Radical media, politics and culture.

Next5Minutes4 -- Festival of Tactical Media in Ams

Anonymous Comrade writes:

An International Festival of Tactical Media
September 11 - 14, 2003, Amsterdam
a report

by Snafu - 09/27/2003
from thing.net, http://bbs.thing.net/communicator.thing

As the curtain fell on the conclusive meeting of Next5Minutes4 (http://www.n5m.org) the feeling was widespread that tactical media (tm) are in the midst of fording a swift river. It is hard to say what tm will find on the other bank of the river because riding the currents of these precarious times already seems quite an engaging exercise. By definition, tactical media are unstable, in permanent crisis, malleable, and adaptable to mutating circumstances. Nevertheless, the previous edition of the festival which gave birth to tm and followed its early steps was held more than four years ago when two major global events were still to occur: 9-11 and the outbreak of the Seattle movement. Between these two, the collapse of the new economy undermined not only a business model but also a way of building sustainable networks and techno-social infrastructures.

As a start - symbolically coinciding with the second anniversary of 9-11 - N5M dealt with this deeply changed panorama by giving voice to "Witnesses and Testimonies" from the hot spots of the Middle East. NGOs like Rawa, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (http://www.rawa.org) and groups like Big Noise Films, Voices in the Wilderness and Witness expose to the public eye what mainstream media tends to forget, and train local practitioners to make their own media.

The festival began with a synthesis of the three key concepts that inspired it: the reappearance of The Public; the struggle to appropriate tactics and languages; and the deployment of these struggles in "deep local" contexts -- issues that suggest a drive to "return to the real" and a shrinking of the space dedicated to aesthetic research over technological. In short, reflection on tm focused mainly on how to exchange and deliver information effectively in times of extensive privatization and restrictive regulation of the public sphere.

It was no accident that the only playground addressed nationally was the Italian one. In a state characterized by an incredible concentration of media and political power (media mogul Silvio Berlusconi being the Prime Minister), in the last two years the birth and growth of a rhizome of community television stations connected to social movements represents a case study and laboratory for the international community. These "telestreets" (the name given to the microstations like Orfeo TV, Candida, and Urban TV), cover a range of a few hundred square meters in neighborhoods in cities like Rome and Bologna by exploiting the shadow cones of other stations and exchanging their productions through a national video database (see http://www.ngvision.org). Based entirely on volunteer labor, these entities have to face the endemic scarcity of financial resources and the complete privatization of the airwaves by bigger players.

The Airwaves belong to the People and now the People want them back

The "Laboratory Italy" found a non-explicit relationship with the panel "Radio Space: Wireless in Your Psyche." Starting with reflections on the experience of "Klubradio", the Berliner Pit Schultz recalled that "being successful with streaming media means gaining more audience, but this increases the consumption of bandwidth and results in linear growth of the transmission costs." If this model was still viable in the days of the dotcom mania, it now looks completely outdated. This is why, Schultz said, "The long waves of radio always return while the peaks of other media go up and down at a faster pace." Once again the airwaves will become the real battleground for reaching end users while the internet is seen more as an infrastructure to exchange content remotely.

This battleground was also invoked by Arun Metha, President of the Society for Telecommunications Empowerment, an NGO committed to the diffusion of low-cost technology in the poorest and most remote areas of India. Metha presented a project organized with the women of an Indian village to build a low power community FM radio transmitter. The power of the homemade transmitter was so low (15 milliwatts) that under Indian law it did not require any authorization. Nevertheless, the government sent the village a cease-and-desist injunction. Metha replied that "Since the same power is used for cordless microphones, is the government to be considered breaking the law any time it holds a conference? And should all karaoke bars in the country also be banned?"

This story touches on an issue central to many of the conference's panels and workshops: true deregulation in favor of public, non-exclusive use of the airwaves. This notion of a "digital commons" is also embraced by Eric Kluitenberg, one of the N5M organizers. As the Dutch critic writes in the festival's Readme text: "The commons refers to a resource, to common land, to common means of production, knowledge, or information that are shared amongst a more or less well-defined community... the rules of how these common resources are shared, and amongst whom, are not necessarily fixed in intransmutable rules." The commons differs from the concept of public domain by implying a strong principle of responsibility among the community that uses it; also, "it evolves over time." On the other hand, the latter "implies a passive, open space that can be shared by anyone and everyone." A typical incarnation of the "digital commons" concept is fm.thing.net, a network of mini-fm transmitters/receivers built in Manhattan by New Zealander Adam Hyde with the support of The Thing.

Another stirring example of the tactical use of the neutrality of the public domain was the work of Rebecca Gomperts of Women on Waves, an organization that employs boats to reach countries where abortion is illegal or heavily restricted (such as Ireland or Poland). They distribute emergency abortion pills and even invite women in need on board to have abortions in international waters. Gomperts spoke on a panel dedicated to "Contestational Science" that featured brilliant speakers such as Eugene Thacker, Irina Aristarkhova, Claire Pentecost, Michael Dorsey, and David Barr, who offered a general overview of life sciences such as bioinformatics, tissue production/flow, GM food biopiracy, and HIV treatment. Unfortunately they didn't delve into the system's weak points and possible tactics to exploit them.

The Diagrams of Power

If the exploitation of interstices is part of the genetic code of tactical media, the festival also proposed a more strategic overview with the panel "Tactical Cartography, Diagrams of Power: Visualizing for the Public Eye," dedicated to different techniques of mapper. Brian Holmes, collaborator on the French magazine Multitudes and member of the Bureau des Etudes, a group of researchers based in Strasbourg and Paris, explained that the focus of the Bureau's work is "to suggest a new way of reading a power that remains largely invisible but that moves very quickly and easily through national borders."

Mapping the geography of a power that is opaque due to networks of communication is the function of the latest map developed by the Bureau (Info-space, Info-war, Governing by Networks), and presented for the first time at the Next5Minutes. The map divides the power into different spheres (financial groups, the internet's regulatory bodies, surveillance networks, IT giants), and links them. Different kinds of power are identified as different logos or pictograms, and from the dense web of interest groups emerge isolated key figures that demonstrate, Holmes said, "that behind the theory of the anonymous techno-structure there are actual people and families." A cogent critique of this form of representing power structures came from Ted Byfield, who observed that "these maps are indeed diagrams. Since these powers do not deploy themselves on a geographic territory, the diagrams should be articulated as processes in order to include the dimension of time and not in symmetric patterns that project a holistic image of the world not far from that of imperial cartographers of the eighteenth century."

In order to bypass these limits, the Bureau is working on an online map generator, based on open source technology, that will allow users to submit updates and propose changes to the overall structure (http://www.universite-tangente.fr.st). Also open source, by code or by attitude, are also the software and collaborative environments conceived for the development of tm in the "Tactical Media Tool Builders' Fair," from the community storytelling software presented by Graham Harwood to the text-filtering weblog Discordia.us; from the antisocial WiFi Hogger by Jonah Brucker-Cohen (a device that allows individuals to gain control over a public access wireless network) to "Yo Mango" tactics on how to market shoplifting in malls.

Another aspect of the festival was its performative side, well represented by groups like the Viennese "State of Sabotage" (a version of the NSK's "State in Time") and "NoEscape" who turned the Saturday night party at Paradiso into a "100% safe" claustrophobic box. An eyescan and the taking of fingerprints were only a prelude to the assignment to each visitor of a "bodycard" that allowed them access to only certain areas of the building, while rules of behavior like "if you leave your luggage it will be destroyed immediately" set the right mood for relaxation and entertainment.

A final note regards the decline in the number of participants in comparison to the last gathering, balanced by an increase in the level of participation; a paradox that reflects the ultimate short-circuit between actors and spectators, but also a lesser hybridization of formal experimentations with culture jamming tactics. It was as if the multiplication of global conflicts had reduced the space for simulation, leaving to tm the role of interfacing and articulating the "digital multitudes." An ambitious task, its capacity to affect social dynamics and collective imagination will be verified during the mobilization organized in and around the United Nations World Summit on Information Society (Geneva, December 10-12 2003), and initiated by a general call http://www.geneva03.org/> as elaborated at the N5M.

Thanks to Arturo di Corinto for contributing material.

Candida http://candida.thing.net

Women On Waves http://www.womenonwaves.org/index_eng.html

State of Sabotage http://www.sabotage.at/sos/

WiFi Hogger by Jonah Brucker-Cohen http://www.coin-operated.com/projects
Rawa (Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan) http://www.rawa.org

Big Noise Films http://www.bignoisefilms.com

Voices in the Wilderness http://www.nonviolence.org/vitw

Witness http://www.witness.org
N5M4 Extended post-festival networking environment"