IF WE WERE XYZ: Artistic Process
Essay by artist Melati Suryodarmo
Describe your project, the research that informed the work, and how the concept evolved throughout the project’s development.
IF WE WERE XYZ began with my curiosity about how dreams are a mystery of myriad meanings and how they relate to our reality. I was also curious if there was a connection between our dreams and our brain activity while we are sleeping. In considering dreams, from a western scientific point of view, we cannot avoid taking into account Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung’s research and theories. On the other hand, critically speaking, I am interested in what Javanese traditional knowledge provides us to understand our lives better through dream interpretation The Javanese system includes many symbols, signs, and interpretations, but instead of further seeking these meanings, I was interested in measuring brain activity when thinking about a dream and then relate the data back to Javanese tradition and knowledge.
In the process of creating IF WE WERE XYZ and researching dreams, I explored the space between the world where we are living and the world where we are dreaming. I referred to Javanese mysticism and its detailed knowledge of human beings, nature, and belief in God. According to Javanese mysticism, everything that happens in life has a reason and can be explained. At the same time, I was intrigued by one of the Francisco de Goya’s prints—an aquatint etching entitled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”(1799). The work has been considered Goya’s critique of pre-enlightenment practices in late 18th century Spain, and demonstrative of Goya’s adherence to the values of Enlightenment and the belief that without reason, evil and corruption prevail. The image of the etching is a portrait of a man who sleeps peacefully—even as bats and owls threaten from all sides, a lynx laying quietly—wide-eyed and alert, while another creature sits at the center of the composition, staring at us.
I was looking for methods which could help me to facilitate a kind of translation between the dreams produced during sleep and the aspirational dreams produced in our imagination—of an ideal we hope to later realize as reality. These two kinds of dreams are complex subjects and can at once seem abstract and at the same time real.
Describe the artistic process to create the work, including how you worked with your collaborators.
During the research process, I measured brain waves using EEG (Electroencephalography), an electrophysiological monitoring method to record electrical activity of the brain. EEG technology is most often used to diagnose epilepsy, sleep disorders, depth of anesthesia, coma, encephalopathies, and brain death. In such research on the biological functioning of the brain studied by neurophysiologists and neuropsychologists, EEG has been used in nerve-system diagnoses by providing meta-data in a system where there is also an implicit meta-reasoning, a self-reflexive process that can affect the system’s own operation. This requires a programming language capable of that reflection, the ability to observe and modify its own structure and behavior.
Derived from the traditional numeric system in Javanese mysticism, the inspiration of Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” and the neuro-science technology through the function of EEG, I was curious to know how our society deals with reason. I also wanted to explore numbers and their relation to reason—the numbers that exist in our everyday contemporary environment, as well as how they demonstrate an individual’s place in the cosmic constellation. Lastly, I wondered if dreams could be visualized into atmospheric motions, space, colors, and sound. The questions that drove my artistic process were inspired by today’s political situation where societies are seeking reason, questioning how they came to be in the current condition they’re in and how they can carry on.
I had three phases in the creation of IF WE WERE XYZ:
IF WE WERE XYZ: Alter Ego is a film where a performer is wrapped in aluminum foil and becomes a strange being in a landscape. The way he moves and walks creates the surreal poetry of an alter ego, an unrecognized self within a person. The film represents the poetics of ourselves, including our alter ego when we are having a dream.
IF WE WERE XYZ: Alter Ego
Duration of the Film: 00:22:09
Medium: HD Video, 1920 x 1080
IF WE WERE XYZ: Catching Dreams was the second phase of the creative process, which consists of a second video focusing on the process of: collecting and selecting dream data; voice recording; EEG measuring; and transferring the graphic data into numbers. This process helped me to make artistic decisions, including making the performance score, light design and musical compositions with my collaborators technologist Antonius Oki Wiriadjaja and singer/composer/sound artist Jessika Kenney.
IF WE WERE XYZ: Catching Dreams
Duration of the Video: 00:10:00
Medium: HD Video, 1920 x 1080
IF WE WERE XYZ: Performing Seven Scores Dream was the third phase of the project. The performance score consisted of seven parts, each inspired from a single dream and the numeric data output from the EEG readings related to that dream. Each collaborator was invited to create freely based on the dream contents and its numeric data—Oki created an interactive lighting design and Kenney created musical compositions. Both Oki and Kenney performed in the work. Their multi-faceted expertise in wide ranging disciplines from Oki’s expertise in technology and neuroscience and Kenney’s composing and vocal work led to dynamic collaboration.
IF WE WERE XYZ: Performing Seven Scores Dream
Concept and performance: Melati Suryodarmo
Music: Jessika Kenney
Technology and interactive systems design: Antonius Oki Wiriadjaja
How has creating the work commissioned by Asia Society impacted you as an artist? Will the experience have an effect on your work in the future?
This project was a great opportunity for me to explore something new, especially ideas which involved collaboration and technology. Asia Society has given me great support by commissioning this project and helping me from its earliest concept until the final stage. This experience has inspired me to develop more kinds of collaborations in the future and has encouraged me to discover new vocabulary for my future work.