A vintage, four-legged stereo system stands on a small stage in Central Library’s performance space. The audience gathered around it are invited to tune into late-night talk radio show Dream FM, whose presenter asks a deceptively simple question: “Where do you drift behind closed eyes?”
Since August, residents from across Greater Manchester have been leaving answerphone messages detailing their hopes, fears, dreams and nightmares on a hotline created by artists Danielle Swindells and Brit Seaton. When I spoke to the pair back in September, Swindells had said they were interested in creating a socially engaged, crowd-sourced artwork posing a universal question to the public: what do you dream of?
The voice recordings are moving, humourous and often profound comments on everyday life and the nature of dreams, complemented by a soundscape created by ambient musicians Space Afrika. Over solemn piano chords, the first caller captures the essence of the project:
“I dream of a world where people can be themselves – entirely themselves – you know? Not a carbon copy that we want society to see us as, but more of our actual selves, the person we are with friends, the person we are behind closed doors. The person I am right now.”
Participatory art projects are sometimes criticised for the dictatorial mindset they can foster. The artists are decision makers, choosing who gets to take part and what the final outcome should look like. The participants, almost always unpaid, follow direction and perform.
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Dream FM attempts to address this imbalance through its curation. The barriers to entry are relatively low: if you have access to a phone you can call the hotline, if you have access to the internet, you can email the artists. Whilst Swindells and Seaton offer pre-recorded prompts, the callers are left to address the project’s central question on their own terms and in their own language. To be the person they are behind closed doors.
Some interpret the question literally, detailing their most recent dream and offering possible explanations. “I dream of a tiger that walks across the bottom of my garden,” one caller says, before explaining that tigers can be a symbol of fear.
Another describes a long, spiral staircase which they climb each night, chased by a “tall, masculine figure” which has a mirror for a face. “I think it’s telling me, ‘consider your own image’ and I think it’s reflecting aspects of myself from the past or myself now, trying to force me to introspect,” the caller says, tentatively. It speaks to our need to analyse dreams and find rational explanations for what can often be frightening, surreal experiences.
There is catharsis in telling others about the dreams we have and sharing that inner-world. “I know, proper weirdo right?” the spiral-staircase caller asks at the end of their call, but you sense some comfort in their voice that others have been let into the secret.
For some participants, it’s an opportunity to voice their frustration with life and offer alternatives for a better world. “I dream of a world where we don’t have to work for a living 9-5 every week. It’s painful, why do we have to do that every week?” a caller asks bitterly. “I dream of a world where we can have fun with our mates, do what we want, have a good time and not have the burden of having to work every week of our lives up until about 60 or even 70 by the time we’re that age.”
There are murmurs of approval in the young audience listening. Another caller talks about a four-day week and the avoidance of burn-out. These are small, but profound dreams: being able to live a life which isn’t dictated or restricted by money.
The emotions present in Dream FM’s answerphone messages are heightened by an original score created by Space Afrika’s Joshua Inyang and Joshua Tarelle. Mechanical whirring and phone line clicks emphasise the project’s analogue nature and bursts of white noise punctuate the hour-long recording. Tender moments are accompanied with a slow piano or the sound of waves lapping the sand. At other points, the music is fantastical and light, capturing the surrealness of dreaming.
Inyang and Tarelle sample dream-related songs throughout the piece, including an unreleased version of David Bowie’s I Live in Dreams and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s All I Have to Do is Dream. This contributes to the DIY radio atmosphere to which the artists’ pay homage, although the very deliberately spoken interludes lack the fast-paced, off-the-cuff choppiness that most would associate with radio.
There are moments of beauty and humour in Dream FM, but also fear and pain. “I dream of scary things, anxiety-inducing things, never nice things,” one caller says. “Sometimes I dream of the person I miss the most and it’s good to see his face, but I never get enough time with him. I never get him back.”
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Another talks about their complex relationship with sleep: “I dream of all the things that are going to make tomorrow horrible. All the scary people that shout at me in the street. I picture them all when I close my eyes, so they don’t scare me as much tomorrow.”
There is clearly curation in the order we hear the answerphone messages. Those talking about loss and longing are grouped together, as are callers discussing work and nightmares. It’s unclear what the selection criteria for inclusion in the final piece was, though they are varied. We hear at least four different languages in the piece and some callers perform their contribution as spoken word poetry.
One of the final calls is short and powerful: “I have a big dream. I really want to see my mum. She’s very close to me. I really want to hug my mum. I just see her for a long time. I have a big, big dream. Just to see my mum. That’s it, thank you, bye.”
What do you dream of? is being broadcast on dream-fm.com every night at 9PM until 16 December.