Photography Arts | Field Notes |

June 17, 2020

Applied Practice | Dream Theory Project | Research notes 01

Considerations & Research on the subject of 'Wellbeing'.

Before looking at a way into exploring this subject photographically that I can condense into a proposal, I'll examine what wellbeing means to me.

First I'm going to look at the word itself—I think of wellbeing as a modish term that associates with the Health & Wellness industry. According to the Global Wellness Institute, the global  Wellness economy was a $4.5 trillion market in 2018.

The reason this is relevant to me, is that because of the scale and reach of the industry, there's an overwhelming amount of wellbeing-related content in the media. The industry has developed its own marketing language, its own ideals of virtue and its own visual language. It's perhaps inevitable then, that the word is freighted with deep ideological and visual associations already.

To unpack those connections a little, when I think of wellness and wellbeing there are some ready associations to be be made.

Outward Wellbeing

  • Living environment, (tends to be architectural, postmodern, minimalist)
  • Light and colour (usually bright and white)
  • Food and drink, (organic, 'clean', unprocessed)
  • Financial stability, affluence
  • Meaningful work
  • Middle class

Inward Wellbeing

  • Mental health
  • Mindfulness and meditation
  • Time management
  • Stress management
  • 'Me time'
  • Exercise and stretching
  • Religious and spiritual practices, e.g. Yoga
  • Healthy habits (diet, intermittent fasting, sleep)
  • Family and friends (Inter age-group association, work/life balance)

My subjective experiences of wellbeing

If I try to identify what part of the range of associations I relate to personally, I can't help but think that genuine wellbeing fits the inward category more than the outward. The outward, to me, seems disconnected from the inward other than to serve as a shorthand, or visual avatar for the idea of 'wellness'.

When I think of times in my own life which I associate with an idea of wellbeing, they do not seem to correlate with the commodiousness of my living environment, the provenance of the food I was eating or my financial position at the time;  rather it had more to do with the condition of my internal processes that resulted in my being well—or otherwise.

Therefore my idea of wellbeing skews toward the belief that mental state is the key to wellbeing—the psychology at play over any given period of time. Was it outward-looking and positive, or inward looking and stuck in cyclical negative patterns in some way?

This draws me to want to look at these internal processes in my work and avoid the pervasive marketing language of health and wellness as it relates to the familiar outward representations found in the media and marketing collateral.

To put this another way—sure, it would be nice to have numerous zeros in the bank, live in a large and airy architectural space free of clutter or evidence of real life, eat fresh organic produce all the time and get a reiki massage on a daily basis, but I'm dubious that there's any statistical correlation between possession of these things and genuine wellbeing.

However, I do associate wellbeing with sleep.

Sleep and dreams

I am drawn to the subject of sleep as a way of exploring wellbeing. Not because more sleep is analogous to more wellbeing exactly—I can think of times when I've been sleeping very little that have been enormously rewarding in terms of my psychological welfare via creativity, work, friends and family. But more because sleep offers a window into the internal processes of the mind through dreams. Dreams seem to exist in the boundary space between the external world we experience and our own internal mechanisms.

How to approach the subject of dreams

For the purposes of this project I need a way into the subject matter. It's not possible within the scope of this project to exhaustively research all the available literature on dreams, so I'm going to pick three disparate avenues of enquiry that I hope will unlock an interesting way of approaching the subject.

In my proposal I will will set out the method for achieving the images, but the research subjects outlined in the following paragraphs are intended to inform the proposal as well as furnishing my mind with a base of ideas I can draw a visual interpretation from. I've tried to choose aspects of dream interpretation in the following examples that aren't all obviously harmonious. I'll see what happens.

Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man." Zhuangzi (c. 3rd century BC)
The Butterfly Dream, by Lu Zhi (c. 1550)

Jungian dream theory

In Carl Jung's autobiography "Memories, Dreams, Reflections", Jung talks about dreams containing repeating symbols—mythic archetypes. He describes how these archetypes prove an unconscious link between the dreamer and the inherited experiences of previous generations, because the symbols are present even in dreamers whose lives couldn't yet have accrued the necessary experiences to manifest the symbolic language spontaneously. He called this idea the collective unconscious.

Jungian dream theory holds dreams to be more revelatory than secretive. Showing more than they hide. They are an expression of imagination and communicate with our conscious minds by using mythical stories—myth being the most basic building block of human thought.

Jung suggested that dreams perform the function of integrating the unconscious mind with our conscious experiences. He called this process individuation—the mind’s drive to become whole.

Jung rejected the Freudian idea that dreams need to be interpreted to perform their function and instead suggested that amplifying their mythical themes was a way of bringing the process to fruition sooner than could otherwise be achieved.

Jung drew heavily on medieval and mythic imagery

The Simulation Hypothesis

The simulation hypothesis is the third branch of Nick Bostrom's 'Simulation Argument' trilemma. Bostrom is a philosopher, statistician, logician and mathematician at Oxford University and he is principally concerned with thinking through the ramifications of future technology.

Nick Bostrom

In his 2001 paper entitled "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" he sets out what he calls the Simulation Argument. Bostrom's Simulation Argument posits that one of the following statements is very likely to be true:

  1. The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero;
  2. The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero;
  3. The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

The first two parts of the trilemma deal with the possibility that civilizations that reach the level of technological maturity where they might have the computational power to simulate reality in immense detail may either die out before doing so, or lose interest in doing so (perhaps for ethical reasons—why simulate billions of people who suffer?).

The third part of the Simulation Argument is the Simulation Hypothesis. It is here that Bostrom concludes that if what he calls "ancestor simulations" are real, then the number of simulated consciousnesses within them must vastly outnumber the living beings inhabiting a 'base reality'.

The reason for this is that while some of the characters in the simulation would be living players logged into the simulated space, others would be non-player characters (NPC). These are the computer generated characters commonly encountered inside video games.

Bostrom suggests that given sufficient computational power the artificial intelligence (AI) of the NPCs would eventually be able to pass a Turing Test—they would be indistinguishable from real people. Even to themselves, because each would possess a simulated brain, accurate to the individual neuron. Each NPC would experience emergent consciousness, they would be sentient, alive. Therefore if the third option in the trilemma obtains, then it follows that it is overwhelmingly more probable, argues Bostrom, that we are simulated consciousnesses inhabiting simulated reality, rather than biological beings inhabiting a base reality.

We are already seeing how compelling Virtual Reality (VR) is, even at low resolution and a narrow field of vision, the brain is easily tricked into believing simulated reality. In VR, for example, people lean on tables that aren't there and fall over, or put objects they're holding onto virtual surfaces—discarding the VR controller in their real hand in the process. It seems that the illusion doesn't have to be extremely high definition for the mind to build out what's missing, at least to the extent we are convinced it's 'real'.

From there it doesn't take a huge leap in imagination to suppose that VR of the future will move closer and closer to reality in the same way that video games have evolved from the likes of Digdug in 1982 to a slew of 3D tiles of enormous complexity today such as Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, Halo Infinite, GTA VII, Ghost of Tsushima and Crimson Desert.

These games render 3D environments and can be ported to Virtual Reality hardware such as the HTC Vive. Add ten years development and we may see something indistinguishable from cinematography. Add, 20, 50, 100, or even a thousand years further development in game design, simulation algorithms and computer power and Bostrom's hypothesis looks less outlandish.

Nick Bostrom explains it in more detail here.

So that's a brief synopsis of the Simulation Hypothesis, but how does this relate to dreams and the imagery of dreams for the purpose of this project? It comes down to interpretation. While I'm not necessarily an adherent to Bostrom's hypothesis, I think his work highlights an important truth that is easy to overlook in our rational worldview—and that is that we don't understand reality very well.

The simulation hypothesis shows us that it is at least possible to use a reasoned probabilistic argument to upend our assumptions about reality. I think that's instructive when it comes to thinking about dreams, because dreams are indistinguishable from reality, when we're in them. And it's instructive also, when thinking about images. The meaning that is intrinsic to images makes them greater than the sum of their parts—it's as if images cannot be separated from their metaphysical component. The additional layer that gives them their power.

As a footnote, there are curious analogs between Simulation Theory and eastern religions such a Buddhism. Buddhism holds that the reality we experience is a dream (or a simulation). Following Buddhist practices brings the mind incrementally closer to seeing the dream for what it really is and ultimately waking from the dream. The word 'Buddha' literally means 'awake'.

The Surrealists

To my mind, no artistic enquiry into dreams would be complete without reference to the Surrealists. While some surrealist painters suffer from a certain over-familiarity (at least on the surface), their work was ground-breaking at the time and still resonates today. Salvadore Dali, for example, collaborated with photographer Philipe Halsman to create the famous photograph Dali Atomicus. The image is a wonderful example of a collaborative vision to express an idea of Dali's personality.

Philippe Halsman, Dali Atomicus (1948)

The Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte's Empire of Lights series interests me as a representation of the boundary between waking and sleep, a borderland of the imagination. Magritte's childhood trauma, his mother's death and the probability that the artist likely witnessed her body being pulled from the river where she committed suicide is relevant when thinking about the unconscious mind. The word Trauma, coined by Sigmund Freud, is from the german word traum, meaning dream.

René Magritte, 'Empire of Light' (1953-54)

In a previous photographic series I examined the motifs in a particular Giorgio De Chirico painting, 'The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street'. My goal was to try to distil something of the visual language of the De Chirico image into a series of photographs.

This exercise was a useful primer in how to apply repetitious language of visual motif to a series of images. Personally, I find De Chirico's work to be powerfully evocative of the atmosphere of dreams. The strange perspectives, the latent sense of unease, the implied significance of his symbols speak to me of dreams in a way I have yet to experience in another artist.

Giorgio de Chirico, Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. (1914)

The Naïve art of Henri Rousseau

I'm drawn to making photographic images of landscapes, either natural or manmade, so I'll a make reference here to the French artist Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). As is well known, Rousseau never left France and constructed his elaborate jungle scenes from botanical observations made in Paris. He painted landscapes that didn't exist, constructed in his own mind. Dreamlike places of his imagination with no basis in reality. Perhaps it's their very unreality that gives them their enduring power.

Rousseau faced derision from the art establishment in his lifetime for his style, which was seen as crude and child-like. He was a self-taught artist and his lack of education or apprenticeship shows in his rudimentary observational technique and unrealistic chiaroscuro. His work was, and still is, labelled as naïve or primitive but has become recognised in recent times as more sophisticated than it was initially supposed to be.

"When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream." Henri Rousseau
Henri Rousseau, 'Le Rêve' (1910)
Henri Rousseau, 'War or cavalcade of discord', (1894)

Strangers in dreams

One thread involving dreams that interests me in terms of image making is the phenomenon of dreaming about unknown people—strangers in dreams. My research suggests that this is a common phenomenon and yet it seems extraordinary that the mind has the computational power necessary to conjure entirely unknown characters out of thin air.

Characters that appear to have their own faces, personalities, voices, mannerisms and agendas. Or as Jung saw it, characters that bear messages. Are these simulacra composites of multiple people we have experienced in our own lives? Are they extrapolated childhood acquaintances? Or are they full scale creations of the mind?

Reasons for pursuing this subject matter

Why pursue this seemingly abstruse avenue of enquiry through the medium of photography? The reason, I think, is that when thinking about photography I'm inevitably drawn to question the philosophical act of photographing itself. What does a camera really do? The more I think about a camera recording a moment of time the more it calls into question the nature of reality itself. What is the camera recording exactly? Is whatever is in front of the camera in some sense objectively true? How are ideas condensed and communicated through images? What meaning is encoded in the photo and what is already present in the mind of the viewer? I feel that there is much territory that is new to me, yet to explore in this region.

In a previous work I explored an idea centred on memory and the confrontation between objective truth and subjective interpretation. The idea of a collision between constructed memory and reality. I find images that express the uncertainty of observable reality moving and deeply fascinating. This is what I'm drawn to turn my camera towards.

Descent, Jason Kilmister 2021

Proposal in brief

I'll break down my proposal into actionable steps in a subsequent post, but to outline it in brief—I want to produce a series of images exploring the theme of wellbeing as an internal condition of the mind and I will attempt to observe that process by exploring images that represent aspects of sleep and dreaming.

One final thing to note—It isn't my goal to attempt an autobiographical representation of my own dreams specifically, rather I would like to address a more universal sequence of dream images that a viewer can relate to their own experience.


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