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Burning Man Journal
All the news thats fit to burn.
The Official Journal of the Burning Man Project - Summer 2000 Newsletter

The Meaning of Participation
An Interview with Larry Harvey

Darryl Van Rhey: You use the term "radical self-expression." What is radical self-expression and what makes it so radical?

Larry Harvey: Self-expression might be anything. We don't dictate that. What we do ask, however, is that participants commune with themselves, that they regard their own reality, that essential inner portion of experience that makes them feel real, as if it were a vision. I like to say that visions aren't defined by light which falls upon them, but that they shine forth with their own light - they radiate outward, they illumine the world, they redefine reality. No one can say what that vision might be. We just ask people to invent some way of sharing it with others. Over the years, of course, our community has evolved certain ways of doing this. You can make a work of art, or create a theme camp, or wear a costume, or decorate your camp site. But, opportunities aren't limited to these, nor are they necessarily exhibitionistic. Some people make and give gifts to their neighbors, or assume a role in the community that helps our city function. They do public service and become lamplighters, or rangers, or greeters, or join the DPW. Ideally, participation is a blend of both
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impulses - something that takes you beyond yourself, that engages others, but also expresses what you essentially are. What makes all this so radical is its immediacy. We're asking folks to take what is most private and uniquely personal in their experience and contribute it to a public environment. We're saying, "Black Rock City is you!"

DVR: Doesn't this reverse the normal process of socialization?

LH: Yes, in some ways. Normally we're surrounded by circumstances that dictate to us what we are. We have to fit in, to pour ourselves into some pre-existent mold. Often these conventions pinch and hamper us. How could any convention accommodate all that's unique and spontaneous in a human being? But, the pressure to conform to these external standards is ever-present in any society. In fact, I see it in our own.

DVR: How do you mean?

LH: I see increasing pressure to conform to a "participant lifestyle." I'll give you an example. Last year, there was a fellow who invested hundreds of hours creating a theme camp, but he dressed conventionally - as I do, in fact. When he walked down his street he was harassed by some people at another camp for not "participating." Apparently, they thought he should be wearing a costume. Likewise, photographers are sometimes harassed. And not necessarily because they're being intrusive or violating someone's personal boundaries, but simply because the use of a camera indicates to somebody that they're a spectator. Sometimes I wish we'd never promoted the phrase "No Spectators." Who are these people to say that these individuals aren't participating? The fruit of a photographer's work doesn't appear until after the event when they produce images. They're engaged in a creative pastime, it just isn't immediately apparent. It seems to me an idea has grown up that there is a certain image that participants are supposed to affect. They must wear wacky clothes or engage in some sort of extrovert performance - maybe even drink some sort of cool designer beer that indicates they're hip to an in-crowd lifestyle - but these are superficial standards. Burning Man isn't about self-consciously projecting some sort of participant image in order to gain social acceptance. It is a place to do and be, and no cheap signboard is a substitute for that. The person who sits scribbling in a corner may be writing a book about Burning Man that will revolutionize how we look at ourselves, but how could you possibly know that unless you interacted with her? To my way of thinking, a "lifestyle" is simply a commodified version of a way of life. It substitutes things and appearances for spiritual experience. In a way, it's the very opposite of radical self-expression. Radical self-expression concentrates on giving gifts and inviting others to play, not some intolerant form of censorship.

DVR: What about all those blank RV's in Black Rock City? Surely they don't contribute to an interactive environment? Last year you could walk along entire blocks and be faced by all of these anonymous private domiciles. It felt like tract housing. There was nothing expressive about it. It contributed nothing to the city. It produced a massive visual impact.

LH: I agree. This goes for other campsites, too, but it's particularly noticeable with these large blank-sided vehicles. Maybe even worse are trucks emblazoned with commercial logos. They disproportionately affect the public environment. There's no denying this. Many of these folks are newcomers, of course, and they haven't thought this through. Black Rock City is created by participants. The housing everyone constructs creates a civic tissue that embodies public space. I think when someone brings a large vehicle to the event they really do assume a special duty in relation to their fellow citizens.
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These vehicles should be decorated and accessorized in a creative way. We're urging anyone with a truck or RV to do that this year. But, I don't believe that hostility or censorship is a right response. Instead, go to your neighbor and offer to help them. Bring something they could use to make that RV interesting!

DVR: Here's another issue. Last year Burning Man evicted a group of people who were using a bullhorn to shout abusive sentiments at their neighbors. Weren't they simply expressing themselves in a radical way?

LH: We use self-expression to create a sense of community. These folks were verbally assaulting other people. It's not enough to simply express yourself. That expression should take the form of a gift. It is meant to be shared. These people were intentionally imposing their behavior on others. They sexually harassed a little girl and defaced other people's art. That's the opposite of a gift. Likewise, we know that some people try to burn other people's art without their permission, but only the creator of a work should have the right to burn it.This year we're asking everyone to tell others this isn't appropriate. We've never condoned transgressive behavior. If you feel angry, then give that anger a creative form. Sublimate it, share it, let others in. That's what participation means.

DVR: What about techno music? There certainly seems to be a lot of it in Black Rock City. Do you consider it intrusive?

LH: Well, I see you've saved the hardest question for the last. Listen, last year an interesting thing happened. As people moved through our Greeter station, we told them that the quiet side of town was to the right. In many cases, we didn't have to tell them. They knew and they cared. After a couple of days we noticed that end filling up. We finally had to request that people go left. It began to seem like a bunch of roommates huddled at one end of an apartment because somebody wouldn't turn down their stereo.

DVR: They didn't like techno music?

LH: I've no idea what their musical tastes might have been. A lot of people like techno. But I think it's safe to say that a whole lot of people didn't like really loud sound as a fixed part of their lives, especially an incessant bass going thud thud thud until dawn. It's not about music. It's about sound. Sound is a peculiar thing. Unlike other forms of expression, it can affect other people in a very intimate way over long distances.

DVR: What if it's turned down?

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LH: You are naive. A certain kind of loudness is a part of the aesthetic. It's meant to penetrate your body. People bathe in the sound. Asking folks to turn it down is sort of a non-sequitur. This year we plan to restrict large-scale amplified sound of this kind to a very limited area. Installations of this kind must register ahead of time (see "Large Scale Sound Art" in the Community Notes Section of this Journal.) People can go there and enjoy it, but there will be less of it. I have seen 6 or 8 people gathered in front of speakers the size of Volkswagens. But why should the enjoyment of 6 people afflict 600 others? Sound at such levels can travel forever in the desert, regardless of how you insulate it or how you orient your speakers. We recommend earplugs at the event. That and a very broad tolerance for other people's tastes. But even earplugs won't avail against that bass. You know, throughout the past year there have been more articles about Burning Man in techno magazines than in any other type of publication. Pieces have appeared in Asia, in Britain, and Europe, and they are typically low context. They leave the very real impression that Burning Man is an enormous rave. We need to tell them that this isn't true. They're welcome, of course, but they should leave their equipment at home. We don't consider it appropriate technology.

Larry Harvey is the founder and director of Burning Man.
Darryl Van Rhey is a freelance writer residing in Bolinas, California.