Hakim Bey on TAZ Origins
By Al Tesshin Billings
I just read a recent interview with Hakim Bey today, In Conversation with Hakim Bey done by Hans Ulrich Obrist from e-flux.
As many of my friends know, I ran one of the longest running Hakim Bey sites for many years on hermetic.com before I gave the site away to a new curator. Back in my undergrad days in the early 1990’s, I was the person that (with permission) reformatted Bey’s T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism for posting on Usenet, the old discussion forum sort of area on the early Internet. I have been very influenced by his thought at various points in my life, even as I moved beyond my earlier enthusiasms (and despite the personal controversies around Hakim Bey).
I noticed in the interview that Obrist asked Bey about the origins of T.A.Z. and I thought it worth quoting. It was interesting to read (as was the whole interview).
I’m not sure when in 2011 that it was done but I do find it interesting that nowhere in the discussion below does the Occupy Movement come up. Given its natural tendency to do so, I suspect that this interview was done early in the year before it became much of a well known phenomena, especially since Bey is in the Hudson Valley in New York. I’m kind of curious as to what he would say about it.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I also wanted to ask you about the origins of T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, which is a book that changed the way I approached exhibitions when I began working as a curator. Growing up with this idea that the exhibition has a master plan and the curator is the one who does a checklist, reading T.A.Z. for the first time in the early ‘90s really triggered a whole set of exhibitions for us, like Life/Live, Cities on the Move, and Laboratorium. Most of my exhibitions in the ‘90s, and then also Utopia Station in the 2000s, relinquished the curatorial master plan in favor of being temporary autonomous zones in which we would basically invite collectives and artists to curate shows within the show. So for me it was a toolbox for curating, and I always wondered how you came to write that book, how its genesis came about?
Hakim Bey: Well, the real genesis was my connection to the communal movement in America, my experiences in the 1960s in places like Timothy Leary’s commune in Millbrook. And of course the main criticism of this activity is that it didn’t last. But these things tend to be very ephemeral—if a secular commune lasts in America for ten years, it’s a miracle. Usually only the religious ones last longer than a generation—and usually at the expense of becoming quite authoritarian, and probably dismal and boring as well. I’ve noticed that the exciting ones tend to disappear, and as I began to further study this phenomenon, I found that they tend to disappear in a year or a year and a half. In the ‘60s we had a lot of communes that lasted for a year and half, two, three years. I think the only one that survived was The Farm, and that’s due to a number of things that made it very different, such as the fact that it had what I would say was a rather authoritarian leader, Steve Gaskin. What a brilliant guy. I think the place held together because he was willing to be its leader. A lot of the other communes fell apart because they were so anarchistic that they had no leaders, and so nobody washed the dishes. The movement was still going on in the 1980s. I had friends who were deeply involved in intentional communities, and I myself got involved. And everybody in the ‘80s was giving a good deal of thought to the whole idea of what intentional community could mean and how it could improve your life to be in one, or if it even could at all. That was the question. I think it unquestionably does. People have great fun for at least a year or a year and a half, and then when the problems start, that’s usually when it breaks up. After thinking about that for a while, it occurred to me that, well, it’s not such a great tragedy that these things don’t last. You shouldn’t condemn the experience of the people at Brook Farm, for example, just because it only lasted a few years. Those people had an incredibly deep experience that changed their lives. They had fun while they were there. They had a more intense existence, with everything geared up to a higher charge. All you have to do is read a little Emerson and a little Thoreau, see what the people who visited Brook Farm had to say about it. It was buzzing with energy and good vibrations.
HUO: Emerson said, “Nothing great has ever been achieved without enthusiasm.”
HB: Exactly. So it occurred to me that you could make a virtue of the temporary nature of these things. If these organizations fall apart after eighteen months or so, well, let’s just plan on it. Let’s have these communities and say that they’re only going to last for a short while. And as soon as the intensity fades, then it’s over. It’s finished. We wrap it up, go somewhere else, do something new. But I also have to admit that by the 1980s, waiting for the revolution for thirty years had gotten a little tiresome. When I was really young and full of enthusiasm in the 1960s, we really, actually, sincerely believed that a major transformation was imminent. And as it turned out, we were all naïve, perhaps like those Christian fundamentalists who are so certain that the end of the world is imminent. I don’t know. It could have been a form of millenarian insanity, but we believed in it in any case. The older we got, the more this receded into history, at least for me. And for others it became a futile, youthful dream they had to give up. But I’m still working for that transformation, though I’m no longer convinced it’s around the corner, or that it’s going to happen in my lifetime. So as I began wondering how we could have a taste of revolutionary life without the revolution, since it was apparently not going to happen, this new Temporary Autonomous Zone seemed the only possible answer to that. There was no single moment of genesis really, but a whole series of light-saturated moments throughout American history—including the 1960s, which I had lived through myself—that all culminated in that theoretical work.
HUO*: So if one considers Temporary Autonomous Zones as these pockets of anarchy, do you find any now, in the twenty-first century? Where are they? Can they be expanded? And what forms do they take?
HB: Well, I’ve always said that I didn’t invent the TAZ. I just noticed that it existed. It’s always existed. For some reason, most people have to believe that what they’re doing is going to last forever in order to find the enthusiasm to do anything at all. The only thing that changed was thinking of the temporary itself as a possible good, instead of an obstacle. A good dinner party is a Temporary Autonomous Zone. Nobody tells you what to do at a good dinner party. Nobody gives orders. Nobody collects taxes. It’s an experience of giving and being given to, of filling the body and emptying the mind, having good conversation and good wine and so forth. This is already a TAZ, but you have to conceptualize it that way for it to be that way. It’s simply a matter of consciousness. But once you find that consciousness, the forms of organization begin to open up. You begin to see all the different forms of organization that this could take. It could be anything from a picnic by the riverside to a community that lasts for two years. Where is it actually happening? Well, I have to say that the current moment at the end of this decade is, to me, one of the low energy points of history. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I feel that it’s actually hard to find a good TAZ now. And it’s more important than ever to do so. One reason being that communism is no longer. We now live in the world of the triumph of capital. And in this world, it would seem that the TAZ is, perhaps, the last possible revolutionary form. I hope that’s not true, but it may be. Either way, the idea is certainly more important now than it was around 1989 when I dreamed the idea up in the first place.conversation and good wine and so forth. This is already a TAZ, but you have to conceptualize it that way for it to be that way. It’s simply a matter of consciousness. But once you find that consciousness, the forms of organization begin to open up. You begin to see all the different forms of organization that this could take. It could be anything from a picnic by the riverside to a community that lasts for two years. Where is it actually happening? Well, I have to say that the current moment at the end of this decade is, to me, one of the low energy points of history. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I feel that it’s actually hard to find a good TAZ now. And it’s more important than ever to do so. One reason being that communism is no longer. We now live in the world of the triumph of capital. And in this world, it would seem that the TAZ is, perhaps, the last possible revolutionary form. I hope that’s not true, but it may be. Either way, the idea is certainly more important now than it was around 1989 when I dreamed the idea up in the first place.