Thank You for Burning Man, Larry Harvey

How one man’s quixotic art project turned into a massive cultural phenomenon.

Jim Urquhart

Larry Harvey, the co-founder of Burning Man who died Saturday at age 70, changed my life.

When I first went to Burning Man, in 2001, I was a scared, largely closeted man who felt he was wasting his life. It is not an exaggeration to say that the community-event-city-alternate reality (anything but festival, please) enabled me to leave a career I hated, quit lying about who I was and who I loved, and pursue my passions both professionally and avocationally.

Within a year of that first Burn, I had started a garage rock band and an online magazine; gone on my first extended meditation retreat; and met my first boyfriend. Perhaps most importantly, I stopped being as fearful, insular, and obnoxious as I had been. I grew up as a human being.

This may all sound surprising if you’ve heard that Burning Man is some massive party in the desert, where privileged tech-bros go to get high, get laid, and maybe get some new contacts for their LinkedIn account. It’s funny how that reputation has stuck throughout all these years (and evolved—there were no tech-bros or LinkedIn in 2001, let alone 1986 when Burning Man began). I first wrote about it in 2009. It’s almost like Burning Man has a smoke screen of stupidity around it, a set of misconceptions and clichés that keep the masses away.

The actual story, too, is by now clouded in lore and urban legend. Briefly, Larry Harvey and his co-founders were part of various San Francisco arts communities in the 1980s. In 1986, they built a small effigy of a man and set it on fire on Baker Beach. (The legend is it was meant to “burn away the pain of a failed relationship,” per the Burning Man journal.) A few dozen people were there.

For some reason, among all the weird art projects of the Bay Area, Burning Man grew to the point where the city shut it down, and the gathering was moved to a “playa,” an ancient seabed now a flat, alkaline desert, in remote Nevada, a couple of hours outside of Reno.

Those first few years were a lot more rugged than Burning Man is now. A couple thousand people went—some hippies, some curious squares, some anarchist goth types who wanted to blow shit up. There was, deliberately, no distinction made between art-makers and art-enjoyers; “spectators” were loathed, “participants” encouraged. It felt anarchic because it was anarchic.

And it was choppy. Larry got in fights with his co-founders (the notion that he is the esteemed guru of the Burning Man cult is another myth—actually, he’s the guy who stuck around and kept the thing afloat year after year). Eventually, the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the playa, got concerned about a thousand freaks driving jeeps all over the place, and started to set up some rules and regulations.

Even in 2001, when I first went, there was still a sense of danger. Burning Man was a “temporary autonomous zone,” and you didn’t have to be on drugs to feel like you were on another planet. (Though they did help.) There were never actually that many naked people—another myth—but there were people who seemed to be way more… intense… than I had been used to.

Well, Burning Man has grown up. It’s burgeoned in size to over 70,000 at the 2017 event, a number limited primarily by BLM restrictions. Celebrities go, as if on pilgrimage (Paris Hilton, Katy Perry, Susan Sarandon—even, weirdly, Grover Norquist). The organization is a nonprofit now, and there are hierarchies of people in charge. There are plenty of cops.

And yet, it’s still not a festival, or a party, or a rave, or whatever. Yes, there are, every night, around 50 huge dance spaces spread out across the desert, but each is self-organized by “theme camps” of volunteers who do it all out of love. There’s no central programming team. There are also theme camps for kids, gigantic “art cars” the sizes of tractor-trailers that breathe fire or play disco or whatever, nerdy nature walks, medical tents, vast art installations, yoga and meditation groups, lots of camps that exist just to give away free food, and a giant temple in the middle of the city where people go and cry and chant and memorialize their loved ones.

As for the tech bros, they are there, but you have to search them out. The last year I went, 2015, I remember seeing a seemingly too-polished-to-be-for-real art car, and sure enough, a friend told me that it was part of a “plug & play” camp, where rich douchebags shell out thousands of dollars to have their Burning Man experience curated and created for them. Those people suck, but most Burners are not them.

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There’s also no money. With the exception of a café in the center of the city, no commerce or even barter is allowed. No logos, no brands, no wristbands, no celebrity advertisements, no vending machines, no capitalism. That is a significant, I think defining, difference between Burning Man and festivals. No one is making a buck. (When Larry and the other org leaders finally voted to start taking salaries a few years ago, many of the purists were furious.)

Of course, let’s be real. Thanks to rising BLM fees, it now costs $400 to go, even though discounted tickets are available too. Businesses have gotten sneaky—I heard that Red Bull paid around $50,000 for an entire stealth theme camp to go and give away Red Bull and Red Bull cocktails. And when Skrillex and Diplo play, word gets around fast.

But much of the authenticity has remained, thanks largely to the tenacity of Larry and the rest of the org. They never sold out (and they could have, for tens of millions of dollars) and they never quit. On the contrary, a few years ago—I think it was around 2008 or 2009—Larry and the other leaders of the org took a number of steps to try to preserve what was best about Burning Man even in this larger, safer form.

In particular, they promoted the “ten principles” Harvey had written down in 2004—inclusion, self-reliance, decommodification, immediacy, self-expression, etc.—as a way to codify what Burning Man stands for. In Max Weber’s terms, they transitioned from the charismatic leadership of Larry & Friends to the bureaucratic leadership of rules and principles. In a weird way, Larry has been planning for his departure for years, although dying of a stroke at age 70 was far sooner than he deserved.

And by this point, Burning Man is everywhere. Some of its art is now at the Smithsonian. There are regional burns across the world and Burning Man alums creating art and art spaces in every major city in America. And while Burning Man didn’t invent the kind of decentralized, participatory communities like Occupy, it was a formative experience for many who went on to lead them.

Burning Man is far, far, far from perfect. It’s still mostly hedonistic (with some awesome exceptions) and corny at times. It’s very white (The Root and The Guardian have both done great interviews with black Burners talking about why). There is always some percentage of douchebags (usually around 20-30 percent) who suck and do stupid things. And, sure, there’s plenty of sex and drugs and music, and some people can’t handle that in a mature way.

None of that’s why I stopped going, by the way. I just got older. I have a baby daughter. I have two careers. And after 15 trips to the playa, the magic had largely worn off. I saw myself becoming a jaded old queen, and I didn’t like that. I have new edges now, new places to learn and grow.

But I can’t overstate how much I owe to Larry Harvey. Thanks to him, I learned what it is to be inspired by astonishingly creative people, weird people, sexy people, challenging people; to let go of the New York cynicism for a little while; to experience some of the most intense, vivid, and alive times of my life. I learned how to live.

Rest in wonder and amazement, Larry. We’ll keep the fire lit for you.