Future Present: Temporary Autonomous Zones and the Rewiring of Public Space

So many are rushing to get “back to normal” — we think we can do better than the “normal” we came from. Business as usual was good for those in power, not for us. Future Present explores what we’ve lost that we’re better off without, what we can build in its place, and what new futures and ways of being we can imagine in this space of possibility. This series is launched in recognition of Autostraddle’s investing in a new editorial vision, new relationship to community, and top-down restructure of priorities and resourcing. We asked our community to invest in these possibilities along with us (and you did!), and are sharing this series as a promise of what we can do and be. This series is intertwined with our fundraiser to keep up the Autostraddle we love, and at the same time fuel a vision led by Editor in Chief Kamala Puligandla and Deputy Editor Carmen Phillips. We’ve now made our goal; thank you for helping us build the Autostraddle of your wildest dreams! Supporting us makes work like this article and the series it’s a part of possible, and we’re grateful we can now bring you more writing like this!

A blue-and-coral graphic banner that reads Build Queer Futures with Autostraddle! Give at autostraddle.biz

Before the pandemic hit, my life was 99% events—performing at events, organizing events, and promoting events in IRL spaces, with IRL people, at IRL venues. As a poet and performer my time was inundated with performing at and organizing readings and performances both professionally and for pleasure—all of my activities and passions sewn together by The Gig. I am lucky in that my work life mirrors my actual interests, and I have the pleasure of working as the communications and development coordinator at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, a job I began at the start of this hellish year, where I support events through publicity, curation and development. As a leo, I wholeheartedly live for the gig, and then all of the sudden the gig as I have come to know and love, crowded and dark queer DIY spaces, last minute scrambling for the right cables to hook up the sound or the projector, people arriving late no matter what time you promise it will start at, double gig nights where you have to be in two places at once, gigs til four am even though you have to work the next day, gigs where no one comes, gigs where everyone comes—was gone.

An important tenet of my poetic and performance practice is to demand an audience—onslaughts of ALL CAPS text, subjectivities that snowball into each other and directly address the audience, performances where I staple the reflective text to my own skin, performances where pierce the planes between the knuckles of my fingers with hypodermic needles and then wire it together. My insistence on demanding an audience arrives from two, simultaneous places. In the text, I assert that both the author and the reader are implicated in the violence the poetic text exposes. My aim is that this activation of complicit responsibility goes beyond the mode of witness in order to urge the reader into action. Just as the reading process is collaborative, live performances are created through a participatory exchange between performer, audience, and the surrounding environment. I transformed a piece of writing on the accumulation of violence throughout the rise of new fascism as a performance titled “ABSORPTION.” For the performance, I stapled each page of the text to my own body in front of a glitching projection. In preparing materials for the performance, I adhered the text to sheets of reflective, silver mylar, or screens, so when live, they reflected the projection back at the audience implicating them as both complicit in the present rise of new fascism and newly responsible to take action against it. I did this performance every night for two weeks on the 2018 Sister Spit tour, and although this particular element wasn’t necessarily visible to new audiences, the accumulation of the incisions & bruises from the stapler approached the limits of what I could withstand — my skin an ongoing, visceral mirror.

I’ve learned from the oral poet, textile artist and activist Cecilia Vicuña to embrace interruption and work with it, to invite street noise, to let go the myth of complete control and invite street noise etc to be a part of one’s performance. In working toward embracing Vicuña’s ideas and methods, I was put to task in a reading and artist talk I gave in the final days of summer last year as part of the NYC Cultural Majlis series on the curator’s roof a coin toss away from the Manhattan Bridge. We didn’t have a mic, but the day was just too beautiful to relocate inside and so I gave my reading punctuated by the subway grinding across the bridge. I read a section from my debut book EXTRATRANSMISSION, a poetic critique of the U.S. military’s role in the War on Terror that I had read many, many times in a particular way. Thinking of Vicuña, I didn’t ignore the train and attempt to project over it, I used the train’s crossing to create new line breaks and durational pauses throughout the reading. As a performer it was a challenge to cede control of my reading to the frequent crossing of the train, but it made the difference between the audience being able to hear me or not, and also made a rehearsed piece entirely new again.

My experience of the pandemic has been all about losing control and with no end date in sight being forced to live in a durational space of uncertainty. As a fixed sign with a ton of backseat virgo, it is a real challenge for me to invite the unexpected in my performances and rise to collaborate with it instead of ignoring it. As the unknown of the pandemic stretches out ahead, I aim to rise out of past fixed behaviors in order to collaborate with the pandemic’s liminal spaces.
I am confident that the decentering of the performer in the performance space and invitation to the audience and environment makes the collective experience of the performance that much more powerful. And by actively participating in the performance, the audience will carry that performance around with them once they exit the venue, and satisfy Brecht’s hope that they continue thinking about the piece once the performance is over. I consider this energizing performance space to be a form of the temporary autonomous zone – a collectively determined space that has the power to reimagine the world.

During the ongoing uprisings following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis Police, I specifically remember the moment when suddenly abolition was no longer a conceptual goal, it felt possible. There were multiple temporary autonomous zones across cities including Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia, New York, and Richmond. The fact that city councils across the country were convening and even considering defunding police departments was unbelievable. An unprecedented level of mainstream engagement with the idea of abolition was suddenly visible.

Temporary autonomous zones not only reimagine the structure of our world, they remap public space as a space for play, using architectures not for traffic, commerce, transit, commuting, but instead for demonstration, choking commerce in its tracks, dancing on bridges as part of a socially distanced, revolutionary crowd. These urban spaces — sites of manicured, colonial violence — are then remapped not only as a stage on the world stage, but as revolutionary playgrounds for pleasure. I don’t think of the temporary aspect of the TAZ as the police given timestamp before they move in on it with the intention of taking it back for the state with excessive force and arrests. I think of the temporariness of TAZ as a decolonial pathway that points to potential for the return of stolen land to the Indigenous people that the state violently stole it from in the first place. In the context of occupied Lenapehoking where I am writing from, I am thinking specifically about the unceded territory of the Lenni Lenape, Canarsie, Shinecock, and Munsee peoples. The project of the TAZ, any TAZ, is not that it is suddenly owned by leftists or organizers, but that it isn’t owned by the state, and implies an opening for people to collectively negotiate a relationship with the land in deference to the Indigenous people who call it home without ownership or colonization. In thinking of the possibilities for these spaces, I insist on ideas of play and playground as mass uprisings born through grief and rage take over a public space and rearrange it for all – and this space then holds not only grief and rage, but also revelrous joy and pleasure. One of my favorite examples of this is the memory of arriving late to an anti-police violence demonstration after police murdered Philando Castile in July 2016 , walking up an onramp to the freeway, and melting into a queer dance party on the freeway with big rigs and cars stopped on either side blasting music. The TAZ was so established by the time I arrived that it felt casual to walk up the onramp and the freeway, like a runway to revolution.

Queer cruising has a long history of reimagining public spaces as sites of pleasure through libidinal mass. I often return to this Samuel Delany quote from autobiography The Motion of Light in Water on the power of the mass in ecstasy:

“the rest were an undulating mass of naked male bodies, spread wall to wall. My first response was a kind of heart-thudding astonishment, very close to fear. I have written of a space at a certain libidinal saturation before. That was not what frightened me. It was rather that the saturation was not only kinesthetic but visible. You could see what was going on throughout the dorm.” (Delany, 291-2)

I can’t even begin to write how much I miss dense, queer sweaty spaces, the thrill of spontaneous connection by way of movement and eye contact. I also can’t tell you how much I don’t miss expensive covers, trying to figure out how to get on the list to evade said cover, clout chasing, and transphobic private security at the door. Without these aspects of my old life, the IRL GIG, the IRL night life, and an ongoing desire to remap urban spaces against their violent colonial histories and for play, I’ve gotten back into aggressive inline skating aka rollerblading. Aggressive inline reinvents urban architectures for tricks, every pothole is a gap to jump, every handrail is a spot to grind, every hill a spot to bomb down, all activities against urban planners intentions.

Blading fell out of vogue in the mid 2000’s when it was dropped from the X-Games. I think the real reason is a mashup of misogyny, toxic masculinity, homophobia, and the fact the US had very few blader celebrities to commodify. I’m thrilled that blading is back in demand as the pandemic summer’s social distance sport of choice. Blading pushes the limits both of what the body is capable of and what the city street is capable of being used for, in the same way that TAZ push beyond the limits of what was previously imagined as possible in public space.

Making public is not only about rewiring public spaces, it’s about making public any desire that’s been pushed underground, whether it’s queer, revolutionary, abolitionist, etc.. Temporary autonomous zones make public the desire of the mass in a free public space. Delany goes on to write “the first direct sense of political power comes from the apprehension of massed bodies. That I’d felt it and was frightened by it means that others had felt it too.”

If I follow Vicuña’s teachings, I should find some way to invite and collaborate with the digital event space and the shadows of friends, colleagues and strangers, instead of pretending it will power off soon and that the IRL gig I know and love will be back from it’s pandemic summer hiatus. I think digital event spaces are unduly important connective and accessible cultural space windows, and I am still searching for the electrifying TAZ experience in them.

The loss of control rendered by the pandemic is unfortunately more of risky investment with bad returns including vampiric landlords, watching friends and loved ones being toyed with by the department of labor, continued negligence of those incarcerated, fear of sickness and death, and of course sickness, and death. How is it to be done? Certainly not like this. I think of all of the empty office buildings in Manhattan and everywhere, their lights kept on to maintain the illusion of normalcy—so the skyline is still lit up at night. Instead, we shatter the illusion and all this empty space was transformed into housing for the unhoused and formerly incarcerated. What does decolonial, abolition mean materially? It means closing prisons, jails and police precincts permanently. It means the nation is longer restrained by borders, place is unbounded and expansive with the idea of a colonial nation entirely unwound. The outdoors are ongoing and surprising sites of new encounters that melt into new pleasures. Mutual aid is the standard practice of community care and no longer the exception.

It is this performance making process as active, simultaneous, and responsive enlivens the dynamics between everyone in and outside of the room, and of course the room itself. I get rushes of adrenaline just thinking about it. What is it about this specific, suspended feeling? possibilities of a performance or an action become limitless when asserted with collective force. It’s this same feeling I live for — rapturous temporary autonomous zones.

Andrea Abi-Karam is an arab-american genderqueer punk poet-performer cyborg, writing on the art of killing bros, the intricacies of cyborg bodies, trauma and delayed healing. Selected by Bhanu Khapil, Andrea’s debut EXTRATRANSMISSION (Kelsey Street Press, 2019), is a poetic critique of the U.S. military’s role in the War on Terror. Simone White selected their second assemblage, Villainy for publication in Fall 2021 at Nightboat Books. With Kay Gabriel, they co-edited We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics soon to be released by Nightboat Books in October 2020. They are a Leo currently obsessed with queer terror and convertibles.

Andrea has written 1 article for us.

2 Comments

  1. While the author of the piece makes a nice point and elaboration and even ties Delaneys writing on cruising to autonomous space (something he does himself in his essay in Baedan III: A Journal Of Queer Time Travel) it seems a pretty strange oversight to write this whole essay that namechecks TAZ without mentioning that the Temporary Autonomous Zone / TAZ is a concept articulated and defined by Hakim Bey in the very popular essay of the same name. Was this perhaps something the editors felt needed removed due to Bey’s unsavory nature? Surely he doesnt “own” or much care to be credited for the concept, but for it to be referenced explicitly without mentioning him once seems odd

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!