Any reaction of grasping or aversion to any experience – to memories, feelings, sense perceptions, or thoughts – is like snapping a photo. In the darkroom of our sleep we develop the film.
– Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep.
In the fall of 2008, I collaborated with Tore Nielsen, Ph.D at the Dream and Nightmare Lab at The Sacred Heart Hospital in Montreal, Canada. Through the mechanism of the camera, we recorded the effects of being awakened in hypnagogic sleep and recorded the results with film, video, verbal recording and EEG. The hypnagogic state of consciousness occurs at sleep onset. Hallucinatory images and short periods of dreaming often occur during this time and artists like Salvador Dali used this stage of sleep to harness creative imagery and problem solve. Prior to our collaboration, Nielsen developed a method of accessing dream imagery that is based upon the ‘slumber with a key’ method of Salvador Dali (Dali, 1992) and that he had used successfully to increase his subjects’ access to their hypnagogic dreams. This method refers to Dali’s practice of falling to sleep with a key or other object in his hand positioned above a metal plate on the floor. When the muscle weakness of hypnagogic sleep came upon him, the key dropped into the plate, awakened him and permitted him to recall a vivid hypnagogic image. This image could then be incorporated into his surrealistic works. Similar methods have been used by other creative thinkers such as Thomas Edison (Mavromatis, 1987) What fascinates me about Dali’s process is the relationship between artistic method and scientific method. As well, knowing of Dali’s use of hypnagogic imagery renders his naming conventions of some pieces more comprehensible, for example, his “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate One Second Before Awakening”.
The easiest example to compare this to is falling asleep in a car or plane and being awakened mid dream by your own head nodding. As a means to reference this aesthetic and scientific method, I have used the same upright napping technique in my series.
One of my main concerns within this project is the role of artist as observer – not only in the world around her, but of the lived experience; memory; and the dream experience. Throughout the study, I became more aware of my own shifts in consciousness and instead of being an inactive player in the experience of dreaming life; I began to recognize the preliminary moments of dream-induced hallucinatory imagery. I was also conscious of the relationship between my experience and that represented by the still camera and video camera. The video Becoming the Subject refers to my experience of not only becoming a scientific subject within the dream study but also the practice of becoming the subject of an artistic performance; a transformation I see as beginning the minute I chose to approach the lab to collaborate.
Typically in the lab sounds were used to awaken the participants, but in my work a flash (visual stimuli) and the sound of the camera (audio stimuli) were used to awaken me from an upright nap I sat quietly in a darkened room lit only by a single black light and tried to fall asleep. When the researcher observed that my EEG wavelengths indicated a shift towards sleep, the camera and flash were triggered, thereby illuminating the room. In essence, the result was a photograph of the exact moment that I was falling asleep, just before the customary head nod.
Because of the role of the camera as a trigger to awaken, I felt a heightened sense of awareness of the relationship to my camera. I had set up the shot but –in a round about way– it was my dreaming self that decided when the camera should be fired. The effects of the flash and my experience are captured in the video Awakening. Over a two-hour period I fell asleep and was awakened up to seven times in one night. The imagery produced each time would be reported and I would immediately try and fall asleep again. In effect I have a collection of still self-portraits that describe a transitory state of being, as well as EEG transcripts, dream reports and video surveillance of the whole process.
In addition to the use of the camera and flash in the study, I tried holding a variety of objects to see what effect would be produced on the imagery experienced in the dream. I also did a series of trials that utilized a virtual reality video game and played the game for about 5–10 minutes immediately before going to bed. Remarkably, both the held objects and the imagery from the computer game became integrated into some of the dream imagery experienced.
The final outcome of this entire process is a body of work that speaks about the relationship between art and research, and artist as researcher. When I first heard about Dali’s methodology, I was intrigued by the connection between artistic method and scientist method. In both cases observation is key and in particular, in the case of dream science and artistic practice, self-observation is pivotal to new knowledge. The intersection of these two fields within the project are significant to the final outcome of both the scientific and artistic results, as one would not have been possible without the other.
I would like to acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for creation of this project.
Dali, S. (1992). 50 secrets of magic craftsmanship. New York: Dover.
Mavromatis, A. (1987). Hypnagogia. The unique state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.