All I have to do is dream

Eleanor Mills, 22.09.2017
Tudor sleep patterns form the core of sound artist Scanner’s new work
Commissioned for the National Trust’s (NT) Trust New Art scheme, The Dreamer is Still Asleep is a soundscape by the artist Scanner installed at Little Moreton Hall, near Congleton in Cheshire.

The Tudor property is so remarkably wonky one wonders how it’s still upright. Even completely sober, its floors are so extraordinarily hilly they have a delirious effect. So, fittingly this year, the displays across the house concentrate on sleep in Tudor times – from the herbs they used to send them to sleep, to warding off evil spirits. And it’s in response to this season that Scanner, real name Robin Rimbaud, has responded within the Trust New Art programme.

“The Dreamer is still Asleep explores sleep and the senses,” says Scanner. “I read this book by Sasha Handley called Sleep in Early Modern England about sleep in Tudor times to get me into the mindset of making something for this place, and it sparked some ideas.

“I learnt that back in Tudor times – even more so than today – people’s sleep patterns were erratic. People used to have two sleeps, getting up at midnight and doing some stuff and going back to bed for a bit more sleep before getting up in the morning for work.”

Scanner’s work is tucked away to one side of Little Moreton Hall, played inside an arched decorative trellis, where visitors (probably a maximum of two people) can sit on a bench and listen to the soundscape he’s created. “I wanted it to be in a place where most people don’t normally walk – a contemplative space so people can breathe and interpret it at their own pace. We’ve also done this quite cute thing and put a sign on the bench saying 'In memory of all those who’ve dreamt here,' which doffs the cap to the usual signs on benches commemorating people, but this doesn’t commemorate anything apart from a semi-conscious state.”

He says the aim of the soundscape is to conjure up the dream world that lies betwixt our semi-awake and semi-asleep states.

“What interested me is when you’re half asleep and half awake, there’s that in-between moment,” he says. “We’ve all had those times at home when you’re half asleep and a car drives past and its lights flash and it triggers something in your dreams or half-state,” he says. “I wanted to make this piece about that in-between state, halfway between asleep and awake.”

The Dreamer is Still Asleep is a complex soundscape that taps into what we perceive to be a Tudor lexicon of sounds: “It’s got layers that try to evoke sounds that you might hear in this building when it was still in residential use in the 16th century – you might hear people singing in the distance or a rainstorm breaking,” says Scanner. He’s deliberately made many of the sounds blur into one another, “then suddenly a very loud sound comes towards you like footsteps or a knock on the door. A horse might stop outside, a door creak shut, or an owl twit-twoo at you,” he says.

It’s an atmospheric work, and clearly imbued with the eeriness that the artist encountered on some of his visits to the property. “I got to see the building when it was closed when I visited in the winter and I was allowed to wander through it on my own. It’s an eerie space, freezing too.”

The spooky semi-conscious state isn’t the only thing that Scanner has used to evoke Tudor sleeping habits – he’s made an accompanying postcard too.

“The Tudors had all kinds of superstitions about sleep, that it was bad for your soul if you slept at the wrong time, all sorts of quirky things, and they used certain herbs and scents for a soporific effect, including camomile and lavender.”

He wanted to incorporate the Tudor smell of sleep in the piece, especially as there’s no distinctive visual element, but wondered how he could: “Do I plant seeds? What are the odds of flowers being fragrant ready for visitors when the sound piece is up?”

He came up with the idea of a scented postcard. “It was a choice between lavender and camomile and camomile smelt awful on a card, like washing up liquid.”

So, not only do visitors experience something close to a dreamlike Tudor soundscape when they visit Little Moreton Hall, they also get a free scented postcard.

Interventions don’t always work well, but this one’s worth it, and the Trust New Art Scheme is worth its salt. Try to get Little Moreton Hall, a 15-20 minute drive from Congleton, and contemplate your dreams, before Scanner’s work is de-installed on 29 October.

And if you’re feeling inspired by contemporary interventions at Tudor properties, why not head on to Acorn Bank near Penrith in Cumbria to see the results of Karen Guthrie’s artist’s residency, where she’s been distilling hydrosols, or scented waters, from commonly-used Tudor botanicals and plants (also on until 29 October).