It’s a tough market these days, so the world’s canniest investors are turning to new sources of wisdom. Not Black Rock, the world’s largest asset manager with $4.7 trillion… but the Black Rock Desert, with Mr All Teeth-No Hat himself, Larry Harvey. I heard about this story last night from a banker in Dubai.
So, when Burning Man is being discussed in a paper literally dedicated to trade in commodities – have we reached Commodification yet?
Some might consider Larry a surprising choice to be dispensing wisdom to FT readers. He recently gave his $40 million company away after 30 years, but not before he spent millions of dollars on accountants and lawyers valuing it. They got 2 separate valuations, and then chose to price it at the lower one. Perhaps they were Satanically pranking themselves.
Still, when it comes to eating Shrimp Louis and waxing poetical, Larry’s there to please. Read the whole interview at FT, I want to comment on a couple of things of particular interest to Burners.
[John’s Grill’s] 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.”...
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…Harvey says, “I don’t drink much alcohol” but encourages me to “have a drink or two. You might write a more sympathetic story.” …He asks me about Brexit…
“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.”
So much for the Mainstream Republican Values of Burning Man. And indeed, the Progressive Left values of the many Sanders supporters I know amongst the Burner community.
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.”…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…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.”
See, I always thought I was living in a community when I was at Burning Man. I didn’t realize that the important thing was everybody circling around this Central Intelligence Axis, summoning a supercharged entity from the chaos. It’s a very binary thing: you can go clockwise, or counter-clockwise. Go with the flow, or stop and it will wash over you. Of course, that’s not supernatural or anything. Burning an effigy in a pentagram, after lighting it from a cauldron called The Devil, burning a Temple, nothing to do with anything supernatural.
I’m not sure that “for God’s sake” is the best phrase to use when asserting one’s atheism.
Here’s what Burning Man was like when I first went. I think many of us old school Burners still see Burning Man this way.
Maybe Larry’s going to FT seeking some new
suckers financial heavyweights to chip in for the next phase of their real estate ambitions:
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”.
Retirement villages in the desert? Will there be beachfront property on this playa? I am ROFLing at the thought that nobody from Google gets tickets from BMOrg. Numb your own brain.
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…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.”
We heard last December that Burning Man was going to turn over a new leaf in environmental sustainability. I’m still waiting to see what this actually means. They got a donation from Solar City?
Projects like this suggest we are heading in the opposite direction from sustainability and Decommodification:
Is this art, spreading the ideals of the community to make the world a better place? Or just a fancy way to get your signage on TV?
How will this help when the shit hits the fan and civilization collapses? We will all live in converted 747s?
Not to worry, though. Time and space dance to Larry’s tune:
Read the full story at the Financial Times