Larry Harvey, the guru-like driving force behind Burning Man, the globally celebrated anti-establishment, anti-consumerist festival that he and a friend began 32 years ago on a San Francisco beach, died Saturday at a hospital in San Francisco. He was 70.
His death was announced on the Burning Man website. Mr. Harvey had a stroke on April 4.
Burning Man is now a revered weeklong annual event that takes place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, north of Reno, but there is no firm consensus on whether it is a spiritual retreat, performance art, a music festival, a construction project or just an excuse to party in the middle of scorching heat and dust storms.
Last year’s celebration drew 70,000 people, who were free to bring or build their own arts projects, perform their own music, dress any way they liked or go nude – and dance and chant “Burn the man” during the big finale. That’s when a skeletal five-storey-tall wood and neon man-shaped statue, stuffed with fireworks, was set ablaze.
Burning Man is run by a non-profit organization that has an annual operating budget of about US$30-million, according to the website. At his death, Mr. Harvey’s title was board president and chief philosophic officer.
The festival’s 10 official principles, written by Mr. Harvey, include civic responsibility, communal effort, gifting and immediacy. But the one cited most often is radical self-expression.
Early on, the event became popular with the digital subculture, lending credence to the belief that primitivism and great technological leaps make happy bedfellows. Mr. Harvey saw a connection.
“Both Burning Man and the internet make it possible to regather the tribe of mankind,” he told The Times in 1997.
The festival’s so-called gift economy is central to the experience. There may be whiskey bars and sandwich shops at Burning Man, but everything is free. Burners, as the participants call themselves, offer their products and services as gifts. No one is allowed to display a corporate logo or even wear one on a T-shirt.
Mr. Harvey was born on Jan. 11, 1948, and adopted as an infant by Author Harvey and the former Katherine Langford. His parents were farmers near Portland, Ore.
Rural life did not suit him, and his parents were not exactly spiritual adventurers. “The heart can really expire under those conditions,” Mr. Harvey told Inc. magazine in 2012. “I always felt like I was looking at the world from the outside.”
He escaped by serving in the army. He gave college (Portland State University) a try, but was disillusioned by what he saw as his professors’ small-mindedness.
He and a girlfriend moved to San Francisco in the 1970s and made friends with artists who were making a living as blue-collar workers.
The first Burning Man, held at Baker Beach, was a cozy affair hosted by Mr. Harvey and a friend, Jerry James. It consisted of burning a scrap-lumber statue of an eight-foot-tall man and was attended by fewer than a dozen people, although a crowd soon gathered to watch. It was a summer solstice celebration.
Mr. Harvey was married once, briefly, to Patricia Johnson, and he raised their son, Tristan, whom he leaves, as a single father. He also leaves his brother, Stewart.
The 2018 festival, scheduled for Aug. 26-Sept. 3, will go on, the organization said in a statement: “If there’s one thing we know for sure, Larry wants us to burn the man.”