Larry Harvey Speech, 1998

Now I’ve said this again and again and I’m going to keep saying this till I die, that this thing called ‘culture’ is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It just happens. You can’t plan it, and you can’t control it — anymore than you can control the flow of a river or the growing of a blade of grass — you can’t do it. It’s something that we as animals are adapted to do and we spontaneously do it under certain social conditions. It ain’t going to happen in an elevator, though that’s an organized social situation. Standing there in the elevator looking up at the floors as they go by, it’s not going to happen. It’s not interactive in an elevator. It’s not going to happen. Culture isn’t going to break out standing in line waiting to get a ticket to some event. People aren’t going to be emulating and imitating one another.

I’ll tell you where they start creating culture. Isn’t it funny that there are all these white suburban kids out here today in our nation who are imitating the dress, the walk, the talk of black ghetto kids. What the hell is that about? I’ll tell you what it’s about. The kids in the ghetto didn’t have any money. The kids in the ghetto couldn’t go pay for entertainment. So they began imitating one another, emulating one another, sharing resources, and collaborating with one another and they invented a new art form. Then the headhunters came in, and they said, “Well, we’re going to commodify that.” And they sure have. They took, and they made stars of the rappers. Do you think the next generation in the ghetto is going to imitate their elder brother? No. It’s gone way beyond them; it’s a product now. It’s dead to them. The white kids are imitating them because it has some savor or flavor of reality to it because it’s the product of this deeply human situation that’s enormously deep in our nature and enormously broad in the way it factors in all the varied experience of everybody.

Now, Walt Disney can’t do that. Walt Disney can’t create Burning Man. Walt Disney couldn’t buy Burning Man. What’s he supposed to do? Eisner’s going to pay all of you to do your thing, so they can charge you to come here? [laughter] I don’t think it works. Doesn’t make any sense.

Burning Man is spreading because we don’t really have any competition. If you look at it just in a marketing way, there isn’t anybody else that’s competing with us. And the beautiful part of it is that if someone else starts to imitate us, we LIKE that. [cheers] We’re not going to sue them for infringing on the copyright. Because culture’s about imitation, emulation, cooperation, and all these things. It hasn’t happened in the western world for the last 200 years. It’s just got worse and worse, till everyone is in their stalls, like a feed lot. You know. Just consuming stuff and not attached to everybody else.

about this photo
about this photo

It’s kind of funny. In a way, coming out here you’ve embraced a kind of poverty. You’re responsible for everything. You have to struggle with… We’ve got the wind. We’ve got the rain threatening. It puts you in contact with the immediate realities of life. In a way it’s a kind of poverty you’ve embraced, it’s an immediate contact and struggle with the world around you. We thought it’d really be neat if everybody shared that together.

We’ve been working for a year planning this city. And if this were a normal festival, the essential concern that would inform our design would be “well, how do we get the vendors in to sell enough ‘stuff’?” And the city would be completely organized around the act of consumption. But if you look at the city we created, it’s not organized that way at all. It’s organized around this notion of community, and sharing and giving to other people.

We have this big circle here. Then we’ve got the two village circles. And we thought, “Well wouldn’t that be neat to stand in your village and you look around and it’s just like the way it was back in 1986 when we got inspired, and we saw this circle of fire-lit faces you could see everybody gathered around this central thing that united us and was somehow was more powerful than we were.” So we thought we’d just duplicate that and then let people start interacting. If it doesn’t work, we’ll redesign it next year so it works better. But the sole reason we plan any of this to let this naturally occurring phenomenon of human interaction begin to live again in our world.

There’s another part of it too that’s been planned: We’ve got the Man out there. We’ve been working at this for years, and from our experience, we’ve developed certain ideas, certain principles, and we realized early on that if you’re going to get people together then they have to be finally and ultimately connected to something beyond themselves. Now historically that could be a war, it could be a God, but something out there that brings everybody together. So we place the man way out there, outside the world. Way beyond the world. In that sense he’s sacred; he stands outside the world. He’s the connecting point that unites all of you. It’s really funny what’s going to happen. The man’s going to burn on Sunday Night, and about a third of you are going to get completely lost.

Here’s how we designed this city. We went out and we put a stake in the ground, just like the beginning of the universe. There was nothing here, then there was a singularity in space. And from that point we surveyed every street. If you notice, every time you walk down a street, he’s at the end of the street. So to find out where you are, you have to find out where he is. And you’re going to get used to that, it’s like a giant night-light out there. And then he goes down and you say “What the hell, where am I, I’m lost!” For about an hour you’ll feel really lost and then you realize, “Well, I guess we have to build him again.”

about this photo
about this photo

So we put the man out there, and they ask me what it means. I’m not so interested in ‘what’ it means, as ‘how’ it means, and how it effects all of you. The essential idea is that there is this final connecting point, that seems to connect you to yourself, connects you to the people around you, and ultimately connects you with the earth and the heavens. If you have that, it’s a wonderful unifier. Every culture I know of that rose to greatness in the world had something like that. So we thought we’d just invent the function of it. And by God, it seems to work.

This whole experiment we’re running is an effort to recreate culture in our modern world. Because if we don’t do it, I can justly fear that when the machine stops, we’re going to find ourselves so isolated from one another that none of us are going to be able to cope with it. So if you’re going to survive in the coming world, you’re going to have to learn radical self-reliance in an environment like this and then take that self-reliance and turn it into connection with other people, and then turn it into connection with the whole universe out there. And that’s the way it always has worked, it’s just got kind of screwed up in the last 200 years.

We think what’s going to happen, ’cause we’ve been watching it, is that groups are going to form all over the country — they’re already formed, we hear about it. We hear about individuals changing their lives, we hear about people going back, and they say “Well, why can’t we do back here what we did out there? Why can’t we cooperate, why can’t we share resources?” And they begin to do it. And the world is coming where the great central controls that have guided things, the bureaucracies and the state, and all those things are beginning to dwindle down.

Given a sense of community, and given the tools to make it a reality, and the Internet is going to be a big part of that; I’d advise all of you to get on the Internet, not for the sake of having stupid, vicarious, anonymous experiences in cyberspace, but for the sake of meeting one another and getting together again. So when you go home…

[a serious wind/dust storm is interrupting the speech]

You know, if this was just an event, I would get bored and I’d quit. But it’s not an event, it’s a phenomenon, and it’s flowing out beyond our horizons. When you go home, don’t say “I’m waiting 364 days until Burning Man, to get that wonderful experience that ‘they gave me’.” Realize that you can do it too. And that’s about all I have to say, uh, today.