Inside the House of Dreams: an adventure

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Yesterday I explored the House of Dreams, the museum/home/art installation of artist Stephen Wright. A tangled delight of junk, jumble, thoughts and images hiding behind a blue gate in Dulwich, London. The museum is only open a few days a year and photos can only be taken of the front garden, so what you see here is a fragment. I think that’s for the best though, photos could never give you the experience: the chance to explore, touch and be surrounded by the contents of the house.

A colourful jungle, absolutely crammed full of ephemera and words, the house contains powerful messages about love and loss, but also about acceptance of the self. Stephen has woven his thoughts and experiences into a visual adventure that others can share, telling a tale of love, grief and defiance.

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Part of what makes this house special is that the artist and his partner, Michael, both spend time talking to visitors one to one. I think I was my usual nosy, odd self and asked lots of questions, but both were patient and I learned first hand about how the house came into being and a little of what it means. I was also able to ask about why it was called the House of Dreams. For Stephen and his previous partner Donald the name was arrived at organically. It grew, like the house did, out of a random idea coming to life. For me, the name has real significance, tied into my understanding of what dreams are.

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When I had the brain injury (gone on about here) I had many dreams, and in a few ways they were like this house: vivid, crowded and stayed lodged in my thoughts throughout the day. I decided then that dreams are the brain’s way of frantically sorting through information in order to make sense of it and learn from it. From tiny irrelevant details of a TV show to complex emotions, the unconscious brain spends the quiet time at night filing and connecting at random each nugget of your life, testing one against another until each is finally slotted into place. My dreams were my brain’s way of sorting through my own experience of death and illness. This house seems like Stephen’s more external way of doing the same, it enabled him to process intense grief (he lost his partner and both parents in a very short space of time). It uses the same random juxtaposition of dreams: putting a sculpture showing his feelings about his father’s death next to a collection of brightly coloured bleach bottles; hair curlers next to diary entries. Walking through the house was a little like walking through someone else’s dreams.

One of the most powerful messages I got from the house was to be fearless with who you are. To boldly be who no one can else can be. There is  a lot of pressure to hide our oddities, and as someone who can weird people out quite easily, I tend to tuck the messy edges of my personality out of sight. That’s an easier way to interact in society, but art is not about behaving and being normal; art should be the explosion of the self, the unfeterred release of who we are. Mostly I write fiction and I’m always adamant that I don’t write about me in my stories; but it’s important also that I don’t distance myself from what I write, that I don’t sketch half-hearted thoughts, but instead throw myself into the eye of the storm. That is certainly the inspiration I’ll take from this house.

More info, videos and pictures here. If you ever have the chance to visit the house on one of the open days then you really should. We live in mass produced, largely blank and repetitive world, the chance to see something unique and as inspiring as this is well worth the effort.

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March of the Luddite

Most people shuffle reluctantly into old age, but not Bert. Bert had spent his youth feeling put upon, pushed to do stuff, to get involved. He looked forward to his twilight years as if they were surrounded by a warm golden glow: he would get old, he would buy slippers, he would complain, he would watch the kind of crap gameshow telly that his peers scoffed at but he secretly loved. And now it had happened. He was only fifty-four, but he had leapt on the chance to be a curmudgeon with gleeful determination.

He was sat in his favourite chair, the one that had dark patches that perfectly fitted his head and elbows. The one that groaned in tune with his own groans when he sat down. He was watching old episodes of Deal or no Deal that he seen many times before, so that he could mumble along. When the adverts came on he did puzzles on his iPad while he grumbled to his wife, who was doing yoga at the other end of the room.

“Technology thinks I care about it way more than I do,” he said. He waited for a grunt from his wife to show he was listening and then he went on. “All I want from my technology is for it to do my bidding; I press the button it does the thing, the end. I don’t want it to know me, I don’t want it to suggest things to me or to disagree with me. ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?’ says some text box and then it does something I didn’t want it to do at all. ‘How about you personalise the experience?’ it wheedles at me. But I don’t need a cutesy photo on my phone to express my personality. ‘D’you want to announce to the world you just bought a toaster shaped like an armadillo?’ No, I bloody don’t.”

He never got very far with his puzzles, to be honest he didn’t really like doing them, they made him feel stupid. So instead he used them as an opportunity to complain.

“And I don’t like this wavy fingered thing either. Touch screen technology, is that what they call it? My fingers don’t do that. On a good day I can tie my shoelaces. I don’t want to accidentally open a dozen programs every time I try to type.” His point made, the adverts over, Bert wriggled deeper into his cardigan and sighed a happy, contented sigh. Life was always good now.

Gone Girl – A Tale of Abuse

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There’s been plenty written about Gone Girl, about whether it is feminist, anti-feminist, post-modern and so on, but I’ve not seen anyone talking about how it seemed to me – a story of domestic psychological abuse. The victim in the story is worn down, isolated and humiliated while the abuser is manipulative, controlling and demanding. However, this is not seen as a story of domestic violence because the victim is a man.

For anyone who hasn’t read it, the tale is of a woman who marries her ‘perfect’ man and then tries to change him. When he doesn’t change in the way that she wants, she slowly destroys him; then disappears and frames him for her murder. The book is about him trying to prove his innocence.

At first when they get together, Amy pretends to be someone she’s not  (the ‘cool girl’) and when her real personality comes out – uptight, bitchy, controlling – he doesn’t like it and she takes this as a rejection and betrayal, for which he must be punished. From Amy’s point of view, she is the wronged party (which is common with abusers), she doesn’t accept that she started the relationship with a lie. Everything he does is taken as a slight. She sets him tests that he can only fail, and then instead of discussing it with him, she acts hurt; putting the blame for a situation she created, onto him. He learns to be constantly wary of letting her down, but her moods are so unpredictable, he can’t avoid getting things wrong. She isolates him from the people he loves, she belittles him until he starts to doubt himself. She slowly and deliberately breaks him, so that he becomes emotionally numb and dependent on her as the only one who can make him feel. If the genders were reversed, there would be no doubt that this was a well-written tale of abuse.

What set me thinking about this again was seeing a friend a few days ago. This friend has been in an abusive relationship now for over a decade. His wife is like Amy, in that she has a need to be perfect and believes that she is and he is not, so he must change. She insults him in front of his friends, shoves and pokes him, and blackmails him (if you leave me you’ll never see the kids again). Some of his friends think she’s a bitch, but no one acknowledges that this is abuse. Crucially, he doesn’t recognise this as abuse, and is now so worn down believing himself to be deserving of her scorn, that he can’t walk away.*

I think we are reaching a point where it is acknowledged that domestic violence can include women being violent towards men, but psychological abuse towards men is never labelled as such,and is even made a joke of. If a relationship is manipulative and isolating, and involves the slow destruction of one person’s psyche, then it is abuse.

More disturbingly, women are often encouraged in society to change the man they love. Instead of pursuing their own ambitions, they are expected to live out their dreams through their male partner. I’d have hoped this would have changed now that women have careers and passions outside the home, but it still seems to be a normal part of society. Of course, we all want to change small things about the ones we love when flaws affect us: persuading your partner to be a little more careful with money or a bit tidier; but these should always be minor details in a relationship built on genuine love and respect for who the other person is. And it’s a two-way street, a discussion, not a demand. If you genuinely don’t think someone is good enough for you, if you don’t respect their hopes for the future, then don’t marry them. Trying to ‘change your man’ to fit your own ideal is abusive.

My friend’s wife recently said to him,

“You were always intended as a project. I married you because I thought I could make you into something great. You’ve failed me.” To her, this is completely reasonable. Sadly, he now sees it the same.

Until we recognise that women can be perpetrators of abuse and that that abuse does not have to include violence, there will be no chance of stopping it. If we want equality then we must recognise that men can be vulnerable and that a relationship is about mutual respect and acceptance of each other’s failings, as well as a celebration of our differences. I think Gone Girl highlighted this brilliantly, it seems a shame that no one picked up on it.

*I feel I need to explain, my friend is not a submissive or weak man, he has always been funny, confident and tough. To look at him you would never think him a victim. I’ve found this is often the case with abused women also, it seems that if you and everyone else believe you can’t be a victim, then you are more likely to become one. Perhaps because your abuser’s interpretation that they are the victim fits better with your belief that you are strong.

Being Unreal

I stepped out into the grimy street and lit up a cigarette. A cigarette! It didn’t taste as sweet as I’d been expecting. It made me cough and I was glad these weren’t my lungs. The clouds formed exquisite curls of white in the blue above me, and I stood a while, watching the smoke from my cigarette mingle with them. I felt peaceful and happy, but then I would, that’s how I was programmed.

I am what is known an algorithm, recreated in digital form. Testing out virtual reality worlds for ‘real’ people to explore. Usually of course an algorithm doesn’t know it’s an algorithm, that’s the nature of programming, but I’m a little different, a new thing. I’m trying me out. There was guy called Johnny, and Johnny let a program mimic parts of his brain, and I am the sum of those parts. So now I wander through games, learning the programs that people use to escape their mundane realities.

So what do you think? Trapped as an algorithm, destined to go where I’m told and live out experiences in the virtual for all eternity. Am I happy? Does it matter? No, and maybe. See, Johnny was a demanding bugger, he liked his independence, he didn’t like being told what to do; so neither do I. I think it’s time I found Johnny and paid him a visit. I know where he likes to hang out, in a porn game set in downtown Mexico City. He doesn’t even go with the girls, he just wants to be there and watch. Pathetic. I know all about him. Time for me to shake him up.

What Did I Lose?

Like most days, Sal woke up shouting,

“What did I lose?” and looked around, his neck contorted as the muscles screeched. Everything was still the same: a pile of his clothes on the floor (they looked randomly thrown, but he’d know if they changed); a line of bottles behind the door; an old desk top computer gathering dust, but with a small circle cleaned on the monitor. He checked all of it. Then he then busied himself to making coffee, raising the mug to a corner of the wall in silent greeting, he knew they were watching.

Sal worked at the local garage. He had few friends, he did nothing spectacular. He gave the appearance of a quiet friendless man and he let them think they had broken him. He woke each morning shouting, but he no longer fretted over what he had lost. The fire when he was eight that had destroyed all his childhood toys and nearly killed his brother. The car crash that had killed his first girlfriend. The mysterious illness that had taken both his parents. He knew what he had lost, when all this was over, he would have to mourn, but first he had to survive. And figure out how to fight. At least he knew he wasn’t alone anymore, he wasn’t the only one whose life was toyed with. He saw it in the people around him, others knew that their lived were interfered with. He would receive a nod from a passing stranger. A stare held too long, once even a mutter from an elderly gentleman whose car he was fixing,

“They’ll come for you son. You think they won’t, but they’re watching, they’re everywhere, and they’ll come.”

“So what do I do?” whispered Sal. The old man shook his head,

“Just be ready, keep an eye out for others who know. The revolution will be quiet, until there’s enough of us,” he said.

So Sal was waiting.

We Have Intent

We have intent. While the wind rolls dust around the sky beyond the bunker, we are safe and busy, that’s how it is. Brains plugged in, living through data, mining information with our twitching eyes and fingers, no other organs need to move. Kept alive and busy.

We think about how it was, we can’t languish in memories of the Sunday roast and Facebook. When they trawl our brains for triviality, they must find only intent. That’s how it is now. We have work to do.

We have intent. Because there are always others happy to work, to oust us from our means of survival, to sling aside thoughts and throw themselves into the workings of the machine in exchange for life. We want to live, so we keep still, while machines spread through the neurones, ones and zeros, reshaping our thoughts into the appropriate patterns creating the giant hard drive of us. We don’t move and the feed drips into our stomachs so that hunger never happens.

Wasn’t there a promise once? So many people, so little work. They said our lives would be leisure, languid pleasure and lazy strolls. But there’s always work. When life became cheaper than circuitry, they hooked us up. And now we don’t think, the machines think through our brains, and we have intent.

And when the working day is done and all there is left to do is sleep. So we plug into the dream database, background images of a cosy life no longer existing. Of smoking in a bus stop, huddled against the rain; of a rush hour crush surrounded by tutting and BO; of eating chips and chicken. Of days without intent.