Heaven and Buddy are two conjoined rooftops and raw loft spaces along the stretch of Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue that has gone from sleepy barrio to hipster enclave to white-hot real estate in the past decade or two. They’re maintained by collectives of mostly young, mostly white alterna-types, and host cultural events that draw more of the same.
On a preternaturally warm Friday evening, a few dozen of them stroll around, clustering on the roof and on the street below, lining up at the keg, petting the friendly black and white dog who works the crowd. What differentiates this scene from the beginnings of your average Wicker Park party? Well, that would be the media. Um, art. Which is to say: map room, intervention, interactive Xerox gallery.
For the last two weeks of April this year, Heaven and Buddy became home and headquarters for Version>04, the third installment of this festival of new media and insurgent culture. Until this year, Version took place at the decidedly non-insurgent Museum of Contemporary Art. Event organizers bill it as “a hybrid form of festival, conference, arts fair and online project” that “creat[es] connections between programmers, artists, scientists, musicians, filmmakers, activists, tactical media provocateurs, designers, architects, critical thinkers and culture workers of all kinds.” In practice — especially in its new temporally and spacially spread-out form — this tall, if vague, order seemed to amount to a slightly more intense than usual flurry of activity in Chicago’s “activist art community” — if there is such a thing.
Like many attempts to wed art and activism, Version’s often impenetrable rhetoric is indicative of its main problem: insularity. As in contemporary art and, perhaps slightly less so, contemporary progressive politics, the participants often seem to be talking to one another in a closed loop.
Despite such underacknowledged limitations, Version seems backed by a genuine and well-intentioned desire to round up the currents of cultural production in the contemporary activist Left and extract from them something coherent, perhaps even definable.
Enter the newish euphemism for activist art, “tactical media.” This is a buzzphrase that has been bandied about at Version, which is particularly enamored of all things digital or “new media,” since its inception “Tactical media” is a highly attractive idea that no one seems quite able — or, is that willing?—to define. The category seems to include any cultural output incorporating both new media and a progressive political consciousness. So, it becomes increasingly difficult to define tactical media — and its companion concept, “intervention” — in any useful way.
Yet it’s my job to try as I sit in a corner of Heaven on a warm Friday evening, next to the work American Dream Sparkle Clean. The Version>04 program calls this installation an “intervention”: A silhouetted map of the U.S. made of blue Astroturf, with a green felt map of the world superimposed on it, lies on the floor before a table sporting a selection of plastic toys and a sign saying “Out to Lunch.” It’s entirely possible that at some point and in some context this could and does intervene in something. But that’s the thing: As with so much contemporary art, you’ve either got to be in on the joke already, or you must first locate and then read the fine print.
In any case, no one seems to be looking at American Dream Sparkle Clean.Most of them are outside watching Eric Fensler’s hilarious, if overplayed, altered GI Joe PSA’s projected on a giant inflatable “television.”
As for “tactical media,” I’m told there’s some taking place out on the sidewalk. Through the mix of street folks, hipsters, and clubbing yuppies winds a leisurely procession consisting of a tinfoil fairy waving two tinfoil wands, and two cyclists steering chop-shopped bicycles mounted with large TV sets. The Human TV Network and their mobile televisions are the handiwork of a young man who identifies himself to me as Matt. At the moment the TVs broadcast a repeating loop of one of the Guerilla News Network’s pastiched send-ups of Bush’s war yammer from last year — another scathing and witty but oft-screened bit of insurgent Final Cut Pro handiwork.
I’ve decided on a default opening line: “So, I know this is kind of a stupid question, but, is this tactical media?”
Matt says he thinks it is, because its purpose is to bring under-represented news and views to people who wouldn’t ordinarily come to them. Driving a TV down the street blaring subversive anti-Bush video certainly sounds like intervention if anything does. But, Matt’s quick to add, one would be surprised how many people not only aren’t impressed, but actually cross the street to get away from them.
A half block or so down Milwaukee sits another creatively altered bicycle. Sponsored by Quimby’s bookstore, the Zine Mobile is a bike fitted with a folding display unit that looks like a shower bar. Attached to it with velcro is a flannel curtain zigzag-stitched with clear plastic pockets, which contain a sampling of the many zines that a call for submissions brought in. You can stand there and read them, or take one for free. The fabric is baby blue with a pattern of assorted donuts. Logan Bay, the mobile zine unit’s mastermind and handler, says a collaborator chose the material because she thought it might help ingratiate the project to the police.
Me: So, I know this is kind of a stupid question, but, is this tactical media?
Logan: Um… nah. It’s just a way to get underseen stuff out there.
Me: Why not?
Logan: I dunno. Because it’s not going to be a picture in a book. Because I’m not pimping it to get a grant.
So “tactical media” is already a commodity, and as such mostly useless to any endeavor whose goal and perhaps entire point is to evade the clutches of commodification. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to define tactical media: in order to be effective, it has to be impossible to pin down. Maybe that’s why the many and various components of Version>04 — from graffiti art exhibitions, to street performances in the Loop during business hours, to panel discussions on how to bridge the chasm between new media and marginalized communities historically denied access to it — seem to fly out along a random and meandering trajectory from an indisctinct, possibly nonexistant center.
At its most hopeful, the idea of “tactical media” suggests that new technology can be commandeered and turned against the forces of profiteering and social control: surveil the surveillance cameras, surround police brutality at demos with dozens of digital cameras and upload the images within minutes, work the “invisible networks” (Version>04’s subtitle) enabled by fiber optic technologies toward revolutionary ends. As someone whose activist life began before there was such a thing as the Internet, I am palpably aware of how integral technology has been to the blooming of a global movement in the past five years. The accessibility of digital media exponentially expands the arena of activism, just as it does filmmaking, publishing, business, and almost every other field. In combination with the coming-of-age of the West’s most media-saturated and –savvy generation yet, this broadened utility has given rise to an activist culture keenly attuned to the power of the visual, in particular the televisual.
The collision and collusion of new media and activism has made artists of activists and vice versa. But the term “tactical media” ought to be allowed to go the ultimately meaningless way of all buzzwords. The media-saturated cultural conditions that have allowed politically strategic uses of new media on a grassroots level also necessitate that such projects, if they are to remain effective, must stay several steps ahead of any attempt to define, enclose, or commodify them.