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.
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.
Among this growing group of Burning Man haters and malcontents, which included self-imposed exiles like Law and provocateur attendees like Chicken John (see "State of the Art," 12/20/04), there was always talk about burning the Man early as the ultimate strike against how ordered the event had become.
"Everyone knew it needed to be done for lots of reasons," Addis said of his arson attack. So he returned to Burning Man in 2007 with the sole purpose of torching the Man in order to "bring back that level of unpredictable excitement, that verve, that 'what's going to happen next?' feeling, because it had gotten orchestrated and scripted."
Addis can be very grandiose and self-important, prone to presenting himself in heroic terms or as the innocent victim of other people's conspiracies, such as the police in Seattle and San Francisco who arrested him for possession of weapons and fireworks in separate instances within weeks of his arrest at Burning Man. But when it came to burning the Man, Addis was purposeful.
"Obviously a gesture like burning down Burning Man is very dangerous and very provocative. From my perspective, the No. 1 concern was safety. No one could get hurt unless it was me," Addis said. Critics of the arson attack often note how dangerous it was, pointing out that there were a dozen or so people under the Man when it caught fire. But Addis said that he was on site for at least 30 minutes beforehand, encouraging people to move back with mixed results, shirtless and wearing the red, black, and white face paint that would later make for such an iconic mug shot.
As a full lunar eclipse overhead darkened the playa and set the stage for his act, Addis waited for his cue: someone, whom Addis won't identify, was going to cut the lights that illuminated the Burning Man and give him at least 15 minutes to do his deed in darkness.
"I didn't do this alone," Addis said. "The lights were cut by someone else... The lights were cut to camouflage my ascent."
Unfortunately for Addis, the operation didn't go as smoothly as he hoped. He miscalcuated the tension in a guide-wire he planned to climb and the difficulty in using the zip-ties that attached a tent flap to it as steps, slowly pulling himself up the wire "hand over hand."
Once he reached the platform at the bottom of one leg, "I reached for this bottle of homemade napalm that I made for an igniter and it's gone," dropped during his ascent. And his backup plan of using burlap and lighter fluid took a long time when he couldn't get his Bic lighter to work under the 15 mph wind.
Then the lights came back on. "And now I know I'm exposed. Because the whole thing was not to get famous for doing this. It was to get away and have it be a mystery. That was the goal," Addis said.
But then Addis got the fire going and it quickly spread up the Man's leg, and Addis used nylon safety cables to slide down the guide-wire like a zip-line. "I landed perfectly right in front of two Black Rock Rangers who watched me come down," Addis said. "And I turned to them and said, 'Your man is on fire.'<0x2009>"
Addis said he was "furious" to see about nine people still under the burning structure, blaming the rangers and yelling at the people to clear the area before declaring, "This is radical free speech at Burning Man" and taking off running. Addis said he stopped at the Steam Punk Treehouse art exhibit, hoping to get lost in the crowd, but headlights converged on his location. He ran again, with a ranger close behind, and was finally caught, arrested, and taken to Pershing County Jail.
The arson attack made international news, and there were enough Addis' supporters out there to convey the message that this was a political statement against the leadership of event founder Larry Harvey and Black Rock City LLC.
But those who run the event didn't buy into Addis' narrative. Instead, they ordered new materials to have the Man rebuilt and burned on schedule. And when it came time to testify at his sentencing hearing a year later, they sent LLC board member Will Roger and a tally for replacement costs that greatly exceeded the $5,000 level that bumped the charges up to a felony.
"They didn't have to do this," Addis said. "Instead, they decided to deliberately take action they knew would send me to prison."
Burning Man spokesperson Marian Goodell wouldn't discuss the charge. "It doesn't do us or him any good to open that wound again."
But an internal memo written by Executive Project Manager Ray Allen shortly after the hearing argued that they were required to respond honestly to requests for information from prosecutors and to do otherwise would have required perjury on behalf of an adversary.
"Part of putting on the Burning Man event means maintaining good relations with Pershing County so that we can continue to have the Burning Man event on BLM land within that county. Good relations means cooperating with criminal prosecutions," Allen wrote to Burning Man employees.
Many of those employees remain profoundly offended by Addis and his act, mostly for the extra work it caused and the principle of such a selfish gesture. "The basic ethos out there is build your own stuff, burn your own stuff," said Andy Moore, a.k.a. Bruiser, an employee since 2001 who helps build the city. "How would you have felt if he went to your house and burned it down because he didn't like you?"
Yet as viscerally angry as Moore can still get when speaking of Addis, he also agreed that two years is a long prison term for this. "It seems a bit over the top. After all, it was a structure made of wood that was meant to burn."
But Addis said that he has let go of the bitterness he felt toward Burning Man and is looking forward to being back on stage, something that he said was his main focus in prison. "It's a brand new life, and I've got all this potential," Addis said. "And I want to make the most out of it."