Suspect in Burning Man arson decries event's loss of spontaneity

Saturday, September 1, 2007

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Lighting the icon of Burning Man four days before the Man's scheduled immolation was a prank with a message, says the San Francisco man who faces a felony arson charge in connection with the torching.

Paul David Addis was arrested Tuesday on felony charges of arson and destruction of property, as well as misdemeanor possession of fireworks and resisting a public officer, after the 40-foot Burning Man figure was set ablaze at 2:58 a.m. that day. The fire was doused within half an hour, and the figure was rebuilt in time for the official burning, planned for 10 tonight.

This is the 21st year for the Burning Man festival, which draws thousands of people to Nevada's Black Rock Desert for several days of revelry. In a telephone interview Friday from his San Francisco home, Addis said that while he was not claiming responsibility for the blaze himself - "I'm facing charges. I'm not stupid" - he did characterize himself as the representative and sole surviving member of the satirical group that was responsible. He called the group Black Rock Intelligence, or "the CIA of Burning Man."

Addis plans to plead not guilty when he is scheduled to appear Sept. 25 in Nevada's Pershing County Courthouse. Burning Man organizers did not respond Friday to requests for comment on Addis' remarks.

Satire aside, Addis said there was a more serious point behind the early burn: The celebration of individual expression and community-building at the core of Burning Man has been lost in recent years as the event has become too "suburban." A spontaneous act like prematurely burning the Man was an attempt to recapture some of the original spirit of the event.

"This was not an act of vengeance, it was one of love," Addis said Friday from his home in San Francisco. "A love of the ethos that is fading at Burning Man. There's no sense of spontaneity. No sense of 'F- it. Let's burn this down.' "

Addis is a spontaneous dude himself, and serious messaging aside, speaks, he said, "with tongue firmly in cheek." At 35 or 37 years old - he prefers 35, which is the age that Nevada police gave the media - he is a self-described "retired" intellectual-property lawyer who quit law in 2000 to pursue a career as an artist. He is currently touring as the star of his production of "Gonzo, a Brutal Chrysalis," a play about the life of another fire-lover, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. It played earlier this year in San Francisco and has dates scheduled this month in Seattle and in October in Los Angeles.

Several years ago, in a gonzo-type prank, Addis hung giant, silver-painted beach balls on the nether region of the Man. Earlier this week, Burning Man organizers confirmed that Addis indeed was the beach-ball-hanger. No charges were filed then.

Addis said his group of "operatives," as he referred to his co-conspirators in Tuesday's Man-burn, planned the event well in advance, and made efforts to shoo people away from the scene beforehand to ensure their safety. No injuries were reported - except for those to the Man.

Addis has attended Burning Man several times and said he enjoyed the experience. He fondly remembers the 1996 event, where "80 percent of the stuff around us burned - not stuff that wasn't supposed to, but there was a greater sense of danger."

Addis, however, won't be coming back. He said he has been banned from the event, and has been told that flyers with his name on it are circulating. That's OK; he doesn't want to return.

"The world's got 6 billion people in it. I want to check them all out."

E-mail Joe Garofoli at jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page A - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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