I’m dubious about anything that sounds remotely like holistic therapy — but I’m also fascinated. A friend once sent me an article about how Tibetan sound baths can cure tinnitus, and within minutes I was knee-deep in a forum of Himalayan monks telling me what material my “singing bowl” should be made from and why a CD recording fundamentally cannot act as a substitute. My YouTube history reads like a beginner’s guide to hypnosis, and I’ve tried to learn how to treat ailments with reflexology on more than one occasion. Basically, I’m a sucker for exactly the kind of thing my Dad would write off as “nonsense”. So when I read about NOQTURNL, “an audiovisual meditation exploring collective dreamstate,” I’m sold.
Part of CTM Festival, NOQTURNL is an overnight performance conceived by John Connell and Florence To that aims to explore the threshold between waking and dreaming. NOQTURNL’s unique aural and visual experience is constructed through intricate soundscapes and patterns of light, which “immerse participants in a spatial field of sound and light designed to open access to the hyperlucid.” For those of you who (like me) don’t know, the hyperlucid is described as “the imaginative and highly receptive state of intelligence available within the dreaming mind”. When I found out Connell and To were bringing the project to MONOM, Berlin’s centre for spatial sound, I was intrigued (if a little skeptical), and let’s be real: I had nothing better to do with my Saturday night.
The performance, I’m told, starts at midnight and ends “at dawn”. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what time “dawn” occurs, and that’s a very conscious decision, because I’m rarely up to see it. As it turns out, dawn is around 7am, which is better than expected, but still less than ideal — I’m the type of person who cannot function on less than 8 hours sleep. Luckily, the romantic promise of “breakfast at first light” is enough to soothe that pain. Nevertheless, I’m still full of questions (and anxieties): what should I wear? Pyjamas?! Should I bring my pyjamas? Will I be the only person attending alone? I’m worried the sound will be too loud (aggravating my aforementioned tinnitus), and I’m really worried what they consider to be a suitable “bed” will not be what I consider a suitable bed. When the time comes, I have serious reservations about even going — I’m absolutely exhausted and want to go to sleep, but when I remember that’s literally the point, I throw on some tracksuit bottoms, pack my glasses and my toothbrush, and set off.
But first: the real quest. I have to voyage to the ends of the earth to get there. The whole journey takes me an astonishing hour and 10 minutes. Granted, that’s nothing if you’re a Londoner, but nobody in Berlin travels that far unless they are (for some godforsaken reason) going beyond the airport. After two S-Bahn changes, I take a tram to Rummelsburg (yep, you read that right) which unsurprisingly, is a ghost town. The only other people are a group of 3 boys carrying sleeping bags, who are quite obviously also headed to NOQTURNL. A simple “hey” would have saved me much inner turmoil, but awkward and in no mood for small talk, I say absolutely nothing. Instead, I proceed to walk 5 steps behind them like a shifty stalker until we arrive at our destination.
To confirm my worst fears, it does genuinely seem I’m the only person at NOQTURNL who has decided to come alone — other than a guy sitting with his headphones in, head down, determined not to make eye contact with anyone. I sit in the freezing cold, concrete waiting area, surrounded by couples resting their heads lovingly upon each other’s shoulders, and friends chatting over a beer. Luckily for me, I’m absolutely exhausted thanks to a day in the library and a healthy dose of ghosting from yet another fuckboy, so I’m thankful that no socialising is required of me. In fact (a true blessing) the only expectation is that I fall asleep.
We’re ushered into the sleeping room at about 11.45pm, and at first sight, all my worries subside. The huge industrial room is shrouded in a purple haze with 70 mattresses elevated on a platform, along with a fresh pillows and neatly folded blankets. As I lie on my bed for the night and stare up towards the ceiling, I’m reminded of Anthony McCall’s description of haze as “ambient sea-mist” and I’m soothed by the enveloping violet cloud that means I can’t really see or be seen.
The actual performance begins just after midnight, beginning with an ambient blend of light and sound that seems to travel in waves from one side of the room to the other. The sounds — field recordings of birds chirping, trains leaving their platforms, and footsteps receding — creates an experience so soothing, I’m well on the way to falling asleep. My last thought before consciousness slips away from me is a silent prayer that I don’t have to pee. The trip to the toilets involves exiting the premises (into the subzero Berlin rainstorm) and going downstairs into the basement — an ordeal surely enough to awaken anyone from a supposed state of hyperlucidity.
Much as intended, I don’t sleep the whole night through. (I challenge anyone not to rouse from their slumber to the sound of loud gongs reverberating from all four corners of the room.) I drift between sleep and waking as light patterns and distinct sounds disrupt my dreams, which — and I’m not just saying this — are more vivid and bizarre than they’ve ever been.
When I wake, I’m mostly left with vague fragments and impressions of half-forgotten dreams — but at one point, I have a particularly vivid nightmare. I feel scared and victimised and alone, and then — I kid you not, hand on heart — I wake to the sound of a reassuring voice over the speaker telling me it will all be OK. I don’t know what kind of sorcery they’ve got going on, but it felt like I’d been induced into a nightmare and then deliberately awakened into a place of warmth and safety— is that even possible? John Connell? Florence To? I’m all ears.
At 7.45am I awake (pleasantly smug that I’ve managed to wangle an extra 45 mins of sleep), I roll up my sleeping bag, grab a croissant, and head straight for the tram. I’m revelling in a state of serenity induced by the night before. My tram-two-S-Bahns-and-a-bus journey home provides the perfect setting to reflect on the performance. To be honest, I don’t know what went on or how. All I can tell you is I’m convinced that some kind of witchcraft (probably better known as science) was inflicted upon me and 69 other sleeping strangers by John Connell and Florence To that night, and I’d do it all again if I could.