Tactical Media as a form of Political Dysfunction

Rita Raley’s description of tactical media simulates Marie-Laure Ryan’s concept of dysfunctionality in “Between Play and Politics: Dysfunctionality in Digital Art.” Raley offers several definitions or conceptions regarding tactical media. First and foremost, “tactical media signifies the intervention and disruption of a dominant semiotic regime, the temporary creation of a situation in which signs, messages, and narratives are set into play and critical thinking becomes possible” (Raley 6). Works of tactical media are created to disturb, question, and momentarily corrupt an alternate form of media that demonstrates principles with which tactical media creators vehemently disagree; such creations are used as a means of critique and provocation of thought regarding a social change that tactical media attempts to re-examine. Tactical media is meant to “present a challenge to ‘the existing semiotic regime by replicating and redeploying it,’” forcing viewers to react to and engage in such social change (Raley 7). Raley’s explanation that tactical media disrupts other media forms complies with Ryan’s theory that dysfunctionality seeks to interrupt technology by using such technology for disparate purposes other than that which the equipment was created.

Ryan provides an example of a politically dysfunctional technology called the Image Fugurator, which distorts other camera’s pictures by implementing political text into the photos. The Critical Arts Ensemble (CAE) states that their goal in such dysfunctional acts is to “exercise electronic resistance to the governmental and corporate forms of power that rule capitalist society by attacking the database maintained by these institutions” (Ryan 2- put hyperlink). Similarly, the CAE determines the purpose of tactical media as “’offering participants a new way of seeing, understanding and interacting’ with ‘[the invention of] new spheres of reference…to open the way to a reappropriation and a resymbolization of the use of communication and information tools…’” (Raley 8). Tactical media can be viewed as a form of politically dysfunctional technology that aims to disrupt social institutions by which society is constrained and to offer alternate views of thinking about such societal norms.

Raley demonstrates that society has been interpolated—the recognition of being restricted by societal norms—by various societal ideological state apparatuses (ISA) that confine and constrain society. Tactical media thus serves to question and even break such interpolation by making ISAs powerless. For instance, Ubermorgen designed a piece of tactical media that allowed users of Amazon to be able to pirate and disseminate copyrighted books (Raley 19). Amazon, a representation of a governmental ISA that defines the societal norm of capitalism and consumerism, was temporarily incapable of affecting or influencing society as this form of tactical media disrupted the purpose for which Amazon was created. Tactical media is not a form of arbitrary dysfunction, but serves to utilize such dysfunction as a tool to spread a political message and critique. While it is evident that tactical media succeeds in broadcasting a political message that forces viewers to re-examine social norms, the method by which they proliferate such information imposes and infringes upon the abilities and functionality of foundational organizations. Furthermore, does the end product of such infringement counteract the violation of others’ rights or do the means to achieving political activism corrupt the purpose and message?