Sleep as a Safe Haven from Capitalism: Teresa Distelberger’s “I don’t go to bed with my computer”

Technological advancement has created the opportunity to consume and produce data regardless of time and location. The societal pressure of work productivity has been amplified by the utilization of portable electronic devices, wireless connectivity and endless streams of information. Computers enable the conversion of the bed from an oasis of rest into a time-independent working space, threatening the remedial quality of sleep on a global scale. 
Drawing on the example of Camille Pissarro’s painting Le repos, paysanne couchée dans l’herbe (1882) as a prototype of art showcasing sleep as a subversive action, Ruth Noack curated the exhibition Sleeping with a vengeance, Dreaming of a life as an opportunity to look at sleep as a form of protest against the demands of late capitalism and globalization. This exhibition was first conceptualized in a seminar with the same name, held by Noack at the COOP Academy in Rotterdam in 2017. 

Since its first showcase at the Yellowbrick Gallery in Athens, the traveling exhibition was staged at the Lítost Gallery in Prague and the Institute for Provocation in Beijing prior to its presentation at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart from October 19, 2019 to January 12, 2020. More than 40 artists in different stages of their careers have been invited to partake in the exhibition, which itself is designed as a work in progress. [1]
Austrian filmmaker Teresa Distelberger’s (b. 1981) video installation I don’t go to bed with my computer is a prominent piece of this travelling exhibition. Conceptualized as the first part of a “series of encounters that take place in the intimate moments of the transition from working to sleeping,” [2] the artwork aims to draw on the issue of compromising sleep in order to work. It explores the correlation of sleep deprivation and the ever-present urge to consume and produce in the globalized world. 

A Discourse on Sleep and Work 

I don’t go to bed with my computer is located directly opposite the entrance to the main exhibition area of the Württembergischer Kunstverein. The installation consists of a bed, equipped with a mattress and two pillows. A digital monitor is integrated into the bed’s frame (fig. 1). The screen features an approximately six-minute long video composed of a single camera shot that focuses on Simon Mayer, an Austrian composer and performer, who is being interviewed by Distelberger. Three sets of headphones accompany the audio track of the installation, providing the interview in German and English. The endless loop repeats Distelberger’s questions on Mayer’s work-life balance. The protagonist seems to be on the verge of falling asleep, appearing in a lying position in a setting that resembles a bedroom. Looking directly into the camera, Mayer states that it is inevitable that work-related thoughts find their way into his dreams – even though he is not willing to take his computer to bed. 

While the filmed background and position of the protagonist in the forefront remain static and the same, the protagonist’s internal state obviously changes from a desire to stay awake to the point of succumbing to sleep. Rendering this threshold visible relates to Distelberger’s general interest in using film as a medium to display invisible and often overlooked things. [3] Fellow artist Leeron Tur-Kaspa points out that “It is exactly this invisible change in atmosphere that Distelberger is aiming to expose. Internal mechanisms that create an imperceptible but significant shift inside us.”[4]

As a visitor lying on the bed-like installation, while listening to and looking at Mayer, it felt like losing my distant position as an external onlooker and turning into a direct participant of Mayer’s intimate conversation with the artist. The location of the screen in the bed frame makes it difficult to view it from a frontal standing position, effectively lulling me into a lying position when putting on the headphones. The computer screen’s surface serves as both plane of encounter and reflection – lying on the artwork’s mattress creates the illusion of resting; however, the immersion caused by such a multi-media-environment does not equal sleep itself. I felt encouraged to reflect upon my own sleeping habits in relation to my role as part of the global information and consumer society. 

I don’t go to sleep with my computer reminds us that artists themselves suffer from sleep deprivation. Distelberger partakes in the process of filming Mayer rather than resting or sleeping, thus implicitly raising questions related to her own sleeping behavior. “Teresa Distelberger’s video installation hones in on the difficulty for a creative producer to exercise self-care in relation to their own sleeping habits,” says curator Ruth Noack. [5] Mirroring her own experience of being a creative agent that is forced to compromise sleep in order to perform work, Distelberger emphasizes that even those who appear to be unafflicted by the constraints of capitalism are subjected to late-night work, long hours of productiveness and sleep deprivation: “Self-employed people, activists and artists can seemingly structure their day in a ‘self-determined’ way, but they will also eventually suffer from exhaustion.”[6] Although not directly afflicted by a fixed work schedule, independently working or free-lancing artists seem particularly exposed to the biopolitics that govern sleep in present-day society.

Conclusion: Sleep as an Escape from Capitalism?

Nowadays sleep deficit itself is considered a symbol of working people’s martyrdom, as digital connectivity has become an indispensable element of the global economy. Referencing Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Distelberger seeks to uncover the challenge of negotiating between productivity and quality of sleep, immediately relating the unlimited power of technology to the blurred boundaries of day and night, work and sleep as well as bed and workplace. [7]

Jonathan Crary writes, “Sleep is a figure for a subjectivity on which power can operate with the least political resistance and a condition that finally cannot be instrumentalized or controlled externally.”[8] Considering that sleep is the last aspect of life that has stayed demonetized, I don’t go to sleep with my computer investigates whether sleep can still be regarded as an escape from external forces, given that sleep deprivation has evolved into a tool for satisfying the demanding requirements of the global consumer society. Since Distelberger focusses on the struggle of Mayer to stay awake and hints at her own sleep deprivation, she ultimately seems to provide a negative answer to the question whether sleep can remain a safe haven from capitalism. The overall composition of her installation echoes Mayer’s concern that even during the limited sleeping hours, we are haunted by worries and work-related thoughts, as they are seemingly able to enter one’s dreams despite efforts of separating working from sleeping. 

Notes:
[1] “Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life”, Website of the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, accessed January 7, 2020, https://www.wkv-stuttgart.de/en/program/2019/exhibitions/sleeping-with-avengeance-dreaming-of-a-life/.
[2] Teresa Distelberger, “I don’t go to sleep with my computer”, Art of Co (blog), accessed January 5, 2020, http://www.artofco.com/portfolio/i-dont-go-to-bed-with-my-computer/, author’s translation.
[3] Teresa Distelberger, “About,” Art of Co (blog), accessed January 6, 2020, http://www.artofco.com/teresadistelberger/.
[4] Leeron Tur-Kaspa, quoted by Teresa Distelberger, “I don’t go to bed with my computer,” Art of Co (blog), accessed January 6, 2020, http://www.artofco.com/portfolio/i-dont-go-to-bed-with-my-computer/.
[5] Ruth Noack, Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life. Exhibition Manual (Stuttgart 2019), 3.
[6] Teresa Distelberger, I don’t go to Sleep with my Computer”, Art of Co (blog), accessed on January 5, 2020, http://www.artofco.com/portfolio/i-dont-go-to-bed-with-my-computer/, author’s translation.
[7] Teresa Distelberger, “I don’t go to Sleep with my Computer”, Art of Co (blog), accessed on January 5, 2020, http://www.artofco.com/portfolio/i-dont-go-to-bed-with-my-computer/.
[8] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London and New York: Verso 2013), 35.

Quoted Sources:
Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London and New York: Verso 2013. 

Distelberger, Teresa. “About,” Art of Co (blog). Accessed January 6, 2020, http://www.artofco.com/teresa-distelberger/. 

Distelberger, Teresa. “I don’t go to Sleep with my Computer”, Art of Co (blog). Accessed January 5, 2020, http://www.artofco.com/portfolio/i-dont-go-to-bed-with-mycomputer/. 

Noack, Ruth. Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life. Exhibition Manual. Stuttgart 2019. 

“Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life. An Exhibition by Württembergischer 

Kunstverein Stuttgart.” Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart. Accessed January 7, 2020. https://www.wkv-stuttgart.de/en/program/2019/exhibitions/sleeping-with-avengeance-dreaming-of-a-life/.

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