Just out of prison, Addis returns to SF with a message

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Icon-burner Paul Addis is back in town and debuting a one-man show later this month.
Steven T. Jones

Paul Addis is a playwright and performance artist best known for prematurely igniting Burning Man's eponymous central effigy during a Monday night lunar eclipse at the event in 2007, a crime for which he served two years in a Nevada prison. He was recently released and returned to San Francisco, where his new one-man show debuts at The Dark Room on April 30.

Last week, Addis sat down for an extended interview with the Guardian to discuss that momentous night – when he grabbed the Holy Grail of burner malcontents, lighting the Man early, and paid a heavy price for it – and its aftermath, including developing his play, “Dystopian Veneer,” while in a prison work camp near Las Vegas.

“It’s a brand new life and I’ve got all this potential and I want to make the most out of it,” said Addis, an intense guy who exhibited a wide range of emotions during the three-hour interview, from easy laughter to frustrations with what he sees as the lack of risk-taking in San Francisco to excitement over his future to flashes of real menace when discussing those who have done him wrong.

Addis is a lightning rod whose torching of the Man still elicits strong reactions from those who attend Burning Man. Some angrily condemn an act they see as destructive and dangerous, while others appreciate the ultimate symbolic assault on an event that they think had become too orderly and calcified.  
Paul Addis's mug shot after burning The Man.

Addis's post-burn mug shot.

“Everybody knew it needed to be done for lots of reasons,” Addis said of an action that was his sole purpose in attending Burning Man that year. “I felt like Burning Man as an event was starting to coddle people way too much.”

But the event’s leaders certainly didn’t coddle Addis, instead testifying at his 2008 sentencing hearing about the high cost of replacing the Man (high enough to bump the destruction of property charge up to a felony) and the early burn’s negative impact on the event. “They didn’t have to do this,” Addis said of Burning Man board member Will Roger’s testimony at the hearing. “Instead, they decided to deliberately take action they knew would send me to prison.”

Marian Goodell, the director of business and communications for Burning Man, declined to discuss the accusation, or Addis’ complaint that she and others have publicly misrepresented the role of Burning Man brass in sending him to prison, including statements in the film “Dust & Illusions” that the sentencing was beyond their control. “It doesn’t do us or him any good to open that wound again,” Goodell told the Guardian. “We’re not going to discuss it.”

Starting the fire wasn’t Addis’s only crime of that era. Within weeks of returning to Burning Man, he was arrested in Washington for carrying guns in public (he says they were props for the one-man play about Hunter S. Thompson he was doing at the time) and for possession of fireworks and an air gun near Grace Cathedral (which police said at the time was a plot to burn down the stone church, a notion that Addis calls preposterous). Addis has innocent narratives for each incident, blaming others for overreacting.

Yet Addis now says that he’s let go of his old grudges, describing a moment of clarity and peace that came over him while driving his motorcycle through the Nevada desert on his way back to San Francisco. He said that he feels most happy and alive when he’s on stage, a passion that he said sustained him while in prison, “so it’s imperative for me to get back to what I love doing.”

Addis posted a promotional video for his new show on Laughing Squid (whose owner, Scott Beale, Addis has known for many years). It opens with Addis looking up at the camera, his mouth covered in duct tape that he slowly rips off and begins speaking. “In a society whose foundation is free expression under the First Amendment and liberty under the Constitution, this is probably the most desperate, despicable and disgusting thing that can be done to an outspoken and risk-taking performance artist,” he says, indicating the tape in his fingers, before tossing it aside and saying, “Well, that’s over now.”

He goes on to criticize how sanitized San Francisco has become, singling out the police crackdown on SoMa parties and nightclubs that we’ve been covering in the Guardian and calling for people to join him in pushing the edge. But just how San Franciscans will greet this controversial figure is still an open question. 

I’ll have more from my interview with Addis, along with reactions from other figures in the Burning Man world, in the Guardian in coming weeks; and even more in my upcoming book, “The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture,” due out later this year from CCC Publishing.  

Comments

this has been going on forever. i appreciate the hipsters and yupsters (those who culture co-opt). they're aesthetically minded and generally kind. their purpose is to follow the paths set by artists and move in behind them. they always do this and it's to be expected. unfortunately for the artists is that this movement ousts the artists (by price due due to trust funds), but the artists relocate which in turn the artists further push out those who were there before them.

the hipster and yupster movement paves the way for families and those who demand safety at all levels before they move in. and these cash-cows generally have unlimited resources. it's the nature of things.

the hipsters and yupsters then decry the families and proper yuppies when they themselves are outpriced and forced on. they cry this part of the process, gentrification.

when the LLC was formed, that was when the hipsters and yupsters took hold of BM. now, many years later, BM has left very few true artists and is about 95% a mixture of hipsters, yupsters, and proper yuppies. and they're all holding on to the assumption that they are the creators. that somehow they originated what you see on the night of the burn, or a gentle sunrise on wednesday.

they're nice people. but their world is one of fear, hatred, oppression and general slavery. when someone like paul addis disturbs their fantasy holiday - it's a death sentence for this deemed freak.

where will it end? give BM to the yuppies - they deserve it. they work hard and need something like this once a year to chill out in their own way. if they need to pretend to be freed slaves once a year, let them. there's nothing to fight against... unless you care about a member of your family being incarcerated for 2 years for no reason - well, then you have something to fight for.

Posted by Mary Beth on Apr. 18, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

SO..Paul Addis wanted to teach Burning Man a lesson by being all 'radical and counterculture'... but then considered doing jail time to be too harsh a penalty.

If he really wanted to be a radical artist, he would have embraced going to prison as part of the experience and part of the lesson.

He's mentally deranged.

Burning Man has an obligation to provide a safe atmosphere for its community. They have an obligation to prosecute people who endanger the safety of others. Lighting a major structure on fire without adequate fire services prepared and available is destructive to the community and the environment.

That's radically STUPID.

Posted by Guest BrotherMichael on Apr. 19, 2010 @ 7:01 am

dude, you forgot the part of the rant where you say you hope he was raped in prison.

Posted by Mary Beth on Apr. 19, 2010 @ 9:00 am

SO..Paul Addis wanted to teach Burning Man a lesson by being all 'radical and counterculture'... but then considered doing jail time to be too harsh a penalty.

If he really wanted to be a radical artist, he would have embraced going to prison as part of the experience and part of the lesson.

He's mentally deranged.

Burning Man has an obligation to provide a safe atmosphere for its community. They have an obligation to prosecute people who endanger the safety of others. Lighting a major structure on fire without adequate fire services prepared and available is destructive to the community and the environment.

That's radically STUPID.

Posted by Guest BrotherMichael on Apr. 19, 2010 @ 7:01 am

Certainly we can't forget that the real news when the Green Man Burned was the quick rebuilding. What a graceful act it would have been to let the Black Man Stand and embrace Him and The Act. "Too Dangerous" say the DPW,"We must rebuild him." Really? Is that true?

How much more we would love the DPW had they ciphered a method to let the Crime and all of our Pride Stand.

Wrong response DPW. Wrong.

Posted by Dave on Apr. 19, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

Certainly we can't forget that the real news when the Green Man Burned was the quick rebuilding. What a graceful act it would have been to let the Black Man Stand and embrace Him and The Act. "Too Dangerous" say the DPW,"We must rebuild him." Really? Is that true?

How much more we would love the DPW had they ciphered a method to let the Crime and all of our Pride Stand.

Wrong response DPW. Wrong.

Posted by Dave on Apr. 19, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

I watched when Addis set the man on fire, and it was an unforgettable spectacle. I loved it.

The worlds most spontaneous event had become kind of boring and predictable. But day one, this nut goes shimming up there and sets the fucking man on fire. Then he tries to get away, as the speakers roar from a nearby art car "Ladies and gentlemen, the man is burning RIGHT NOW". Heads turn. Bodies run away and to the man. Desperate attempts to save the man commence. Water hoses lack pressure. Larger vehicles arrive on the scene. Cheers of SAVE THE MAN are sometimes drowned out by BURN HIM. The rumors start flying.

Peoples lives were put in danger; flaming fabric and wood were dropping from the sky with people below. The damage I'm sure did amount to at least $5K. A lack of creativity and imagination when tackling the issue on the part of the LLC? You betcha. Home depot? Come on. Why don't we just call the thing the Freedom Tower?

So, Addis served time in a Nevada state prison. Oh well.

Thanks Paul for making the sacrifice, but if you expected to be handled with kid gloves, get over it. It wasn't yours to burn, you destroyed peoples shit (including the green exhibits that took months to develop) and you put people in danger. Now you're famous, but it comes with a price tag.

Thank you, it was fucking amazing to see and hopefully shook up the LLC to get their heads out of their arses.

My brother got out of jail recently - 2 years of his life lost for a similarly ridiculous stunt that didn't hurt anyone. Best thing that ever happened to him. Hopefully for you too Paul. Hopefully you've tamed some of your demons, but good luck. Don't be a hater.

Posted by wizard on Apr. 28, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

I find these comments in support of Addis beyond immature and selfish. Is there ANYONE reading this thread that doubts for one second that the people that are defending this dumbass would be singing a different tune if it were they or someone they loved that was seriously hurt or killed that night on the Playa when Addis torched the Man? His actions were no different than squeezing off a few rounds from a rifle in random directions from the Burning Man platform. Only by pure chance were there no injuries attributed to his reckless stunt.

Anyone that has been there knows that the platform is never unoccupied. That year there were many places for people to sit or walk in, around and on the platform. Addis could have VERY EASILY killed dozens of people.

Yeah, all these "fuck the borg" idiots should get a taste of their own medicine by going camping and having their tents slashed and cars torched in the middle of the night by a guy simply expressing his hatred for people that "aren't getting it" like he is. I would love to remind these douchebags of their never ending support of "edgy", radical self-expression and all that psycho-babble bullshit they are posting here in support of a dangerous sociopath. Yes sir, that would fill my heart with joy to witness that. Cheers!

Posted by Vinnie From Indy on Jan. 26, 2011 @ 8:42 am