There was a time, not too long ago, when sleeping in public was perceived with a certain stigma, associated with vagrancy, addiction, narcolepsy, and old age. And to fall asleep in particular places—the library, the office, the car—is still a gateway offense, leading to potential shaming, discipline, and punishment. Although it is taboo to take pictures of wide-awake strangers on the subway à la Walker Evans, it is now common to snap them while they’re asleep, mouths agape, drooling, splayed out on their stomachs, for the delight of social media followers.
While the stigma remains for sleepers who can’t afford privacy, the ability to freely doze while out in the world has turned into a supreme luxury. In her article “Sleep Is the New Status Symbol,” part of the New York Times’s initiative to cover the booming wellness market, Penelope Green outlines recent entrepreneurial endeavors for inducing quality rest, often in public settings: start-ups that offer somnolent sound-wave headbands; companies that manufacture thermosensitive pillows; laboratories that measure oxygen levels and blanket quality to optimize sleep conditions.1 Where in 1968 Jean Baudrillard described how furniture-makers could mold synthetic materials to the contours of the spine—new mattresses were “measured for you alone,” and “suppleness itself” could be “transformed into a set of springs” and “overlaid with genuine latex foam”—today ergonomic expertise has entered the domain of cognitive science and biomechanics.2
Meanwhile, anyone who has taken an international flight lately will note the industrial design solutions for managing first-class ambience, from reclining swivel chairs to systems that allow passengers to dim lights and mute noise to their exact specifications. Airbus has even announced plans to allocate space in their planes’ cargo holds for single beds. But there are innovations in the terminals as well. Metronaps, bidding fiercely for airport space, offers aerodynamic beds. When the beds are occupied, customers’ shoes and pants poke out from under enormous Plexiglas orbs. The GoSleep pods in Abu Dhabi airport will have retractable light- and soundproof covers. The “sleeper cells” in Japan’s Narita Airport look like fish tanks for people.
These models have predictably made their way into the interior design of tech company offices. Salesforce’s new skyscraper in San Francisco has rest mats on each floor for meditation, New York Times technology and business reporter Steve Lohr writes, in accordance with the teachings of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.3 As inspiring as this may sound, nap rooms at work foster only an anodyne, infantile form of non-antagonistic sociability. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tendency trickles to down-market freelance coworking spaces in Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, and London, which may soon incorporate napping areas into their interior layouts.
Flexible office architecture that accommodates rest routines is part of a long history of treating the body as battery and resting as recharging, which, as historian Anson Rabinbach has shown, stretches back to the origins of industrialization.4 Attempts to propel “the human motor” into the new economy countermand traditional utopian notions of sleep, which considered it “refuge” or “an interruption,” a way for workers to reduce the surplus value generated by their labor, and even establish a kind of collective, if unconscious, resistance to surveillance and control over their attention, as Jonathan Crary writes in his diatribe against the acceleration of capitalist work cycles.5
Nevertheless, it is hard to extricate the health benefits of rest from the messiness of dream-life, that is, to separate beta waves from the death drive. This is presumably the reason why nap-by-the-hour companies like Pauz and Nap York are not expanding as rapidly as they might be, given an overworked and under-rested populace. These franchises have failed to disrupt the hotel industry, even though Nap York, for example, emphasizes tranquility, high-end wellness, and features fresh foliage and a simulated starry night sky above each cubicle bed. The connection to less reputable distant cousins—motel rooms, brothels, and opium dens—is not easily severed.
If dozing unfettered in front of others has turned into the latest form of conspicuous consumption, it seems only a matter of time before the art world jumps into bed with the trend as well, displaying ironic, subcultural, or apocalyptic variations on the public nap. Already by the 1970s, airlines including Lufthansa and Air India, recognizing the need to target a new class of mobile artists, dealers, and collectors, placed advertisements featuring slumbering tycoons on intercontinental flights in Artnews and Studio International. Recent large-scale projects for the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York—from the circular cushions Pipilotti Rist offered visitors to her immersive video installation Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), 2008, to the lounge couches installed for watching Isaac Julien’s multiscreen video Ten Thousand Ways (2010)–suggest that where the museums of the late twentieth century competed over high-end cafes, giftshops, and brushed-steel bathrooms, those of the twenty-first will vie for more cutting-edge spaces to lie down.
Of course, artists have been sleeping in public for some time now; it’s the kind of move that pretends to invoke direct access to the unconscious while still displaying a solipsistic disregard for one’s public: John Giorno asleep for the art-house cinema crowd in Warhol’s Sleep (1963); Chris Burden’s twenty-two days between the sheets in 1972; Tilda Swinton sporadically lying in a glass case at MoMA in 2013, to the delight of tourists and the chagrin of critics; or most recently, Maria Hassabi’s performances where catatonic dancers lie supine on plush carpets. The bed, couch, rug, or mat in the gallery must be tired by now. In many of these cases, we can view sleeping artists and their surrogates in the gallery not as individuals dreaming of an elsewhere as the Surrealists once did, but as embodiments of endurance, recalcitrance, or resilience—as mere bodies.
In the lead-up to his contentious retrospective at the Pompidou Center in 2006, for instance, Jean-Luc Godard—in his mid-seventies at the time—slept in the bed of one of his installations each night as Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down blared from a large LCD monitor next to his head. It was a sleep-in of sorts. Struggling with the museum administration, he rearranged the exhibition multiple times between REM cycles as a way of skirting the oversight of the curator and budget officers. He worked this way up until the official opening, and the staff had trouble waking and removing the director before the public entered. The show was panned, the curator fired, and through his angry insomnia-fueled nights at the museum, Godard maintained his reputation as a provocateur.
Gesturing toward this tradition, Glenn Adamson and Julia Bryan-Wilson begin a recent book on materials and techniques in contemporary art by offering “a quick tour through a small sample of other instances of artists’ beds . . . that function as more than just places of heterosexual conception, rest, and imaginative landscape.”6 This tour, “(it could also be called a detour),” which includes Frida Kahlo’s convalescent paintings and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Bed-In for Peace,” is meant to suggest an “overarching point about how multiple artistic making has become.”
Other artists have used their chance at sleep in an administrative capacity. Beyond the usual apartment shows where paintings hang over beds, artists rent out gallery space on Airbnb, work with real estate agents to make furniture and paintings for open houses, or move into exhibition spaces in search of a place to produce and display their work. The sleeping in public gambit, here, is ostensibly rooted in necessity, although nearly always with third-party sponsorship from commercial galleries and museums.
In 2011, Dawn Kasper found herself without a house or place to work. When curators from the Whitney Museum of American Art asked her for a studio visit, she met them in a friend’s living room, where she had been couch surfing. Recognizing an opportunity for free studio space in central Manhattan, she convinced the curators to let her move in—with the couch—for the duration of the 2012 Biennial, at least during operating hours. At the same time, she set up a tent in a sublet apartment in Greenpoint. She was the living, contradictory emblem of Occupy Wall Street “precarity”; and shortly thereafter, gallerist David Zwirner invited her to come sleep at one of his spaces in Chelsea. Soon enough, Brown University brought her to campus for a teaching residency.
In spring 2017, Kasper traveled to Venice to live in the International Pavilion at the Biennale. Tired of engaging the throngs of people who passed by her couch, she spent much of the time only pretending to sleep, meditating with her eyes closed, breathing rhythmically. She found that when she left her post to use the bathroom or wander the gardens, she would often come back only to encounter Biennale visitors suffering from literal “exhibition fatigue” passed out on her furniture with their coats and purses resting on her drawings.7 They would, in turn, attract crowds of other tourists, and Kasper began to post a “sleeping visitors” series on her Instagram feed. There, her followers could make sense of her activities from afar, commenting on the sleepers’ appearance, discussing their own past or anticipated visits to the Biennale, making semi-irreverent jokes about what Kasper could have done to induce sleep in so many of her audience members.
Kasper’s activities point to moments when strangers run into trouble keeping up their public appearance in exhibition settings, and where the public reflects on these moments through later conversations and online commentary. These instances, in which the artist and her audience are caught off guard, tell a story about “building a net of relationships,” as Kasper described it to me. Sleeping in public becomes fishing for strangers.
The art-nap was not always such a social affair, however. Responding to Robert Rauschenberg’s hanging of his own bed on the wall, Leo Steinberg wrote, “There, in the vertical posture of art, it continues to work in the imagination as the eternal companion of our other resource, our horizontality, the flat bedding in which we do our begetting, conceiving, and dreaming.”8 But now, as both art and sleep lose their connection to “the imagination,” it’s not altogether clear to me that they will stay “eternal companions,” let alone bedfellows. Lying dormant no longer signals that artists are traveling elsewhere; rather, it presents them here before us, caught between the newly commodified nap and precarious rest. Now, as sleeping in public becomes a marketable form of self-fashioning, a naturalist display of health and well-being, or a desperate reenactment of one’s vulnerability, artists may even take the next step and pretend to stay awake, artificial irises painted over their eyelids to find their way through another forest of symbols. Welcome to the Provigil era.
1. Penelope Green, “Sleep Is the New Status Symbol,” New York Times, Apr. 8, 2017.
2. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, 1968, trans. James Benedict, London, Verso, 1996, p. 169.
3. Steve Lohr, “Don’t Get Too Comfortable at That Desk,” New York Times, Oct. 6, 2017.
4. Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity, New York, Basic Books, 1990.
5. Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, London, Verso, 2014, pp. 10–14.
6. Julia Bryan-Wilson and Glenn Adamson, Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing, London, Thames and Hudson, 2016, p. ii.
7. Author telephone interview with Dawn Kasper, Mar. 9, 2018.
8. Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria,” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, New York, Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 90.