Episode 11: The Voice of Burning Man : Larry Harvey

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In this episode you’ll learn how the spirit of burning man continues to flow into the mainstream world and why this year is different than any other year. If you’re looking for a dose of inspiration to birth your next vision into reality, you’ll enjoy listening to Larry’s remarkable twist on manifestation in the 21st Century. If you’re new to the world of burning man, this episode will immediately submerge you in the vice so you can feel the extraordinary vibe that over 40,000 people create each year in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.


Larry Harvey, Founder of Burning Man, A Live Interview at 15th Annual Digital Be-In

Announcer:  This program is brought to you by personallifemedia.com


Meredith Medland: Welcome to Living Green.  I’m your host Meredith Medland, and today on our show will be Larry Harvey.  Larry Harvey is the founder of Burning Man, and as you might know, the theme for this year’s Burning Man is Green Man, so you’re going to find this is a very relevant show.  Today’s podcast will be a little bit different than our episodes.  It was recorded live at the Digital Be-In, on April 21st, which was Earth Day Eve, so I’m so excited to share this interview with you.  You’re going to experience the intimacy of Larry Harvey literally having his hat off.  He’s known for wearing his hat, which is a famous Stetson pearl grey seven and 3/8 open-road hat that seldom leaves his head.  It’s worn in remembrance of his father who wore the original.  So look forward to lots of intimacy, a discussion about green, the media, how CurrentTV played a role in last year’s Burning Man, and ultimately what he believes will be the most pivotal event of the century in bringing ‘Green Man’ into the mainstream.


Larry Harvey: “This year we decided that it was time to get people talking, thinking, acting, and facing the environmental crisis that’s come upon us…  We’re going to fill that with art; we’re going to fill it with technology; we’re going to fill it with technology that’s been turned into art, because art is a great catalyst.  You can use it to initiate involvement in nearly any aspect of civilized life, and because it’s art you get away with it….  You can plan a society but you can’t plan a culture.  That just spontaneously manifests itself, like nature does, and that’s what I was seeing before my eyes…  Well you can’t use a cell phone out there, and it’s probably just as well because if they ever get cell phone service in that desert, I’m going to tell people that talking on a cell phone is a private function, and I don’t want someone at a bonfire saying, “Well, how’s this?  How’s it where you are?  Is that a seven?  I think it’s about a six; maybe I’ll go over there.”  You know, you’re supposed to be immediately in the moment, and not have something like TV or a cell phone mediating between you and reality…”


Meredith Medland: My name’s Meredith Medland, and we’re here live at the 15th annual Digital Be-In.  Right in front of me is Larry Harvey.  Hi, Larry!  How are ya doing’?

Larry Harvey: I’m doing’ just fine.

Meredith Medland: Wow, you are doing just fine.  Now when you got off the stage you had a big message for our group.  Can you give us a summary of what that was?

Larry Harvey: The message was that the culture that’s been created out in the middle of nowhere, in the Nevada desert, is beginning to flow outward into the world at a breathtaking rate.

Meredith Medland: Indeed it is.  What do you think is possible in the next three months?

Larry Harvey: Oh, the next three months?  Oh, I’ll be lucky to survive it, but whatever it is, I probably haven’t thought of it yet, but I’ll know it when I see it. 

Meredith Medland: I bet you will.  What do you think of the controversy surrounding the licensing of Burning Man?

Larry Harvey: That involves a lawsuit, and the only reason that we’ve ever, that we hold that as a piece of property, is to prevent other people from abusing it, and commodifying it, for ends that are not constant with the values that we’ve come to live by.  We don’t hold… We don’t use the trademark to market anything.  I mean it’s not… We don’t brand people.  We’re talking about… We… It’s about identity, a very different thing.

Meredith Medland: A very different thing.

Larry Harvey: And so you know, we hold that in trust for the culture that we’ve created, and it has nothing to do with marketing anything, and it’s been suggested that it should be given to the people, and everyone, including any corporation, who wants to use it should be able to.  But we’ve fought that all these years, because we created an environment where commodities don’t mediate between you and reality, where immediate reality is yours to experience, and we’re going to keep it that way.  No brand is going to stand between people and their identity.  We won’t let it happen.

Meredith Medland: Burning Man has a vision.  There’s a definite stepping-stone from one year to the other.  This next year coming up, Green Man, what’s the vision that you have?

Larry Harvey: Well, it’s been coming for a while.  Last year we did a theme called The Future Opens Here, and suggested that all of us are emitters of the future.  You know, it’s something that we imagine, and it occurs, you know, when you actually come into it.

Meredith Medland: Yes.  Yes, yes, yes.

Larry Harvey: And this year we’re suggesting that maybe there are things that you could do in the outside world.  It’s been happening anyway.  We’ve got people all around the globe initiating actions in the spirit that they’ve experienced at the event.  This year we decided that it was time to get people to talking, thinking, acting, and facing the environmental crisis that has come upon us, and so we’re going to use Burning Man to… We’re doing something we’ve never done; we’re actually bringing the people in who are working towards a solution for these problems, and we’re going to create a… The area around The Man will be in the form of foothills and he’ll be standing on top of Green Mountain.  The shading material will be all recyclable; the cable that holds it up will be recyclable, and we’re going to fill that with art.  We’re going to fill it with technology.  We’re going to fill it with technology that’s been turned into art.  Because art is a great catalyst.  You can use it to initiate involvement in nearly any aspect of civilized life, and because it’s art you get away with it.

Meredith Medland: That’s right.

Larry Harvey: You can get away with it.

Meredith Medland: You certainly can.  What about alternative locations for Burning Man or additional locations for Burning Man?

Larry Harvey:  Well there are regional events all across this country.

Meredith Medland: That’s accurate; of course there are, but what about international, or creating or attending?

Larry Harvey: There’s one in the desert in Spain.  There’s one that’s later this year that will happen in South Africa. 

Meredith Medland: How do we learn about it?  What are the URL’s?

Larry Harvey: Go to our website.  You can contact every region via our website, www.BurningMan.com.

Meredith Medland: There is so much to learn.

Larry Harvey: And every one of those regional contacts is at the center of a growing community.

Meredith Medland: And if one of our listeners wanted to create their own regional location in Burning Man, what would they do?

Larry Harvey: If they want to be part of the regional network, they just come to us and we talk to them.

Meredith Medland: That easy!  All right!  So, you talk to them.

Larry Harvey: We talk to them.  Yeah, we… it’s a very personal dialogue.

Meredith Medland: What are some of the things you look for?

Larry Harvey: We look for people who can put their ego aside.  We look for people who are nonetheless ambitious.  We look for people who love to elicit the talents of others, and people who like to help people collaborate with one another.  If they can do those things, or if they can do just part of that, and get a partner who can collaborate with them and do that, then they’re right for the job.

Meredith Medland: How do you source yourself, personally?  You have a lot of details to manage.  There are a lot of people asking for your time.  When you come to an event like this, a lot of people know who you are.  What’s sourcing you as a person?

Larry Harvey: Well actually I work a lot at outsourcing myself.  I don’t, I seldom carry a cell phone.  Nobody knows the number, including myself.  And that gives one time to think.  But you know people come to us; they want to talk to me, and I’ll talk to nearly anybody, and I speak frequently…

Meredith Medland: Where’s the future of Burning Man going?

Larry Harvey: Well the future is… Listen, we’ve grown into a cultural movement.  You know, we’re not a ‘subculture’; we’re a ‘culture’.  And I think we’ve found a model that can be replicated in other places.

Meredith Medland: How would you like to see it replicated?

Larry Harvey: Well, I wait to see what they’ll do.  I went… Listen, I went to a first-time hall meeting that the regional community in Portland, Oregon did.  I walked in, and there was a regional contact from Seattle who was just spitting out information, rapid-fire, and every… And I listened to her, and every piece of it was absolutely relevant to their attempts to organize in Portland, and they were rapt; they were listening to her.  She was mentoring them.  You know that’s one way you create communities, you let the more organized and the operatives mentor the others, and help the others.  And then they let me speak, and I spoke for about, oh, ten to twelve minutes, and they listened.  They were very respectful.  Bu then the chair that was the outgoing regional contact, said, “Well, we have other things on the agenda.  Thank you, Larry.”  Which I loved!  And then they went on to talk, to divide the proceeds from a fund-raiser they had done.  Somebody came up and gave me an envelope to give to our foundation.  Wholly of their own free will, they were donating to it, and then the best part happened… People gathered, forty people in a circle, and people started standing… The first time they’d all come together, so some didn’t know the other ones, and they started talking about their involvement in particular projects, and what their needs were, and someone else in the circle would stand up and say, “Oh, you need space?  I got a space for you.”  “You need heavy equipment?  Yeah, we’ve got some heavy equipment.”  And that was my favorite part, because that was absolutely… Not only were they organized, but they were organized to permit the kind of spontaneous action that creates real culture, which isn’t planned.  You can plan a society, but you can’t plan a culture.

Meredith Medland: That’s right.

Larry Harvey: That just spontaneously manifests itself, you know like nature does.  And that’s what I was seeing before my eyes.  I was seeing people immediately interacting with one another, sharing resources, dividing up responsibilities, and doing it with not a lot of forethought.  They were just ready to do.

Meredith Medland: All right, last question before we go:  Let’s get back to the political element of Burning Man this year.  What do you think is going to happen when more mainstream media coverage occurs at Burning Man or through user-generated content that happens this year at Burning Man?

Larry Harvey: I like the user-generated content.  Would this mean channel TV?  No. 

Meredith Medland: Al Gore’s CurrentTV, last year, had Burning Man content on it.

Larry Harvey: They came in last year, and what they did is they really got into the spirit of the thing.  The thing we’ve always done with the press is require that they immerse themselves; that they live with us; it’s that simple.

Meredith Medland: Yeah.

Larry Harvey: And inevitably when they go through a dust storm and the neighbors hold down their tent, and so forth, they lose a kind of false objectivity, and they gain a little passion.  They do the best reporting they ever do in their career.  And Al Gore’s people came in and they got a jump on it.  They gave cameras to participants and had them film, and it was good stuff!  And then they sent… And then they cast it out on their website and it went out on the Internet.  So that’s ‘interactive TV’.

Meredith Medland: Indeed it is.

Larry Harvey: And I love that approach.  And you know, as far as anything new to me, I don’t know.  We’ve been covered by about everybody at one time or another.  We never kick the media out for fear that uncool people might come, because I don’t know who the ‘uncool’ people are.

Meredith Medland: But now there’s a lot more opportunity for all the people at this party, at events, to upload content via cell phones, to upload content via laptops.  A lot of people are carrying…

Larry Harvey: You can’t use a cell phone out there.  And it’s probably just as well, because if they ever get cell phone service in that desert, I’m going to tell people that talking on a cell phone is a private function, and I don’t want someone at a bonfire saying, “Well, how’s this?  How’s it where you are?  Is that a seven?  I think it’s about a six; maybe I’ll go over there.”  You know, you’re supposed to be immediately in the moment, and not have something like TV or a cell phone mediating between you and reality.

Meredith Medland: Yeah.

Larry Harvey: You know, it’s a chance to get away from that.  But on the other hand, the media is a way for us to express what we are in the world.

Meredith Medland: If you had 90 seconds to speak a message to an audience of three million or more people, what would you say?

Larry Harvey: I’d tell them to commune with that inner portion of themselves that makes them feel real.  Sometimes it’s hard to find.  You can spend a lifetime looking for it.  But find that part that makes you feel real, and then put it out there.  Push it out there in the world.  And if you’re lucky, it might meet that world where the two realities fit each other, where your inner self feels as if it inhabits the world, and then you’ll have found what you’re meant to do.  But if you don’t make that effort, then you’ll never find it.  And if you accept someone else’s answer, you know as it’s given to us, you’re probably not going to find it either.  And there’s no telling what it is.  Sometimes you have to step up to the plate even when you don’t know where the plate is.  My whole career has been based on that.

Meredith Medland: You’ve taken a lot of risks.

Larry Harvey: Yeah, I struck out a few times.  But every once in awhile you hit that ball.

Meredith Medland: Yeah, every once in awhile you do.  Now when we’re looking ahead in the next three months, if you could create three outcomes within the next three months, specific measurable results, and we were in this interview in three months from now, and I said, “Larry, what have you been up to?” and you said, “I did A, B, and C,” what would those three things be?

Larry Harvey: Oh, I’m not sure how to answer that.  Things are going really well for us right now.  I tend to be a little patient at the moment, and in three years or thirty years…

Meredith Medland: All right, well three years out.  Give me three years out.  What would you like to see in three years?

Larry Harvey: Three years?  I’d like…  The world goes on from day to day, in its pace, and nothing changes, so people are afraid to change.  And every once in awhile, things loosen up.  Usually, if you look at your own life, it’s because of pain, that made you open your arms, that made you leap off the ladder, that made you…

Meredith Medland: Oh, yeah.  That’s for sure.

Larry Harvey: And I think that’s true in the life of nations, and I think that in America we’ve got to face some realities, and I think they’re going to be painful realities.  Pain can result in two things:  It can result in trauma, or it can result in transformation.

Meredith Medland: What’s the most painful reality you think we’re going to face?

Larry Harvey: Well, first of all we’re going to have to… We’re going to have to realize that our turn at being an empire is over.  And that we’re just another party at the table, and we’re gong to have to listen to others, and we’re going to have to talk to them.  And then we’re going to have to look at how we can survive in a world that’s based on a reckless consumption of energy.  That’s one of the things we’re going to have to look at.  We’re going to have to look at the divide between the rich and the poor.  We’re going to have to look at… You know, when you’re an empire… This happened to Britain… When you’re an empire you can buy off problems or ignore them.  You know, you don’t have to look at that.  You’re growing and you’re heedless.  And well now we’re going to be a little like Britain was after the Suez crisis.  Iraq is going to be our ‘Suez’.  That’s just my theory, and already you see it.  I mean look at the World Bank.  You’re seeing, “Why should it be an American? Why should an American…” Well, it was just customary.  You know, we were top nation, and everyone’s looking at us at that table, and saying, “Well you’re just at this table.  You’re not running it now.”  And I think, well, that’s going to be hard for a lot of folks to swallow.  But it’s going to mean that we have to get back in touch with a lot of realities.  We have to be more honest with one another.  We have to begin to act like a community among ourselves, and we’re going to have to respect communities that are outside our own.  You know, we’ve not done that in awhile, and…

Meredith Medland: Yeah.

Larry Harvey: But I think it’s ripe for change.  Every once in awhile, in a crisis, people will turn to the… will 1) demand thought; and will want to seek creative action.  And I’ve seen it before.  I saw some of it in the 60’s, but I never really believed in that dream, but I’m more excited about what I see now. 

Meredith Medland: Yeah.

Larry Harvey: It’s going to be painful! 

Meredith Medland: Indeed it is.

Larry Harvey: It’s going to be painful.  But you grow, out of pain.  One thing that helps to create real community… I mean, I hear about communities… the ‘community of insurance underwriters’, the ‘community of investment bankers’, the ‘community of…’  And really, the thing that most often will spawn a community is, as it will create the most meaningful friendships in life, is going through something with someone else.  It’s struggling along together with them.  I had a friend who got rich in the dot.com era, and it was like he walked out of the surf and the tide had come in and had taken his feet right off the bottom, and he was bewildered.  I really said to him, “You know, if I were you, what I would do is I would conceive a project, a vision that you passionately want to see realized in the world, and make it big enough so it exceeded your resources, because then you’d have to ask other people to help you,” and so that’s the first thing.  Don’t be shy about asking for people’s help, and don’t self-censor yourself.  Be willing to imagine things that may not even seem to make sense.  And you might be wrong, but if you don’t take that chance you might not do anything at all; and then be ready to recognize the genius of everyone around you.  Everyone has unique talents; everybody does.  Everybody does.  They might not even know what they are.  And so you have to be very alert to see what that spark is in them, and just help them a little bit to engage.  That’s all you have to do.  Once they’re on fire, they’ll be fine. 

And everyone tells me that Burning Man changed their lives.  And it changed mine.  I mean look, it’s so simple.  One day, I called a friend and said, “Let’s go to the beach and burn a man.”  And he said, “Can you say that again?”  And I did, and we did do that.  And we ended up at the tide line as the sun was setting, and we set fire to it.  And that was pretty exciting, but what really changed my life and what in some sense gave birth to the rest of my life and career is the fact that suddenly all these people, on that beach, who we didn’t know, strangers, came running towards that figure!  I mean there was just suddenly a crowd there.  And a hippie was there, without any pants on, but he had a guitar, and he improvised a song about fire that was genuinely moving, and the wind was shunting the flames to one side, and a woman ran up and took its hand, and afterwards I reflected on it.  You know, there’s something about… You know how it is, that the kindness of strangers can move you so much.  You know, and you go home and say, “I was so moved when a stranger did something,” and your wife will say to you, “Well, I do that kind of stuff all the time, and you don’t appreciate me.”  But the reason it moves you so much is because it’s unconditional.  It’s unconditional.  It’s a pure gift.  And we were so moved it opened our… The spectacle was fine, but it was that people joined us in such a heartfelt and instantaneous way; it opened our hearts and that’s what made us feel and know in the end that we had to do it, and keep doing it.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Meredith Medland: So we’re wrapping it up here with legacy, transformation, cultivation, and more communities of joy.  Larry, thanks so much.  We’re looking forward to Living Green with you and joining you this year at Burning Man.


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