From the Archives: Larry Harvey — About Ritual, Community and Burning Man

For the last two years, since Larry Harvey’s passing in 2018, we’ve celebrated the life and legacy of Burning Man’s founder on the summer solstice, which also marks the anniversary of the first Burning Man event on San Francisco’s Baker Beach.

To commemorate the man we knew, loved, and miss every single day, we’re re-posting a 1994 interview uncovered on an inactive Burning Man archive on Zpub. We tidied up the typos and present it here in its entirety. Read on for some thought-provoking observations on the role of ritual and the nature of community.

And while we’re on the topic of Burning Man’s beloved founder, join us on June 21 for the global, online premiere of a new film chronicling Larry’s life. Larry: A Burning Man Story features never-before-seen archival footage and interviews with Larry’s friends, family and colleagues. This exclusive pre-release premiere event is a benefit for Burning Man Project, with pay-what-you-can tickets available through Kindling.


Larry Harvey: Well we don’t have a lot of rituals in this society really. Well we have some rituals in this society; we have football games, we have the Super Bowl. But when the Super Bowl is over, when a football game is over, you’ve had your thrill but suddenly you begin to realize that it was inherently meaningless. There was no transcendence. You can listen to the post game reports and the interviews with the athletes, but they’re a tremendous let down. 

Everybody’s become cynical about Christmas or about most of the holidays; we’ve observed they’ve become occasions for consumption and little more. What we do out in the desert, indeed does have a transcendent focus in a very graphic and physical way. The Man stands at the center of the experience. He is the culmination of the celebration. In his burning, he transcends himself. The fireworks are actually rigged so that they eventually erupt out of the top of his head and spill out into the starry sky overhead. 

The entire world at Black Rock revolves around the Burning Man in a very… Let me say something about ritual. You know, people talk about the need for ritual, and the need for community, and the need for all these things, but they often go about it in a very self-conscious way. 

We need a ritual culture. But the only problem is, ritual cultures work because in traditional societies they are completely taken for granted. They’re just part of being a human being. You do this because your ancestors did it, and your father did it, and your grandfather did it, and we do this because we’re human beings. 

The trouble with us, in the modern world, is that we have fewer and fewer inherited traditions that we can experience in this same unselfconscious way that traditional cultures do. And when you try self-consciously to create such a thing, it doesn’t work very well. I see people doing art events in which they allude to primitive culture. They paint themselves with mud. I saw a guy in a photo spread, it was an art event. They painted themselves with mud, except he was wearing a Rolex, which put the lie of the whole affair. The trouble is, when you go about such things self-consciously, it distances you from the experience in a way that just doesn’t work very well.

Richard Peterson: You mean when you’re trying to imitate somebody else’s culture that’s not your own?

Larry: You’re trying to imitate somebody else’s. Indeed, that’s very much like young children dressing up like their parents, and not believing, in the event, that they really are their parents. There’s a kind of a terrible threadbare quality about it. 

Originally the core ritual around the Man was the raising and the burning. That required that people act together, perform a cooperative action that had enormous expressive quality. But essentially we didn’t have to assign any meaning to it. It was very apparent that we were going to raise him. We all had to pull on a rope. And we did so for absolutely practical reasons. It was a very moving experience, but we didn’t consciously assign any meaning to it. We did it because it was fun. 

What we’ve done, as time has gone on, is evolve rituals. But always based on the immediate need to act for a practical reason, and I found that by doing that you can avoid this terrible self-consciousness. There are two methods we have come to employ in formulating ritual: work and play. 

If you get people working together, say if you’re helping somebody move, and a group of friends get together. Suddenly you’ve got five people working together in this very cooperative way. For the sake of a shared goal together. It can be a very meaningful experience. You know why you’re doing it, you don’t have to think about it. You’re working with others. You are all performing different roles in the process and defining yourself in relation to one another. Work, of that sort, has an element of ritual about it.

 When you can get people working, to perform a task, to work well, you have to forget about yourself. If you’re hammering a nail, you can’t think about the meaning of the nail, you can’t think about the trajectory of the hammer. What you have to do is concentrate on the nail. You just have to do it. You can’t think about it.

Richard: So you’re working to some objective, the objective becomes the cohesion of the group.

Larry: Yes. It avoids a self-conscious relationship to the act. We live in the most self-conscious society in the history of mankind. There are good things in that, but there are also terrible things. 

The worst of it is, that we find it hard to give ourselves to the cultural process. We’re always standing back and looking at it from the standpoint of our isolation from the ongoing spectacle. But when people work together the goal supplies a transcendent value that takes people out of themselves. That automatically orders them in relation to one another. You’ve made society from the experience of work. 

I remember a couple of fellows a few years ago, they were local ranch hands I think, and they watched dubiously for a while as we worked on what might have appeared to be a pagan idol. 

Finally they started asking a few questions: “What are you doing there?” and I said, “Well, we got to attach this there, it goes over this boom and it gives us some leverage, and you want to help? Would you grab that line?” “Yeah, sure.” And within moments they had been incorporated into our society. They had been assigned a role. They were a member of the greater whole. They shared our same goals. Through the simple act of helping out.

Richard: Then there’s some ownership of it , they’re a part of it.

Larry: Exactly. And indeed, that is one way you can constitute ritual and constitute culture without making people self-conscious. 

Another way we’ve evolved is play. If you think about it, play is very similar to ritual. The gameboard, the playground is a space set apart from the ordinary world that is governed by peculiar rules. 

There isn’t much difference in an Aborigine or a Shaman dancing the dance of some totemic animal, and thereby becoming that animal, and somehow mystically participating in it’s life, and a child playing at the same role. It involves the same suspension of disbelief. 

If you get people playing together they cease to ask what the experience means and they begin to simply do it for its own sake, for the sake of the delight. Once you get people playing together and working together they will surrender themselves to the experience in an uncritical way that opens their hearts, that makes them available to the act in much the same unselfconscious way that people in a traditional cultures perform their rituals without particularly thinking about them, but simply as a direct expression of what they are. Not even consciously as a way of affirming what they are, but as a direct expression of that. 

That really is how traditional culture works. They do it because that’s simply something they do that is an attribute of their humanity.

Richard: Do you design rituals, or do they just basically happen?

Larry: We do both. We encourage people to invent ritual, to invent games. Every year someone will devise some kind of performance art. You can call it performance art, you can call it ritual. I think performance art is basically an attempt to recreate ritual, for the most part, at least that’s the impulse behind it. 

Last year suddenly this giant hand appeared next to the Man with a mysterious circle in the center. Nobody knew what it meant. It got burned, I have no idea who did it. It was enormously expressive. 

Every year things get invented. If something delights everyone and there seems to be an instant consensus, if this was indeed an expressive and meaningful thing, whatever it might mean, as long as it strikes a chord, we tend to find out who did it, encourage them to continue, or adopt it and somehow incorporate it into the things we consciously plan from year to year. And by that means we acquire a measure of received tradition. We’re building a body of that. It’s all a result of spontaneous contributions on the part of people.

Richard: This is a growing tradition, I mean some of the traditions are kind of, have been fixed. You’re definitely in the realm of what is traditionally considered religion and that area, you’re on the same kind of ground.

Larry: We’re definitely on the same kind of ground.

Richard: Most religions don’t encourage the creation of a new ritual. (Laughter)

Larry: No they don’t.

Richard: It’s kind of like this is the way it is.

Larry: Well that’s distinctly what divides us from religion. Historically religions have pretty uniformly derived from some kind of primary mystic experience. The charismatic figure goes out in the desert, comes back with this wonderful visionary message for their fellows, and that vision then gets translated into a religious observance. We take people to the threshold of religion. 

Our aim is to induce immediate experience that is beyond the odd, beyond the strange, and beyond the weird. It verges on the wholly other. It contemplates a realm of profoundly irrational experience. I think that kind of experience is the fountainhead for all religions. 

Essentially what happens to religions is that a priestly class intrudes in the process and stations itself between the believers and the immediate, the overwhelming the unfathomable, the irrational the transcendental experience that inspired the religion in the first place. They become the keepers of the mystery. They place themselves between the communicants of the religion, and the immediate experience. And then they dictate the terms on which you can have contact with this wonderful mystery. 

We don’t dictate those terms. We create a mystery alright, and we encourage others to create a mystery. But we don’t propagate any doctrine; we don’t insist on any metaphysical interpretation. We just invite people to the experience itself. If you look at what we’re doing, it’s in the pattern of stone age ritual, you know. 

Using pretty slender means, we evoke something tantamount to a megalithic temple complex. It involves a pilgrimage to a remote place, an initiation. The focus of our whole ritual is sanctified in the sense that it’s removed entirely from the world. Put in a place profoundly apart from ordinary experience. The Black Rock Desert is about as far apart from ordinary experience as you could get. It involves meditation on an extraordinary object, which in its setting seems to be incomparable to anything else, to be almost not subject to the normal rules of our perception. It culminates at last in an act of sacrifice. It’s all done on a cosmic scale. This is plainly the stagecraft of religion. That’s what we practice.

Richard: But it sounds very much like you’re almost creating the environment for people to have what the Eastern religions experience of being in the moment, you’re creating an environment that that tends to, can happen.

Larry: Well ritual time, the sense of ritual time, tends to do that you know. When you’re in ritual time, it’s as if time didn’t form a line, but that it exfoliated out of an eternal moment. It flowered out from some central point. Ritual time is always the same time repeated again, and again, and again.

Richard: But maybe now that’s normal time, maybe the concept of linear time is a Western abstraction.

Larry: Oh I don’t know, I tend to live on linear time. I keep a datebook. You could maybe make the distinction that the world of our existence happens in linear time. The world of cause and effect, the conditional world happens in linear time. That’s how we lead our lives, that’s what we believe. 

But there is another kind of time, I think, there’s sacred time. Ritual time isn’t linear. Everything does happen in one moment, in one sense I suppose. Things that happen to me happen in linear time. I stepped off the curb, and a car came along and hit me: that happened in linear time. But I think our most basic sense of being real in an immediate way doesn’t have much to do with linear time. 

When I act, I always define myself as acting in the immediate moment, that’s where “I” occurs. “Me” doesn’t occur there. Me occurs on a line. I think that our most immediate sense of being happens in a kind of sacred time. I do this, I think this. It always involves this sense of being that suddenly connects with the world. “I” is always an immediate experience.

Richard: Well a couple of areas that we’ve talked about before a little bit that I’m interested in, is this whole sense of forming of community and the Burning Man as an incubator of community, an experiment of community.

Larry: Well it seems to me, that all real communities grow out of a shared confrontation with survival. Communities are not produced by sentiment or mere goodwill. They grow out of a shared struggle. Our situation in the desert is an incubator for community.

Richard: Do you find any other moral values to this experience?

Larry: I have the feeling that all the evil in the world is produced when people are not allowed to be what they are. The Black Rock experience allows people to spontaneously manifest their being. I think evil is produced when people aren’t allowed to do this. 

I think it begins in childhood. A child says, “Look at me dad, look at me”. They’re not asking you to critique their action. They’re asking for a simple act of witness. They simply want to have what they’re feeling, what they are, confirmed by your gaze, in the immediate moment, “look at me now!” And you better look at them if you want to gratify their wish. 

Untold amounts of evil are produced when children say “look at me now” and the adult looks away, refuses to respond. Or says, “Oh you’re not doing that right.” All the child is asking is that you witness its being, is that you confirm for it that it’s real, that what is coming out of it is valid and real in the immediate moment of its expression. If you refuse to give children that kind of attention it cripples their souls. 

We’ve created an enormous playground out there where everyone is invited to be. There can be no greater suffering, no greater pain than want of being. It mars the soul. Black Rock gives us all a chance to heal, to become ourselves.

(Top photo by Kari Vredevoogd)

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Burning Man Project

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2 Comments on “From the Archives: Larry Harvey — About Ritual, Community and Burning Man

  • Sandra says:

    I think saying that he walked on water is going a bit too far. There is no proof that this actually happened. I will accept that he was a virgin birth because that does happen. But walking on water is a myth. Please keep it real.

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  • Ersatz Booster says:

    Wonderful interview-
    Interestingly, I donated $ to support the new Larry film debut, and the Vimeo livestream stopped 17 minutes in. Ugly technical difficulties…not an auspicious beginning for the fledgling “Kindling subsidiary” of the Burning Man Project Corporation. Keep em’ coming BMORG, we need many more subgroups, hundreds of special projects, and more intense and costly global outreach. Oh, and putting aside a little cash for BRC would be a nice afterthought while you’re at it. How about a twelfth principal; Radical Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability.
    I’m a huge fan of Larry Harvey and I have to believe that he’d be rolling over in his celestial dust home to think of how the good will of the BRC citizenry is being so blatantly manipulated and squandered.
    Sorry Larry.
    May your memory be a blessing, and may your legacy be untainted by the arrogant interlopers who now use your name to built some kind of empire while neglecting the real concerns of good-hearted BRC participants.

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