I’ve always lived and created in the now. Each time a project or a series of paintings neared completion, my mind would be already drifting off to the next dream on the horizon. Sometimes a project I was fully immersed in for a long time seemed already a distant memory shortly after its completion.
When I was growing up, I was fascinated by the visual culture that was part of past youth/cultural movements, such as the ’60s and punk. But I was too young to witness and participate in these movements. However, I was fortunate to experience the magic of the then-burgeoning electronic dance scene when I began my artistic career in the early ’90s, designing hundreds of flyers and record covers. But over time, this magic became business as usual for me.
Then Peter Giele, an artist friend of mine, died in 1999. He had started the Roxy, a club that had a huge impact on the Amsterdam scene and my life. His funeral was a big happening with lots of fire and chaos. The same evening he died, the Roxy burned down.
Peter’s life motto was, “One fire ignites another.” The year after the Roxy burned down, I went to Burning Man for the first time. I had already heard some stories about this event in the desert with lots of fire and art. I didn’t want to research anything beforehand. So I got in touch with the people producing the Black Rock Gazette, flew with a friend of mine from the Netherlands and drove with them to the playa. We arrived at night during a dust storm when we discovered that our small tent had room for one person only.
I did love the event though, and returned in 2002 with the “Fools Ark,” a wooden three-mast boat, which we built in the Netherlands, shipped from my hometown Amsterdam and burned on playa. Building something for a whole year and putting all my love, blood, sweat, tears, paint and money into it — and then burning it — was an amazing experience. I thought that burning it would be both a happy and sad experience, but from the moment it started to burn, I couldn’t stop smiling for a very long time. However, my accountant thought it wasn’t funny at all.
It was an amazing experience, but still it was about me, the artist, showing my work to an audience. So in 2003, I returned with a smaller but more interactive installation, the “Burning Greymen:” 140 paper maché grey business men surrounding an altar. During the week, participants could customize those grey figures to express their inner self. Then, at the end of the week, 140 individuals or groups could symbolically burn their inner Greyman.
I took a break for a few years, but in 2008 returned with “Checkpoint Dreamyourtopia,” a border control checkpoint to enter your own dreams. This started on Monday, initially as a fun experience, where participants could fill out immigration forms, interact with us and receive a beautiful Dream Passport. But it did not feel right: it felt entertaining but empty.
So we decided to become more intense. The Department of Dreamland Security became mean, immigration procedures took long hours, some visitors started crying and some became angry. It became real, instead of entertainment. There’s a beautiful saying, “Art focuses our attention, while entertainment diverts our attention.” When things become real, they can have a profound effect on people.
After this Burn, I received emails from participants telling me I was a fascist and my art was terrible. However, I also received emails from people who said they started living their dreams after this project, and a very moving email from someone who told me that when he dies, he’ll take his “Dreamyourtopia” passport with him, because it is his most valuable possession. Throughout the years I have realized that if you put so much love and effort into a project, receiving either love or hate in return is okay. What really hurts is indifference.
In recent years, my work has focused on value. In times when governments have no money for the arts but billions to bail out banks, in 2011 I started the “Exchanghibition Bank,” which produces its own banknotes. I brought money to the decommodified playa, and people could sign a Spiritual Karma Laundering contract in exchange for a Zero banknote. A year later in 2012, people could glue “real” money on our “Transformoney Tree.”
After that, in 2014, I started a religion, “Like4Real”, which worshipped a big “Golden Like” in the Nevada desert and guided people on their Spiritual Path to Enlikement. This project sparked a lot of controversy and discussion. Interestingly, the controversy only started on social media after the Burn. For me, the ensuing discussion was part of the installation. Often when people ask, “What medium do you use as an artist?”, I answer: “My medium is Mindfuck.”
I see Burning Man as a laboratory where new ideas can be tried out, but it becomes especially interesting for me when these ideas enter the default world and challenge the status quo. Most of my projects have continued their journey from the desert into the world beyond the playa. For example, my Exchanghibition Bank popped up at real banks, shopping centers and train stations; we organized a funeral for the “Like” in Amsterdam with a procession carrying a “Like” coffin through town; and the “Dreamyourtopia” walls were smashed to pieces in Berlin exactly 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell.
In 2017, I spent my entire Burn locked up in a big black box for the “Solipmission” project, exploring reality. It was probably my most intense experience ever. Before going to the playa, I wasn’t sure if being locked up inside a box would feel like being at Burning Man, but in retrospect I think that, however weird this may sound, I was more at the Burn than ever before.
People at Burning Man often ask me, “What do you do in real life?”, but I never really understood that question. After all, Burning Man is real. And so is my life. My latest project is a retrospective book about my art. Revisiting my past for this book has been quite a trip into my inner self. As Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
Top photo: Burning Greymen, photo by Pmatt Freedman