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No. 112: Dreams
Deadline: April 1, 2024

In dreams, we face our deepest desires and fears. For many, they are how we process the day, solve a problem, or discover our true selves. This is what we might call the scientific or natural way of understanding the function of dreams. For Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who practised the interpretation of dreams, our nightly visions could be explained, respectively, as wish fulfilment or as symbolic. But does the interpretation of dreams kill their ability to affect life? This is a question that musicologist Phil Ford and author J. F. Martel ask on their podcast Weird Studies, in the episode titled “On James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld.” Rather than diminish or explain away dreams through interpretation, Ford and Martel emphasize that dreams are part of reality, not just metaphor or the brain dumping excess data, and that we live in our dreams just as we do in our waking life.

The power of dreams lies first and foremost in the great mystery of the fact that they exist at all. Although dreaming is not unique to humans—by studying the brain activity of sleeping rats, researchers at MIT proved that animals have complex dreams—as a species, we are obsessed with our dreams: analyzing them, archiving them, and depicting them. Art about dreams or that uses dream logic feels accessible to many, as dreaming is a universal experience. The enduring popularity of surrealist art stems from our fascination with the uncanny, the weird, or what we might call today the glitches in the matrix. 

Strangely, these moments can occur as much in waking life as during sleep, as well as in that indescribable liminal space where we slide in and out of consciousness. Artist and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a master of blurring this boundary. He believes that we access new worlds through art the same way we do when we dream, and he even encourages his audiences to fall asleep during screenings. Some of the most affecting works of contemporary art are those that weave the language of dreams and nightmares seamlessly into reality, as does film director David Lynch, for example. But just as reality can feel like a nightmare—as it so often does with the compounding of the ecological crisis, increasing fascist political movements around the world, and rapid advancement of artificial intelligence technologies—dreams represent hope for many. They refer us to utopian horizons of future worlds and invoke artistic and political practices of imagining otherwise.

In Decolonial dreams: unsettling the academy through namewak, Métis anthropologist Zoe Todd shares the story of the endangered lake sturgeon in northern Alberta and the state of prairie fish generally as they have been devastated by colonialism and subsequent environmental destruction. Todd’s decolonial dream is “to build something more accountable, reciprocal and loving in place of structures and narratives that currently exist.” Thinking and working collectively is key to Todd’s vision of the future. A dream this size is actualizable only if we dream it into reality together. This is why feminist artist Susan Hiller reminded us not to relegate our dreams to the private realm. In Dream Mapping (1974), Hiller rendered dreaming as a collective experience, allowing for new perspectives on personal internal issues. As some of the most notorious insomniacs and consumers of harmful substances, artists would do well to consider the reparative nature of sleep and dreams (the topic of drugs actually takes up a large portion of Ford and Martel’s conversation on dreams, as they overlap in a number of ways, including the spiritual and transcendental). Given the historical links between the role of the artist and the expression of visions, the imagination, and fantasy, this thematic issue seeks to tease out the particular capacities of dreams. Esse arts + opinions invites authors to propose texts on the subject of dreams as they are being explored in the arts today. What tactics are there for those who wish to bring the dreamworld into the waking world, and what are the results of this endeavour? How might sleeping and dreaming pose a problem for capitalism? Conversely, how is “the Dream” co-opted by bosses to drive workers to advance capitalism? How do dreams bring humans closer to or further distinguish us from animals or artificial intelligence?