Toby Tatum dives deep into the subterranean landscapes of the mind.
Swaying mesmerically in the overheated water the immense golden petals of the giant aquatic rose held the drowned landscape spellbound. I’d journeyed far to see this, this monstrous deity blooming at the secret heart of an impossible undersea world. As I gazed into the lush recessive folds of the flower’s central core it emitted a deep-bass drone, the sound pulsing outward through the warm amniotic water, reverberating out across the sunken regions of the now collapsing dream.
They’d initially approached me at the cinema, having waited for me in the aisle as the audience drifted out. During the post-screening Q&A I’d mentioned my interest in the inner landscape, the places of one’s imagination. Something about this had caught their attention and they’d wished to discuss the subject further. Afterwards, in the cinema cafe, they’d formally introduced themselves. They were scientists, two researchers working at a place called The Institute For The Investigation Of Other Worlds, Be They Real Or Imaginary. As we chatted for a while over drinks I had the distinct impression that they were sizing me up for something. Their questions, whilst friendly, probed deep into my methods and interests. I’d began to suspect that they were rival film-makers keen to re-appropriate some of my ideas. I’d wanted to go back to the cinema for the festival’s next screening so we said our goodbyes with vague plans of continuing the discussion at a later date, something, I presumed, we’d all soon forget about upon returning home. To my surprise they contacted a few months later via email and, having watched a few more of my films online, had decided they’d like to commission a film from me, a film that would address directly the inner landscape of which I’d spoken. After a short back and forth about dates I’d arrived at their research headquarters to begin the project. I wouldn’t need any equipment as they apparently had everything required on the premises, where the entire film would be, over the course of a few days, shot and edited. The Institute was one of a number of privately funded research bodies based at the old Blacklands Castle site near Hastings. Although the ivy-clad fortress itself is almost totally ruined the research facilities seemed state-of-the-art, housed in a number of cabin-like buildings situated around the castle grounds. After the two scientists had bypassed the numerous security systems we toured the laboratories while they outlined their vision for the film, which they’d suggested I call Mental Space. They’d been funded to investigate the mind, specifically the fertile places of the creative imagination. How specifically did ideas take form and emerge? Where did art spring from? To explore this mental Terrain Vague they planned to put me into a state of receptive suspension, which would allow me to consciously access previously inaccessible regions of my own mind and, bizarrely, allow them to document some of the sleeping imagery found there. In order to conduct their experiments I’d be placed in a specially constructed immersion chamber which they called The Deep Well. It was a huge metal box half-filled with a viscous amniotic liquid in which the participant would float during their introspective odyssey. From this tank trailed a number of wires and tubes, which connected up to banks of obscure machinery nearby. In there, free from the distractions of external stimuli, whilst my brain was stimulated by the headset I’d apparently be wearing, I’d be able to summon up streaming pageants of luminous imagery. I’d become a deep-sea diver descending into the oceanic expanses of my own imagination. This sarcophagus-like contraption reminded me of the sensory deprivation chambers used in Ken Russell’s 1980 film Altered States. The comparison was unsettling as, from what I could remember, the experiments in that film had gone seriously awry. I mentioned Russell’s film to the scientists but they immediately brushed aside the reference, directing my attention instead to a number of monitors embedded on the outside of The Deep Well which would display, alongside the various bio-status read-outs, actual scenes from the deepest reaches of my mind. Before beginning these experiments I’d, of course, be required to sign a waiver, stating that I’d knowingly consented to participate in this project and that, should anything go wrong, neither the Institute nor any of its obscure funders would be held in any way accountable. This waiver seemed unusually thorough, with numerous pages dense with esoteric medical formulae and fringe scientific jargon. Knowing that I stood poised on a precipice, below which yawned the abyssal chasms of the unconscious, I paused for a moment. This brief hesitation was soon swept away by thoughts of those fathomless sunken landscapes seemingly within reach and, without further thought of the considerable dangers, I hurriedly signed. Preparing me for descent the scientists began explaining, in simple terms, the architecture of the human mind. They described the mind as tiered, composed of a strata of semi-permeable layers. These levels are separated by porous boundaries through which, whilst in The Deep Well, I would be able to navigate. The uppermost layers were the zones I’d be most familiar with, these were the everyday landscapes of thoughts and surface memories. In the levels below lay the ruins of half-forgotten things, regions thronging with collapsing ideas and the ghosts of half-remembered moments. It was the lowest reaches they were most interested in, the areas that were usually off-limits. These deeper trenches contained the coral gardens of the imagination. It was here, the researchers suspected, that the seat of the creative imagination lay. Here embryonic ideas grow cocooned in the fertile dark before rising up to enter the sunlit regions of the conscious mind. I was cautioned that if I delved too far down I’d run the risk of my individuality dissolving in the subterranean seas of the collective unconsciousness. Later that evening, suspended inside the black chamber, I floated listlessly on the sluggish saline water, the silence and darkness surrounding me as deep and profound as that which reigned in the secret chambers of the Great Pyramid. The monitoring cables connecting to my headset were my only link to the now distant world outside. Disconnected from external stimuli, the fixed boundaries of my inner world began to dissolve. After an indeterminate time the depthless void began to glimmer with ascendant colour and subtle, shifting tints began to blossom in the dark vacuum. These phenomena quickly morphed into a streaming aurora of dancing colours. The intangible fingers of these fleeting, multi-coloured spectres reached out toward me, ushering me through a gateway into a deeper dream. Where I now was, I could not say. The scintillating curtains of dancing rainbows, which had so beguilingly mesmerised me, were now swept aside and the primal landscapes of the unfiltered imagination unveiled themselves before me…
The unfinished text above was written by me whilst convalescing at hospital. Always fragile, I’d had a total breakdown somewhere around 2014 and have remained at the sanatorium ever since. To be honest, I quite like it here. It is occasionally boring but there are plenty of books to read and films to watch. My collapse had been precipitated by an eruption of bizarre internal images, which had spilled out from the imaginary realm to infect the outside world, creating a hallucinatory other-world in which I’d been unable to distinguish truth from fiction, dream from reality. Prior to my arrival here, I’d been seemingly living in a parallel universe, dreaming up an obscure existence where I was a fringe film-maker. I’d always wanted to become a film-maker so, as the doctors suggested, perhaps I’d created this live-in fantasy as a kind of consoling cocoon? With rest and a course of medication, thoughts of the Institute and the figures who worked there have thankfully receded into the obscure regions from which they came. The doctors suggested I write about my experiences, if only to pass the time. Also, as the sun got warmer I was allowed out into the gardens where, without really realising it, I idly began to film the little flowers growing there on my mobile phone. Flourishing in this well-tended psychiatric garden these blooms, on closer inspection, seemed to have grown strange in their proportions. Despite this I remain positive that the sunless landscapes of the fathomless unconscious will continue to remain dormant…
Awaking in a hectic, perspiring jungle, entangled among snapping, carnivorous plants, I knew I had arrived at a monstrous Eden in overdrive. As a bloodsoaked sun plunged from the sky, perfumed night-flowers unfurled themselves under a bewitching jungle moon. Evading the more aggressive plants I tentatively approached these blossoming magic flowers. As I peered into the interior of a nocturnal bloom I was dismayed to see a sleeping child’s face cocooned there, sheltered among the perfumed petals. Around me, through the moist interwoven branches of this rainforest world, immense crimson butterflies now sailed, appearing like flags unfurling in the darkening jungle. Occasionally one of these brilliant butterflies would be caught and torn apart by the snapping plants, fragments of their over-decorated wings falling like confetti onto sodden mulch at my feet. From this fertile over-rich soil majestic prehistoric ferns erupted – growing quickly they soon towered above me, their energetic fronds reaching up to claim the sky, before being torn down into the humid quagmire by writhing creepers. Around me, tentacled vines gripped enigmatic fragments of smashed, broken masonry, evidence of an unknowable aeon-dead culture now lost to the ages. Time-worn statues praising forgotten gods had been dragged off collapsing pedestals by the rampaging vegetation and now lay mouldering under a carpet of dying leaves. As the moon reached its zenith the bizarre night-flowers began to pulse with unearthly colours. Signalling that the slumbering babies had begun to awaken in their floral nurseries, infant cries began to rise in chorus, building toward a shrill cacophony. Before departing this maddening grove I peered again into the opened heart of one of these wailing flowers, and looked down at the child trapped there. Its eyelids opened to regard me, unveiling two glowing gemstones. I saw my flickering reflection multiplying there among the jewelled facets, behind which I sensed the obscure workings of an awakening alien sentience. Repulsed by those inhuman orbs and their hall-of-mirrors reflections I quickly turned away. Forcing my way past the serrated blade-like palms I fought a path forward, while millions of emergent fireflies lit up my path through the night.
Dear MIA Journal,
Thank you for your recent correspondence. Unfortunately Toby is unable to respond to your enquiries at present. However I have included the above text in which he has addressed, at
length, some of the questions you posed. I would also like to take this opportunity to caution you both. Unfortunately I have seen first hand the danger inherent in unleashing images of unbridled intensity upon the world. Perhaps this is something you should bear in mind should you choose to continue your insane enterprise.
With Kind Regards,
Dr. Jane Gladwell-Ballard
The Institute for the Investigation of Other Worlds Be They Real Or Imaginary
Click here for more articles in this issue: