Re-reading de Certeau: Invisible Tactics

By David Garcia

In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast. Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis.”
Quentin Crisp –The Naked Civil Servant

The art and activist movements that arose in the wake of the internet revolution, have come closer than any of the avant-garde groups of the last two centuries to realizing the modernist utopian dream of universal collective participation in cultural production and the rise of a “mass intelligentsia”, attaining what romantic modernists from Novalis to Joseph Beuys aspired to when they declared “every one an artist”. The rise of social media and other so called “walled gardens” may be domesticating the internet but the drive to expand and intensify the ideal of democracy remains the “true north” of the internet revolution.

Although this drive for mass participation has been at the core of the utopian avant garde art for generations it was generally believed that this possibility of mass dis-alienation existed only as potential, a potential that the masses simply did not have the power to actualize. However an alternative view emerged with the publication in 1980 of “The Practice of Everyday Life”, in which the Jesuit scholar, Michel de Certeau proposed that an invisible world of mass cultural participation far from being a distant utopia already existed albeit surreptitiously in a twilight realm of what he called ‘the tactical’.

Michel de Certeau

Although technology and communications were not a primary concern to de Certeau, it was he who substituted the term “user” for the less active “consumer” describing the purpose his work as bringing to light  “.. the models of action characteristic of users whose status as the dominated element in society (a status that does not mean they are either passive or docile) is concealed by the euphemistic term “consumers“. [1] This substitution was influential in creating an alternative to academic cultural studies based on the politics of representation and shifting the emphasis instead towards a more active, practice orientated “user language”. This prescient inflection towards user participation contributed to the emergence of a new perspective in which the consumer came to be recognized as equally important as the worker and in which the primary power relations were analyzed in terms of a key dichotomy he introduced based on the relative positions of the strategic vis – a – vis the tactical.

The User Language of Every Day Life

Every day life invents itself by poaching in countless ways on the property of others” [2]. So wrote de Certeau “The Practice of Everyday Life”, a book which arrived at a much richer and more supple picture of the realities of cultural politics than were available as the staple diet of the Cultural Studies movement of the period. In place of an identity politics based on critiques of media representations, de Certeau introduced a less deterministic emphasis on the uses to which audiences put media representations, the multiple ways in which these forms are tactically appropriated and repurposed by consumers.

For de Certeau cultural production could only be fully understood as multiple acts of co-creation in which the consumer was never merely a passive recipient but rather an active though unequal, participant in the creation of meaning. Above all he saw the act of consumption as a form of production. “To a rationalized, expansionist and at the same time centralized, clamorous, and spectacular production corresponds another production, called “consumption.” [3] by convening a new discussion in these terms de Certeau provides a language appropriate to profound changes in social, economic, and power relations taking place “where the figure of the consumer takes center stage alongside (or even instead of) the worker, or better where these two figures are merged. Hardt and Negri thus speak of “affective labor,” [4].

At the core of “The Practice of Every Day Life” is the distinction between tactics and strategies. Although consumers are full participants in the creation of meaning it is nevertheless a highly unequal relationship. He defines strategy “as a calculus of force relationships when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an environment.” [5].… a place where it can “capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances.” [6] In contrast he describes the tactical in more labile, and poetic terms that suggest a distinctive style ” in which the weak are seeking to turn the tables on the strong. Tactics must depend on “clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, the hunter’s cunning, maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries poetic as well as warlike they go back to the immemorial .. “intelligence displayed in the tricks and imitations of plants and fishes. From the depths of the ocean to the streets of the modern megalopolises, there is a continuity and permanence of these tactics“. [7]

When de Certeau began to write of tactics in the late 1970s he was describing a largely speculative and barely visible twilight realm. Invisibility and subterfuge was part of the point, to a degree he was making a virtue out of a necessity. As he put it “The making” in question is a production, a poesis – but a hidden one, because it is scattered over areas defined and occupied by systems of “production” (television, urban development, commerce, etc)”….”it is dispersed, but it insinuates itself everywhere, silently and almost invisibly, because it does not manifest itself through its own products, but rather through its ways of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order.”  [8]

From Invisible Tactics to Tactical Media

Although de Certeau’s ideas became influential among cultural studies theorists of the 1980s it was not until the early 1990′s that mass access to cheap and easy to use media put these powerful expressive tools in the hands of users. It was this fact that propelled de Certeau’s twilight world of barely visible tactics into the light of day. With visibility came the reflexivity that enabled a new and increasingly self-conscious form of cultural practice to emerge. A constellation of distinctive but overlapping practices: artists, hackers, political activists, independent media makers coalesced into a previously un-named movement which a network of artists and activists associated with the Amsterdam based festival The Next 5 Minutes, dubbed tactical media. [9], which successfully exploited the cracks that had already started to appear in the edifice of traditional broadcast media as the internet began to take hold.

Tactical media gave a home to a growing number of artists who whilst repudiating the politics of the contemporary “art world” were unwilling to relinquish the utopian legacy of the avant garde which (in contrast to the disciplinary regimes of party politics) placed a high value on the liberating power of expression in politics. This “Expressivism” can be traced back to the eighteenth-century Romantic rebellion against the rationalist utilitarianism of the Enlightenment and was the first major social movement in which artists played a central role. In part this was because of the inspiration drawn from the movement’s founding philosophers particularly Herder and Novalis whose writings gave a new significance to the power of language (or expression), proposing that “in a world of contingent horizons, our sense of meaning depends, critically, on our powers of expression…” and “that discovering a framework of meaning is interwoven with invention” [10]. . The centrality of the expressive dimension in Romanticism accounts for the important role played by artists, but with the important caveat that the expressive freedom and possibilities of self-creation enjoyed by artists were also the rightful legacy of all human subjects. Connecting these deeply rooted historical aspirations of universal expressive participation to new media is a key factor in understanding how the ideal of democracy has been transformed ever since its fate became linked to the internet.

de Certeau would have been initially gratified by the degree to which the tactical ‘user’ he championed has emerged as the ‘prime mover’ of the social web era. He would however have noted that not only is his dichotomy between the tactical and the strategic positions still intact, it also continues to be accompanied by the familiar asymmetrical balance of power. But he would also have encountered a world in which the Internet’s distributed architecture has changed the rules of engagement, creating new spaces for both a vastly increased level of tactical user agency along with instruments providing unparalleled levels of command and control.

The network theorist and free culture activist, Felix Stalder’s recent work helps us to revise an re-locate the position tactical and the strategic domains for the era of the social web in what he calls the front end and the back-end. The front end where the actions may be “decentralized, ad-hoc, cheap, easy-to-use, community-oriented, and transparent” and the back end, which are “centralized, based on long-term planning, very expensive, difficult-to-run, corporate, and opaque. If the personal blog symbolizes one side, the data-center represents the other.“…” there is a growing tension between the dynamics on the front-end (where users interact) and on the back-end (to which the owners have access).” [11]

We see this in many conflicts taking place between Stalder’s strategic back end and the tactical front end. An illuminating skirmish took place during the media coverage of the 2012 London Olympics. In which the Los Angeles based journalist Guy Adams, reporting for the Independent, an important UK national daily, tweeted about the poor coverage given to the opening ceremony by NBC. Adams concluded his tweet by transmitting the corporate address of the boss of NBC urging people to send tweets and e-mails. Twitter immediately suspended his account. It later emerged that Twitter had alerted NBC in order to trigger the complaint that legitimized the suspension. Behind this apparently trivial conflict was the fact that Twitter and NBC had established a commercial partnership to transmit the Olympics. It was the first content partnership Twitter had ever established with a broadcaster of this size. The kinds of tensions on display are clear enough, the avowed commitment of Twitter to being an open platform committed to free speech trumped by the need to keep an important commercial partner happy. The immediate consequence of the suspended account was an uprising from the Twitter user community with hash tag, “NBC fail” or “fail NBC”. As a result three weeks later the account was reinstated along with an apology in a Twitter blog post saying “we apologize we did alert NBC officials and that was wrong”.

The continued tactical resistance of users, whether as temporary ad hoc interventions or more sustained organized networks such as wikileaks or Avaaz require an approach founded on perpetual experiment “Install, update, crash, restart, de-install,” a digital version of Becket’s dictum “Fail, fail again, fail better“.

References:

1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Every Day Life 1984 University of California Press.
L’invention du quotidien. Vol. 1, Arts de faire’ (1980). P. xii. (Originally published in French as L’invention du quotidian in 1980 it was perhaps not until its translation by Steven Rendall in 1984 that his ideas started to gain wider influence.)
2. ibid P. xii
3. ibid P. xii
4 . Steven Shavero’s Blog – The Pinnocchio Theory – Blog entry title: A Mcluhanite Marxism? Posted April 17th5.
5. Michel de Certeau. The Practice of Every Day Life, P.xix
6.  ibid P. xi .
7. ibid P.xii
8. ibid P.xii
9. http://www.next5minutes.org/   http://www.tacticalmediafiles.net/
10. Charles Taylor – Sources of the Self, The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge University Press, P.22
11 Felix Stalder, Between Democracy and Spectacle:  Front-End and the Back-End of the Social Web, The Social Media Reader, 2012, New York University Press. P.248

Campaigns, Campaigns, Campaigns!

Among recent events and projects documented in the Tactical Media Files we have included a number of highly visible, but also less prominent campaigns. The genre of ‘campaiging‘ or the ‘Art of Campaigning’ is still an important category within the wider realm of tactical media practices it seems. Besides addressing urgent social and political issues of various kinds, these campaigns from time to time also produce highly interesting engaging visual materials in their attempts to captivate the (media) audience.

Among the campaigns we documented are:

ArtLeaks, a collective platform initiated by an international group of artists, curators, art historians and intellectuals in response to the abuse of their professional integrity and the open infraction of their labor rights.

Misopolis, a new initiative unfortunately not by fashion brand Diesel to improve working conditions and to provide free abortion pills to its female factory workers, which could have been an appropriate gesture by Diesel. Diesel is one of the fashion brands that uses production factories that refuse to pay a living wage to their workers, violates their human rights and forces them to work in dangerous and unhealthy conditions.
Misopolis (www.dieselforwomen.com) claimed to provide free abortion pills to its female workers in order to set them free and to create a fun factory.

Free Pussy Riot – the high-proile international campaign for the release of detained members of the Russian performance art collective Pussy Riot.
Pussy Riot is an anonymous Russian feminist performance art group formed in October 2011. Through a series of peaceful performances in highly visible places, the group has given voice to basic rights under threat in Russia today, while expressing the values and principles of gender equality, democracy and freedom of expression contained in the Russian constitution and other international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the CEDAW Convention.

M2M – Migrant to Migrant – the campaign that claims that every migrant is a medium:
M2M means from Migrant to Migrant.
M2M is a meeting point for migrants.
Like a camp fire.
Every migrant has a story, a message.
Every migrant is a messenger between there and here
and here and there..
Every migrant is a medium.

Occupy Monsanto a Call to Action for a Non-Hierarchical Occupation of Monsanto Everywhere:   An expanding network of concerned individuals known as Occupy Monsanto, staging numerous protests at companies connected to the global trade of genetically engineered foods, also known as GMOs.

And the latest addition: GlobalNoise – a new intiative by activists involved in the Indignato, Occupy, #yosoy132, etc  movements, who have begun a campaign to create GlobalNoise, a worldwide cacerolazo, or casserole march, on Saturday, October 13th, 2012. The hope is that local Occupations and Collectives will take up the call to march, using the method of a casserole march to highlight whatever issues are the most important to their community.

It would seem the Art of Campaigning is not dead yet..

TMF Editors

‘Tactical Media as Virtuosic Performance’ by Rita Raley added to Tactical Media Files

With kind permission of the author and publisher we have added the introductory chapter of Rita Raley’s book ‘Tactical Media‘ (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) to the Tactical Media Files resource.

You can find it here.

The introduction is included as a pdf document and includes the table of contents, cover, and bibliographic data.

Below some more information about the book by the publisher:

University of Minnesota Press: “In Tactical Media, Rita Raley provides a critical exploration of the new media art activism that has emerged out of, and in direct response to, postindustrialism and neoliberal globalization. Through close readings of projects by the DoEAT group, the Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Civil Disobedience, and other tactical media groups, she articulates their divergent methods and goals and locates a virtuosity that is also boldly political. Contemporary models of resistance and dissent, she finds, mimic the decentralized and virtual operations of global capital and the post-9/11 security state to exploit and undermine the system from within.

Emphasizing the profound shift from strategy to tactics that informs new media art-activism, Raley assesses the efficacy of its symbolic performances, gamings, visualizations, and hacks. With its cogent analyses of new media art and its social impact, Tactical Media makes a timely and much needed contribution to wider debates about political activism, contemporary art, and digital technology.”
www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/tactical-media

Rita Raley is Associate Professor of English, with courtesy appointments in Film and Media Studies, Comparative Literature, and Global Studies. Her primary research interests lie at the intersection of digital media and humanist inquiry, with a particular emphasis on cultural critique, artistic practices, and language (codework, machine translation, electronic literature, and electronic English).

Rita Raley’s faculty page:
www.english.ucsb.edu/people-detail.asp?PersonID=138

Charting Hybridised Realities

Editorial notice:

This text was originally written for the Re-Public on-line journal, which focuses on innovative developments in contemporary political theory and practice, and is published from Greece. As the journal has ground to a (hopefully just temporary) halt under severe austerity pressures we decided to post the current first draft of the text on the Tactical Media Files blog. This posting is one of two, the second of which will follow shortly. Both texts build on my recent Network Notebook on the ‘Legacies of Tactical Media‘.

The second text is a collection of preliminary notes that expand on recent discussions following Marco Deseriis and Jodi Dean’s essay “A Movement Without Demands”. It is conceivable that both texts will merge into a more substantive essay in the future, but I haven’t made up my mind about that as yet.

Hope this will be of interest,
Eric

Charting Hybridised Realities

Tactical Cartographies for a densified present

In the midst of an enquiry into the legacies of Tactical Media – the fusion of art, politics, and media which had been recognised in the middle 1990s as a particularly productive mix for cultural, social and political activism [1], the year 2011 unfolded. The enquiry had started as an extension of the work on the Tactical Media Files, an on-line documentation resource for tactical media practices worldwide [2], which grew out of the physical archives of the infamous Next 5 Minutes festival series on tactical media (1993 – 2003) housed at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. After making much of tactical media’s history accessible again on-line, our question, as editors of the resource, had been what the current significance of the term and the thinking and practices around it might be?

Prior to 2011 this was something emphatically under question. The Next 5 Minutes festival series had been ended with the 2003 edition, following a year that had started on September 11, 2002, convening local activists gatherings named as Tactical Media Labs across six continents. [3] Two questions were at the heart of the fourth and last edition of the Next 5 Minutes: How has the field of media activism diversified since it was first named ‘tactical media’ in the middle 1990s? And what could be significance and efficacy of tactical media’s symbolic interventions in the midst of the semiotic corruption of the media landscape after the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

This ‘crash of symbols’ for obvious reasons took centre stage during this fourth and last edition of the festival. Naomi Klein had famously claimed in her speedy response to the horrific events of 9/11 that the activist lever of symbolic intervention had been contaminated and rendered useless in the face of the overpowering symbolic power of the terrorist attacks and their real-time mediation on a global scale. [4] The attacks left behind an “utterly transformed semiotic landscape” (Klein) in which the accustomed tactics of culture jammers had been ‘blown away’ by the symbolic power of the terrorist atrocities. Instead ‘we’ (Klein appealing to an imaginary community of social activists) should move from symbols to substance. What Klein overlooked in this response in ‘shock and awe’, however, was that while the semiotic landscape had indeed been dramatically transformed (and corrupted) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it still remained a semiotic landscape – symbols were still the only lever and entry point into the wider real-time mediated public domain.

Therefore, as unlikely as it may have seemed at the time, the question about the diversification of the terrain and the practices of media activism(s) was ultimately of far greater importance. What the 9/11 crash of symbols and the semiotic corruption debate contributed here was ‘merely’ an added layer of complexity. In a society permeated by media flows, social activism necessarily had to become media activism, and thus had to operate in a significantly more complex and contested environment. The diversification of the media and information landscape, however, also implied that a radical diversification of activist strategies was needed to address these increasingly hybridised conditions.

To name but a few of the emerging concerns: Witnessing of human rights abuses around the world, and creating public visibility and debate around them remained a pivotal concern for many tactical media practitioners, as it had been right from the early days of camcorder activism. But now new concerns over privacy in networked media environments, coupled with security and secrecy regimes of information control entered the scene. Critical media arts spread in different directions, claiming new terrains as diverse as life sciences and bio-engineering, as well as ‘contestational robotics’, interventions into the space of computer games, and even on-line role playing environments. Meanwhile the free software movement made its strides into developing more autonomous toolsets and infrastructures for a variety of social and cultural needs – adding a more strategic dimension to what had hitherto been mostly an interventionist practice. In a parallel movement on-line discussion groups, mailing lists, and activity on various social media platforms started to coalesce slowly into what media theorist Geert Lovink has described as ‘organised networks’. [5] Or finally the rapid development of wireless transmission technologies, smart phones and other wireless network clients, which introduced a paradoxical superimposition of mediated and embodied spatial logics, best be captured in the multilayered concept of Hybrid Space. [6]

Our question was therefore entirely justified, to ask how the term ‘tactical media’ could possibly bring together such a diversified, heterogeneous, and hybridised set of practices in a meaningful way? It had become clear that more sophisticated cartographies would be necessary to begin charting this intensely hybridised landscape.

A digital conversion of public space

If the events in 2011 have made one thing clear it is that the ominous claim of Critical Art Ensemble that “the streets are dead capital” [7] has been declared null and void by an astounding resurgence of street protest, whatever their longer term political significance and fallout might be. These protests staged in the streets and squares, ranging from anti-austerity protests in Southern Europe to the various uprisings in Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East, to the Occupy protests in the US and Northern Europe, have by no means been staged in physical spaces out of a rejection of the semiotic corruption of the media space. Much rather the streets and squares have acted as a platform for the digital and networked multiplication of protest across a plethora of distribution channels, cutting right across the spectrum of alternative and mainstream, broadcast and networked media outlets.

What remained true to the origin of the term ‘tactical media’ was to build on Michel de Certeau’s insight that the ‘tactics of the weak’ operate on the terrain of strategic power through highly agile displacements and temporary interventions [8], creating a continuous nomadic movement, giving voice to the voiceless by means of ‘any media necessary’ (Critical Art Ensemble). However, the radical dispersal of wireless and mobile media technologies meant that mediated and embodied public spaces increasingly started to coincide, creating a new hybridised logic for social contestation. As witnessed in the remarkable series of public square occupations in 2011, through the digital conversion of public space the streets have become networks and the squares the medium for collective expression in a transnationally interconnected but still highly discontinuous media network.

Horizontal networks / lateral connections

One of the remarkable characteristics of the various protests is not simply the adoption of similar tactics (most notably occupations of public city squares), but the conscious interlinking of events as they unfold. Italian activists of the Unicommons movement physically linked up with revolting students in Tunisia, Egyptian bloggers and occupiers of Tahrir Square linked up with the ‘take the square’ activists in Spain, who in turn expressed solidarity and even co-initiated transnational actions with #occupy activists in the United States and elsewhere. It is the first time that the new organisational logic of transnational horizontal networks that has been theorised for instance in the seminal work “Territory, Authority, Rights” by sociologist Saskia Sassen, has become so evidently visible in activists practices across a set of radically dispersed geographic assemblages.

Horizontal networks by-pass traditional vertically integrated hierarchies of the local / national / international to create specific spatio-temporal transnational linkages around common interests, but also around affective ties. By and large these ties and linkages are still extra-institutional, largely informal, and because of their radically dispersed make up and their ‘affective’ constitution highly unstable. Political institutions have not even begun assembling an adequate response to these new emergent political constellations (other than traditional repressive instruments of strategic power, i.e. evictions, arrests, prohibitions). Given the structural inequalities that fuel the different strands of protest the longer term effectiveness of these measures remains highly uncertain. The institutional linkages at the moment seem mostly limited to anti-institutional contestation on the part of protestors and repressive gestures of strategic authority. The truly challenging proposition these new transnational linkages suggest, however, is their movement to bypass the nested hierarchies of vertically integrated power structures in a horizontal configuration of social organisation. They link up a bewildering array of local groups, sites, networks, geographies, and cultural contexts and sensitivities, taking seriously for the first time the networked space as a new ‘frontier zone’ (Sassen) where the new constellations of lateral transnational politics are going to be constructed.

Charting the layered densities of hybrid space

Hybrid Space is discontinuous. It’s density is always variable, from place to place, from moment to moment. Presence of carrier signals can be interrupted or restored at any moment. Coverage is never guaranteed. The economics of the wireless network space is a matter of continuous contestation, and transmitters are always accompanied by their own forms of electromagnetic pollution (electrosmog). Charting and navigating this discontinuous and unstable space, certainly for social and political activists, is therefore always a challenge. Some prominent elements in this cartography are emerging more clearly, however:

- connectivity: presence or absence of the signal carrier wave is becoming an increasingly important factor in staging and mediating protest. Exclusive reliance on state and corporate controlled infrastructures thus becomes increasingly perilous.

- censorship: censorship these days comes in many guises. Besides the continued forms of overt repression (arrests, confiscations, closures) of media outlets, new forms are the excessive application of intellectual property rights regimes to weed out unwarranted voices from the media landscape, but also highly effective forms of  dis-information and information overflow, something that has called the political efficacy of a project like WikiLeaks emphatically into question.

- circumvention: Great Information Fire Walls and information blockages are obvious forms of censorship, widely used during the Arab protests and common practice in China, now also spreading throughout the EU (under the guise of anti-piracy laws). These necessitate an ever more sophisticated understanding and deployment of internet censorship circumvention techniques, an understanding that should become common practice for contemporary activists. [9]

- attention economies: attention is a sought after commodity in the informational society. It is also fleeting. (Media-) Activists need to become masters at seizing and displacing public attention. Agility and mobility are indispensable here.

- public imagination management: Strategic operators try to manage public opinion. Activists cannot rely on this strategy. They do not have the means to keep and maintain public opinion in favour of their temporary goals. Instead activists should focus on ‘public imagination management’ – the continuous remembrance that another world is possible.

Beyond semiotic corruption: A perverse subjectivity

The immersion in extended networks of affect that now permeate both embodied and mediated spaces introduces a new and inescapable corruption of subjectivity. Critical theory already taught us that we cannot trust subjectivity. However, the excessive self-mediation of protestors on the public square has shown that a deep desire for subjective articulation drives the manifestation in public. The dynamic is underscored further by upload statistics of video platforms such as youtube that continue to outpace the possibility for the global population to actually see and witness these materials.

Rather than dismissing subjectivity it should be embraced. This requires a new attitude ‘beyond good and evil’, beyond critique and submission. A new perverse subjectivity is able to straddle the seemingly impossible divide between willing submission to various forms of corporate, state and social coercion, and vital social and political critique and contestation. It’s maxim here: Relish your own commodification, embrace your perverse subjectivity, in order to escape the perversion of subjectivity.

Eric Kluitenberg
Amsterdam, April 15, 2012.

References:

1 – See: David Garcia & Geert Lovink, The ABC of Tactical Media, May 1997, a.o.:
www.tacticalmediafiles.net/article.jsp?objectnumber=37996

2 – www.tacticalmediafiles.net

3 – Documentation of the Tactical Media Labs events can be found at:
www.n5m4.org

4 – Naomi Klein – Signs of the Times, in The Nation, October 5, 2001.
Archived at: www.tacticalmediafiles.net/article.jsp?objectnumber=46632

5 – Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter, Dawn of the Organised Networks, in; Fibreculture Journal, Issue 5, 2005.
http://five.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-029-dawn-of-the-organised-networks/

6 – See my article The Network of Waves, and the theme issue Hybrid Space of Open – Journal for Art and the Public Domain, Amsterdam, 2006;
www.tacticalmediafiles.net/article.jsp?objectnumber=48405
(the complete issue is linked as pdf file to the article).

7 – Critical Art Ensemble, Digital Resistance, Autonomedia, New York, 2001.
www.critical-art.net/books/digital/

8 – Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, 1984.

9 – A useful manual can be found here: www.flossmanuals.net/bypassing-censorship/

Recently added to Tactical Media Files: Texts by Jordan Crandall and Muriam Halleh Davis

We are very pleased about the recent inclusion of two important texts in the Tactical Media Files main website and documentation resource by Jordan Crandall and Muriam Halleh Davis:

A major research document by artist Jordan Crandall titled “Ontologies of the Wayward Drone – A Salvage Operation” deals with the fatal strategies of drone desire (a.k.a. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) ). This extensive study into the intensifying use of remote controlled and increasingly autonomous flying drones was originally published at CTheory and is now included in the TMF resource with kind permission by the author.

The essay “The Invention of the Savage: Colonial Exhibitions and the Staging of the Arab Spring” by Muriam Haleh Davis was recently posted on the excellent Jadaliyya blog and marks for us the first use of the tag ‘postcolonial’ in our resource, an inclusion admittedly long overdue. The text examines the staging of the (street-)protests in Arab countries through the prism of a recent exhibition at the musée du Quai Branly in Paris, which explores the ‘ the construction of difference and the exhibition of the other’.

While it is inevitable that the astounding and continuing series of street protests and square occupations that have marked the past year have demanded so much of our attention, it is equally important to keep clear sight of other strategic distortions that affect our social realities.

During a recent clean-up of last remains of archive materials of the Next 5 Minutes festival series we furthermore stumbled upon a disk accidentally not yet transferred to the TMF resource, nor physically handed over to the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam – who hold our physical archive. It contained the video Safe Distance released by the KUDA.org collective from Novi Sad Serbia. A ‘present from the skies’ recovered from the NATO air campaign against Serbia during the Kosovo War in 1999.

The video shows the electronic cockpit of a US Air Force plane that crashed during the bombing campaign. Though still a ‘manned’ aerial vehicle, the absolute abstraction of the blind instruments view provides a chilling adjunct to Crandall’s detailed examination of the fatal drone desires.

TMF Editors

Media Squares seminar: archived webcasts

A short note to let you know that the web casts of the Media Squares international seminar on the new forms of protest and their media have been archived and are available with full annotation via the Tactical Media Files website.

You can access the webcasts via this article:
www.tacticalmediafiles.net/article.jsp?objectnumber=55328

Enjoy!
TMF Editors

 

Media Squares: On the new forms of protest and their media

We are very pleased to announce the Media Squares international seminar and screening event, to be held at De Balie, centre for culture and politics in Amsterdam, on Friday September 30, 2011. This event is part of our on-going research efforts around the Tactical Media Files documentation resource, and provides an opportunity for first-hand exchange of ideas, opinions, insights and disagreements.

Come join us on the 30th!

TMF editors

About the program:

Social protest has become almost inseparably linked to a plethora of media images and messages distributed via internet, mobile phones, social media, internet video platforms and of course traditional media outlets such as newspapers, radio and television. A popular category to have emerged recently is the ‘twitter-revolution’. In almost all cases (Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, London) the role of the platform turned out to be less than essential in retrospect. Protests mostly manifested on the streets and particularly the public squares (‘Take the Square’). Deeply rooted blogger-networks did however play a mayor role, preparing the protests that have now been dubbed the “Arabian Spring’. And internet played a crucial role in the organisation and co-ordination of the European ‘anti-austerity’ protests (Spain, Greece, UK, Italy).

This international seminar brings together theorists, artists, designers, activists and media specialists to develop a critical analysis of the new forms of social protest and their media dimension. The program is divided into two blocks. The first block focuses on an in-depth analysis of the evolving WikiLeaks-saga, while the second block will examine the remarkable string of protests in the Mediterranean region. These discussions will be interrupted at times by startling artistic interventions in current social and political debates.

Participants in the program are: Daniel van der Velden (Metahaven), Geert Lovink (Institute of Network Cultures, INC), Aalam Wassef (Ahmad Sherif), Omar Robert Hamilton (Mosireen / Tahrir Cinema, Cairo) Nat Muller (independent curator), David Garcia (Chelsea College), Jodi Dean (Hobart and William Smith Colleges / Blog Theory), X.net & Democracia Real Ya – Barcelona, Gahlia Elsrakbi (Foundland), Nadia Plesner (Darfurnica), Florian Conradi and Michelle Christensen (stateless plug-in), Sami Ben Gharbia (Global Voices – tbc).

The seminar is part of an on-going research into Tactical Media, the fusion of art, media, politics and cultural activism, centred around the “Tactical Media Files”, an on-line documentation resource of Tactical Media practices world-wide.
[ www.tacticalmediafiles.net ]

Doors open: 10.00
Start Program: 10.30 uur
End Program: 17.00 uur

Program Overview:

10.30 – Opening / Introduction: Eric Kluitenberg (Tactical Media Files / De Balie)

Part I – Repositioning WikiLeaks

11.00 – 11.20 – Presentation: Daniel van der Velden (Metahaven)
11.20 – 11.30 – Responses
11.30 – 11.45 – Discussion

11.45 – 12.05 – Geert Lovink (Institute of Network Cultures)
12.05 – 12.15 – Responses
12.15 – 12.30 – Discussion

Respondents:
Jodi Dean (Hobart and William Smith Colleges / Blog Theory), David Garcia (Chelsea College of Art & Design)

12.30 – 12.45 – Artist presentation: Nadia Plesner – Darfurnica

13.00 – 14.00 – Lunch break

Part II – Revolution in the Mediterranean

14.00 – 14.20 – Presentation: Aalam Wassef (Ahmad Sherif)
14.20 – 14.30 – Responses
14.30 – 14.45 – Discussion

14.45 – 15.05 – Presentation: Omar Robert Hamilton (Mosireen / Tahrir Cinema)
15.05 – 15.15 – Responses
15.15 – 15.30 – Discussion

Respondents:
Ghalia Elsrakbi (Foundland), Nat Muller (Independent Curator), Sami Ben Gharbia (Global Voices – tbc)

15.30 – 15.45 – Artist Presentation: Florian Conradi and Michelle Christensen (stateless plug-in)

15.45 – 16.00 – Coffee break

16.00 – 16.20 – Skype session with X.net & Democracia Real Ya, Barcelona
16.10 – 16.10 – Responses

16.25 – 17.00 – Closing Discussion

Location:

De Balie
Kleine Gartmanplantsoen 10
Amsterdam

Admission: 5 euro (no reductions)
[ TICKET-LINK ]

Links:

Tahrir Cinema:
www.cinerevolutionnow.com/2011/07/tahrir-cinema.html

Mosireen:
http://mosireen.org

Take the Square:
http://takethesquare.net

Democracia real Ya!:
www.democraciarealya.es/manifiesto-comun/manifesto-english/

stateless plug-in:
http://statelessplugin.net

Nadia Plesner – Darfurnica:
www.nadiaplesner.com/Website/darfurnica.php

EVENING PROGRAM:

Revolutionary Archives: Tactical Screenings from Tahrir

Screening & talk with Omar Robert Hamilton: Friday September 30, De Balie, Amsterdam, 20.30 hrs

In the midst of the Egyptian uprising Tahrir Cinema was started on July 14th by a group of film makers and artists, organising open air public screenings on Tahrir Square, of films that had something to do with ‘the Revolution’. Curation of the films was largely open source. The organisers asked people on the square for their footage, or what they wanted to see up on the screen – “a screen to serve the square”.

Out of this frenzy of media-activity Mosireen emerged, a new independent media centre in Cairo. During the protests Mosireen supported people on Tahrir Square to edit their materials, created DVDs with raw footage and clips, and set up an archive of the Revolution.

This special screening program organised in the frame of “Media Squares” program at De Balie will present a selection of videos and films from Tahrir Cinema in collaboration with Mosireen, Cairo. The screening will be hosted and narrated by Omar Robert Hamilton, one of the initiators of Tahrir Cinema, and Nat Muller, independent curator based in The Netherlands.

Links:

Tahrir Cinema:
www.cinerevolutionnow.com/2011/07/tahrir-cinema.html

Omar Robert Hamilton:
www.orhamilton.com/bio.html

Mosireen:
http://mosireen.org

Location:

De Balie
Kleine Gartmanplantsoen 10, Amsterdam
Program starts: 20.30 hrs.

Admission: 5 euro (no reductions)
[ TICKET-LINK ]

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

This short text was co-written by David Garcia and Eric Kluitenberg  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.

———————–

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 infrastructures.

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 overcome.

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 the safety of true believers. WikiLeaks has demonstrated the 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 fleeting.

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….

References:

1 – About the Tactical Media Files:
www.tacticalmediafiles.net/article.jsp?objectnumber=38519&pagetype=about

2 -  McKenzie Wark, Strategies for Tactical Media (2003)
www.tacticalmediafiles.net/article.jsp?objectnumber=46245

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
www.spc.org/fuller/texts/towardsevil/

4 – Critical Art Ensemble, Digital Resistance (2001)
www.critical-art.net/books/digital/

5 – Felix Stalder, 30 Years of Tactical Media (2009)
www.tacticalmediafiles.net/article.jsp?objectnumber=42801

 

Protest Camps – some reflections on a framework of analysis

This text is a response to the posting The Tactics of Camping by Eric Kluitenberg. It builds on ongoing research of the authors into the history of protest camps as an organisational form. Some further responses can be found in the web archive of the nettime mailing list for net criticism.

TMF editors

——-

Protest Camps – some reflections on a framework of analysis
By Anna Feigenbaum, Fabian Frenzel, Patrick McCurdy

From Tahrir Square to Trafalgar Square, from the Puerto del Sol to the streets of Oaxaca, protest camps are a highly visible feature of social movements’ activism across the world. Protest camps are spaces where people come together to imagine alternative worlds and articulate contentious politics, often in confrontation with the state. Protest camps are global phenomena, occurring across a wide range of social movements and encompassing a diversity of demands for social change. They are spaces where people come together to imagine alternative worlds and articulate contentious politics, often in confrontation with the state.
Based on empirical research into a variety of protest camps, we have developed a framework of analysis for protest camps. Importantly we understand them as a unique organisational form that transcends particular social movements’ contexts.

In what remains an ongoing project, we would suggest that there are are four key attributes that appear generalisable to all protest camps. It is not our objective to develop a structuralist account of protest cams reminiscent of resource mobilization approaches but, instead, use these thematic areas as threads to tie together diverse sets of protest camps. This allows us to tell stories (across time and space) about how protest camps are created and set up, how they converge and diverge, and how they share similarities and differences. These four identified areas are: (1) domestic infrastructures (food supply, shelter, sanitation, maintenance of communal and ‘private’ space); (2) action infrastructures (direct action tactics, police negotiations, legal aid, medical support, transportation networks); (3) communication infrastructures (media strategies, distribution networks, production techniques); and (4) governance infrastructures (formal and informal decision-making processes). As these organisational dimensions dynamically interact, they enable and hinder each other, creating specifically configured protest camps.

This approach is allowing up to compare and contrast divergent camps and to argue for a new reading of protest camps as emergent, often radically democratic political spaces. Because of their specific character, we argue that protest camps have the potential to enable an experience of new and alternative forms of democracy for participants, although not all camps aim to produce this effect or necessarily have it. Showing how protest camps configure their infrastructures to enable the experiences of participation, collaboration, collectivity and mutuality, we hope to contribute to the understanding of alternative forms of governance and political participation.

Domestic infrastructures

Something which differentiates the protest camp from other place-based or space-based social movement gatherings and actions is activists’ willingness to forgo the comforts of a ‘normal home’; to brave the elements, living in muddy fields, up trees or on cemented city streets. From this perspective, the protest camp disrupts the very notion of what constitutes a home, and with it, our understanding of public and private, of domestic and undomestic space, as well as our attachments to property and permanence.

Of interest is how protesters engage in acts of home-building by examining the emotional, affective and interpersonal communicative dynamics that exist between people and objects in the everyday material-symbolic lives of protest. From cooking to cleaning, and shelter to sanitation, protesters and supporters work together to build temporary homes at these sites of protest. The scale of this domestic infrastructures ranges from semi-permanent wooden dwellings and cultural centres to the minimal necessities needed to sustain direct actions. How do activist generate–and fail to generate–domestic infrastructures for and through their everyday operations in relation to their differing objectives. We would argue that people’s perspectives toward each other, as well as towards objects and ideas, are largely shaped through collective acts of home-building that demand a great deal of both physical and emotional labour.

Action infrastructures

Protest Camps are often made to enable political action, and in particular direct action. To target political institutions, power plants or roads, camps form bases for attacks, enabling training and collective strategic planning of direct action. Our work examines how camps function as sites of preparation for action, both in a theoretical and in a more practical sense. Many protest camps are developed to enable action in remote locations, for example rural sites of road construction, mining or international summit meetings, where housing and feeding of non local activists needs to be provided to enable large protest mobilisations. This instrumental origin of some camps as enablers of protest continues in the set up of training sessions inside the camp. Here activists learn from each other how to do direct action, whether facing police lines or blocking access to contested sites. The logistics of actions are also prepared at camp, for example by distributing maps of key targets, or enabling the formation and co-ordination of affinity groups. Furthermore, the collective housing set up at camp also provides spaces for action debriefs, informally and formally, in which activists reflect on their experiences. As actions can be very intense both emotionally and physically–and often carry legal consequences–medical, psychological and legal support is sometimes provided within action infrastructures, taking on forms such as ‘well-being spaces’ and medical caravans. Beyond these forms of preparation, training and debrief, action infrastructures of protest camps often include a number of formalised and informal discursive spaces, whether planned workshops or everyday conversations around a camp fire. Here camp participants develop and exchange arguments that reflect on and justify their actions, sustaining the energy and focus needed for future confrontations with political adversaries.

Camp Communications Infrastructures

While thirty years ago peace camp newsletters were often hand-written, mimeographed and distributed by post, today mobile phones come pocket-size with cameras and short-run video capabilities. Laptop computers and wireless internet access has enabled temporary autonomous media stations to be set up at protest sites, such as those run by Indymedia at Noborders camps, Climate Camps, and Global Summits. These offer live updates of text, photo and video, keeping both protest campers and the broader public informed. Likewise, some protesters seize and appropriate corporate and state-run media tools, such as Oaxaca women’s take-over of channel 9 during the teacher’s rebellion. At their best, these media stations create spaces for democratic, participatory news-making and skill-sharing, from which people offer a diversity of perspectives and outlooks.

Much has been written about alternative media and the role it plays in relation to social movements. However, little of this writing discusses how activists’ engage communication technologies and produce media at the physical sites of protest. We propose to discuss protest camp-based communication practices and media, including media stations and the making of promotional materials, press releases, newsletters and documentary video. We view each camps’ media as part of a broader historical trajectory of activists’ new media practices, expanding our focus to pre-internet and pre-digital cultures to argue that today’s communication practices and infrastructures are heavily shaped by past movement cultures as they came into contact with new devices and platforms.

Governance Infrastructures

How are camps run, how are decisions made? Often protest camps act politically as democratically run spaces. At times camps create clear infrastructures in the form of neighborhoods and spokes councils based on principals of horizontal decision making, while others are run less formally and spontaneously. Some of the larger camps develop further differentiation, creating roles in specific specialists groups like media teams, conflict resolutions committees and mediators. Generally, there is a wide variety of governance infrastructures observable in a variety of camps. These infrastructures are developed according to needs, largely based on national, geographic, economic and cultural contexts. They are frequently based on participants’ prior experiences with self-governance, and indeed camping.
While many differences exits between camps, it is possible to observe learning processes trans-nationally and over time as they occur both between camps and across different social movements. This makes it possible to identify successful approaches on how to run a camp. We argue that the formalisation of internal governance infrastructures is a key signifier of the ‘maturing’ of the organisational form of protest camps. Likewise, the importance of internal governance and its related infrastructures seems to increase when protest camps act less instrumentally as a tool to support action, and more towards larger goals of alternative world-building. In these latter camps, internal governance is explicitly organised as a form of radical democratic action, becoming a distinctly advertised quality and justification of the protest camp.

Alternative world building / Emergent political spaces

Protest camps are political spaces of high intensity, where democracy can be experienced and experimented in a live form. Often camps are only set up instrumentally to support action in remote locations, sometimes they occur spontaneously without a plan. But even in such cases, we can identify the emergence of four infrastructures, domestic, action, communications and governance. Highlighting these, we show the development of material cultures of protest, combined with new ways of living as they are formed in and by the camps experience. Concurrently we often found evidence of the development of strong collective identities within the camp, which triggered the creation of internal democratic processes. These processes are challenging and surely not always pleasant. They tend to create insider and outsider dichotomies between different camp participants, depending on their level of involvement. Indeed, internal divisions and conflicts are the key to understanding protest camps as alternative worlds and places of radical democratic experiences.

These experiences of alternative cultures and governance cannot be made in the regular political process. In the regular democratic process the pains and potentials of participation are limited by institutions that formalise the decision making process. Moreover politics is institutionally separated from life. Protest camps enable the development of alternative ways of housing, feeding, entertaining and living together, alongside innovations in political actions and democratic processes. This is why protest camps are more than just ephemeral places or instrumental strategies of particular social movements. They are laboratories of radical, tangible democracy that more often than not help to imagine and build blueprints for alternative worlds.

The Tactics of Camping

Yes We Camp!

Michel de Certeau observed that the tactics employed by the ‘weak’ are always on the watch for opportunities, and that these opportunities must be seized “on the wing”.  Tactics, de Certeau writes, have no base at their disposal from where they can capitalise on their advantages, prepare their expansions, or secure their independence from circumstances. Instead tactics ‘insinuate’ themselves into the places of others. They operate on the terrain of strategic power, ‘fragmentarily’, without taking it over in its entirety. Whatever these tactics win, they cannot keep. [1]

Hence, tactics are always nomadic.

 

The Spanish elections of 2011 certainly presented one such opportunity to appropriate the moment and a strategic space tactically. The spill-over of resentment over youth unemployment, political inaction and incompetence, and the continuing spectre of austerity sparked a spontaneous anti-movement;  Los Indignados, the outraged. Los Indignados started massive street protests taking the city squares in cities all over Spain by camping on them, repurposing the strategic space for civic deliberation and protest.

Perhaps most remarkable about this ‘anti-movement’ is precisely its refusal to be or become a movement. In their Manifesto for Real Democracy they write: “We are ordinary people. We are like you: people, who get up every morning to study, work or find a job, people who have family and friends. People, who work hard every day to provide a better future for those around us.” [2] And in the call for nothing less than  #Globalrevolution the initiators identify themselves as “the the outraged, the anonymous, the voiceless”, who no longer gaze at vertical power, but instead look sideways, horizontally:  “No political party, association or trade union represents us. Nor do we want them to, because each and every one of us speaks for her or himself.” [3]

When scrutinising the websites and resources that are connected to the central anchoring point, http://takethesquare.net/, no final set of principles or demands can be found, except for a call to involvement in working towards a ‘better world’ that puts ‘people and nature’ before ‘economic interests’, and useful documents that can guide the process of bottom-up, collective decision making, avoiding the need for leadership or ‘organisation’. “The time has come for the woman and man in the street to take back their public spaces to debate and build a new future together.” [4]

Camping Blues

An important question is where to locate your camp? The city square is for obvious reasons a well chosen site. As Greek activist Christos Gionanopoulos maintains, “democracy is born in the square“, the classical site for a people’s assembly. In his view the ‘movement of the squares’ has initiated a startlingly new political culture, one that  its open, participatory, and offers a ‘directly democratic way of organising and functioning’.  “Within a single week it has given birth to a political culture of a different type, one that literally overcomes all known models of organising and struggle to date“, Gionanopoulos maintains. [5]

There is a deeper sense of media awareness in this (anti-) ‘movement of the squares’. Gionanopoulos writes: “..the stance of the movement toward Mass Media is also differentiated, with the refusal to engage with them, not even by way of issuing press releases. With the screening of what part of its procedures and organising is photographed or taped, and most importantly, with the creation of the movement’s own channels of communication — with its main website www.real-democracy.gr, being the only medium-voice of its decisions.” But obviously, the well-chosen site, the public city square derives much of its power from its public visibility. It is certainly impossible, and also highly undesirable for this public spectacle not to be picked up by mass and mainstream media. In fact the public camps on city squares are one of the most mediagenic forms of popular protest to have emerged in recent years, from Tahrir to Puerta del Sol, and this status has undeniably facilitated their international dispersal by the very system the activists claim to deny.

Some activists can also get disheartened with the lagging nature of collective and non-hierarchical decision making procedures. In a text of 2002, The Dark Side of Camping, Susanne Lang and Florian Schneider reflect on the daily experience of the International border camp in Strasbourg, July 19 – 28,  2002. [6] They recall how by the time that the ‘radical-democratic decision-making process’ had come to the point of stating positions, the sun had already reached Zenith, without actual decisions having been made. The urgency of the matter on the table, the inhuman border, detention and expulsion regimes appeared to get lost in the haze of bottom-up democracy, for activists in a hurry to address them head on. Exasperation and frustration can easily set in. Thus, de-centred decision making always needs to navigate a precarious balance.

Refusal of the media question was prevalent in those days, more so than in the current  ‘movement of the squares’. Lang and Schneider lament the ignorance towards the media activist component in the border camp, derided internally as ‘silicon valley’. But they also point out how the complete refusal to co-operate with any media outlet, not even the indymedia type, lead to a fatal distortion of public perception of the actions: “Clearly, the manner in which the whole event is perceived from the outside will necessarily shift if the simple attempt to mediate ones own positions will be dismissed as opportunistic. : calls for freedom of movement might easily be interpreted as calls for freedom to muck about and act the fool. Who is protesting on the streets and why, which actions have been chosen and for what reason? The history, background, aims and ideas of the camp were concealed. Therefore the press relied on the statements of the police and the mayor“, Lang and Schneider write. And while scepticism about playing the mainstream media game might be justified, relying on at least self-organised media outlets and communication channels to the wider public seems an essential step forward for the activists.

Lang and Schneider had to recover from a severe case of camping blues in those days. For them the marriage of camping and media activism was about political communication: “networking understood as situational negotiations that are based on the possibility of changing ones own standpoint as well as the standpoint of the other“. However, what they encountered was an introverted political culture, what they call a ‘a neo-romantic motivated anti-capitalism’. Lang / Schneider: “Prevalent in those ten days in Strasbourg was a hermetic culture of immediacy that was neglecting and dismissive of every form of artificial or technical supported mediation, due to the fear of it being a hindrance on some amorphous idea of natural self-development.” [6]

From the media to the street

One of he central claims of the tactical media ‘movement’ has been to state that power has shifted to the symbolic domain of electronic mediation, and therefore power also has to be contested in the sphere of symbolic mediation, as for instance Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble has claimed [7].  This shift also implies that to intervene in and  tamper with the symbolic (in real-time mediation) means to intervene in and tamper with ‘real’ power. So, why then this seemingly regressive move back to the street and the square?

One important lesson can already be drawn from the Syrian uprising, an escalating conflict bordering on civil war whose outcome is still completely uncertain while this text is written. Dubbed the ‘Syrian Cyber Revolution’ the tactical appropriation of social media tools played a prominent role in organising the street protests, as they have done in many other places. The Syrian youngsters / activists derived a strong sense of empowerment from their newly found capacities to organise, coalesce and unify around common interest via social networking tools such as facebook.

However, a painful lesson was to learn that the newly established networks could also be ‘read’ – necessarily so because of the relatively open and public character they required to be useful for intended purposes – by the Syrian authorities, whose prime interest was to seek out the central nodes in the network and eradicate them, working outwards towards the mass of networked participants. Visibility here means not just empowerment, but also vulnerability, becoming a discrete, identified, and localised target.

A strange paradox emerged: In the seemingly private space of the social network activists had now become identified as an individual and more importantly  as a discrete target for authoritarian repression. On the street however, the individual protester dissolved into a crowd to become a public. The rising death-toll from the Syrian protests indicates that this act of dissolving in the public is by no means without risk. It does, however,  escape the targeted designation of the social networking space, which as an activist tool had de facto become ineffectual or even counter-productive for the local activists. Only in exile, out of reach of a repressive and violent authority, could the social networking space be used  for effective public political communication, and possibly to mobilise the international diaspora.

The tactical operations, both in the streets as well as in the media, necessarily need to remain nomadic in these circumstances, always on the look out for temporary spaces of opportunity.

Hybrid tactics in a hybrid space

Embodied public spaces and media spaces do not exist independent of each other anymore. They constitute each other. As much as that the spaces of opportunity in the media are determined by the physical and political conditions they are built upon, so is the physical public space constructed by the media flows that permeate it; communicative practices, surveillance, mediated representation. As a result the logic of these spaces is hybridised: the media flows have to locate themselves to become manifest and meaningful, to escape their inherent virtualisation, while physical presences are permeated by electronically mediated flows that both construct and capture them.

Activists need to understand the hybridised logic of hybrid space [8], its variability, its moments of opportunity and closure, to make use of them. The newest generation of civic activists, the (anti-) ‘movement of the squares’ seems to have ingrained and internalised this hybrid logic, almost unthinkingly. Social media tools, wireless devices, digital networks, self-publication channels seem nothing less than self-evident to them, and they are learning how such spaces of opportunity can suddenly close down, at which point it is time to move on – thus producing a continuous nomadic movement that as yet is unclear where it will land.

by Eric Kluitenberg, June 20, 2011.

References:

1 – Michel de Certeau, “The Practice of Everyday Life“, University of California Press, 1984, p. xiv.

2 – www.democraciarealya.es/?page_id=814

3 – See the archived announcement for June 19, 2011,  at: www.tacticalmediafiles.net/article.jsp?objectnumber=53248

4 – ibid.

5 – Christos Gionanopoulos, “Democracy is born in the squares“, June 6, 2011
www.occupiedlondon.org/blog/2011/06/09/613-democracy-is-born-in-the-squares/

6 – Susanne Lang and Florian Schneider, “The Dark Side of Camping“, 2002.
www.tacticalmediafiles.net/article.jsp?objectnumber=44087

7 – See amongst others Critical Art Ensemble, “Digital Resistance“, 2001
www.critical-art.net/books/digital/

8 – See also: Eric Kluitenberg, “The Network of Waves – Public Agency in Hybrid Space” , 2006
www.tacticalmediafiles.net/article.jsp?objectnumber=48405