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dreamatorium – a machine for (re-)creating dreams; the machine acts as terminator or creator depending on the mode to which it is set. (Fictional)

Since I started working on Dreamatorium (2017), my dreams have become sequences of individual flickering images .These are images from my past subconsciously tucked away from my life, lying conveniently dormant to create my new, shiny life away from the nightmares of my childhood.The imaginary past I created as a child flickers along with this less convenient real one, which I rediscovered when working with hundreds and hundreds of archival images – my private ones and those I found in archives or obscure shops and markets in my native country, which I had abandoned a decade ago.
The photographs trigger the memories - empty shops lacking such basics as food, clothes, toilet paper and sanitary towels. Sun burnt grass and dog piss. No hot water or heating for months. Undrinkable, dark brown liquid, vomiting unevenly from the taps. I recollect its metallic smell, a bit, like blood. Military tanks in the streets and ever-present queues dragging for hours in the plummeting temperatures of grim, grey winter months and numbing, flesh-devouring cold. Strangely, what I remember is neither grey nor unhappy. Dreamatorium machine has created by memories on fashion of gaudy, oversaturated and jolly grinning postcards where everything is lined up with golden light, the sky is cerulean and my world is filled with cheap, well arranged flowers in hyper green parks.
Perhaps none of it is real.
Dreamatorium is a project consisting of a series of vernacular photographs from Poland’s Communist period, manipulated to add a creepy, uncanny element, suggestive of an elusive nightmare. It also includes recent photographs based both on amateur digital snapshots and traditional analogue techniques from a bygone era. Such a choice of medium offers grainy, slightly blurred, low-key images. Soft, discoloured or distorted by time, found photographs haunt us with the ghosts of the past and remind us of the inevitability of death.
While working on this project, dealing with all things scary and hazy, I was attempting a revision of the world seen from the perspective of a child. The project is a dreamy fictional diary combining the concept of nostalgia for old times with a current fear of impending doom. It is a product of a time that is dislocated. It offers a soothing feeling of familiarity amidst the prevailing sense that our civilisation is stuck at the ‘end of history’ as new technologies disrupt more traditional notions of time and place, creating a ghostly presence- absence.
The photographs trigger memories – empty shops lacking such basics as food, clothes, toilet paper and sanitary towels. Sun-burnt grass and dog piss. No hot water or heating for months. Undrinkable, dark brown water, vomiting unevenly from the taps. I recollect its metallic smell, a bit like blood. Military tanks in the streets and ever-present queues of people waiting for hours in the plummeting temperatures of grim, grey winter months and flesh-devouring cold.
So here I opened myself to my memories from my past early youth lived in late Communism (“Popular Democracy”) and early post Communism in Poland , blurred, foggy prioritizing things which may occur bizarre and illogical for an adult. One of he most important and scary part of my childhood was propaganda and absurd of every day living inflicted by The Socialist Party.
Communist Poland was an unfulfilled Utopia created in order to obtain a predictable, optimised and controllable society. The reality was terrifying. The experiment went horribly wrong, generating a chaotic world of absurdity soaked with insane terror created by the ‘Impeccable Authorities’ and the recollection of recent wars. Nothing made any sense, but any criticism was too risky to be attempted.
The ‘Impeccable Authorities’ would often keep society in the dark to hide their mistakes from the public eye. This created waves of fear, gossip, Chinese whispers and fortune tellers. One of the most powerful governmental strategies was propaganda. When I think of my early youth in late-Communist and early post-Communist Poland, I recollect my childhood horror of psychics, prophets and Russian hypnotisers shown on Polish TV: Kashpirowski slowly counting ‘din ... dva ... tri’ while emitting ‘suspicious and fatally dangerous energy’ via the black and white TV screen. A TV programme
about Nostradamus predicting the imminent End of The World, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and post-Chernobyl catastrophe stories of kittens growing wings and headless creatures and other anomalies roaming nearby forests. I recollect the widespread panic that ensued when the catastrophe was announced – mothers and grandmothers collecting children from schools before the classes finished and running to the nearest place where life-saving Lugola Iodine drinks were distributed before the kids could start glowing in the dark or growing an extra head. Only kitsch pictures of Jesus and Maria (the Queen of Poland) could save us from the evil.
The real royalty of Communist Poland, however, were meat, toilet paper, sugar and vodka. Fear of hunger, caused by the recent war, meant meat shortages. In the 1980s, even nutria meat (leftovers from fur production) was included in the diet. Meat turned into currency and was often used as a bribe, payment or gift. It was a synonym for security in a country dominated by a terror of empty shops and rationed food. Due to the deficit of meat and live stock (all regulated by the ‘Impeccable Authorities’), Polish people developed a carnivorous obsession, like a bunch of blood-thirsty zombies hunting their prey. I recollect long hours of waiting in queues for meat, and the constant quarrels if someone got more than their fare share.
Another obsession during Communism was anything that came from abroad, particularly from Western Europe and the USA: toys, clothes, sweets. (I still remember trying my first Snickers bar, sent from abroad. My grandmother would administer it in the form of a 5mm slice each evening after supper. It was rare and long-awaited treat.) Another curiously desirable object was the disposable plastic shopping bag. People even sold them on the market as super chic ‘must-have’ accessories.
The only way to get the highly attractive western goods was through relatives or friends abroad, or access to dollars, which was tricky and illegal and could lead to repercussions from the Authorities. I recollect ‘underground’ dollar- distributors selling currency from the inner pockets of their leather winter coats, always gathered around railways stations, airports and the most fashionable and magnetising store, PEWEX – the only shops in Communist Poland that were not only not totally empty, but were filled with Western goods. We would make an almost daily trip to PEWEX after school, not to buy anything, since we didn’t have the currency, but just to look and absorb the atmosphere and forbidden culture of the ‘Rotten West’. I still recollect the peculiar mixture of the smells of coffee, perfume and Donald chewing gum – the aroma of luxury and a forbidden world, contrasting with the rancid smell in the empty shops of long-gone spilt and soured milk.
Another issue worth mentioning was the position of women in this Communist utopia. The superficial gender equality and ‘liberation’ of women was on the agenda, but the reality was their desexualisation and objectification to the role of mother and wife. Women had no right to sexual desire or experience and were always expected to look good to please their husbands. Female masturbation and orgasm were a deep, dark taboo. While ‘equality’ posters featured a girl driving a tractor while sporting sophisticated and time- consuming make-up and hairstyles, the reality was that woman were employed on low-paid, manual jobs and were expected to do another ‘shift’ at home, looking after the children, cooking and completing the household chores. It was extremely rare for women to be employed in a highly regarded position; they were almost always on the bottom of the hierarchy, earning a fraction of male wages.
Currently, Poland is a free country and now we are living in a ‘crisis of over- availability’, an abundance of consumerism due to the development of Capitalism. The memories from those days seem more vivid and real. We live in the world of smartphones and constant connection to the internet, which brings a notion of loss. Everything nowadays seems to exist in a non-material form, appearing and evaporating somewhere in the abyss of mysterious digital eternity. Therefore we have started to develop a nostalgia for the old times. We live very much in our memories, which seem more vivid and real.
Strangely, the Dreamatorium has given my grey and unhappy memories gaudy, oversaturated colours like those on jolly grinning postcards, where everything is limned with golden light, the sky is cerulean and the world is filled with cheap, beautifully arranged flowers in hyper-green parks.
Such memories, deformed, fragmented and recycled in present times, such nostalgia for an unrealised utopia, create a base for what Jacques Derrida termed ‘Hauntology’ or ‘Ghostology’ in his Spectres of Marx (1993), claiming that Marxism would haunt Western society from beyond the grave. In French, the word ‘hauntology’ resembles ‘ontology’, a concept that hauntology supplants by ‘replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive’ (Colin Davis). In Moses and Monotheism, Freud argued that society is built on a hauntological basis (‘the voice of the dead father’). Ever since, hauntology has increasingly been seen as a ubiquitous phenomenon in our daily experience, as well as occurring in many different aspects of culture, such as music, art, new technologies and fashion. Everything that belongs to past somehow connects to the afterlife. It exists ‘behind the curtain’, slowly disintegrating into Oblivion.

Paulina Otylie Surys