachers, inspire your students to think critically about the world around them.” This is a promising product, and yet it is still a PRODUCT.

      Then there is the Corporate America Flag, whose 50 stars have been replaced by corporate logos; the tragic message underlying this product’s description, “Wave this classic 2’x3′ flag at a protest or hang it on your wall”, is that we still need to consume in order to have identity. The same goes for the Blackspot Shoes, “Earth-friendly, anti-sweatshop and cruelty-free, Blackspots are the only shoes designed to give big business a swift kick in the brand. In 3 different styles.” Again, it is hard to say whether Adbusters is tacitly parodying marketing styles with this blatant catcalling, or if they have given in to the notion that every product needs to serve a niche if it is going to be worth producing.

      Ultimately, what I am realizing is that the only way to truly opt out of consumer culture is to STOP CONSUMING. If you want a pair of sweatshop free shoes, perhaps you have to make them yourself (a difficult reality to manifest, but one worth imagining). Otherwise, you run the risk of propping up a tradition of consumerism in the name of anti-consumerism, rather than opting out and trying your own model. If you want a protest flag, you’re going to have to make one yourself–the message will be made clear that you are more than the sum of your expenditures.

      One last point: we know that a major tenet of the Zapatista movement is to avoid the cult of personality, the organization of priorities and goals around the whims of a figurehead or leader who claims to speak for those who support him. Our major criticism of modern corporations is that they have shifted from production of useful goods to the manufacturing of brands, so that every product is fortified by a cult of personality; this personality, however, is not a real person, like a dictator or CEO, but an imagined version of the person that the consumer wants to be. By the same token, I conclude that Adbusters has failed at being anti-capitalist because they have produced an anti-capitalist personality, a hypothetical “cool guy” who is cool because he buys their products and worships their message. I don’t know exactly how a magazine set on disseminating anti-marketing ideals can successfully reach the masses without marketing, but perhaps they could take a lesson from Subcomandante and stop trying to be the One Rightful Bearer of Anti-Capitalist Truth.

    • I definitely agree with Zach and will say that I am on the same track as the posts above. I am very pleased that Max mentioned education and skepticism instead of removing oneself entirely from society, because it really doesn’t seem like a viable option for all but a few and I personally don’t think it would change much. As a psychology major I kind of go into all of these articles with the psych lenses on, and I have to say that when it feels as though someone is arguing that the media this big influencing monster and the world would be so much better off with out it, I end up kind of annoyed. We are designed in our method of thought and functioning to draw from experiences around us. If the media wasn’t present we would be focusing on and taking from those around us (which in some cases is no better than an advertisement). I would argue that even the person who takes off into the woods will still come back having been affected and changed by what he saw/did/experienced. There is no way to shut off the human brain and so why not stimulate it positively with education to help build a more critical filter for things such as advertisements?

      • My favorite quote from Harold’s chapter 2 is from Neil Postman an NYU professor. He states that “information has become a form of garbage…Our defenses against the information glut have broken down; our information immune system is inoperable”.

  5. The following video was created by Greenpeace in order to promote its campaign against Asian Pulp and Paper, a paper company that Disney, Mattel, and Hasbro all use in order to manufacture their packaging. I believe it is a great example of what Harold mentions in his introductory chapter.

    I really like Diego’s first sentence in his post, “I think consumers might not be able to generate their own views or opinions without advertising influence unless they are totally removed from society.” Although I do not believe one has to be completely removed from society, I do think that Adbusters help us realize how ridiculous the adds we see everyday truly are.

    In the “obsessed with breasts, but what are we doing about breast cancer?” campaign, for example, Harold reports that the adds may have trigged opposing feelings and left women even more unlikely to get a breast exam. “After I saw that ad, there is no way I’m ever going to have another breast exam because I’d rather be dead than look like that.”
    That woman is an idiot.
    This campaign focuses on a serious health issue that kills millions of American women each year, the fact that this add aims to shed light to this fact and gets criticism for it is laughable. God forbid adds try to remind us all of what really matters, our own health, rather than a pink lace push up bra for $29.95.

    Critics charge Adbusters of using this form of culture jamming towards smug self-satisfaction, self-righteous elitism, and hypocrisy. Although I believe there is a possibility for Adbusters to get caught up in these sentiments, I believe that the core of their work builds upon encouraging consumers to think “rationally.” Adbusters gives consumers the tools to no longer blindly accept what adds they come across in their everyday life. Through their mockeries, they instead encourage consumers to give that add a second glance and analyze it for themselves, making their own inferences and actively choosing whether or not they want to participate in that add campaign.

    there’s this.

  6. I agree very much with what my classmates have said above me about the Ad Buster’s campaign; it’s just fighting fire with fire. Although the two advertisers, big corporations and Ad Busters, have two very different ends both groups use the same means. However, our culture is such a consuming culture that to break the mold Ad Busters uses the best resources they can which is more advertising.

    Another group like Ad Busters is called the Billboard Liberation Front. This group uses current ads on billboards and other major art advertising pieces by changing it just a little bit to radically change the message but still have the one that everyone knows and understands underneath it. It creates a clever image that is nothing like the original corporate one and makes one think about the promotions we see every day.


    Although both groups use advertising, they use it in such different ways than the standard corporate message that it makes us think more about not consuming. Also, for the most part these ads are not what Herold calls “sticky” which are the worst sort of ads. These pop up on my Facebook page all the time because of the information I put on my page. These advertisements are there because the company has the information about the things I am interested in and my demographic information. The anti-ad groups don’t really use these and if one wants to find these they need to look a little harder for them.

  7. I wonder how much advertising and marketing actually affect our psyches. So far it seems that there is ubiquitous advertising, but how does it affect me as a person? While it influences how I behave as a consumer, how much do I buy into the modes of thinking corporations want us to adopt? Harold’s point is a good one, that corporations aren’t as much about selling their goods as selling themselves, but what do I get from such a purchase and what do I do with it? While advertising and marketing are interesting, it seems that I have a sovereignty over how much I let them affect me.
    Walter Benjamin supposed that movie stars play up the drama of their lives and become personalities because they are not really present in the theater (a film version of themselves are distributed), unlike a play actor. Their drama is consumed in tabloids and on trashy tv shows, in order to sort of make themselves more “alive.” than just their image on the screen. In the same way, Harold seems to be making a similar argument, that corporations are moving their manufacturing overseas and that they are constructing “personalities,” which are more important, seemingly, than their products.

  8. I think adbusters is only as effective as the movements its brings forth. If subvertisements bring forth consumer revolts against Nike or other major brand then Adbusters then a debate about using or not using consumerism would be largely irrelevant. The problem with adbusters is that largely this has not happened. Largely, there subvertisements have not forced capitalism into reform only to be more creative. Revolutionaries continue to buy things to build identities around anti-consumerism. If Adbusters really wanted to challenge capitalism this subversive media needs to help people build an analysis of capitalism and the recognition that we are not benefiting from these social relationships. I doubt any sort of mass movement would tolerate consumerist advertising.

  9. Right on, right on.
    It seems like they take the role of critical comedian. I’m not sure they hold such great desire for academic or revolutionary pursuit, but merely the brief thoughts of those who agree & buy into the joke that has become of our overly consumptive lives. It’s the overstimulation and overconsumption of their clever-enough moments in virtual and physical reality that make them possible. I feel like that might be a more powerful message than the small quips at popular culture that make their headlines – the fact that, they too, get pieces of your capital, being capitalists, making fun of capitalists, providing a museum of laughter at the american dream, while thriving off of it, is an annoyingly successful game for their critiques. Meta-capitalists? Whatever the outcome of preferred nomenclature, it’s things like Adbusters that allow disassociation from problem-solving to perpetuate, though still holding the comedic relief necessary for those that have the mind to, hopefully, make steps toward more long-term systematic change – rather than feeling complacent in merely poking fun. But that takes generations of community-wide cooperation and many more fun’s to poke, right? The jokes are no joke! Education is definitely key; it would be awesome if they had more memes and what not about how ridiculous the education gap is to get those that reap the negative or positive results to get more amped up to even it out.

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