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Building Burning Man
The Official Journal of the Burning Man Project - Summer 1997 Newsletter

Promised Land
An Interview with Larry Harvey

Darryl Van Rhey: Burning Man is moving to a new location. How will it be different?

Larry Harvey: Our community will have a defining perimeter. We are moving from the illimitable space of the Black Rock Desert to terra firma. This place has the permanency of real land. Until now we have floated in nothing.

DVR: But wasn't that its charm — the feeling that it had no context, that everything was somehow generated by us, magically the result of our presence alone?

LH: It will still be largely like that. Hualapai is wide and flat and empty. If, for instance, you dropped our central camp, the core of last year's settlement, onto our new site, it would be like placing a nickel on a dollar bill. There is plenty of room. We're camping on a huge plain. Yet, in a way, you're right; it's not so absolutely empty as before — but I welcome this change. Black Rock drew us together, made us huddle in a profoundly inhuman environment. It was, I've always said, like outer space, and this experience made us intensely aware of one another. All that "nothing" forged a primal bond between us. Yet now, having grown more conscious of ourselves as a community, it's time to assume more responsibility for what we are — and our new home will make this possible. We're like a baby, really, that takes its first steps. The beach where we began was like a nursery. Think of Black Rock as a sort of kindergarten. If we haven't learned the moral lessons that it had to teach us, what's the point? We'd reached an order of magnitude that requires more cooperation. The liberty to do anything had begun to infringe upon the freedom that had drawn us to the desert in the first place. Liberty is something you enjoy alone, but freedom is a state that's shared with others.

DVR: How will the new site promote community?

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LH: First, it will make the environment safer and, at the same time, more accessible. Last year it was possible to live in Black Rock City, yet never really see the virgin desert if you traveled on foot. We were swamped in our own suburbs. Even if you did walk through that open space at night you ran the risk of being run down by a car. There were too many people in an unmarked trackless environment driving too many motorized vehicles. It actually restricted our freedom. This year we'll camp on the shore of a playa and leave the pristine desert clear of everything but art. There'll be incentives not to use a car at all. The playa and a large part of our campground will be reserved for hiking. Everything will exist at a pedestrian scale. This playa, in a way, will seem larger and our experience of Nature more immediate. Our camp will also be on private land, and that's another huge change. We will acquire sovereign boundaries. We'll be protected by natural barriers on three sides, an impassable trench seals off the fourth — we're completely enclosed.

DVR: I understand that more than a third of all attendees have evaded your gate. Will this prevent people from sneaking in?

LH: You bet it will. Everyone must now contribute economically. The mountains there are majestic — more present than those at Black Rock — and the hot springs are almost beyond description. But when I saw that trench, it seemed like Zion and the Grand Canyon combined. It will make a huge difference. Now everyone must pay — a thing that we could neither demand nor enforce on public land. It could spell our salvation. But, even more fundamentally, it means we now have a skin.

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DVR: What do you mean by a "skin?"

LH: Every community has one — some sort of semi-permeable membrane that protects it and preserves the integrity of its process. This is another lesson we've learned.

DVR: Does that mean you want to exclude certain people?

LH: No, not specifically. Burning Man is radically inclusive and always will be. It does mean, however, that we need to be selectively inclusive. To exclude anyone on the basis of a prejudicial preconception is invidious and wrong. Burning Man is about whatever we have primally in common, but we do need to discriminate in a positive way. We need to select for a higher level of commitment. Now we can insure that anyone who comes to Burning Man is ready to contribute. Now we can educate newcomers. The growing presence of casual tourists in cars was becoming disruptive. It's not that these people are bad or belong to some evil group. It's that they haven't any context for their experience. It's much too easy for them to see the event as mere spectacle, but Burning Man isn't something you can experience passively.

Larry Harvey is the founder and director of the Burning Man Project.
Darryl Van Rhey is a free-lance writer living in San Francisco. Mr. Van Rhey also authored "Burning Man: A Post-Modern Mystery".