Paul Addis is like the Man he burned: a symbol onto which people project their views of Burning Man, the San Francisco-born event that has become the most enduring countercultural phenomenon of this era. This summer, with the building of Black Rock City in the Nevada desert, marks the 25th annual event.
When Addis illegally torched Burning Man's eponymous central icon during the Monday night lunar eclipse in 2007, he was either injecting much-needed chaos back into the calcified event; indulging in a dangerous, destructive, and delusional ego trip; or he was simply crazy, depending on the perspective of current and former burners who are still quite animated in their opinions about Addis and his act in online forums.
But Addis is also just a man, one who paid a heavy price to make his statement. After pleading guilty to a destruction of property charge in Nevada court, which became a felony after Burning Man leaders testified to more than $30,000 in damages from having to rebuild the icon, Addis served nearly two years in prison.
Addis was released late last year and recently returned to San Francisco, where this performance artist will debut his new solo show, "Dystopian Veneer," at The Dark Room on April 30 (a second show is set for May 7). While Addis insists he didn't seek the notoriety that came from getting caught, it's clear he relishes this outlaw role, which follows naturally from his last stage incarnation as gun-loving journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
In a nearly three-hour interview with the Guardian, Addis described that fateful night and its implications, as well as why he turned on an event he once loved.
BURNING MAN GROWS UP
Addis first attended Burning Man in 1996, the last year in which anarchy and danger truly reigned, when a tragic death and serious injuries caused Burning Man organizers to impose a civic structure and rules, such as bans on firearms and high-speed driving, on future events.
Addis said he immediately became "a true believer," seeing Burning Man as both a revolutionary experiment in free expression and political empowerment, and as a "wild, risk-taking thing for pure visceral power." He came from what he called the "San Francisco arts underground" and had a libertarian's love for guns, drugs, and explosives, but a progressive's opposition to war and consumer culture.
"When you go to Burning Man, everyone has that feeling at a certain point in time. It is the most incredible thing you've been at. You do see the possibilities laid out in front of you," Addis told me.
Addis poured himself into the event, but became frustrated with the rules and restrictions after three years and stopped going to Burning Man, although he remained in its orbit and closely followed it.
"There are some people who go to Burning Man who have extraordinary ideas and they are extraordinary people. They embody the type of concern and substantial action that I found so wonderfully possible in those early years. And to those people, thank you for what you do. But they are a minority," Addis said.
Addis shared the anarchist mindset of John Law, who led Burning Man to the Black Rock Desert then left the event in frustration with its growing scale and popularity and never returned after 1996.
"Paul Addis' early burning of the corporate logo of the Burning Man event last year was the single most pure act of 'radical self expression' to occur at this massive hipster tail-gate party in over a decade," Law wrote on a Laughing Squid blog post after Addis' sentencing hearing in 2008, one of 185 spirited comments on both sides of the debate.