The Invisible Community: Disappearance and Collectivity in the TAZ

Nickolas Calabrese

Contexts / 30.04.2013

Peter Lamborn Wilson, 1622 Déjà vu (Mars, Oggun), 2012, mixed media, detail. Courtesy the artist and 1:1, New York

One of the first European groups that attempted to settle in the US vanished without a trace around the year 1587; they were the lost colony of Roanoke, in present-day Virginia. All that they left behind was an ambiguous note reading ‘Gone To Croatan’. The veracity of this account is debatable, but it has provided the theorist Hakim Bey with the impetus to talk about the concept of disappearance and its relation to the Temporary Autonomous Zone, or the TAZ.1 Bey – an influence to many artists and writers – has proven to be a provocative figure through his writings on anarchy, utopias, aesthetics, the history of piracy and other subjects. (He also contributes prose and poetry to the US Man/Boy Love Association’s Bulletin.) Alongside writing these critical, polemical, historical, philosophical and poetic texts, he added visual art to his oeuvre last October with a show at 1:1 Gallery in New York, featuring collages and assemblages combining spiritual and mystical source material that he has drawn on throughout the years – images and symbols from religious texts, Native American rituals, various occult rites and so on. But it is his concept of the TAZ, which he first discussed in his tendentious essay of the same name, ‘The Temporary Autonomous Zone’ (1991), that is most well known, and certainly most important for artists.2 Since the essay’s publication it has become a key point of engagement for various artistic and activist collectives, from Tiqqun to Occupy Wall Street and the Bruce High Quality Art Foundation, who have used central ideas from the TAZ to project what a better world would be like. The TAZ and its conceptual content (disappearance, conviviality, anti-authoritarianism, etc.) is a good way to understand the path that these collectives take. It is not to say that these groups are announcing their indebtedness to Bey and the TAZ, but the appearance of his essay as a precursor of these groups’ activities, which have aspects so similar to what he advocates, is a coincidence worth examining.

Peter Lamborn Wilson, Esopus Island #4 ‘Captain Kidd’, 2010, collage. Courtesy the artist, Raymond Foye and 1:1, New York

Though the concept of the TAZ itself is relatively straightforward,3 the theory has been utilised by artists to reflect upon the conditions of how work is made and understood in various ways. The basic substance of the TAZ is this: a momentary utopian space, either physical or virtual, where a band of individuals can operate freely and autonomously without a hierarchy of rule-makers, in support of each other and where they can essentially become invisible to a governing body (which Bey terms disappearance). The TAZ, Bey says, ‘exists not only beyond control but also beyond definition, beyond gazing and naming as acts of enslaving, beyond the understanding of the State, beyond the State’s ability to see’.4 The avoidance of a controlling state (or paternalism in general) over individuals’ lives is perhaps the most important condition for a successful TAZ. He further suggests that this freedom from state interference is only possible because of the TAZ’s invisibility: ‘…its greatest strength is invisibility – the state cannot recognise it because history has no definition of it… the TAZ is a perfect tactic for an era in which the state is omnipresent and all-powerful’.5 The purpose of the TAZ is to allow a group to briefly experience a utopian situation, increasing the number of autonomous individuals in the world upon their re-emergence from it. The TAZ may be aspired towards at all times, but is understood by virtue of its nature to be momentary. A paradigmatic TAZ cited by Bey is the dinner party.6 Bey refers to Stephen Pearl Andrews’s nineteenth-century description of the bubble created at these private social events:

Mutual deference pervades all classes, and the most perfect harmony, ever yet attained, in complex human relations, prevails under precisely those circumstances which Legislators and Statesmen dread as the conditions of inevitable anarchy and confusion. If there are laws of etiquette at all, they are mere suggestions of principles admitted into and judged of for himself or herself, by each individual mind.7

He further suggests that this situation is true of all dinner parties, as long as ‘all structure of authority dissolves in conviviality and celebration’.8 For Bey, the dinner party represents a contained freedom – that is, an abundance of free will within spatial limits. It requires participation, not membership; its participants are simply a band of individuals with common interests. One particularly useful example of a dinner party is the potlatch, a type where each invitee brings a voluntary contribution to the dinner for the betterment of the experience for all. Dinner parties can denote anarchy: though there may be site-specific mores and folkways, there are no laws.

Bernadette Corporation, Get Rid of Yourself, 2003, video still. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

Disappearance is another important feature of the TAZ.9 Explaining it can be difficult however, since its antipodal condition – re-emergence – is also a component of Bey’s view: ‘…we can’t build an aesthetics, even an aesthetics of disappearance, on the simple act of never coming back’.10 Bey points out that disappearance is frequently understood in negative terms as abrogation, but it can be taken in a literal sense – to stop being seen. Bey suggests that if we disappear from the sight of specific people and groups, disappearance becomes an active political gesture instead of a passive fading (an obvious example of disappearance as political would be Luddites who go ‘back to the land’, including even extreme examples like Ted Kaczynski.)

Activist collectives such as Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee; the Occupy Wall Street encampments; 4chan (a controversial online forum that has produced the likes of Anonymous, a group of ‘hacktivists’); Silk Road (a private website where users can make illicit purchases of highly criminalised substances, which actually comes quite close in thought to Bey’s forecast of the counter-Net as described in the section ‘The Net and the Web’ of this same essay);11 and artist collectives such as the Bruce High Quality Foundation, Claire Fontaine, Voina/Pussy Riot and Bernadette Corporation/Reena Spaulings have all adopted aspects of the TAZ.

Bernadette Corporation’s Get Rid of Yourself (2003), an hour-long video whose fulcrum is the 2001 G8 riots, speaks about the Platonic ideal of the protest, and what it means to participate. The video looks at the Black Bloc, a group of activists who protest against authoritative and hierarchical structures of any type, ranging from governments to other protestors, and who are practically invisible until the moment they show up (they do not issue statements or celebrate their subversions). Through the Black Bloc’s activities, an image of what Bernadette Corporation is concerned with (and Bey too) starts to form: groups who choose not to live under what they see as oppressive conditions implemented by governing bodies, and the liminal states they must go through on their way towards autonomy. Autonomy is for them simply self-determination; for a group to be autonomous it must not have a governing body that enforces laws for the individual members of that group, and it certainly must not be dogmatic in any way. By juxtaposing the activist methods of the Black Bloc with the working methods of Bernadette Corporation itself, Get Rid of Yourself embraces a temporary, autonomous and lawless utopian moment, and suggests that the betterment of a group is only attained through collective action.

Bruce High Quality Foundation University, Learning about the history of the neighborhood and how GPS satellites have to account for relativity in their atomic clocks, February 2013. Courtesy the artist and BHQFU

The Bruce High Quality Foundation and their BHQFU(-niversity), a free school that is collectively conceived of and open to all, likewise takes as part of its constitution the rejection of hierarchical modes of governing in order to provide a utopian moment of education. Inspired by models like the Public School,12 which has several locations throughout the US, BHQFU is temporary (most classes end after one ‘semester’), autonomous (there are no committee-made decisions) and configured as a zone for disappearance (just as the dinner party, there is no input from outside the classroom, such that each course takes place in a space which is private and concealed to those who are not members of it).

‘All our art consists of a goodbye note to history – “Gone To Croatan”… the only solution to the “suppression and realisation” of Art lies in the emergence of the TAZ.’13 Disappearance, Bey argues, is opposition’s most useful strategy, and maybe he is right: perhaps a person is only free to be or do what he or she really desires once the autonomy available within the TAZ has been achieved. There is no explicit aligning of the groups discussed here with Bey’s writings, but a brief survey of artist and activist groups alike reveals a widespread knowledge of the TAZ; so frequently is it mentioned that it is puzzling why Bey is not a standardly read author in universities. Resorting to a TAZ seems the only tenable choice for collectives like Tiqqun and the Black Block. If one is living in discomfort as a result of too many laws, why not disappear out of society and into a new group: join a commune, join an activist group or terrorist group? Humans need community – we need to be a part of a group or we will lose the will to live (Durkheim proved this to us in his study on suicide).14 To be a part of a self-governing group is to be free, and to be free remains a primary goal for most people. Think of BHQFU’s free education, or of the Silk Road circumventing any type of law. Bey has gotten at something important here by asserting the TAZ; he has drawn a distinction between the group that is actually free and the group who tells you that you are allowed to be free. Clearly this latter group is paralysed, and that is exactly what Bey would like us to understand.

  1. Hakim Bey is the pseudonym for Peter Lamborn Wilson. It began as an anonymous way for Wilson to publish texts in various fringe journals and collections, though it subsequently became more uttered than Wilson’s real name, so I will refer to Wilson as Bey throughout.

  2. Hakim Bey, ‘The Temporary Autonomous Zone’, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, New York: Autonomedia, 1991, pp.95–141.

  3. Bey states, ‘In the end the TAZ is almost self-explanatory. If the phrase became current it would be understood without difficulty…understood in action’. Ibid., p.99.

  4. Ibid., p.132.

  5. Ibid., p.101.

  6. Ibid., p.105.

  7. Ibid., p.105.

  8. It should be noted that Bey’s instances of disappearance are influenced by texts on the same topic by a few theorists, especially Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. Baudrillard had been playing with notions of disappearance throughout most of his books, but his thoughts on the topic culminated in his late essay ‘On Disappearance’. See J. Baudrillard, Fatal Theories (ed. David B. Clarke, Marcus Doel, William Merrin, Richard G. Smith), New York and London: Routledge, 2009. A particularly important Virilio work on disappearance whose English translation appeared around the same time as Bey’s text was The Aesthetics of Disappearance, see P. Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance (trans. Philip Beitchman), Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1991.

  9. H. Bey, ‘The Temporary Autonomous Zone’, op. cit., p.105.

  10. See H. Bey, ‘The Net and the Web’, T.A.Z.op. cit., pp.108–16.

  11. A communally taught school, the Public School however has a hierarchy in place that introduces authoritative evaluations

  12. See H. Bey, ‘The Net and the Web’, T.A.Z., op. cit., pp.131–32.

  13. Emile Durkheim, Suicide (ed. and trans. George Simpson), New York: The Free Press, 1979.