Javett Art Centre
25.10 - 30.11.2021
Dreaming is potentially the weirdest and most opaque department of body-maintenance work, integrating and reintegrating memory, dissolving trauma, and offering healing. We feel it afterwards as a Queerstate, only communicable by approximation, impossibly disinterested in taxonomy. Yet dreams are not the inverse of the actual, instead they neurologically register the weight and value of lived realities, storying embodiment, place and temporality otherwise. The dream — and applied collective dreamworking methods — offer us some shifty, content-specific, open and undone approaches to being together, making sense of images and texts, and imagining what institutional care could be.1Quote from the Overnight Services invitation.
Overnight Services is an ongoing collaboration between us and a shifting cast of actors — participants, spaces, images, scenes.
What follows serves as partial documentation of its first series of iterations, which took place at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria, between 25 and 30 October 2021, within the exhibition Handle with Care curated by Gabi Ngcobo. It includes the prelude from our Overnight Services script (conceived in six scenes, narrated and collaboratively produced with the cast through surrealist games) and photographs by Gillian Fleischmann. The week encompassed three nighttime events, two of which incorporated museum sleep-ins. Overnight Services was here realised as part of the ‘Laboratory of Ideas,’ the public program of Handle with Care, curated by Sinethemba Twalo, and was co-ordinated by Gillian Fleischmann, with art handling by Tlotlo Lobelo.
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ACT I: CANDLE WITH HAIR [A&T]
[Museum lights are out; reception area is dimly lit by two lamps. The cast arrives and puts their overnight bags in lockers, signs indemnity and clearance forms, keeping only a torch, pen and notebook with them. Dream-inducing (vitamin B6 and tryptophan-heavy) snacks are served in the reception area and the cast eats and drinks sleepy tea together in their pajamas. Script frameworks are handed out.]
PRELUDE: “IDEASTHESIA” [A]
[The cast puts on their torches and gathers by the door, led by Thuli and Abri. They move into the exhibition space (section “RITUALS OF SELF-PRESERVATION”) and are seated for the prelude.]
Dude, I just had such a strange and funny dream, conceptually, that I thought I would tell you about — try and tell you about at least… so there’s many things happening right, one of them… one of them is a conflation between like jazz jam sessions and the culture of spin bowling in Western Cape cricket…
My sibling Asher sent me this as part of a voice note on the 5th of July this year.
I was sitting on the steps of a temple. Everything had an orange glow. To my left, at the back of the temple, there was an olive grove. A Jesus figure came out of the temple and gave me a basket with 5 cookies (orange, purple, brown, pink, green). As He walked away, I fell over and orange juice poured from my mouth.
I requested a transcription of this prophetic dream by a friend at a worship band practice as a teenager, after us band members were each prompted to fall into visions or speak in tongues by the worship leader. I stumbled across the transcription sorting out my ephemera this January.
…there was all this dust on the surface and then I looked at it and it all just turned into like ants or things that were crawling, tons of them, and I went into the kitchen and it was exactly the same, so I went to the cupboard and reached for a can of Doom and now all these things were all over the place, it was horrible. I pressed this thing on the can of doom and I realised I’d got one that just empties itself and fumigates a whole room. So I just kind of went round and round with this thing, with my feet off the floor, because the pull of it spraying out its stuff was enough to hold me off the ground. but in a nice kind of way, and it felt like I was used to doing that somehow, that I could always manage to just get off the floor if I turned a certain way and you know, went with the flow…
This was part of a voice note from my mum, Shirley, on the 14th of June this year.
The West Coast – a sighting of something in the waters at night. Standing on the outside patio ledge near a pool with the rocks and waves nearby. I see something like a giant earthworm slither under the waves, surging. It breaks loose from the waves and is truly enormous, does not look wet from the water itself, but moist from its own skin, as if the ocean has not touched it, despite moving through and with it. The worm has teeth like a leech. It crashes down into the water and then comes for me and my friends, bashing the concrete and the pool and parts of the house, then slithers away. Two men also saw this and verified the worm. We fear its return. Soon people arrive with non-disclosure documents. We cannot tell anyone about the worm or the creatures that live near the West Coast, who have been there from ancient times…I linger around these low wooden fences looking out to sea but don’t see the worm again. Others who live there speak of a range of creatures but they evade my sight. The seaside home is partially wrecked from the fall and withdrawal of the worm.
I recorded this dream from the 17th of September this year on my Notes App, far away from the West Coast.
There are two main processes in our sleeping life. Slow wave, Non-REM/NREM sleep, which, in its best circumstances, takes place for approximately the first four hours of a nightly sleep session, and Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep, which takes place for the second four hours, and includes our dreaming life, the main focus of Overnight Services.2Matthew Walker, “Defining and Generating Sleep,” in Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams (London: Penguin Books, 2018), 38-55.
On the indigenous Australian Pintupi people’s approach to ‘Dreamtime,’ Matthew Spellberg says: “Dream life and waking life do not exist in a hermeneutic relation to one another [meaning a one-to-one, sequential relation between dream and dream interpretation] — instead, they are interpenetrable and complementary planes of existence.” This conception of dreams, in which waking-sleeping harmony propel one another’s existence, is biologically crucial to human life, and reflected metaphysically across many cultures.
Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa reflects on the watery, interspecies transmission of dreams: “Our people believe that many many many centuries ago a race of intelligent creatures of various kinds chaperoned the human race into this world in which we are in exile, and members of this race went into the sea to become what we today call dolphins, amahlengethwa… over the centuries dolphins and whales sent knowledge via dreams to human beings. The whales told us all about God. The dolphins told us all about wisdom and art and other forms of positive creativity…”
The hyper-presence of the western conception of dreams as private universes can have a narrowing effect on our dream thinking, speaking and processing. Historically, the importance of developing social technologies for sharing and making sense of dreams together has been crucial as an area of inquiry across the world, producing many dream-work practices that suit specific collective agendas.3Spellberg, “On dream-sharing…”
“Dream sharing is a protocol for regular renegotiation of what might be termed the social contract of sensuous imagining, the set of images and emotions and unseen realities that govern, even more than abstract ideas, an individual’s relationship to society and to the cosmos.”4Spellberg, “On dream-sharing…”
In one version of this:
…During dreaming, the inner self leaves the outer self (the body) and travels the island in order to recuperate the bits of being that a person has lost during the day. These bits of being are most commonly manifest as stray smells, marooned on bushes and trees by the body during its daytime passage around the island. As the inner self collects these smells in the dream, it retraces the path of the body, collecting and consolidating important memories and making observations…
…The harvest of this inner being is then woven, over the sleeping “body external,” into a spider web that holds in place all the smells, dreams, and memories of previous nights and days, and so allows them to be used in the coming day. When the entire community talks through their dreams before sleeping, then the individual webs are woven together into a single web over the whole community…5This is a dwindling dreaming practice from The Indigenous Ongees of the Bay of Bengal. See Spellberg.
Science has begun only more recently to enquire and test into the importance of sleep and dreaming. Matthew Walker’s research has shown that REM sleep is the only natural body-state in which the brain’s release of noradrenaline/norepinephrine (a brain stress chemical) is halted, offering us a unique calm; a temporary experience of complete emotional safety. It is within this condition of emotional safety that we are able to dream. In dream-state, which is calm-state, our new memories, however difficult, can be replayed in some form, and integrated into our autobiographical memory, freed from the emotional trauma which may have accompanied the original experiences.6Matthew Walker, “Dreaming as Overnight therapy,” in Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams (London: Penguin Books, 2018), 208–209. Dreaming is deep emotional healing.
Furthermore, whilst NREM sleep strengthens our memories, it is REM sleep and dreaming that is responsible for their blending, in “abstract and highly novel ways.” During REM dreaming, our brains reflect on large amounts of new knowledge, and “…then extract overarching rules and commonalities — ‘the gist.’ We awake with a revised ‘Mind Wide Web’ that is capable of divining solutions to previously impenetrable problems. In this way, REM-sleep dreaming is informational alchemy.” Walker refers to this work of dreams as “Ideasthesia.”7Matthew Walker, “Dream Creativity and Dream Control,” in Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams (London: Penguin Books, 2018), 219–234.
In dreaming, we have more options, unlikely feelings, queer desires, as in unregulated desires — desires that don’t adhere to the violent taxonomies of coloniality. Through dreams, we rehearse alternatives, transcend our material capacities, ‘our’ place, ‘our’ time.
For many, our present — the end of apartheid and the onset of democracy in South Africa — represented a dream. But whilst publicised political debates of the 1990s negotiated an enviable constitution and introduced new leadership, a shadowed economic negotiation took place. Herein, neoliberal structures seized national wealth, land and resources, whose redistribution may actually have made the democratic dream come true. New legislation protected private property, the national reserve bank was kept independent from government, without which radical economic restructuring was impossible. The African National Congress (ANC) inherited huge apartheid debt from the National Party, South Africa’s entry into the World Trade Organisation (then GATT) was a severe blow for thousands of jobs, and the control over our currency’s stability was given up to the fluctuation of the global marketplace.8Naomi Klein, “Democracy Born in Chains: South Africa’s Constricted Freedom,” in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: :Metropolitan Books, 2007), 194–217; Patrick Bond, Elite transition: from apartheid to neoliberalism in South Africa (Durban: University of Natal Press, 2000). Democracy was an image, and, in material terms, the living nightmare of apartheid was structurally strengthened.
The South32 collection consists of around 1000 artworks, a selection of which makes up the show ‘Handle With Care,’ named after the mixed-media piece by Kagiso ‘Pat’ Mautloa which you will have seen in the reception. Compared to other South African collections preceding it, the South32 collection, curated by artist Kendell Geers was a revisionist attempt at a more representative art history, acquiring artworks by disenfranchised artists, and delving sporadically into the international domain. South32 focused attention on works engaging significant political histories of South Africa, both collective and personal, within and sometimes beyond national borders, perceived from a myriad of positions and realities.
But whilst the collection brings together work from a ‘diversity’ of practitioners, broader epistemological problems of the time remain unaddressed. The construction of South African art histories and canons since our entry into the ‘global’ art scene can be characterised to a large extent by foreclosed understandings of marginal identities, narrowing the potential for the production of expansively critical — and creative — discourse. How art histories are storied remains largely cementitious.
We subject this script and the time spent in each others’ sleepover company, to a kind of dream ‘treatment.’ Our enquiry into dreaming and the decision to sleep within the museum space and amongst artworks, is:
_ a literalised answer to the question of whether museums can be sites of care, with the capacity to hold our dreams, and facilitate the dreamlike thinking necessary for collective and individual healing and creative thinking.
_ to loosen and soften and decementicise (see above).
_ to shift our experience of time in the museum through the rhythm of dreaming.
We weave disparate bits and pieces, ideas, fictions and histories together, allowing connections to take place, without any expectation that sense, as we know it, will surface. We remove pressures of one-to-one ‘artwork’ interpretation, and do away with ‘rational’ analyses. Dreams indicate to us that ‘sense’ in its waking, linguistic manifestation barely touches the surface of our capacity for processing what it means to be in the world. In dreams, sense-making is recycled and reinvented.
One of our Overnight Services is to put artworks to sleep, and then to imagine what they do in this state. What happens when artworks are relieved from their dual existence of being hung on display or locked away in storage, no longer subject to direct gazing or to life in packaging, perpetually awaiting the onslaught of handling, temperature-controlled exhibition and objectification? Are artworks restful or restless in sleep? What do they dream of?
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