Burning the Man

Paul Addis, fresh from a prison stint for attacking Burning Man's icon, returns to a San Francisco stage


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.


when discussing burning man as a countercultural movement, it should be addressed that it is actually a counter-countercultural movement.

the LLC is strictly a corporate culture. this rigid hierarchy at the top has over the years trickled down throughout the infrastructure-building communities of the event, the volunteers. these volunteers, these thousands of yes-men (no-men get systematically removed), view the event as THEIR event. there is nothing counter-cultural about being a good soldier within a vast corporate structure. these volunteers who lay claim to ownership of the event are simply infrastructure specialists who are good at following orders.

the other class in this caste system created by the formation of the LLC, are the tens of thousands of participants. the vast majority of these people (after 10 plus years of rule by the LLC) are simply workaday city folk on a costume adventure camping trip. they breeze in and breeze out, fully dependent on the infrastructure provided to them by those who view them as visitors (or at best, civilians) in THEIR city. at the end of the event, these participants return to their normal lives with tales of their adventures. not bad. and these people are also not counter-culturalists (as a rule).

where is the counterculture aside from the few exceptions who still attend? it ain't there. 'counterculture' is a false label on this product called burning man. and that is why it is counter to the countercultural movement - it lies about what it is. and this lie brings would-be counterculturalists into the hierarchy of the corporate fold where they may never find a way out until they are kicked out; their years of dedication to a false ideal used up.

the mainstream culture needs a healthy counterculture - not a massive corporate entity masquerading as such. every good story knows when to end. we can only hope that paul addis turned the first page of the last act on this playground in the desert.

Posted by phil stine on Apr. 29, 2010 @ 4:18 am

Burning Man as a cultural phoenomina has run its course. There is really nothing new going on. There still is some astounding artwork being created . Beyond that the evolution is stagnant and stale. It is only rehash of things that were going on 10 years ago. It has only become more refined and structured now, than then.

The current evolution that is driving the remains of the lost transition beyond the Playa is the rave segment of Burning Man. Most regional events that have manifested themselves in the last several years are nothing more than raves with a Leave No Trace Philosophy. They have very little art and play deafening levels of badly mixed EDM by DJ's with huge egos. These so called regional events have become nothing more than a venue for Dj's to spin badly mixed audio to extremely intoxicated people on drugs and alcohol out of the prying eyes of Law Enforcement

Posted by mk19gunner on Apr. 29, 2010 @ 11:00 am

Phil, the event and people you describe are unrecognizable to me, so I can only guess that it's been awhile since you attended Burning Man. While it's true that the event is run by an LLC, it is in many ways the antithesis of what most people consider to be "corporate culture." The city is created almost entirely by those who attend, based on their own visions of what they want to see. Most employees are fierce individualists and their belief in this project isn't a result of being "told what to do." Similarly, attendees provide their own infrastructure (with the exception of porta-potties) and the nature of the event makes it impossible to "breeze in and breeze out." Both employees and attendees are allowed and encouraged to pursue whatever projects or initiatives they can dream up, and that "rigid hierarchy" you describe rarely says a word about it, let alone does it stop people from pursuing their visions.
Phil, you may not like Burning Man, that's up to you, but you're clearly misrepresenting it here and failing to recognize that there are tens of thousands of people who still think this is a relevant, important experiment, so much so that they're willing to devote copious quantities of their time, money, and energy to it. And to assume that we're doing so because we're simply "following orders" is ridiculous, insulting, and elitist.

Posted by steven on Apr. 29, 2010 @ 11:16 am

its operations (actions) defines its culture. that trickles down.

by your post, i assume you're a member of the infrastructure. i don't want to ruin your world, but try not following orders and see what happens to you.


Posted by phil stine on Apr. 29, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

>>Marian Goodell wouldn't discuss the charge. "It doesn't do us or him any good to open that wound again."

Self-inflicted wounds never close. Finally discussing how the LLC has become so vindictive would at least serve in relieving some of the hurt it's caused to the community, Marian.

Posted by eleron on May. 02, 2010 @ 5:54 am

"Instead, they decided to deliberately take action they knew would send me to prison."

Um, no dude, you did.

Addis decided to burn the "corporate logo" in order to cast light on how corporate this "massive hipster tailgate party" has become. Then it should have been no surprise when he got the 'corporate' response when he 'proved' his point.

For good or bad, the days of total anarchy at Burning Man - if they ever actually existed in pure form - are long gone. Expecting any other outcome than the one he got was just naive and stupid. And actually I think he was counting more on the justice system not caring and letting him off with a slap, and not so much on the BM org turning the other cheek.

I'm not going to argue about whether BM is corporate or not, there are plenty of you out there to do that. Fact was, there were a bunch of people out there in close proximity who were most likely not in the best state to deal with self preservation. He was lucky no one was hurt. I frankly don't give a damn about his childish need to cause a scene.

Posted by Flaming C. on May. 03, 2010 @ 10:01 am

as the city has grown, it has become too CIVIC. almost 20% of the population of the city works within the infrastructure. your average US city has a workforce of 2-3%.

BM is strangled by its own municipal. there is no need for all these city workers - they choke the life out the event and make unpredictability and spontaneity scarce, and radical self-reliance unnecessary.

this 20% of the population 'working for the man', divides the community between 'us & them'.

Posted by eleron on May. 03, 2010 @ 11:29 am

Again, I feel a need to correct the record because I have no idea where Eleron gets this figure that 20% of the population "works within the infrastructure." Are you saying that 10,000 of the 50,000 people in Black Rock City work for the event? That's a ludicrous assertion for an organization with a year-round payroll of less than $3 million.
To all the Burning Man critics out there, and I understand there are many, it's fine if you don't like the event. But it's not OK to simply invent facts to fit your preconceived biases against the event and present them in a public forum as if they are real. Same thing with Phil's response to my last post, in which he claims to know things about me that just aren't true.
I don't work for the event in any way, shape, or form, but I have attended it since 2001 and I've covered it for the Guardian since 2004, researching all aspects of the organization. I may be more biased in favor of this event than many subjects that I cover, but I've also asked tough questions of Larry Harvey and the other principles -- as well as its critics such as Chicken John and John Law -- and sometimes written stories critical of Burning Man.
So I'm not part of the "infrastructure," and I'm not "following orders" from anyone, and to make that claim with no knowledge or support whatsoever raises questions of your credibility to comment on an event that you also don't seem to know much about.

Posted by steven on May. 05, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

20% is an exaggeration for illustration. the point is, if it's not 1 in 5 then it's 1 in 10 and that's 10 times too many (talking about the volunteers here too - all of the enlisted, anyone who has access to the commissary - including the damn lamplighters)

every unnecessary member (pretty much all of them) of the infrastructure is a person who diminishes the need for participants to be radically self-reliant. their bloated numbers create a communal divide, and this divide is intentional.

the divide exists to give purpose to the borg itself - to manage all these people. and to make the participants dependent on the infrastructure created for no other reason than giving context for the 'going concern' of the LLC. it's a monster.

i think phil was "assuming* you work for the infrastructure based on what your wrote. i assumed the same thing... not a 'corporate culture' - are you kidding? that's the type of perspective you'd expect from someone downing A LOT of kool-aid and gently blowing into will rogers ear while rubbing crimson's cold tits.

making an assumption about someone isn't an insult, especially when someone writes before the assumption that they're making an assumption. you can refute the assumption... something like, 'that assumption is incorrect' would be okay.

it's not a war, it's just a monster.

Posted by eleron on May. 06, 2010 @ 3:23 am

this was posted on wired on 8/29/7 by 'Paul Addis Defense Fund':

"Burningman started as Larry Harvey’s relationship stalking/hate crime over a decade ago, it has since become his cash cow. One man took this away to a personal ritual for a lunar eclipse in what I suspect was a resistance to the group think that has turned artsists into “Burners”.

I applaud Paul Addis and i would likee to know where to send money for his legal defense.

Moost of the people in the BMORG are probably not surprised that this happened. They have been saving their profits for the demise of the event, that has grown into a fat pig of hippymercialism.

Burningman is the death of wild art… wild art used to be spontaneous, random, site specific… now all of those people have a monoculture group think depepndent on paying money to Larry so they can have permission to be wierd.

Burningman is an event that has shanghaied the wierd people into paying to be wierd… it is an atrocity. I think he saw this.

Paul Addis took a foul parasitism of independent art and ritually freed it. And he did it during a time when a “greenman” should actually have burned. He is a hero to human thought."

Posted by eleron on May. 06, 2010 @ 4:23 am

This whole line of argument seems bizarre to me. You condemn Larry Harvey for creating something that you don't think has social value and celebrate Paul Addis for attacking it. Why? If you really value art and creation, what did Addis create or accomplish? For that matter, why don't you and the other haters put all that energy you expend bitching about Burning Man into creating something better? You're like that anti-government teabaggers who are utterly obsessed with this thing you claim to hate but actually barely understand. In their case, at least government is something that citizens can't completely ignore or escape, but nobody is forcing Burning Man on you. And if you must maintain this obsession of yours, you should at least try to break out of your insular little world with its made-up "facts" and people turned into cartoonish caricatures and gain a better perspective on this culture, because then you'll see how little you really understand it. Try visiting the American Steel warehouse in Oakland, the Shipyard or Michael Christian's studio in Berkley, or the Box Shop here in San Francisco. Talk to the "burners" and "artists" and you'll find a smart, creative, diverse, independent, and lovely group of people who really don't much care what Larry Harvey says or does. You and the other haters are the ones who put him on some kind of pedestal so you can practice your tired old nostalgic target shooting. The rest of us are more concerned with making art and strengthening our community.

Posted by steven on May. 06, 2010 @ 9:59 am

larry didn't create burning man, but he did remove the social value from it by exploiting it so fully (your social value may vary). paul addis reminded everyone of what has been lost over the last decade or so, and was condemned for it (and because of it). i admire his courage.

the boom in volunteerism began in response the the sheriff taking the gate money in 97. broke, the LLC couldn't handle the workload required to keep the event going, so they tapped the willing community, still buzzing off the previous 5 years or so, to volunteer. at that time, it was just about getting to 98. by july 2001, they had 2,000 volunteers and a population of 25,000 - fact. count the cops at you're at 10%. the question is, why? but i already answered that.

your shaming tactics of calling those who dissent 'haters' and 'teabaggers' are equivalent to feminist shaming tactics, desperate.

you think i don't understand burning man, well, i've attended more times that you have: consecutively from 98 to 07. i don't like to use that number-of-years pissing contest, but you mentioned it first. when addis was sentenced that was the last straw for me. and if i don't name-drop in making my points, please forgive me. and i'll also try to overlook your usage.

my 'obsession' is in understanding the evolution of something that was a big part of my life for over a decade. calling dissenters 'obsessed' is another BM shaming tactic. did you buy the book, or do you just go to the meetings?

i've been to the spaces, i've talked to the burners and i've talked to the artists. they're all fine. but attendance is de facto collaboration with the corporation. this is the moral choice everyone must make.

Posted by eleron on May. 06, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

Paul Addis came to SF after going to college in Miami, is not a native of SF, and was not part of the "SF underground arts scene". For at least three years in the mid-1990's, he went to law school on Mission Street and later failed the Bar Exam. He does like guns and was known for being confrontational with people, almost to a fault. He was an early adopter of Burning Man and he is genuine in his enthusiasm for it. The fact that this many people take Paul's actions seriously demonstrates how something can get over-analyzed. The writer should do some background checking before accepting self-created mythology.

Posted by Guest on Nov. 04, 2010 @ 11:04 am

Thanks, nice post. Keep up the good work

Posted by Ordissals on Dec. 04, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

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