Thursday, 6 August 2015

The stuff of nightmares

The problem with insomnia is that by the time I actually manage to get to sleep (or get back to sleep as the case may be) my mind is determined to punish me for the 20 hours that it has been awake by presenting the most lysergic dreams that it can produce. The result is a groggy morning self strung out by the memory of fevered images.

It’s a good thing I’m not operating heavy machinery.

Just so you know, I don’t think dreams are prophetic. I think dreams are the result of shaking the brain’s kaleidoscope, and that various unrelated bits and pieces fall into focus. I don’t think dreaming of a tree means that I’m going to experience growth in the future. Neither do I imagine that repeatedly dreaming of a brimming wine goblet means that I will be repeatedly drinking red wine in the future (although now I come to think of it…)

There is red wine in store for me.

Dreams and nightmares are, however, excellent fodder for art and stories. If I can hold onto an image long enough to get something down on paper or into type, then I usually find the result oddly pleasing.

The ‘cosmic tree’ was one such image.

It wasn’t mean to look quite so mystical. That result was due to my limitations as an artist. In my mind’s eye, I saw a tree, quite bare of any leaves, with a very clearly defined root system and the night sky in its background. What I managed to draw was something like a branched glowstick, but it looked pretty enough so I left it as it was.

Then later in the week, I was at work and the conversation turned to Google Deep Dream. Deep nightmare would have been a better name for it judging by some of the images that I was shown. It’s a piece of ‘machine dreaming software’ that looks for similarities between an image you upload and images which it has stored in its database. It then morphs the former into the latter in a process called 'inceptionism'. There are shapes and animals and buildings.

And eyes. So many eyes.

So I put my cosmic tree into the dream and waited to see what would happen.

The results was beautifully weird.  More dream than nightmare. It was the fluid dynamics of Van Gogh meeting the surrealism of William Blake’s religious art meeting a Shaun Tan mural meeting Arthur Bocklin’s sacred groves. It’s Pan’s Labyrinth and The White Goddess rolled into one. It’s a vanitas, a memento mori, and a near-death experience.

I saw my tree had morphed into an arboreal/peacock hybrid. The stars had turned into eyes, like the feathers on a peacock’s tail, and, as if the reinforce that image, the tree roots had now sprouted peacock feathers that glowed like iridescent tubers in the dark earth.  It was the myth of Argus Panoptes – slain in a grove, his 100 eyes transposed post-mortem into the tail of a shrieking bird by the goddess, Hera.
And yes, yes, I *know* it’s just an algorithm and probably Google’s way of scoring a lot of free images for their database, but I needed a little weirdness this week (well, good weirdness over bad or weird weirdness), and this delivered magnificently. It wasn’t nightmarish at all.

The only scary thing about it was that the artificial intelligence had dreamed something that I could well have dreamed myself. Now, that's the stuff of nightmares.