A few weeks ago, I went to a Shop of Dreams, a pop-up store which was actually an exhibition. It was a collaboration between Edinburgh-based artist Symon MacIntyre, faculty/artist Amruta Shah and students of the Srishti School of Art and Design in Bengaluru, as part of their interim project.
Along with a group of children, I was welcomed into a pop-up store that looked like it belonged in the pages of an Enid Blyton book or a Neil Gaiman short story. Like me, the children felt like they had climbed atop the Magic Faraway Tree and were whisked into the fantastical land that was the Shop of Dreams.
The children, a boisterous bunch, excitedly window-shopped for dream jars, where owls nestled in tree holes and upside-down houses, pixie dust in purple and turquoise blue, and the stuff of nightmares was ensconced in matchboxes. You needed drupees, dream currency, to shop and for that, you had to earn them by playing games.
What fascinated me about the exhibition was how it engaged children (also adults) with something as familiar as dreams and nightmares. Play blended with art to become a space where reality was suspended for a little while. Children could explore the exhibits that were not just sterile objects hung on walls. They could pick them up, and examine them to their heart’s content. Well, until the next tot shoved them aside at least.
Since you couldn’t shop with money, you could almost see the conundrum children faced about ‘earning’ enough dream currency to be able to ‘buy’ their favourite fancies. One parent complained that the announcement didn’t mention money, until the students pointed out the concept of a dream currency. She relaxed and set off to make some herself.
In many ways, the exhibition was a stark reminder of growing up in a capitalistic world where even dreams can be traded for the right currency. On the Srishti website, the project was explained: “Every day, in and around us, we see advertisement hoardings selling us some kind of dream. This concept is about the essence of dreams. It is about the de-commercialisation of dreams. Although it is a shop of dreams, the dreams can only be bought by someone prepared to give us something in return. It’s a barter system. There is no currency in our shop. It’s a room full of ideas, imagination and little triggers that can trigger your own imagination.”
And truly, there was a sense of wonder in getting something without actual rupees passing hands, taking them away from their consumerism-centric world. A hark back to the history of money and the barter system. Moreover, the exhibition didn’t have any videos or screens.
In fact, the games were based on traditional board games, word puzzles and a dart board. The Shop of Dreams was all about discovery. A Cheetah-branded matchbox opened to show a skull and bones or a fluffy cloud studded with stars. Inviting bottles were filled with curious potions, where we had to use our imagination to think what a nightmare concoction would taste like. Everyday, objects were transformed into the extraordinary. And I heard a boy and girl decide they were going to try to replicate one of the exhibits for a class project.
As I left the shop — clutching my precious stash of pixie dust, a dream jar, and a nightmare potion — I couldn’t help but think that increasingly what we see and what we touch is becoming homogenised. Our visual culture is more and more limited to screens where images are beamed to us constantly, and games packaged for us. Yet, right here was an example that our experiences don’t have to be limited to screens.
In a city like Mumbai, we are starved for open and play areas, and green spaces. Our idea of a weekend well spent is going to the mall. It would be wonderful if more artists and educators would come to create such spaces where children can play, explore, and innovate. And where going out doesn’t have to be about ‘shopping’.
(The writer is the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru and writes about education for sustainable development, conservation and food security)