Angelina Dreem on PAUL, POWRPLNT, and Questioning your Programming

By Whitney Mallett

We construct our own realities. It’s a firm belief that pervades both Angelina Dreem’s music project PAUL and the community arts education space she founded POWRPLNT. “That’s why I still use Angelina Dreem as a moniker,” the artist, producer, and organizer explains, “because this is all a weird dream and we can create our reality within it.” This ethos is inseparable, for Dreem, from a desire to help others create their own aspirational realities. Committed to collective strategies for hacking our societal programming, she sees her role as “giving people the opportunity to see that the world can be different and giving them the tools to reach that world.”

PAUL is more about the first half of this equation, performing alternative constructions through persona play and improvisation-heavy saxophone sets while POWRPLNT, a digital arts space offering classes and workshops for teens, manifests the second part, providing skills and instruments for realizing empowered futures. “I really want everyone to be like ‘Fuck this! I’m not working like this. I’m not living like this. And, I can create a different way,’” she proclaims, summing up the sociopolitical aspirations that drive her many-sided practice.

We’re sitting on a bench looking out at the Hudson River in Upstate New York where Dreem has recently relocated after almost a decade in the Big Apple. It’s peaceful in Hudson, the arts-centric waterfront town whose 7,000-person population swells on the weekends with visitors from Manhattan — only a two-hour drive or train ride away. Still accessible to the city but decidedly more humane, Hudson is the perfect place for what Dreem describes as her “cocooning” phase. “I escaped to Hudson post-mental breakdown,” she reveals, explaining that in this new milieu, she’s finding the physical and mental space to reboot her default modes. “Now in Hudson, my story isn’t on auto pilot. I have to question things and be more conscious of why I’m behaving a certain way.”

Whether it’s talking about food and drugs as body inputs or comparing mycelium networks to contemporary media distribution, Dreem articulates ideas in a way that connects science, spirituality, and self-awareness, borrowing language from both ecology and computer speak in a way that challenges natural/artificial and human/machine binaries. Everything she does is rooted in an ongoing process of optimization. “A lot of people get hung up on results and whether they are going to be good at something, but the process is the most engaging, interesting experience,” she insists.

PAUL is a very process-oriented project. “Music and performance is about getting into the ultimate edge of presence,” explains Dreem. “You are dealing with fear and expectation, technical difficulties, emotional difficulties. Performing is this ultimate rush of having to react to the present.” There’s also a transcendent quality to playing a wind instrument. “In Kundalini, breathing techniques are technologies that can be used to tap into the divine,” Dreem notes. “With every breath, we make a choice to exist, so playing the saxophone is another tool to connect to the breath and also very loudly proclaim, and remember, ‘I exist!’”

PAUL performances are a disorienting display of saxophone and live digital manipulations which Dreem enacts with a wireless MIDI controller customized into a garter belt. The bewildering summation juxtaposes a male persona with hyperfemme presentation. This gendered aspect of the project is a reaction to Dreem’s trials in the male-dominated electronic music scene — relying on boyfriends as musical wingmen, making techno but finding performing it standing behind a bunch of equipment too disembodied, and experiencing subtle and not-so-subtle condescension as a female-identified producer. Today she plays with the same femme presentation that she found herself being dismissed because of before, but she’s now hacking it to her own advantage. “Everybody is programmed to react to a female sexual object. That’s why I use sex and call it PAUL,” she says, explaining how she provokes our biases and preconceptions. There’s also a therapeutic aspect to the project, which helps Dreem work through gender-based frustrations and bouts of depression. “Through PAUL, I’m building confidence.”

Right now Dreem is in the midst of translating PAUL’s sex magick energy into audio recordings for her first album. “Being linear will always be a challenge,” she notes. “I thrive off process and spontaneity — it’s part of my character — so aiming for perfection and reproduction is not a strong suite of mine, but it forces me to collaborate with engineers and producers that can handle my commitment to capturing the crazy.”

Dreem’s refreshingly transparent about her imperfections and idiosyncrasies as well as her autodidacticism and evolution. She only started playing the sax two years ago and taught herself from Youtube videos. “Dont ever think u are too old to start playing an instrument or learn a new language our brains are elastic and you’ve got the power!” she recently wrote in an Instagram caption. Dreem is both inspirational and inspired when it comes to promoting a trial-and-error mindset and eschewing the fear of failure and expectation. A performance highlight for PAUL was sharing a bill with “Sax Maniac” punk legend James Chance back in 2016. Just as much as his energy, Dreem was impressed by how Chance handled technical difficulties at the Knockdown Center show. “His saxophone was being weird and he was so meticulous about it,” she recalls. “I think about that every time I put my reed and ligature together because it’s always like, ‘am I doing this right?’ He’s been playing forever and still has problems.”

In the same spirit of openness, Dreem shares some of POWRPLNT’s growing pains. The goal is creating a “social system that is not moralistic” and the challenge right now is finding the ideal amount of structure within the organization. “I feel like people should be allowed to organically create systems that work for them but then the reality is people need systems,” she admits. “It’s trying to find a balance between being the storm and being the lake.”

For Dreem, there’s an urgency in figuring out this equilibrium. “The more research I do, the more I realize that community is what creates meaning in the long run and saves you from the pit of despair of being alone,” she contends. And figuring out sustainable ways of developing community autonomy, she insists, will prove more and more important “once Silicon Valley starts taking over.” It’s also vital, according to Dreem, that we figure out how to use technology to optimize our human experience without losing our connection to nature and our embodied experience. While communications technologies offer us new exciting models of interconnectivity, Dreem is just as interested in the examples we find in ecology. “Mycelium is so big and connected and the cells react in a way and communicate with one another in a way that we can’t even understand because it’s so vast and widespread,” she gushes.

Dreem’s interdisciplinary curiosity is further evidence of her holistic approach to challenging reductive categorization. The self/other distinction is another one she collapses as she outlines the pursuit of community building as inseparable from personal work. “You can only get so far on an individual level,” she urges. At the same time, she’s deeply aware that one’s value to the collective depends on carving out time and space for the individual to develop, asserting, “As a thinker and kind of an introvert, I have to protect my imagination space.” I was shocked, to be honest, that Dreem, who’s so outgoing and energetic, described herself as an introvert, but then speaking with the multi-hyphenate challenges the tendency to classify everyone and everything according to these hard and fast rules, and I understood better the process of “internal recalibration” she’s undergoing in Hudson, confronting this battle of inherited notions and fresh-eyed imaginations. “You get a richer experience,” she affirms, “when you start to ask questions.”

Whitney Mallett is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. She’s an editor at Topical Cream and her work has been published widely including by The New York Times, ArtForum, Art in America, CURA., PIN—UP, N+1, and Nowness.
Photography: Lyndsy Welgos
Yellow Dress: Gauntlett Cheng