La Vie Boheme: A History of Burning Man, 2000

a lecture by Larry Harvey
at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis
February 24, 2000.

(Photo by Stewart Harvey, 2001)


I was born in 1948, at the beginning of the baby boom, and my lifetime has spanned the last half of the 20th century. One of my earliest memories is a trip my family took to visit my uncle in LA. There I discovered three things: smog, TV, and Velveeta cheese.

I grew out of my taste for Velveeta, and I’ve chosen to live in a place that has very little smog. But the effects of television have been less avoidable. I remember standing on my uncle’s deck and gazing out across the rooftops, and mounted on each roof was an antenna. Together they formed a kind of haze, a solid substrate beneath the polluted air. It stretched as far as I could see all the way to the horizon, and each of these antennas represented a TV. The great national seance had begun.

I was too young to know it, but the last half of the century in America represented a time of momentous changes. The war effort of the 40s had gradually increased our countries industrial capacity, and with it buying power had increased among the masses. The war produced other changes too. Bureaucrats and businessmen alike learned to plan on a continental, indeed an international scale. A vast market for goods and services was being created, and as this post-war economic expansion progressed, as freeways spanned the countryside, and automation boosted productivity, a new kind of consumer society was born.

The new economy was based on marketing, and television was its medium. Television made it possible to reach the masses on a massive scale. Television employed moving images. A more seductive stimulus than radio, it supplanted the mind’s eye. It was capable of inducing among millions of people a kind of hypnoidal trance which left the viewer uniquely receptive to the power of suggestion. It gave new scope and potency to advertising. This power to communicate was creating not only a quantitative difference in the amount of advertising produced, it was creating a qualitative change in the type of messages conveyed. Marketers had discovered what is now a truism. It’s more profitable to sell the package than the product. It’s far more effective to sell the yearned for affect that attaches to a product than to tout the actual advantages conferred by any good. It is an excellent tactic for producing immediate sales, but more importantly, it engages a limitless appetite.

I play a game with my son. I turn off the sound of commercials on TV, and then we guess what is being sold. The results are oftentimes astonishing. Images of security and happiness, pride and potency, community and love glide smoothly across the screen. Very typically it’s only at the end that you discover that these imagined mental states are attached to a brand of cheese, automobile or an oil company.

This wondrous alchemy whereby spiritual values and materials things are transmuted into vicarious experience, an experience of spectacle, is the byproduct of a process we call commodification. Now I looked up the word commodification in my old edition of Webster’s Collegiate as I prepared for this speech, only to discover that it was not in common usage in 1973, which isn’t surprising. For it is only in the last 25 years or so that we have had enough perspective to discover what has overcome us.

The commodification of our culture, as representing a final phase of late 20th century capitalism, has only gradually become apparent, and even now the scale of its effects on our society are not well understood. Had I known this when I scanned that sea of television antennas many years ago, I would have realized that beneath each roof in every house, there existed people held in isolation from the world at large. Like those famous prisoners in Plato’s cave, these internees are given only spectral shadows to experience. They stare steadily at entertaining images and by degrees mistake them for palpable things and real experience. Gnawed by an incessant appetite, a boundless hunger for spectacle and it’s ambiguous promise of satisfaction, they endure this vicarious state from day to day, from year to year, now throughout entire lifetimes, in a state of isolation from the sunlit world and from one another.

Modern demographics have also affected the subtlety of this image making. It wasn’t until the 1970s that I seem to have heard the word lifestyle being used. A lifestyle, with its panoply of status coded goods, is a commodified version of what we used to call a way of life. Marketers have learned to sort us into separate stalls like cattle in a feed lot. Using focus groups, it’s endlessly possible to invent new and appealing lifestyles which give us the illusion we are making lifestyle statements and are members of imaginary peer groups. That these fashions require no participation in the life of a community is not the concern of the merchant. We have become a nation of posers. It’s not a life that’s lived or shared, but an imitation of life, a kind of commercial for self. It’s as if we ourselves are now TVs and broadcast images. Politicians are purveyed to us by means of focus groups and polls, and in our political and social life, the personal and private realm, the specific realm of consumption, is displacing the public world altogether. Neighborhoods that once formed public meeting grounds and centers of community are now engulfed by sprawl, and in reaction we take refuge in the security of gated communities. Our entire public environment, in fact, is being redesigned for the sole purpose of facilitating anonymous acts of consumption. Multiplexes and mega-malls now stud the urban landscape, and commercial advertising proliferates like a virus. It pervades and fills every gap and leisure moment of our lives. It speaks to us from the sides of buses and in classrooms. It is inserted into movies and it dances at the corners of computer screens. “What will you do next?”, we ask our heroes in their shining moments of glory, and they tell us, “I’m going to Disneyland.”

America is now wealthier than at any other time in its history, yet all around us and within us a feeling of lurking anomie persists. Like that scratchy sensation at the back of your throat, that shudder down your spine when you feel the flu coming on, and symptoms of this deep unease pervade our society. The spread of materialistic values has contributed to a moral coarsening and a growing cynicism in our country. Within a manipulative world all motives seem venal, all efforts illusory. But at a deeper level, it is the commodifying of imagination itself, the moral passivity, the social isolation, the angst that is generated by living in a solipsistic world of fraudulent satisfactions that is producing the greatest evil.

When children addicted to video games slaughter other children with automatic weapons, and do this in the style of video games, we know that something tragic is occurring. Critics call for better values, as if values were something that could be advertised and sold. And yet to even entertain a moral value one must first be someone in a world beyond one’s self. We’re suffering the symptoms of narcissistic injury. The vital here and there of spiritual experience is disappearing from our world. It’s dissolving into vicarious spectacle. The world, in some nauseating fashion, no longer appears to belong to itself.

We need some deep and drastic therapy to break this spell. We need to reestablish contact with our inner selves. We need to reinvent a public world. We need immediate connection to the natural world of vital need. And this is where my work and the experiment called Burning Man comes in.

Imagine you are put upon a desert plain, a space which is so vast and blank that only your initiative can make of it a place. Imagine it is swept by fearsome winds and scorching temperatures, and only by your effort can you make of it a home. Imagine you’re surrounded by thousands of other people, that together you form a city, and that within this teeming city there is nothing that’s for sale.

These challenging conditions represent the chief appeal of our utopian experiment. Since its founding in the Nevada desert in 1990, Black Rock City has grown from a hamlet of 80 people into a five square mile civic entity complete with a fire department, two daily newspapers, over 20 radio stations, a department of public works. [whistles] In 1999 its boulevards and avenues were thronged by a population of over 23,000 people. This elaborate urban infrastructure has been described by the London Observer as a, “beautifully zoned tentopolis designed with a precision of which the Renaissance city state idealists would approve”.

This city that arises annually and disappears without a trace occurs in an extraordinary setting. The Black Rock desert is an empty void. Not a bird or bush or bump disturb its surface. It is a place that is no place at all apart from what we choose to make of it. Think of it as a vast blank slate, or better yet, think of it as a sort of movie screen upon which every citizen of Black Rock City is encouraged to project some aspect of their inner selves. This novel use of nothingness elicits a superabundant production of spectacle. But it is spectacle with a difference. We have, in fact, reversed the process of spectation by inviting every citizen to create a vision and contribute it to a public environment. We call this process radical self-expression. What makes this self-expression truly radical is its reintegration of the private and personal back into a shared public domain. [places aside prepared text]

Now, I want to talk a little bit about the deep background of Burning Man before I describe the festival itself or, rather, the community. We really don’t call it a festival.

So let me take you back for a moment to those halcyon days of Ronald Reagan’s America. The 1980s, when so many of us felt like remaindered products on the great supermarket shelves of America.

It was in the last year of the Carter administration, I think ’79, when the funding for public art peaked in the NEA’s budget. Thereafter the great move to privatize government functions took over. The NEA’s been under continuous onslaught ever since, until today its budget is just a fraction of what it was then. At the same time, I think around ’75, the first big corporate show occured in San Franciso. It was sponsored by Philip Morris, as a matter of fact.

Since that time, of course, corporate money has surged into this arena. Corporations have made some signal discoveries. They’ve found out that investing in art is good for business. They operate on the familiar principal that the package is more potent than the product, and that is why you see this orgy of museum building going on all over the world. They invest in museums and they invest in the international art tourist attractions called biennials. More than anything, they’ve made one really important discovery. Art is good for real estate.

Now, if you take these two curves, the one descending from the great heyday of the NEA, and the ascendant curve of corporate investment in the arts, which now overshadows anything the NEA contributes, the two lines cross somewhere in the mid 1980’s. And that is an interesting date, because Burning Man was founded in 1986, and I would like to tell you something about the immediate background of that. I want to talk about a history that has never really been chronicled, the history of art that has existed outside the system during all of these years.

It started with the punks. You remember the punks. The punks were laden with “tude”. They specialized in a kind of puckish truculence. [laughter] It began in the UK, and there it was associated with a lot of class resentments. People in dead-end lives at the bottom of the social pyramid, and then it moved into the US, and it changed a little here. In the late 70s and early 80s it began to turn into a movement that espoused two very basic ideas. The first one was, “we will never sell out, no, we won’t sell out!”.

Now, it’s not surprising that this would be so paramount. You’re talking about a generation that had seen everything it ever loved taken away from it. You’re talking about a generation that, as it sat around the great American table, wanted to spit up. Throughout their lives they’d endured the same recurring experience. Something would be invented in the context of community, and culture would be generated spontaneously out of the interactions of individuals who felt that they belonged to a thing, and that it belonged to them, and out of that ethos they would begin creating things that embodied their identity in the world, and as soon as that happened, someone would come along, a market scout, and it would be appropriated, and it would be marketed as a lifestyle, and it would be turned into an image, and it would be completely denatured of any meaning that it ever had for anyone.

So the punks, responding, perhaps, a little crudely at times, made it their first tenet that “we won’t sell out!”. And then they had another idea. The other idea was “make your own show”. Never sell out, make your own show. Now, San Francisco is an interesting place. It has a long Bohemian tradition. This goes back to the time of the miners when, on impulse, they’d start marching down Market Street brandishing their pick axes. And it extends through the beat era and to the hippies, and the punk scene was very alive and well in San Francisco through the late 70s early 80s. And during this period it morphed and spawned some interesting art. There is an organization called Survival Research Laboratories that you might be aware of. [cheers]

Now this was punk art essentially and it was hardcore. They wouldn’t sell out. The only way you’d find out about an SRL show… well, what they would do is put posters on the concrete pylons under the freeway, and if you were in the know and knew, you’d spot these posters and you’d go to the show, and that is how it was advertised. They wouldn’t sell out. I mean they were really laden with tude. They wouldn’t sell out — they’d throw dead rats at the audience!

I do an impression. We called that whole school the motorheads, and I used to do a motorhead impression. This is my impression of one of those shows. It goes something like this. [turns his back to the audience, then turns back around] “You still here?” [laughter]

You’d assemble in a warehouse and inhale diesel fumes as your body temperature dropped, and there you’d watch the boys play with their toys. The notion was that, “We’re making our own damn show here, and we’re really not going to cater to you! We won’t to sell out!”.

There is a fellow, a friend of mine named Chicken John. He’s probably the last living punk saint, who still, at a late date, as late as, oh I don’t know, two years ago, would book shows in places like Bismarck, North Dakota, and then he’d go there with the Circus Ridiculous, and the whole point of the Circus Ridiculous was that it required no talent whatsoever. They had acts like the man-eating chicken, which was him eating chicken. Now this is tude with a capital T. The idea was. “Well, hey if you don’t think it’s entertainment, then make your own show. I made a show!” Now these guys wouldn’t sell out!

For awhile during the punk era there existed this whole underground network that spanned the country, and you could book a venue in a garage or virtually anywhere, and it didn’t involve the system. It was completely outside the system. These were outsiders, and the idea is that they were fiercely protecting their autonomy. They were, in a way, doing what Bohemians always do, and that’s trying to create a world by projecting their own inner vision onto the world.

During that same era other variant strains developed. You might have heard of the Cacophony Society, which started in San Francisco and has since spread to several cities. We would do collaborative events. One of my favorites was a party called “The Atomic Cafe”. It was held in an abandoned toothpaste factory, and this was quite illegal. People met in a parking lot and a truck came by and hauled us to the party like braceros. It was an interactive scenario premised on the notion that a nuclear war had occurred. The idea with Cacophony was always that you were the entertainment. You make your own show.

So everybody dressed as if the great Armageddon was at hand and we had been suddenly plucked from our stations in life and were there in this ruin of a warehouse, which was a wonderful labyrinthine space, and we had come to attend the nightclub at the end of the world. Everyone brought cans of food which had to have a minimum shelf life of 20 years. It was Twinkies, canned okra, you name it, and people would really get into their roles. One woman came as a half-dressed society matron and continually complained about the quality of the company. Several people wore bathrobes, as if they’d just emerged from the shower. I remember bumping into an acquaintance who had got completely beyond speech. He grunted and he’d paw you in the dark, and when you came away, you realized you were covered with slime. He had a tube up his sleeve, and he played that part like a trooper all night. A very talented artist, Kimric Smythe, who now does our pyrotechnics for the Man, had made a full-scale model of — it’s either “little man” or “fat boy” — the original atom bomb. It was a perfect replica, and they would blindfold people, give them two-by-fours, and they would try to smash it like a pinata — it was filled with toy soldiers — and there was just something delicious about seeing someone, a blind man, trying to destroy the bomb with a stick.

Here was the scheme with Cacophony. They had a newsletter, and it was Drop City. Anybody could propose an event. You make your own show. You couldn’t charge for an event — don’t sell out — and this would circulate, and whatever anybody proposed, if they could get a taker, they could create a show. You could make a spectacle. Make a spectacle of yourself. Make a spectacle for others — and that is how you would escape the great American spectacle. Now, a lot of this was very subversive. Around the fringes of this were billboard defacements. They’d appropriate billboards and subvert the advertising. I remember that LA Cacophony, led by Reverend Al Ridenour, did a wonderful thing. They did a show in which they went to a Chuck E. Cheese and Al was bandaged like the mummy. Obviously a man who had suffered a terrible and traumatic injury, and he was surrounded at a long table by all of his commiserating friends who were trying to cheer the man up. He sat there like this. [drops head despondently] Finally he began to weep. Mothers began to clutch their children. Chuck E. Cheese came over and he grabbed Chuck E. Cheese and he wouldn’t let go of him! [laughter]

Now this was guerrilla theater. They had appropriated this mass consumption outlet and turned it into theater. They’d made it their own. A lot of the underground art of that era , the motorhead art, a lot of the SRL stuff, involved a kind of appropriation of the expropriated. They had a doctrine. Not only did they recycle, they precycled — which meant that they’d grab anything that wasn’t nailed down — and they would comb through the industrial detritus of our society and recycle it as art.

The idea was essentially that you would take the elements of mass culture that had been expropriated from real culture and denatured of their meaning and you would appropriate it back and invest it with new meaning by making your own show.

All of this activity forms the immediate background of Burning Man. It forms a whole series of these anti-consumerist utopias that people were trying to create. The theoretician that people were always citing, they talk about him still, was Hakim Bey, who originated the notion of TAZ, the “Temporary Autonomous Zone”. This was anarchist theory. The notion was that the only way you could subvert the system, the all encroaching juggernaut created by a centralized system of mass production adjusted in these last waning years of the century to commodify every possible experience, was to seize ground like guerrilla soldiers in a jungle. You could commandeer some part of the public environment and make your own show, create your own rules, and then, before the authorities showed up, you’d melt away back into the jungle. It is an anarchist notion. It partakes somewhat of the paranoia of anarchism, too. Because, really, underlying it is the fundamental assumption that it’s hopeless, that all that you can do is fight these little guerrilla battles, because who could confront the organized army that’s besetting us?

Now, Burning Man started in ’86 when we took the man down to the beach and set it on fire, and it developed to be a very ambitious endeavor after awhile. We were Bohemians, and Bohemias are interesting. Bohemia is a world that artists create. They’re made by people who live by their gifts and live for their gifts and live to give those gifts to others. The Bohemians have a kind of erotic sense of property. They share with one another. They cooperate with one another. They collaborate with one another. What Bohemias reflect is the natural life of artists, how they behave in their authentic environment. And these were the principles we followed. We didn’t worry about getting a venue or asking permission. We started out guerrilla. We were illegal, going down to the beach to burn this thing. And we depended for our resources, not on grants, and not on sponsorship, and not anybody’s funding, but on our own communal efforts undertaken together.

Now, if I may digress for just a moment, I must say that this presents a lively contrast to the position of the putative artist of today in an institutional context. I spoke to some art students in Chicago yesterday, and I sympathized with them, frankly. You know back in the 1950’s the educational system in America became adjusted with everything else to fit the mass system, and universities suddenly became mass job placement bureaus. They trained you for a new career in the new mass society, with the effect that as art is taught today it’s mostly governed by a regime defined by bureaucratic rules and managerial imperatives. So much so, that artists are taken so completely away from their natural bent, taken so far away from their native temperament, that they are confronted with a ghastly prospect. They’re asked to walk a strange kind of tightrope. They must straddle two fears. [poses with arms outstretched, as if walking a tightrope] On the one side, they’re afraid that maybe they’ll look derivative, that maybe their work is going to look too much like the crowd and they won’t distinguish themselves. Because the key thing is to be chosen. “Choose me! choose me!”, because they’re working in a realm of very scarce resources. There are never enough gallery berths. There are never enough grants, and they’re fewer and fewer. The grants are laying really thin on the ground anymore.

Artists all over the country, especially art students, are waking up at 3am covered with flop sweat thinking “God, what if I’m derivative?”. And on the other side of this tightrope, they’re constantly conscious of the need, the imperative, to make sure that their work will be perceived as aligned with the great cavalcade of art history, so that it can be defined as theoretically advancing the progress of art. Because, if it isn’t , they’re not going to be recognized by the academy, and they might not get into the museum. And at the end of this tightrope they’re walking, what do they find? They find a star system. I mean, I was sympathetic with them. I said, “Well I know what it’s like. When you graduate, you’ll — I don’t know — if you can find a studio, I guess you’ll keep up the work. You’ll work at a straight job for awhile and you’ll hang out in a coffee house with your friends, and if you’re lucky maybe you’ll get a show in a coffee house, and, if you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll work in a coffee house and you can watch people looking at your work!” [laughter]

It’s an economy of scarcity, and it’s very competitive, and it pits artists against one another. Very few will be chosen, and those that are chosen these days will be chosen by corporations. Maybe you can do the sculpture for the mall that will do so much for real estate values. You can be the next Keith Haring and they’ll put your work in the gift shop.

What’s funny about that is that in Bohemia, in the natural world of the artist, there exists an economy of creative abundance, because this is a world of gift giving.

Now, when we finally left San Francisco and went out to the desert in 1990, we brought with us the ethos that we had learned in an underground culture, and one of the first ideas is that you don’t sell out, and if you want to get a little more positive, a little more optimistic than the punks ever managed to be, you can turn that around and convert it into a gift-giving ethic. If you’re making your own show, then, instead of watching television, you take your own vision and you project it onto the world with the notion that you can change it. Now if you’re living in a world where all your prospects have been curtailed, and you are depending on someone or something outside yourself, then you’re not going to do that, but we didn’t know any better. We were BoHos.

So we founded a city, and one of the rules that we observe in Black Rock City is absolutely stunning. You can’t buy or sell anything. Now that’s simple, but let the consequences of it sink in for a moment. Have you ever been in a city of thousands of people where you couldn’t buy or sell anything? I mean it seems so strange that it’s hard for most people to imagine because our world is so permeated with commodity transactions.

Now the difference between giving gifts and the world of commodity transactions is really rather striking. The great thing about dealing with commodities is you don’t have to be connected to anybody. I mean all that’s required of you when you buy something in a marketplace is a sum of money, and your inner resources are beside the point, have nothing to do with it. It’s non-connective. And that’s good, in its way, because it lubricates transactions. It means that the rubber of Brazil or the resources of the world can be efficiently conveyed to you by the miraculous workings of this market. But it’s very non-connective.

As a contrast with that, when you give a gift or receive a gift from someone, it creates an immediate moral bond with them, this feeling of human connection. In some sense, their life energy enters into you, and that, of course, is where community begins. Of course, we live in a world where opportunities for that sort of experience are becoming rare. You know, at one time in the history of the West this wasn’t so. Half of the economy was a gift economy, and this was enforced by cultural norms. In tribal societies, gift economies are virtually a norm. But in our world, the giving of gifts has dwindled down, if it exists at all, maybe into the realm of the family. If your mother asks you to get a quart of milk, you probably won’t charge her, nor will you tote that up because of course you’re connected to her.

What we learned out of our experience of Bohemia is that when you start giving gifts to one another it opens up this magnificent resource to people. Not only is it connective, not only does it generate cultural interaction, it is actually remarkably efficient in a lot of ways. In the Black Rock desert people undertake all these expressive projects, and they discover, after awhile when they get ambitious, that somebody always knows somebody who knows where you can get something for free. You get excited about an idea or what you’re doing and that excitement is then communicated personally out through this ramifying network of acquaintances, and somebody you didn’t know gets roped into it, and pretty soon they’re your friend and they’re involved in it, and not only are they spiritually connected to you, you actually have a new resource. It generates wealth that you didn’t have, things that you couldn’t afford if you’d depended only on money and your own individual buying power.

Now we’ve been told in America that the market system is wonderful and that we command the resources of the world. The only trouble is that Mom and Dad are holding down full time jobs so they can afford quality day care for their kids. What is wrong with this picture? It turns out that our system that is so spiritually non-connective is actually materially very wasteful as well!

People come out to Black Rock City and they’re exposed to a hyperconnective environment. It touches them on so many levels, because the distance of the marketplace has been abolished, and their first response is to quit their job, dump their girlfriend, or find a new boyfriend — life changes of one kind or another — and a lot of them, amazingly, stick. But, if they get ambitious and persist in participating, then they discover many lessons about the material benefits of living this way. I would put to you that, if just a quarter of our economy were based on the giving of gifts, it would be a very different world. Perhaps, in the future, something like this might be possible, but I’ll touch on that later. It is part of the later history of Burning Man.

Now, I would like to walk you through a tour of what it’s like to come to Burning Man. You arrive there and go through our gate, and the next person you’ll meet — he, she, or it, — it could be a giraffe, or a fat guy in a thong, or whatever — will be a greeter. It is entirely up to them how they present themselves, and that’s the point. We’ve created an entire civic infrastructure by such artful means. We have told people there are chores that have to be done in society, but not to look at it as a job, look at it as a role, and imbue that self-created role with your spirit and give as a gift to others — and this has actually been very productive.

We have lamplighters who illuminate our city. I believe you saw a picture of the lamplighters out front as you come in. These people design and make their own costumes, they craft their lamp lighting tools, and they practice together for months ahead of time. They perform this task at our event as a sort of a ritualized display, and they find it very gratifying. You see, they’re not just holding down a job. By investing themselves in a communal effort and by making it expressive, they transcend the functionality of work. They become lamplighters.

In the video we saw a moment ago, the DPW, which is our Department of Public Works… [ applause] Let’s hear it for the DPW!

That little parade you saw in the video, which started out with the Bobcat rearing back on its wheels, was our Labor Day parade. These guys, when they get going, become really expressive. That parade had a crane that was driven backwards, it had the Bobcat, and at one point they took a big horse trough and turned it into a hot tub which they towed that around the city — and this was in their leisure time! They started playing with their tools, because in this environment, the boundary between work and play, which in industrial societies has become very rigid, starts to blur.

At the same time, we’ve taken the playfulness of art and defined it in terms of social utility. We’ve always sponsored and encouraged forms of art — this is my particular and personal passion — that convene society around themselves. The chief tool for organizing society in Black Rock City is art. It’s art that is meant to be played with, leaned against, reacted to. Its art , in a lot of cases, that is so contrived that it requires that you assume a role that puts you in a relationship with your fellow citizens. And a more potent organizer of human communities is hard to imagine.