Tactical Media - Book Review
In this original and wide-ranging book, Rita Raley examines how technologies of data visualization and gaming can serve as tools for new kinds of political resistance. A literary scholar, Raley approaches websites, installations, and other forms of new media art from an aesthetic perspective, studying these objects more as texts than technologies.
When Raley looks at a video game, she examines it not primarily as digital entertainment or a political act, but as an artwork whose political message is embedded in its technological form. Tactical Media is, in short, a contribution to the growing literature on new media art, exploring how contemporary artists have used information technology to challenge capitalism in an age of globalization.
The book unfolds in three chapters that center on immigration, antiwar activism, and finance capital. As these subjects suggest, Raley is not telling the story of a unified or coherent political movement. The targets of her activists range from McDonald’s and George W. Bush to intellectual property interests, which the art collective Ubermorgen skewered by hacking Amazon.com and making thousands of books available for free online. A key example is decidedly low-tech: the group DoEAT simply pasted new messages on signs along the U.S.-Mexican border meant to warn of immigrants crossing the highway.
Activists replaced the warning beneath the silhouette of a mother, father, and child with “Free Market” and “Now Hiring,” reminding drivers of why families might be dashing in front of their cars (p. 31). This “border hack,” as Raley calls it, is one of many acts that seek to defamiliarize the signs of everyday life, pursuing a series of provocative events or spectacles rather than a program of systematic change. For Raley, groups like Critical Art Ensemble and the Yes Men substitute a “micropolitics of disruption, intervention, and education” for an older leftist paradigm of revolution (p. 1).
Technology based anti-war activism
In this sense, Tactical Media is an ambivalent book that attempts to make the case that frequently symbolic, technology-based activism can illuminate the inner workings of finance capitalism and the contemporary security state. Raley positions this activism against the increasingly abstract representational systems of the stock market, economic theory, and the “information society” in general (p. 132). New media art can reveal a “parallax,” she suggests, contrasting digital systems of control with the heavy weight of life as it is experienced by actual human beings (p. 143).
In doing so, she juxtaposes projects like John Klima’s ecosystem, which used Reuters stock data to represent stock transactions as bursting knots of light, with Allan Sekula’s photos of harbors and shipping containers. The photos unambiguously convey the material reality of a global market that celebrates instantaneity and the erasure of space, while ecosystm also creates an intelligible experience out of a financial world that seems esoteric and inaccessible to all but its most privileged adepts.
Understanding the financial systems in new ways
At first, projects like ecosystm seem merely to depict the workings of the financial system, reporting the ups and downs of the very mechanism that they purport to critique. However, Raley convincingly argues that these works do more than reflect or represent the markets in a one-to-one relationship. Rather, they interpret the data (and the vast web of social relations that produces them) through models, portraying currencies as flocks of migratory birds or a market as a plant that receives light and water based on the success or failure of stocks.
These metaphors differ from the conventional wisdom of neoclassical economics, which conceives of markets as dynamic but hermetic systems that naturally trend toward equilibrium. Like DoEAT’s border signs, such works aim to jostle the viewer into seeing social relations in a new light; a war game in which it is impossible to win, for instance, subverts the typical experience of game play while also calling into question the possibility of victory in the “war on terror” (p. 86).
Tactical Media places these works in a broader historical context by drawing on a dizzying array of thinkers, from philosophers Michel de Certeau and Gilles Deleuze to historian Richard Hofstadter and cyberlibertarian guru Kevin Kelly. At times the succession of allusions to ideas and thinkers leaves the reader feeling that the study connects to everything and nothing, touching on a variety of works without intervening in them meaningfully or decisively. However, the conclusion ties together such diverse strands of thought as Marxist political economy and evolutionary biology in a surprisingly lucid fashion.
Ultimately, Tactical Media provides an occasion to survey new media art and activism in the early twenty-first century and revisit Audre Lorde’s statement in Sister Outsider (1984) that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (p. 112). Can activists armed with websites and video games do anything more than tinker around the edges?