Discussion Apr. 13: Tactical Media

Guest:

Alessandra Renzi, https://camd.northeastern.edu/artdesign/people/alessandra-renzi/

A key writer and theorist of tactical media, in addition to being a practitioner and media creator. She has studied tactical media activism in Italy, which is the focus of discussion for this class.

Tactical Media

Tactical media does not have a clear definition and is constantly being redefined by its actors and contexts. Instead it is marked by transience, a sense of defiance, and an ad hoc creation. Tactical media is often about the short term and seizing a creative moment. To having a lasting effect, it can be situated within a strategy, or longer term plan, often including and connecting many tactics together.  Tactical media can be effective at grabbing attention and can be used as a tool progress a larger campaign. Many things may start tactical, and when they are successful, they can be turned into a more sustainable project, becoming a strategy rather than a form of tactical media. However, one of the most valuable pieces of conversation, coming at the time when “The ABC of Tactical Media” (1997) was published, is that not everything has to become a larger project, and that a tactical medium employed can be abandoned and still be effective.

Telestreet (early 2000s)

Telestreet (http://imaginationforpeople.org/en/project/telestreet) is a network of pirate television stations in Italy that began in June 2002. Around this time, the prime minister of Italy controlled >90% of the media. Telestreet formed as a different mode of media production and dissemination to provide alternate stories and perspectives to the state-sanctioned ones. Using home-made transmission tools, Telestreet employed a network of micro tv-transmitters to broadcast on a street or in a neighborhood. This is an example of tactical media being disruptive and seeking to subvert the dominant narratives.

Telestreet occurs at a time where tactical media has been in existence and Telestreet ties into a lot of other projects around the same time. Many people within the movement had a media background. It is a good example of how social media movements and technology are co-dependent. A lot of the technologies that Telestreet employed they needed to develop themselves. They developed technologies for a means of indiemedia, as well as a peer-to-peer network for horizontal communication and sharing videos. For the video sharing network, they had to work on codecs to read the files and create a method for circulating media online. These are examples of tactical media intervention, and were soon institutionalized and became strategic. It is also in this context of co-evolution of social movements and technology that there is a sense of a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) character of tactical media.

Squats as a site for tactical media development

Another important aspect to tactical media is the face-to-face interaction. Many Telestreet stations occurred in squats, or abandoned properties that were repurposed by those who moved in. Squats are often key cultural hotspots that act as zones of innovation or cultural experiments. People working on tactical media projects, like that of Telestreet, can remain close and live outside of authoritarian influence. Additionally, squats are the sites of hacklabs where helpful software is developed to distribute among those who needed it. One notable example is Dyne:bolic (https://www.dyne.org/software/dynebolic), which is distributed freely and can be run on low-end computers, designed with digital resistance and privacy in mind. Another example of such software is Reamweaver (http://amy-alexander.com/projects/artisticactivist-software/reamweaver.html) which allows for quickly parodying a website in real-time.

Naples Garbage Crisis (2008)

Another instance of tactical media is within the city of Naples, Italy in 2008. Government works were refusing to pick up trash, which then piled up along the streets. In response to public outcry, the government decided to dispose of it improperly and negligently. The populace of Naples, who studied EU laws on waste disposal, decided to fight back against their negligent government. The citizens gave visitors tours of the garbage mounds and improper dumping sites. They recorded where and how much the garbage piled up, and videos of the improper disposal.

This was ongoing before the proliferation of smartphones and easy-to-use recording devices. Many groups had to organize trainings and obtain cameras for people to use so that they could capture a lot of the ongoing transgressions. Because of these workshops, and the large amount of video recording, all of these groups collaborated to create a documentary. The documentary was highly collaborative and crowdfunded. The documentary was viewed at guerilla screenings where new spaces were created to talk about the garbage crisis, as the government was tightly controlling discussion of the topic. This was all possible due to the networks formed in the beginning from organizers encouraging everyone to record the garbage sites and speak out against their negligent government.

Tactical media in the present day

Some recent examples of tactical media include the check-in at Standing Rock, Facebook page. It was effective in raising a lot of awareness of the situation and garnering public support. Another example from 2017 is the national park alternate twitter accounts that arose to protest a temporary media blackout. Additionally we discussed the overpass light brigade and it’s efficacy as tactical media.

Are memes tactical media? There is some overlap between meme warfare and tactical media. For example, in Puerto Rico, a fake Facebook account was created as a satirical page about duplicitous government decisions that was successful. However, meme warfare tends to concentrate on content and rarely extends beyond the online sphere, where tactical media mostly resides. Alternatively, effective tactical media that occurs in the offline world can create a powerful image that will be circulated online. This is because we can take for granted the access many people have to social media. Twitter itself started as a tactical media project and is conducive to circulating information due to its responsiveness. Before social media, the most important thing to do was to get into the mainstream media or go viral to draw attention to a specific keyword to change the understanding of what is ongoing (branding). Going viral nowadays can be achieved through an effective hashtag or compelling image. Tactical media can be used to set an agenda, for example Ferguson and reporting on Twitter instead of through mainstream media.

Tactical media can also be inward facing, not necessarily designed to grab attention. On tactical media’s current relevancy, Renzi commented that it’s about realizing “you can tweak the system,” “get creative, weav[ing] different media together” and “recogniz[ing] what others are doing.”

Additional Discussions

Disaster capitalism is a term for when certain policies are presented and progress that otherwise would be rejected due to a catastrophe that has caused chaos. One example is after Hurricane Katrina, lands were rezoned, displacing people and benefiting those who were given the land. It’s the premise that companies are prepared to turn any crisis into an opportunity, by bypassing normal democratic mechanisms. In this instance, tactical media would be very useful. The tactical media arising could distract and raise awareness to examples of disaster capitalism and help prevent inequitable policies from being approved. Often in a state of chaos, it requires being creative and flexible to ad hoc designs, which is why tactical media can play a crucial role.

Also discussed, in light of the recent backlash against Pepsi for “trivializing” ongoing social movements, was the co-opting of tactical media by ad agencies. Corporations now have the resources and time to search the web and incorporate tactical media into their campaigns. For example, many alt-right organizations are able to expand in ways that grassroots organizations don’t necessarily have the means to. However, Aziria commented, “Even though there’s often a space which gets co-opted, that doesn’t mean that what has been does loses its effect. So there’s still reason to press on in this space, as there’s room for negotiation and the tactic hasn’t lost it’s value or use in political discourse.”

Additionally, we experimented with NewsJack (http://newsjack.in). Similar in concept to Reamweaver, but it isn’t real-time and designed to be more accessible.

Readings

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