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Animation from Dream by Philippe Lambert (courtesy NFB)

Pulsing lights, suggestions of faces, and colors blooming like flowers flow together in the virtual reality (VR) experience of Dream. Each visual is fleeting, dissipating into something else before you can quite figure out its meaning, much as the fragments of a dream drift apart upon waking. The interactive work created by experimental musician Philippe Lambert with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) was inspired by the strange and fluid visions of our slumbers.

“Five years ago, the first time I experienced VR, what really struck me was not the experience in itself, but mostly the moments just after removing the headset,” Lambert told Hyperallergic. “The disorientation and the need to readapt to my surroundings felt very similar to the liminal state experienced from waking up from a dream.” He became curious about how both dreams and VR reframe our relationships to consciousness and reality. By designing a digital immersion in the off-kilter logic of dreams, he could temporarily envelope participants in their sensations.

Dream premiered as an installation at the 2016 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) DocLab, and was recently made freely available online and for VR headsets. Although Lambert often works with electronic music, he’s also experimented with interactive pieces, including as a collaborator on NFB’s 2013 web documentary on sleeplessness A Journal of Insomnia and the 2015 Way to Go, a surreal wander in a digital woods. As the director of Dream, Lambert worked with artists Caroline Robert of Studio AATOAA and Vincent Lambert on the imagery. The resulting database of digital animations, many originating with original ink drawings by Robert, react to user interaction through an audiovisual synthesizer. This was developed with creative programmer Édouard Lanctôt-Benoit as a substitute for the neurological systems of sleep. The stream of images, based on thousands of the “dream memories” from the database, morph seamlessly into each other, accompanied by the hypnotic rhythm of Lambert’s music.

Animation from Dream by Philippe Lambert (courtesy NFB)

“Very quickly developing this project, I realized that approaching it from a narrative standpoint, or a kind of prototypal dream experience, was not realistic or even interesting to me,” Lambert explained. “I decided to focus on the processes of dreams.” This included the way dreams remix our memories from daily life, as well as some fragments from deeper levels that only burble up in the unconscious mind.

At a four-hour performance version of Dream at IDFA, the audience was invited to draw their dreams, which were live-scanned into the Dream visual database to interact with the synthesizer in realtime. At later festivals and events, and at a school in Montréal, the creators continued to collect dream drawings, adding ever more visual moments to the reverie.

In the new desktop version, participants begin Dream with a low voice stating that “you can do everything, you can do nothing.” You can either zone out and be carried by the current of sights and music, or click and drag around the screen to augment the generated sound and visuals. This interaction makes every trip through Dream unique, even though the synthetic journey doesn’t have the highly personal elements of a dream. After 10 minutes of psychedelic disorientation, users return to reality, and are given the option to continue and “dream forever.”

“To me, dreams are a type of proto-biological VR, an alternate reality we visit as we sleep, created by our system of consciousness,” Lambert said. “In dreaming, we experience the same type of disconnection from consensual reality as in VR. They both are little bubbles of experiences outside of our daily materialistic relationship to reality.”

Dream by Philippe Lambert is available to experience online.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...