Book review: Tactical Media by Rita Raley

By: Yeun Au
On: September 21, 2011
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About Yeun Au
Born in The Netherlands and raised with Confucianist values, Dutch education and Western thought. After studying multimedia design in Breda, I am currently pursuing my master's degree in New Media.


In december 2004, an alleged spokesmen of Dow Chemical named ‘Jude Finisterra’ appeared on television to apologize for the Bhopal disaster, a 1984 industrial disaster in India that resulted in thousands of deaths. Two hours (an a lot of uproar) later, Dow Chemical released a press statement where they stated that an interview with one of their employees never occured. They were right; Mr. Finisterra was actually Andy Bichlbaum, one half of the culture jamming-duo The Yes Men. Their aim is to impersonate officials from companies they feel are doing injustice to the world, and take them on by releasing fake statements like this one. So far, they have released two movies: The Yes Men and The Yes Men Fix the World, of which the latter one is available as a free download.

This culture jamming is of Rita Raley’s concern in her book Tactical Media (2009). Raley is an Associate Professor Department of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Yes Men are mentioned in this book’s introduction, along many other examples of tactical media expressions, like the Critical Art Ensemble. Besides these introductary examples, she first tries to outline the definition of tactical media. What Raley does very well is to clear up the distinction of tactical media compared to other forms of (internet) activism. Tactical media is temporal. It is articulating aesthetic strategies for the production of academic criticism. Critical media creates situations where criticality can occur. And last but not least; victory is impossible – it’s about disruption.

Raley deals with issues on simulation and reality, thereby involving the works of Jean Baudrillard. Although Raley gives many examples of tactical media, there’s more in her book than just a list of those activities. In the chapter Virtual War, she focuses on developments in the goverment and their approach to simulated warfare. She then relates these events with tactical media happenings. After the Gulf War that, according to Baudrillard ‘never took place’, we now have the cyberwar that is full of simulations, hyperreality and spectacle. What we might witness is a new battlespace occuring. The government has always tried to control the media and entertainment business, but now the war is also being ‘fought’ on the internet. This includes bot attacks and viruses.

Computer games by Muslim extremists, Christian extremists and the U.S. government are being discussed, all with a varying degree of effectiveness. She notes that the 9/11 Commission Report stated that the terrorists used flight simulators to practice for the real thing. Raley shows the hypocrisy of governments to take amateur video’s of computer games seriously, claiming that terrorists are bound to create on this level of professionalism. She concludes: “representation, or in this case simulation, paves the way for real experience”.

Later on, in the chapter ‘Antiwar Games’ she describes in detail the entanglement of war images, simulation, virtual reality and computer gaming. It’s dangerous to not lose the grip with reality; can war really be fought solely online? Luckily, Raley quickly returns to video games as tactical media – a way to communicate their own politics. It is referred as ‘persuasive gaming’. She refers to the game Fish, where a player must decide the fate of a real goldfish through a game interface. One of the games mentioned – September 12: A Toy World – is impossible to win. You get the chance to bomb an unnamed Middle Eastern city, but the more you bomb, the more terrorists will pop up in the city. These games do not aim to please the player, but to create awareness over real-time situations.

It is at this point of the book where she really ‘activates’ our own mind: so, what is exactly the deal with these hidden politics? Raley shows how the implemented parameters of game developers can be decisive in our experience. Furthermore, Raley also askes the question where the data comes from. And how do people use and visualize these numbers?

The third chapter Speculative Capital: Black Shoals and the Visualizing of Finance is a search for the difference between a visualization tool and a work of art, or between capitalist and artistic speculation. Raley names a few works that try to visualize our economy by taking data from stock markets and currency flows and combine it in the simulation. Among the works is John Kilma’s ecosystm and The Great Game. Raley continues to discuss money and it’s form, matter and function. Since the value of currency is determined by it’s position to other currencies,  they all live in a hyperreal. It is at this point in the chapter that really makes your mind spinning and contemplating about the future: will we continue to build on this hypothetical capital?

Raley describes a ‘biological perspective’ on speculative capital (like stock markets). She researches the possibility of our capitalist economy as a self-regulating organism that can grow, live and create its own offspring. She then continues to discuss the longevity of capitalism and it’s possible future scenario’s. At this point, there are parallels visible with computer technology and complexity theory.

Raley stays away from any radical political opinions, which adds to the readability of the book. Although she writes in an accessible way, but I would argue that a basic knowledge of computing history, recent popular culture and economics would come in handy. I would recommend this book to future artists and critics, who can draw inspiration from past installatons so in a way, Raley is giving the activists a helping hand in sabotaging the system. Throughout her book, there is a post-human debate going on: where does our power end and where does technological performativity begin?  At the end of the book, Raley describes the installation Black Shoals, where feedback from a simulation is actually used by the machine itself. Still, she emphasizes the need for human perception in both financial markets and the tactical media installations. The question remains how this debate will continue.

Author: Rita Raley

Title: Tactical Media

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

ISBN: 978-0816651511

On Friday 30th September 2011, De Balie in Amsterdam will host Media Squares, an international seminar to develop a critical analysis of the new forms of social protest and their media dimension. The seminar is part of an on-going research into Tactical Media, the fusion of art, media, politics and cultural activism, centred around the ‘Tactical Media Files‘, an on-line documentation resource of Tactical Media practices world-wide. The program will start at 10:30, admission is 5 euro.

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