As I walked on San Francisco’s pristine Ocean Beach at sunset last night amidst about 1,500 people who came out to celebrate the life of Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, the first thing I noticed was how many different languages were being spoken around me. There were at least four I heard just on the short walk from the street to the ocean, and there was probably a 60-year age gap between the oldest and youngest folks in attendance. Larry, who passed away April 28th of this year at the age of 70 from a stroke, co-hosted the very first Burning Man on Baker Beach at the Summer Solstice beneath San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in 1986. At approximately 8:30 p.m. last night, his son Tristan, his mother Jan Lohr, and fellow Burning Man board members set fire to a life-size man at sunset in celebration of Larry’s life.
I’m admittedly not much of a “Burner” — I went once in 2010 and it was incomparable to anything I’ve ever experienced before. As blown away and humbled as I was by the sheer capacity for human creation you inevitably witness on the Playa, I didn’t feel an overwhelming need to go back. I attribute that to how much trickle-down Burning Man culture permeates the West Coast music festival scene I live in; there are traces of Burning Man art and its principles at virtually every event I go to. After Larry passed away and I saw the outpouring of love online, I started looking more into his life and attempting to grasp the scope of this singular individual’s influence on the way so many people see the world through culture, including myself. Taking pictures on the Playa used to be a big no-no, so I barely have any from 2010. But in the very last picture in the gallery below, there’s an image of Larry looking right at us behind the guy playing a giant flaming tuba. My heart skipped a beat when I dug that old photo up — this man I never knew anything about has massively influenced my worldview and I didn’t even know until now.
This story is my attempt to make sense of it.
As Larry told the New York Times in 1997, “Both Burning Man and the internet make it possible to regather the tribe of mankind,” noting what he described as a “deep parallel between the desert and cyberspace.” That was an incredibly insightful thing to say over 20 years ago and completely predicted the rise of Burning Man as not just a festival, but an American-made cultural movement that’s spread worldwide. An older Dutch gentleman once asked me what makes Americans American; he named different holidays, customs, foods, and little-known nuances of how Dutch people interact with each other and explained that, to him, these features are what made Dutch people Dutch. But he didn’t know what those characteristics were for Americans and other than professional sports, Thanksgiving, and being generally ignorant about the rest of the world’s cultures, I had no meaningful answer. Seeing people of all ages gathered at Ocean Beach last night ritualistically burning an offering in honor of their friend and his inspiration, I realize the role Burning Man serves in a relatively young civilization obsessed with capitalistic output and consumption.
In Larry’s own words, “Cultures are disappearing, they’re being replaced by what we call ‘mass-culture,’ and mass culture is not the same kind of creature. Mass culture is all about selling products, it’s about spectacles, it’s about diversions, it’s about not being… What we have tried to do is dis-intermediate everyone’s relationship to everything, because we live in a mediated world, that’s the nature of late capitalism. Everything is mediated and always for profit, and so you don’t experience anything but you buy experience. You buy simulated experiences. Anything that gets big, gets large, ‘Oh! They must’ve sold out, good Lord.’ That’s part of the folklore of mass culture… We ban commerce just to show what spontaneously happens in the absence of it. And we intensify everything to actually create a transformational experience… I think the most interesting thing about Burning Man the movement is going to be how people in their work-a-day worlds, in their regular lives, internalize the values they got and then apply them in a more ordinary way. It’s about the quality of connection between people, what we really want is to be. I think that’s the fundamental motive in people is to be, unconditionally be. The only sacred thing I know is being.”
In 2010, I completely took for granted the opportunity to experience the most extreme physical manifestations of human imagination with commerce distilled out; it’s not the easiest concept to grasp because it’s counter-intuitive to how most of us have historically experienced culture in the Western world. As Burning Man’s first so-called Minister of Propaganda Stuart Mangrum described of Larry’s trip to the gala opening of the Smithsonian’s Burning Man exhibit, ‘No Spectators,’ shortly before his death, “He liked to remind us that art and creativity are just the more visible aspects of Burning Man’s larger role, as a cultural movement. In a world where culture, as he liked to say, is ‘disappearing faster than the tropical rain forests,’ he saw Burning Man as one of the only viable alternatives to the consumerist mainstream. For Larry, building a framework where people could create and experience authentic culture, rather than simply buying it off the shelf, was the wellspring of Burning Man’s success, and the key to its future.”
“If all your self-worth and esteem is invested in how much you consume, how many likes you get or other quantifiable measures,” Larry told The Atlantic in 2014, “the desire to simply possess things trumps our ability or capability to make moral connections with people around us.” Think about that for a second: the idea of possessing a relic of a social and cultural experience has become to many of us more of a priority than the magic of actually living it. My interpretation of Burning Man as of today, this moment, is that it’s the most successful effort Americans have made to create customs and rituals that have connected and defined civilizations throughout history. And that notion of pure creation and engagement with each other has infected people across the world — there are regional Burns in over 20 countries. As Larry himself predicted, the internet makes it possible to regather the tribe of mankind. And when you get us all together, there’s inevitably going to be one hell of a party.
But it’s the principles defining and governing this party that make it so transformational for so many and such an impetus of cultural influence. It feels like this is as good a time as any to drop in the Ten Principles Larry authored in 2004.
At the memorial last night, Jan Lohr said through a bullhorn, which was barely audible over the ocean wind, “All Larry did was strike a spark.” She said it was a spark already in our hearts and now it’s our job to simply keep the fire going. You could see every one of these principles playing out in real time last night; reading through these again for the first time in nearly eight years, a shining example of each immediately comes to mind. When pressed on the matter of whether or not Burning Man was a cult, Larry finally replied, “It’s a self-service cult. You have to wash your own brain.”
With a self-washed brain, it’s easy for me to see that human beings in the modern, capitalistic, and technologically-driven world are starved for understanding and meaningful interactions. I feel like technology evolved faster than our ability to integrate it into our lives responsibly, and thanks to the internet, I’m only just beginning to learn about how maniacal society can get in the name of capitalism. The book that inspired Larry’s vision and the Ten Principles, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, cites the example of Ford Motor Company making the decision in the late ’70s not to install a safety mechanism in the Ford Pinto that would have prevented the cars from catching fire, which resulted in hundreds of gruesome deaths, simply because it wasn’t cost-effective. I believe Larry, who as Jan said over the bullhorn last night was a man who notoriously went to extremes, founded Burning Man in an effort to swing the pendulum of human creation as far as he could in the opposite direction. I also believe the community created around that effort has been a phenomenal success.
As his brother Stewart Harvey explained, “From childhood, my brother had sought some form of unique expression. He was talented and enormously well-read, but he lacked the facility for most of the traditional forms. He couldn’t really sing or play an instrument, and drawing and painting were only limited skills. He could write, of course, but his was a slow and painstaking process, not given to great volumes. Mostly, he could talk! As all of his friends can attest, once on a roll, Larry could hold forth for hours on a broad and often-times obscure series of topics. There wasn’t much he wasn’t interested in or knowledgeable about. It’s so easy to look back and see that Burning Man was his ideal match, for it relied on a dramatic plunge into unknown territory, and then to visualize the long-term possibilities of that great unknown. Seeing possibilities was his great gift, and then possessing the eloquence to persuade others to come join in and make it all happen.”
I’ll leave you with a description I have to hold back tears to type of what happened when the man finished burning last night, which I believe perfectly encapsulates how it feels to get back to being a spontaneous, communal experience-driven human being. Two little kids, one wearing the quintessential Larry Harvey cowboy hat, started running in circles around the fire. His son Tristan joined them and pretty soon so did about a dozen other people, as you’re about to see in the gallery below. They were so happy, so lost in the joy and beauty of that moment, there was nothing to do but laugh and just BE THERE. Thankfully we brought a photographer (shoutout @KohutMedia for the beautiful shots) because otherwise, the only relic I’d have of the experience is the feeling it gave me of pure love and understanding of my fellow humans. I think what Larry was trying to show us was that the magic of the human experience is diluted and disrupted by attempting to possess it. We don’t get to take our Instagram page with us when we pass — only the feeling of what it was like to BE alive and share that BEINGNESS with other awesome humans.