Our team meeting last Friday was on the topic of “permeability” in dreaming – in other words, the extent to which our waking life informs our dreams, and vice versa. I was particularly interested in how we judge continuity between dreams and waking life when figurative transformations shape who, what, and where we think about. An impossible space that would be baffling to one person might clearly be Edinburgh to me, or my old primary school. Something about the orientation of a space, its underlying map, or how it makes you feel, could mark the continuity between waking experience and the dream world.

Thinking about space brought me to the work of artist Susan Hiller (1940 – 2019), whose Dream Mapping (1974) depicted the combined dream spaces of a select group of volunteers. Having initially trained in anthropology, Hiller considered herself a “paraconceptual” artist who was interested in using art installations and events to explore spiritual and paranormal beliefs and practices. In Dream Mapping, Hiller invited seven people to sleep in a specific field in Hampshire, England. The field was covered in naturally occurring mushroom circles, which, according to folklore could offer transmission to the fairy world if laid down in to sleep. Over three nights, the volunteers all slept in the field, sharing their dreams with each other every morning. The spaces they described were drawn on tracing paper and then combined into a single image – with both originals and the combined dream spaces being included in Dream Mapping.

Image from Dream Mapping (1974)

While unusual, Hiller’s work is interesting (I think) for combining elements which are sometimes missed in today’s psychological and neuroscientific research on dreaming. First, the act of sharing dreams, or collective dreaming, is perhaps not emphasised much in contemporary western societies. Yet, by bringing people together and melding their dream maps, Hiller’s work makes people think differently about the connections underpinning their own dreams. In a very open and insightful piece for Elephant magazine, Helen Charman relays her own discovery of Hiller’s work, and how it reframed her experiences of hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis:

“In those layers of tracing paper, the elements of each sleeper’s subconscious mind ceased to be an individual horror, a composite monster of repressed violence waiting to pounce, but one point on a map that led to another, a feature in common with another person’s experiences…What Dream Mapping did for me … was show me that dreaming doesn’t have to be something associated entirely with private and individual experience. I learned that the mind is not a problem to be solved, and that collectivity is a mode of living that belongs to the night as well as the day.”

By considering dreams a shared phenomenon, some of their unique and individual power was removed. For distressing experiences this kind of “normalising” can be a very powerful idea: it’s something, for example, often seen in therapeutic approaches to things like voice-hearing.

Initial participant sketches from Dream Mapping

Second, by locating Dream Mapping in a very specific place, rich in tradition and lore, Hiller was heavily foregrounding the role that specific spaces have in our dream lives. Some places stick with us and ground our dreams for many years; others have such a presence of their own, that they immediately alter our dreaming space. Anyone who has ever tried to sleep in a supposedly haunted house will be well aware of how our moods, thoughts, and expectations can be shaped by specific spaces – and the stories we share about them….

Ben Alderson-Day, October 2020