Burning Man

How a San Francisco Beach Burn Set the World Aflame

Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, gifted to American culture a fresh and much-needed ritual.

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This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

When Larry Harvey, who died Saturday at age 70, first burned a stick effigy of a man on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986, he was impressed that a small public act would capture the attention of strangers. It inspired a woman to walk up and touch the torched figure; it inspired another onlooker to compose a song on the spot. It had unexpected, unifying meaning.

BurningMan.org

Harvey made that act into a yearly ritual, a response to his own yearning for the unexpected and the unifying, and it came to be called Burning Man. The crowds that wanted to interact with the burning of an effigy increased over three decades to more than 70,000. That small bonfire morphed, without planning and without any single obvious reason, into one of California's most significant contributions to American and world culture.

By 1990, Harvey's Burning Man ritual had outgrown San Francisco and relocated to Nevada's capacious Black Rock Desert, where it still unfolds, over a week of collective creation, at summer's end. The tickets quickly sell out, even though the price of admittance (most tickets are $425), requires you to drag yourself to a faraway, desolate space, prone to brutal heat and destructive dust-storm winds, with no services provided besides porta-johns, where the collective you is essentially responsible for your own entertainment.

Burning Man melds aspects of two characteristically Californian institutions: the theme park and the cult, with a unique take on both.

The gathering is an elaborate and magical Disneyland whose attractions are interactive art and performances created by the paying customers, a spectacular explosion of "maker culture." As for its cultlike properties, Harvey was sometimes painted as a quasi-guru to a flock of "Burners," and he did believe Burning Man should and would change the larger culture around it.

But Harvey intelligently steered Burning Man's "meaning" with a light hand. In later years, he promulgated a set of "10 principles" that suggested how best to contribute to the communal creation of a fully functioning Black Rock city, dedicated to art, that also disappeared itself in a week: Radical self-expression. No commerce. Absolute self-reliance. Immediacy. Participation. He wasn't delivering commandments as much as reflecting back the ideas that Burning Man cultivated.

One of Harvey's key principles was inclusion: Try not to make anyone feel unwelcome. As Burning Man caught on, its aficionados had to decide whether to zealously preserve it as they first experienced it, or bow to that welcoming spirit, embracing more and more adherents of every background, opening it to influences beyond its original Bay Area bohemian roots. Harvey decided locking down the experience would betray its truest essence.

As the '90s progressed Burning Man evolved alongside, and became a key barometer of cool in, the digital business culture of the Bay Area. Google's founders used the Burning Man icon as the very first Google doodle; Elon Musk once said no one can understand Silicon Valley if they haven't been to Burning Man.

Burning Man also captured a wide range of Los Angeles creatives — the "Burning Man episode" has become a near-cliché in TV sitcoms ("The Simpsons," "Malcolm in the Middle," "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"). The look of Burning Man, its setting and finery, are advertising and fashion industry mainstays.

"Transformational festivals" openly aligned with or clearly inspired by Burning Man now happen in Texas, Florida, Missouri and many other places across the United States and the world. The month before Harvey died, Burning Man's unique style of public interactive sculptural art — often relying heavily on light, fire and motion — was honored with an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

Participating in Harvey's ritual has become a key marker of identity for tens of thousands of participants. Burning Man creates cultural effects the way mountains create weather. That didn't happen because of commandments or a guru's charisma: It grew from the experience itself.

Harvey saw Burning Man, he once told me, as a solution to "the quiet desperation Thoreau wrote of," a space where people could discover "what they were meant to do with the transcendent faith that they were meant to do that something," free of "judgments governed by the world's standards." The event Harvey launched injected a fresh ritual into American life, with new standards of fellowship and communal real-time culture-making. As he recognized, we needed it. We still do.

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  1. “That small bonfire morphed, without planning and without any single obvious reason, into one of California’s most significant contributions to American and world culture.”

    If that were true, I would expect to have been affected by it in some way by now. What am I missing? Is it that now it is considered valid for a bunch of retards to gather together and be retards? If that is the cultural contribution, I concede the author’s point.

    1. You are not missing anything. I really don’t care if people want to go out into the desert and do stupid shit. It is a free country and whatever works for them. But, I could do without them pretending anyone else cares or that they are doing some great service to the world rather than just inventing an excuse to party and get laid. I have nothing against partying and fornicating. But other people doing that doesn’t do me any good or have any larger meaning to anyone besides the people doing it.

    2. What about the Eagles?

    3. Definitely not “retards” there. The general intelligence level leaves the US public far behind.
      You are affected. Facebook and Google and others have adopted much of the ethos there, one of them is “It is better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. Apply that to social media, Amazon and Google.
      Seriously painting a gathering of70K people “retards” is honestly, offensive and ignorant.

      1. I wonder what they meant by that ethos? It is better to ask forgiveness than ask permission. So I can steal something of value from someone, i.e., ( not asking permission) if I can have it, but just steal it and then ask the theft victim for forgiveness. Retards.

  2. It’s the Dismal Tide. It’s not the one thing.

    1. I think once you quit hearin’ ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’, the rest is soon to foller.

  3. It only ever mattered because Woodstock was a one off (yes it was, fuck that 90’s BS) and people needed a stand in.

    1. So what you’re saying is Burning Man has yet to reach the cultural significance of a Lollapalooza, Coachella, or any of the Ultra- music festivals that takes place across Europe?

      1. Europe has been doing summer music festivals for longer than we have. And they are as a general rule a lot cooler. The weather is generally better. Most of America is brutally hot in the summer. And Europeans just show up and have a good time instead of waxing poetic about how they are defining a generation.

        1. Burning Man is absolutely not a “music festival”. It is an experiment in temporary culture, art, creativity.
          The attendees are the creators of the event. The organizers provide the skeleton. The rest of the “body” is what the participants bring.

          1. Like drugs, rape, theft, drinking, etc.

  4. with no services provided besides porta-johns

    Well, and the Public Fleshlight.

    1. Public Fleshlight

      Band name or album name?

      If album name, by what band?

      1. Last year there was actually an artificial vagina strapped to a post at crotch height in the middle of the main encampment. I’d look for a picture to link to, but i don’t need to have any more awkward conversations with IT.

        1. Last year there was actually an artificial vagina strapped to a post at crotch height in the middle of the main encampment.

          Nothing makes me want to go to a party like hearing there is a communal fake vagina. Burning man makes me ashamed of my generation. There are a lot of things to hate about the old hippies and beatniks but there is no denying they knew how to have a good time. I think rolling around with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters would have been a blast. Burning man is just loser fest.

          1. Such broad brushed stereotypes. You are ignorant. No shame in that.

        2. Awkward conversation:

          IT guy: Hey, uh, X, um, where’d you get them sweet pics?
          CX: Dammit, I’m getting tired of being your personal porn connection.

          1. Of all the things to get fired for…

  5. It’s the SIV signal, SIVman!

  6. That small bonfire morphed, without planning and without any single obvious reason, into one of California’s most significant contributions to American and world culture.

    Pssst! Hey Hollywood! FUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOU!

    1. Hey! Hey! Silicon Valley. FUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOU!

      1. San Francisco, Harvey Milk, and Gay Culture…. FUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOU!

        Skateboarding and Surfing Culture… FUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOU!

        I don’t even like California or half the cultural changes it’s responsible for and it’s easy to see that Burning Man is of minimal cultural significance and likely a flash in the pan.

        1. Lets count all of the things that originated in California

          1. the car culture
          2. fast food
          3. skateboarding
          4. surfing and beach culture
          5. the biker culture
          6. the original hippie culture Ken Kesey and all that
          7. Most of what is thought of as gay culture as you mention
          8. Silicon valley
          9. Hollywood

          The list goes on and on. Who gives a shit about Burning man other than the dumb rich hippies who attend it? What is next; Reason explains the incredible cultural significance of Cochilla?

          1. With all due respect, I really don’t ever see stereotype “Hippies” out there at all.
            I did see Grover Norquist there, who of course came away praising it as if it were some sort of libertarian, free thinking example of people set free from the constraints of government.
            He was apparently blind to the Organization’s rules and regulations, and the few hundred LEOs from county sherifs, BLM rangers , Indian reservations officers, and undercover agents with night scopes, telescope power binoculars and more.

            1. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention drug sniffing dogs.

        2. The California burrito has had far more impact on my life, both positive and negative, than Burning Man ever will.

          1. I am pretty sure they invented nachos and the hard shell taco in California.

        3. So much tolerance and open mindedness here . . . . . . . not

          1. You noticed! The Authoritarian Right bellows a lot.

  7. relocated to Nevada’s capacious Black Rock Desert, where it still unfolds, over a week of collective creation, at summer’s end. The tickets quickly sell out, even though the price of admittance (most tickets are $425)

    So it went from a dude burning a stick figure on a San Francisco beach that anyone could just walk up to to a bunch of “creative individuals” gathering around a giant burning structure in the Nevada desert and paying $450 to do so. I’ll give credit to whomever is collecting that money for convincing a bunch of rich hippies that they’re part of some kind of cultural revolution or something.

    1. I am with you sparky. I would never put down someone smart enough to honestly separate fools from their money.

      1. However, fools espousing the cultural revolution as such are earning any ridicule they may incur, IMO.

        Burning Man is one of California’s most significant cultural contributions, just above the Raiders.

        1. Don’t be dissing on the Raiders. The Raiders are about a thousand times more important that Burning. Burning man just above the Clippers or San Diago State football.

        2. Just above the Clippers and just below pyramid schemes and the People’s Temple.

          1. http://www.google.com/search?q…..20&bih=949

            The Raider people look more respectable and less retarded.

            1. Needs more human skulls, sawed off shotguns, and Ford Falcon Police Interceptors.

              1. The Burning man folks don’t look like the types who would appreciate a decent firearm or cool car. Hell, the Rednecks with Paychecks guys seem cooler than those dorks.

                1. The Burning man folks don’t look like the types who would appreciate a decent firearm or cool car.

                  The juxtaposition of the Raiders with Burning Man makes the festival look rather obviously like the post-apocalyptic dystopian wasteland that is a Mad Max movie. The sort of place where, if the festival lasted had any sort of cultural independence and lasted in any sort of perpetuity, would be run by Lord Humungus within a few scant years.

                2. Burning Man for folks that like cars and guns:

                  http://www.wastelandweekend.com/

                  They have a Thunderdome.

                  1. Burning Man for folks that like cars and guns:

                    http://www.wastelandweekend.com/

                    They have a Thunderdome.

                    I think it’s the same one they use at Burning Man.

                3. In the early years, firearms were part of the scene. There was a “drive by shooing range” where people shot at targets from moving cars.

        3. And what a coinkydink, the Raiders are moving to Nevada as well!

    2. Hey, you can’t get that amount of smug for four and a quarter anywhere else!

      1. We are defining a generation here Sevo. That doesn’t come cheap.

        1. And the four-twenty-five is just the start:

          “Car Rental Cleaning Fees? Anybody get hit with these?”
          […]
          “This is an ongoing issue and happens with every rental agency at the airport. Prominently posted at each rental desk is a sign that says taking the vehicle off-road nullifies the rental contract and may result in additional cleaning fees.
          If you want to avoid the fees:
          1)Never tell them you are going to burning man, and dress like a damn adult when you rent from them.
          2)Have the car cleaned including having the engine rinsed and the seats cleaned of any dust. Hit the seats. Does a cloud of dust rise up? Keep cleaning.
          3)Try not to look like you just spent the week at Burning Man when you return the vehicle.
          https://eplaya.burningman.
          org/viewtopic.php?t=73421

    3. So, “no commerce” means after you fork over the 425 bucks….

      1. It means for that week, money is not a part of your daily existence. Yup it costs to go, but once there, no money, unless you want to buy ice or coffee from the organization.

  8. So the inclusive culture of Burning Man and the politically shaming culture of Silicon Valley are inextricably linked? That really does not recommend Burning Man.

    1. Everyone is free to do whatever they want, just so long as it is exactly the same. It is called freedom Mickey.

      1. Or McFreedom.

    2. No Commerce. No trade, no production, no greed–all for a measly $425! Cuba can’t beat that.

  9. No disrespect 🙂 … but hippie crap like this is a perfect representative of why I hated the one year I lived in California.

    1. Glad you left.

  10. Damn John – for not missing anything you sure seem spun up about it. I don’t like evangelizing, for Burning Man or anything else, but I don’t pull a Dawkins-esque reaction to that. YMMV

  11. By 1990, Harvey’s Burning Man ritual had outgrown San Francisco and relocated to Nevada’s capacious Black Rock Desert

    I’m trying to imagine an event like burning man taking place, let alone being allowed to take place in California.

    1. I can see it in the “old” California, even in SF – you know, the one that is still foremost in a lot of people’s imaginations but doesn’t actually exist any more. And 1990 is probably around the time that California began turning into the humorless nanny state we know today.

      1. Elon Musk once said no one can understand Silicon Valley if they haven’t been to Burning Man.

        I’ve never been to Burning Man, but I got into the tech industry in the ‘early-ish’ days of Silicon Valley. The way I imagine old Burning Man, I would say aligned well with Silicon Valley.

        But maybe Musk is right, maybe new (or late) Burning Man aligns well with New Silicon Valley.

        1. Like Silicon Valley, it sure as hell is gentrifying, and in ways quite the opposite of the early years. Pay to play camps with air conditioned, servant served camps that pamper the ultra wealthy for literally thousand of $ per night has been a recent challenge. They are not adding their creativity, imagination or effort to be there. These people would have a far better experience if they would get out an help build the place, shit in the common man’s porta potties, and mingle with the other participants.

  12. No matter how many times I keep re-reading that headline, I still see “Beach Bum”.

  13. Marvelous story, a rich, new dimension of Brian and delightfully enraging all the authoritarian, conformist goobers, across America … and in Reason’s commentariat , labeled by the leading civil liberties website, popehat.com as

    “the blowhard stupidity of its commenting peanut gallery, obnoxious asshats”
    aka the Authoritarian Right on meth

    Even Cato linked to that!

    1. Noted by a member of that very peanut gallery.

      1. There’s a good peanut gallery, and a bad peanut gallery, and only the select few are licensed to make the judgment.

        1. Only sub-humans make such judgments about anyone.

    2. Obnoxious asshat doesn’t bother to read his own link:
      “Why is the government using its vast power to identify these obnoxious asshats, and not the other tens of thousands who plague the internet?
      Because these twerps mouthed off about a judge.”

      He’s being sarcastic, you fucking idiot.

      1. (sneer) Hes’ ridiculing you for threatening to KILL SOMEBODY.

        Several commenters on the post found the sentence unjust, and vented their feelings in a rough manner. The grand jury subpoena specifies their comments and demands that Reason.com produce any identifying information on them:

        Its judges like these that should be taken out back and shot.

        It’s judges like these that will be taken out back and shot. FTFY.

        Why waste ammunition? Wood chippers get the message across clearly. Especially if you feed them in feet first.

        Why do it out back? Shoot them out front, on the steps of the courthouse.

        Fuck that. I don’t want to oay for that cunt’s food, housing, and medical. Send her through the wood chipper.

        Anyone surprised that Sevo would lie about that being “sarcasm,” and defend …. talking like an asshole that he does?(sneer)

        1. Geez, I thought Michael was full-of-shit crazy. Then I checked his link.
          There are some VERY suck fucks here now — not just the popehat.com link.

    3. delightfully enraging all the authoritarian, conformist goobers, across America … and in Reason’s commentariat

      So, are you saying that you faithfully attend Burning Man every year because you’re hip to that jazz and commenters who call the occasion stupid are “authoritarian, conformist goobers”?

      Way to go, daddy-o.

      1. Hihn thinks “burning man” refers to all the times he’s reached for his hemorrhoid cream and accidentally grabbed a tube of Icy Hot instead.

        1. “I don’t feel right, ain’t got enough haters . Somebody send me some, so I can aggravate them”
          ? Plies – “Watch Dis”

          LOVE how they WHINE!

      2. So, are you saying that you faithfully attend Burning Man every year because you’re hip to that jazz and commenters who call the occasion stupid are “authoritarian, conformist goobers”?

        I’ve never been there. Only a total fucking retard would assume otherwise … while drooling on his keyboard.

        Anything else?

        1. (Sneer)

          bully

          Lazy authoritarian asshat replies with ad hominem when he has no real response.

          Bold in response to aggression.

          1. (snort) now GOOBER ATTACKS the DEFENSE from HIS aggression! HOW BIG A BULLY IS THAT? (sneer)

            So, are you saying that you faithfully attend Burning Man every year because you’re hip to that jazz and commenters who call the occasion stupid are “authoritarian, conformist goobers”?
            Way to go, daddy-o.

            I’ve never been there. Only a total fucking retard would assume otherwise … while drooling on his keyboard.
            Anything else?

            And they VOTE!

            1. (Guffaw)Authoritarian goober believes attacking someone in response to a question is defense against AGGRESSION. Then comes AGAIN with another LAZY AD HOMINEM ATTACK.

              BULLY continues to insist he’s a LIBERTARIAN even though all he does is INSTIGATE verbal VIOLENCE.

              (Snort)

              1. Goober says a question cannot be aggression,
                “Have you always been a bullshitter?” (sneer)

                REPEAT: I’ve never been (to Burning Man) Only a total fucking retard would assume otherwise … while drooling on his keyboard.His bullshit is here.

                INSTIGATE verbal VIOLENCE.

                (sneer) There is no such thing.

                Goober PROUDLY confesses to: “enraging all the authoritarian, conformist goobers, across America … and in Reason’s commentariat”

  14. This is quite possibly the dumbest thing ever written here. Which is a higher bar than most places, but still really dumb.

    It’s a phony event for phoney people.

    1. (gazing at JeremyR with adoring eyes) You are SO mature!

    2. Please by all means exactly how you know these are “Phoney people” and the event is “Phoney”? Have you ever attended?

      1. Right-wing snowflakes be authoritarian conformists … Left-wing snowflakes are merely (by comparison) censoring their own gatherings …. Only conservatards censor EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE Big Brother was NOT a liberal.

        1. No. He was an English Socialist. Ingsoc. Read a book.

  15. Needz moar commerce.

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