Black Rock City, the TAZ and the Rise of Great Civilizations

[John Mosbaugh is a regular contributor to the Burning Blog, a former writer for Piss Clear, and author of the pamphlet “How to Get Laid at Burning Man”. A master of thoughtful stream-of-consciousness, and devoted connoisseur of Burning Man culture, some consider him the Jack Kerouac of Black Rock City. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

One year I was directed by a dear person for whom I have a great affinity to visit the Lunches in LUSH around 3 o’clock & Esplanade and bring tidings of the location of their nuptials-to-be. We were in Center Camp and a dust storm was fast approaching from the direction of the Man so I was offered the use of a scooter to hopefully beat the storm on my way.

Dust Storm 1998
Dust Storm 1998 - moze

With my goggles and respirator secured, I jumped on the scooter and zipped across the Esplanade towards the Man just as a playa wide wall of dust swallowed him whole and I soon found myself in that under dust world where visibility is reduced to no more than a few feet in any direction and I was like small fish in a fishbowl, swimming and making graceful curves “S” shaped on my way. We’ve all been inside that sea of fine particulate, where all you can see is the light powder moving in shifting columns about you. Where talc grit is sliding gently as an abrasive all pervasive never ending river flowing over your skin. It is like being underwater, but with oxygen and everything is swirling dust, a mask is a must and not to have one is preposterous. All was quiet and soft, sluicing over and past, pervading everything. It was beautiful, like swimming through a cloud. I knew I was near the Man, but I couldn’t see him. There is a dreamlike feeling one experiences as you move through a total white out, one that can easily turn on you if you don’t keep your wits about you, because there is absolutely no way to tell where you are. It was just then, as I was wondering exactly where I would end up, that a huge phantom shape materialized before me, slowly manifesting from the dust.

La Contessa, photographer blinkingman 2002
La Contessa, photographer blinkingman 2002

She was moving in a large circular curve, mostly obscured by the light brown of the alkaline powder, and as she turned, I beheld the closed eyes of her beautiful carved figurehead beneath the bowsprit; a woman holding a lantern aloft. The painted gun deck of La Contessa’s bow moved slowly, her tattered sails flapping in the wind. She was a silent ghost ship; a gracefully swimming demigorgon manned by a “heathen crew” of revelers “whelped  somewhere by the sharkish sea”[1] but they were below deck and all was quiet beneath the silicate ocean as she headed to port. As she turned fully and showed me her stern, I leaned into the headwind and found the Contessa’s lee side where I rode alongside her like some remora. For several moments we proceeded together, silent beneath the streaming onslaught, until I could make out a patch of clearing and could see the flapping flags and camps on the Esplanade around 3 o’clock. La Contessa turned again, this time towards the 2 o’clock end of the City and I continued on my assignment. The Lunches weren’t there. I had some drinks with LUSH. The dust storm abated and I made my way back to Center Camp eventually. That moment with La Contessa burned itself into my mind like so many other experiences we have on the playa. I’m not sure where else but in Black Rock City, you can be guided through a white out to your destination by a Spanish Galleon. For that matter, there are many, many other glorious things that you will only experience in our Temporary Autonomous Zone.

And speaking of the TAZ and Spanish Galleons, I sometimes wonder what would happen if our Big City with a Small Town Feel never tore down. Every year I hear someone say, “Why can’t this exist ALL THE TIME,” and what if Burning Man wasn’t held on public land and never tore down? Statistics prove that it is cheaper to keep people at Burning Man than it is to keep them in prison and with municipalities strained already by the economy, why should we not be all provocative and explore the possibility of a non temporary Burning Man?

Skeletons 1998
Skeletons 1998 - moze

Firstly, does that “Burning Feeling” really last all year as people say, if you bring it back with you and spread it like some intelligent virus invading the meme stream? Is there something to be said for all the mind blown Marco Polo’s who’ve traipsed Black Rock City for a week and brought back spice for the soul, and become evangelists for a place where you can participate in the best our species has to offer? Those spice routes traveling through our center of philosophy where tenets like Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Immediacy and Participation are practiced for real.

I will not flirt with a holy cow in sacred waters, but my understanding of how things came about involves a Zone Trip #4 introduced by a Ms. CG to the Cacophony and otherwise initiated by Mr. K. Evans. Mr. Evans was was at the time reading  Hakim Beys’ 1991 T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, ONTOLOGICAL ANARCHY, POETICAL TERRORISM and he enlisted his Cacophony friends Msrs.  JL, M2, LB, Ms. P.S, CG et. al., who’s stories Mr. Beale has thoughtfully posted,  to bring Mr. LH and his crew to the desert to burn their “most expensive & elaborate piece of firewood that would make a glorious conflagration”[2] out there with them.

The rest is history and  Mr. B. Doherty’s, This is Burning Man also elucidates in some delightful length and detail about how the Zone Trip came to be. Curious about what this Temporary Autonomous Zone is and how it relates to the current incarnation of Burning Man, I did some research and while I was certainly not part of that first Zone Trip, some concepts of the TAZ that seem to apply to the event include: The TEMPORALITY of the event,  the fact that Burning Man appears then disappears quickly, allows us to fade from the memory of the POWERS THAT BE. In his essay, Mr. Bey discusses free enclaves created in the 18th century by Pirates who created these “Utopias” as remote hideouts from the British Empire. An example of these Utopias was called Libertatia according to Bey.  Temporary Autonomous Zones were “intentional communities” where goods and services were exchanged, where people were “free from the ‘hideous’ benefits of Imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism, and intolerance.”[3] The TAZ existed  in “terra incognita”. And if the pirates were discovered, they packed up and left no trace. Bey believes the need for the TAZ exists due to “PSYCHOTOPOLOGY” which is a form of “psychic imperialism” which is  to push the idea that “not one speck of rock in the South Seas can be left open, not one remote valley, not even the Moon and planets” therefore in theory that not a measure of land can go unpoliced or untaxed.”

photographer Alec Henderson 1991
photographer Alec Henderson 1991

Burning Man has found a place on the map and is revolutionary in what it brings to that particular location for a week a year. It is inherently subversive to build something so quickly out of nothing, to invite every party interested in our ethos to PARTICIPATE and to cross pollinate, then to disappear leaving no trace. The concept of “PSYCHIC NOMADS” be it artists, musicians and other free thinkers arriving and leaving nothing behind is central to this idea, even now, 20 years after the first time the Man graced the playa packed along with that Zone Trip. According to Mr. Bey, the TAZ is many things. It is a UTOPIA OF FERALITY where there is a return to “surfing the wave of chaos”. Gone Feral is a concept of embracing a “chaos or inchoateness which the adept would transmute into ‘gold’” as a reality and not a derisive or opportunistic force, but one that creates a miasma where change can occur. He cites the early American colonists in Roanoke who disappeared leaving only the message “Gone to Croatan” which was the name of the neighboring tribe of Native Americans. I can’t help think of the person who makes it to Burning Man from a place where their art or their being is openly questioned as being legitimate, and who finds a band of humans with which they can go feral. Then again,

photographer Ron Halbert 2003
photographer Ron Halbert 2003

Every year out there we create this swirling Petri dish of proto civilization complete with temples and city centers, with boroughs and villages, with burbs and a downtown.  We build great projects and infrastructure to welcome the masses who come to share their ideas and art and to take part in this grand 21st century experiment in Immediacy.  Every year the Black Rock City Boomtown rises like some rush to this year’s Art Lode with all the accompanying camps and infrastructure and citizens there to cash in on the decommodified vibe that pulsates from our gathering. Black Rock City is a city so strange, de and re arranged each season. What would happen if the event was on private land and wasn’t entirely disassembled every year? Would it become a center of Great Civilization, a City of columned pantheons and Salons, of pyramids glistening in the sun, all solar powered and entirely green with Think Tanks and  all the Art brought out there that doesn’t leave, living in grand round city centers?  Would anyone but the most insane want to live year round through the desolate winters in the Black Rock Desert? Would our citizens create the most radically self reliant community of survivalists, artists and forward thinkers the earth has seen in a long time? Or would Black Rock City even survive being Black Rock City all the time?

photographer Wendy Baker  2004
photographer Wendy Baker 2004

I imagine semi-temporary structures overrun and built by renegades, criminals and assorted pirates. Would it be a place populated year round with lunatic believers, runaways, misfits and artists, dreamers, creators, lovers and gurus, all policed by sadomasochistic clowns, and I mean real clowns, all painted up with round red noses. Would we need to put up a big sign for Burning Man Land with parking in Pluto or Goofy or Mickey or Minnie? Would we need a monorail?  But.. would it really have to be like that and will we ever know? Every year we build a beautiful, intricate City from the collective toil of our volunteers, org and Participants who bring wondrous camps and art all to share and we enjoy it for a week or so, then we shake it clean like some gargantuan Etch-A-Sketch and it is only a memory. How much do we gain from that self imposed tabla rasa? All cities, no matter how permanent, are actually temporary in the grand scheme of time.

Nambla the Pirate
Nambla the Pirate - moze 2004

Could Black Rock City become a City worthy of Alexandria, or Rome, or New York? Or could it become a Playa Athens, Ayuthaya, Thebes, or Timbuktu? Or perhaps we would just build a new Libertatia. Someone once said, “like all great American adventures, this one has wilderness, struggle, a journey and an experience,” and that is something about Burning Man that will never change, but since we are already a Great City, is it not possible that not only pondering the concepts Temporary Autonomy but also looking forward to the possibilities of building something less impermanent, can do anything but serve to create a discourse that might in turn make the entire experiment of Burning Man stronger? And if none of this matters, perhaps we can at least see “PIRATES” as a theme. It really is a theme whose time has come.


[1] Herman Melville, Moby Dick  (Bantam Classics, 1851)   p. 167. [2] Kevin Evans. “it’s so empty it’s full” <http://laughingsquid.com/its-so-empty-its-full/> (1 January 2007). [3]Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.: the temporary autonomous zone, ontological anarchy, poetic terrorism (Autonomedia, Brooklyn NY, 1985/1991) — All Quotes other than the two above.

About the author: Moze

Mosbaugh aka Moze is a San Francisco heretic and writer who spends his time producing pornographic puppet shows, writing novels and dark fairy tales and building art installations to haul out to the desert. He's been on the Burning Man webteam since aught two and serves as section manager for the art and afterburn sections, deputy image wrangler and overall whatever you need kind of guy. Moze has the complete works of Shakespeare on his iPhone and he's written for Piss Clear, the YEP and has been blogging about Burning Man since blogs came into existence. The Nebulous Entity first beckoned him into the community and he's been returning to the dry lake bed ever since.

36 thoughts on “Black Rock City, the TAZ and the Rise of Great Civilizations

  • It seems to me not a question of how but when. Many of us spend our time trying to escape the realities of this modern world to find the next TAZ. We try to escape a world which encourages us to stay autonomous and isolated from each other for one where accepting and embracing of everyone is encouraged. We try to escape the modern world’s gripping efforts to keep us looking to consumerism as our solace. An engine which creates so much, yet so little of it’s cookie cutter, plastic wrapped “goods and services” are truly creative, so little of it feeds the soul. Instead we find solace in places where community, creativity and amusement are embraced. Where everyone is encouraged to tap into their infinite potential and then share it widely. Where social status is not determined by how much you hoard, but by how much you give.

    Many of us are chasing that dream one road trip at a time. Or finding smaller enclaves where we are allowed to create this reality. Why not take the leap to village, then town, then city? If allowed it would certainly grow to a metropolis because we are on to something here. It would be a new mecca. A Vegas like Disney land with a much better gift shop. Permanent citizens would grow and create what they need to provide for themselves and weekend warriors would bring influxes of new gifts to share. Modern day pirates redirecting resources from the existing world to ours. Though as sad as it sounds we would likely have to move off the playa as it seems the permanent livability of the area may support something like 8 people.

    Truly, the only thing stopping us is the Man. Not our Man but theirs. But if we play by most of their rules, cause no harm and focus on being an experiment in sustainable living as well, then any attempts to dismantle us would be social genocide and seen by even the citizens of their world as gross misconduct. So what’s stopping us. Our own fears that we cannot pull it off. Single-handedly we could not. But once united toward the common goal it becomes again not a question of how but when…

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  • This is a response to my good friend John Mosbaugh’s essay and its reference to a Temporary Autonomous Zone. The concept of a TAZ is frequently regarded as theoretic model of Burning Man and its culture. This is not surprising. Hakim Bey’s exploration of “ontological anarchy [and] poetic terrorism” was published in 1991, one year after we established our city in the desert. At that time and for years afterwards, many people have used this as a framework to explain what we are doing. Indeed, I very briefly corresponded with Peter Lamborn Wilson, the originator to the TAZ idea (Hakim Bey is his pen name) in the mid-Nineties. His single piece of advise was to avoid any a form of collaboration with the State. This is not surprising, since the idea of an “interzone” is integral to the operation of a TAZ as he imagined it.

    Briefly, an interzone is a sort of secret caravan oasis, a refuge from society’s rules, a chink in society’s armor where guerilla actions may be carried out. This is where the aesthetic “terrorism” of the TAZ comes in: the artist as a sort of Viet Cong. Needless to say, this absolutely rhymed with a lot of the guerrilla art undertaken by the San Francisco Cacophony Society and the Billboard Liberation Front, part the bohemian milieu from which Burning Man emerged. In fact, from 1986 until 1990 our burns on Baker Beach were guerilla actions. The only problem with Wilson’s advice, however, is that by 1992 we had already filled out our first recreation permit. We were on the System’s radar. More to the point, in the absence any real BLM policing in a perilous environment, we were forced to cope with the ironic fact that in some sense we had become the State. The Black Rock Rangers had already formed, and we were now responsible for the welfare and – quite literally — the lives of an increasing number of participants. There was really no way around it: willy-nilly, we were morphing into an actual city.

    Against this background, I want to share one insight I have gained concerning anarchistic practice, as apart from its theory. My early experience of anarchism on-the-hoof in the Black Rock Desert taught me that it soon breaks down into something that more nearly resembles gang rule, than the actions of a merry band of brothers (I’d say sisters, but it’s more of a boy thing, really). In truth, Bey romanced the notion of piratical utopia, making it rhyme all too well with post-adolescent angst. His vision, in the last analysis, is a retreat from reality, a counter-cultural fantasy. If the colonists of Roanoke really did join the Croatans, then I suppose they made the rational decision to join a tribal people whose technology was better adapted to the environment. But they didn’t disappear into Never Never Land – only hipsters could imagine that.

    Let me suggest that a better intellectual model that relates to Black Rock City is furnished by the Situationists. In the 1960’s they offered up a sustained and cogent critique of consumerism, characterizing late 20th century capitalism as producing what writer Guy Debord called “The Society of the Spectacle”. And unlike Wilson, whose retreat into capsule interzones is fraught with paranoia, they at least envisioned a future for great civilization (It is true, however, that after producing brilliant theory and many clever epigrams, they then proceeded in true Gallic fashion to do absolutely nothing of practical value, but perhaps, as pragmatic Americans, that is left up us).

    I feel better now, and I will have accomplished something if I can get at least one person put down that little book and explore a new viewpoint. Maybe, too, I am tired of pirates. Having produced a nautical art theme, “The Floating World”, in 2002, and after enduring pirate yelps and howls of “arrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!” and “garrrrrrrrrrrrrr!” for eight straight days and nights, I took an oath that I would never again do a theme that could be used for a High School Prom.

    Larry

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  • Don’t despair, Moze. There will always be room for clowns — very strange and disturbing clowns (and given bunnies’ reproduction rate, it is impossible to stop them).

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  • I truly enjoyed reading about all those different points of view regarding TAZ’s, they all offer valid points, but while I know that a certain amount of planning is necessary in the end we just need to take action and start creating such a zone, I believe that we can always find reasons why one shouldn’t do or build something, fear is always present and always will be. I guess what I’m trying to say is ” Let’s do it, and lets deal with the problems as they come” (if they even come) that’s all we can do, no project can ever be problem-free, specially if it involves human interaction and co-habitation. Even if a TAZ was to fail, what an experiene for the members of such a project, can you imagine the lessons learned? Lessons on self-discovery, on human nature, on Sustainability and the capacity to endure.
    English is not my first language so I am sorry if i butchered it, but i hope most of you made sense of my “thinking outloud” style of writting.
    On another note I would like to know if any of you know how bad is the playa this year just so i know wich of my bikes to pack.

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  • We tried creating a new society based on love, creativity, anti-consumerism and psychedelic visions in the Haight in San Francisco back in the sixties. While some interesting things and great music came from that experiment, the scene rather quickly degenerated into an epidemic of drug abuse, crime, poverty and disease as opportunists, parasites and just plain creeps rushed in to feed on the innocent and naive. Unfortunately for us all I don’t think human nature has changed all that much since then.

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  • BRC as a PERMANENT Autonomous Zone? (PAZ)? I think not. Every city and town west of the Mississippi started as a “TAZ” with a group of like-minded individuals who decided to live in the same place. Heck, not just west of the Mississippi, throughout history it’s been that way, But, things change, they evolve, they are invaded, etc. It never lasts.

    The BM festival if viewed as an annual convention of like minded individuals seems more accurate. No different from a convention of dentists or librarians in form. The difference is that the dentists and librarians leave the convention and go home and continue being dentists and librarians. The people who attend BM leave and go home and stop being “burners” (not all, but many, probably most).

    If attempted as a permanent “experiment” I’d hate to see the hoops one would have to go through in order to “qualify”, inclusion would never be possible. One bad egg would ruin everything.

    I could see BRC as a year-round theme park, or vacation destination. A “city”, I think not – it’s not the physical, it’s the heart and soul that we have in common that makes us come back each year.

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  • I think we need to bring what we have @ Burning Man back to the “default”world, why build a new society when we can change ours by bringing what we have learned to our homes?
    No one is stopping anyone from doing crazy stuff. Keep the event small or just couch it with the authorities as something they will understand, do it, with all the permits, and hoops they put in front of you. Anything is possible! Just do it. Don’t blame it on anything or anyone that stuff isn’t happening in your town, or “they” will not let stuff happen…There are permits for films and they blow big stuff up all the time. There are permits for parties that have thousands of people attending. There is insurance you can buy, and forms the city agencies have…but really it is up to you to make it happen. Just like in BRC -Don’t be a spectator in your home town…Participate! Make your city like Black Rock City year round.

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  • In order to get someone to experience one of the most incredible ways how to connect to his source, is to create the biggest “party” on the planet , disconnecting today’s human beings from their current global reality and unite them changing their night to a day and their day to a night, causes the self sleep paralyses effect which starts with noisy and scary (inner body) vibrations at first but then after passing the fear factor, can every human being to have the chance of exploring the astral plane which is an intellect universal living thing !, creativity is a conscious being and is surrounding BRC – if you don’t know about burning man it will find you , i saw the future of burning man – it will contain Giant 3d hologram projections , of buildings and Amazing enormous digital size structures 50 stores high, it is the nest step for humans before uniting with their digital source , other words – if you can imagine and see your self flying around in your imagination, it is just a matter of time and technology until it will hit the unison.
    Burning man is not a civilization and not a metropolis – BM is a conciousness expander Patent and i will use it as long as it exist in order to enjoy my particle brothers from all over this reality frame , Our life is our own reality show, we all picked the time frame to be here to enjoy the most amazing singularity peak time.
    oh ‘ Burning man i just love you so much !
    DJ Siago

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  • LadyMerv, you nailed it. Bring Burning Man home. Burning Man is the Energy we bring to it. Burning Man provides Inspiration, creates Love and builds Courage to spread our Values everywhere we are. The way to Create a permanent Burning Man is to live Burning Man every where every day until the default world sees the Light and They become Us.

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  • Why not try having two Buringman events a year. A spring one would be nice. I agree that A Permanent small Village, Would be great, then folks could stop by any time of the year, just to commune.

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  • “Anything is possible! Just do it. Don’t blame it on anything or anyone that stuff isn’t happening in your town, or “they” will not let stuff happen…There are permits for films and they blow big stuff up all the time. There are permits for parties that have thousands of people attending. There is insurance you can buy, and forms the city agencies have…but really it is up to you to make it happen. Just like in BRC -Don’t be a spectator in your home town…Participate! Make your city like Black Rock City year round.”

    This

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  • From the many comments I’ve seen, what strikes me most is the ingrained horror & fear of most, towards altering the ‘experiance’, both in its current temporary arrangement, and the overal concept. I understand that fear, but see it ultimately as a limited, narrow POV. The responsibility to lead others towards new shores, I feel , does not end one glorious little week a year. As introduced to me, and proven to be so true; Burning Man is a way of life. You take it with you. That most of us live all year for that brief moment, making it the entire focus of our time, quietly planning, sewing, creating. Such passion, such imagination, such purity of focus, to me represents the very best of Man/Woman-kind. All that runs through my mind from that point is ‘where to next?’ There must be more. Some way to take this unnatual blossom to the next stage, and what is that next stage. That the best, the brightest, the most enlightened have been located, and gathered, and all we do is ceremonially piss in the wind? This group has, like it or not, become much greater tool to change human conciousness, than any other (barring fetid religion). It seems natural to make a stable, permanent ‘Home’ & structure, as a year round focus. Knowing these good folk, it will become a wonder of the world. The structure and enviorn for this TAZ would have to be differant from BRC as it is, just by it’s nature. Yet, that does not entirely exclude the possiblity of continuing annually on the Playa, or for arranged meetings there. I do not have fear for what might be lost, as there is so much more to be gained.

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  • This year will be my first Burn and I can’t begin to describe how excited I am. A huge part of that thrill is the anticipation of something new and unique. I would like to ask, however, would that quality of “new” and “unique” be preserved if Burning Man were permanent? I’m reminded of the Tibetan sand mandalas. So much time, energy and spirit is devoted to create an incredible and beautiful a work of art only to sweep it away at the end of the day. This is metaphorical of life itself and it seems to me of Burning Man as well. This year’s art burns or moves on to a different life. Next year’s art incubates over the months and is born anew on the playa. The canvas having been cleared and a new theme provided inspire a fresh painting. What could be more natural, holistic and a treasure to behold? I wonder if Burning Man doesn’t continue and grow each year precisely because so many of us need this inspiration and reminder. Live this moment! Share these joys! Participate! The Man burns in X number of days.

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  • Burning Man can’t be permanent. It’s mortality is part of its soul. Knowing that you only have one week to be who you truly are gives you the impetus to break through and be it. And Burning Man is not sustainable. Colonies and pirate towns survive by exploiting the environment, other people, or both.

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  • Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is fundamental and everything. But just imagine if you added some great visuals or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and videos, this site could definitely be one of the best in its niche. Wonderful blog!

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