Erik Davis

Burning Men


addis  And so there you are, in a fireman’s coat, hurling through the wee hours across a parched and dusty lakebed in a 1979 American LaFrance firetruck, a pumper from Danville Illinois named Sparky who occasionally spits gobs fire from a flamethrower mounted on the roof of the cab. This is no ordinary Monday night.

Above you the rare shadow of the earth has morphed the full moon into a dusky half-burnt clementine that hangs there pendulous like some wandering orb on the cover of a 70s SF paperback. In the muted moonlight, you can see for once that the thing really is a sphere, and not a disc—a ping-pong jack-o-lantern arrested midflight. You think upon the old ones and what they must have made of such a vision, so unusual but still predictable to the sharper monkey minds: A call to the gods? An excuse to orgy? Proof that nature is a veil?

“Baby’s on Fire” is spewing out of the iPod, and Fripp’s incandescent solo mixes with Burning Man’s surrounding soundscape of engines, explosions, house beats, and the rising cries of gesticulating passersby who have—wait a sec—just realized that the iconic 40-foot-tall trademark that centers their entire week of organized revelry is prematurely aflame.

—Gnat, am I hallucinating?

—Of course!

—But the Man’s on fire!

—Ohshit ohshit. Mhuaahaha! GO GO GO!!!

Later, there will be arguments over motive and ethic, of responsibility and risk and the smoldering coals of living theatre. But for now there is only the Event: the disruptive eruption of novelty, of amoral surprise, of the genuinely untimely. The man is burning! Time is out of joint! Later, there will be News and Analysis and Opinion, those grubby hustlers of thought who monopolize the discourse we use to mirror the world. But for now we, or at least those of us on Sparky, laugh with exultation, with ridiculous wayward joy, because our lives happen, really happen, only in the environs of the Event, in that frothy chaos that dances ahead of the march of facts.

The Event is not history: it arises in a different kind of time, meta-magical time, nonlinear or at least orthogonal to our quotidian grind. The fire that licked the parrafin-soaked figure that Monday night was also the Ouroboros licking its own tail. In a bar after the festival was over the accused perpetrator of the act spoke to my friend about wormholes and time-slips, and it did seem for a moment that we were once again beholding the old school burning men of yore, toxic and raw and stripped of firework finery. And dangerously mythic. As we scrambled off the firetruck, a lanky young fellow with a thin but prophetic beard passed us, calling to all with ears in a stentorian Masterpiece Theatre voice: The Man shall burn when the planets align, and not at the hour appointed by man.

Of course, the planets fall from allignment, and man returns with his watch and his appointments, with his News and Analysis and Opinion. At first the news we heard was indistinguishable from fantasy and projection, not unlike the apocalyptic speculations that greeted the rumors of Katrina during the 2005 festival. The rumors of 2007, however, were all about sabotage, about grappling hooks and decoy fireworks and zip lines and Spider Man-obsessed FX maestros and napalm and ferocious beatings and inside jobs and defense funds and mysterious radio silences.

Gradually, the consensus of facts emerged: At 2:58 a.m., August 28, the Burning Man Festival’s most obvious raison d’être was torched. Not long after, one Paul David Addis, 35, was booked into the Pershing County Jail on felony charges of arson and destruction of property, and misdemeanor charges of possession of fireworks and resisting a public officer. He was subsequently released after some pals paid a bondsman to post his $25,632 bail.

Addis’ early arrest also arrested the more unsettling reverberations of the Event. Once we have a human agent in our sites, the Event becomes a deed, a human deed, and the questions of responsibility and intention arise. Who is this masked man in the mugshot? Why is he smiling? What were his intentions? How could he justify his actions? How shall we judge him?

I am not interested in these questions right now, except for possibly the one about that fucking smile, the gonzo grin of a lost man sailing beyond regrets. What I am interested in are the presuppositions behind our questions, our interrogations really, and how those hidden assumptions bounce back at us as reality.

With this man Addis to speculate about and to blame, the anonymous ambiguity of the Event narrows into the political psychology of a single guy: a loose canon, a channeler of Hunter S. Thompson, an old-school if infrequent Burner. But which guy is it? The fellow who gave Wired a position paper, or the batshit time traveler who met my pal in that bar after the fact, a guy who described the prank as a “birthday candle” and a wormhole? When he torched the man, was Addis acting as a ideologue, or a prankster, or an artist? Each of these actors in turn invokes a different set of criteria we might use to judge the act, its ethical dimensions, its efficacy.

I’ll get to the more conventional and legalistic frameworks for Addis’ dangerous deed next post. But first I’d like to invoke an esoteric one: Poetic Terrorism. The term comes from Hakim Bey, the same fellow who gave us the “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” an underground term that was freely used by participants and observers alike in their quest to tag the events on Black Rock desert back in the day.

In his 1985 pamphlet Chaos: Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism, Bey writes that “Poetic Terrorism is an act in a Theater of Cruelty which has no stage, no rows of seats, no tickets & no walls.” Bey provides a brief catalog of possible pranks and wonders, which includes one of particular relevance here: unauthorized pyrotechnic displays. Bey has further recommendations:

Don’t do Poetic Terrorism for other artists, do it for people who will not realize (at least for a few moments) that what you have done is art. Avoid recognizable art-categories, avoid politics, don’t stick around to argue, don’t be sentimental; be ruthless, take risks, vandalize only what MUST be defaced, do something children will remember all their lives—but don’t be spontaneous unless the Poetic Terrorist Muse has possessed you.

I don’t know if Addis was possessed by the Poetic Terrorist Muse, or Choronzon, or L’il Abner. For all I know, he was acting from some terrible combination of lust, monomania, and neuro-chemical turbulence. But from some reports he did act as one possessed, possibly spouting prophetic verse. On his flickr page, Danger Ranger (board member Michael Michael) has his Addis photo in a set called “chaos technicians,” which also includes a shot of a guy who has been ejected from the playa five years running. But as my pal Earth pointed out, since when do we expect our poets to be healthy and balanced? You may not agree that his act was poetry, but it was certainly more than the Great Prank—not just a snarky money shot for the camera, but a shuddering, mythic invocation that briefly summoned another age and sluiced a wormhole into the current festival by invoking the contradictions that compose it, by daring the beast to show itself.

At the same time, Addis’ was also, by community as well as legal norms, the destruction of someone else’s art, performed recklessly and on a public enough scale that the “terrorism” in Bey’s phrase is not entirely out of place. Still, I believe that Addis and all who were moved to hilarity and exultation by his act—even if, like me, they wrestle with the contradictions and paradoxes that hilarity and exultation leaves in its wake—must acknowledge that what was vandalized had to be defaced for the poetry, in this most peculiar context, to properly sing. Perhaps you heard the song, or perhaps it sounded like noise, or like some idiot tooting his own horn. Perhaps it stirred something in you you thought had died.

The early burn also reminded me that the best art out there is still the stuff that reveals how the whole show is constructed, not just Black Rock City, or your perception of it, but the whole enchilada—you know, reality. And I’m not just talking about metaphysical, woo-woo, infinite-recursive-loop reality. I’m talking about that more solid fabric of identity, matter, property, image and consciousness that we navigate daily. And sometimes the only way to show how heavily solidified stuff like that is constructed is to destroy it.

Part Two: The Order of Things

addis3  On Monday night of this year’s Burning Man festival, when Larry Harvey saw the figure he first built over twenty years ago burst into flame before its appointed time, the man’s immediate reaction was laughter. A pure and perfect response. Harvey also noted that he laughed only after he knew that the fire was under control and that no one was apt to be hurt. (I’ll be honest: I laughed without knowing if anyone had been injured.) Soon afterwards, Harvey told a blogger that the early burn would turn the festival into a “narrative of community and redemption,” as attendees got to see or assist in the public rebuilding of the statue.

I appreciate where Harvey is coming from, but this sounds like a pretty kumbaya take on what looked to me and many others like an increasingly hidebound institution’s inability to react creatively to a disturbing and unexpected marvel left steaming on their doorstep. So many things could have been done at the time—parade the body of the blackened man to Center Camp, or distribute his dismembered planks to the plazas like the chunks of Osiris, or place the corpse in the arms of the new man.

Sadly, the organization did not improvise with the Event. Instead, they acted a bit like a colony of ants and simply cleaned up the mess and replicated the established model. The repetitive nature of the task, performed behind guard and beneath those garish lights without poetry or mirth, spoke less of community and redemption than of the empire of work. The second man was not a phoenix; it was a clone.

Perhaps this helps explain why the official Saturday night burn of 2007 was probably the most boring on record. Admittedly, I’ve seen these things into the double digits now. But I am also jaded about being jaded and still enjoy the sparkle, the roar, and especially the first surge of the acolytes toward the pyre. But Saturday night’s fireworks had all the whizbang of those little doodads that blink on websites, and the conflagration itself was so drawn out and tepid that many of the revelers around me just walked away or started talking about DJs.

So what made it boring? She that hath an ear, let her hear: Because the base structure was too strong. It was too rigid. It didn’t give. It didn’t surprise. If attendants hadn’t manually pulled the scarecrow down, he would have stood there all night, like the living dead.

But I am not really interested in second-guessing the organization. They build a crazy, immensely entertaining and inspiring city in the middle of nowhere and then tear it down without killing people or getting arrested. They have a lot on their plate.

Here is the question I am interested in: if the Event sparked by Paul Addis did not lead to poetry beyond the gesture itself, did it at least lead to insight? Addis threw up a challenge, legal and political as well as artistic and magical. Were Burners up for it? How did we narrate this unexpected rupture? How did we speak it into history?

I have been frankly amazed at how rapidly so many Burners have deflated the delirious ambiguity of Addis’ act by taking it upon themselves to render judgment upon it in legalistic or at least highly conventional terms. Its a curious response. I mean, the feds are going to have their way with Addis whatever you or me or the “Burning Man community” thinks. So what turned us into op-ed stuffshirts or magistrates proclaiming opinion in a court of law?

Part of the blame for all this dusty punditry can be laid on the feet of the Zeitgeist. In our era of pervasive blogochatter, everyone feels compelled to have an opinion. My friends, it is a terrible habit, having opinions, the compulsive collection of positions that often only masquerade as actually thinking about something. Moreover, these alignments are often related to deeply established memes which we reproduce without complication by “holding” the opinion. In this way, we unknowingly give over our power—individual and collective—to those larger myths and institutions that organize reality according to convention.

What conventions, you say? There is the militaristic logic of escalation: If Addis is not prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, copycats will destroy the festival! Then there is the fearful invocation of dark possibilities that didn’t actually happen (a rhetorical strategy of control-through-fear we should all be familiar with by now): But something really bad could have happened! Then there was the surprisingly oft-heard “customer service” critique, often made in the name of other people and whose basic logic, as far as I can parse it, goes something like this: Hey now, folks paid good money to see the Man burn on Saturday night, and no selfish burst of Dada détournement should keep them from enjoying their spectacle right on schedule!

Far more significant (and insidious) than any of these conventions, though, is the colossal mythology of property: How dare Addis destroy other people’s art?! I agree that having your playa artwork destroyed by some yahoo with a jug of propane would totally suck, but the totally understandable complaint here actually conceals two very different views, and it’s important to keep them apart.

One view is the sacrosanct status of property that supports the modern nation-state. The other view arises from the collective mores of Black Rock City: an evolving body of informal and contradictory standards that holds certain things about the sanctity (and not) of art. Within the latter framework, it certainly is bad form to destroy someone’s art without asking. However, within BRC mores, it would not be entirely out of place (though a minority view I suspect) to suggest that burning someone’s art may be considered a form of interacting with it. In a federal court, where only the view based on property holds sway, this argument would never make it past a lawyer’s lips.

So let’s stay with this second view for a moment. Doesn’t the oft-trumpeted gift economy of Burning Man—not to mention the insane degree of consumption that fuels it—indicate that property has a different meaning out there, that it is less important than expression or community or pleasure? In an interview recently conducted by telegraph and semaphore, Danger Ranger made the point that the raison d’être of the real world’s police and the military can largely be boiled down to the protection of property. In contrast, he characterized the Black Rock Rangers—who partly enforce community mores—as an organization founded with the explicit goal of protecting community rather than property.

During our chat, Danger Ranger made an even more important point: the legal status of Black Rock City is fundamentally ambiguous. “Federal, state and county laws are often enforced selectively by the various agencies that represent those civil entities, because most of the individuals within those agencies realize that this a unique community with a different system of values. After spending some time in Black Rock City, it quickly becomes apparent that ‘The Law’ is not a universal standard that can be imposed on the citizens of a community who have collectively agreed to different set of principles.” This legal ambiguity is not just a fantasy of freedom—it actually constitutes the shared reality of that place and time, like, arguably, the micronation of Sealand or an MMORPG or the kinky doings in the basement of a private club.

You can get metaphysical about all this. Consider California’s pot clubs or the grow fields that support them—the federal laws simply do not apply in the same way to these spaces, even if the feds sometimes act like they do. The activities in these territories is, like a quantum particle, an ambiguous behavior that is only resolved according to a political struggle over which perceptions, legal and otherwise, can be used to name and clarify it.

So when Burners invoked specifically legalistic categories like “arson” and “reckless endangerment”—and I did it too at times—they were not just rationally debating Addis’ fate. They were actively deflating the productive legal ambiguity of Black Rock City as a self-governing political and territorial space by capitulating, too quickly and without consciousness, to the reality tunnel of the State and, particularly, to its conception of property.

Even in BRC terms the Burning Man is not just another piece of art—and it is certainly not just Larry Harvey’s art. Arguably, anyone who pays their ticket and invests that figure with hope and expectation can claim a piece of the thing. The Man is a symbol an an icon, and he is also a logo and a brand whose value Black Rock citizens partly create and sustain through our own creativity and sacrifice. To reclaim or arguably “liberate” this chunk of mindshare by burning it is, while crude and destructive, also to reassert the bootleg value of the figure as a figment of the collective imagination rather than the registered trademark of a for-profit organization.

So here’s a question: If we believe that property at Burning Man is in service of community, did Addis’ destruction of property serve community?

After Addis burnt the man, the Burning Man board could not come to agreement as to the best course of action. The group that wound up ruling the day was not the Board but the crew who actually build the man—essentially, DPW. In other words, the decision to rebuild the man arose through the ranks, reflecting that particular crew’s sense of energetic investment into the figure. In this sense, Larry Harvey’s kumbaya was right on, and community asserted itself in the face of destruction.

I wish they had rebuilt the man with more panache, but the act at least reflected the fact that the Man was less someone’s property than the fruit of someone else’s labor. So while the call to rebuild was a corporate decision, requiring the diversion of funds and the deployment of a labor force (volunteer and not), many of the workers were psyched to do it because their labor was not alienated. And in the complex dynamics of Black Rock City, a bloc of unalienated and skilled laborers have a big claim on the (re)construction of reality.

The strongest criticisms of Addis’ act went beyond the call of property. An even deeper meme was drawn from, and that is the supreme call to protect human life—one of the core axioms of our fearful, litigious, paranoid, and death-denying society. Addis should be condemned because he endangered innocent human lives.On the surface, this argument is inarguable, but that is, I would like to suggest, more a sign of its cunning than its logic or essential goodness.

At the moment, there is little to be gained from asking just how dangerous Addis’ actions actually were (would we think differently if we knew he had planned it out like a jewel thief?). That his act was in some sense dangerous is clear. But how dangerous do we want Burning Man to be? And even before we address that question, it is crucial to recognize how the axiomatic invocation of safety as a trump card also performs its own violence, its own kind of snuffing out.

Look, for example, at the constricted lives of so many kids today, with their helmets and knee pads and car-seats, their time managed, their piss checked, their movements tracked by cell phones and prohibitions against aimless wandering. What has been killed in the process of making them less likely to be killed? Perhaps, in our fearful genuflection before safety, we are deadening our taste for the raw and nervy exultation of cognitive and physical liberty—a liberty which most certainly should include the freedom to attend dangerous and wayward festivals where, if your aren’t careful or even lucky, large burning things might fall on your head.

Now don’t get me wrong. A bomb-chucking Nietzschean anarchist may sneak into my heart sometimes, but my heart lives in my body, and my body doesn’t want burning things falling on its head either. I celebrate all the work people do at Burning Man to prevent needless suffering, and I don’t want my friends and compatriots hurt. At the same time I cannot quiet the cosmic imp whispering in my ears:

Does not Burning Man stand alone because, even now, the event still tangos with chaos, with Dionysian fury and explosive devices and actual risk? With, you know, Danger? Sure there were people under the untimely burning man who were pelted with fireworks. Did they read their ticket? Are those words just for show? Do you read them that way? Think of the last time you back-packed: doesn’t knowing that old Griz lurks in the hills gives the hike through the high country spice?

I know, I know: my old school is showing. I first showed up at Burning Man in 94, when the event was ugly, deranged, and totally transformative: cacophony and suicide and discordia rolled into one mobile feast of AK-47s, mescal, and cigars. Larry Harvey may not care for the term, but I believe in the temporary autonomous zone. I felt it; I was there.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not pulling an elitist move or claiming the festival was “better” back then. It wasn’t. I remain continuously amazed at its evolution. I am fascinated by the fiery city. But those years catalyzed such bizarre ruptures of reality that they demand a fidelity that I and some quasi-jaded old-school Burners who still attend the festival cannot and will not shake.

My sadness these last few weeks is mostly a recognition of how many of today’s Burners do not share that fidelity, which in retrospect makes Addis’ act even more meaningful to me than the poetic prank it seemed that Monday night.

I believe that 2007 will go down as a watershed year in the evolution of Burning Man, not unlike the transition from 1996 to 97, when the urban model was locked in and the guns were banished. This year, we witnessed the visible embrace of entrepreneurial capital. We witnessed the Great Prank that this embrace partly triggered, and that in turn triggered a banal official response. We heard a rhetorical upswing concerning the festival’s social relevance, and a corresponding back-pedaling on the spirit of useless expenditure that characterized its past. We witnessed the increasing influence of Burning Man on the culture at large, from the Adult Swim cartoon to Burners Without Borders to the spread of Burning Man-style art to festivals and urban landscapes. All of these mark 2007 as a tipping point, as a crystallization of a different regime.

There is great good and enormous potential in this transformation. It signals the maturity of Burning Man’s urban metaphor, the infectious strength of its countercultural creativity, and its strong desire to bring the playa back into the world. The playa has burst; the seeds are scattering. I say spread ’em! Keep drawing others into the fete. Let’s transform the world with a mobile army of art perverts and post-apocalyptic entrepreneurs and hard partiers handy with drills, grey water, and incendiary devices.

But to boldly go into that brave new burning world, you gotta pass your ass through the time-slip wormhole of chaos that Paul Addis invoked in flame beneath an ominous moon.

[Editor’s Note: The best commentary on the early burn. In fact, perhaps the only commentary worth reading.] Sept 20 & Sept 26, 2007