Date: Fri, 09 May 1997 23:44:22
From: Toshiya Ueno

Who is a media activist?
I’m responsible for using the term "media activist" in Japan.

Toshiya Ueno

The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere.
Walter Benjamin

What is a media activist and what is media activism? Responding to this question directly doesn’t have much special significance. In this world, there are many people who are doing (media) activism without realizing they’re engaged in activism at all. Today terms like video-activism, gay-activism, art-activism, and AIDS-activism are used in ordinary conversations. In the United States especially, these types of activism are widely recognized. I think the video work "Will be Televised....." made (reedited actually) by Shu Lee Chen might be a good example. This piece focused on the social and students’ movements in Taiwan during the late 80’s, a period of martial law. The original version of this piece was produced by video-activist Lee Chun Fa, a member of the pirate TV station The Green TV in Taipei. Shu Lee Chen, an artist living in New York, reedited this tape and transformed it into her own work, making its distribution and broadcast much more possible. The piece is something other than a video documentary, because the cameraman was not a mere spectator of the political events. The camera’s gaze is not sensationalist. The same could be said of its editors. They were themselves actors in these events. Taking in the street demonstrations, manifestations and political meetings in those days in Taipei, the cameraman and video-camera itself participated deeply in these situations, sometimes involved in the brutal struggles with armed polices. To take video images here meant taking part in both social movements and activism. Needless to say, the handheld video camera made possible this condition, because the film camera is still too professional and expensive a tool (and too big) for such activity. Given that Shu Lee had connection with Paper Tiger Television (a public-access TV channel one of whose organisers is Dee Dee Halleck), he could broadcast this piece for popular audiences in NY. In Japan, in the early 90’s, the organiser of Free Radio and media theoretician Testuo Kogawa was often involved in Paper Tiger works—also their Deep dish TV project(a project covering the whole US through the use of a satellite dish). He was also involved in their work and projects during the Gulf War in 1991. In Tokyo, he and some members of Radio Home Run (a free radio or mini-FM station) distributed their tapes into Japanese society. It was at that time, I think, that we started to use the term "media activism" frequently. In autumn of 1991, we invited Shu lee for the conference at the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival and discussed the concept of media activism and the tactical use of film art. We discussed the differences between conventional film, alternative video, and media activism. First it was confirmed that although most video-activists’ works have to do with political and social issues, they are not necessarily propaganda pieces. Then, a crucial point for us in this discussion: that media activism and media activists exist mainly for their own purpose and pleasure.

After that debate, I came to use expressions like media activism and media activist more and more often. (Of course the term alternative was also popular in political and cultural movements in Japan. But it was not necessarily up-to-date even then.) Since 1992, through my frequent visits and fieldwork in Amsterdam, I have kept up a close relationship with movements and actions appropriating media and computer technology in Europe. I introduced and interpreted their meaning through use of the terms media activist and activism. For example: I referred many times to Geert Lovink and his works, or other nettimers and their activities, by these expressions. Certainly, although I intended to say that media activists are often radicals and dissidents, I didn’t mean they are necessarily "leftists". Last year(1996), when Geert Lovink visited Japan to join in several conferences and political meetings, he might have been puzzled and perplexed by the references to him as a "media activist." It is my fault in a certain sense, and that is why I’m responsible for using the term media activist at least in Japan.

A media activist is not a political activist in general. In ordinary Japanese conversations, the word "Kastudou-ka" is generally used to refer to political activists, but for Japanese people this term carries a negative image. Because some "Katudouka" are too dogmatic and aggressive for "common" life and people. Indeed many political movements in Japan have been pathetic, too militaristic, and always dependent on masculinity. So It’s understandable that there’s quite an allergic reaction to the term ‘political activism’ in Japanese society. (For example in the context of media art: most media artists in Japan are not interested in any social and political issues within media and technology; they are only crazy about using technology itself. Of course one can point to a few exceptional cases like Seiko Mikami’s works. Her works do show some potential in viewing technology and media critically.) Although I’m very critical of such tendencies in Japanese society, it’s a real situation that’s difficult to change immediately. So even if ordinary people in Japan see some activities which within Euro-American society one could call (new) social movements, concerning whatever purpose, they don’t wish to use the term "movement" and instead call them "volunteer activity". For example: during the critical situation after the huge earthquake at Koube, the term volunteer became much more popular than it was before. In a sense, this term has come to function as a surrogate to the term "new social movement" in Japanese society. Some media theoreticians in Japan emphasize the role and importance of volunteerist actions in the net and information society. This is because, needless to say, capitalism itself now depends on human networks and information connections between humans and things. However, I think that a media activist is not a mere "volunteer personality". Where a volunteer’s work usually benefits some other person and is aimed at ending their suffering; media activism is quite different from this kind of work. It could be said again that this is activism rooted in self-interest. Media activism is not a mere tool for political movements. Media activism is a new type of intellectual and political activism, and a mass personality because of an independence from Telos (the ultimate purpose). But media activism is not pursuing self-interest, it is an autonomy of action itself that’s crucial. It is because the media activist always uses and appropriates the tactics and technics of art, expressive cultures, and performance that they are not political activists (katudouka) or volunteers. The media activist is not an artist or performer developing political and social expressions. Activism is done just for the pleasure of it (not for anyone’s interest) . If someone has political and social issues in his or her own life or somewhere in the world, and tries using media technology in an alternative way in order to resolve the problem, then (s)he becomes, unwittingly, a media activist. In other words, whenever someone tries to make a contestation by media against exsisting systems or institutions (museums, libraries, schools, networks, for example, let alone politics and civil society), then (s)he can be called a media activist. In so far as (s)he finds the action itself pleasurable, and finds it also a pleasure to deal with technology, the media activist can escape from any dogmatic politics. So the expression "I can’t get no satisfaction" could be a crucial term for the media activist. I need to add another tactic for him: humor. Without humor, even one who has an open mind in any activism can get caught in the traps of dogmatism and fundamentalism. It is not difficult to find numerous such cases in the history of leftist politics.

Strictly speaking, the task of the media activist doesn’t only consist of changing society and societal systems in general, but also transforming the public sphere into something else. As theoreticians like Habermas or Sennet have already pointed out, the public sphere originally functioned as the interface or intermediary between state power and civil society. This interface field has been a hegemonic system of negotiations and communications between heterogeneous sectors in a given society. Expressive cultures have effectively placed the media in that important role. For example, one can put novels in 19c, newspapers and magazines in 18c, pirate media in 20c, etc. In other words, "subcultures" and " counter cultures" could interfere in this spacing function, thereby remaking and changing the public sphere. In each era, only those who could see gestures of self-interest in society in a dis-interested way, were able to contribute to the emergence of the alternative public sphere. Historically as well as presently, in so far as the public sphere is always changing and can be said to be plastic, it is not necessary to expect it to be based on the western and modern model. Indeed, no one knows its future. So it is possible to assume the positions and gestures of media activism as a way to create the alternative public sphere. By dealing with media technology, and making alternative or tactical use of media, the media activist can contribute to the alternative public sphere. It can be said that Hakim Bey’s notion of T.A.Z. is also a model of the alternative public sphere. In this context it might be useful and heuristic to refer to the concept of "action" made by Hannah Arendt. In her book _The Human Condition_ ,she already put the concept of "web of human relations" in a very interesting way when she analysed the meaning of "action" in the human condition. As you may know, Arendt distinguishes between three types of human behavior as follows: Labor as contributing to the biological process, Work as creating an artificial world of things, and Action as a human relationship derived from the plurality of humanity. Arendt saw and defined Action as the most important factor in the human condition and society. She distinguished between two types of "in-between" relationships. One is about "the physical, wordly in-between" or the objective in-between which consists of deed and speech within direct communication among humans. The other is "the subjective in-between" which is not tangible and mediated . She says:
"But for all its intangibility, this in-between is no less real than the world of things we visibly have in common. We call this reality the "web" of human relationships, indicating by the metaphor its somewhat intangible quality. — The disclosure of the "who" through speech, and the setting of a new beginning through action, always fall into an already exsisting web where their immediate consequences can be felt. — It is because of this already exsisting web of human relationships, with its innumerable, conflicting wills and intentions, that action almost never achieves its purpose; but it is also because of this medium, in which action alone is real, that it "produces" stories with or without intention as naturally as fabrication produces tangible things".
( Hannah Arendt, _The Human Condition_, Section25,
The University of Chicago Press,1958 )

First, the notion of intangibility easily reminds us of tele-communications or tele-exsistences in general and the difference between real(tangible) and virtual(intangible) communications. At the same time, we can reread and reinterpret her notions of Action as activism which develops the (alternative) public sphere, and also the "web" of human relationships as a web creating new types of communication . Of course she didn’t yet know the concept of the web in computer technology. But using the term "web" metaphorically, she succeeded in elaborating the image of society as networking(or weaving) in a distinctive way. It sounds very familiar to us that this web and intangible communication consists of speech and action. It is also interesting that she already used the concept of medium(media) in the above passage. Second, we can find another similarity between Action in Arendt’s thought and media activism. I already emphasized that the action done by the media activist is not to end another’s sufferings. In other words, the media activists works because of their own sufferings. One can find that Arendt’s actor also has the same character."The actor always moves among and in relation to other acting beings, he is never merely a "doer" but always and at the same time a sufferer."(Ibid, Section 26) Third, by using words and metaphors like web, in-between, and medium, she presented an image of society as (inter)space and spacing. The idea of spacing and the spatial focus on social relation are consequences of, and critical responses to, the demise of the political party and the fall of ideology. This style of thinking is already very common with some sociologists. For example, in his influential book_The Black Atlantic_(Verso,1993), Paul Gilroy insisted that story-telling and music-making in Black culture (or the Black diaspora) could contribute to the emergence of an alternative public sphere. He also uses the word "diaspora web" without any technological implications to explain the spatial extending of a travelling culture and socio-culutural networks. A concern with space and spacing in socio-political action is crucial for media activism. Once Walter Benjamin, a great ancestor of the thinking of media activism said,"The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity : clearing away." This is also a crucial slogan for us. Because for activism, whether it is squatting a building or broadcasting pirate media or weaving and hacking on a computer, to invent space and occupy virtual or real space is the most radical and important gesture. A media activist concerned with free radio possesses an on-air frequency, a squatting activist occupies buildings and real spaces, and a free net media activist makes room in cyberspace. In fact, these different gestures come to look like one action. In so far as they have a critical sense about clearing space for the "in-between" relation, media activists are very conscious of the scarcity of lands or things or bandwidths or netspace. That is the very reason why the tactics of net criticism chosen by media activists should always problematize the political economy of media. In their interesting book_Cracking The Movement——-Squatting Beyond The Media_(Autonomedia, 1990), ADILKNO also insisited on the importance of spacing to media activism. ADILKNO calls squatted media space "the sovereign media." They say:
"Squatting stood for nothing; it did not present itself as a social protest begging for attention. It was not resistance, neither a fight nor a reaction, but the beginning of something new: the insight that apart from a political belief in rules, concrete problems can be solved practically."(Ibid,p19) "The sovereign media do not compete with reality, but aim to make it the exception.———They appear irregularly in print, on the air, in data networks.——-The sovereign media have nothing to do with social developments. They do not emulate the other media in their field.———They transmit nothing ; they simply do what they will. The sovereign media have left the dialectic of goal and method behind them." (Ibid, p235)

It is interesting that ADILKNO use the very traditional word "sovereign". Usually sovereignty means political power and the independence of state power. But in this context, the word is tactically used for indicating the autonomy and the reflexive or recursive nature of media activism. Sovereign media do not depend on the aims of others, but play and function because they play and function for themselves. This tactical nature does not over-emphasize the meaninglessness of activity or activism. I have already noted the importance of self-interest within media activism. Is the meaning of activism, then, reduced to self-satisfaction? Of course not. I suppose that these points should be thought of in terms of other notions. For example, information society and its control systems force people to act just for the sake of acting and to develop their capacity to learn how to learn something. In other words, information society demands recursive behavior and reflexive thinking of the people in this system. Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci argued that the subject who has such a gesture and way of thinking should have a pluralistic and flexible identity. He called such a subject living in the information and postmodern society "the nomads of the present"(_Nomads of the Present_,Temple University Press,1989) In turn, if, to recover one’s own autonomy, these nomads of flexible identities would try to criticise and deconstruct information society, they could become the subject engaging with a new social movement. In a new social movement, its outer purpose is not separated from its internal purpose, and it is a strong self-expression of the desire for a pluralistic and flexible identity. A new social movement, whether functioning in Eur/Am society or in Eastern society, is a real contestation and a practical criticism for/against the contemporary world as an information society or system society. In such a movement, the aims and purposes are not based on the ends and the meaning, while the vision of this movement can refer to the limits in which the the purposes are pursued. Also in media activism, although the subjects produce events as actors, they are not representative of anyone. They are themselves active and recursively processing actors. Along with Melluci’s sociology, we can refer to them as a "collective identity" and it could be the result and effect of action and activity(or movement). In so far as the media activist has a flexible identity and pluralistic identity as a collective being, one can say that the media activist could be seen as a political activist engaging with political issues, an artist questioning the meaning of beauty and public taste, a journalist dealing with social problems, a volunteer concerned with social work etc, namely overlapping into numerous kinds of professions. But the media activist is any one of them and at the same time none of them, because the media activist is the temporary name for a collective identity within each activity or movement. Once Marx put the image of the future society as follows: "I can do this today, I will do that tomorrow. In the morning I hunt, in the afternoon I fish, in the evening I chase domestic animals, and after dinner I criticise.——Nevertheless I don’t become a hunter, a fisherman, a herdboy, and a critic. I can do anything I please."(_German Ideology_ ) That is just activism, isn’t it? Let me say, going back to our context, that the media activist is not an artist even though (s)he expresses something, not a political activist (kastudou-ka) though (s)he engages in social and political movements, not an architect though (s)he transforms space physically, and not a critic or journalist though (s)he appropriates media for cultural politics. Instead, (s)he is as many of them as (s)he may will. And it is just the person who is not bound to a fixed identity and limited style that can be called a media activist. Thus the media activist is opposed to, and is sceptical about, all professions. The media activist is a mediator among many activities as far as (s)he can go beyond and outside each profession and role. The media activist, then, should become a catalyst who is eager to connect many activities, which sometimes can be contradictory. However, these notions and visions about the media activist (and media activism) seem to be criticised by at least two types of arguments. The first criticism could be expressed as follows: such tactics of media activism greatly overvalue micro-politics over macro-politics. Certainly, the media activist pays great attention to micro-politics in each sphere, but the media activist would always take care of the situation in macro-politics. Especially, when (s)he is thinking about the political economy of each areas in term of the concept of scarcity, (s)he would analyse and deconstruct the macro-situation from a micro- point of view. The second criticism could be expressed as follows: the media activist depends on amateurism as a pretext by which one can avoid a difficult way. Is the media activist one who cannot become an artist, political activist, architect, journalist, or critic? Not at all. Although the tactics of the media activist sometimes seem to express a kind of amateurism, it is free from the dichotomy between professional and amateur or elite and mass. In his "Prison Notebooks", Gramsci wrote that all men are intellectuals and replaced the old notion of traditional intellectuals by the new one of organic intellectuals. He was trying to disassemble the dichotomy between intellectual and mass. One can imagine the same situation within media activism. All men are media activists. Edward Said called amateurism "the desire to be moved not by profit or reward but love or unquenchable interest in the larger picture, in making connections across the line".(_Representations of the Intellectual_Vintage,1994 ) I think the media activist is similar to Said’s "exilic intellectual" because the media activist also always responds by moving on, representing change, audacity and daring.

It can be said that all activism is media activism. It is impossible to imagine activism without using any media. Needless to say, media doesn’t necessarily only mean electronic media and technology. In the alternative public sphere, pirate TV, free radio, the web, BBS, newspapers, zines, rumours and all communications are interconnecting and intermediating each other organically. By mutual supplement, all old and new media will be able to intercommunicate transversally. For example one could have in mind the computer desk in free for people at Waag, the center for old and new media in Amsterdam. That desk is made by imitating and referring to the role of the desk for newspapers in 18c which could contribute to the creation of the public sphere in European society. (In a sense, the internetcafe is a descendant of the cafe on 18c.) This is just a situation of multi-media in the true sense, isn’t it? The media activist lives and behaves as the node and the bundle of multiple media, namely "the ensemble of relations"(Marx) in the information society and age. The media activist is not a particular person but exists virtually in every person. In retrospect, one can call actions done by such people "activism" in general. Activism begins and moves inside of existing society and its system. We can connect, mediate, elaborate and catalyse the flow of actions in each media sphere. Then let’s find "beginnings" for media action by ourselves. You can find it everywhere at anytime.