Not long ago, I fell asleep during a dance performance. No, it’s not what you think: in this particular case, spectator sleep was encouraged and even facilitated. The show started at 11:30 PM – sensible bedtime in the age of social media – and ended at 7:30 AM, having provided the recommended but rarely achieved eight hours.

Arriving at the venue, we found not chairs but mattresses and blankets arranged in a semicircle around the stage floor, as well as a couple of already tucked-in bodies indicating what was expected of us. The space was shrouded in the greyish semi-darkness of human night vision, lit only by a few weak, floor-level light sources, like night lamps. No stage lights followed the movements of the dancers. During most of the long night, they performed shadowy movements in precisely choreographed group formations, alternating with individual forays across the stage, discreet variations in a soft pattern. The music was loop-based, repetitive. Everything was, in other words, arranged so as to suggest not just lowered levels of attentiveness, but actual slumber, and about an hour or so into the show, regular breathing and light snoring could be heard from around the room.

Never a talented sleeper, even I drifted in and out of consciousness, experiencing the strange and somewhat paranoid state well-known to insomniacs: feeling as if you are still not sleeping while you actually are. Or, in this case, perhaps also the other way around – it was hard to tell.  All along, the show provided intermittent breaks, abrupt, if minor, shifts in tone akin to the semi-conscious way in which sleepers change position in bed. But at some point during the early morning hours, the entire ambience seemed to have changed, replacing softness with sleep-induced anxiety, tension and a protracted longing for it all to end. A bad night’s sleep, in other words, the kind where external and internal events seem to take on a portentous shared form. Some dozers may, of course, have been blissfully unaware of this little drama, but as we walked out of the hall, squinting and yawning in the morning sun, I, for one, knew that I had participated in a performance in which the strangeness of sleep itself – not of dreams, but of the actual physical state of not-being-present – had somehow been made tangible.

It was only later on that it struck me how rare this experience was. The cultural archive is overflowing with all sorts of records on dreams and their significations, but art also takes a keen interest in simple sleep – as long as it is the sleep of other people. Numerous paintings invite us to look at sleeping figures, or at people looking at sleepers.  And in recent years, performers sleeping in galleries, day in and day out for weeks, putting live sleep on display for all to see, has become something of a mini-genre with many variations.

In a curious twist, critique of the way in which contemporary attention economy and 24/7 connectivity undermine the natural need for sleep is paradoxically doubled by invitations to pay attention to actual or feigned sleeping bodies, to watch them, endlessly, in real time.[1] Matthew Fuller has suggested that the traditional motif of the sleeping figure – a personification of allegorical virtues – may in some cases be transposed onto the very situation of viewing, making attentiveness itself the virtue.[2] But given the vice of voyeurism often at work in watching bodies that really do not know they are being watched, virtue transfer of this kind may also be somewhat compensatory. Under any circumstance, sleep discourse in art seems to inevitably loop back to the problems of attention, which is precisely why the act of turning spectators themselves into sleepers and then engaging them in the actual complexity of sleep felt so significant.

It might be a sign of a shift in sensibilities, a new way of handling a growing malaise related to the iron grip of attentiveness.  The dance performance was a work by Swedish choreographer Mårten Spångberg entitled The Night, and premiered in 2016.  Fuller’s reflection on images of sleepers appear in his 2018 book How to Sleep. The Art, Biology and Culture of Unconsciousness – a long essay that itself also performs some kind of dormancy.  Mainly, as the author points out in the introduction, by tossing and turning a lot, skipping from one theme to the next, but also by ending suddenly and without a neat finish, as sleep tends to do. What stands out, however, is the book’s stated disinterest in dreams and the philosophical effort to get closer to a persistent, constantly repeated, form of being that cannot be directly known in its own native state, having no capacity for reflexivity within its own conditions. There can, as Fuller asserts, be no immanent critique of sleep, only “embedded reporters who have no capacity of seeing”.

To approach sleep is to approach the realm of unthought: there is sense perception in sleep, but no conscious subject who can verify and pass judgment on the sensations. This lack of reflexive access makes sleep, as a sociological category, something that is primarily acted on as if from the outside – managed, demarcated or arranged in various ways. Yet, sleep is not a passive, shapeable material. It is, on the contrary, highly active, a biological force that becomes productive in numerous ways as it enters into relation with other objects and capacities. While biopolitical theories of sleep tend to avoid its biological dimensions, instead circumscribing sleep’s destiny in the realms of law, medicine, politics, morals and so on, sleep itself bridges the spheres of biology, culture and biopolitics. To get to know sleep is to accept surprising cross-disciplinary connections.

This broadly associationist understanding of sleep is in fact key to Fuller’s proliferating ruminations – his fitful sleep-mode writing. For, if sleep shuts out the conscious subject, the active extensions, or networks, of sleep can be traced here, there and everywhere. Thanks to the photoreceptive brain organ named the pineal gland, its changing rhythms – the all-important when of sleep – interact with those of the cosmos. Sleep research invents new medial organs that connect the pulsations of a single sleeping body with processors, databases, servers and ultimately data harvesting at the level of entire populations. For, even as sleeping means taking a break from media use aimed at eyes and ears, sleep is nothing if not mediated:  surveilled, recorded and logged.

Sleep, here, is an affect that passes through an entire ecology of media with different scales of interpretation and transcoding, and thus also intermeshed with the different instruments and systems of measure. The persistence of sleep may, as Fuller suggests, also ultimately be what ties us to debt, since we are utterly dependent on the real estate market in order to access reliable, habitual and above all safe places of rest. On the other hand, the Occupy movement – passively filling public space night after night – showed the power of sleep as protest against the very economies of debt.

But there is a wider critical horizon to all this, one that is not explicated in the book but that exists, at least to this reader, as a sort of environmental static: the relation between computational systems and the unthought. A pioneer in the fields of software studies, Fuller is the co-author of Evil Media (2012), a sort of self-help guide to maneuvering the gray zone of algorithms, protocols, routines, data structures,  abstraction layers, sorting methods, and workflows, among other troublingly opaque operational powers of digital networks and their ingression into culture.[3] If our focus on the screen interface and its representations and significations might be understood  as the wakeful consciousness of digital culture, the persistent background activity of gray media, exists, not unlike sleep, as an affective capacity – sensed, rather than explicitly known.

At this point, Fuller’s efforts to trace indiscernible operations across biological, technological and cultural/political domains might be in dialogue with aspects of N. Katherine Hayles’ Unthought (2017) – a book in which the phenomenon of “nonconscious cognition” is presented as the most significant mediator between humans and machines.[4] Forget about the tendency to conflate cognition with higher-level reflection or thinking, and the intellectual traditions that compare technical cognition with the operations of consciousness.  Hayles draws on a wide range of scientific sources to argue, first, that cognition is the basic process that allows any life form to discover and act on environmental stimuli, and, second, that this hyper-rapid and subjectively unknown processing at the neuronal level is precisely what living beings share with computational systems. Such systems discern and respond to all sorts of signals and patterns inaccessible to direct human perception and at speeds that consciousness could never follow, while genetic and evolutionary algorithms and other adaptive functions may also give technical systems the capacity to evolve. Ultimately, the technological extension of human cognition at the level of the unthought is what allows contemporary humans to handle informational streams so large and complex that they could never be processed by human brains alone, and thus also transforming our interactions with broader planetary ecologies.

It is, perhaps, this larger existential topic – critical as it is in the age of environmental crisis – that accounts for the recent aesthetic and political interest in sleep as such. Sleep may quite simply be one of the most familiar, undramatic, instances of a form of inaccessibility to ourselves that also, implicitly, signals our imbrication in a wide range of more or less indiscernible worldly infrastructures and networks, far beyond the familiar human relations depicted in psychoanalysis.  The fetishization of sleeplessness and its endemic mental circularity – the I that constantly asks itself why it is still self-present could well be the dark hero of the culture of the self  – may have had its moment. Sleep, in all its apparent banality and idiocy, is at once collective and plural.

“A single night”, Fuller writes, “has so many bodies in it, so many sleepers with their intestines, eyeballs, teeth, limbs in various states of tonus or slackened musculature, tongues lying in mouths making their bed among teeth, so many parts moving in and out of sleep, so many sleepers who continue into the day, pass through the day.“[5] A spontaneous choreography of sleeping bodies, in other words, not entirely unlike what I experienced at the all-night dance performance. In the morning, heaps of crumpled blankets all over the floor testified to our synchronization. 


[1] The most well-known critique of the way in which the attention economy attacks sleep is Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso, 2014.

[2] Matthew Fuller, How to Sleep. The Art, Biology and Culture of Unconsciousness, London: Bloomsbury, 2018, p. 150.

[3] Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey, Evil Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012.

[4] N. Katherine Hayles, Unthought. The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

[5] Fuller, op. cit., p. 95.