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The Internet, a Tool for Art?



Subversive Strategies


"World War III will be a guerilla information war, with no division between military and civilian participation."

(Marshall McLuhan quoted after Joanne Richardson, "The Language of Tactical Media")


The Spanish word "guerilla" means a locally waged war, characterized by small, ambushing attacks. Because of the less organized military structure guerillas are flexible and hard to locate. Mostly from a weaker postition, they fight to reclaim their own territory, which is occupied by the enemy. Because of delayered hierarchies and lack of financial resources, tactics are creative and surprising and single actions are planned precisely to be effective. A special form of guerilla is terrorism: instead of attacking the enemy's assets, terrorists focus on spectacular targets to influence mass media spreading their messages as wide as possible.
Without killing anybody, guerilla artists have adapted those attributes for their own fight, the "intellectual self-defense" (Noam Chomsky).



The Freedom of Decoding

Based on semiotic studies Umberto Eco suggests a reinterpretation of codes. As postulated in his essay "Towards a Semiological Guerilla Warfare", communication is based on a sender intending to send a meaning in form of a coded message through a channel towards the receiver. The receiver decodes the message and fills it with a meaning (which doesn't necessarily have to be the sender's intended meaning). Eco doesn't believe in total manipulation through mass media, because the decoding of the message can't be controlled by the sender and rather depends on the act of reception, the receiver's interpretation of the code.

"For the receiver of the message seems to have a residual freedom: the freedom to read it in a different way. I say 'different' and not 'mistaken' [...] I would say that variability of interpretation is the constant law of mass communications. The messages set out from the Source and arrive in distinct sociological situations, where different codes operate. This is why 1 believe TV advertising in depressed countries functions as a revolutionary message."

(Eco, "Towards a Semiological Guerilla Warfare", 1967)


Eco states, that every message contains ambiguity, even seemingly uniform messages produced by the culture industry. Underlining ambiguity, supporting it instead of hiding it, could be a way to "restore a critical dimension to passive reception".

Printed in fat letters, Umberto Eco calls for guerilla communication:

"So for the strategic solution it will be necessary, tomorrow, to employ a guerrilla solution. What must be occupied, in every part of the world, is the first chair in front of every TV set [...] The battle for the survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not to be won where the communication originates, but where it arrives."

(Eco, "Towards a Semiological Guerilla Warfare", 1967)



Guerilla Communication - A quick start manual

The internet offers perfect preconditions for media guerilla actions by the democratic access to mass media, the network structure and the protection of anonymity. But even if the preconditions are warranted, there still exists the necessity to reach a significant number of recipients. And the goal is supporting the people's critical reflection on given information, not just presenting another image for them to agree or disagree. For a successful media guerilla act, a strategy of at least two steps is recommended: First an appropriation of well known patterns (as used by the culture industry) to automatically evoke the recipient's attention. Then the transmitted message can be deformed in order to support ambiguous reception. Deformation can be a simple alienation, or another effective strategy is the so called "overidentification", a term coined by Slavoy Zizek. In the following I will explain and exemplify the steps in detail.


subversive strategies


1. appropriation

Appropriation is the basement, which all further action is built on. If the guerilla artist group RTMark aka the "Yes Men" would have entered the stage at the WTO conference, in their usual clothes, telling those managers to "please stop the exploitation of developing nations", they would have probably been banned from the area before they would have been able to finish the sentence. Instead, due to a fake website they had created, they were invited to make a speech.


yes men gatt wto

(screenshot of the fake WTO website by RTMark, 2001)


To camouflage the own identity, the affirmation and imitation of the enemy's behaviour is the key to a successful guerilla act. Hegemonic communication patterns must be analyzed to adapt their aesthetics (like symbols, layouts or style/image regarding their usual target-group), their phrasing (like advertising slogans or terminology) and, to a degree, their contents in order to make the message appear as unawakened as a trojan horse: Due to the fake it is easy to reach the recipients attention, because the information is uncritically and automatically processed, without the need of mental effort.


(, "Torture Classics", Infomercial TV Spot, vimeo)


As the "Infomercial TV Spot" by the artist group shows - although, or even because it mainly distributes uniform messages and contents, the internet is a perfect playground for setting up fakes. Websites of institutions or companies, or personal profiles on social networks can be easily imitated.

"Torture Classics" is a great example for appropriating the language of the culture industry. It only has the serious issue of being illegal. A good camouflage often hits the border of copyright laws. For higher authenticity of their piece the artists decided to cross this border. They use the original "Time Life"-logo and sample many famous examples of pop music. In case of legal measures they probably would be in debt for the rest of their lives. On the other hand an arraignment by the music industry would cause an enormous popularity of this video. Despite being more or less protected by pseudonyms and the anonymity of networks, activists always have to consider such risks.


 2. alienation

In virtual space the user is caught in an intimate moment in front of a screen, probably at home in a comfy environment. While the recipient expects something positive, something usual, matching her construct of reality, one tactic to cause confusion is by alienating the camouflaged message. Thanks to the mass of unreliable advertising, online users are at least aware of fake information and have a certain sense of achievement, when they manage to uncover it. In this way the recipient's controlled information processing is activated and a positive feeling comes up, right in the moment of ambiguity.
An example for alienation is the collage in Dadaism: By displacement of traditional images from their original coherence, assembling them into a new context, powerful symbols work contrary and their self-evident interpretation is questioned. The internet, other than a picture in a gallery, is a channel to creep into user's daily routine and rearrange their perception of it. To expose a given scheme as disputable, the recipient first must identify with the situation and recognize it as "normality". Therefor its alienation should be subtle and not too obvious on first glance: The camouflage mainly focusses on formal aspects of the message, alienation on the embedded content.


(, "No Fun", 2010, vimeo)


A working fake always proves and mirrors people's cursory acceptance of information distributed by mass media. Based on the percipients' expanded focus hegemonic society models are exposed. In this moment it is not even important whether the information is true or fake, merely the reflection of a certain kind of behaviour comes to the fore. In this way the meaning of a message is decoupled from its presentation - which, for instance debunks empty slogans and phrases repeated by mainstream media, advertising or politicians - and being seen as an empty shell, constitution of normality becomes vulnerable. An internet user, based on the participatory character of the medium, automatically confirms being involved in the concerning issue. In the online piece "No Fun" by, an intervention in the video chatroom "chatroulette", the common hunger for sensation and the desire for self-staging is impressively shown only by the recipients own reaction. The webcam and the screen functions as a mirror - of the user and of society.



3. overidentification

In case of the Yes Men, their fake website leads to a situation in the physical world. A perfect appropriation of the WTO managers behaviour is the basis for artistic overidentification, a special form of alienation.

(RTMark, speech at the WTO conference, "The Yes Men", 2001, youtube)


The term "Yes Men" was coined by politics, meaning people who are engaged and paid for agreeing to the statements of their employers in public. Because humans tend to subordinate their own opinions to the opinions of others, the crowd is being influenced and detained from disagreement. The artists use this strategy of manipulation against manipulation itself. The Yes Men say "Yes" in order to make the audience say "No".

"You know how a funhouse mirror exaggerates your most hideous features? We do that kind of exaggeration operation, but with ideas. We agree with people - turning up the volume on their ideas as we talk, until they can see their ideas distorted in our funhouse mirror. Or that's what we try to do, anyhow - but as it turns out, the image always seems to look normal to them"

(RTMark, "The Yes Men", website)


During their speech at a conference in Finland called "Textiles of the Future - Towards the Globalization of Textile Trade" the Yes Men exaggeratively show the logic of free trade and with a conscious honesty they aim for "identity correction" of the WTO:

"Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Our targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else."

(RTMark, "The Yes Men", website)


Overidentification is a kind of alienation, but aiming into a different direction. While alienation distances itself from the hegemonic logic, overidentification places itself right in the center of the system, proclaiming the conventional view. Through overidentification a parody is created, pointing to the drawbacks of conventions. Slavoy Žižek states, that ideologies always have an official face and a secret, tabooed downside everyone knows about. In his essay "Cynicism as a Form of Ideology" he turns the definition of ideology "they do not know it, but they are doing it" quoted after Karl Marx' "Kapital" into "they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it". Other than a simple alienation, overidentification can be misread since it is only a thin line between affirmation and subversive action. Therefor the strategy of overidentification is a strategy of enhancement and exaggeration in opposite to alienation, which is more subtle. And there is no bigger exaggeration than a giant golden penis exposed at a free trade conference.

"Problematisch wird es dann für die sogenannte 'herrschende Ideologie', sobald der 'angemessene Abstand' nicht länger gewahrt bleibt, wenn also eine 'fanatische' oder eine 'übergenaue' Auslegung, ein konsequentes Zuendedenken, also eine 'Über-Identifizierung' mit der Ideologie stattfindet – wenn man sie also ernster nimmt, als sie sich selbst nimmt. Denn nach Žižek setzt sich eine Ideologie immer aus zwei Teilen zusammen: aus den von einem politischen System öffentlich verkündeten und propagierten 'expliziten' Werten und der sogenannten 'verdeckten Kehrseite'. Dies sind die impliziten Werte und Prämissen einer Ideologie, die, damit diese funktionieren und sich reproduzieren kann, unausgesprochen bleiben müssen."

(engl. transl.: "As soon as the 'appropriate distance/gap' is no longer maintained, that is when a 'fanatical' or 'over-precise' interpretation occurs, a systematic/consequent thinking through, an 'over- identification' with the ideology, when it is taken more seriously than it is taking itself, than it becomes problematic for the 'dominant ideology'. According to Zizek an ideology always consists of two parts: the 'explicit' values publicly proclaimed and propagated by a political system and the so-called 'concealed/hidden flipside'. These are the implicit values and premises of an ideology that have to stay unexpressed in order for the ideology to work and reproduce itself.")

(Inke Arns, "Kollektiv in der Schwerelosigkeit", 2002)


The reaction of the audience after "The Yes Men's" speech - the applause and the absence of questions proves that the message has been exactly understood. The recipient uncovers himself by not-reacting.

While, of course, a recipient who is part of a public audience is less courageous and rather keeps her mouth shut and shows no reaction, the internet as a space for interventions offers more freedom of action for a recipient. Based on the interactive, participatory structure, the user is free and even challenged to make a decision: Things happening to people on the internet rarely "just happen". The user clicks his way through virtual space - associatively, unconsciously or consciously, with or without a goal, anyhow - but without pushing buttons nothing moves. In virtual space you have to decide on your own. You are not led into a hall with reserved seats, nobody turns off the lights and it doesn't offend anyone, if your potato chip bag rustles. You can leave or enter a room without bugged gazes. And due to anonymity you don't have to fear harsh critique on your stated opinion, because judgement by strangers isn't that weighty (as long as it is not connected to your xing or facebook profiles).

In this way the user is more free to be bold and seduced into impulsive acts and direct statements. And not acting on the web is always an obvious action to the user - it requires at least clicking the button to close the window.


(screenshot: Karen Eliot, "Powerseller_08", 2008, ebay)



See also: CultureJamming, Subvertising, Adbusting, Debranding

The quick introduction to guerilla strategies ends at this point. If you follow my links, you will find a lot of further information, interesting and visionary people and open discussions.

And remember: You are Luther Blisset, too!




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