Midway through preparing for an exhibition on the contemporary politics of sleep I had to have a wisdom tooth removed. At the time, the correlation between the two events wasn’t so clear except that I knew I wanted to be put to sleep. In the lead up to the procedure I was told again and again about the haunting sound of possessive pliers scratching enamel off the surface of the tooth, desperately grasping for an angle to latch onto. Or the screeching drill pummeling through the center of the tooth should the plier’s fail, cracking it cleanly in four, a foreign, pincer-like hand then forcing its way inside the mouth to fetch the residuals. I wanted to protect the territory, protest its partial paralysis. Even though I was assured about the lack of physical pain, the area seemed too close to my tongue, to my brain, for me to be able to relax. I took a breath. An x-ray soon revealed that the tooth’s roots had curled—the first indication of a difficult extraction and my final plea for total sedation. Yet it was so small that a general anesthetic was just too excessive in comparison. It would also mean that my body would take a longer and more painful path to recovery, and in already anticipating the effacement of the tooth, I was finally able to reconcile the shorter route: a kind of strategic sedative, if you will.
It seemed contradictory to me at the time that a deeper sleep resulted in a less resilient body. Yet I had to think of the endless journal articles each arguing with factual assurance for the necessity for eight hours sleep a night, or no more than five, or somewhere between six and a half and seven. Claims on our sleep health are made regularly, digested and instituted in places that generate a life geared for production. Like in fatigue prevention policy, where workers are recommended to cut down their commute to work, sleep a minimum of six hours a night, not work back-to-back shifts and maintain mental, social and physical health. To insure the latter, we are advised to avoid heavy family and social obligations, limit the level of community activities and eschew emotional issues. Such regimentation limits experiences conductive of having a life and produces a structure whereby we are answerable only to our work; something often orchestrated or performed under the demand of an exterior power (on which we are largely dependent). And in light of all these elements, it is an image of sleep as a mode of preparation that is put forth. My desire to go fully under for the removal for a mere wisdom tooth speaks to the level of internalisation present in this image. I was willing to be put on hold—sleep was a miraculous method of deferral, from which I would wake ‘healed’. And while the politics around sleep, our access to it and our desire for it are regularly and increasingly frontal, this notion of sleep as being innocent in nature is largely uncontested. In relegating sleep to an ancillary realm of preparation, could we be forgoing the potential of the image of the sleeper? Aside from medical advice, was there something to be said for the dentist’s recommendation that spoke to the benefits of being only partially asleep?
In Japan, for example, due to the acceptance of sleep in the workplace, bosses have been noted to pretend to be asleep in order to eavesdrop on their employees. Such strategising speaks to this unassailably innocent image of sleep. The instrumentalisation of sleep is further utilised in practice in the sphere of technology (cryogenically freezing people in order generate the means for the colonisation of space, for example), in punishment (sleep deprivation in order to extract information) and in crime (sedatives, such as Rohypnol and Temazepam, used in order to pacify a victim). Here, sleeping is figured as an antidote to resistance, and is in effect weaponised. In the sphere of medicine, anesthetic is used in order to tranquilise the patient, and in mental health prescriptions like Doxepin and Trazodon are issued as depressants to increase the likelihood of sleep. Sleep is then figured as an antidote to suffering. In this myriad of contradictions—where sleep’s function can be at once a form of control, at twice a form of resistance and at thrice a pacification—the general consensus is usually our helplessness in the face of capitalism. This seemingly irreconcilable dynamic, and our ‘complicity’ in it, leaves us feeling that desiring the pleasures of a well-balanced waking life means we’re not working hard enough, not fighting fiercely enough and not punishing ourselves nearly enough (in light of the self-loathing present in actually wanting the ‘frivolity’ of a social life). Yet the aim here is not to illustrate the extent of capitalism’s control over our sleep health: this is already a given. It is more to think about our relationship to the image of the sleeper within this constellation, as if from the outside. In understanding the image of sleep, its implication, imitation and inducement, we might find some relief in the instrumentalisation of its innocence.
This is where the image of sleep could be implementable, whereby imitating a kind of visual cue primed precisely for whomever or whatever it may be that assumes control of our sleep life. In doing so, we consider the relationship between image, prop and intent. This is the case when, comforted by the anesthetic, my partner watched unflinchingly from the sidelines as my tooth was drilled, cracked open and drain of infected blood. While completely privy to the size of the knife that sliced open my gum and the two trainee nurses that mounted my body in an attempt to counter its resistance to the pressure of the pliered extraction, for us both, the needle that dispensed the anesthetic was image enough that I was asleep. These instruments of assurance are also suggested in less invasive ways in the fatigue prevention policies mentioned earlier. I became increasingly obsessed with these readily available props, recommended within certain clauses and by certain health advisors, all of which hold the function of increasing the depth of sleep. Mouthguards, anti-grinding pads, tongue stablisers, nose clips, breathing masks, jaw straps. With these apparatuses being made for occupying the mouth, all I could think of was an absence of speech. To me, these objects inhabited the double meaning of orality—that is, something that is of the mouth and something that is spoken rather than written. I wondered at what point the performativity present in them, even if only by way of their negation of any kind of performance at all (whether that be of work or of speech), could in some way be instrumentalised on a similar day-to-day scale.
From a sculptural perspective, there is something about the form of these objects and their relationship to the body that demands attention. The scale is so small that it can be tended to; someone is being addressed (literally). This differs in scale from the bigger question at hand, which attempts to reconcile the politics of work and sleep by formulating a large-scale resistance to the capitalist present. The answer here seems only to be ‘more sleep’. Instead, the day-to-day assurances of fatigue prevention could be applied to a performative register, where an object’s relationship to the body could instigate an image of sleep (within which we act) rather than putting us to sleep entirely. For in my fear of experiencing the operation I insisted on being completely pacified—by default, I opted for tackling the bigger question. However, what really evaded me was an understanding of the benefits of being largely awake. That my tiny wisdom tooth caused pain throughout my body did not mean that the scale in which it was dealt with had to match that too. On an operational level, with localised anesthetic, it was extracted pain-free and restoratively from my body, while being only partially asleep.
Isabelle Sully (b. 1991, AU) works as an artist, curator and writer. Her context-based practice revolves around the social, economic and administrative mediation of publics within and through the frame of art. Originally from Melbourne, she currently lives in the Netherlands where she is the editor at Publication Studio Rotterdam.