Sydney’s innovative Dreambox Collective has created a moving digital experience in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing together music, poetry and art. Nightlight is part graphic novel, part audio book, part musical experience – and it’s beautifully realised, taking the reader on a nocturnal journey shot through with melancholy. Dreambox Artistic Director – and poet – Chloe Chung and composer Carlo Antonioli share how the project took shape.

Dreambox Collective's NightlightSandra Brand’s artwork from Dreambox Collective’s Nightlight

How did the idea for Nightlight first come together?

Chloe Chung: Last year, our visual artist Sandra Brand showed me a set of illustrations she created whilst recovering from mental illness in hospital, featuring a character she was obsessed with drawing who kept her company when she had trouble sleeping at night. It so happened that I was also writing bits and pieces of poetry when I couldn’t sleep at night, but we didn’t put two and two together until lockdown earlier this year when we realised that our secret night-creations could be fused together!

What did you hope to convey through the piece?

Carlo Antonioli: Nightlight is a reminder to all of us that even at the bleakest of times, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, something which became particularly poignant during lockdown. Our central character embarks on a journey from darkness to hope, confronting their challenges head-on and reaching the realisation that although it is a journey undertaken alone, it is undertaken by many.

What inspired the format?

CC: Given that Nightlight isn’t solely a picture book or audio book (it’s both of these things!), it took us a while to find a home for the illustrations, poems and music to coexist. It was also important to us that it be accessible to anyone in the world, instantly, because it tackles an issue we are passionate about. The solution that emerged within our limited resources was designing an online experience, hosted on our website, accessible on both desktop and mobile.

CA: I’m not aware of other artworks which combine these media in this way, so we are very excited to produce this in a novel and unique format.

The work brings together illustrations, music and poetry – how did these feed into each other?

CC: The illustrations and poetry were written first, independently of each other. Carlo got the fun job of putting together the big puzzle of our various pictures and poems to create a cohesive narrative arc, through the music – finding threads and themes that Sandra and I hadn’t even realised existed.

The work creates a wonderful sense of fantasy, but it’s also shot through with melancholy, or even anxiety, and yet also hope – was it a challenge to balance these moods?

CA: This definitely was a challenging aspect of the process, and it all came down to the sequence of the illustrations and poems. We ended up creating a secret storyline to help us shape the journey in a fulfilling way. While we are obviously dealing with some sensitive themes of anxiety and mental ill-health, we wanted to show our readers that there is a path which comes to terms with these issues and leaves them with hope.

What has been the most interesting or satisfying thing to come out of this project?

CC: The illustrations and poems were born out of individual transformational moments in Sandra’s life, and my own, but the process of creating together has been transformational in itself. I’ve really come to appreciate the value of teamwork, and am really grateful for the work of not only Sandra and Carlo, but our editor Natalie Saar and pianist Pavle Cajic – we have all learnt so many skills this year that I couldn’t have imagined at the outset of this process.

Why was it important to you to support batyr?

CA: Dreambox Collective has always considered it important not only to raise awareness of social and environmental issues, but to follow through by supporting organisations who work on the front line in tackling these issues, as well as amplifying their work to our audiences. For each of our projects, we partner with or support an organisation relevant to our project’s theme, and so for Nightlight we are supporting batyr, a for purpose preventative mental health organisation, created and driven by young people, for young people.

How will the live events speak to the digital artwork?

CA: We’ve created two ways in which to join us to celebrate the launch of Nightlight – two Live Launch concerts, which will be held at Kirribilli Neighbourhood Centre on 22 November, and three online events entitled Nightlight Sessions, held on Wednesday evenings starting from 25 November.

CC: At the Nightlight Sessions, I’ll be reading the poems bedtime-story-style straight from my own bedroom, while we share the images. Sandra and I will also be doing some gentle doodling and word jam games with our audience – in a similar way to how Nightlight started for us all those months ago!

Dreambox Collective’s Nightlight will be available on the Dreambox Collective website for $10 from 26 November at 8pm. Pre-purchase access here

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