#BurningMan, the Death of Paul Addis, and Radical Activism (UPDATED 11/3)

1:34 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Paul Addis, the man accused of arson at Burning Man, the massive fire arts festival, committed suicide on Saturday night.

From the Reno Gazette-Journal:

Remains of the burned Burning Man effigy.

The charred remains of the iconic Burning Man effigy after Paul Addis burned it early at the 2007 event.

Paul Addis, a longtime Burner and artist fed up with the way Burning Man was being organized, died after he jumped in front of a moving BART train at Embarcadero station on Saturday night, according to multiple Bay Area news reports. He was 42.

Addis was convicted of felony arson after setting fire to what festival-goers call “The Man” on that early Tuesday morning [in 2007].

Burning Man is an annual gathering in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada which attracts over 50,000 attendees and has spawned a worldwide subculture of smaller regional events and year-round communities. The event is based around ethics of a gift economy and radical participation, and has its roots in anarchic gatherings created by groups like the Cacophony Society and Crash Worship (whose descendants Flam Chen were profiled here last weekend).

Its central ritual is the end of week burning of a massive effigy of a human figure. Addis short-circuited this ritual in 2007 by setting fire to the icon on the event’s first night. Reports differ on the circumstances of this action, with Addis claiming warnings were given and attempts made to clear the area while other eyewitnesses tell stories of helping endangered, inebriated people away from the flames. Addis was arrested, convicted of destruction of property (a felony), and spent two years in jail.

Burning Man offers a place where some people (those who can afford it) come to explore the nature of identity, creativity and social interaction free from the constraints of mainstream capitalist culture. Yet as the event grew, this experiment in temporary community naturally adopted rules. Steven T. Jones, the San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter who has chronicled many Burning Man events, cites an accidental death in 1996 as the beginning of the end of the event’s true lawlessness.

Addis, a Cacophonist who participated in Burning Man’s early days, had infamously (but more harmlessly) pranked before by attaching a pair of testicles to the sculpture in the late ’90s. He grew bitter at the changes to his beloved community and styled himself a direct action hero who would reclaim the free spirit of the event by making good on an annually recurring rumor — that the Man would Burn early. Addis seemed to identify with larger-than-life figures like Hunter S. Thompson, who he played in a one-man show.

In his book Tribes of Burning Man, Jones describes Addis’ motivation for the costly prank:

Addis seems to believe that big gestures like torching the man can prompt people to rally for change. “In any situation, it only takes one person to make a difference. I firmly believe that.” Beyond just taking back Burning Man, Addis wanted to reclaim the country from the screwheads and war mongers, to end the Iraq War, and help “rehumanize” the returning soldiers.

As he announced grandly, “We’re taking it back, that hulking retard known as America.”

There’s no more divisive figure in the Burning Man subculture than Addis. A lengthy profile of Addis’ life and death by Whatsblem the Pro on the Burning Man commentary blog along with the heated comments that follow offers a glimpse into the kind of debate which erupts any time his name is mentioned:

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