OPEN STUDIO: ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE
JUNE 1 to JUNE 30, 2021
ABOUT THE ARTIST / BENJAMIN EVANS
Benjamin Evans is an artist currently based in the French Alps. Originally from the Canadian province of Newfoundland, he spent seven years living in New York City where he directed the non-profit gallery NURTUREart and was active in the Brooklyn arts scene. He has exhibited previous bodies of work professionally in both Canadian and New York venues. While living in Paris, Evans opened the itinerant gallery project Projective City, which exhibited the work of emerging artists in Paris, New York and virtual spaces in between. He holds five degrees, including a PhD in philosophy from the New School for Social Research and an MFA in mixed media, and has taught at several institutions, including the Alberta College of the Arts, The Parsons School of Design in New York and Parsons Paris. Having completed his PhD, he has recently returned to making art full time. In 2019-2020, the Dream Realization Laboratory received support from the Canada Council for the Arts in the form of a Research and Creation grant.
THE DREAM REALIZATION LABORATORY: A personal narrative / by BENJAMIN EVANS
In short, the DRL is an art project in which I create abstract digital visualizations, audio compositions, and sculptural objects based on the biometric data gathered from dreaming people or the narratives of their dream reports. What follows is a brief-ish account of how the project has evolved.
It actually began with an idea I had for a novel, in which an artist had a scheme to save on rent by sleeping in a gallery for a couple of months and doing some sort of Sophie-Calle-esque project based on her dreams and those of the public. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if some of these fictional ideas were actually doable. I imagined a person sleeping in a gallery space and waking up to find a printer churning out weird, abstract, and incomprehensible images of her dreams. So the rather cynical project imagined by my fictional character started to become a real project for me.
I have zero background in programming, data visualization, polysomnography or neuroscience. Immediately the project also became about learning new things, investigating how far a “regular joe” with no formal training could go in terms of exploring the science and technical requirements for this sort of project. Needless to say I’ve learned quite a bit (much of which is described on the DRL website). A friend of mine told me to check out the programming language “Processing,” and I started to play around making simple shapes and colors. Eventually I figured out how to transform a patch of REM from a polysomnograph (a recording of bio-data during sleep) into a bunch of multicolored circles, with the following result:
People who do lots of data visualization are not likely to be very impressed by this, but I have to say I was kind of blown away, because I had nothing else to compare it with. Maybe like the character in the Balzac story “The Unknown Masterpiece”, in which the artist thinks he’s made this amazing thing though all his visitors see is an abstract mush (I LOVE that story!). Maybe all art requires a certain amount of delusion and ignorance, but I somehow found the idea of this now long dead woman’s dream preserved as this weird abstract cloud-looking thing actually kind of poignant and beautiful.
So from there I tried playing with more and more “data visualization” techniques. I came up with some very scribbly looking things which I liked because they contrasted so clearly with the clean, clinical lines of the standard Cartesian chart. I liked the idea of using strict, non-random procedures based entirely on the data to produce chaotic looking things.
Sometimes the results even had potential symbolic value, as in this rather phallic dream of a 66 year old woman:
Slowly my Processing skills improved, at least a little, and I was able to produce more complex results. Series three involved wrapping different data streams around in a circle (rather than moving from left to right as is standard). The results looked kind of like flowers, or possibly explosions, and both visual metaphors seemed apt for the activity of dreaming.
The “Atoms” series involved a much more high-resolution look at the data. Even a pretty poor EEG recording functioning at 100hz collects 100 points of data per second! So I developed this technique to try to present the overwhelming quantity of data, and the incredible complexity of the dream experience: Each atom represents a single second of dream EEG activity, so there are 300 of them in the full five minute dream, each one totally unique. I should likely convert them into an animated little film?
Fairly early in the process I realized that once you have the data you can do pretty much anything with it, and I devised a way to convert the data into some sort of sonic form. Again, I had no experience with Max/MSP or any sound-design software because I just didn’t know such things existed – I just used Excel, a free midi-generating website I found, and Garageband. (To see someone doing something more sophisticated with dreams using Max, have a look at fellow Struts resident Cynthia Naggar.). I had absolutely no idea of what to expect when I finally pressed “play,” but again, I found the result much more emotionally powerful than expected. Further attempts have not really been able to duplicate that first success, though I’m looking forward to learning new techniques or possibly collaborating with experts who DO know the proper software to use in order to continue the process.
At some point I also began to wonder about 3D printing, which I’d never seen before. If I could make images, why not objects? This lead me to my first encounter with a “Fab-Lab,” which in my case was a black-walled basement in Geneva populated by a motley collection of mostly young men fiddling with various bits of gizmo. They were friendly enough, but directed me to another Fab-Lab even closer to where I live. Here I was welcomed by another group of people, including the very generous and excitable retired engineer Bernard. He was (and is) very proud of his 3D printing abilities, and immediately offered to print one of my creations. One of the things that has been interesting about the project has been the chance to meet and interact with people I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.
At any rate, this lead to acquiring my own printer and beginning to experiment with different printing materials and covering the sculptures in various ephemeral materials. I think from an aesthetic point of view these are likely the most successful elements of the project so far.
A different aspect of the project involves working with the narratives of dream reports. I wanted to explore some way of symbolically representing and rigorously analysing dream content, based on the methods developed by Hall and Van de Castle back in the 70’s. The whole idea of trying to boil down the enormously complicated, overdetermined, deeply personal world of the dream into a series of report cards struck me as horrifying, absurd, and intriguing all at the same time. I decided to start with looking at emotions in dreams. According to some studies, the emotional centers of our brains are often more active during dreaming than during waking life, and dreaming is well-established as a mechanism for regulating emotion, so it seemed like a good place to start.
None of the existing systems of emotion developed by psychologists over the years struck me as even remotely helpful, so I decided to develop my own list. The process was extremely confusing and difficult – what counts as an emotion? But I tried to come up with a list that was robust enough to do justice to the complexities of our emotional lives and yet not totally overwhelming. The whole process resulted in abstract, sort of scientific looking diagrams with enigmatic labels that only hint at the actual content of the dream.
They’re kind of absurd, but also somewhat functional. If you look at the entire collection of diagrams over a longer period, you can start to see patterns emerge. For example, you can see whether you mostly dream of friends or family, whether your encounters with others tend to be positive or negative, or whether your dreams are generally full of “negative” emotions (cooler colors) or positive emotions (warmer colors). Dr. Tore Nielsen at the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory in Montreal (who has been very patient with my numerous pestering emails) even suggested that it might be of some use in clinical research. So that’s pretty cool. With the help of local programmer Marc Fournier we’ve managed to create an online version of the program, so anybody that wants to create their own dream diagrams can.
Overall, I’m interested in dreaming because to me it somehow represents a last bastion of irreducible subjectivity and creativity in the unending conquest of reductionist science over human experience. Our bodies are understood increasingly in terms of genetic codes, our minds in terms of chemical compositions to be regulated pharmaceutically, and our behaviours are constantly analyzed through statistics and tracking cookies. Dreaming, for me, represents some sort of last zone of aesthetic freedom and creativity, even though it is clearly at the same time the product of cultural forces. Perhaps that seems rather melodramatic, and maybe it is. But I think I’m OK with that. Particularly given how poorly we understand dreaming even now, I do see dreaming as a site of some sort of resistance at multiple levels, including resistance to ourselves. Fairly obviously, my work isn’t intended to reveal what we dream about (as I think it is best if that is kept private) or provide any therapeutic insight, but rather to celebrate this resistance and validate our own lack of understanding. I’m attracted to the tension between the of meaningfulness and nonsense of dreams, even as that has played out in western scientific approaches to dreaming. But even setting that dimension aside, it is something everybody does, regardless of age, creed, status or political affiliation, our enemies as well as our friends. We all become wildly creative and a little bit crazy when we are asleep, and I find that strangely hopeful.