Rita Raley – Tactical Media

Rita Raley

Univ Of Minnesota Press, ISBN 978-0816651511, USA, 2009, English
Despite being developed from a singular historical context, tactical media has shown remarkable staying power as a conceptual framework for politically engaged media art projects. In the classic theorization by Geert Lovink and David Garcia for the Next Five Minutes events, Michel de Certeau’s work on everyday life (tactics as ‘the art of the weak’) was famously linked together with the possibilities implied by the rise of digital consumer culture (‘cheap electronics’) to capture a sense of an emergent media aesthetic deployed toward political ends. In particular, the effectiveness of the original concept was to illuminate a makeshift DIY pragmatism that underpinned the great diversity of experimental practices with digital and networked technology at the time, including electronic civil disobedience, net.art and journalistic initiatives such as Indymedia. There was always a kind of ambiguity to the term, however, a kind of openness that allowed for new iterations to changing conditions. This quality perhaps explains the continuing influence of the idea, since tactical media are by definition adaptive, guided by a demand for inventiveness and a certain political persuasion. Accordingly, under the title Tactical Media, US-based academic Rita Raley offers her version of the concept through an analysis of key projects that respond to the economic, political and cultural aspects of the neoliberal condition over the past decade. Marked by a shift toward what is seen as increasingly sophisticated yet more dispersed techniques of critical intervention, the book is structured thematically by readings of border hacks, persuasive gaming and the data visualization of financial markets. Influential projects by Electronic Disturbance Theatre, John Klima, DoEAT, Anne-Marie Schleiner and Luis Hernandez, Joseph DeLappe, Ubermorgen.com, Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway feature in these discussions (among others), however, the text is not written to be a comprehensive review. Rather, works like Black Shoals: Stock Market Planetarium, the FloodNet software and dead-in-Iraq are articulated as moments of dissent within a field of power that is increasingly dispersed, networked and informational; a standard proposal supported by either the Deleuzian control society thesis or the early theoretical proposals of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) in The Electronic Disturbance, for instance. Throughout Tactical Media, however, there is a sense in which this underlying notion of event-based ‘cultural resistance’ is taken as given, being based on an assertion that these projects involve “an intervention and disruption of a dominant semiotic regime”. While all the appropriate references are made – thinkers like Deleuze, Virno, Hardt and Negri, and next generation media scholarship are present and accounted for – these are often cited in passing without fully explaining their actual currency for the production or reception of these (already well informed) media-works. The consequences of this are most apparent when Raley responds to issues around the pragmatic outcomes of tactical media. For example, dealing with critiques like those made by Lovink and Ned Rossiter under the rubric of organized networks, she claims: “the right question is not whether tactical media works or not, whether it succeeds or fails in spectacular fashion to effect structural transformation; rather, we should be asking to what extent it strengthens social relations and to what extent its activities are virtuosic”. Her perspective emphasizes the participatory significance of the audience with reference to Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics and the performative qualities of virtuosity through Virno’s writings on multitude. Here, political traction is said to occur as the audience completes the ‘signifying field’ of an event, and records ‘a memory of the performance’. In other words, there is no obvious extrinsic product from these tactical interventions, since they are defined as engagements that function to transform the social or general intellect. This is a crucial point that delves into important debates around cognitive capitalism and nonrepresentational politics, but is merely signaled to during the introduction, not substantiated or even rigorously argued for. Such a quasi-mobilisation of theory is, unfortunately, a recurring feature of the text, and tends to obscure rather than illuminate the complex links being drawn. While Raley then strives to engage with an important hybrid set of practices, and makes gestures that are both key and urgent, Tactical Media too often falls short of connecting with and transforming the import of radical media practice as an experimental style for contemporary socio-technological controversies. This tendency is all the more notable since reinterpretation and adaptation is arguably so constitutive of tactical media as a movement itself – especially when geared toward changing perspectives on and altering our present understanding of things.

Michael Dieter