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1998 WINTER NEWSLETTER

Burning Man Journal
All The News That's Fit To Burn: 1998 Winter Newsletter

The Media and Immediacy
An Interview with Larry Harvey
By Darryl Van Rhey

Darryl Van Rhey: Many who have come to Burning Man have voiced complaints about the media. Some say the presence of cameras and reporters intrudes upon immediate experience. What is your response?

LH: I meet a lot of reporters, which is part of my job, and so the media does not appear to me to be a faceless monolith. I think that perception sometimes warps people's reasoning. You might say I've had a more immediate experience of the media, and I've met very few journalists who are ogres. We did encounter one television crew back in 1995 that was remarkably clueless. They plastered a general release statement - perhaps the world's largest - on our gate trailer, then proceeded to rush around yelling. "Camera coming through! Camera coming through!" at people. We declared a media alert on our radio station and it generated a communiy response. People fashioned wooden cameras and began to follow them around. Someone finally wrote "Eat The Rich" on their Winnebago and they left - but that was before we learned to deal with this proactively.

DVR: What exactly have you learned?


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LH: I've learned that journalists are paid to be curious - and that is where their problems begin. You see, they're always on a deadline. They're asked to go out and find a story, but there is never enough time to tell it. I sometimes tell reporters what Henry James said about periodicals. He said that magazines are like a railroad that must always run on time. There are never enough paying passengers, and yet the rules state that each train car must be filled - so they stuff the seats with mannequins. That way no one notices the train's half empty as it rushes down the track.

DVR: That's one of those professional ironies, isn't it? One may enter a profession out of love of that activity, but then, of course, you're working for others who may not care about it in that ideal sense. That's why they hired someone else to do it.

LH: Yeah, means and ends get separated. Journalists as a class of people are interested and interesting, but they are seldom able to fulfill themselves. They're expected to turn out product on a deadline - which can murder curiosity. Last year we tailored an approach to people in the media designed to solve this problem.

DVR: What did you do?

LH: They would call Marian, our Communications Manager, and say, "We need a press kit and we want to talk to Larry." She'd tell them that we had no press kit, but if they wanted to talk to anybody, they should first go to our website. Now, of course, our website is extraordinary. It has a ton of information, more angles than you could ever compress into a kit. Moreover, it is interactive and the gateway to thousands of other sites that participants have created themselves. It is a thoroughgoing X-ray of our whole community. They'd come back, now loaded with context, and say, "This sounds great! So, we're coming on Sunday and we want to talk to Larry..." and then she would tell them, "If you want to talk to Larry you have to come early, on Wednesday or Thursday, and stay for the entire event." Now they had to come, camp, live and survive among us. They had no choice but to immerse themselves in the story. This is radical inclusion - very Burning Man.

DVR: You're saying that the media itself enjoyed an immediate experience.

LH: They sure did, and the results were extraordinary. You know, a lot of what passes for journalistic objectivity is actually professional alienation. We allowed them access to deep background. We gave them time to think and a few ideas, but we didn't tell them what to say so much as we allowed them to express themselves. That's what we're radically about. Have you seen any of the TV shows?

DVR: You were well served.

LH: Sure we were, but so were they! They wrote more incisively. They delved beneath appearances. By every intelligent standard, they created better stories. I'd grown so weary of the Burning-Man-as-Woodstock myth. This year they noticed our diversity, and as actual citizens of our city, they realized that our talk about community betokens something real. Not only is this more accurate, but it describes a more intriguing phenomenon. No amount of spin could have produced this. These stories were crafted with more care than is normal. In a very real sense, the news crews were participants this year. Besides, you know, I grow a little tired of hearing how people with cameras aren't participants. Does that mean that only exhibitionists are participating? Don't get me wrong. As you well know, some of my dearest friends are exhibitionists. But can't someone with a camera be creative too? Every year when the event is over, participants clamor for images. It's only natural. We get hundreds of requests. How do you suppose these pictures get produced?

DVR: But doesn't all this beg my original question? Granted, people want pictures and certainly you got good press. Maybe, by allowing reporters to express themselves in their work, they better expressed what Burning Man actually is. But why should you want more press? Given your agenda for community, some would say you're better off without the media.

LH: Not politically. Does anyone imagine we'd survive without the press? The truth will set you free, but only if you can publicize it. The presence of the press at our event has shielded us from persecution. It isn't always a nice world, you know.

DVR: Well, that's certainly a pragmatic argument.

LH: It is, but I really don't mean to evade your question. You seem to be suggesting that mere contact with the media will somehow corrupt us and I think this comes back to the notion of the media as monolith. Who and what are the media? First of all, it's anyone who carries a camera. Beyond that, it is the press, television, movies, radio, and now the Internet. These are merely mediums of communication. People carry on as if television sets were entities of evil or as if reporters and producers of programming were members of some sinister conspiracy, but why blame them? Our real problem is that these communication tools are used for certain economic purposes. TV is the worst offender. It isolates people and turns them into passive consumers, and that makes it hard to imagine using the media to actively communicate with one another. But we have met the media. It's made up of people, reporters who are looking for a story, something that will attract attention. That's their agenda and what's wrong with it? Burning Man is a growing community and communities learn through storytelling. We've got a big story, so we've gained a voice. Immediacy can be very contagious.

DVR: You're not worried then about becoming too popular?


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LH: By too popular I suppose you mean will we become pop culture, become commodified, turned into some sort of product that's hawked on TV? That's really the fear, isn't it? It amounts to a kind of superstitious dread. Listen, we're a populist movement. We need to communicate with people. How do you suppose half the people who come to the festival hear about it? We do very little paid advertising. Pieces in the press or shows on TV are merely magnified word-of-mouth. Who is saying these messages are a substitute for immediate experience? It used to be feared that we'd become too big. Again, you see, there's this tendency to equate anything on a large scale with mass society, but I think we've laid that ghost to rest. Last year, in 1997, we had our largest attendance and our greatest publicity, but the event was more participatory and interactive than ever before. Obviously, we're communicating with people. Everyone complains about the media, but no one does anything about it. Why look at this so passively? We should have more faith in ourselves. It's time to believe that we can change the world.

DVR: Do you have any plans for dealing with the media in the future?

LH: We'll continue what we've started. You know, we've always charged the press. There are no free press passes. They pay for tickets like everyone else. They're treated as participants. Next year we'll do more to get them to come early, and we'll try harder to introduce them to people. This year we connected TBS to a couple. They filmed their child's birthday party and the kids and parents burned a giant wooden cake. I thought that was great. We'll also stress basic etiquette more, but that works both ways. If you don't want to be featured, just tell them up front. They're people, you know. We might also ask camera crews to come in costume. That way they'll blend in with the scene - gain more acceptance, get better stories and have more fun. We might make an exception for on-camera announcers, but for them I fancy we could make a costume - maybe just the front half of a suit. These guys never seem to turn around, so who's to know the difference?

DVR: Do you have any last thoughts on this subject?

LH: Just one. I have a personal reason for allowing camera crews to come.

DVR: Fame?

LH: Well, that's a whole other interview. No, I meant that as an organizer I have very little time to see what really happens. As an engineer of other people's experience, I need to imagine things I haven't actually participated in. I depend on these images.

DVR: One of those professional ironies, huh?

LH: I'm working on it.

Larry Harvey is the founder and director of Burning Man. Darryl Van Rhey is a freelance writer residing in San Francisco.