Q&A: Secrets of Burning Man revealed

As an expected 70,000 people descend on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the cultural phenomenon known as Burning Man, The Sacramento Bee was afforded a rare extended conversation with the event’s co-founder, Larry Harvey. For those not in the know, Burning Man, which starts today, is a weeklong arts, music and cultural experience held annually two hours northeast of Reno. It’s grown from being a no-rules “smoke ’em if you got ’em” event for Harvey and his friends into a global event that attracts corporate titans and hippies alike, with spinoff events from Israel to Japan.

What’s the deal with the 10 Principles of Burning Man?

When we held the first event on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986, we didn’t have the 10 principles. We wrote them in 2004 as an expression of the culture we had already created largely to help guide spinoff events. They should be taken together and not in exclusion. For instance, “Radical Self-Reliance” suggests we should prepare as individuals for the harsh desert environment, but it is balanced by “Communal Effort,” which tells us we can build larger art projects and experiences by pooling resources.

What’s the deal with all the weirdos?

While many people still conjure up an image of dusty hippie dropouts when they think of Burning Man, it’s a much broader, educated collection of weirdos. Radical Self-Expression is one of the principles. One of the ways that manifests itself is through costumes, so that just might be a dot-com millionaire dressed up like a bumblebee.

Some people guffawed over anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s tweeting that he’s coming to Burning Man, with Vanity Fair going so far as to proclaim that’s the day Burning Man died. What attracts libertarian s to Burning Man?

Libertarians love the idea of self-reliance. I suspect he sees the event through his ideas. We have few rules at Burning Man, but we do have some.

It used have to fewer rules. What changed?

It simply got too big to have people shooting guns and driving as fast as they want wherever they want. In 1996, we made the turn from being an event into being a city. You have the right to hurt yourself, but you don’t have the right to hurt other people.

Do people test the culture and the principles?

Sure. One year, we had a group come camp with us who set out to prove we’re phony. The group’s leader decided their art project was to aggressively insult people with a megaphone. This went on for hours until our staff had to protect them from their neighbors. He went on to make sexually suggestive statements to a man and his young daughter about what he’d do with the girl. At that point, we ejected him. His art could in no way be considered a gift unto others. He was convinced he won, but “Radical Self-Expression” has limits.

Harvey, who said the first gathering was more or less done on a whim, is surprised at the event’s longevity

“That seems to violate the laws of pop culture,” he said. “We should have been over after four years.”

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