Given that the Mattress Factory once made literal mattresses, the place where dreams most often form in our minds, it feels fitting that it’s now a site for collective dreaming.

By Emma Riva 

I attended Doreen Chan’s interactive exhibition HalfDream at The Mattress Factory with a friend who later began appearing in my dreams. In my dream, this friend, another writer, urged me to write fantasy—his genre of choice, where I skew more towards literary fiction. The memory of sitting on the multitextured bench in Chan’s exhibition with my friend and looking out at the relief of a skyline Chan sketched over the windowpane, talking about whether I got my mother’s Midwest accent or my father’s New York accent, feels like a dream itself now. How much of my memory of it captures the moment exactly as it was? I wrote to my friend after he appeared in my dream and we decided we would swap genres as an experiment, thus making the dream into something that affected reality from within my subconscious. Chan’s participatory interface in HalfDream, which invites exhibitiongoers to share their dreams into a social network, asks about the figures in a dream, the familiarity of the place, what you felt, what you saw. Nowhere does Chan directly ask viewers Freud’s most popular question: What does this dream say about you? Instead, Chan writes: Wake up before your dream ended? Let someone else finish it for you. 

The Mattress Factory, where HalfDream is on view, sits within the Mexican War Streets neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s north side. The Mexican War Streets is a dreamlike place in its own right. The neighborhood gets its name from its street namesakes being related to an oft-forgotten chapter of American military history, the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Monterey Street (where the Mattress Factory is located), Palo Alto Street, Resaca Street, and Taylor Avenue after president Zachary Taylor. What we now know as Central Northside was then Allegheny City, which sent volunteer troops to the Texas-Mexico border. It’s a neighborhood where dreams of the past laid the bricks of the elegant row houses and grows between the cobblestones of the sidestreets. The Mexican War Streets Society, a local historical preservation association proclaims that “We may live in Victorian houses, but we don’t have Victorian lives.” It feels a bit like the landscape of a dream, because you can step from the old money and community gardens of Buena Vista Street to the Dollar General parking lot of Brighton Road in a manner of seconds.

The Mattress Factory became an art space in the Mexican War Streets in 1977 and established its artist residency program in 1982. Chan is one such resident. Born in Hong Kong, she came to Pittsburgh via Chicago after receiving a Masters degree in Arts Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I felt very distant from people in Chicago,” Chan told me. “There was a lot of racial segregation there, which I was uncomfortable with. And I didn’t feel like I could make art with local people.” Upon Chan’s arrival in Pittsburgh, staff at The Mattress Factory created an itinerary for her to learn about the local culture, including where to catch the best sunrise (Mt. Washington, of course), how to make the best pierogi dinner, and a crash course in the city’s pro wrestling scene. Chan saw an echo of Hong Kong in Pittsburgh. “There are so many neighborhoods, just like in Hong Kong, and the hills are so dramatic,” Chan said. HalfDream came into existence through Chan’s own “vivid and rapid” dreams around the time of political unrest in Hong Kong in 2019.

But in order to create HalfDream, Chan resolved to remove the context of location, self, and identity. “In HalfDream, we communicate with each other through dreams, not through our identities,” she explained. When you step into HalfDream, the entire room is white. The whole space appears gutted. In order for exhibitiongoers to access their dreams and the dreams of others, Chan strips everything out of the physical space around them. It’s a room you have to spend a long time in in order to understand. What at first seems bare is home to a layered inner world. At one corner of HalfDream, a series of monitors plays audiovisual recordings of Chan’s interviews with dreamers, some local to Pittsburgh and some from Chicago. But when you sit down in front of the monitor, you’re met with not an exhibition guide or artist statement but a menu befitting any of the nearby bars on East Ohio Street. Chan gives you three options: A bitter melon cocktail, a gin-based drink garnished with an apple slice, or a non-alcoholic coffee-based mocktail.

“I started making drinks during a long, cold winter in Chicago,” Chan said. “Memories of food and smell affect our dreams, so drinks felt like a natural medium to understand them through.” The recordings are supercuts of one-and-a-half hour conversations Chan had with three different dreamers, with captions in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. The dreamer’s face is noticeably absent from the video itself. Instead, Chan only shows the drink she made based on their dreams. “I felt like if their face was being recorded, they wouldn’t react naturally,” she said. “I also cut together these long interviews because across the course of one-and-half hours, the dreamers repeated themselves and answered their own questions.” The bitter melon corresponds to a young woman who moved from Chicago to Guangzhou and is grappling with homesickness and alienation, the gin base to an older woman whose difficult childhood cast shadows across her adult life, and the coffee mocktail someone processing how a friendship changed when their friend got married. Summarizing the particulars of each of these dreams would be doing them a disservice, given that they exist in conversation with each other in the exhibition space. Though Chan told me this was not intentional, it struck me as interesting that she gravitated towards making alcoholic drinks to portray dreams when alcohol sometimes enhances the experience of dreaming due to fragmenting REM cycles.  Past the murmur of voices at the dream cocktail bar is the bench I sat with my writer friend on, and that bench makes up one of the focal points of the exhibition.

At first glance, it’s a brown vinyl bench, but sit down on it and you’ll be met with a triptych of one lumpy surface, one rock-hard surface, and one in-between surface. “This bench was based on a recurring dream one participant had of being in the middle of two people. Sometimes strangers, sometimes siblings, sometimes specific people. I wanted the material on the bench to remind people of their own presence in others’ dreams,” Chan explained. Facing the window, you look out at the roofs of the North Side, with a translucent lilac sketch over it lining up with the buildings. I could write an entire piece on that window-sketch alone, given how long I spent staring at it and examining how it changes the perception of the landscape. But upon turning around on the bench, Chan faces viewers with an imaginary window drawn on the wall. Though Chan facilitated the pastel colored window, its creation was all participatory. “In this person’s dream, the only consistency was the timing. It was either sunrise or sunset. Every time he had this dream, he said it was a peaceful feeling—honestly, I was kind of jealous, because I never have peaceful recurring dreams,” she remembered to me. “But when I was putting together the installation, I asked the dreamer if he wanted to invite two friends to finish the dream together. He brought his partner and they drew on the wall together.” The result is a vibrant mixture of reds, blues, and oranges. I’ve long been fascinated by the way a sunset and sunrise are nearly the same color despite being opposite times of day, and the color scheme of Chan’s imaginary wall-window

Chan explores the use of time in dreams in one final physical part of HalfDream, which is a resin sculpture inspired by a dreamer who was the caretaker of her 91-year-old father. The sculpture is a long, translucent, strip that Chan was inspired to create based on Hawai’ian singer-songwriter Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles.” The dreamer and her father had gone to see Don Ho in Hawai’i in concert, so the memory was one of importance to their relationship. “In the piece, I wanted to show how she delineated time—what’s one second, what’s one hour—and add lots of little tiny bubbles, like the song. The length of one hour between this dreamer and her daddy was very long,” Chan said. ““Her daddy would often call her while we were talking, and she would always say ‘we’re best friends. I wanted to show how love has so many different forms and shows up in our dreams in different ways. It can be a romantic relationship, it can be a family relationship, it can be sweet, it can be bitter.” Chan described, calling back to the mixture of flavors in her drinks.

HalfDream is one of the most powerful and creative exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a sensitive and tender space that invites viewers not just to look at art but to look at each other. “Being an artist educator and helping people use art in their daily lives for seven years really prepared me for the experience of working with dreamers. I feel so lucky that what I learned helped me with what I wanted to do,” Chan said. The Mattress Factory has pivoted from group shows towards more solo exhibitions like Chan’s to allow more individual attention for artists from across the globe. However, its next show in the Monterey Annex, alongside HalfDream, will highlight Pittsburgh-based artists such as Lenka Clayton, Phillip Andrew Lewis, Lydia Rosenberg, and Katie Bullock. These regional creators will transform the annex using trash, video, sculpture, and more, starting on March 3. Given that The Mattress Factory once made literal mattresses, the place where dreams most often form in our minds, it feels fitting that it’s now a site for collective dreaming. Once a factory for the furniture that tired Pittsburghers laid down on to dream of strange, beautiful, or disturbing other realities, it’s now a place for those dreams to live.

HalfDream will be up at 1414 Monterey St through Fall 2023, but anyone can participate in Doreen Chan’s HalfDream project through the HalfDream website.

Emma Riva is the managing editor of UPan international online and print magazine that covers the intersections of graffiti, street art and fine arts. She is also the author of Night Shift in Tamaqua, an illustrated novel set in the Lehigh Valley. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.