Burning Man Board Member Chip Conley Remembers Larry HarveyArticle by: Chip Conley|@ChipConley
Mon April 30, 2018 | 12:05 PM
“Burning Man is what life would be like if artists ruled the world.” Over the course of nearly two decades, I’ve initiated quite a few Burning Man virgins. In 2013, Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, whose design school sensibility was passionately stoked by his first visit, uttered those awe-struck words on the playa. The human with that utopian, art-centric vision was Larry Harvey, Burning Man’s founder who passed on April 28 after a massive stroke a few weeks earlier.
Larry was like a weird older brother to me. A modern-day philosopher who had no idea his Summer Solstice, 1986, burning of a nine-foot effigy at San Francisco’s Baker Beach would turn into the global cultural legacy it’s become, Larry was one-part farm boy, one-part extraterrestrial, one-part art patron, and one-part humanist. And, yet the sum of those eclectic parts were barely a fraction of the whole Larry Harvey.
His brilliance was more subliminal and profound than most people could fathom. Because his long sentences could sometimes stray from ancient philosophy to modern day hip-hop culture, having a conversation with Larry was like a mental game of hide-and-seek. When I first got to know him 15 years ago, he would say something to me and I was befuddled as to whether it was a compliment or a joust. I’ll never forget when one of his Burning Man co-founders pulled me aside, after a particularly confusing statement by Larry, and said, “Larry likes you. You’re not an empty suit.”
Over the course of time, I spent more time with the founders and gave them occasional advice and hosted a few fundraisers. When they asked me to join their non-profit Board (as their intention was to take their for-profit event in the desert and virtually give it to the non-profit), I started to spend more time with Larry, especially at First Camp, the founders’ homespun community just off Center Camp at the annual Burning Man event.
I learned of Larry’s roots in rural Oregon with parents from Nebraska and the fact that this budding intellectual moved to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1969 just as flower power was coming into full bloom. He had a deep affection for psychologist William James and the power of human potential. Larry also had a sixth sense for the cultural zeitgeist which is why he loved being in charge of creating the annual Burning Man art theme. I knew I’d entered his inner circle when he’d have one-on-one conversations with me about next year’s potential theme, swearing me to secrecy. Ironically, this year’s theme of “I, Robot” takes Burners into a futuristic world where Larry will only be in spirit.
As a Board member, I took a very active role in two of Burning Man’s biggest endeavors over the past half-dozen years: moving the event into the non-profit and acquiring the 3,800 acres of Fly Ranch near the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man takes place. In both cases, I was able to experience Larry’s brilliance with respect to a vision few others could imagine. Like the founders and a few Board members, I became a translator of Larry’s vision to those who couldn’t quite grok what he was saying.
In his own way, Larry was like the Wizard of Oz: a simple, yet complex, man behind the curtain creating a fantasy world that marveled all who experienced it. Whether it’s the origins of Burning Man – no matter if he was burning his own effigy due to a relationship breakup or just a spontaneous act – or the ethereal themes of the annual event, Larry created a blank canvas onto which we express ourselves. He once told me he wished he could create a TV game show in which he would develop “cultural Rorschach” images and the studio audience in small groups would try figure out what they are. I only wish the television industry and mainstream culture had matured to the point that Larry had his own game show. In the meantime, it’s the theme camps in late summer who synthesize Larry’s brilliance and make them into a dusty, playa reality.
Larry helped me see the value of Burning Man’s 10 Principles, which have become a hallmark for nearly 100 Burning Man-affiliated festivals around the world. There was no more important principle in my relationship with Larry than “Immediacy,” always listed last amongst the other nine. The touchstone of my best moments with Larry have been when we were not distracted and literally living in the moment – not just hearing each other, but truly feeling each other’s presence and humanity. It’s that deeply human experience with Larry I will miss the most.
Chip Conley is a bestselling author, hospitality entrepreneur, disruptive business rebel, and social change agent. He is the founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, the former Head of Global Hospitality & Strategy and current Strategic Advisor for Hospitality and Leadership at Airbnb, and the founder of Fest300 (now part of Everfest, where he is part-time Chief Strategy Officer).