For many of us, life has felt a bit surreal as of late. And a new COVID-19-friendly exhibit from the Museum of Contemporary Art is helping us lean into our new surreality by tapping into our unconscious.
Earlier this summer, the MCA launched ‘Dreaming Denver,’ a 30-stop audio tour of the city created by surrealist poet Mathias Svalina. Tour-goers visit each stop, call a number on their phones, and listen to a “dream” written by Svalina.
Some of the stops are historic Denver landmarks, like the Big Blue Bear, the Brown Palace or Confluence Park. Other locations simply spoke to Svalina on a personal level or meant something to people he knows. Each “dream” is inspired by its designated location, and each is designed to get you to see the city in a new way.
“To me, that sort of potential unconscious and that potential dream mind is one in which there are familiar elements that go wrong, but either joyfully wrong or assumptively wrong,” Svalina said. “So that when things happen — like, the Blue Bear begins to walk around with you and your friends — there’s no shock at it. Just like in a dream, whatever comes next is taken as what had to come next.”
There’s a lot that could “go wrong” in an urban setting. Svalina said all of the dreams are meant to play off of their surroundings so that the sights and sounds and randomness of the city inform or enhance each poem rather than detract from it.
As we talked, sirens wailed in the distance.
“You know, in the dream version of this, the sirens would, rather than fading away in a Doppler effect, come over and wrap around us like ribbons, wrapping us more and more until suddenly they’ve made us into a bib,” Svalina said. “And then, what would that bib do? A bib requires eating. So there would be some kind of crab or lobster situation that would warrant the bib, or maybe we would be babies eating baby food. So, the elements of the city that are boring, that we take in with our non-conscious mind and just create the structures, and we know what to ignore… And what if all of that goes, not wrong in the sense of the upsetting thing to happen, but wrong in the sense of an impossible thing to happen?”
Some of the dreams are sad. Some are silly and whimsical. Some are unsettling, and some are thoughtful. One dream that takes place outside of the MCA explores a “Museum of You”: an exhibition that forces listeners to confront their past and present selves by wandering through relics of their own lives. At the Confluence Park stop, listeners mentally dip their feet in the Platte and witness generations of Denver’s former inhabitants, from every moment of history and across all walks of life, enjoying the water, too.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson makes an appearance in another one of the dreams. Svalina said that when he’s stuck on a poem, he’ll sometimes ask himself, “What would happen if The Rock walked in?”
“Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is such a modern archetype,” Svalina said. “He’s such a classic Greek hero.” Svalina explained that more than just having the body of a Greek god, The Rock has become a fixture of our collective unconscious, someone who’d naturally appear in dreams.
“We knew that even if we are open, there will be a number of visitors who won’t necessarily feel comfortable coming back to the museum and experiencing the art in the museum as they might have before,” said Sarah Baie, the museum’s Director of Programming. “So we wanted to create an exhibition that takes place outside that is a little hidden from view when you experience it, but then when you do experience it, it allows you to see the city in a new way.”
Baie said that it was important to her to find ways to help the museum’s patrons experience art.
“One thing that the pandemic has brought to the forefront for me personally and as a museum administrator is the need for art in our lives,” Baie said. To her, the things that are often seen as frivolous, like attending concerts or visiting a museum, are essential for mental health and well being.
Esther Varney, a frequent patron of the MCA, completed the 12-stop downtown portion of the tour with her husband.
“It gave me a chance to go out and experience wonder again, which has been a little short in supply of late,” she said. “It was almost like a little vacation for an afternoon.”
For Svalina, the exhibit is about tapping into something that’s already there.
“I’ve made the not very funny joke a couple times that it’s a really bad time to be a surrealist because the entire world decided to go surreal,” he said. “But also, it always has been. I think the kind of core thing about surrealism is that it’s real. And there is so much nonsense and so much chaos and so much information that we blot out or are inured to, in order to have a rational order of our days.”
He said he hopes Dreaming Denver will inspire people to look around the city and find their own silliness and their own meaningful nonsense, to find joy in their own imaginations.
“And my impossible goal would be that everybody in a city of nearly a million people are all finding the little dreams that pop up, but are so often ignored in every spot of the city,” he said.
To learn more about Dreaming Denver and to take the tour, visit the MCA’s website here.