In honor of the late Larry Harvey, cofounder of Burning Man, we take a moment to remember the flame that keeps our cultures burning. It is in our primal instinct to participate in acts of radical self-expression together, no matter how physically distanced we may become. See you in the dust….
“Uniquely expressive acts get transformed and elaborated into social rites, and through participation, they accrue a breadth and depth of meaning which can only be produced in a communal setting. It is the primal process by which culture is created.”—Larry Harvey
Who is Larry Harvey?
Larry Harvey was born on January 11, 1948. As the child of dust bowl migrants, he became self-reliant at a young age. These migrants were farmers from Midwestern states who moved west when life-threatening dust storms and droughts hit. It seems no coincidence Harvey turned a dusty, desert lake bed into a psychedelic wonderland!
Harvey was a man of many descriptions. His friends and loved ones knew him as a hard worker, philosopher, idealist, inspiration, and of course by his burner name, Darryl Van Rhey. To the mainstream media, he was an artist, philanthropist, a passionate advocate for culture, and the spirit behind Burning Man.
Harvey never could have imagined that the roots of Burning Man would blossom into a year-round foundation and community, with more than 85 regional events on six continents, and hundreds of thousands of passionate participants.
In the Beginning
The first official Burning Man was at San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986. A group of friends decided to burn a giant humanoid, and surrounding beach-goers came flocking to participate in the spectacle. Harvey has claimed that without the participation and curiosity of their neighbors on the beach, they wouldn’t have created an annual Burn.
There have been many inquiries into the inception of the Burn, and the story behind it. Why did Harvey burn a giant humanoid that night? Some say it was to burn away the memory and pain of a lost relationship. Others say it was an act of pure spontaneous creation. Harvey would probably say that the answer does not matter. The inception of the Burn lives in the perception of its participants. He wanted it to be a ritual, a human rite of passage residing in the present moment, untainted by explanation.
Over the next three decades, Harvey and his gang fought to keep the community alive and growing. Before Burning Man gained in popularity the team went through dark times of government pushback and financial uncertainty. Nonetheless, Harvey, the team, and the growing community persevered through vision, passion, and commitment to the Burning Man Ten Principles and Philosophies. This eventually positioned Burning Man as the epicenter of the counterculture.
To the Playa
Burning Man is not a festival! It’s a city wherein almost everything that happens is created entirely by its citizens, who are active participants in the experience.—Burning Man Organization
At the end of each summer, a dried-up lakebed in Nevada transforms into Black Rock City, known to Burners as the Playa (the Spanish word for “beach”). More than 60,000 people from around the globe come to collectively build a 9-day psychedelic desert city. Cosmic art, primal rituals, and psychedelic creatures dance with the skyline, while the community of Burners below are in union and service to one another through their collective struggles and successes in the harsh desert environment.
Burning Man invites people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and beliefs. It is host to some of the world’s wealthiest, and in addition, it offers payment plans to those with financial need. Burning Man is a life-changing, psychedelic experience. It is common for people to change their names, professions, or alter their lives radically after experiencing a Burn. The Burn can expand the horizons of your mind—to the extent of questioning the condition and limitation of your existence outside of the Playa.
Many say that, on the Playa, they feel more real altogether, in themselves and in the world, than they have ever felt before. That explains why this thing has spread so contagiously and caused people to take it back with them, and apply it to ordinary life: because it has engineered a change in who they really are.—Larry Harvey
Harvey drafted the Ten Principles in 2004 as guidelines for the growing organization. However, he did not write the Ten Principles with the intention to dictate how participants should participate. Rather, he created them as a reflection of the organic foundation that existed within the philosophies and culture of the community. Below are Harvey’s original Ten Principles from the Burning Man Journal.
The Ten Principles
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift-giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise, and rely on his or her inner resources.
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote, and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state, and federal laws.
Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us, and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
I Am, We Are, It is.
It is not possible to understand the philosophies of Burning Man without attending in the flesh. Harvey describes it best in his book, Out of Nothing, Everything. Harvey touches on both the complexities of the Burning Man experience and the simplicity it holds for us. He compares the cosmic nothingness of the desert canvas to a mystical and transforming drug-like experience.
It has a lot to do with doing, and being. The last of the Ten Principles is Immediacy. It speaks of removing barriers between yourself, [of] your participation, and your innermost sense of being. Of taking out the middle of any relationship to people around you. First, the ability to identify with others; then the ability to identify with an entire community, or city; then the ability to identify, in some cosmic way, with the universe. In speeches I’ve given, I’ve used this trope. I’ve said that there are three “feeling states” that, when conjoined, can lead to spiritual transformation. The first is called “I Am.” The next is “We Are.” The third is, “It Is.”
You can define that “It” however you want. “ I mentioned being a bit of an animist; for me, “It” is all of creation. Not necessarily a Creator; just creation. There’s something about that space [in the desert] that, when it was emptier, was more compelling. But it’s still there, and available. It can induce a kind of mystical state of mind. Take out the people factor, and just look at the space. When we were out there, in the beginning, the most compelling thing wasn’t our society; it was this cosmic surround. I noticed at the time that if you just walked out into that nothingness, you’d experience the oddest thing. You’d feel two intense experiences that were sort of polar.
Rebirth In the Desert
First—it was very humbling—you’d feel like you were the merest speck in the universe, and infinitesimal when compared to everything around you. It was almost like a drug experience. Then you’d trip over, into feeling as if your face was pressed up to the seam defined by the meeting of the sky and the earth; as if you were a fetus in the womb. Then you’d switch back to the other feeling. And they’d start to happen together, until they became one feeling—and that’s a mystical experience.
That is the thing the prophets have spoken of, and the desert Aramites preached about. That’s the environment. But equally powerful is the social interaction, and the way people’s’ emotional armor falls away. They experience immediate contact with people. We lead morally blinkered lives, but in places like the desert people get vivid feelings of mirroring and merging with what’s around them—until we start to attribute an equally intense reality to other people, a reality usually reserved for ourselves alone. Suddenly, you are them—and that has the power to pry open the heart and illuminate the mind.
Anything that does that is spiritual. That’s what spirituality is. Our soul is strung along our spine. It goes from our solar plexus, to our heart, to our head in its most essential form. It goes up and then flows down, up and down. If you’re leading a spiritual life, you’re willing to take that ride. You don’t stop it and say, “I’ll only live in my head, I’ll only live in my heart, I’ll only live in my gut.” And if you live like that, as far as I know, that is a spiritual life.—Larry Harvey, Out of Nothing, Everything
The Zendo Project
The psychedelic nature of the environment reflects the prevalence of psychedelic experimentation within the Burner community. We become our environment, after all. This experimentation yielded the relationship between the Burning Man Foundation, the Maps Foundation, and the Shulgins. They helped strengthen the psychedelic community by creating sustainable connections, transforming difficult psychedelic experiences, and educating the public about clinical psychedelics, marijuana research, and harm reduction.
The Zendo Project was born out of the dedication to strengthening the community through psychedelic education. It began as a portable sanctuary for meditation. MAPS organically evolved the space into a psychedelic emergency room. As veterans, they understood the dark and dangerous sides that psychedelics can present to us. When compassionate, attentive, and well-versed community members are available to help, police and doctors are not necessarily the solution.
Top Larry Harvey Quotes
“Corporations have a remarkably short lifespan, while cities have a remarkably long lifespan—drop an atom bomb on it and it comes right back. We will find our way. It always looks dubious when we set out because we are setting out in the dark. But your faith always guides you.”
“We are not hiding from the world, we are trying to change it!”
“Decide what makes you real, and put it out there!”
Larry Harvey In Culture
Below is a tribute to Harvey and his take on culture from The Burning Man Journal.
Shortly before his death, Larry attended the gala opening of the Smithsonian’s Burning Man exhibit, “No Spectators,” at the Renwick Gallery in Washington. This recognition of Burning Man as a major American art movement, after decades of outsider status, gave him a great sense of satisfaction. But at the same time, 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.
Let us keep the flame of Burning Man alive through these dark and uncertain times. Show up, participate, and continue to be the dreamers and innovators of our society—even if that means having to show up in a virtual space. The Burning Man Journal has put together a guide to show you how to add your camp, art project, or wild ideas to the multiverse. Keep Burning.
RS Contributing Author: Niki Perlberg
Niki is a social and arts entrepreneur who specializes in project and creative production development. With her passion for social structures and the arts, she has participated in the architecture of performance and festival culture around the country. In rapidly changing times she is now taking her passion for these subcultures and sharing it with us in our digital atmosphere through her writing and content development. Some of her favorite parts of life are coffee, campfires, and contemplating the mysteries of existence. Feel free to follow her on Insta @itsnikiperl
Featured Image Credit: Ruth Villa IG: @ruthvill_