by Lasara Firefox Allen, © 2004, unpublished
I went to the desert with high expectations. I didn’t know what I would find there, but knew I would find a story. A press application, photo permit, and a ticket later I headed out for Black Rock City, ready to have my life altered by a new world. I went seeking Oz.
Burning Man was not my Oz, and instead of answers I found questions that rose up from deep within my counter-culture born and bred, communitarian core. Questions about rules vs. autonomy, distrust and insularity vs. investment and a gifting economy, creating a world we want to live in vs. living in the world we create.
My questions stemmed from a jaded place, but one that holds onto a certain hope: revolution takes many forms. What is the element of revolution that lives in the Burning Man movement and keeps the movement growing and thriving, that maybe we can take away from the city of Black Rock?
The art of Burning Man was awe-inspiring. The playa was beautiful and harsh, in a way dear to me. I have always been struck by life in any form rising from barren environs. Some interactions with other participants in the BRC experience made me warm, and others left me cold.
The most complex interactions I had were with my own psyche. As a first-time inhabitant of BRC, I felt like an outsider. As a native back-to-the-land hippie kid, I felt OVER the experience of playing a survival game with the elements. As an activist I felt lost. As a utopian, I felt unsure of the viable features of BRC and the Burning Man experience.
I left Black Rock City with more, and larger, questions than I arrived with. I knew there was a deeper level to find. And, I knew that if anyone could help me find it, the Wizard could.
In interviewing Larry Harvey I had the joyous experience of speaking with a rare breed: A visionary who has seen his vision come to fruition, manifest, grow, and keep evolving. Just as rare, he is a man dedicated to the ideals of autonomous expression, who also has a healthy relationship with authority and power. Meaning, he’s not afraid to wield either.
Talking with Larry I found a true wizard; a creator and visionary, making dreams manifest. Through Larry’s eyes I could see not only a shining and magickal city, but a whole cosmic design, grounded in a new sense of civic-mindedness and the ethos of the Burning Man movement.
“None of us can fully anticipate the consequences of our actions.”
Burning Man and the Creation of a Civic Culture
LA: What is your take on the tensions between outlaw cultures and rule structures?
LH: I guess it has occurred in our history. It was funny when we first went to the desert there was a contingent among us who featured it as a TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone – Ed). I thought they mistook it. The basic idea of Hakim Bey’s [TAZ] is that there are these interzones in the solid magma of authority, which were cracks in the surface of the authority structure, and if you can find them you can practice aesthetic terrorism using guerilla tactics. You can move in and establish a micro-anarchist state. Then having expressed yourself you can disappear and sink back into the jungle like Vietcong.
The only trouble is that when we came out to the Black Rock desert, we were staring at an interzone that was several thousand square miles. It was more than an interzone; it was like the authorities didn’t even know we were there for the first three years. We were lost in all that space
In those days we were in this sort of moat in the middle of this vast blankness and we soon discovered that there were perils, real perils. It was very easy to get lost and miss our camp altogether and that puts you in peril of getting mired at the edge of the desert. You could die there…
It soon became our responsibility to protect people, to rescue them. And we formed the Black Rock Rangers.
There are other examples of this, but by degrees, we acquired the authority of the state. We were the state. We weren’t rebelling against the oppression of [the state].
LA: So on the concept of BRC or the Burning Man “establishment” becoming the state…
LH: In becoming the state, we were responsible for the public welfare.
LA: On that note, is the leaning towards rules a natural, automatic, and possibly necessary evolution in a movement?
LH: Yes it’s necessary. The notion that everyone should be a ruler unto themselves is absurd. It’s not necessarily that people are knaves, it’s because no single person can be expected to understand public welfare. We’re all blind and ignorant of one another’s activities and motives and when you get beyond the size of a very small band, civility becomes necessary.
We passed from this communal experience in which everyone more or less knew everyone, into a point where there were so many strangers it required the invention of civil society. Because civil society is created to accommodate strangers. It regards your relationship to people you don’t know.
LA: as a movement that seems to be based in autonomy, have you felt judged by participants as rule structures occurred over time?
LH: You always get a certain number of people who mistake you for their old man. They mistake you for the parental unit that didn’t understand them [with whom] they have unresolved conflicts and problems, so some of these people probably hate the postman because he wears a uniform. But that’s on the fringes of society.
Most people, if they see the need of it and the rules are explained, we’ll enter into a social contract. The vast majority of people will do that. I hear talk about the good old days where you could drive your car at 100 mph with the lights turned off, but most decent people with any memory, even from those good ol’ autonomous days, will remember the car that went through someone’s tent and ran over their head.
Some kind of accommodation is needed so that people can enjoy their liberty respectively where basic safety is concerned.
The interesting thing [is] that as time goes on, people demand more rules, rules that will oppress the whole society when added up together. We’ve resisted that as well. There’s probably a greater push for excessive rules than there have been complaints about too many. If you add up everyone’s little pet peeve, you know… ‘Let’s keep those ravers out,’ ‘let’s tear out their speakers,’ ‘let’s keep out these new people,’ ‘let’s ban that…’ And we’ve refrained.
I would argue that maybe the most radical thing we’re doing is re-inventing civics. The fact of the matter is, especially among younger people, there are millions of people out there who have no concept of what civics is. Maybe because of the last 50 years of capitalist development, they tend to regard society as one vast vending machine. Oh, they know there are laws, and if you break them you get caught, but the notion that they have any kind of active relationship with their fellow man doesn’t occur to them. They know their little circle, and they stand in lines for amusements, but beyond that, they do not feel any necessary relationship to [anything] beyond their immediate world. That’s true of a lot of people. Look at the voting rates today.
People claim novelty all the time, and usually they’re wrong. But you can say there’s one novel thing we’ve done; we started from a scene that was basically communal dynamics, and it then grew, and instead of factioning, and instead of being appropriated by mass society and commodified, we went civic.
We turned a scene into a city. We made the leap between the communal to this greater unit of belonging, and I don’t know if anyone’s ever done that.
“We always have to be open to something greater than ourselves.”
Growth and the Concept of Radical Inclusivity
LA: What do you see as the current purpose of Burning Man as opposed to the original purpose. Has it changed?
LH: Of course it’s changed. We started with very little foresight. It began on an impulse. There was no plan whatsoever. Yet, in many ways it was all incipiently there. There are two ways of looking at it: In one model it’s simply the result of all the confluent streams that joined in. In the other, it was all there in the seed. That’s the mythic model.
I think back to the beach the first year. We planted the figure by the waterside, by the tide line, and lit it on fire. Then suddenly all these people joined us because it was a public space. They formed a semicircle around it, and it was backed against the far horizon, the infinity of water and sky, and we were just taken out of ourselves, and it felt just wonderful to have this sense of union with these strangers that just joined us. That experience was so moving; it was what caused the tradition to be founded.
I had an experience not long ago; I was pouring over the drawings of our city…You enter it and it forms that great semi-circle with the man at the geographic center and the desert beyond. Suddenly I realized we’d reproduced it. There was no plan to do that, but in some sense, in reproducing it, we were keeping true to the original value. First at the beach, which molded us, I had been so impressed by the influence of nature: the crash of the tide and the cosmic vantage of it. And of course the desert furnished that too.
When we’d first come out, people said ‘Why don’t we encircle the figure with the settlement?’, and I said no. We always have to be open to something greater than ourselves, because that’s what we came from, and hence that’s why the city is that shape. The determination to be radically inclusive, to always welcome the stranger.
LA: So welcoming the stranger could be seen as a core value of Burning Man?
LH: Yes, and it still is. If there’s one battle I’ve fought again and again, and now on a regional scale – we’re talking to all the regional groups – it’s the tendency, where there’s a feeling of unity, to link arms and form a circle and turn their back on the world and keep the stranger out.
“The proof of it is that we’re now populating America.”
The Future Direction of Burning Man: Bringing the Magickal City Home
LA: on the note of change and evolving, what has the purpose of Burning Man and the BRC experience most recently evolved into?
LH: Well we’re about to roll out a thing called the Burning Man network, which is a way of organizing all the regional contacts we have…
We’re here, still considered radical, still considered vital, still considered transformative to people, and we’ve been here for nearly 20 years. We aren’t a fad. And we’ve done that because we’ve organized to protect ourselves in certain ways while remaining very open. And we’re trying to do that on a much larger scale so our culture isn’t gobbled up piecemeal and exploited out there in the world.
That, and the fact that we’re now in a position to foment mutual aid across this great spectrum. We’re also in a position to offer help of various kinds. Things [the regionals] couldn’t do for themselves, and that won’t diminish their independence or their creative integrity.
I thought in the beginning that you needed a playa. Of course, that’s a unique formula for a very intense ritual experience in the many ways it affects people. This great void; you can conjure visions from it.
But I came to see, as people came home to their communities and began to congregate and asked us to help them and create lists and so on, and as events grew up, people had internalized the ethos they had learned. It’d gotten sufficiently complex and broad enough and deep enough to actually represent what you’d call an ethos, a way of life. A vision of a way of life, at least, and they were reproducing it, on a scale.
As we thought about what it all means over the years, I began to see that in fact, it wasn’t limited to events that emulated – or rather, imitated – ours, but you could emulate the principles in such a way that you could use those things to transform the world around you, wherever you might be.
That could involve civics; that could involve something at the center of your hometown. It could involve kinds of creative associations – corporation, collaboration – that would seem very far-afield from a party in the desert.
It’s because [people have] internalized BRC and it exists within them now, and if it were only an entertainment event, this would all be idle talk. But that isn’t the case. The proof of it is that we’re now populating America.
LA: The next question I have is a leap, I know, but it’s a question I’ve heard, and I’m curious about it myself. How will you or the other organizers of Burning Man know if it’s time to close up shop?
LH: Right now the Burning Man experience serves as a sort of a Mecca. It’s a place where vast numbers of people come together and it serves as a sort of initiation and demonstration to people about what could be in the world. But I think that as these colonies that have grown up begin to achieve things, the community at large will need that demonstration less and less. Burning Man will simply, actually, be a part of their life. They will no longer say ‘I can’t wait’… you know, ‘there’s only 213 days till Burning Man’. [Burning Man] will be where they are, in some fulfilling way.
It Ain’t Kansas…Wait, Maybe It Is! (Or Cali, or England, or British Columbia…)
Perhaps it was all there in the seed; a seed born of the influence of nature, and a cosmic vantage. A seed that was created by an act of self-expression, that grew in magnitude with the presence of strangers. A seed that contained the potential for a new economy; one based solely in the act of giving.
Now Burning Man is growing wild, ideas and ideals germinated by the cross-pollination of people in a transient city; a city which exists in a time out of time, a world between worlds. A city that grows from a great void that conjures visions, and then disappears back into a realm of possibility.
I found answers to some of my questions even in the process of getting them to the page. I found further answers speaking with Larry. I am sure to find further answers as the movement finds its way more deeply into my life.
The ethos of Burning Man has already moved from the playa into the world, and taken root. A sense of investment in a home that exists wherever we are is part of that ethos. And a networking of revolutionary gifting is taking hold, rooted deeply in the civic-mindedness of residents of Black Rock City.
Perhaps the seed was there all along, and the wizard just helped us find it.