Fire Illuminates Burning Man Complaints

Associated Press/August 31, 2007

San Francisco -- After the signature effigy of the Burning Man festival went up in flames four days ahead of schedule, festival-goers vowed to rebuild the 40-foot icon by Saturday's planned climax. But not everyone was disappointed by Tuesday's incineration.

The alleged torching of the wood-and-neon figure by a San Francisco performance artist has cast light on the disillusionment of many who feel the annual celebration of radical self-expression has lost touch with its spontaneous, subversive roots.

"People have been trying to set that thing on fire for years," said Hugh D'Andrade, a San Francisco artist who attended the festival for many years. "This is not a new phenomenon."

Organizers trace the first Burning Man back to a 1986 party on a San Francisco beach where Larry Harvey, who still runs the festival, set ablaze a crude 8-foot wooden figure.

Since then, the event has evolved into a weeklong gathering of nearly 40,000 people who descend on the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada around Labor Day each year to celebrate countercultural creativity.

In San Francisco, especially, Burning Man has emerged as a kind of underground high holiday as legions of so-called Burners devote the rest of the year to choreographing fire dances, decorating art cars and building elaborate interactive sculptures.

The event has become such a mainstay of the city's cultural calendar that Burner parents in 2005 unsuccessfully urged the San Francisco school board to postpone the first day of school so their children could attend.

But the rise in Burning Man's popularity has also brought a backlash.

In the immediate aftermath of this week's unscheduled burn, gleeful expressions of approval for the alleged prank rained down on blogs and Internet forums.

Some comments came from conservative posters ready to mock anything carrying a hint of hippiedom.

But many originated from self-described former attendees complaining that Burning Man has been spoiled by crowds of "yuppies" and "frat boys" mostly interested in doing drugs and ogling naked participants.

Steven Black, a 40-something librarian at the University of California, Berkeley, has attended Burning Man 11 times. But even though he had a ticket this year, he said, he didn't go.

"What has happened here is giving pause for a degree of introspection and reflection on what it means to burn this man that is perhaps long overdue," Black said.

According to Black, Burning Man's huge crowds have attracted heavy law enforcement attention to an event that was originally meant to be an exultation, leaving him feeling "less secure and less free" than if he had just stayed home.

Paul Addis, 35, of San Francisco, who is accused of setting fire to the Burning Man, posted $25,632 bond and was released from jail in Pershing County, Nev., on Tuesday. He was arrested on suspicion of arson, illegal possession of fireworks, destruction of property and resisting a public officer, according to the sheriff's department.

Known on the city's art scene for playing gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson on stage, Addis has apparently had long-standing gripes against the festival. In a letter published in a local alternative newspaper in 2002, a person using the same name complained about the imposition of rules he felt were spoiling the event.

"Those rules and judgments, such as what art is permitted in B(lack) R(ock) C(ity) and radical free expression's outer limits are determined in line with what will make the most money for B(urning) M(an) and generate the fewest potential controversies in the media," the person wrote.

Law enforcement officials said they did not know Addis' whereabouts after his release. Calls to a telephone number listed for him in San Francisco were not answered.

A spokeswoman for Burning Man organizers did not respond to messages seeking comment. vDespite the criticism, even disenchanted Burners like D'Andrade haven't completely written off the festival.

"When I first started going, they already said it was over," said D'Andrade, who went to his first Burning Man in 1999 and designed the ticket for this year's event, though he hasn't attended since 2005. "New people are still getting a big blast of all the positive elements that have made it what it is."

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