Dreaming together: Artists mobilizing collective dreaming methods for the radical imagination (Capacious)

The following article will appear in the online, open-access Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry later in 2022 in a slightly different form. It stems from inquiries undertaken by Phanuel Antwi, Cassie Thornton and I as part of our Strange Bedfellowship project.

Dreaming together: Artists mobilizing collective dreaming methods for the radical imagination

Max Haiven

Dominant Western epistemology frames dreams and dreaming as largely meaningless noise produced by the unproductive brain at rest. Conversely, a popular romantic impulse insists that dreams are sources of metaphysical power and cosmic insight. Between these two extremes a range of positions have taken form. Since the 18th century, artists have generally lionized dreams as gateways to the imagination and used them for inspiration. Freud and his followers framed dreams as encrypted clues into the nature of the unconscious and made the sharing of dreams central to the clinical practice of psychoanalysis. Recently, neuroscientists have posited the importance of dreams for the ability of the brain to learn from waking experience. And the dream has become a powerful metaphor for personal and collective aspirations for change. 

What all these approaches to dreams tend to have in common is the way they frame the dream as fundamentally individual, idiosyncratic and private. But while indeed dreams may occur in the individual mind, every mind is fundamentally shaped by social forces. Further, while the immediate experience of dreaming may indeed be solipsistic, the act of recalling and sharing a dream (in speech, writing or art) are all deeply social, and it is here that dreams become most meaningful in waking life. While dreams are far from a pure realm of imaginative freedom, they do defy the conventional “reality principle” that governs our experience and interpretation of waking life and, as such, can awaken powerful imaginative challenges to the status quo. But this potential is only realized when the dream is shared, when, through language or symbolic or artistic expression, it becomes a common reference point for worldly matters held in common.

This essay explores how artists both historically and in the contemporary moment have sought to mobilize dreams as a collective method for cultivating and convoking the radical imagination, framed as a collective process rather than an individual quality of mind. In particular, this essay is concerned with the way artists use such approaches to imagine a world beyond systematic dispossession and oppression in the Northern hemisphere of the Americas. After briefly exploring dreams as social (rather than simply individual) phenomena, this essay turns to the way Western artists have approached dreams as a gateway to the radical imagination. It then explores the work of several artists who mobilize dreams as a way to work through systems of gentrification, settler colonialism and white supremacy.

The examples and theories presented in this essay strongly suggest that collective dreaming practices can be important methods for cultivating the radical imagination. Artists build on a variety of traditions to reconceptualize dreams beyond an modern, Enlightenment Eurocentric epistemology that would see them as merely the colourful exhaust of the brain machine. However, the artists discussed in this paper do not pursue the romantic or metaphysical notions that see dreams as sources of supernatural insight into the self or the world. Rather, in ways that resonate with and, in some cases, draw on recent insights from neurosciences and related fields, these artists approach dreams and dreaming as important processes by which humans process and come to learn about the changing, complex social world.

The social significance of dreams

My focus is on artistic methodologies that concern sleep dreaming, by which I mean the kinds of dreaming that occur when the resting subject is unconscious and fluctuating between REM (random eye movement) and non-REM (NREM) sleep. However, as neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers agree, the distinction between “sleep dreaming” and other forms of un- or semi-conscious cognition is blurry: dreaming can name a wide range of intentional and unintentional mental states or practices ranging from daydreaming, trance-like states, meditation and lucid dreaming.[1] Many “non-Western” cultural and spiritual approaches to dreaming do not make a distinction between the kind experienced when unconscious (typically at night, in sleep) and those experienced when awake. My particular interest here are dreams that occur during sleep when the body is prone and what we have come to call the “conscious mind” is at rest.[2]

Let us place to one side psychological and spiritual theories of literal transpersonal dreaming, telepathic connection and dreams as a literal portal between realities.[3] We tend to imagine dreaming from a materialist standpoint as among the most individuated activities: in sleep, the brain drastically reduces the influence of sensory information, emblematized in the idiomatic expression that a dreamer is “dead to the world.”[4] Yet for at least a century psychologists have theorized, and neuroscientists have concurred, that dreams are a vital part of how humans “process” information about the social world and about a world shaped by social forces.[5] Among perhaps many other things, dreams represent a realm in which our minds “work through” what they have encountered in waking life. The waking life of a cooperative, social species (for whom the most important experiences are social) is fundamentally shaped not only by interpersonal experiences but social institutions, norms, ideas, habits and identities. Almost everyone recalls a dream that reflects social anxieties, or that reflects our social relationships. Our social experiences are “processed” in dreams, and dreams do transform us as social beings.[6] As such, dreams are inherently and inevitably social, even if they occur within the individual body-mind.

While in highly materialist “Western” societies dreams are largely seen as frivolous, in many societies, dreams and dreaming are viewed as important sources of insight or even as parallel forms of reality that have a bearing on the material world.[7] Although it often goes unacknowledged in “Western” societies, it still rings true: dreams can, in a multitude of ways, affect waking behavior. Since at least Freud, psychologists have recognized that dreams offer a window into many aspects of mind that are opaque to conscious thought.[8]  Non-Freudian therapists and researchers have attentively studied the role of dreams in psychological trauma and recovery from it.[9] Neurological injuries that hinder or prevent individuals from dreaming have dramatic consequences on waking life.[10]

Further, dreams are, for good reason, often associated with inspiration and aspiration. The artist is frequently presented as society’s designated dreamer. In English and other languages it is common to associate one’s dreams with one’s hopes and desires.[11] In spite of the fact that most people seem to rarely actually dream unambiguously about a yearned-for future, the dream has become a powerful metaphor for such waking projections, emblematized in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech, or the rousing verses of I Dreamed a Dream from the blockbuster musical Les Miserables.

Neuroscientific inquiries into human dreaming reveal it is an extremely consequential for the fundamental process of learning.[12] Learning is, as critical pedagogy scholars including Paolo Freire and bell hooks agree, the sine qua non of individual and social change.[13] Fredric Jameson has fruitfully discussed this essential sense of social causality as a “cognitive map” of the world, an insight confirmed by recent neuroscientific and psychological theories of mind.[14] At least one leading neuroscientist theorizes that the activity of the dreaming brain might be best understood as the uninhibited expression of that pivotal organ’s “default system”: the production of imaginative narrative, which is at the core of human cognition.[15] Thus, while most of us experience dreams as individuals, they are profoundly social and socially consequential.[16]

In this essay, my concern is limited to collective, intentional dreaming practices that advance under the banner of politicized or radical art. I am interested in how and why artists are experimenting with or rekindling traditions of bringing bodies together in physical proximity to dream with the goal of contributing to the transformation of society. I am not interested in art and artists that seek to represent sleep, dreams or dreaming. Nor am I concerned with how artists find or share inspiration or insight in dreams, nor even those who seek to understand dreams or dreaming. Rather, I am particularly interested in works that seek to mobilize dreaming as a participatory and collective methodology for opening the radical imagination as a cooperative practice. Even more particularly, I am interested in work that mobilizes collective dreaming to grapple explicitly with the social injustice of racial capitalism in the northern hemisphere of the Americas.

This accords with the approach which I developed with Alex Khasnabish that frames the radical imagination as “not a thing that individuals possess in greater or lesser quantities but as a collective process, something that groups do and do together.”[17] The radical imagination is then key to the vitality of social movements and for transforming society. Drawing on the work of philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, the radical imagination is not simply the capacity to imagine the world against the grain of dominant ideologies but a much more elemental aspect of human society: all social institutions and all human identities and subjecthoods are formed from the way the imagination shapes behaviour and cooperation and, in turn, the way such formations shape the imagination.[18] This dialectic between the imaginary and the material is in constant flux. Castoriadis uses the metaphor of magma to describe the way the power of the imagination as a social force flows, usually unrecognized, through a society that is made of institutions and identities that are, in fact, the solidified and petrified remains of its previous eruptions of the imagination. Their destiny is to be swept away by future eruptions, which will then harden into new institutional formations.[19]

That dreams are expressions of the imagination is not in doubt, but our theorization of the radical imagination via Castoriadis helps us reckon with the way that dreaming might be developed as a methodology for cultivating the radical imagination. It is not simply that, in dreams, the imagination is unfettered by the inhibitions of the waking mind or the imposition of what Herbert Marcuse (drawing on Freud) called the “reality principle” whereby today’s ephemeral social institutions and formations (even if catastrophic) are taken for eternal or natural.[20] It is also that, as Sharon Sliwinski argues, through dreaming and, importantly, through sharing dreams we can come to view society and power relations anew and recast our own individual and collective roles.[21] Sliwinski builds on and extends Freud’s observation that dreaming, recalling one’s dream and sharing one’s dream with another or others are three very distinct and sometimes only minimally related actions. For Sliwinski, the dream that is vocalized or otherwise represented to the world (to one’s analyst, in poetry or art, or with friends and intimates) is of the most critical value not because it necessarily provides a window into the soul of the dreamer but because it becomes a shared resource or text for understanding the world and the circumstance within which the dream was dreamt and shared. Here, Sliwinski draws on Hannah Arendt’s notion of politics as the shared space of appearances and utterance, where matters of common concern come to be formulated dialogically.

Art and dreams

Dreaming has long been a central theme in world art and literature. Collective dreaming practices, or social practices of dream interpretation, occur in a huge variety of world civilizations.[22] In the European medieval period, dreams were the sources of many religious and revolutionary prophetic visions, some of which led to significant social upheaval.[23] But it would likely be fair to say that the European enlightenment inherited a skepticism towards the importance of dreams and gave it a scientific and rationalist justification. While various strands of early and later romanticism prized the dream as a source of individual insight and motivation,[24] the idea that dreams were socially significant was relegated either to the margins or associated with the “primitive” societies Europeans licensed themselves to colonize, enslave or destroy.

As early as the 18th century artists and intellectuals began to develop a rhetoric of the figure of the artist as a dreamer and increasingly took dreams as inspiration.[25] But it was not until the 20th century that radical artists from the European tradition began to explore dreaming not as an inspiration or a theme for art, but as a methodology for awakening or liberating the imagination.

It was in the wake of the First World War that the early Surrealists turned to dreams, notably André Breton who, during the war, had been conscripted to work in the neurological ward of a French military hospital in Nantes, where he witnessed no shortage of nightmares.[26] It was perhaps in this capacity that he was first exposed to the then-unorthodox practices of psychoanalysis and the importance that Freud placed on dreams, though the two men would only meet in 1921. By that time, Breton and his colleagues had already been drawing on dreams as prompts for automatic writing exercises. Breton was not yet a communist but like the other early surrealists he was a pacifist and a radical internationalist. Dreams offered not only a personal escape from ongoing catastrophe but a channel by which the artistic, personal and, importantly the political imagination might escape their damming and harnessing by convention.

Initially, for Breton and the early surrealists, these problems were largely framed around how to overcome habituated personal inhibitions to grasp for insight, freedom and creativity stifled by social norms, artistic conventions and dominant ideologies. Later, however, dreams came to be seen as offering solutions to significant shared sociological, political and even economic problems. Jack J. Spector argues that the surrealists’ fascination with the dream marks a major transition of the movement from a largely aesthetic and poetic to a more political register.[27] What began as a set of practices where dreams and dream interpretation were prompts for individual acts of imagination developed, in 1925, into experiments in collective dreaming and dream-sharing that spoke to a “vision of an egalitarian community of ‘liberated egos.’”[28] They saw dreaming as a worldly (rather than metaphysical) practice through which the mind reflects on and can surpass a socially-shaped reality.[29]

Breton was to come to praise Lenin and Trotsky as political visionaries who, thanks to the power of the Marxist dialectic, could essentially know, embody and bring about the dreams of the proletarian masses and save humanity from capitalism.[30] Here, Breton echoed tendencies in early Soviet Constructivism and later Cosmism which saw the Communist Party and its theorist-leaders as in some sense the “dreamer in chief,” the unique historical dialectical emergence of a new kind of consciousness that could synthesize the dreams of the oppressed and make them real.[31]

The influence of Marxism and Freud on surrealism is well documented, but Robin D.G.  Kelley alerts us to the importance of Afro-diasporan thought.[32] Surrealism inherited from both dadaism and primitivism a fascination with non-European art as well as with shamanism and other traditions that highly prized dreaming as a methodology of prophetic vision, healing or communion with the world. Unlike those aforementioned movements, the surrealists were also ardently anti-colonial and also took inspiration from the wave of revolts against French and other European empires in the wake of the First World War. Kelley likewise argues that, while the surrealists were to initially dismiss music, they nonetheless formed in an age when the main challenge to dominant European cultural norms was coming from blues and early jazz forms developed by Black people in the Americas and echoing across what Paul Gilroy calls the Black Atlantic.[33] Indeed, Kelley refutes the idea that it was the European surrealists who influenced the radical Caribbean surrealists, notably Aimé Césaire and Susan Césaire [Roussi]; rather, these revolutionaries drew on European surrealism to supplement a rich Afro-Diasporan tradition that also included traditions of collective or consequential dreaming inherited from West African religious traditions and finding expression in Haitian vodou, obeah and ritual-based spiritualities.[34] Kelley relates how, for Susan Césaire, surrealism and the blurring of the line between waking and dreaming allowed Black diaspora radicals to liberate their imaginations from the ideologies, norms, values and narratives instilled by colonial educational regimes, not only allowing for the development of more autonomous anti-colonial thought but also, through that autonomy, to connect to the universal struggle for liberation.

Thus, for Kelley, dreams are not simply the nighttime perambulations of the vexed individual brain but collectively cultivated and refined visions. These visions are sometimes explicit and encourage the envisioning of a new world of justice and peace, but often latent or implicit, hanging unspoken but undeniable in the ways that Black artists and musicians validate and express Black beauty, grace and pleasure in a world that seeks to annihilate them. A similar argument is made by Phanuel Antwi in regards to the transoceanic “soundings” of dub poetry, which he frames as a method of anti-colonial dreaming, and also by Frances Negrón-Muntaner regarding Reggaeton in Puerto Rico and its diaspora[35]

Kelley echoes Ernst Bloch’s concept of the “forward dream,” the way that utopianism operates as a powerful social force not through fully-developed utopian schemes but through the way that small hopes, daydreams, revenge fantasies and practices of daily life reflect or refract worlds that might yet be.[36] For Kelley, such dreams come not from idle fancy or the power of the romantic imagination but from struggles large and small. These might be the great and historic struggles of coordinated movements for liberation, but can equally emerge from the zone of what James C. Scott calls “infrapolitics”: the multitude of tiny refusals or rebellions that are so central to the lives of the oppressed.[37] Small acts of dignity, solidarity, compassion and resistance draw on and contribute to a kind of subterranean dream reservoir. Tensions build and eruptions happen, either in the form of individual creative inspiration or mass revolt. Though dreams are among the most idiosyncratic, private and intimate of our experiences, their inspiration and resonance is social and shared, a factor compounded when our waking, social body-mind recalls a dream and especially when we share a dream in speech or writing or other creative media. We might, then, liken dreams to a commons to which each person contributes and from which each draws sustenance.[38]

Dreaming as artistic method

Within the US art world, experiments in intentional public or social dreaming came to prominence again in the post-war years, including conceptual work by Andy Warhol, Goeffrey Hendricks, Chris Burden and Marina Abramović and the potential political power of sleep and dreams was broadcast by Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s “bed-ins” for peace.

In a process represented in her photographic piece Institutional Dream Series (Sleeping in Public), 1972–73, conceptual artist Laurie Anderson intentionally fell asleep in public places in New York City and sought to have dreams unique to those spaces to better understand the city and its inhabitants. Institutions included public libraries, courthouses and amusement parks. “[I was] trying to sleep in different public places to see if the place can color my dreams,” she reflected.[39]

It was perhaps not coincidental that these institution hovered on the brink of catastrophe. Though the star-crossed World Trade Centre would be inaugurated as the world’s tallest buildings in 1972, already the city’s economic turmoil was boiling under the surface in ways that would result in a catastrophic financial crisis three years later. As David Harvey has argued, this crisis allowed the city to become the platform for drastic and draconian experiments in what would come to be known as neoliberal austerity.[40] As fellow geographer Neil Smith argues, the crisis (which was due in part to the failures of the US Federal and New York State governments, as well as rampant corruption and suburban white flight) ushered in a phase of “urban revanchism” where problems of crime, unemployment and poverty were blamed on poor, working and racialized people, justifying massive investments in policing and cuts to social spending, including on public institutions such as those in which Anderson dreamed.[41] Already by 1972 artists in Anderson’s circles were complaining that rents were increasing and, further still, that the aura of impoverished bohemian chic to which they contributed was attracting well-heeled non-artists and property speculators in a process that was to come to be known as gentrification–although the impact on Black, Puerto Rican and other marginalized and working class communities would be far more devastating.[42] 

Little has been written about Anderson’s Institutional Dream, but it signals what seems to me to be an inaugural event in a genealogy of politicized practices that mobilize collective or public dreaming as a vehicle for understanding or critiquing society or social institutions.[43] Anderson has not spoken or written extensively about this work, but I would hazard that it speaks to the desire to achieve some intimacy with the city, its people and its institutions that is otherwise inhibited or constrained in waking life. Beyond the daring physical vulnerability of the act, and beyond the episodic ways the performance or experiment gave Anderson access to and afforded conversations with citizens, the practice strives towards a methodology for encountering and apprehending some aspect of the shared sublime of the built environment. To dream in an institution is to, in some sense, dream for the institution, or with/in it. An “institution” is a combination of many things: the built structures itself, resonant with the histories of the increasingly global array of materials of which it is formed and the labour through which they were assembled; the particular force fields and power relations that gave rise to that institution and bestowed authority or meaning upon it; and the individuals who staff it (from bosses to cleaners) or are caught up in it. Here we might fruitfully draw on Castoriadis’s argument (reminiscent of Max Weber) that society is composed of institutions that range from the physically monumental and dangerous (police, corporations) to the powerfully intangible (marriage, money). But, for Castoriadis, all of these institutions are, ultimately, structures of the shared imagination that, in their turn, shape the imagination.[44] Imaginary “instituting” is a fundamental human social process, an open dialectic where, from the “magma” of the social imagination, new institutions are formed that then shape the magma’s flow, always threatened by future eruptions of the tectonic radical imagination. Without edging into the realm of metaphysics, might dreams be made of this same magma?

Already in 1972, when Anderson undertook Institutional Dream, the forms of backlash against the notion of the public that was to accelerate into the neoliberal revolution was at work, a counterrevolution against the radical demands of the era against conservative, racist and capitalist post-war institutions.[45] Anderson’s dreaming methodology might be said to use the dream as a form of research into a shift occurring at the otherwise imperceptible level of society itself, symptomatically expressed in its built environment, institutions and the even more ineffable social atmosphere.

Inspired by Anderson’s enigmatic piece, in 2016 the then-San Francisco-based social practice artist Cassie Thornton sought to adapt a dreaming methodology for more explicitly activist purposes when she was commissioned by union organizers among precarious academic workers at Mills College to make an intervention on that private university campus to link their concerns with those of heavily indebted students.[46] Thornton had recently come to prominence as an MFA student at the nearby private California College for the Arts for transforming her and her cohort’s massive debt-loads into the subject of her work, arguing that such institutions were really intended to produce debt and debtors, not art or artists.[47] Inspired by the anti-debt politics of the Occupy movement and its offshoot Strike Debt (of which she was a part), Thornton had staged participatory spectacles to break the taboos around discussing debt, including hiring an actor to play an heavily indebted student and have dramatic public breakdowns on behalf of all those for whom the public catastrophe of financial abandonment had been rendered a lonely private anxiety.[48] This followed on several years of participatory practice using forms of hypnosis or guided meditation to, one-on-one or in small groups, ask student debtors to visualize their debt and transform it from amorphous personal shame to an externalized object. Thornton had referred to these as forms of “psychic architecture.”[49]

At Mills College, Thornton worked with her hosts to recruit student and union activists to sleep as a group in the entry rotunda of the main administration building, through which the university’s handsomely paid senior management team passed to reach their offices and which also led on to both the student “financial assistance” and human resources offices. Camping overnight in that space, which at the time afforded students and staff 24-hour access, created an ample opportunity for those gathered to talk together about their financial anxieties as workers and students and find solidarity and common cause as well as act as a durational protest. While the unfamiliar and inhospitable environment meant that few of the participants got a good night’s rest, when they arose in the morning they shared those dreams which they remembered and sought to use these as a way of understanding not only their own hopes and fears but those of the institution itself.

Thornton reprised this methodology again nearly a decade later in 2021 in the remote Canadian city of Thunder Bay, notorious for violent anti-Indigenous racism linked to its status as a logistics and extraction hub in that nation’s settler colonial capitalist economy.[50] The dire context of settler colonialism is important to illuminate: in the preceding years, the city of Thunder Bay had seen among the nation’s highest rates of murder, hate crimes, fatal and non-fatal drug overdose with these tragedies disproportionately affecting the city’s Indigenous people who, by conservative government statistics represent some 13% of the population  (20-25% is a more credible estimate).[51] The city’s police force had been found grossly incompetent and systemically racist by two high profile investigations. A book, which became a Canadian bestseller, had investigated the suspicious deaths of seven young Indigenous people whose remains had been found in the city’s rivers over the preceding decade.[52] Activists and advocates in the city routinely reported responses ranging from official indifference to harassment and threats and the city’s political, business and institutional leaders propounded a narrative that framed Thunder Bay as the victim of an unearned “bad reputation” and at risk from what was presented as a foreign Indigenous problem (neglecting, of course, on whose stolen land the city was built…).[53]

In this context, Thornton was part of a team of researchers, including the present author, invited by the city’s public library system to provide a report on how it might restitute the stolen lands on which its building rested to the Indigenous Anishinaabe people, from whom they had been stolen. As part of this larger project, Thornton, in consultation with local Anishinaabe elder, artist and activist Ma-Nee Chacaby, adapted her methodology of Institutional Dreaming to gather several Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents of or guests to the city to stay overnight in the library and have a dream on its behalf. Thornton and her collaborators brought together 8 people who did not identify as men to sleep overnight in one of the popular branches of the city’s library system in order to collectively dream of a way beyond the ongoing catastrophe. This is a context where it was not politically or ethically feasible or desirable to simply evict non-indigenous citizens and where the question of even restoring indigenous legal title to the land was vexed by profound jurisdictional and political issues deriving from over 300 years of colonial rule and its fragmentation of Indigenous communities and governance structures. While some years before the Canadian government had dedicated itself to an agenda of reconciliation with Indigenous people and communities, there was growing cynicism towards these policies which preserved the rights of Canadian and international extractive and logistics corporations to run roughshod over Indigenous lands and ignore community concerns as very little was done to improve the lives of millions of Indigenous people disproportionately living in poverty or at risk of premature death.[54] In this sense, the institutional dreaming initiative at the public library defied, on the one hand, the liberal capitalist reconciliation agenda of the state and, on the other, a tendency towards hopelessness and isolation in the face of catastrophe.

Freedom dreams

Collective dreaming processes for the radical imagination seem most important when undertaken within systems and structures of institutionalized power that appear to be the natural order of reality, such as settler colonialism. It is also surely the case with white supremacy, which as hooks, Kelley and Gilroy have shown to deeply structure the imaginations of both those who benefit and those who suffer. As such, the radical uprisings associated with the slogan “Black Lives Matter” over the better part of the last decade appear not only as a set of political demands but an epistemic and ontological challenge to a white supremacist society.[55] They have been accompanied by several artistic experiments in collective dreaming.

Josie Roland Hodson explores a series of recent artworks that dwell with “Black rest” in the context of the white supremacist culture of the United States. She is seeking, in a series of recent participatory works, a “Black sleep aesthetics: a visual poetics of somnolence that acts as a refusal of and reparation for the enduring myths of Black sleeplessness or nonsomnia, indolence, and extraordinary industry.”[56] Hodson is concerned with “the liberatory space of the Black unconscious” that insists on “a fugitive withdrawal from the present terms of engagement,” emphasizing, in the face of the individuating discourses that see sleep and dreams as largely inconsequential and private affairs, “projects that are produced through modes of collaboration”: acting “out the productive sociality to be found in Black sleep, delivering new possibilities for the intimate act of ‘sleeping together.’”

Such inquiry is justified given that Black people in the United States suffer poorer sleep health than any other measured racial population, contributing to many other forms of ill health including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and mental distress.[57] This sleeplessness is largely due to the impacts of systemic as well as interpersonal racism, ranging from anxiety-inducing hostility, legitimate fear of police or the accumulated impacts of what have come to be termed “microaggressions.” But they can also result from the ways structural and systemic racism play out in patterns of employment, housing, nutrition and access to preventative or primary medicine, in other words through institutions.

This is compounded, Hodson explains, by the experience of living within a set of contradictory racist mythologies that hold Black people to be both, on the one hand, capable of supernatural endurance and capacity for suffering and, on the other, typically idle, indolent and shiftless, prone to sleep. A similar vicious ideology has informed hegemonic depictions of people of the Caribbean. It is haunted by the enduring legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and chattle slavery in which Black people were systematically denied rest through overwork, terrorism, or predation. In this era, enslaved and Black people were presumed, contradictorily, to be both nearly insatiable in their hunger to sleep (often attributed to their tropical origins) thus denying their owners or employers of work time and also, at the same time, childish and irresponsible in remaining awake to socialize when they ought to have been reproducing their labor power through sleep. Hodson shows that, indeed, these myths persist. Such myths serve to justify surveillance, discipline and denial of autonomy both to individuals and to whole populations. They are intimately connected to racist excuses for the impoverishment of the Global South which presume that racialized populations there are both overly excitable and overly indolent due to genetics, climate, or culture.[58] It has, for instance, characterized the framing of Puerto Rico in the wake of debt-fueled austerity and multiple “natural” disasters, where the island’s people are blamed for their misfortune for being inherently both lazily dependent and frenetically ungovernable.[59]

Under this profound material and cultural pressure, Black dreaming has emerged as a powerful set of methodologies of refusal and radical imagining. While much has been made of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s “I have a dream” speech, this is only the most prominent (and often, as Cornel West argues, decontextualized and sanitized) of a wide range of ways the notion of the dream is deployed both literally and metaphorically in struggles for Black liberation, as Kelley argues.[60] For Hodson, “attending to contemporary artists observing predicaments of Black sleeplessness allows us to more keenly identify the shape of oppressive practices that constrain Black freedom today,” in a moment when “constant technological surveillance, the explosion of incarceration and the criminalizing of everyday life, the extraordinary health disparities caused in part by environmental and medical racisms, homelessness and dispossession born of racist housing policies, and hyperexploitative labor conditions that require that Black people work more for less.”[61]

Hodson focuses on three remarkable practices that “show quieter approaches to imagining life outside of its present crises, alternative modes of being to be found in somnolent fugitivity: a reclamation of stolen time, returning collective freedom dreams to the space of the unconscious.” These practices “insist on principles of collectivity if we are to alter the conditions of our sleepless discontent. These works enact an ethos of mutuality that suggests that the recuperation of sleep is not revolutionary as an individual project.”[62]

In Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa’s project Black Power Naps (or Siestas Negras) the Afro-Latinx artists occupy or reclaim space in art institutions and in temporary installations in public space to gather Black people to sleep, rest, nap, laze, cuddle, meditate or relax to “propose sleep as an act of queer temporal rebellion against colonial incursion.”[63] These efforts are enhanced and emblematized by the creation, use, consumption and display of “sleep technologies,” ranging from herbal and pharmaceutical supplements to sculptural beds and cushions.

Similarly, since 2016 poet, theologian and performance artists Trish Hersey has inaugurated or hosted a number of events, performances installations or participatory opportunities under the banner of the “Nap Ministry” and under her supervision as the “Nap Bishop.” Drawing on traditions of Black prophesy and liberation theology, here the right of Black people to rest is presented as sacred, whereas in conventional discourse and life under racial capitalism it is profaned.

Hodson pays special attention to a cycle of performance rituals under the title of Black Womexn Dreaming convened in the San Francisco Bay area by choreographers Amara Tabot Smith and Ellen Sebastian Chang as part of their community-collaborative project House/Full of Blackwomen. Taking as inspiration the legend that abolitionist militant Harriet Tubman suffered narcolepsy and received strategic information about evading capture in her dreams, Black Womexn Dreaming “drew from the spirit of the Underground Railroad and its principle of freedom through fugitivity, in which no guiding map nor sanctioned geography was available: In order to find the destination, participants were guided only by landmarks.”[64] The participatory performances saw members of the collective welcome guests, all of them “Black women- and femme-identified people,” into a cell-phone free “space of covert refuge for its participants…where rest, relaxation, and dreaming of many kinds was encouraged and fostered.” Hodson notes that by “refusing to record or document the process” the artists sought to provide “a space free of the imperative to perform or produce” and so “obstruct[ed] cultural hegemony’s enduring fixation with representation, producing no graspable object for consumption or voyeurism and instead deploying Black privacy in an anti-Black society that desires to see the Black abject as fuel for its project.” After the performance, participants were invited to share their dreams in a common book. The book, however, is not an object of display, but rather a shared testimony.


Such processes and methods remain experimental. Perhaps this is not entirely a bad thing. Silicon Valley and its global competitors are eager to “disrupt” (i.e. commercialize, commodify and financialize) “sleeptech” through the integration of new digital technologies.[65] Dreaming is quickly becoming an investable opportunity as firms seek to develop methods and technologies to help cognitive workers and managers harness the creative power of their dreams to better compete and “innovate.”[66] Here, reality follows art, vivifying earlier nightmares from science fiction. In visionary anarchist writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel The Lathe of Heaven a near-future world is almost destroyed when a egotistical psychiatrist uses technology to shape the mind of a patient whose dreams have the power to shape reality. In the 2008 independent film Sleep Dealer, dispossessed Mexican migrant workers are put into a dreamlike state and connected to computers so they can operate drones to pick fruit and build skyscrapers in an America they are forbidden to enter. And in the 2010 blockbuster Hollywood film Inception the dreamscape becomes a site of corporate espionage and manipulation.

In the face of the threat of the instrumentalization of dreams in the name or perpetuating systems of domination and profit, the contemporary artists explored here are instantiating different protocols where dreaming is conceived in some sense as a commons: a shared “resource” for meaning making, discovery and, potentially, resistance.

[1] Domhoff, The Scientific Study of Dreams: Neural Networks, Cognitive Development, and Content Analysis.

[2] Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “Do Rocks Listen?,” American Anthropologist 97, no. 3 (1995): 505–18, doi:10.1525/aa.1995.97.3.02a00090.

[3] See Lee Irwin, “Supernal Dreaming: On Myth and Metaphysics,” Religions 11, no. 11 (2020): 552, doi:10.3390/rel11110552.

[4] Guy Leschziner, The Nocturnal Brain: Nightmares, Neuroscience, and the Secret World of Sleep (New York and London: St. Martins, 2019).

[5] Mieke Bal and Griselda Pollock, “Psychoanalysis and the Image: Transdisciplinary Perspectives,” 2008, 30–59, doi:10.1002/9780470691007.ch2.

[6] Sliwinski, Dreaming in Dark Times Six Exercises in Political Thought..

[7] Burkhard Schnepel, “In Sleep a King…’: The Politics of Dreaming in a Cross-Cultural Perspective,” Paideuma: Mitteilungen Zur Kulturkunde 41 (2005): 209–20.

[8] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 2010); Harvie Ferguson, The Lure of Dreams: Sigmund Freud and the Construction of Modernity The Lure of Dreams: Sigmund Freud and the Construction of Modernity (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).

[9] Timothy L. Davis and Clara E. Hill, “Spiritual and Nonspiritual Approaches to Dream Work: Effects on Clients’ Well‐Being,” Journal of Counseling & Development 83, no. 4 (2005): 492–503, doi:10.1002/j.1556-6678.2005.tb00371.x.

[10] G. William Domhoff, The Scientific Study of Dreams: Neural Networks, Cognitive Development, and Content Analysis (Washington: American Psychiatric Association, 2003).

[11] This association goes back to the origins of the modern English language, see: Jerome Mandel, “Dream and Imagination in Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 1 (1973): 61–68, doi:10.2307/2868739.

[12] Leschziner, The Nocturnal Brain: Nightmares, Neuroscience, and the Secret World of Sleep..

[13] Paolo Freire, Daring to Dream: Toward a Pedagogy of the Unfinished, ed. Maria Arujo Freire, trans. Alexandre K. Oliveira (London and New York: Routledge, 2016); bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (London and New York: Routledge, 1994).

[14] Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Springfield, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 347–60. In Jameson’s analysis however, the question is of ideology and a person’s imagined relations to material power relations through which one navigates the world

[15] J. Alan Hobson, Dream Life: An Experimental Memoir (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2011).

[16] Deirdre Barrett, The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving (New York: Crown, 2001).

[17] Max Haiven and Alex Khasnabish. The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity (London and New York: Zed, 2014).

[18] Cornelius Castoriadis, “Radical Imagination and the Social Instituting Imaginary,” in The Castoriadis Reader, ed. David Ames Curtis (Cambridge and New York: Blackwell, 1997), 319–37.

[19] Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Logic of Magmas and the Question of Autonomy,” in The Castoriadis Reader, ed. David Ames Curtis (Cambridge and New York: Blackwell, 2017), 290–318.

[20] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon, 1955).

[21] Sharon Sliwinski, Dreaming in Dark Times Six Exercises in Political Thought (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

[22] See Jeannette Mageo and Robin E. Sheriff, eds., New Directions in the Anthropology of Dreaming (London and New York: Routledge, 2020).

[23] Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and the Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (London: Pimilco, 2004).

[24] Jennifer Ford, Coleridge on Dreaming: Romanticism, Dreams and the Medical Imagination (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[25] Grevel Lindop, “Romantic Poetry and the Idea of the Dream,” The Keats-Shelley Review 18, no. 1 (2013): 20–37, doi:10.1179/ksr.2004.18.1.20.

[26] Spector, “André Breton and the Politics of Dream: Surrealism in Paris, ca. 1918–1924.”

[27] Jack J. Spector, “André Breton and the Politics of Dream: Surrealism in Paris, ca. 1918–1924,” American Imago 46, no. 4 (1989): 287–317.

[28] Ibid., 294.

[29] José Jiménez, ed., Surrealism and the Dream (Madrid: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2013), http://www.inmaterial.com/jjimenez/sysen.htm.

[30] Ibid., 308–9.

[31] Boris Groys, ed., Russian Cosmism (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2018).

[32] Robin D G Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon, 2002).

[33] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[34] See Michael Richardson, ed., Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean, trans. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski (London: Verso, 1996).

[35] Phanuel Antwi, “Anticolonial Dreaming: The End of an Aura and the Persistence of Dub,” Journal of West Indian Literature 30, no. 1 (2021): i–xviii.; Negrón-Muntaner, Frances. 2009. “Poetry of Filth: The (Post) Reggaetonic Lyrics of Calle 13.” In Reggaeton, edited by Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernandez, translated by Maritza Hernandez, 327–40. Durham NC and London: Duke University Press.

[36] Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Volume One, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1996).

[37] James C Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).

[38] On this extended concept of the commons, beyond the more limited designation of inanimate “resources,” see Max Haiven, “The commons against neoliberalism, the commons of neoliberalism, the commons beyond neoliberalism” in the Handbook of Neoliberalism, edited by Simon Springer, Kean Birch, and Julie MacLeavy, 271–83. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.

[39] RoseLee Goldberg, Laurie Anderson (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), 39.

[40] David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” New Left Review 53 (2008), https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii53/articles/david-harvey-the-right-to-the-city.

[41] Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).

[42] Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind Witness to a Lost Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

[43] Ibid.; John Lardas Modern, “Institutional Dreams,” Church History 83, no. 4 (2014): 988–96, doi:10.1017/s000964071400119x.

[44] Castoriadis, “Radical Imagination and the Social Instituting Imaginary.”

[45] Smith, Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City..

[46] Personal communication

[47] Leigh Claire La Berge and Dehlia Hannah, “Debt Aesthetics: Medium Specificity and Social Practice in the Work of Cassie Thornton,” Postmodern Culture 25, no. 2 (2015): du.

[48] See Strike Debt, The Debt Resistors Operations Manual (Brooklyn: Common Notions, 2012).

[49] Leigh Claire La Berge, Wages Against Artwork: Socially Engaged Art and the Decommodification of Labor (Durham NC and London: Duke University Press, 2019).

[50] Max Haiven, “The colonial secrets of Canada’s most racist city” ROAR Magazine, 13 February 2019. https://roarmag.org/essays/colonial-secrets-canadas-racist-city/

[51] ibid.

[52] Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (Toronto: Anansi, 2017). The book also triggered the creation of an investigative podcast which was to rise to the top of both social commentary and true crime charts in Canada. It was widely downloaded around the world. The podcast can be found at https://www.canadaland.com/shows/thunder-bay/

[53] See season 02, episode 01 of Thunder Bay (podcast) https://www.canadaland.com/shows/thunder-bay/

[54] Michelle Daigle, “The Spectacle of Reconciliation: On (the) Unsettling Responsibilities to Indigenous Peoples in the Academy,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 37, no. 4 (2019): 703–21, doi:10.1177/0263775818824342.

[55] Walidah Imarisha, Jonathan Horstmann, and Robin D.G. Kelley, “Black Art Matters: A Roundtable On the Black Radical Imagination,” Red Wedge, July 26, 2016, https://www.redwedgemagazine.com/online-issue/black-art-matters-roundtable-black-radical-imaginatio.

[56] Josie Roland Hodson, “Rest Notes: On Black Sleep Aesthetics,” October 176 (2021): 9.

[57] Margaret T. Hicken et al., “‘Every Shut Eye, Ain’t Sleep’: The Role of Racism-Related Vigilance in Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Sleep Difficulty,” Race and Social Problems 5, no. 2 (2013): 100–112, doi:10.1007/s12552-013-9095-9.

[58] See da Silva, Denise Ferreira. Towards a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

[59] Lloréns, Hilda. 2018. “Imaging Disaster: Puerto Rico through the Eye of Hurricane María.” Transforming Anthropology 26 (2): 136–56. https://doi.org/10.1111/traa.12126.

[60] Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination; Dr. Martin Luther King JR., The Radical King, ed. Cornell West (Boston: Beacon, 2016).

[61] Hodson, “Rest Notes: On Black Sleep Aesthetics.”

[62] Ibid., 9.

[63] Ibid., chap. 23.

[64] Ibid.

[65] K. Glazer Baron et al., “How Are Consumer Sleep Technology Data Being Used to Deliver Behavioral Sleep Medicine Interventions? A Systematic Review,” Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 2021, 1–12, doi:10.1080/15402002.2021.1898397.

[66] Aleena Chia, “Oneirogenic Innovation in Consciousness Hacking,” in Technopharmacology, ed. Joshua Neves et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022).