47. Insomniac Reliquary
For this month's letter, staying awake, falling asleep, and ending up in a world of dreams somewhere in between.
The changing season brings with it shorter, colder days. These days, I start off my morning waking up in near-total darkness and spend the minutes between the jarring sound of my alarm contemplating the life choices that got me to being up at this hour before I eventually will my body out of my cozy strata of quilt and comforter. As much as I try to be a night owl, the urge to sleep always wins over any inclination to stay up. Instead, I feel like I have something like reverse insomnia. Thanks to the stress over whatever deadline or task I need to finish, I don't stay up all night, but rather wake up in very early hours of dawn long before the timer on my phone is set to go off.
As a grad student, sleep (both getting enough of it and functioning without) is something that's always on my mind. Beyond my own bedtime routines, I've started to keep track of the sleep schedules of others. For instance, I know my roommate's cat will always be up when I am because he thinks I'm the one who feeds him (not the automatic feeder that dispenses on a timer). I know which of my friends are up early, and who I shouldn't bother until the afternoon. I've never been one to stick to proper sleep hygiene, forever breaking the cardinal rule that you should never do work while you're in bed. For me, the comfort the bed can offer (versus being hunched over my desk) can be productive, a way of relaxing other parts of my body to let me focus on my mind. For many artists, the bed has taken on the role of muse, stage, or sculpture.
When I was planning this newsletter, I wasn't just thinking about the peculiar sensation of sleep deprivation, but also about dreaming. In her book The Committee of Sleep, Deirdre Barrett writes that "dreams are just thinking in a different biochemical state." Salvador Dalí, in his text 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, outlines his process of "sleeping without sleeping" to induce a creative hypnagogic state that blurred the lines between waking and dreaming. Thinking about the non-human world, I remember seeing a video of an octopus whose body changed colors while it dreamed.
When I was drafting this, I kept racking my brain trying to find one particular thing that's helped me sleep better. I don't use things like a lavender pillow spray or a special kind of bedding or a fancy pajama set. Melatonin always makes me feel weird. Then I realized I was overlooking something so obvious: my Sleep Cycle app. I've used this since 2015, and it's the only thing that gets me up at any hour. While I don't need all of its features, I do love its gradual alarm system that eases me awake with gradually louder audio rather than starling me. I can also see how restful my sleep was or even listen to clips of me sleep-talking (equal parts funny and creepy).
Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep remains one of the sharpest analyses of rest and its relationship to labor and the economy that I’ve ever read. Published in 2013, so much of what he talks about is still relevant to this WFH moment. Crary explores the way technology has made us perpetually available, blurring the lines between work and non-work time, and how this leads to increased sleep deprivation and community fractured by this state of constant activity. He writes that the 24/7 world “steadily undermines distinctions between day and night, between light and dark, and between action and repose. It is a zone of insensibility, of amnesia, of what defeats the possibility of experience.”
Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation is neither restful nor relaxing to read, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. Following an unnamed protagonist as she tries to induce a yearlong hibernation through a cocktail of prescription drugs, the book isn’t afraid to go to dark, dissociative places. What sucked me in was precisely how unlikeable and messed up Moshfegh’s characters are, and how the satirical narrative pieces together some of the most sinister aspects of life in the late 90s and early 2000s especially with regards to mental health and self-help culture.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of painter Remedios Varo. Depicting dreams and tapping into the unconscious mind was part of the Surrealist approach to art-making, yet Varo pushed these ideas to the extreme. “The dream world and the real world are the same,” she's been famously quoted saying. Her paintings take place in fantastical landscapes where psychological ideas, philosophical thought, and symbols of magic and alchemy all intermingle. Something I think about a lot is the fact that Remedios spent most of her life as a political refugee, first fleeing to Paris from Spain's fascist government then to Mexico following the German invasion. While her otherworldly scenes are far from this political turbulence, one can't help but wonder about her female protagonists (as seen here in her 1961 painting La Llamada/The Call) wandering through these landscapes of metaphysics and wizardry.
Constantina Zavitsanos’s artistic practice is deeply rooted in notions of care, debt, and dependency. While their projects have taken shape as performance, stacks of paper, redistributed funds from a lawsuit settlement, and holograms, I'm fascinated by Zavitsanos's sculptures made out of memory foam mattress toppers such as I think we're alone now (Host), 2016, and self portrait (EMDR), 2009–11 (pictured above). Each of these were created by the contours of Zavitsanos's body as they slept. By exposing the unseen structures of the bed with the mounting of the curved foam into upright wooden frames, Zavitsanos, who has both received and provided caregiving, turns this mundane material into an abstracted echo of the human form, revealing the intimacies of healing that take place at this site of rest. Looking at these sculptures, I am reminded of an essay Zavitsanos co-wrote with artist Park McArthur and their performance scores for the routine lifting, transferring, and caring for McArthur's disabled body: "Learn how the you of your body and me of mine work our mutual instability together. Learn how the instability of holding while moving is a moment."
Black Power Naps was created by Fannie Sosa and Navild Acosta as a way to resist institutionalized exhausting and generations of fatigue brought on by systemic racism. Like other social, economic, and political structures, rest is also unequally distributed along the lines of race and class, with sleep deprivation contributing to other health factors that lead to lower life expectancies and higher stress levels in communities of color. As Sosa notes in an interview with Teen Vogue, “[Black Power Naps] came from understanding that the American dream is a sleepless one…We inherited this exhaustion.” Their installation turns spaces into free places of rest, where anyone can come and lay down, creating an experience that is equal parts healing and meditative, where rest becomes a form of reparations.
Nocturne is truly a podcasting work of art. The premise is simple: audio essays that focus on life during the hours of the night. Every episode is crafted with such thoughtful, creative narratives that turn the darkest corners of the sleeping world into spaces full of revelations, unsettling encounters, and self-realizations. It’s hard to recommend just a couple of episodes since each one is its own precious gem of audio storytelling, but I love their episode about nighttime at the Oakland Zoo and a harrowing, lonely journey across the Pacific Ocean.
“I Go To Sleep” by Anika has this melodic weight of yearning heartache. I’m not sure how else to describe its punchy dreaminess than like a lullaby barbed around the edges. A haunting cover of The Kinks, I’m not surprised it appeared on Russian Doll.
In this time of burnout and never-ending fatigue, can rest become a way to resist? This question is at the heart of Tricia Hersey’s work as the founder of The Nap Ministry. I really love this interview she recently did with NPR’s Life Kit. It dives into not only her experience as a theologian grappling with stress while in seminary, but also how she connects this chronic state of physical and social exhaustion to racist legacies of white supremacy and capitalist exploitation. This conversation is a breath of fresh air, designed to make you begin to reconnect with your own tired body.
Published by BBC Radio 4, Short Cuts is an experimental audio documentary podcast that brings together stories, interviews, art, and music to create weekly explorations of a single idea or theme. One of my recent favorites was their show about dreams. These audio segments—which include an interview with author Ursula K. Le Guin, a narrated drawing lesson, and a musing on astronauts—are collaged together to create a playful exploration of world-building and the role of sleep in our imagination.
Lately, I’ve enjoyed how Netflix’s Sandman brought the highly stylized world of Neil Gaiman’s iconic comic book series to life. With a flare for gothic aesthetics and supernatural allegory that are true to Gaiman’s source material, we follow Morpheus, the King of Dreams, as he reclaims his power over his realm and restores order to the waking world, encountering renegade demons, deities, and mortals along the way.
Years ago, I woke up abruptly in the middle of night. Unsure what to do with my newfound wakefulness, I spent those eerie hours making myself a cup of tea, caught up on some reading, and tidied up a little bit before quietly slipping back into bed where I’d wake up again after the most refreshing sleep I’d ever had. I didn’t know at the time, but I had accidentally done biphasic sleep. Sleeping all night wasn’t always the norm, as Derek Thompson notes in a story for The Atlantic, and researchers have traced this history of segmented sleep regimens as far back as medieval times and across Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
In 2008 and 2009, performance artist Sakiko Yamaoka initiated performances in which she and her collaborators began to lay down in public spaces and fall asleep. Titled Come With Me, the first iteration took place in the ATM vestibule of a Toronto bank. As the camera films the performers, we see the discomfort of customers as they step around the resting bodies to withdraw cash and make deposits, the beeping sounds of the ATM disrupting the actors’ peaceful slumber. The second iteration happened in several locations across Ginza, one of Tokyo’s biggest shopping districts. Yamaoka’s performance disrupts these sites of commerce by taking up space. Seeing how both took place around the global financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, The sleeping forms evoke issues of homelessness, the speed of economic at odds at odds with global market collapse, and force us to reckon with our own need to slow down.
Elizabeth Gumport’s essay, “In Which We’re Up All Night,” considers the toll sleeplessness takes on the mind and body. What I love about this piece are all these little anecdotes of poets, writers, artists, and other historical figures all trying to make sense of their own nightly wakefulness. There’s Joyce Carol Oates who treats it like a good reading opportunity, F. Scott Fitzgerald tortured by insomnia, and Nabokov who dubs sleep “the most moronic fraternity in the world.” There are some peculiar habits for inducing sleep too, like the Brontë sisters walking in tiring circles around their dinner table. “All is private, silent, and still; for once the world is polite,” Gumport writes, “and for once it belongs to you.”
In “Ode For Dark Matter,” Jayme Ringleb’s musings dance between waking and dreaming. What at first feels like a lonely solitude in the night becomes warm with the comfort of nocturnal companions like “…possums / I often see / nosing the compost,” comforting snack of shortbread, and, of course, the twinkling multitude of stars.
Through her review of Charlotte Beradt's book The Third Reich of Dreams, Mireille Juchau explores the way our time asleep can be impacted by the harms of fascism. Beradt, a Jewish journalist living in Berlin in the 1930s, began collecting accounts of peculiar dreams from those living under the Nazi regime. While Beradt’s book is now out of print and difficult to find, Juchau reflects on this work in the context of other Holocaust literature. Although Beradt’s subjects are talking about their dreams, what they see when they close their eyes reflect the growing populism, racism, paranoia, and surveillance happening at the time, drawing parallels to our current political moment. “Under such conditions,” Juchau notes, “the dreamer can clarify what might be too risky to describe in waking life.”
As always, I’ll end with a poem. This time, it’s “Auto-Lullaby” by Franz Wright. Wright’s bouncing rhythm would almost lull you to sleep were it not for his playful imagery: “Think of a big pink horse / galloping south; / think of a fly, and / close your mouth.” In Wright’s sleepy world, sheep knit sweaters from their wool, cats sleep peacefully in trees, and it’s chirping birds that pull you out of sleep. How dreamy.