Tactics Without Tears
Co-authored by Trevor Paglen & Aaron Gach

“Firstly, while of course the Magical Theory supposes a kind of omnipotence, please remember that Magick is Science, that the Laws of Nature remain the same, however subtle may be the material with which one is working. It is, to put it brutally, a bigger miracle to destroy a fortress than an easy chair. You know this well enough; but the corollary is that it is nearly always a mistake to try to do things entirely off one’s own bat. It is much simpler to look for an existing force, in good working order, that is doing the sort of stuff that you need, and take from it, or control in it, just that bit of it that you happen to require.”

- Aleister Crowley, Magick Without Tears

One doesn’t have to peer through crystal balls or satellite lenses to realize that neither we, nor the products of our imagination exist in isolation from the worlds around us. To understand one’s condition is to relate oneself to the surrounding community. In so doing, we open the gates to a world of cultural-production that is not disembodied but intimately connected to a physical reality inscribed by power relations, social politics, and dynamic forces that move about like staircases in Harry Potter’s magic academy.

The Magick that Crowley refers to above as Science, is not at all unlike Art. Whether acting as an artist or a magician, one begins with an idea, an abstraction, an invisible pulse across grey matter. Only through the engagement with and manipulation of the physical world does this idea take form and become a part of a physical reality. Out of a seeming nothingness comes something. This act of willful engagement with the material world is ultimately an act of utmost creativity. In fact, Crowley goes on to say, “Magick is the Science of understanding oneself and one’s condition. It is the Art of applying that understanding in action.” This distinction between “understanding” and “action” is more than a dualistic promenade through a rhetorical magic garden. It is the most basic spell for achieving one’s goals. But simple or not, we frequently find that creative engagement of power, authority, and social issues either fails to fully understand the forces at play, or resides too securely in the realm of discourse, with little attention given to action.

With that said, what follows in this essay is neither a pedagogical model nor an analysis of prevailing conditions, a critique of political art, nor a declaration of superiority. We offer a framework for creative engagement on the frontlines of socio-political transformation. It is a formula characterized by:
1) a thorough analysis of existing forces
2) an attachment to one existing force
3) an active engagement within the dominant sphere of activity
4) specific, material effects

For the most part, this will initially involve a clear and comprehensive understanding of the relevant power vectors, and secondly, a decision to either amplify or resist a particular vector. Of course, in order to attach one’s work to power – to intervene in the material or structural dynamics of a given situation – one must not only design and position one’s work within a field of existing vectors, but one must locate the work in proximity to the potential for action. Placing the emphasis on “tactical” rather than on “media,” we might be inclined to use the term “tactical media” for our framework if it weren’t already on the art-fad fast track to meaningless co-optation. As a conveyer of meaning and message, media is the tool for the job, as opposed to the “job” itself. Simply put, in the realm of political efficacy, form must follow function. Considering that the term “tactical media” has come to mean everything from mere digital tinkering to overwrought spectacle creation for art’s sake, we feel that its usefulness has expired. Instead, we will make a simple distinction between artworks which have an “attitude” towards a given political reality, and works that inhabit a “position” within a given political reality. This distinction will allow us to clear some space within which to assemble our proposed model of creative engagement.

On the most basic level, the difference between “attitude” and “position” is analogous to watching a soccer game versus playing in one. While the fans may encourage the performance of their favorite team, their attitude towards the game will not affect the outcome as much as the players’ actions and position. Like an interested observer of a particular drama or incident, a work that has an “attitude” towards a particular issue is situated outside the discourse or material conditions that it is intended to reflect or comment upon. It may inhabit a museum, storefront, or street corner, delivering its message to any passers-by that may notice. Its location is secondary to its content, an afterthought at best. We could say that a defining feature of work with an “attitude” towards politics is that it typically presents a political perspective outside its own material circumstances, while positing itself within a field that remains neutral in terms of its political relevance to the content of the work. A directed God’s-eye view of sorts. An example of a work with an “attitude” is an agit-prop poster reading, “Genetically Modified Organisms – You Are What You Eat”.

Every work must inhabit a space – a gallery, bookstore, barnyard, etc. A work simply cannot exist outside a matrix of production and consumption, location and reception. A cultural work that is self-reflexive about the specific conditions of its own production and incorporates those conditions of production and reception into the form of the work itself is what we will refer to as the “positioned” work. In turning to the question of direct political efficacy, the positioned work assumes greater immediate relevance than the works that have an attitude from afar. Position suggests relationships to a particular built or discursive environment within which one is positioned. In developing positioned work, questions of site and context, the specifics of relevant power vectors, and proximity to potential action take on crucial importance. For example, if the aforementioned poster appeared as a warning label on GMO foods at the grocery store, its position is more likely to affect a consumer’s actions.

In the articulations of cognitive scientists, we are told that a child’s sense of reality frequently meanders between an internal imaginative realm and an external objective reality. Somewhere between thought and action, a state of ‘wishful thinking’ emerges wherein the young child comes to associate the volitional act of willing, with causality. How familiar is this terrain to the “adults” within our society?
Too often is this condition expressed by those progressive-minded members of the public (liberals, leftists, etc) who believe that shifting one’s consciousness is, in and of itself, a political act which will lead to significant change. Unfortunately, power maintains itself quite nicely when people are content to simply ‘think’ about an alternative reality. Such are the fecund conditions nourishing the insidiousness of “commodity” as understood by Lukacs’ and the modus operandi of Debord’s “spectacle;” “So far from realizing philosophy, the spectacle philosophizes reality, and turns the material life of everyone into a universe of speculation.” Although we are right to champion the virtues of free speech it should be equally noted that talk is cheap. Thus, for artists desiring to achieve material political effects, the goal of “creating dialogue” or “raising consciousness” frequently misses the mark.

“My work is intended to facilitate a dialogue around this issue.”
“I want to put these ideas into the public sphere.”
“My work raises questions about ...”

It’s not uncommon to hear progressive artists, curators, and critics articulate the goals of artwork in ways akin to the above quotations. In much political or radical art, there is a tacit assumption that the role of art in civil society is to provide a catalyst for a dialogue, or to engage in a sort of consciousness-raising around the political themes that the artist is dealing with. There’s no doubt that art can contribute to public discourse and help raise awareness around important and relevant issues. However, the link between consciousness-raising and political action or policy reform is perhaps far more tenuous than American civic ‘commonsense’ seems to suggest. Indeed, the conventional wisdom implicit in artworks animated by pedagogy or consciousness-raising holds that policy shifts are inevitable when public opinion deems a specific policy or corporate/government undertaking immoral or at least unpopular. If recent trends in state and federal policy are any indication, this ‘commonsense’ view is perhaps another instance of ‘wishful-thinking.’

Despite uncontroversial polls showing that four times as many Californians favor cutting prison and corrections spending over education, the governor’s budget is requiring massive cuts to education and other social services. In a crisis year where Governor Grey Davis has announced that there are no ‘sacred cows,’ a single department is getting a budget increase: corrections.

A strong majority of voices from around the world either opposed a war on Iraq, or supported it only in the context of a UN coalition and Security Council mandate. Nevertheless, the United States military machine, headed by the Bush administration, eagerly followed through with their intentions to wage war.

The two examples above present us with a conundrum. Both cases clearly show that there is often a massive disjunct between the concerns of the citizenry and the policy decisions of the leaders. This is not news to anyone. It is, in fact, so common as to be an old and tired leftist cliché. But now we run into a problem, or at least a blurry space, for the critical cultural-producer. If the work is intended to yield material political effects, then is a vague model of ‘raising consciousness’ or ‘facilitating a dialogue’ always a useful goal of creative engagement? This is particularly so in a political climate where an already-raised consciousness seems to have little sway in terms of policy-setting. Assuming that political artists have the desire to contribute to progressive causes, they can extend the efficacy of their efforts by fully analyzing the varied forces operating in each context, and developing works that specifically respond to- and operate within the constellation of forces which shape a given political reality.

Given that political results or policy shifts are constituted by a convergence of power vectors in a specific ideological or political site, we propose that positioned cultural production must attach itself to a particular or multiple power vectors. Thus, the boundary between the work and the context in which it is deployed becomes elusive or perhaps non-existent. Although many activists, artists, and organizations focus on public opinion, this vector often carries very little weight in determining the final outcome of policy decisions, whether corporate or governmental. Even in some of the best situations where consciousness-raising has led to policy shifts (such as the Clean Air Act and Dolphin-safe Tuna) the gears of the political machine easily shift into reverse when greased with the interests of capital- as we’ve seen with the WTO in recent years. As such, cultural-producers are encouraged to ride various other power vectors.

In terms of providing resistance, appropriate vectors to target may include economic or resource flows, legal obstacles (appeals, public hearings, injunctions, law suits, etc.), or infrastructural impediments such as organizational shifts, breakdowns in communications, or labor disputes. On the other hand, attaching oneself to a power vector with the intent of amplification may involve using various resources for building coalitions and alliances, assisting activist groups with media production, or any number of approaches to creative problem-solving. In short, producing resistance can be likened to forces which dam a stream; whereas, amplification works to increase flow, either through the removal of obstacles or by raising the volume of the stream. The positional use of cultural works is intended to influence the relative strengths of the constituent vectors, and thereby contribute to a transformation of a given situation.

Following the adage “Know your enemy”, we recommend taking a concerted look at military field manuals, marketing primers, development strategies, and similar texts which denote a practical and cumulative analysis of prevailing conditions. Throughout the ages, power has compiled a hefty grimoire of what works and what doesn’t, learning from the successes and failures of empires past. With more than enough resources to spare, governments and corporations invest vast sums of time and money on research and development (aka R&D) with the primary purpose of maintaining and extending their grasp. This is not conspiracy theory; this is political survival.

However, those who desire to affect socio-political change often do not have the same resources as the institutions they are confronting. But in many cases, they can access the same storehouses of information. Not surprisingly, one of the most thorough articulations of tactics comes from the US Army’s Guerrilla Warfare Field Manual (FM 31-21). Designed as a guide to “subversion against hostile states (resistance),” FM 31-21 focuses largely on using existing resistance forces (dissenting groups, political unrest, religious/ideological differences, socio-economic disparity, etc.) to further US military objectives in a foreign country or region. While the overall approach is to amplify specific, pre-existing power vectors, many of the army’s tactics focus on increasing resistance to the dominant state-of-affairs.

In outlining the “theater of operations” the manual offers five basic areas of consideration: 1) special intelligence (spying, surveillance & infiltration), 2) psychological operations (largely propaganda & PR), 3) interdiction (raids, ambushes, mining, and sniping), 4) evasion & escape, and 5) cover & deception. Although we are not advocating violent militancy, the conceptual and metaphorical implications of the aforementioned ops provide a rich and fertile ground for creative engagement. In a general sense, a larger strategic arena houses the “theatre of operations” wherein the cumulative effects of such covert activities are aimed at particular aspects of infrastructure. But more specifically, such tactics as mining, sniping, and ambushes often imply an invisible occupation of contested terrain that is realized through a careful, and often long-term analysis of opposition movements and positioning.

As such, a clear-headed analysis of tactics shows that guns & money are not the only ways to accomplish one’s goals, and it is an over-simplification to suggest that capital is the only way to set an agenda. While the Republican Party is hardly the pinnacle of morality, it has derived a substantial amount of power through its relationship with the so-called “Religious Right.” By associating a political platform with an ideological infrastructure, the Republican Party gains access to a support system which encompasses a wide range of resources (capital, voters, logistics, etc.), and presumably, the Religious Right gains political representation. Although such a relationship may seem little more than a convenient political alliance for all involved, it is nonetheless interesting to note the similarity of tactics as described in the US Army Manual on Guerrilla Warfare, which suggests using ideological strongholds for achieving military objectives.

Under the most respectable circumstances, we would hope to find that such political alliances are not only strategic but ideologically compatible. This implies certain subjectivities that differentiate political agendas based on values, ethics, world views, and common goals. Certainly these conditions are satisfied within the progressive community among activists and artists. As a result, one should hope to see radical cultural producers working side-by-side with politically-aligned organizations in a manner which strives towards common goals without sacrificing artistic or organizational autonomy.

Therefore, in order to locate oneself positionally with regards to an issue, we suggest that cultural-producers locate themselves in the context of political or activist infrastructures. The reasons for this are numerous and structural. Simply put, positioned media requires a venue and a location within a larger strategy. Because it is highly unlikely, and usually unadvisable, that one person could develop and implement a political/activist campaign by themselves, it behooves the cultural producer to operate within an existing or developing infrastructure.