Canary Archives – Files of Dreams and Other Matters

Chto Delat

“I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.”
Kurt Vonnegut

Chto Delat’s work employs the imagery of the canary in the coal mine, once used to alarm miners when carbon monoxide levels rose. It is a metaphor that can be seen as a paradigm for our anthropocentric relationship with the world, the broken connection between humans and the planet, and the crucial need for rare sensory perceptions of threat indicators in current times. The present-day is characterized by manifold life-threatening dangers; life-threatening to humans as well as all beings and memories of the ancestors.

In today’s world, various signals of potential threats are sent and received. Different competing sources and catalyzing mechanisms make these signals appear to contradict each other. Difficult to navigate, these contradictions lead to a growing collective condition of insecurity and anxiety.

But where is the canary that tells us whether the danger is real? And where is the exit from the mineshaft?

The collective Chto Delat imagines that everyone is providing evidence for a huge archive of threats and that this archive is being interpreted by canary researchers who assess the threat level.

Dreams are important for that archive of threats; dreams as access points to a subliminal archive of fears and desires. For Canary Archives, all members of Chto Delat shared their recent dreams. The pandemic has created a huge subconscious repository of experiences dealing with moments of trauma. It may raise our awareness for crises caused by humans – climate change, the rise in economic inequality and the virtualization of human experience – revealing their consequences beyond the limited human sensorium.

How can we use an archive of dreams to understand present-day reality? Could this be a unique opportunity to comprehend time’s dynamic transformations?

The installation Canary Archives is realized in a bird cage with a four-channel video installation. In one video, the nine members of the collective Chto Delat share their dreams and stories related to the current global situation. Two more videos document the lives of nine canaries of different breeds in a cage and a scene of collective dance in the darkness. An additional channel shows the mineshaft elevator descending underground. All four channels combine the sounds of birdsong, oration and the noise of the shaft in a single musical composition.

Mixed media installation, 2022