Green City: Burning contradictions

Pub date September 5, 2007
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion

>>Gonzo burner Paul Addis’s exclusive statement to the Guardian about burning the Man early — and our readers’ reactions

GREEN CITY Well, the Man was back up the morning of Aug. 30, albeit without a head. And because the Man didn’t have a head, the green pavilion under its feet was still cordoned off and closed to visitors when I visited, so my impressions of this year’s Green Man theme are lacking a key input.

The environmental pavilion was only open for a few hours before the Man’s premature Aug. 27 burn, and most of those who went in were underwhelmed. It was like a wordy trade show exhibit, too earnest and static to stir much inspiration in the average burner.

One exhibit just outside the perimeter displayed an electric car, complete with promotional signage with phrases like "Electric cars equal freedom." Ugh.

But even if the official, environmentally themed installations fell a little flat, the green theme has permeated many of the large-scale artworks all over the playa.

There are pedal-, wind-, biomass-, alt-fuel-, and solar-powered pieces of all kinds, from spinning solar artwork and theme camps (including my own, which runs almost completely on solar power) to vehicles that run on gasified fuel to pedal-powered blenders to Peter Hudson’s Homouroboros, which uses pedals to power its spinning monkeys and drums to power the strobe lights that make the monkeys appear to swing from branch to branch.

I caught up with mayoral candidate and longtime burner Chicken John Rinaldi as he was tinkering with his Café Racer truck, which runs on gasified walnut shells. He was basically happy with the green theme and liked how the pavilion under the Man served as a green salon where people could share their ideas and technologies.

But he was less happy with how that sort of community building and discussion didn’t happen about the event that has overshadowed everything this week: the torching of the Man, allegedly committed by 35-year-old San Franciscan Paul Addis. "I think this was an excellent opportunity to have some democracy," Rinaldi said, noting that the burner community should be able to weigh in on whether Black Rock City presses charges or pushes for leniency, or even whether and how the Man should be rebuilt. "The reaction has been very top-down," he said.

BRC communications director Andie Grace said the community, through the organization and the volunteers who build the Man, was coming together in reaction to the incident. "To me, this turned into an opportunity for Black Rock City to shine," she said. "It’s heartbreaking, for sure, but it’s not going to break us."

Rinaldi has a different take. He’s known Addis since 1995, when they attended Burning Man together, and he said that he 86ed Addis from his old Odeon Bar maybe a dozen times. They ran in the same social circles, both tied closely to estranged Burning Man cofounder John Law (who is currently suing BRC over his partial ownership of the event’s icons) and the Cacophony Society, which originally brought the Man to the Black Rock Desert.

Rinaldi, Law, and many of their cohorts who helped run the event in the early days have long talked about burning the Man early. In fact, Rinaldi said, cofounder Larry Harvey clashed with Law in 1995 — the beginning of their falling out — when the latter wanted to burn the Man early and had to be talked out of the idea by his friends.

"[Addis is] a hero. He did the thing that we’ve been talking about doing for a decade," Rinaldi said. "No matter how misguided he was, his intention was to facilitate art."

Indeed, it was a piece of performance art that has overshadowed the Green Man theme, with all of its earnest good intentions, returning Burning Man to its anarchic roots and injecting chaos back into a routine that had become well established and, to some, a bit tired.

Because at the end of the day, Burning Man isn’t green. It’s a city that runs mostly on fossil fuel–powered generators and lights flammable fuels and gases just to see them burn.

The Burning Man experiment is one that many of us want to influence the world. But to expect it to play a leadership role in the environmental movement was probably too much. We can do many things, but we can’t simultaneously commit ourselves to fire and to global cooling, at least without wrestling constantly with Burning Man’s many contradictions.<\!s>*

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