Tactical Media

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Alessandra Renzi
OISE/ University of Toronto

Activist information campaigns and protests aimed at sensitizing the public to issues of social justice and politics often fail to reach an audience. In some cases, this is due to a reticence on the part of the mainstream media to tackle controversial issues. However, this can also simply happen because inadequate communication tactics prevent the public from identifying with or understanding the language used to convey the intended message. In other words, many actions organized by activist organizations go unnoticed, either because they do not succeed in showcasing their cause through means that cannot be ignored by the media, or because their lines of argument cannot be easily connected with the ways non-activist audiences experience the world.


Tactical Media (TM) are a loosely defined set of practices that can be used by activists and community groups seeking to engage with the production of counter-information, as well as with its modes and possibilities of dissemination. In fact, the tactical circulation of information is a fundamental aspect of political intervention in the informational environment.


"Tactical media are media of crisis, criticism and opposition. This is both the source of their power, and also their limitation. Their typical heroes are the activist, Nomadic media warriors, the pranxter, the hacker, the street rapper, the camcorder kamikaze..." (the ABC of Tactical Media)

Because of their ad-hoc character and their adaptability to different contexts, TM are hard to define. Hence, instead of “what is TM?” a more useful question is “how does TM work?” The following three examples are helpful to illustrate some of TM’s possible uses and outcomes.

Example one: During the last US presidential campaign Bush’s official website was cloned, with the alternative site featuring a critique of Bush’s agenda to become president. This site was set up by the Yes Men, a group of actors who impersonate representatives of important organisations at official meetings in order to subvert their messages in the mainstream media. Their stunt prompted Bush to announce on television that “there ought to be limits to democracy”.

Example two: Several labour activist groups in Europe, fighting against unstable working conditions use TM for their campaigns. The Italian group Chainworkers invented Saint Precario, the patron saint of precarious workers. His statue appears at demonstrations, public events and in public spaces, constructing “precarity” through familiar symbols, and leading the public to make its own connections between the procession, common people’s problems and today’s world market. Through San Precario and other similar games and actions, the issue of precarious labor has gained visibility within the EU and is now being discussed even outside of its borders--while more sustainable forms of social struggle against precarity are the background on which such actions rest.

Example three: Telestreet is a network pirate television stations run by activists and community groups who use free UHF frequencies and simple, low-cost technological devices to broadcast their video productions into Italian households. Telestreet programming is not solely aimed at counterbalancing Berlusconi’s monopoly on the mainstream media with alternative content, but also at experimenting with the medium of television as a space for cultural production and community building.

Generally, TM rely on artistic practices and "do it yourself" (DIY) media, created from readily available, relatively cheap technology and means of communication. A tactical medium is devised according to the context where it is supposed to function. This means that it is sensitive to the different sets of communicative genres and resources valued in a specific place, which may vary from street theatre and banner-dropping to the internet or radio. For this reason, TM actions they are very effective and can take on a wide variety of forms. For instance, they can mimic traditional means of information while circulating alternative content; they can subvert the meaning of well-known cultural symbols; and, they can create new outlets for counter-information with the help of new media.

In many cases, TM practitioners borrow from avant-garde art practices (e.g. linguistic sabotage and detournement), politics and consumer culture to trouble commonly held beliefs about every-day life. Such techniques–also called culture jamming–involve an appropriation of the language and discourses of their political target, which is familiar to the non-activist audience. Therefore, the subversion of the message’s meaning pushes the audience to notice where some strategies of domination are at work in a given discourse, raising questions about the objectivity of what is believed to be “normal.” TM actions creatively reframe known discourses, causing the public to recognize their limits. According to TM theorist David Garcia “classical TM, unlike agit-prop, are designed to invite discourse” (Garcia 2006), they plant the seeds for discussion by operating a fissure in what is considered to be “objective reality,” requiring a form of engagement to decode their message.

Despite many successes, TM practices like the Yes Men impersonations have often been criticized because their short-term interventions expose the weak points in the system but do not attempt to address them. However, TM should not be seen or employed as an isolated form of protest but as one tool for groups to reach wider audiences in a broader network of political struggle. In fact, even when they hijack the attention of the mass media, the Yes Men stunts and Saint Precario do not constitute an emancipatory practice in itself. Yet, they are a great example of how to bring topics to debate. As part of an organized campaign centred on a specific issue, such stunts can give resonance to voices otherwise unheard, and hopefully open up some space for a dialogue between minority and majority groups–or between minorities.

Moreover, TM practices can help make transversal connections between context-related social, cultural and political problems, and various organized sites of resistance. For example, the Telestreet network enables different activist groups and coalitions to use their space to support or showcase their own cause. Similarly, TM practices can be useful to create new memes that raise awareness of unjust social conditions, as in the case of Saint Precario.

Ultimately, it is important to maintain TM’s emphasis on experimentation, collaboration and the exchange of knowledge as part of a broader cartography of organized social struggle. For these reasons, there is a need to create more conditions where TM exploration of new possibilities for resistance can take place. Such projects can range from media literacy teaching to culture jamming workshops in schools, to festivals and temporary media labs where people can come together and develop creative ways to engage in protest and critique of the systems which govern their lives from an ever-increasing distance.


TM practices are marked by an ongoing attempt to experiment with the dynamics of media dissemination of information, searching for the most effective way to bypass the obstacles created during the diffusion of such information, in order to reach an audience. Thus, TM actions can help activists attract the attention of the mainstream media, as well as enable them to convey their message in a way that is intelligible to the audience.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: www.insutv.it

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