Why I've Got No Sense of Humor about Arson in Black Rock City
What does the symbol of the Burning Man mean? Do you think that nobody has ever asked the artist in charge of it, Larry Harvey, that question? He has been asked that question in every interview he has given in the last two decades. Never, ever, not even once has he even hinted at an answer to that question. And it's not because he's incoherent and unable to give a clear answer; he's justified everything else about his artwork at tremendous length, in manifestos you can judge for yourself if you read them at BurningMan.com. The reason he won't tell you what the Man "really means" isn't that he can't, but that he has decided very specifically not to tell you what it means. Any 1st year art student could glance over it and tell you some of the various symbols that it evokes, highly emotional symbols such as Julius Caesar's war-propaganda claim that Celts used a cage shaped like a wicker man to burn prisoners alive, or the centuries' worth of European agricultural festivals in which symbols of the old harvest are burned, or Native American potlatch ceremonies in which art and other valuable possessions were burned in a conspicuous competition to display wealth, or the ubiquitous symbolic protest of burning a public figure in effigy, or even the mythical phoenix that, like the Burning Man, burns completely to the ground and is born again fresh each time. And those are just the obvious associations. No, what he stumbled upon as an artist burning a sculpture on the San Francisco beach back in 1986 is a symbol so ambiguous and yet so potent that it can mean anything you want ... to you. And Larry Harvey has been telling people, for as long as he's been putting up the man and burning it, that whatever meaning you take away from the ceremony is your meaning, and perfectly valid for you.
That's not good enough for some people.
You see, the expansion of the Burning Man festival collided with a completely unrelated phenomenon early on. In 1991, anarchist theoretician and self-annointed Sufi mystic Hakim Bey (born Peter Lamborn Wilson) published his most influential book, Temporary Autonomous Zone. It's less coherent than almost anything that's ever been written about it, and certainly less coherent than this summary will be, but his basic thesis goes like this. Even if you managed to wave a magic wand and free everybody on earth from all government, there'd be nothing to stop any of those free individuals who wanted to from setting up governments. And no government will tolerate anarchists on their borders or within their borders for very long. Therefore, he reasoned, the failure of anarchists' attempts to set up ungoverned colonies or nations over the years should not be seen as proof that anarchy doesn't work, only that anarchists aren't willing to sell out their principles and form their own governments to defend themselves from hostile governments. He proposed an alternative model to the idea of anarchist revolution: the Temporary Autonomous Zone. Drawing on the example of the semi-permanent "pirate nation" of the Brethren of the Coast, who moved and rebuilt their whole city on three different islands over the centuries they were in existence, what he proposes is that anarchists seek out spaces where neither governments nor organized criminals bother to go, where there's nothing there to attract their attention, and simply live free, anarchist lives in those spaces. Let the word spread by word of mouth that this space is where the free, ungoverned people are living right now. If a hostile government decides to civilize or occupy or otherwise destroy and govern the Temporary Autonomous Zone, the free people should simply move along, scatter to the winds, and send out scouts looking for more worthless empty spaces to occupy: abandoned warehouse districts, empty desert ghost towns, under-used unimproved federal parks or nature preserves, any place that the cops and the various mafias just don't bother to go. Even he didn't claim it was a new idea; he was merely labeling and endorsing a recurring historical phenomenon.
Well, guess what. Not a few of people the people who read that book (or who claimed to have, a much larger number) also saw the Burning Man as the symbolic burning of "The Man." They saw in him the symbol of capitalism, corporate fascism, pervasive surveillance government, Big Brother, The State. In their interpretation of Larry Harvey's artwork, the reason that they went out into the middle of a salt flat and set up a city around it was obviously to build a Temporary Autonomous Zone, and to signal to other anarchists that this was a free and ungoverned space by burning "The Man" in effigy. For the next 10 years after that book came out, half the interviewers asked Larry Harvey if Black Rock City was a Temporary Autonomous Zone, if he was burning The Man in effigy? And each and every time he denied that it was a Temporary Autonomous Zone, that there was a difference between encouraging people to express themselves freely and encouraging anarchy. And each and every time he said that if some of the people dancing around the Burning Man as it collapsed in flames were interpreting it as burning The Man in effigy, that was their perfectly valid interpretation, but not necessarily his or anybody else's.
That's not good enough for some people. Some people are determined to impose their meaning on somebody else's artwork. And to use felony arson as a tool to do so.
Paul Addis, the man arrested in the act of using a propane torch to try to burn down the Burning Man statue for his own private purposes, has a history of his own. He is very specifically one of the asshole brand of anarchists who really don't accept that their right to swing their fist ends where the other person's nose begins; to him and to guys like him (and it's almost always guys, and, as Randy Milholland pointed out, usually the same wimpy guys who'd get the crap beat out of them if their fantasy ever came true) that's an unacceptable limitation on human freedom. And in fact, his longest running art piece of his own speaks volumes to his ignorance: he has proclaimed himself the symbolic heir to, and the rebirth of, Hunter S. Thompson. What you may not know (and he surely doesn't seem to realize) is that there were actually two Hunter S. Thompsons. One was a sports journalist who dabbled in political satire. By all accounts from his friends, he was a pretty nice guy. The other was the character of "Hunter S. Thompson" that Thompson wrote in his pseudo-biographical essays and novels ... who never existed. Even trivial attempts at fact checking show that most of it was made up. How much more evidence do you need than for me to point out that for a professional writer, isn't it awfully obvious how little time the character of "Hunter S. Thompson" actually spends writing? The fictional "Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Journalist" is a fantasy wish-fulfillment character, a totally heartless sociopath who gets away with it over and over again. That Paul Addis thinks he's re-enacting Hunter S. Thompson by acting like "Hunter S. Thompson" tells you an awful lot about why he'd destroy a several thousand dollar piece of artwork for his own political purposes. It's exactly the kind of thing that the fictional "Hunter S. Thompson" would have done, that the real Hunter S. Thompson never did.
But yeah, Paul Addis has also explained to several reporters, in a level of detail that will doubtless give whatever lawyer the morons who are funding his legal defense fund come up with severe indigestion, exactly why he engaged in felony arson. Over the last several years, the Black Rock Arts Foundation and Burning Man, Incorporated have done things that violate his personal interpretation of what the burning of The Man is supposed to mean. To him and to the pseudo-intellectual anarchists who agree with him, if the Burning Man doesn't symbolize the destruction of capitalist democratic society and the liberation of the masses into a happy and violent and dangerous world without the evils of law or money, then it's completely meaningless; no other meaning is imaginable. And if it's completely meaningless, then it's entirely appropriate for him to destroy that meaningless symbol, even if it doesn't belong to him, even if it did cost thousands of dollars of other people's money, even if it was a work of somebody else's art who is demonstrably several hundred times the artist that Paul Addis is, even if it's a work of art that dozens of people worked on under grueling desert conditions and had to do all over again under very tight time constraints.
Excuse me if I don't think that that's at all funny, let alone appropriate in any way. Way too many of the people who think it's funny are the kind of people who think it's funny any time anything bad happens to a hippy. Where they come by the weird idea that there are hippies at Burning Man, I have no idea; I didn't see a single one when I was there, and haven't seen one yet in any photographs of the event. But however many things you may blame the hippies for (and even I have a few), thinking it's funny when bad things happen to them doesn't say anything nice about you. But more people think it's funny just for the irony that they were going to burn him anyway, and here they are getting all angry that it got burned. Yeah, well, Burning Man's seen that form of idiocy before, too. One year a group of people showed up with portable propane torches like Addis's and walked around trying to set every piece of art on the playa on fire. They got arrested and evicted, but only after destroying thousands of dollars' worth of other people's property and creating not a few public safety hazards. Even if you are such a barbarian that you would intentionally destroy the set and the props for somebody else's performance piece, which part of "it's never okay to destroy somebody else's stuff without their permission" is unclear to them, or to anyone? Destroying other people's property, let alone their art, wasn't funny then and it's not funny now, either. And after the first time, it's not even an original way to be a jerk.
And if the "Temporary Autonomous Zone" fans don't like what the rest of the world has done with an outdoor art and performance event that they didn't create, that they did very little to help, and at which they've done very little but create trouble for other people, then there is only one appropriate thing for them to do: start their own event. Nothing's stopping them. Several of them have tried. But then, there's a long history of bitter, unsuccessful artists burning the work of and otherwise attacking skilled, successful artists, isn't there? If all of these morons and losers packed up their toys and went to play elsewhere, nobody but the few of them would even notice. I'm sure that the anger they feel over that had a lot more to do with Tuesday's crime than any artistic or political statement that Paul Addis says he was trying to make.
And he may be more trouble, and in more trouble, than we even know yet. The day after he made bail, he told several reporters that he had co-conspirators, all of whom committed suicide rather than be taken in for questioning. That same day, Black Rock City found its first suicide, a guy who'd hung himself from his tent poles. Last I heard, nobody had released the name of the deceased yet, so we don't know if the guy has any connection with Paul Addis. Maybe it is just a statistical quirk, totally random and unrelated. But if Paul Addis not merely engaged in felony arson in the middle of a crowded campground at 3:00 am and then assaulted a cop while resisting arrest, but also persuaded another person to commit suicide in order to cover up some or all of his crimes, there went any plea bargain that even the best lawyer money could buy was going to get him. They may well lock him up in a very unpleasant place for a very long time. And I hope they do. Because periodically society has to make an example out of psychopaths in order to keep the other psychopaths too cowardly to be the kind of psychopath that Paul Addis has shown himself to be.