10 years ago

Like, Dislike, and fifty shades of Like in between.

Returning to the real world has been always a difficult task after building a Utopian Dream in the Nevada desert at the Burning Man Festival. Everybody is talking about the jet-lag after returning to Amsterdam from the States, but nobody ever mentions reality-lag. 

This year though it seemed the transition would go smooth, because it felt as if I had never really left Reality during this trip. 

After last years mind-bending Art as Money trip from the Boom festival to Burning Man it felt totally different: After my physical body had landed in Amsterdam it still took the rest of me a whole month to get back to Reality.

That month of struggling eventually made me realize that instead of longing back for that distant Utopia, I should focus on bringing that Other Reality back home.

And, as said, all seemed to work fine this time.

But every time I close my eyes and fall asleep I am still in the desert. In my dreams I have never left Burning Man.

Maybe it’s because this time we worked so hard out there. There wasn’t any time left to reflect on what really had happened. To let it all sink in, to understand the deeper layers and meanings of it all, to look beyond the pure facts of Reality. There wasn’t really any time to Think, Ponder, and Reminisce. During that almost month long period of traveling, traveling, building, building, building, building, performing, performing, burning, cleaning-up, and traveling there was even hardly any time left to hop on my bike in the desert and go to Media Mecca to post some pictures on Facebook.

It always amazes me how the brain and inspiration seem to work. There are all these (outlines of) ideas and thoughts constantly forming in your brain. Suddenly one of them feels right and starts connecting with your soul and you suddenly “Know”. It’s not a rational form of Knowing, but a gut feeling that tells you that you are on the right path. It often happens in a split-second, but even in that split-second you realize how much hard work it will take in reality to make it happen: 99% sweat, 1% inspiration.

After that the whole work process becomes a journey. Around each corner of that journey the path becomes clearer. Slowly but surely you realize you are on the right track, even though often the path reveals itself only with every step that you take. The first bits and pieces of the bigger picture started falling into place only while working on the construction in Reno to get everything ready to truck out to the desert. Building and performing always seem two very different parts of your brain, so there was a kind of nervousness when we started our first day of performance, physically worn out by the building process, but mentally fresh and eager to figure out if and how it would all work. A leap in the unknown with the faith that all would work out. Building castles in the air is easy in your brain, but in reality you need to put foundations under them.

It was interesting to see how people approached the installation. Some of them were already taking photos while still on their bike, and most came walking up in a hurry while taking pictures. Ready to document all, without even taking a real look, so they would have more time left to photograph more art to post on Facebook.

Isn’t that just seeing the outer shell? Can we truly experience something through the screen of our iPhone? Doesn’t reality (still) have more pixels and is more HD than the screens of our phones or iPads or laptops?

So part of the process of Spiritual Enlikement was to slow people down. We told them to put away their phone, read the Likefesto, not just the first three lines, but really read it. After that we would offer them a laptop with the screen painted white with a big Like, so they could click the Like button. Letting them feel what the act of Liking had become in the real world. After that they could choose between the Red and the Blue Like by choosing between a red and blue colored Like 4 Real candy.

“Will you take the Blue Like, wake up in your own bed, stay in reality, and like whatever you like? Or will you take the Red Like, play with us, stay in Like Wonderland, and go down the Rabbit hole?”

Final step was telling them to take off their shoes and slowly climb up, while realizing that each step was a symbolic new stage towards Enlikement. Experience the artwork, the desert, and the festival while climbing up the stairs. And of course climb up with their thumbs up in order to open up their Like Chakra, and feel their Inner Like.

After they had done all that, yes, then of course they could take pictures and post them on Facebook, but at least they would then know what they were posting!

It felt magical and sometimes the installation seemed like a real temple. There were people crying, and there was a lot of gratitude and awareness. It felt Great 4 Real.

Or, as someone mentioned: “You are a real Guru for a fake religion”

Not everybody seemed to really care about taking a closer look. Many people just biked by while yelling “We Like it!” with their thumbs up. It was almost an augmented reality layer of the project; those thumbs felt like the “Likes” on Facebook – just a click on the “Like” button without even clicking the accompanying link and/or reading the text. And there were also people who Disliked it, and often did so from a miles distance. Our installation was so big, that it could be seen from almost everywhere in the desert. If one quick glance is enough to (Dis)Like, why bother to really see what it all is about?

On the other hand there were all the people lining up to read our Likefesto, which was engraved on a plague and placed in front of the installation itself. It made me realize the power of direct experience and the fact that that same Likefesto might have attracted hundreds of Likes on Facebook, but not the many hundreds of real readers we had in the desert. Nowadays it seems that people value a thousand Likes and only a handful of readers more than thousands of readers and only a few Likes.

One of the many highlikes that week was that Kumarè joined us for a day of Like meditations (if you don’t know him, please Google his name and check out his documentary - he truly is a real Guru of a fake religion).

Performing out there every day made time pass quickly. Before I knew it, it was already Friday. Time to Burn. I felt so tired that I took my first nap in three weeks, and when I woke up I had tears in my eyes, and just wanted to pick up my eight year old son from school in Amsterdam. It seemed the perfect time for burning and returning to reality.

The Like burnt as a beautiful Burning Like, until it finally collapsed, and the rest of the temple also went up in flames. By the act of Burning the Like we returned the act of liking from its virtual realm to natural reality (and of course a Burning Like is great Facebook content as well)

But it ain’t over till it’s over.

I stayed all night at the Burn, and kept shoveling wood onto the fire until almost nothing remained from the 30 feet high sculpture. I continued till 6 AM, and felt great. Normally my brain always seems in a kind of overdrive – thinking, shaping, morphing, blurring, rejecting, rethinking, and creating and pondering ideas and thoughts. But during that whole night my brain was quiet. There was just me and the fire (and the occasional passerby who asked: “Firemaster, do you want something to drink?”). I was alone without my thoughts.

Upon return to my camp, my campmates told me I looked like a homeless bum, the ultimate anti-Sparkle-Pony.
And now although I am back in Reality, in my Dreams I am still at Burning.

But it ain’t over till it’s over.

It was obviously cool to see that Like4Real made it to Time, Huffington Post, Rolling Stone, and many other sites, but Reality had something much better for me in store - I stumbled upon an article on allvoices.com with the following headline:

“Sculptor pisses off Burning Man attendees with giant Facebook 'like' statue.”

It felt like the icing on the cake. After all, this project is neither pro nor anti social media. I feel that doesn’t make sense – social media will be here in the future. They are here to stay. Already now it’s difficult to ever imagine a ‘post social-media’ future. But this, I feel, is an amazing period in which we witness the transition from an industrial into a digital age, and it seems to be the perfect time to look at how we can use social media in order to strengthen our real bonds as humans and communities, instead of making us feel more connected but more alone as well.

I shared the article from allvoices on the Like4 Real Facebook and enjoyed (4Real) reading all the online discussions between people who Loved and Hated the project. The opinions were ranging widely and wildly:

“If you were at Burning Man and couldn't stand the giant 'Like' symbol, much as I couldn't....then you may be relieved to read this. I guess it was attached as a plaque, but I was so damned pissed at the piece that I didn't go near it.”

“I did talk to people who were bothered/angered by this piece because all they could see was commercialism. They didn't "get" it in context of this year's theme. The cargo cult aspect (rituals we participate in without full comprehension) definitely applies to the like button. The world hits "like" buttons over a billion times a day without understanding exactly what purpose it serves.”

“Its not a corporate logo. Its an iconic universal symbol. I think its hilarious as an art piece. it shows that we all are followers of the like. We ALL are minions.
The like is upon us, and there is no return.”

“I don't disagree- challenging art that spawns thoughtful discourse is great. The question becomes whether the art is challenging because of the message, or because the message is unclear. I definitely didn't think it had anything to do with Zuckerberg, but I didn't grok the meaning as intended by the artists from where I saw it.”

“I won't say I freaking hated it but it was pretty lame. As I cycled past I couldn't believe FB employees would be so tasteless as to build it, am glad to find they didn't. Ironic my ass, it was just unimaginative.”

“I love this...next year i'm bringing a huge Walmart sign, since half of the burn stops there to consume...consume..as much plastic shit just to throw it all away.”

“It's an interesting discussion. I'm a little troubled, as an artist (I guess I'm over caring about whether or not I, or others, call me that, but I have the papers and shit so what the fuck. I'd call myself a lawyer too if I had the degree and was practicing it regularly). Anyway, what's so wrong with ambiguity? Most of my favorite art is ambiguous and therefore is only accessible to those who take the time to sit with it. I only followed the link so far (I'm not much of a follower so I lose - er win? this game? Who knows). But, I was struck with the extreme passion with which one participant in this discussion hammers home the idea that art should be accessible to all and I say, no. No, not necessarily. The finest, most nuanced art in the world is not accessible to all. If that is your aim, you're not seeing the forest, baby.” 

“I just ignored it.”

“I love this discussion. And what's up with taking offence to art on the playa? Since when are we supposed to take anything at Burning Man at face value? I remember seeing the L4R on Playa as I rode by and sort of smirked as I thought about how out of place a giant corporate logo is on the playa. I didn't investigate further. Now that I've read the "Like Manifesto," after first getting annoyed at the hippie dribble in the first few paragraphs, I see the whole piece as a brilliant piece of satire. It's so over the top that as I read through it and thought about the piece, I've considered a half dozen interpretations for it. What did the artists intend when they made it? I don't care. What they did do was keep me in suspense as my brain tried to untangle their words and symbolism. It's a thriller of the mind.”

“yeah. it was a badass statement. People obviously missed the irony. A golden like on a pyramid... and then they burned it. Awesome.”

“judging an art piece from across a desert... sorta reminds me of "judging a book by its cover" 

“-wow, that is lame...almost as bad as the dorks who wrote the Monster Energy Drink graffitti on the temple a few years back.”

“It is interesting to read the discussion. It was my first burn, so still sorting what I should think about BM. This wonderful art installation helps very much and the debates that started due to it are wonderful. What I dont get is, so many people say "in this world" and "in the real world" my actual thought is, people who blame about L4R did not really get the point. It shows me that some want to tell artists what is green and what is red and to stop freedom to present whatever they want. I thought that freedom is the treasure of Burning Man.”

“I thought the whole point was to make fun of how we seem, as a culture, to like everything. It was up on a giant pedestal. It was saying to me "Look at how we glorify this symbol!"

“I got it the moment I saw it. Art. It's life's 2013 Art. 
Posting a comment about it here is Art. Life is Art .
It's not about historic cathedrals and church traps as much as what we deal with in '13. Giant thumb texting love/hate is Art. We are and it all is Art. Found this golden thing out there and had a reaction. For that I'm grateful. 
Blessed are the artists. Keep 'em coming...”

“HUGE THUMBS DOWN ON THIS PIECE..from the moment i heard about it.”

“....and the man isn't an "unmistakeable corporate branding image"? I don't do sacred. I don't do tradition and I don't don't do respect very well. It's all fair game. Anyone can do whatever they want including everything excluding nothing. You just have be be trickier then the other guy. I think the conversation this is bringing to the table is well worth the ruffled feathers. Because once 'burners' start talking to each other, they soon realize that things that they thought were universal truths are totally not. Once 'burners' see that they are wrong about all other 'burners' thinking the same way as them, it's the first step to them seeing that just because you consume the same festival doesn't make you a familiy. Being in a family takes work and commitment. It takes having similar ideals and similar adaptation. Most people who go to BM share ONLY that fact. That they go. But people think that because that other person goes to BM that they vote the same way as them. That they think of art the same way. That they like a similar kind of music. For example: I've been to Burning Man 20 times. I'm a musician, I play the guitar. I feel very strongly that electronic 'music' isn't music at all. Some programed video game soundtrack or something. I detest, despise and am annyoned by electronic music. I did not vote for Barrak Obama. I don't think recycling is a good idea. So I now ask you, do you want me to be in your camp? Probably not. This art piece was cleverly designed to challenge the 'burner' ethos. Probably the most important work out there this year.”

I guess it’s all in the Like of the Beholder!

As you can read in the comments some people disliked the sculpture from afar. (If I would’ve been pissed off by an artwork, my first reaction would be “WTF!”, and immediately start biking towards it, to see what it was all about, but that’s me).

And yes, the author of the piece on allvoices.com definitely did dig deeper, and read the Likefesto. He even called me the artist best at blurring the blurs the line between making money and criticizing commerce better than any artist he had ever seen. And he also had read and linked to other projects of mine. So he did dig deeper and disliked it 4 Real. And that’s fine. Art is not there to please every one. Art is not there to provoke the same reaction in people. Art is personal, and touches people on a personal level. The music which some people hate might be the most beautiful music to my ears.

So I was a bit disappointed when I read one of the last sentences of the article: “I did a ton of hallucinogens at Burning Man this year, and I still couldn't tell you what that statement is supposed to mean.”

But then again I am wondering how many people who clicked “Like” on the webpage of that article have actually read it in its entirety. 

This discussion feels as if Like 4 Real has risen as a Phoenix from its ashes and can start to amplify and further spread the questions raised, away from Burning Man, in Reality, online, or even on Facebook……

And of course it’s ironic that the discussion only really started on Facebook after the event.

Some people wrote me that they thought the installation would have been better if I had covered the Like in blood, turned the thumb into a penis, had turned it upside down, etc, etc. In retrospect, the resulting discussions have made me realize that this form was perfect. All these other options would have made it obvious and hence trivial. Everybody would’ve just “Liked” it, which in my opinion would make the project worthless. The intention of the piece was to raise questions and provoke discussion. Not just about Facebook, or any other particular media platform, or just the “Like” button, but about social media and our digital connectedness in general, now that we have allowed social media to hijack and monetize one of the simplest of human gestures – the Like.

One of the other comments in those discussions stated: “Dadara has an excellent track record of pissing people off with his art. Checkpoint Dreamyourtopia was pretty awesome in that regard as well. It was fascinating to watch all the free spirit, radically self reliant burners immediately snap into absolute compliance when confronted with the authority of "guards" dressed in pink brain camouflage uniforms and jester hats.”

I love blurring the lines between art and reality. That’s when art becomes real and people get confused. Because Art leaves its comfort zone and thus urges others to do so as well and leave their safe boundaries. Gone are the safe white walls of the gallery. Gone are the blinky lights and entertainment of Burning Man. What remains is your own perception and judgement of what you see and feel.

After all these discussions started on the internet, someone wrote me: ”Mission accomplished”, but I tend to disagree. The mission has just started, and I hope people will not just Like or Dislike the installation and what I wrote, but think and comment and discuss the broader picture as well.

And of course I hope that the readers will not just hit “(dis)Like” after reading this, but will take one other action first: “Think” !

Yours Likingly