Larry Harvey, the Man Behind Burning Man, Is Dead at 70

The New York Times/April 28, 2018

Larry Harvey, the guru-like driving force behind Burning Man, the globally celebrated anti-establishment, anti-consumerist festival that he and a friend began 32 years ago on a San Francisco beach, died on Saturday at a hospital in San Francisco. He was 70.

His death was announced on the Burning Man website. Mr. Harvey had a stroke on April 4.

Burning Man is now a revered weeklong annual event that takes place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, north of Reno, but there is no firm consensus on whether it is a spiritual retreat, performance art, a music festival, a construction project or just an excuse to party in the middle of scorching heat and dust storms.

New York Times writers have described it as, or compared it to, a “weeklong cyberhippie carnival,” a “fringe culturefest,” “a hallucinogenic state fair,” “a full-scale countercultural declaration of independence,” “the internet made flesh” and “the Whitney Biennial reimagined as a rave party.”

Last year’s celebration drew roughly 70,000 participants, who were free to bring or build their own arts projects, perform their own music, dress any way they liked (participants in “drag races” run on foot, dressed in drag) or go nude — and dance and chant “Burn the man” during the big finale. That’s when a skeletal five-story-tall wood and neon man-shaped statue, stuffed with fireworks, is set ablaze.

Burning Man is run by Burning Man Project, a nonprofit organization that has an annual operating budget of about $30 million, according to the website. At his death, Mr. Harvey’s title was board president and chief philosophic officer.

The festival’s 10 official principles, written by Mr. Harvey, include civic responsibility, communal effort, gifting and immediacy. But the one cited most often is radical self-expression.

Early on, the event became popular with the digital subculture, lending credence to the belief that primitivism — even ironic primitivism — and great technological leaps make happy bedfellows. Mr. Harvey saw a connection.

“Both Burning Man and the internet make it possible to regather the tribe of mankind,” he told The Times in 1997. He also saw a “deep parallel between desert and cyberspace.”

The festival’s so-called gift economy is central to the experience. There may be whiskey bars and sandwich shops at Burning Man, but everything is free. Burners, as the participants call themselves, offer their products and services as gifts. (The only things for sale, by the organizers, are coffee and ice.) No one is allowed to display a corporate logo or even wear one on a T-shirt.

Mr. Harvey preferred to call the system a “gift culture,” because visitors spend plenty of money ahead of time on the supplies they bring. But he believed even a temporary experience with that culture was worthwhile — to counter economic norms.

“If all your self-worth and esteem is invested in how much you consume, how many likes you get or other quantifiable measures,” he told The Atlantic in 2014, “the desire to simply possess things trumps our ability or capability to make moral connections with people around us.”

Mr. Harvey was born on Jan. 11, 1948, and adopted as an infant by Author Harvey and the former Katherine Langford. His parents were farmers near Portland, Ore., and his father also worked as a carpenter. In an article that Mr. Harvey wrote for the British newspaper The Independent in 2014, he said that he and his brother, Stewart, who was also adopted, “felt like exchange students: Everyone treated us well, but we didn’t quite fit.”

Rural life did not suit him, and his parents were not exactly spiritual adventurers. “The heart can really expire under those conditions,” Mr. Harvey told Inc. magazine in 2012. “I always felt like I was looking at the world from the outside.”

He escaped by serving in the Army. He gave college (Portland State University) a try, with the help of the G.I. Bill, but was disillusioned by what he saw as his professors’ small-mindedness.

He and a girlfriend, Janet Lohr, now a Burning Man executive, moved to San Francisco in the 1970s, and he took jobs as a bike messenger, a taxi driver, a cook and eventually a landscape gardener. He made friends with artists who were making a living as blue-collar workers.

The first Burning Man, held at Baker Beach (famous for its Golden Gate Bridge views and nude-sunbathing section), was a cozy affair hosted by Mr. Harvey and a friend, Jerry James. It consisted of burning a scrap-lumber statue of an eight-foot-tall man and was attended by fewer than a dozen people — including Mr. Harvey’s son, Tristan, who was 5 — although a crowd soon gathered to watch. It was a summer solstice celebration; Mr. Harvey sometimes said it also commemorated a romantic breakup.

Mr. Harvey was married once, briefly, to Patricia Johnson, and he raised their son, Tristan, who survives him, as a single father. He is also survived by his brother, Stewart.

Mr. Harvey remained fully involved with his creation until his stroke, supervising design decisions and choosing this year’s theme, “I, Robot.”

The 2018 festival, scheduled for Aug. 26-Sept. 3, will go on, the organization said in a statement: “If there’s one thing we know for sure, Larry wants us to burn the man.”

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