Can there be change at burning man?

web images of paul addis

Famous for its large scale art and interesting characters, among other things, the annual burning man event has brought people of all types to the northern Nevada desert for over twenty years. One of these people, Paul Addis, who first attended the event in the mid 90s long before the events widespread commercial success, eventually made a name for himself in an act that made CNN. Among many others Paul Addis came to the event, at least in part, to experience and participate in a space where free expression was fostered and encouraged.

Paul Addis is popularly known for an act that still brings about debate over 6 years after he did it. During the 2007 burning man event a 40 foot tall sculpture known as The Man, to which the event owes its name, was burned very early on Tuesday morning, over 5 days before the event organizers intended to burn it as part of the events culminating activities

In a recently released video ( youtube link ), which comes one year after his death, Mr Addis explains his actions and motivations for the premature burning of the man sculpture. In the video he speaks of how organizers have come to, ostensibly, embrace the idea of, as they refer to it, Radical Expression, but how in practice it has failed to pan out that way. Addis, and many others, felt that by the mid 2000s the event had long lost the edge that made it such a magnet to the many individuals seeking free expression in its early days. In an attempt to do something new and bold he lit the man sculpture, which is located at the very center of the event-site, on fire, an act that resulted in no injuries. For this act, which many in the community feel was a long needed statement that pushed the boundaries of expression at an event and within a culture that had seemingly been stagnant, Addis was arrested and faced felony charges of arson and destruction of property. A plea deal left Addis with only a charge of destruction of property, which, when one considers the organizers intended to burn the sculpture anyways, many believe could have been dropped if the burning man organizers had desired it.

The charges against Addis were not dropped or lessened and the organizers of burning man, in the form of the Black Rock City LLC, made no effort to lobby on his behalf. Considering the fact that the culture built up around this event is said to be one that embraces Radical Expression, and that material goods were offered as donations to rebuild the sculpture, which was intended to be burned, many, including Addis, appeared to feel that the refusal to mark this down as an example of expression that was radical, outside of the norm of every day expression, showed that radical expression was no longer welcome at burning man.

This example of radical expression is perhaps the most powerful example of how far some feel free expression should go at this event, which had its origins in illegal burns of sculptures on public beaches, and, also, a powerful example of how much things have changed in its over 25 years of history. 

With an ever increasing list of rules, regulations, unwritten expectations and disclosure agreements burning man has, over the years, gone from a free-form celebration of free expression to a tightly controlled festival with a sizable bureaucracy. A year-round community has grown up around this event, finding venues to express themselves online such as LLC controlled online forums, email listservs, blogs, and facebook pages. Of course, with these venues for expression comes a list of expectations and regulations that limit free expression, some of these expectation are far more stringent than what would be allowed at the event itself. 

Individuals challenging the various guidelines and expectations, online or off, may face involvement with the police, the head office at burning man HQ, depending on ones volunteer commitments (over 5000 individuals volunteer in some way each year) the HR department, the intellectual property department, and, the community itself through PR campaigns via the Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter which reaches over 300,000 people, the Burning Blog, facebook and twitter.

Notably, Larry Harvey, founder of the event, once revealed a position, in response to an action that occurred without asking LLC permission, which is generally permitted if LLC permission is granted (though the community is never asked in either case), that revealed the way many have seen the LLC act if someones behavior, or, free expression, doesn't jive with the interests of the LLC:
"Any community has two ways of dealing with such affronts to a shared ethos: shaming and shunning. [...] it’s how communities self-regulate" -Larry Harvey
Whether it be through shunning and shaming or any of the various ways the LLC has come up with to deal with, or, punish, those who cross a certain threshold it seems the feeling among many is that what was once a bastion of free expression and radicalism has become yet another tightly controlled lawyered up bureaucratic mess of a festival which seeks a pleasing family friendly PR image at the expense of the radical expression which brought it to its very profitable current spot. Among many change being in the cards for burning man seems unlikely, considering that the model of a largely safe and eclectic feeling art and music festival catering largely to a suburban class of individuals who bear little resemblance to those attending in the anarchic radical early days is stable and profitable. 

Whether burning man should change seems to be at the heart of what Paul Addis did in 2007. The act of Addis that year seemed to be a cry out to the community that burning man needed to change, to get back to its roots as a home of free expression. The response to his actions seemed to show that the LLC disagreed. To the question of whether there can, at this point, be a change, the answer given by Addis and the LLC seems to have been: it already has changed, and we aren't going back.