Cyber Key to Dreams

Pat Patarnutaporn


This project is a pipeline to algorithmically generate visuals of dreams collected from large groups during the COVID pandemic. Dreams are changing as we speak, collectively. Communal traumas change communal dreams in ways we may not perceive; After  9/11 there was a systematic change in dream imagery across diverse groups of individuals, but it was not perceptible in obvious images of airplanes or urban explosions in dream reports.  Instead dream imagery intensity, a marker of emotional arousal, increased after 9/11 across all sort of dreams in a country full of all sorts of feeling. These communal dream changes were visible only at the population level, as collective cognition. So, how is the current communal trauma of COVID changing our dreams, what we can imagine, how does this fear shift our internal collective world?

Cyber Key to Dreams lets us ask this question in a process of collecting, mapping, and interpreting dreams at the level of the collective.  To participate in mapping the unmappable, please submit your dream data here. Your dream will be added to a growing corpus, sorted, placed nearest its conceptual kin. You will be given an image of a dream in return for your submitted text.  Your dream will become part of collective sculptures, seen below. Your dream will be connected to other dreams in video artworks, like these. These images function as both a canvas for us to see how computers represent fundamentally uncomputable human dream cognition, and a Rorschach test for us to see how humans understand fundamentally uninterpretable computational dreams.

Consider the cluster of dream analysis of 4,725 dreamers from 2020 shown below: Do these dream themes, and the link between them, resonate with you when you when you consider the past year of intensified dreaming? But then what is lost when we compute a dream, and what is found? What is lost in the patterned, computed collective, the tools with which surveillance capitalism maps our tweets, stories, connections, dreams? As we become more completely colonized and seen by computation, we must keep in mind the unmappable, illegible parts, those that resist by their ambiguous nature. We must keep in mind the inherent freedom in dreaming.

These dreams and associated visuals have been combined into collective sculptures, still in process, in collaboration with the artist Agnieszka Kurant. This work is going to be shown at the V&A Museum's Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition and the Miaau (Museo intangible de artes audiovisuales) exhibition of the Bienal de Artes Mediales (BAM) Santiago, Chile.

Here is Agnieszka Kurant, co-creator of Cyber Key to Dreams,  describing the artwork:

"Surveillance capitalism tries to colonize every single aspect of our lives. We thought that our dreams were among the last private territories resisting colonization by corporations and governments. But today corporations have developed tools allowing for the searching and aggregating of any descriptions and recounts of our dreams left online. This actually isn’t a new endeavor to penetrate our dreams. In the 1920s, when Freud’s psychoanalysis was weaponized as a novel technique to better understand colonial subjects, anthropologist Charles Gabriel Seligman, who was a longtime adviser to colonial governments, built a database of colonial dreams within the diverse cultures under British rule. And in 1931 he used a BBC radio broadcast to solicit dreams and auto-interpretations from ordinary people in Britain. In 1945, in Jamaica, a study sponsored by the Colonial Office amassed dream reports and Rorschach inkblot test results from adults and children. Other examples of dream surveillance took place in many countries of the former Soviet Bloc. In 1949, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais did probably the first project based on crowdsourcing to TV audiences, in which they asked viewers to submit their dreams. The most interesting ones were staged and filmed by the two authors in a series of TV programs named Key to Dreams. Soon French TV considered the project too controversial and it was taken down.

My project Cyber Key to Dreams is a collaboration with computer engineers and researchers: Adam Haar Horowitz, Pat Pataranutaporn, and Eyal Perry from the MIT Media Lab and MIT Dream Lab. We built a system which allows for the crowdsourcing of dream reports and a dream questionnaire. We employ a combination of several AI “text to image” algorithms, in order to analyze these various types of information and to generate sequences of dream images. The next step is to create aggregated, collective dream images on the bases of the recurring patterns, figures, objects, such as the ghosts appearing in thousands of Covid dreams. I propose to use AI machine learning to look for recurring patterns in our dreams, in our collective unconscious. In a way I am treating an entire society as one psychoanalytic patient. Perhaps the identification of these patterns can help find ways to heal the collective subjectivity. Freud talked about the phenomenon of condensation happening in our dreams, which consists of our unconscious fusing together many people we meet in our conscious life into one nonexistent person, or fusing many objects into one condensed object. A similar process happens with machine learning, which produces nonexistent cats, dogs, or human faces on the bases of millions of actual cats, dogs, or humans. In that sense the black box of the AI to some degree resembles the black box of our unconscious. " —