Cabin Fever is a new 24-hour audiovisual artwork by Esmeralda Conde Ruiz that uses Zoom as an instrument and a canvas for live digital performance. First conceived in early 2020 during the first lockdown in London, UK, the work explores vulnerability and pandemic dreaming.
Cabin Fever is composed for an ensemble of voices, domestic sounds and Zoom. Every hour in this durational performance singers softly share a real pandemic dream collected from around the world. We hear different languages as we are led on a journey through 24 of the world’s time zones visiting dreamers as they sleep. In this work the software itself becomes an active part of the ensemble as Conde Ruiz explores the sonic potential of the virtual space, creatively playing with the latency and parameters of the technology. Singers’ voices hover at the edge of distortion, as familiar noises from our homes join in the performance.
The live piece begins in the UK and travels around the globe from one participating group to the next, shifting time zones every hour, changing visually as well as aurally. At no point do we see the singers themselves. Webcams are covered and a new visual composition is created by each new group of singers. We hear their voices but we are kept suspended in a dreamlike state – together but still apart.
Through each singer covering their individual webcam the traditional Zoom screen is transformed into a mosaic of colour. As new singers join the performance one mosaic square changes to a different colour, gradually altering our overall screen until a new colour is predominant and a new group sings together in digital unison.
The Cabin Fever album, released by Birmingham Record Company on Friday 19th November 2021, consists of a specially-curated selection of 10 dreams from the 24-hour digital performance. The following interview was conducted by Marta Echeverria for RNE Radio 3 in July 2021, just prior to a performance of the live version of the work at Rayo Festival in Madrid.
Marta Echeverria (ME): Esmeralda, you are in the process of developing an audio-visual online performance of 24-hours’ duration, created via Zoom, taking as inspiration the dreams that the world has dreamt during lockdowns. What is the overall idea? Is it to make some sort of cartography of pandemic dreams?
Esmeralda Conde Ruiz (ECR): Yes, exactly. It is a way of giving those dreams a screen, a canvas. A portrait of our global lockdown experience, visually and sonically. During the lockdown I noticed that my dreams changed drastically. For example I remembered more dreams. They were more surreal, and I dreamt in a much higher frequency. But what really caught my attention was that on social media there were lots of people sharing their dreams. There was this collective need of sharing something as intimate as a dream, so personal, but shared in public. And I did find that very interesting. I started collecting dreams, online and in several languages and I wanted to see what happens with performers, if they sing a real dream of a stranger, how would they feel? Will they feel the intimacy, the respect towards the person who has shared that dream, such an intimate delicate thing and how will the online user feel knowing that an entire choir is singing their dream. It was a really interesting process of experimenting in the early research and development stages that made me want to create a fully-formed piece. My team and I started speaking to dream researchers around the globe to gather more dreams, in more languages, from all time zones. The researchers generously shared their dream collections with us and they confirmed that, yes, the world had started to dream differently during the pandemic, dreams have changed drastically. And we are still developing the piece and still collecting dreams from all around the globe.
ME: I imagine lots of dreams reflect the anguish caused by the lockdowns, also the uncertainty created by the advance of the virus. But are there topics that repeat? Can you say if there are images that are in the collective consciousness that you see that repeat independently of the time zones?
ECR: I had exactly the same question towards the dream researchers. After having read so many dreams I can confirm that, yes, there are collective dreams that most people dreamt which are about fear and anxiety. But there was not one topic that everyone dreamt of, it was very varied and layered but there were new dreams: obviously with face masks for example, losing the mask, people coming too close, that the family suddenly has the virus, etc. These are all new fears that are very present right now.
ME: In the science of dreams there are always the classics, right? Being naked in a public space, an exam that one didn’t prepare, or that your teeth are falling out. I don’t know if, from this year onwards, we will have new collective topics as those ones. Definitely the mask dreams might stay!
ECR: The classics are still there! People still dream those. Tooth loss dreams, exams and more are also featured in Cabin Fever. But there is something new, like a surreal fear expressed in all shapes and forms. Animals, zombie apocalypse, all sorts of scenarios in all different time zones. At the beginning of this research I had that sonic hope that some continents might dream differently and therefore could sound very differently but in the end we are all the same. Our fears, our hopes the emotions are all connected and similar. And I learned that a dream is as unique as a fingerprint and only connected to its dreamer, and not necessarily the location the dreamer is in.
ME: Cabin Fever is entirely created via Zoom. And it’s very interesting because you are an artist and composer that specialises in vocal pieces and at first it could appear that working with these sort of technologies could be a handicap as the sound is usually quite dirty. The voices sound metallic, there are cuts, interferences, delays, but I think you wanted to incorporate those imperfections into your piece?
ECR: Yes, I thought of it as fascinating that I can be sat at home and call someone in Nariobi and sing a duet together. I did find that experience amazing. Especially the topic of dreams asks the question: What does a dream sound like? How can one express the subconscious sonically? The subconscious doesn’t sound like normal life. That’s why I found working with Zoom so inspiring: It’s a distortion of the physical room. I use Zoom as an instrument. It’s like using an oscillator. I have a bit of control but later the platform changes sounds and does things that I have no control over, switches microphones off, for example if singers sing higher notes or lower ones microphones distort and switch off individually, or new sounds will be created. It works really well for me artistically for the topic of dreams.
ME: Esmeralda, thank you for joining us and best of luck with the piece! For more information on the Cabin Fever release please visit https://nmc-recordings.myshopify.com/products/esmeralda-conde-ruiz-cabin-fever