The Next 5 Minutes (Tactical Media Conference, Amsterdam & Rotterdam, January 18 - 21 1996)

By Enda Murray, 10 June 1996

The Next 5 Minutes Conference in Amsterdam (January 18-21 1996) brought together a mix of political activists, on the edge practitioners and just pure nutters from all over the planet for three days of debate, planning, exhibition and anarchy in Amsterdam and Rotterdam contemporaneously and at the same time.

In attempting to pitch at a point where art meets politics, access meets excess, activism meets academia and community media meets TVland madness it managed to hit a nerve which we in the UK can only contemplate. There is no equivalent forum in the UK and not the slightest hope in hell of anything like it in the next three years.

People were there from all over the world. In the space of a morning I renewed acquaintance with people from five Continents. More a global living room than a global village. Described as "proudly non-academic" by one of the organisers David Garcia it indeed proved an excellent balance between structure and chaos, organic design and technical efficiency.

The structure of the N5M took acount of the speed of the media. As well as the previously booked extremely full and interesting programme in two cities -there were two projection spaces - Temporary Autonomous Zones - complete with video and PA which participants could book up at very short notice to present papers, screenings or just rant.

A videoteque and media archive were available for individual research throughout the weekend and all contributed material was stored for posterity in the International Institute of Social History archive. Interestingly the conference was whacked onto local cable TV and radio continuously keeping Amsterdam in touch with what was happening. Thus the events and information were not simply confined to a privileged bunch of activists but were disseminated to the local community. Internet connections were block-booked all weekend and a twice daily news sheet kept everyone up to date with the latest developments. A good old fashioned bus ran between the venues in the two different cities so that physical as well as virtual presence could be accomodated.

So what did we do apart from hob-nob, network and set up big jobs for ourselves with pots of Euro-funding?

It was a chance to see and hear what was happening straight from the horse's mouth. To see tapes fresh off the plane from Johannesburg of 14 year olds with knives as long as your arm and the cutest little automatic pistols with which to shoot up the local neighborhood.There's a rape every 65 seconds and car-jacking has replaced Mandela as the flavour of the month. It was a chance to make comparisons with Northern Ireland where another post conflict ceasefire is about to be thrown into mayhem by the activities of freelance gangsters and a stone deaf government.

The Next 5 Minutes (N5M) was a chance to see uncut footage from Newbury where the 3rd Battle of Newbury is threatening to make Twyford Down look like the teddy bear's picnic. The protestors are dug in there in a network of underground tunnels and the final stand off against car culture and Tory road building policies is likely to last at least 18 months. A chance to see the sophisticated surveillance- methods of police and protestors alike. (The crusties have just done some test transmissions on their own pirate radio station!)

However big are the problems in this country there are always others who face more desperate situations - and get shot for the privilege of working in community media. People like Thein Htike Oo whose outlawed Democratic Voice of Burma radio station broadcasts into his native country from Norway and whose voice shakes with emotion as he admits he hasn't seen his home country since 1972. Even listeners to his broadcasts risk a 3 year stretch.

The range of people here was immense. While northern Europeans worried about web-sites and the copyright niceties of intellectual property, Noni from TV Maxambomba in Brazil lamented the absence of Alexander Bell's most recent invention. 66% of the world still have no access to a phone - an interesting fact for cyber - theorists.

On the lighter side we heard Bob Horvitz from the Soros Foundation advocate conversation with aliens while AAA (Association of Autonomous Astronauts) from London have already got their application in with the local Arts board to fund a Community art spaceship to boldly go where no community artists have gone before!

So what were the highlights?

Dee Dee Halleck from Paper Tiger TV and Deep Dish TV in the USA gave a practical demonstration of how tactical use of media can effect change. The combination of a well made film about child labour in Central America and a lecture tour to bring the film's subject, worker Rosa Martinez, to the states to meet the kids who wear the jeans she makes caused clothing giant Gap to introduce fair employment safeguards in future contracts.

Not only did they make a rivetting film exposing how, for instance, the free trade zone in Guatemala advertised progressively cheaper wages to American multinationals (going from 55 cents an hour to 33 cents an hour in the space of six months) . But by focusing on one girl they were able to highlight the people behind the policies, enabling non- politicised young people to see how economics and politics are ultimately about people and people's responsibility to each other. By bringing Rosa round the shopping malls of the mid-west and introducing her to girls her own age they managed to emphasise the abuse which was forcing Rosa to leave school, miss an education and, ultimately, a life. Through tactical use of media they were able to effect change and reverse the race to the bottom in which the multinational paymasters were involved.

What was the point of the conference?

To create new ways of using the media, not just simply celebrating the old. To create common agendas and a shared strategy from a diverse range of communities. Subtle changes are taking place in the cultural democratization movement. Terms are shifting from public access to community access. The question is no longer access to whom but access to what.

The threats are obvious. As communication infrastructures pass from public to private hands the universal state of TV seems to be the more you watch the less you know. The move from top down to bottom up communication is now further away than ever, despite the great leaps forward in technology. Many to many instead of few to many is the goal and the Internet is the darling of the decentralised community networks. Communication as opposed to broadcast.

In Amsterdam the IISG treasured copies of banned literature. In England the curators of such literature (such as Genesis P. Orridge ) are framed by the police, crucified by the press and hounded out of the country to exile. The men of brains still serve the men of moneybags.

"Most art says nothing to most people." Heath Bunting, Bristol. Situationist.

The N5M conference was the platform for the debate as to whether change can be effected through existing structures or whether new (and sometimes illegal) alternatives should be utilised. Alternatives such as DIY culture as evidenced by Undercurrents, the alternative news video magazine and the media scams of the eco and social justice protest movements in Britain. Thinking global but acting local. There was no distinction made between legal and pirate radio at the conference. Both were facilitated. Hacking is cool.

The nature of delivery of media was stated as being of vital importance. The medium is the mesage. TV Maxambomba's street screenings in Rio de Janeiro bring neighbours together and build communities where presently none exist. In a country where less than 4% of the population read newspapers or magazines video is a most effective means of communication. As Noni said of their communal screenings - TV Maxambomba make 30% of the party, the people make the other 70%. And community TV has got to be good TV. If the programmes aren't interesting the audience vote with their feet and head for the bars.

Broadcast TV is controlled by a clique of 9 families so Maxambomba take the medium right to the viewers doorstep. It happens in Brazil so what chance for large scale big screen, open air screenings of alternative news and entertainment initiatives like Exploding Cinema, Conscious Cinema or Undercurrents in this country? Would this free exchange of information be tolerated in this green and pleasant land where gatherings of more than 10 people are forbidden under threat of arrest under the CJA?

Bob Horvitz from the Soros Foundation's Open Society Network outlined some interesting points regarding the organisation's support for sustainable community media development.

1. Support to underdeveloped groups is determined by the potential degree of social benefit.

2. Grants are given locally to groups rather than to national organisations.

3. Technical solutions are sought to communication problems.

4. Administrative infrastructures are only built when the current infrastructure is obviously inadequate.

Bob also looked forward to the day when we could communicate with aliens but I don't know whether there was Dutch skunk weed involved in that theory!

Jamie Hartzell from Small World (recently divorced from Undercurrents) highlighted the need to balance the quality of the message with the footprint of distribution. After the camcorder revolution the next struggle is for control of the distribution network to prevent the total privatisation of information.

This echoed a point by Babette who acceded to US network channel PBS's demands for cuts in the Haitian film before they would agree to screen it. Babette's wish to hold out for no cuts was opposed by exiled ex-president Jan Baptiste Aristide who felt that the grave situation in Haiti necessitated the programme going out on the national network at peak time even if this meant making cuts. Babette eventually managed to get away with nine cuts as opposed to the twenty-seven initially demanded by PBS. The debate around the cuts became so involved that it formed the basis for subsequent video on the nature of censorship featuring Noam Chomsky.

The conference was rounded off with a sneak preview of the McSpotlight home page which contains just about every witness statement, nutritional fact and dietary feature one would need to hang a multi-national hamburger company. The information has been collated from documents supplied to the McLibel trial where McDonalds are suing a British couple for alleged slanderous material contained in an anti Mac leaflet.The McLibel trial has gone on for over a year and is proving a severe embarassment not to mention financial drain to the multinational. The trial is fast becoming the major stand-off of corporate power versus green action just as the third battle of Newbury will be a watershed on road policy in this country. In an age when unless you're over forty, you've never voted in non-tory government, tactical media is set to play a major role in politics in this country in the very near future. Green politics is setting the agenda and a change will come. From interaction comes positive action.

The V2 conference in Rotterdam which ran parallel to N5M was a practical hands on conference concentrating on digital media particularly translocal networks on the internet and their effect on community, conflict, culture and identity - the digital diaspora. Much debate centred around the attempt by the Church of Scientology to dictate terms of use of the internet (this is true and not a wind up!) and attempts to monopolise service providers in the US.

A new network, PANET, has been set up on the internet facilitated by Paul Garrin's MediaFilter organisation [] to continue work begun at the conference and disseminate information. The Next 5 Minutes own web-site is still open for feedback and research.Check the site [] for details.

So what was achieved?

The advantage of such gatherings is to energise the participants to tackle seemingly impossible tasks. The confidence to know you're doing the right thing. It counters the isolation that activists feel as they battle away daily against insurmountable odds and dinosaur structures.

It was a chance to compare projects and get inspired enough to face low-funded, Tory controlled, grey-skied, wrist-slashing Britain where the basic infrastructures such as open channels on our cable system have yet to be built. I came away from this conference with a real understanding of the shrinking nature but expanding community on this planet of ours. The essence of being human is that our humanity is intertwined with all humanity. That a person is only a person through other people. A feeling of connectedness that rises above the notion of being wired. The South Africans have a word for it and that word is Ubuutu. And not a spliff was burned! Ubuutu!

Enda Murray <enda AT>