Larry Harvey Interview with Leo Nash

February 27, 1995

Q: The Burning Man originally stood for the ending of a relationship, what does it symbolize?

A: Well, you know I...Well, that is true, I almost regret that I said it, but that was involved, as more time goes on...As time progresses I can see more and more background to the act, but which soon gets into the realm of psychoanalysis..

Q: I have a question from another angle...Do you see the Burning Man on a mythic level? Joseph Campbell once said that he sees our culture remythologizing itself, but he wasn't really sure where it was headed. Do this fit into...?

A: Yea, I do...I think it does...Myth and ritual tend to deal with primordial experience, primal experience, and our ways of rehearsing, recreating such primal events and reenacting them in a way that sort of transcends rationality, and I see it that way very much. It seems to me, that if you're talking about ritual around the man himself, it seems to me that that recapitulates certain kinds of primordial experience, certainly preverbal experience on an individual level, that more or less transcends culture. I'm talking about experiences that happen before we could speak and before we knew who we are, or while we were in the process of defining who we are. Consider, were inventing, we actually remember this figure, we put its component parts together, we assemble this huge symbol which obviously in some very basic and generic way stands for an identity: A human figure against a void, and it seems to me in the life of every individual across every spectrum of culture we all undergo the same experience, we actually invent ourselves. So there is an existential myth there, it actually turns into a rather concrete parallel in a way. When children first begin to perceive themselves self consciously, one of the things they do to objectify that sense is they begin to draw stick figures. I don't know of anyone that's don a study, but I imagine that's probably pretty much perennial to human culture, it certainly goes back to the Paleolithic in terms of cave paintings.

So there's that. I also have a somewhat more elaborate theory. I'm a Freudian in fact, but no Jungian, and there's an outgrowth of modern psychoanalysis invented by a guy named Kohut. It's called: Self Psychology. He's quite eminent in his field. He had a theory that we attain our identities through certain kinds of primal experience with our parents. Beginning from infancy, he determined, through acts of merger and mirroring, which is very simple. It's contained in the two questions children most frequently as of us 1) Pick me up and look at me. They as you to look at them when they suddenly feel some vital energy within themselves and they want you to confirm that they're real in the moment that they feel that way. They're not asking for a critique. They want you to witness their being, and it's an act of unconditional love, is what they're after. And (2) they want to be picked up. They want to merge with your power. Because we're godlike to them. Well, people's relationship to that giant is very much like that.

He's in relationship to them in scale, what an adult would be to an infant. They pull him up, they lift him up by a...They actually give birth to him in a symbolic sense, by pulling a rope that's attached to his navel, like an umbilical...We've angled the face...all this by intuition, but we all designed this intuitively. The face is angled to look down at people. He's this great monitory presence, and going even deeper than that, and study Piaget, he's written extensively about how infants assemble the spatial and temporal universe, which we're not born with, we construct through our experience and in a very real sense we're creating the world out of nothing. Well that's what we all did to begin with. So we're creating an entire world out of nothing, we're creating a symbolic entity which signifies our presence within this space that's been ex nihlo.

These are all experiences that are essentially preverbal in the way that you get in touch with them, they way that's always been done in culture is by means of myth and ritual. So in that sense, the world of myth is larger than life, and of course we've done that in a very literal fashion...(breaks off to answer the other line...) (comes back on..) Anyway, that's my short answer to that, does that make any sense to you?

Q: Yes it does...The type of people that go out there, do you see a commonality among the people?

A: I see incredible diversity among the people. Briefly, relating back to this idea of myth, there's some people going out there with a spiritual intention, or some people see it as myth, or a great majority probably don't. Of course my whole point there is that it's in the doing it's not in the intellectual conception, never was..We're all over the demographic map. Its really quite remarkable in that, the only thing these people seem to have in common, is a spirit of adventure. Because the timid don't do a thing like that.

My point I keep making is that it's not a subculture.

Q: Obviously it's temporary community, you don't see that community as being a community beyond the Burning Man, beyond four days.

A: No, I do...for instance what's happening with our organization, with the project itself, we started out, well it started out with me and Jerry James, two guys, then it grew. This last year our staff expanded to around forty people, and we were having meetings in rooms that were really crowded, now we're at the point where the extended staff is considerably more that that, and this year it's going to double or triple. That's making it necessary for us to constitute the project as a kind of society in itself with its ritual observances, parties and so on that bond people together, well outside of our personal circles. So in that sense, it's very much alive and well as a social entity back here (San Francisco). But it's also generating a social, communal experience in other ways. We're setting up our web site on the internet, in such a way that we're going to be producing a conference pretty soon. It's already getting lively responses, and after the burn next year it's going to be this huge...It's just going to buzz, like a beehive. So that creates a greater social context...As time goes on...Now of course we do a show in town, it's just a show, but it's of course designed to be interactive, and involving, and participatory which is always they key. I think eventually we'll be able, as we gain the means to do it, expand events...I mean really they significance of it...it doesn't have much significance unless...I mean the ultimate proving ground, its meaningfulness, is back in what we laughingly call real life. I can see how that's beginning to be generated. I think that individually...It affects people's perception of normal life a lot.

Q: In what ways...Like for you, how does it, well maybe your a little close to it..

A: Well, I'm kind of a weird example, but..

Q: Like someone like Harrod Blank?

A: Well, it seems to me...For one thing people have this experience of acting and interacting with other people in this city, very intense, cooperative, and expressive way, and they come back and they're apt to critique their lives and see if getting that, and very often...They are..People tend to come out there very often...there's a real common story, it's one you hear about people coming to San Francisco too. That there is a life they came out or we get reports that frankly on the face of it sound like conversion experiences, and "It changes my life" story. That's not at all uncommon. Indeed now that...This year for instance we're organizing theme camps. We're going to feature them at the circle. People can do what they want, but if they want to be featured in this central circle, we'll put them there, and in order to do that we're going to have little symposia meetings where they can get together and share materials with one another and suddenly their going to be forming this little society back here of the purpose of doing something out there. So it's beginning to exist as quite a social phenomena back at home as well.

Q: What kind of response do you get from people on the internet who haven't been to it, just from the sound of it?

A: Well, I don't know..they're just intrigued like everybody, word of mouth is most potent, so they hear these stories that sound like people are speaking about more than mere entertainment. I believe that there's a fascination very often...we had interest from people who were computer types from the beginning, and I couldn't figure it out initially, because I'm not very technological, but I began to look at it from the standpoint of their experience of the internet and then I began to see in their imagination the desert formed a direct analogy with what they call cyberspace. It's an arena where distinctions of wealth, class, and age are irrelevant. Someone from LA once said, "this is great, it doesn't even matter what kind of car that you drive." In fact aided by a few expressive props you can program your own reality out there. Everything is seen against a void. So whatever you do supplies its own context. it has this surreal potency about it and that amounts to a form of virtual reality. Glaring in this ultimate frontier out there, there is no context. It's absolutely decontectualized. Well, the internet is like that. It's a frontier experience; like a frontier there's a radical equality, there's incredible opportunity. You know sophomores in college can post pages that thousands of people monitor. There's this great latitude of action. It's essentially libertarian...All of those things apply to the desert. The thing that the desert has that the internet doesn't have, is that the internet is about communication, but it's all anonymous, and there's no direct communion between people. If you're talking about establishing the foundation of culture communication isn't enough, you need that communal context and of course we supply that. So, what we've been telling them lately is that we're the first space station of the internet. It's time to come home, they ought to..actually going out there and finding the camp in midst of all that void is like landing in a space station. And at night with all those spangled fires out there in the darkness they look like synaptic nodes. The analogy is really pretty compelling, and that's why increasingly they do come, because the internet has become...Outer space fizzled out. It turned out to be not the new frontier we thought it was. It's inner space, it's cyberspace that has these properties that we especially as westerners crave. And that's why its the hottest thing in town, and I think we fit into that imaginary scheme of things.

Q: Well, thanks...

A: OK, sure.

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