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The Curator Who Archives the Images of Dreams

In an unassuming Manhattan building, a curator archives the so-called archetypal images of dreams.

by Liam Shaughnessy
Jan 22 2016, 1:00pm

Image: Charlotte Godfrey/Flickr

From an unassuming building hidden between the concrete canyons of midtown Manhattan, Ami Ronnberg enthusiastically catalogues the world's dream imagery. As lead curator at the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS), Ronnberg heads up a project dedicated to curating "archetypal images"—those symbols and themes which occur and recur in human dreams, across time and space.

Subscribers to the archive can explore a collection of more than 17,000 dream images and ancient symbols, along with commentary, collected over nearly a century. Think everything from anxiety dreams about losing teeth to the great proto-myths that crop up repeatedly in unconnected cultures. The Biblical flood is the classic example—a narrative as familiar to Hinduism and Ancient Greece as it is to the Abrahamic religions.

From the quintessential hero myth recycled for the latest Star Wars film to the runic symbolism of the Nazis, via mass advertising and private dream-states, archetypal images are everywhere and Ronnberg has made it her mission to decode and digitise them.

"Quite often, people will come in after they've had a dream and they'll want to look it up," Ronnberg explained, "and we have images from the beginning of human time and from all cultures."

"The shapes change but the archetypal core is the same"

"The idea is to go across all cultures so that you can compare the images," she continued. "So it may, for the dreamer, bring up a different interpretation from China or from England. The archive crosses cultures and time; this is what is unique about it."

But surely images change over time? There were no mobile phones or drones in the dreams of pre-industrial societies.

"The way Carl Jung [the psychoanalyst who first discussed such archetypes] described archetypes was as eternal symbols," Ronnberg explained. "An archetype may come up in someone's dreams today as a roaring train with fire coming out of the chimney, but it may have been a dragon in the past. The shapes change but the archetypal core is the same."

In the name of research, I put this to the test following a dream I'd had about being on a strip of beach between two bodies of water. From both sides the waves were growing ever larger, eventually reaching disaster movie proportions, threatening the beach I was standing on.

Within minutes of entering the online archive, I found myself reading around dreams, visions and deities with no obvious relation to the search terms I'd used, but resonant nonetheless. It's hard to explain how the archive works as it's certainly not organised along any conventional means such as chronology or alphabetic listing.

Nevertheless, it has become a go-to place, not just for psychoanalysts working through their patients' latest dreams and nightmares, but also artists and writers in need of inspiration.

"Ten years ago we put the whole archive online and digitised the entire collection and the accompanying text that goes with each image," Ronnberg explained. "Now we have archetypal commentary with each image and it's all fully searchable."

"We are surrounded all the time by advertising, the master of archetypal imagery"

But archetypes have light and dark sides. In waking life, archetypal images can help give the material world meaning, but they can also be exploited as powerful tools.

"Our world is an image culture and we are surrounded all the time by advertising, the master of archetypal imagery," said Ronnberg. "These images make us react and feel, whether we know it or not; they are a basic part of our psychic structure."

A cursory google of "advertising and archetypes" reveals the depth of research that has also gone into trying to harness the power of our dream imagery for commercial gain. There are countless management gurus out there expounding on the "12 brand archetypes," but there's also a wealth of academic work looking at everything from Mythical Narratives in Car Advertising to the use of animal archetypes as brand symbolism.

And of course, there are people who draw on such imagery for even greater control.

"It's been done in the past," said Ronnberg. "Hitler did it with the swastika. And look at the symbolism of Daesh [ISIS], the image of the beheading is ancient—they use it as their power."

But just as dreamlike images can be exploited by the powerful, Ronnberg insists they can also be a way of learning more about ourselvesgetting closer to the truth—if we choose to listen to them. "What's also amazing is the way dreams connect to the true self," she said. "Dreams compensate and say, 'Forget what the world is telling you, this is the deep truth.'"

Can this remain relevant in an age of sleep deprivation, technology and hyper-capitalist materialism? As writers like Jonathan Crary have argued convincingly, sleep and dreaming are anathema to globalisation and the digital economy. An interconnected world is one that's always awake, and sleep is weakness. Meanwhile, to master insomnia is a sign of leadership—see Donald Trump's recent pronouncements on the subject.

Ronnberg argues that we can still use the archive to find meaning in a mixed up world. "(At ARAS) we do a lot of work with teenagers these days, who are really into technology and moving quickly, and they come here and reflect and it changes their lives and the way they perceive the world," she explained. "They see things they hadn't seen before."

You'll Sleep When You're Dead is Motherboard's exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.