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Tactical media

Ian Andrews reports on the Next 5 Minutes conference in Amsterdam

Ian Andrews gratefully acknowledges the support of the Industry and Cultural Development Branch of the Australian Film Commission for making his attendance at the Next 5 Minutes: Tactical Media (N5M2) conference possible.

Amsterdam in January. It’s minus 5 degrees, the wind is howling and a homeless black man desperately attempts to grab my attention. He asks me what kind of music I am listening to. I hand him the headphones which are keeping my ears warm and tell him that it is one of the local pirate, or at least semi-legal, public access radio stations. “I used to be a DJ…I love music”, he says, and goes on to tell me his sad recent history. It is at this moment that I realise that for some people, access to communication technologies, even in a wired city like Amsterdam, is less a question of access to the internet than a question of access to even basic technologies such as radio or telephone.

This question of access to old and new technology, for individuals and groups from different economic and cultural circumstances, is one of the central themes of the second Next 5 Minutes: Tactical Media conference and exhibition (the main reason I am in Amsterdam freezing my butt off). The Next 5 Minutes is an ongoing project (the first Next 5 Minutes was held in 1993) which combines grassroots political activism with art practice, and the innovative applications of communications technology, drawing on a diverse series of critical discourses surrounding the new technology. This “proudly” non-academic conference brought together people from over thirty countries providing examples of the way in which different groups and cultures are dealing with various media technologies. Particular emphasis was given to Eastern Europe (where a critical re-evaluation of Marxism is replacing a rejection of Communism), and the former Yugoslavia (where the most important agenda is peace).

The term ‘tactical media’ is probably unfamiliar to most people, or at least those outside of this particular nexus of theories and practices, so I will attempt a definition. Tactical media refers to non-hegemonic media practices performed by a conjunction of media artists and media activists operating on a tactical rather than a strategic level. In short, the aim of tactical media is to achieve creative solutions for specific situations. However, as David Garcia (from the Centre of Tactical Media in Amsterdam, one of the organisers of the Next 5 Minutes) points out, the number of individuals, groups and projects operating along these lines is large enough, and the activity has been going on long enough, to be considered as a distinctive movement within contemporary culture: “a movement which some of us have chosen to call tactical media. Tactical media are works and projects that act out the dream that we are moving from a culture of consumption into a culture of participation and communication”. The tactical media movement is concerned with the democratization of media practice. In this sense, Next 5 Minutes was not just about access and participation, rather it openly encouraged visitors to make their own contributions via a variety of platforms including 24 hour live television and radio, electronic publishing, internet access, an extensive library and media archive, and a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ in which visitors were able to schedule their own presentations. The mainstream of the conference, however, consisted mainly of presentations, performances and installations. Some of the issues and debates which from my perspective were particularly interesting, included the following:

Tactical media as tools or weapons

One of the most fruitful benefits of the new communications technologies seems to be the use of the net as an organising tool, bringing like-minded people together, despite geographical distances, to form temporary alliances over specific actions. In this way, the net is being utilised to empower individuals and groups by creating shared workspaces which cross national boundaries. Examples of this ‘many to many’ communication were provided by DeeDee Halleck (Paper Tiger TV, New York), Rena Tangens (Zerberus, Bielefeld) and Frannie Armstrong (One World of the McLibel Case, London), all of which use the internet along with older technologies to organize resistance, or increase public awareness of the undemocratic and socially harmful activities of specific corporations.

Copyright? Copyleft?

The enforcement of copyright legislation in many cases functions as a form of censorship. This was demonstrated by Bernard Timberg and Sut Jhally, whose particular brand of ‘montage critique’ has in the past drawn threatening responses from certain copyright owners. Both cases were successfully defended under the concept of ‘fair use’, a First Amendment right in the US which is sadly absent from many other national constitutions, including Australia’s. It seems that if an artist wishes to engage in a critique of a media institution (for example, to analyse the depiction of women in the publications of a specific media enterprise) this criticism can be muted by refusing to grant copyright clearance on the reproduction of images in question. Resistance to the limitations imposed by copyright can be witnessed in the proliferation of ‘shareware’ type anti-copyright schemes such as copyleft, MACOS (Musicians Against Copyright of Samples), and the copyright violation squad.

Net criticism

The growing international theoretical practice of ‘net criticism’ involves not only an analysis of the infrastructure and praxis of the internet, but also the critique of net-theories and net-ideologies. On a theoretical level, many of the presenters attempted a critique of cyberculture which they saw as a product of a corporate culture described as the ‘Californian ideology’. The utopian rhetoric which enthusiastically proclaims the internet as a means to an egalitarian and democratic society, where the body gradually drifts into obsolescence, was continually put into question by Mark Dery, Katja Diefenbach and Peter Lamborn Wilson. As Marleen Stikker (Society for Old and New Media, Amsterdam) suggests, “the American Dream version of the technoculture, ‘the desire to be wired’” finds itself brought down to earth by the “cynical European movement of ‘proud to be flesh’”.

On the practical level, it was emphasised that tactics must be developed to fight the commercialization of the net and the large service providers which often suppress free speech by censoring communications between individuals and groups as they see fit. Another less visible threat to public access is the centralization of control of the net via the registration of domain names. Paul Garrin (Mediafilter, New York) has proposed the introduction of a decentralised autonomous network called ‘panet’ (permanent autonomous network) as a concrete strategy enabling media tacticians to escape this unnecessary control.

Do the new media really lead to greater democracy?

Nina Meilof (Digital City, Amsterdam) presented a virtual online city in Amsterdam called ‘Digital City’ in which residents and visitors can be kept informed of the everyday decisions made in local and national government. Check it out on the net. There is a description of the project in English but the rest is in Dutch. To be a resident of the city one must live in the Netherlands. It is hoped that through this level of participation something like direct, as opposed to representational, democracy might be achieved.

But for some people it is still a matter of getting access to the internet at all, as is the case in some Eastern European countries. As Bob Horwitz commented, the right to a postal address exists but the right to a net address does not.

What next?

Will the new media bring about radical social change? At least not by itself, and certainly not with the help of the corporate culture of the ‘Californian ideology’. As Katja Diefenbach rightly stated, “democracy is a social practice”. We must be wary of the technological determinism that infects much of the discourse on and around the internet. Is the concept of copyright becoming obsolete? Do we really want a push-button democracy? And can this question be separated from the question of ‘access for all’? And finally, what are the implications of a fully wired world for oral cultures such as Australia’s indigenous communities?

These questions will not have to wait until the next Next 5 Minutes because many of the debates will continue online. To keep updated with the debates, exchange ideas on these subjects, or access the archive catalogue of the Next 5 Minutes go to the following URL: http://www.dds.nl/~n5m/program/ [expired]

archive.htm

In the meantime, I will leave you to ponder the following question. Throughout the Next 5 Minutes the debate addressed the valorisation of reality over the abstract spaces of the net. Sivam Krishnapillai (Cambridge), who presented a paper on ethno-national cyber-quarrels in Sri Lanka, up-ended this paradigm with the following observation: “in Buddhism the world is Maya (Illusion), so maybe cyberspace is real”.

Ian Andrews gratefully acknowledges the support of the Industry and Cultural Development Branch of the Australian Film Commission for making his attendance at the Next 5 Minutes: Tactical Media (N5M2) conference possible.

RealTime issue #12 April-May 1996 pg. 25

© Ian Andrews; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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