Dreams can bring an interesting insight into our subconscious, but sharing them with others can often be difficult. DreamsID has developed a new level to the sharing of dreams – painting the dream onto pages of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Done in real time, visualising and catching elements of the dream narrative creates a tapestry of elements, plot, metaphoric imagery, and Freud’s words.
A collaboration between artist Julia Lockheart and psychologist Mark Blagrove, DreamsID (Dreams Illustrated and Discussed, or Dreams Interpreted and Drawn) plays on Freud’s notion of identity. Discussions of a dream are held in public, each lasting between 50 and 60 minutes. During that time, Lockheart paints each dream onto pages she tears from the first English translation of Freud's book, making connections between art and the science and history of dreaming.
When the dream sharer first tells their dream, Lockheart uses its narrative structure – the number of scenes, environmental features, and presence of objects – to quickly select pages from Freud’s book by identifying visually relevant shapes in the text, including any footnotes and lists. This then structures the painting. After the dream is re-told several times, and Blagrove has clarified visual and plot details of the dream, the audience joins in with the discussion of the dream, following psychiatrist Montague Ullman’s method of referencing dreams to the waking life.
During this process, Lockheart incorporates words from the page into the painting. It’s often eerie how relevant these words can be, adding to the magic of the painting, words written by Freud (albeit in German) becoming part of the artwork, almost like free-association. A sped-up video of the process can be seen here.
Lockheart and Blagrove now describe how the collaboration has evolved: “We have performed at various conferences, art galleries, science festivals, the Freud Museum London, Los Angeles, Paris, the Netherlands, as well as through Skype. We get audiences of up to 80 people at these events, with dream sharers booking in advance.” Paintings from the collaboration can be found in the Gallery on the DreamsID website.
Initially, we hoped to provide some insight for the personal background and life circumstances of the dream sharer, but we started to notice the effects these dreams and discussions were having on us, and on some audience members. We realised that dream sharing was evoking empathy towards the dream sharer. The dream sharer was speedily disclosing aspects of their life, and we were seeing the world from their perspective, and having some understanding of their emotions. This resulted in our paper on the effects of dream sharing on empathy, published in Frontiers in Psychology. Dream sharers also told us later of the meaningful and personal conversations with family and friends that occur over time when the artwork is displayed, remarked upon, and discussed.
As an example of the artworks resulting from this collaboration, the first painting here was created at a conference in the Netherlands. The dream is of being the first human to speak to dolphins, of being able to communicate the name of the sun, and to count to two with the dolphin, but of not being able to communicate about a wheat field, because it relates to the harvest, and to the seasons, which would not be known to dolphins. We are very grateful to the dream sharer, and to the very participatory audience, where we drew such a wonderful and meaningful dream about the relationship between the dream sharer and his two-year-old granddaughter.
The dream behind the second artwork was shared with us at a science festival. It is a dream of a young man, recently married, who dreamt of his wife as a mermaid, enticing him from a rickety wooden boat into the water, and of him then being on a cosy canal barge with her. He had been encouraged to tell the dream to us by his wife, and it depicts a beautiful metaphor of taking the plunge or diving into a loving relationship.
Dream sharers can take their artwork home, which often results in very meaningful conversations with family and friends – the initial dream distils the emotional side of one’s waking life, so referring to the dream can result in unintentional but welcome self-disclosure.
DreamsID are planning to expand public performances to private commissions, for those who would prefer a highly personalised artwork, as well as to social groups which might especially benefit from the ownership and discussion of dream-inspired artworks. Someone nearing the end of their life, for example, may have very realistic dreams of others who have passed away before, and these can be very comforting scenes. Bereaved relatives, too, often dream of their departed loved one, often seeing them as free from illness and at peace.
We also aim to take this practice into schools – instead of having a professional artist, we are planning here to have children animate their own dreams, sparking discussions and externalising the children’s hidden emotional lives in a safe space. There is a decrease in empathy in Western society, and the sharing of dreams, as well as of artworks that depict or capture a dream, may encourage empathy between the dream sharer and those with whom they choose to discuss the dream and artwork.
The DreamsID project is based on the science of sleep and dreaming, which currently debates the role of sleep and dreaming in processing our emotions and memories for important events and concerns. The performances and artworks have a link to surrealism, in that that movement held dreams in high regard, as a source of inspiration and spontaneity, and as a critique of rationality and of the harms present in modernity. Contemporary design practice speaks of the need to embark on a path of greater attunement with nature, the environment and people. We have opened a space in which such things can be deeply experienced.
About the Authors
Dr Julia Lockheart is a Senior Lecturer at Swansea College of Art, University of Wales Trinity St David, and Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research focuses on languaging within Metadesign and the relationship between writing and collaboration in arts education. Julia is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
Dr Mark Blagrove is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Sleep Laboratory at Swansea University, Wales. He researches the relationship of sleep and dreaming with cognition, memory and emotion. Mark is a past-President of International Association for the Study of Dreams and is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society.