Over Shrimp Louis, the festival’s ‘chief philosophic officer’ talks about ‘radical self-reliance’, conservative values and why a ‘sudden change’ is on the way
Half a block away from the downtown cable-car stop, John’s Grill is a self-styled San Francisco institution. Founded in 1908, it trades heavily on its brief appearance in Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 detective story The Maltese Falcon as the place where grizzled private eye Sam Spade ordered chops and smoked a cigarette.
Its wood-panelled walls are lined with photographs of famous diners, from Alfred Hitchcock to Steve Jobs. It has survived the 1960s counterculture revolution, half a dozen earthquakes and several cycles of tech industry boom and bust. So too has another San Francisco institution, Larry Harvey. “Well, this is an old-line place, isn’t it?” he says, as I greet him at the back of the restaurant. “It smells like leather and old men.”
In 1986, Harvey and friends gathered around a burning wooden figure during a spontaneous party on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. It’s still a spot where Instagram-perfect views of the Golden Gate Bridge get photobombed by ageing nudists, but that cosy gathering has turned into Burning Man, one of the biggest, wildest arts festivals — from top-name DJs to classes in oral sex techniques.
At the end of this month, more than 70,000 people will come together in the Nevada desert to create the ephemeral, cashless Black Rock City. Without water or electricity on site, each must bring enough food, water and shelter to survive, as well as whatever artistry, goods and skills they can offer as gifts to others — all without a dollar changing hands.
Now 68, Harvey is Burning Man’s director and “chief philosophic officer”, whose tasks include setting the annual art theme (this time it is “Da Vinci’s Workshop”). He is also the author of its 10 “principles”, which include “radical inclusion” and “decommodification”.
Alongside artists, ravers and hedonists, Black Rock City has become a particular draw for the arch capitalists of Silicon Valley. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are veterans, while Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg handed out grilled cheese sandwiches a couple of years ago. Elon Musk came up with the idea for Solar City, the renewable energy company he chairs, on the road to Black Rock City in 2004.
Every year brings a fresh outpouring of concern that rich geeks will somehow undermine the festival’s radical spirit. But Harvey is eager to point out that tech folks have been coming along since the last dotcom boom and bust — and that people have predicted the demise of Burning Man for even longer.
While some of my friends and professional contacts are “Burners”, I have never made it out to the desert myself. The combination of dust, drugs and “radical self-reliance” (another principle) still scares me a little. Fortunately, Harvey doesn’t ask whether I’m going to Burning Man this year until moments before we part, almost three hours after we sit down in a corner booth. Placing his water bottle between us and with his embroidered black shirt pockets stuffed with cigarettes, notebook and spectacles, he has aged like a Rolling Stone.
John’s Grill was a regular lunch spot when the Burning Man offices were just around the corner on Market Street — “Until we got forced out by rising rent” three years ago, he says, another familiar phenomenon as tech companies have migrated a few miles north from Silicon Valley to the city in recent years. “It was just pouring down Market Street, you can feel it like fog,” he says.
Despite founding a sellout event with annual revenues in excess of $ 30m (tickets cost $ 400 apiece), Harvey insists that he and his five co-founders have not become “multimillionaires”. Two years ago, they transferred ownership of Burning Man to a non-profit organisation in exchange for an undisclosed payout that he will only say is some way less than $ 1m. The foundation’s tax filings show Harvey’s annual salary to be $ 197,000. He still rents his apartment on Alamo Square, a hilltop park whose downtown views, fronted by the Victorian “painted ladies” houses, are often found on the cover of San Francisco guidebooks.
“If it ever got rid of rent control, this city could kiss its soul goodbye,” he says, referring to a city rule that stops landlords raising rents more than 1.6 per cent a year in older properties. Burning Man was conceived in a “bohemian” environment of “promiscuous creativity”, he says. “It couldn’t happen today.”
A waiter approaches. Harvey has not looked at the menu but orders Bay Shrimp Louis, a salad. Beneath a photograph of Dashiell Hammett, looking down at us from the side of the booth, I ask for the Sam Spade lamb chops.
Harvey says, “I don’t drink much alcohol” but encourages me to “have a drink or two. You might write a more sympathetic story.” I pass, saying I am still jet-lagged after returning from London two days earlier. He asks me about Brexit — the first event in British politics that any Californian has asked me about since I moved here four years ago.
“It’s not unlike what’s happening here,” he says. “Fortunately it looks as if the republic isn’t ready to be ruled by a narcissistic celebrity.” A “life-long Democrat”, Harvey is confident that Hillary Clinton is going to sweep Donald Trump to a “historic defeat”. “It’s worked out so beautifully. Bernie [Sanders] pushed her to the left significantly.”
Our food arrives swiftly, with a hunk of sourdough bread. A soft pile of prawns and a pot of dressing sit atop a bushy salad. My four lamb chops are joined by a baked potato, sliced tomato and soggy courgette. “This is old school,” he comments, eyeing my stodgy meal.
We don’t care what Burners believe,’ says Harvey. ‘We care about their experience . . . We’re all about emergent behaviour
– Larry Harvey
I ask if he feels, after 30 years, that Burning Man’s ideals are starting to be felt beyond the desert. “I’d like to mischievously quote Milton Friedman,” he says, invoking the rightwing economist. “He said change only happens in a crisis, and then that actions that are undertaken depend on the ideas that are just lying around.” With the “discontents of globalisation” set to continue, he predicts that crisis will hit by the middle of this century. “I think there really is a chance for sudden change.” However, I struggle to pin him down on exactly which Burners’ ideas he hopes will be “lying around” when it does.
Most Burners are fond of recalling tall tales of fake-fur-clad excess, elaborately customised “art cars” and monster sound systems. This year’s art installations include a 50-ft “space whale”, the head and hands of a giant man appearing to rise from the sand, and part of a converted Boeing 747 that its new owners say is now a “mover of dreams”. Harvey likes to survey the art — and the rest of his creation — from a high platform close to the centre of the event at First Camp, the founders’ HQ. But instead of recounting hedonistic tales, he is much more eager to talk about organisational details, such as Black Rock City’s circular layout, “sort of like a neolithic temple”.
Indeed, Harvey insists he has a “conservative sensibility” and is “not a big fan of revolution”. “Do I sound like a hippie? I’m not!” And he bristles at being called anti-capitalist, although he hung out with the hippies on Haight Street in 1968. “I was there in the spring, autumn and winter of love, but I missed the summer,” he says, due to being drafted into the US army. “It was apparent to me that it was all based on what Tom Wolfe called ‘cheques from home’. The other source that shored it up was selling dope. I thought, that isn’t sustainable.”
Harvey first hitchhiked to San Francisco as a teenager after growing up a misfit dreamer in rural Oregon. Having dropped out of college, he worked as a landscape gardener, among other odd jobs. He was briefly married in the 1980s, producing a son, before the event became his full-time role.
From its footloose origins, Burning Man has become serious business. A few years ago the other Larry, the Google co-founder, invoked Burning Man in a conference keynote, saying he longed for a permanent place “where people can try new things . . . without having to deploy it to the whole world.” (It was in Black Rock City that he and Brin, who are said to dress up in silver onesies there, hired Eric Schmidt to become the company’s “adult supervision” as chief executive.)
Many others in Silicon Valley have followed in their footsteps. Some longstanding Burners resent the emergence of “plug and play camps”, where the rich can pay as much as $ 20,000 to show up and drop out, without putting in the weeks of preparation that most attendees do. Friends of mine who run a camp often take a week off before they drive to the desert, cooking food and stacking a rented truck full of supplies. With everyone urged to contribute something, many artists have been working on their sculptures for months.
However, Harvey himself is unperturbed by the growing presence of tech billionaires at Burning Man, describing them as “our cousins and neighbours”. It is “ludicrous” to say that money — which is banned from the festival other than to pay for ice and coffee from the Center Camp Cafe — is evil. “We’re not the Occupy movement,” he says, gesturing with half a hard-boiled egg that he has been holding for several minutes. “Civilisation and commerce have always gone hand-in-hand. We’re an international city, for God’s sake. You don’t whistle that up out of nothing.”
This pragmatic idealism was handed down by his adoptive parents, “dustbowlers” who moved from Nebraska to the West Coast, just outside Portland. “They had Victorian values, a very strong moral compass, and very down-to-earth notions,” he recalls, a worldview that survived the Haight. Progress comes from “struggle, shared with others, towards some common goal,” he says. “It doesn’t come from love per se.”
Harvey is an atheist and declares himself allergic to the supernatural. Sometimes he even seems harsh in his criticism of causes I had traditionally associated with Burners.
“The pursuit of comfort has made us more insecure. Have you noticed what’s happening with student politics now?” he asks. “It’s all about feeling more secure, it’s all hugging one another and receding into cuddle puddles.” Cuddle puddles? I repeat the phrase back at him, recalling the controversy he caused last year by saying he didn’t think “black folks like to camp as much as white folks”, but he does not explain the term (which seems to mean a group hug).
“I might lose some fans by saying that,” he adds. “I’m not saying they don’t have issues — they do. Black lives do indeed matter, that’s a good thing. But I think our consumer society has changed us in ways that most people find hard to confront or even recognise.”
Despite spending the last half-hour holding forth on politics, Harvey has always resisted ascribing any particular meaning to the giant wooden man that is burnt at the end. “We don’t have ideology. We have ideas,” he says. “We don’t care what [Burners] believe, we care about what’s their experience . . . We’re all about emergent behaviour.”
At the festival, the burning of the man brings everyone together in a moment of catharsis. “They witness themselves, and they too feel real and themselves, this supercharged entity and yearning, because they’ve been circling around the centre in this chaotic whirl for days,” Harvey says. “Everyone feels like they’re one with everyone else . . . That’s called transcendence.”
Burning Man moved from beach to desert when the authorities clamped down in 1990. But the Black Rock desert provided more than just an escape from oversight. Each year, the event gets bigger, prompting many Burners to wonder — or fret — just how big it can get. Harvey says he is “looking at the possibility” of steadily increasing attendance to 100,000 (that would still leave it smaller than Glastonbury).
Harvey is still picking his way slowly through his salad, an hour after it arrived. It takes me a long time to get Harvey to address why the festival that puts “leaving no trace” among its core values is using donations to buy a permanent home on a Nevada ranch earlier this year — not least when its founder also bemoans the “imperial sway” of private property. Several tech entrepreneurs — including a founder of Airbnb and a venture capitalist who backed Twitter and Snapchat — donated $ 6m to Burning Man so it could buy Fly Ranch, a 3,800-acre property.
Some donors asked to remain anonymous; Harvey acknowledges (but does not deny) speculation that they might include the Google boys, who have been spotted hanging out at First Camp, or Elon Musk. But he insists that they have been promised “nothing” in return — “not a role in governance, not tickets . . . It’s a gift.”
With a “no-hustle” fundraising model established, Fly Ranch is not the limit of Harvey’s ambitions: the group is now eyeing the adjacent Hualapai Flat, a playa not unlike Black Rock’s, which Harvey says is on the Department of the Interior’s list of “disposable properties”. “We’ll be first in line to bid for that.”
While he insists there is no set business plan, Harvey envisions Fly Ranch to be an “auxiliary space” — the “minor key” to the “major key” of the big burn, which, he concedes, can be a “brain-numbing and eardrum-abusing experience”.
The waiter, who has been trying to remove our plates for the best part of an hour, finally delivers the bill. It seems both modest and somewhat steep for just two plates. “It was fine — I’ve always ordered the Shrimp Louis,” Harvey says.
We go outside, where sunshine has broken through the breezy clouds of San Francisco’s “Fogust”. “It’s a really beautiful day,” Harvey says as he pulls a cigarette from one shirt pocket and an outsized pair of Porsche Design aviator sunglasses from the other. He is without his trademark cowboy hat but suddenly I can picture him on his platform in First Camp, staring out across the playa.
Then, he punctures my imagination again by declaring that he is heading for the Nike store to buy sneakers, after his girlfriend bought him a pair, and some sheets for a “new luxurious queen bed” in the Airstream trailer he has recently bought for the festival.
“The best things in life are free,” he says, invoking Coco Chanel, “and the second-best things cost a lot of money.”
Discussing Trump, prohibition and sniffer dogs, it takes us almost half an hour to amble the third of a mile from John’s Grill to the north-east corner of Union Square — home to Nike, Apple and Burberry stores.
I leave the anti-hippie bohemian outside these palaces of consumption. “The trailer is going to be great!” he grins. “That and my shoes, those are the highlights of my day. You feel like you could bound about like a springbok!”
Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent
Illustration by James Ferguson
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