Tactical media

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Tactical media is a term coined in 1996,[1][2][3] to denote a form of media activism that privileges temporary, hit-and-run interventions in the media sphere over the creation of permanent and alternative media outlets. Tactical media describes interventionist media art practices that engage and critique the dominant political and economic order. They were first popularized in Europe and the United States by media theorists and practitioners such as David Garcia, Geert Lovink, Joanne Richardson, and the Critical Art Ensemble. Since then, it has been used to describe the practices of a vast array of art and activist groups such as the Peng Collective, RTMark, The Yes Men, Electronic Disturbance Theater, Carbon Defense League, Institute for Applied Autonomy, 0100101110101101.ORG, Bureau of Inverse Technology, Ubermorgen, The Illuminator, Irational.org, subRosa, and I/O/D, among others.


Although tactical media borrows from a number of artistic and political movements, it has been suggested that much of its techniques are rooted in the Situationist idea of detournement,[4] that is, in the critical appropriation and transformation of a preexisting work—be it an artwork, a commercial billboard, or a political campaign. In the case of tactical media, it is the media themselves to be the subject of a detournement.

The dada movement has also been credited as an influence on tactical media, the two often used within activist campaigns.[5] Much like it, tactical media often aims to do the opposite of the media it penetrates: it shocks and reveals an antithesis.

Tactical media also draws from surrealism,[5] borrowing the idea that a "truer" experience than the present one is present. Much like surrealism, tactical media also criticizes social, political and cultural elements of a given society through its domain's techniques.

As for media-related roots, tactical media partly stem from the alternative media created by the counterculture of the 1960s. However, due do their temporary nature, tactical media do not tend to construct alternative media outlets, but rather appropriate existing media channels and technology to transform their usage and/or the popular understanding of their messages. In this respect, tactical media are more akin to other temporary forms of cultural and political intervention, such as guerrilla communication and culture jamming.


Tactical media is said to have risen following the fall of the Berlin Wall, where a certain rebirth of social, political, economical and media activism occurred.[6] This activist spirit soon reached both media specialists and artists, creating the groundwork of tactical media. In many ways, it was made possible by the availability of cheaper technology and by open forms of distribution, such as public-access television and the Internet. Through tactical media, participants are able to attract attention to an issue they feel strongly about and want society to be aware of or get involved in.

Most who have written about tactical media would agree that its current form and meaning come from French philosopher Michel de Certeau, more specifically in his 1984 essay "The Practice of Everyday Life". As part of this essay, De Certeau debated that consumers actually act as producers within our society, moving in a technocratically constructed space and using an already established vocabulary. The importance to De Certeau is that these practices "determines the elements used, but not the 'phrasing' produced by the bricolage (the artisan-like inventiveness) and the discursiveness that combine these elements, which are all in general circulation."[7] This distinction between the elements used within a society and the system under which they are used is critical to the study of tactical media. In his essay, De Certeau appeared to suggest that one could easily use these social elements in a creative manner that would fall outside of the system under which they are to be used.

Once this distinction was made, De Certeau also pushed forward the idea of how the elements found within a society could be used. One of these was to use them as a "tactic", which he believed to "[insinuate] itself into the other's place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance. It has at its disposal no base where it can capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances".[7] Due to its lack of space, he also characterized a tactic to be dependent on time, needing to be constantly on the watch for opportunities that must be quickly seized or needing to manipulate events in order to turn them into opportunities.

By mixing the nature of tactics with the use of media, a new type of activism was created. It used elements of a particular system in a creative manner that fell outside its practices, creating resistance through difference. De Certeau's concept of a tactic also explains why most tactical media campaigns are quick, effective and current.

However, successful a particular campaign or a particular group may be, its ultimate goal is not to replace a certain media outlet, for tactical media discourages branding[8]:258 because of the probable outcome that a similar cycle as the one attacked would be created once again. It must therefore be understood that tactical media never reaches a state of perfection; it is constantly changing, because it constantly needs to question the system under which it operates.[8]:264

Although it is possible for tactical media to be representative of the local views of a specific area, it is usually present on a global level. There are plenty of tactical media projects that operate on a physical space, but it most often uses networked space and the Internet, making its span stretch over the entire planet. The virtual nature of the space it occupies also allows it to create new channels towards the hierarchies of power it fights against. A certain tactic does not need to attack in person or on a physical level, but it can attack virtual and free space where the dominant have little control. This important element makes a tactical media project not the work of certain identifiable individuals but an entity in itself, which most likely helps convey the message it attempts to communicate.[9]


Tactical media projects are often a mix between art and activism, which explains why many of its roots can be traced to various art movements. It has been suggested by tactical media theorist Geert Lovink that "discourse plus art equals spectacle",[10] reflecting its striking and memorable nature. Although there are no strict mediums through which it operates, tactical media can often have very high aesthetic value, adding to its "spectacle" and reinforcing some of its artistic roots.


In 1998, computer programmer and political activist Zack Exley purchased a domain and created a website titled GWbush.com.[11]:114 He invited the group RTMark (pronounced Art Mark) to build a copy of George W. Bush's official website, as they had done for some corporate websites.

Later, Zack Exley changed the website to be a more mainstream satire (drawing criticism from RTMark),[12] posting a fake press release from the Bush campaign announcing a promise to "pardon all drug prisoners as long as they've learned from their past mistakes". In the midst of Bush's campaign for office, the website not only received millions of hits, but also received coverage from such organizations as ABC News, USA Today and Newsweek.[11]:117 This phenomenon can be classified as tactical media because of its conformance to its corresponding criteria.

Tactical air force[edit]

In 2000, Mexico's Zapatista Army of National Liberation social movement decided to launch a "tactical air force". The Zapatistas' air force consisted of hundreds of paper airplanes. After throwing the planes over the fence of a federal barrack, confused troops were quick to point their rifles at the paper intruders, creating an image that conveyed a very strong message of peace versus war—the target ultimately being the government.[11]:124

The Yes Men[edit]

The Yes Men are an organization who mimic their subject through certain media: examples include counterfeiting sites and creating fake videos. They will mimic their criticized subject, designed to fool the general public into believing their alternate identity. Examples of organizations and corporations that The Yes Men have successfully impersonated (and criticized) are Dow Chemicals, ExxonMobil, McDonald's, World Trade Organization, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), The New York Times and Heritage.

All of The Yes Men's media operate in a similar fashion: they will impersonate a powerful entity, and publicize or make decisions based on their own personal viewpoint. One of the most controversial but widely known works that The Yes Men have produced is a humorous video spoof where they impersonated a World Trade Organization representative, asking corporations to buy votes directly from the general public. Some other ideas that they publicized in this video spoof include the present-day influence dating from the Civil War, encouraging the idea of reviving slavery.

These video spoofs are meant to evoke emotions of outrage and absurdity. They were once successful enough to fool the public to the extent where they were able to be interviewed by CNN—however, CNN was unaware of the true identity of The Yes Men.
An example of Yes Men:

  • Impersonating a Dow Chemical spokesperson[13]

Revolution Islam[edit]

In April 2010, a radical Islamic group, Revolution Muslim, made threats to South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, after they were offended of the show depicting their prophet Mohammed.[14] As a tactical media rebuttal, unknown agents created a site with a similar URL to Revolution Muslim's website showing images of a controversial comic of Mohammed (The comic shows Mohammed with a bomb as his turban and sparked a huge controversy in 2006).[15] as well as a highly regarded Islamic leader kissing an Islamic child on the mouth.[16] This website was intended to draw visitors who incorrectly typed in the URL to the Islamic website. This tactic was aiming to mock Islamic radicals who use violent tactics to get their way and then get offended that they are stereotyped as violent.

RiP: A Remix Manifesto[edit]

Brett Gaylor, an avid Web activist, created a documentary entitled RiP: A Remix Manifesto, which was dedicated to defending deejay Girl Talk, who had been accused by top record labels with copyright infringement. Although Girl Talk samples songs from other artists, Gaylor suggests that copyrights should be distributed according to the creator of the music as a whole, rather than who holds the ownership for specific songs. Moreover, he argues that Girl Talk should be the owner of the mash-ups that he created, despite ownership conflicts. This represents tactical media well, because an ordinary person with a mindset can create a temporary power of reversal with Girl Talk's adversaries.

In video games[edit]

Video games have opened a whole new approach and canvas for tactical media artists. This form of media allows for a wide range of audiences to be informed on a specific issue or idea. Some examples of games that touch on Tactical Media are Darfur is Dying and September 12.[17] One example of a game design studio that works in tactical media is TAKE ACTION games (TAG).[18] The video game website www.newsgaming.com greatly embodies the idea of tactical media in video games. Newsgaming coins this name as a new genre that brings awareness to current news-related issues based on true world events, as opposed to fantasy worlds that other video games are based upon. This team of game developers contributes to the emerging culture that is largely aimed at raising awareness on important matters in a new and brilliant approach.[19]

Another examples of tactical media within video games is The McDonald's Game; the author of this game takes power away from the executive officers of McDonald's and gives it back to the public by informing then, through rhetoric, on how McDonald's does its business and what means they use to accomplish it.

Chris Crawford's Balance of the Planet, made in 1990, is another example of tactical media, in which the game describes environmental issues.


Best known for his homeless vehicle project. Wodiczko designed a sleeping quarters for the homeless using a device that resembled a shopping cart and inside was a designed sleeping area. He dispersed the vehicles to homeless people around New York City, envisioning a goal that raised homelessness awareness. New York City officials confiscated the vehicles so the message would not further spread.[20]

Best known for Couple in a Cage, performances where people pretending to be extinct natives are displayed in a caged area in public. This work of art is intended to challenge the idea of preconceptions that many hold regarding other cultures.

Bustamante performs art that challenges stereotypes and constructions of identity, bringing attention to issues about personal classification and character. She is a strong proponent of individualism and personal growth: the only entity capable of forging an identity being the person him or herself.

Kaprow's work attempts to integrate art and life. Through "Happenings", the separation between life, art, artist, and audience becomes vague and open to interpretation. The "Happening" allows the artist to experiment with human senses, deploying the involvement of sight, sound, and smell. Key elements of happenings are planned, but occasionally, artists retain room for improvisation.

Mandiberg produces websites and Firefox plug-ins that provide information about environmental aspects of our world, such as the cost of oil. His plug-ins reshape and modify the displayed information on other websites to display an alarming point.

"How Much it Costs Us"[21]
"Oil Standards"[22]

De Certeau helped invent the idea and methodology that is tactical media and stressed the important roles of consumers vs. producers in society.[citation needed]

Geert Lovink is a very influential person[citation needed] and has played a large role in the evolution and presence of tactical media.[23] Lovink in a sense believes the idea of tactical media has been greatly miscued and that what this idea and title once stood for has been misinterpreted and drawn off course by falsified groups and causes that claim the title of tactical media.

In 2009, Rita Raley, Associate Professor of English at UC Santa Barbara authored a book titled Tactical Media[26] published by the University of Minnesota Press in its "Electronic Mediations" series. Raley provides a critical exploration of the new media art activism that has emerged from, and in direct response to, postindustrialism and neoliberal globalization.[27] Throughout the book Raley analyzes projects by tactical media groups such as the DoEAT group,[28] the Critical Art Ensemble,[29] Electronic Civil Disobedience[30] to name a few.[27] Raley argues that contemporary models of resistance and dissent in fact mimic the decentralized and virtual operations of global capital in our "post-9/11 security state" to exploit and undermine the system from within.[27]

The Yes Men are an activist duo who perform "identity correction", in which they pose as representatives of large corporations and fake moral actions (in contrast to the actual ideology of such groups). Using mass media outlets, the duo draw attention to corporate crime and often create situations in which corporations must publicly acknowledge their lack of responsibility towards disastrous events.

Andujar turns free and open-source software into a progressive tool to reprogram the use and understanding of computers as well as social culture at large.

  • X-Devian and the Reprogramming of Free Software Culture[31]
  • The Art of Hacking –or: Communication Guerrilla as Artistic Practice with New Media[32]


It has often been compared to culture jamming, as both use many of the same techniques in an attempt to occupy the public space controlled by mass media. Where the two practices differ is in their way to obtain this public space; while culture jamming consists of a response to the dominant practices within it, tactical media uses the dominant practices in order to penetrate it and become part of it. "Don't hate the media, become the media" (as coined by Jello Biafra, spoken word artist and lead singer songwriter of the Dead Kennedys)[33] is a slogan often adopted by tactical activists and reflects this important distinction. Tactical media has also been compared to alternative media. It differs from the latter by its manner in dealing with mass media where alternative media does not seek to infiltrate the dominant by a quick tactic; it attempts to oppose it by proposing what its name suggests: an alternative to the dominant.[11]:119

Versus strategic media[edit]

Tactical media is described as the rebellious user—examples of media tacticians include hackers, street rappers, or an innocent bystander filming an incident. An important factor in tactical media is the idea of "ground level" work, meaning that a power struggle exists: ordinary people who do not possess status or capital utilize technology to create a temporary reversal of power. Certain aspects that strengthen the magnitude of tactical media can include crisis, criticism, critique, or absurdity—in order to convey a social message.

Tactical media's counterpart is strategic media: a common analogy used to describe this phenomenon is an overseer controlling the masses. They are people who are the supplier of information: examples include producers, authors, and educators. They promote ideas that typically only benefit them, whereas tactical media tends to broadcast a message that criticizes a powerful entity, such as a corporation or strong organization.[34]

There is some debate that tactical media resembles a strategy more than a tactic.[11]:121


Although a crucial element of tactical media states that ordinary citizens of society are performing the criticism, some say that even everyday people may have skewed intentions or opinions that do not represent the societal ideals as a whole.[35]

Much of the tactical media projects are fueled by information warfare and has also been accused to be closely linked to propaganda. The high value of aesthetics placed within a project is said to be the element that enables the transfer of this information, parallel to how propaganda functions.[35]



  1. ^ Nayar, Pramod K. (2010) An Introduction to New Media and Cybercultures p.100
  2. ^ David Garcia and Geert Lovink (1997) The ABC of Tactical Media, intro
  3. ^ Boler, Megan (2008) Digital media and democracy: tactics in hard times, p.369
  4. ^ Richardson, Joanne. "The Language of Tactical Media from BalkonMagazine, Autumn 2002, No. 12".
  5. ^ a b Holmes, Brian & Sholette, Gregory, "Civil Disobedience as Art Art as Civil Disobedience: A conversation between Brian Holmes and Gregory Sholette" from Artpapers.org, Vol. 29, No.5, 2005
  6. ^ Lovink, Geert & Schneider, Florian, "Virtual World is Possible: From Tactical Media to Digital Multitudes" from Journal de l'Archipel des Revues, November 2003, from [1] Multitudes website
  7. ^ a b de Certeau, Michel (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. The University of California Press. p. 229.
  8. ^ a b Lovink, Geert (August 11, 2003). Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture. The MIT Press. p. 394. ISBN 978-0-262-62180-9.
  9. ^ Dzuverovic-Russell, Lina, "The Artist and the Internet: a Breeding Ground for Deception" from Digital Creativity, Vol.14, No.3, p.154.
  10. ^ Lovink, Geert, "Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture", p.256, The MIT Press
  11. ^ a b c d e Meikle, Graham (2002). "Turning Signs into Question Marks". Future active: media activism and the internet. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-94322-2.
  12. ^ Yeomans, Matthew (4 February 2000). "The Power Jokers". Slate.
  13. ^ the yes men. YouTube. 7 June 2006.
  14. ^ "revolutionmuslim.com".
  15. ^ "Publishing Danish Cartoons of Mohammed: A Matter of Both Free Speech and Editorial Discretion". Irregulartimes.com. 2006-02-09. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  16. ^ http://www.revolutionIslam.com
  17. ^ Boyd, Clark (2006-07-06). "Technology | Darfur activism meets video gaming". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  18. ^ "TAKE ACTION games". TAKE ACTION games. Archived from the original on 2010-05-26. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  19. ^ "newsgaming.com". newsgaming.com. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  20. ^ "An Interview With Krzysztof Wodiczko". Art-omma.org. October 23, 2000. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  21. ^ "HowMuchItCosts.us".
  22. ^ "Oil Standard, Greasemonkey conversion of US Dollars to Barrels of Oil". turbulence.org.
  23. ^ Lovink, Geert (2001-06-12). "Tactical Media, the Second Decade". laudanum.net. Retrieved September 1, 2010.
  24. ^ http://www.media.mq.edu.au/graham/
  25. ^ "Tactical Media". University of Minnesota Press.
  26. ^ Raley, Rita (2009). Tactical Media (Electronic Mediations). ISBN 978-0816651511.
  27. ^ a b c "Tactical Media". University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved 21 October 2011.
  28. ^ "A Short Interview with artist Shannon Spanhake about the DoEAT group. - post.thing.net". thing.net.
  29. ^ "Critical Art Ensemble". critical-art.net.
  30. ^ a b http://www.critical-art.net/books/digital/tact1.pdf
  31. ^ "X-Devian. The New Technologies To The People System, 2003 - banquete_08". banquete.org.
  32. ^ http://www.sujaschko.de/downloads/99/filename
  33. ^ "Jello Quotes". Retrieved 18 October 2011.
  34. ^ "<nettime> The ABC of Tactical Media". nettime.org.
  35. ^ a b von Clausewitz, Sfear. "A Reaction to Tactical Media, Subliminal Propaganda Institute, ND".
  36. ^ http://www.creativeactivism.net Archived 2011-12-09 at the Wayback Machine
  37. ^ "Memefest - Socially Responsive Communication and Art: Kolektiv/Festival/Network/Community". memefest.org.
  38. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-02-12. Retrieved 2009-11-19.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  39. ^ "Preemptive Media". preemptivemedia.net.
  40. ^ "subRosa". cyberfeminism.net.

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