#0 Pirate Utopias

by Misa Jeffereis

Issue #0, Pirate Utopias

Pirate Press Introductory Essay

Welcome to the first issue of Pirate Press, #0 Pirate Utopias, which takes its name from Peter Lamborn Wilson’s book, Pirate Utopias (1995). According to Wilson, a pirate utopia was a form of autonomous proto-anarchist society that operated beyond the reach of governments and embraced unrestricted freedom.

We are the pirates of today, wielding a laptop and mouse as our weapons. Is the Internet not dissimilar from a large body of water? Actions are anonymous and difficult to trace, making criminal activity and retreat easy, almost an everyday accepted activity. Downloading music, file sharing, and appropriating imagery are an integral part of our 21st-century culture. The 18 artists invited to participate in this edition come from around the country to form our crew, in what we think of as a pirate utopia. Each issue of Pirate Press will function as a place where artists come together for one purpose, to address one theme—on this occasion, piracy.

Our perception and image of sea pirates has been greatly shaped by Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictional novel, Treasure Island of 1883. As children, we believed that pirates wore eye patches, had peg legs, drank rum, and plundered unsuspecting ships. This was an easy conception. Lesser known is that pirates took fewer lives than one might expect; the exchange of goods was much easier if the attacked crew surrendered, and both parties knew this. Pirates also had a system of hierarchy on board their ships determining how captured money was distributed. Pirates were more egalitarian than many other areas of employment in the 17th century, making pirate culture more sophisticated than we might have imagined.

Pirate ships were true republics, each ship an independent floating democracy, where pirates themselves created the laws. Wilson’s notion of a temporary autonomous zone, or pirate utopia, is a space where new ideas, creativity, and freedom exist in a physical space. In the 17th and early 18th century, pirates often set up TAZ’s on islands outside of the reach of the government. The most famous of these were Hispaniola, where the buccaneers created their own short-lived highly anarchic society; Libertatia and Ranter’s Bay, both in Madagascar; and Nassau, in the Bahamas, which was the last classical pirate utopia. Buccaneers, cut adrift from permanent land bases, became pirates. The pirate way of life had an obvious appeal: interracial harmony, class solidarity, freedom from government, adventure, and possible glory.

What is piracy today and can the Internet become a pirate utopia? Wilson believes the Web does not facilitate such a democratic state, for there is interactivity but no communication, no community. He believes that technology hinders the physical contact that creates community. We would rather text than meet in person. Pirate Press seeks to reverse this notion by creating an object that performs as a space where all ideas are encouraged and cross-disciplinary creativity takes tangible form.

Although the vastness of the Internet may not create community, it certainly provides a crucial platform for the exchange of ideas and information, an expression of freedom. As seen in the pages of this issue, artists appropriate imagery, forge identity, comment on copyright infringement, and map out routes of communication and exchange. The definition of contemporary piracy is endless, but the pivotal undercurrent is the liberal use of images, files, and ideas as a form of freedom of voice. At what price is that liberty? Is there a way to responsibly share information online? Maybe there is no way to monitor illegal web activity (as the recent SOPA bill tried) and no freedom of expression without cost to others. But Pirate Press seeks to create a community—and, to borrow Wilson’s term, a temporary autonomous zone—where dialogue and creativity abound liberally.