Holy Smoke! Some trickster torched Burning Man last night. The SF Chronicle apparently picked up the story first. And now it’s making its way through the national and international press.
Paul David Addis, a 35-year old “artist” and resident of San Francisco started the blaze at 2:58am last night, according to the Chronicle. Said dude was booked on felony charges of arson and destruction of property. He also was booked for resisting a public officer. And, my fave, for possession of fireworks. He posted $25,632 bail and was released Tuesday afternoon from the Pershing County Jail in Lovelock, Nevada (whose mugshot appears to the left here). He has one of the better mug shots, I must admit. How did they allow him to pose like this?
Now, what happened here?
Some of the best reportage on the story I’ve seen is by RU Sirius on the 10ZenMonkeys blog. RU interviewed the arsonist in question on the blog several weeks ago, and even quotes him today dissing Burning Man as “toothless and wallowing in its own muck and irrelevant to anyone or anything” So why go to the time and trouble of going to the event? And getting arrested at it. Usually, sane people ignore things they consider irrelevant. They torch things that they consider relevant, and despicable.
The 10ZenMonkeys story seems to link up the recent decision of Larry Harvey and the Burning Man organization to allow corporate demonstrations with protests of the event this year (apparently, like Addis’s). Addis also apparently had a history of dissing the restrictiveness of the principles and rules governing the event and Larry Harvey’s management of the event. So the story suggests that maybe maybe there was a mistrust of the marketizing of Burning Man this year that motivated this act of resistance and arson?
A Burning Man ranger with the hairy name of Ranger Sasquatch is widely quotes as saying that this is an act of “an attention whore has made a plea for attention.” Hey, it’s an attention economy. Prematurely burning down the man is good for a big what of publicity.
Then, there’s the kicker. The 10ZenMonkeys story features and details Addis’ new one-man show where he portrays, wait for it, that great gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson. The story ends with a cryptic statement: “Then again, it is also true that Addis’ one-man show is poised for a West Coast tour.” RU, RU serious? RU ever? Are you really suggesting that this guy did this act as a promotional stunt? To make himself famous? To market his one-man show? Hmmmm.
A few years ago, my colleagues Sven Bergvall and Jacob Östberg made a film called “Burning Bock” that chronicles the annual burning of a goat-shaped straw figure in Gavle Sweden. The problem with the event in recent years is that it has turned into a contest between official organizers and the public to see who can manage to burn the goat first. Repeatedly, people have simply been too tempted by the goat, and set it alight themselves before the official ceremony. Although everyone is bummed out when it happens, it makes for a lively drama, lots of guarding and covert watching of the goat, and lots of smirking and tongue-clicking when some new jackass sets the thing alight. And guess what? The person who burns it ends up with their name in the press, immortalized. Hey, it’s way less than murder rap. And it provides almost the full fame content. In th attention economy thats a cost-benefit ratio that’s hard to beat.
Burning Man just got Bocked. Bigtime. As in, “Hey, you bocked my candle!” or, “Be careful with that lighter, you nearly bocked that pack of cigarettes.” Or, maybe even more generally (use your imagination here), “Ooops, I bocked.”
The question now is whether this will turn into a pattern or not. Whether there will need to be a full-time Ranger force guarding the Man. Or whether there will be an electrified perimeter fence set up around the man. Or a plexiglass display case. Maybe the Man could be burnt in a remote and undisclosed location, and the image of the burn transmitted live by satellite to Black Rocky City. Or maybe there will be vigilante forces that will guard the man around the clock, or hunt down those who burn it. Or a set of spare Men could be constructed for such emergencies, so that when one Man burns another is simply pulled out of storage. I kind of like that image.
So there are lots of solutions. I’m resting assured that the good folks at BMOrg will opt for the less oppressive ones.
It’s certainly relevant that even before the ashes have cooled, Burning Man’s organizers have pledged to rebuild the effigy in two (count e’m, just two) days. Their news release, posted on their website, conspicuously depersonalizes the event, apparently seeking to minimize the potential fame accruing to the perp.
And I think that’s the even more interesting story. This isn’t just about individual fame. It’s about community in crisis. Challenges faced. Building the Man only to freshly burn him down again, officially, because that’s the point. The Eternal Return.
For those of you interested in further delving, I recommend the LaughingSquid’s coverage of the event, including the debates about how cool or uncool is this act that runs counter to the counterculture. Me? I’m with the side that sees this as an act of attention-getting vandalism plain and simple (I really hope it wasn’t intentional self-promotion). Burning Man isn’t about anything goes (although it came from that history). It’s often about creating a social movement that respects people, their communities, and their rights. It’s not really contrarian; it’s utopian. Destruction for the sake of destruction (or self-promotion) isn’t about any of these things. In the year when Burning Man is supposed to be contemplating how we treat the Earth, what does this act say about how we can collectively and individually behave ourselves to reverse the damage already done and the monumental destructive momentum we’ve built up?
Or maybe, just maybe it’s even more important to notice how we are responding to the act.