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The strangeness of communal slumber

Briony Kidd: Dark Mofo: Motel Dreaming


Motel Dreaming Motel Dreaming
photo Simon Cuthbertson, courtesy of Motel Dreaming, DARK MOFO, MONA Museum of Old and New Art
DARK MOFO took over Hobart this June, a sprawling, ambitious festival that included dozens of concerts, a winter feast and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Articulated Intersect, an installation of 18 audience-operated searchlights placed at locations around the Hobart waterfront. Articulated Insersect’s presence in the Hobart sky for 10 days created a vague sense of danger, as though the city was under attack (or, as the joke went, summoning Batman).

At the other end of the spectrum, Motel Dreaming was seen by less than a 100 people, which was as many as the motel where it was staged could accommodate overnight. Yet, for me, this work was at the heart of this year’s DARK MOFO experience.

Between Hobart and the northern suburbs, a kilometre from MONA but separated from it by a bend in the river, is an architectural oasis called the Riverfront Motel. Encapsulated within a decorative arch that was built to mark the Queen’s 1954 visit, it’s a familiar local landmark and a minor masterpiece of kitsch. Artist and social theorist David Patman grew up across the road from the Riverfront. He used to think about the strangeness of communal slumber in such a place. Years later, he and co-director Michelle Boyde instigated Motel Dreaming.

The complex work was delivered by a multi-disciplinary team, including sound and electronic media artist Matt Warren, lighting designer and artist Jason James, digital artist Noah Pedrini, interior designer Danielle Brustman, contemporary artists The Telepathy Project (Veronica Kent and Sean Peoples) and many others, including performers, DJs and even a ‘mini-bar curator.’

Check-in was at 3pm and guests went to their rooms to settle in wondering, “What next?” By late afternoon they gravitated towards the motel’s bar to be greeted by a grey-coiffed gentleman wearing a smoking jacket, and offered a glass of sherry. Then followed chit-chat and hors d’oeuvres of canned pineapple and glacé cherries until, little by little, guests became aware of a noise in the distance, an eerie siren. They began to move towards it...

Siren installation,  Matt Warren (sound), Jason James (lighting) James Andrews (performer) Siren installation, Matt Warren (sound), Jason James (lighting) James Andrews (performer)
photo Simon Cuthbertson, courtesy of Motel Dreaming, DARK MOFO, MONA Museum of Old and New Art
In a performance on the riverbank was a ghostly androgynous figure, a different kind of Siren, slowly emerging from an old-fashioned bed on the river’s edge and wandering zombie-like up to a nearby house. Warming their hands over fire drums and sipping hot cider, the audience waited, on the patio of the house which they noted, with surprise, was a perfectly preserved example of mid-20 century Modernism.

Welcomed by Father, a jovial middle-aged man in a navy double-breasted blazer, and Mother, in voluminous skirt and high heels, the audience entered the house. Soon they were serving themselves from a buffet table. But where to eat? Some sat in the living room, in the glow of lava lamps. Others stood in the hallways, listening as the elder daughter played spooky music on an electronic harpsichord. In the younger daughter’s room, they found not a real child but a little woman, who sat in bed with her teddy bear and talked about her ‘mummy and daddy’ and what a lovely night it was.

After dinner a fleet of ratrods and a double-decker bus arrived to whisk everyone away to MONA. The controversial Southdale Shopping Centre exhibition had transformed the museum into a tourist visitor’s centre and an up-market mall. Satire, you see, and coming to grips with it required at least a couple of drinks from the Void Bar.

Kitchen Ghost, The Telepathy Project Kitchen Ghost, The Telepathy Project
photo Simon Cuthbertson, courtesy of Motel Dreaming, DARK MOFO, MONA Museum of Old and New Art
Later, back at the motel, a line of tea lights led further back up the hill, to the Haunted Mansion, a mock-Edwardian house with rooms after room of strange noises and eerie, minimalist lighting. Behind this was a smaller (faux Tudor) building known as the Coach House. Here, a sombre young woman handed visitors fragrant tea. An electric heater blazed away, providing little warmth but serving as a kind of beacon, or perhaps a warning. Upstairs, stepping into a small bedroom meant coming face to face with a horse-headed man sitting on the bed, watching as a couple slept in a nearby alcove.

Those still not tired enough to embark upon the dreaming itself then returned to the late night lounge, to be entertained by projections and a silent disco. The cocktail of the night was a potent milk and nutmeg affair, as might be found at a mountain ski resort.

In the morning guests were asked to write down their dreams on postcards and hand them over, in exchange for coffee. Many did, and took the process seriously. Perhaps because they knew it was not just about them; it was about the group, the festival beyond, and society itself beyond that. The question being put was not merely “what did you dream last night?” but “what did we all dream last night?” And where are our dreams, and our nightmares, taking us?

Patman and Boyde gave their collaborators room to investigate Motel Dreaming in their own ways. Matt Warren, for example, created many discrete sound installations across the site, including in the Mansion. One of these consisted of whispered, repeated phrases heard in a dark, empty room, the text taken from guests’ “worst nightmares” (gathered before the event by Patman and Pedrini). Others were more subtle: the archway at the entrance of the motel emitted noise at four different frequencies; traffic noise recorded from the nearby highway was piped into the motel rooms via one of several in-house television channels. The Telepathy Project were given the Coach House as their domain and images of their sleep performance went out via a video feed. Dancer James Andrews, well known to DARK MOFOers for his numerous appearances across the festival, played the Siren but there was also a suggestion that his character was dreaming the events unfolding across the site.

Motel Dreaming captured key themes of DARK MOFO: transcendence, communal exploration and ritual, and the dark side of the psyche, evolving into a sort of conceptual nexus, a microcosm of the broader festival.

The 66 dreams collected from the Motel Dreaming experiment have been analysed by David Patman and Noah Pedrini with a view to determining the ‘representative’ dream of the night. The dreams will be available to read on the project’s website.


DARK MOFO: Motel Dreaming, Unconscious Collective, co-directors David Patman, Michell Boyde, Riverfront Motel and Villas, Hobart, 17, 18 June; www.moteldreaming.com.

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. 54

© Briony Kidd; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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