By Jean Ma, author of At the Edges of Sleep: Moving Images and Somnolent Spectator
Connections between sleep and moving images permeate the entire history of cinema and moving image media, from the countless early films that begin with a character who goes to bed to contemporary audio-visual installations that strive to literally put their viewers to sleep. Yet until now, they have mostly escaped notice, reflecting the persistence of the metaphor of cinema as a dream. This metaphor reduces sleep to the status of a temporary layover on the way to more vivid and intriguing oneiric landscapes. But the question of sleep’s relevance to moving image media cannot be ignored at a moment when it is moving out of the shadows and into an unprecedented cultural visibility. Numerous recent works of contemporary art, performance, and film turn a spotlight on sleep, wresting it from the hidden, private spaces to which it is commonly relegated. In so doing, these works expose sleep through a different lens – no longer is sleep a thief of time or inconvenient interruption. Instead, it is the object of a quest for deeper understanding and a potential source of aesthetic, social, and political value.
In my new book At the Edges of Sleep, I look to Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a guide to the relationship of sleep and moving images. Apichatpong has engaged with the subject of sleep with an unmatched depth and systematicity throughout his entire career as an artist and filmmaker. His work challenges the usual definition of cinema as a medium of animation, revealing a preoccupation with stillness and inaction that emerges in the medium’s infancy, running in parallel with and inseparable from the appeal of movement and dynamism. Moreover, he expresses explicit approval of viewers who sleep through his films. This attitude was materially realized in his 2018 installation SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, a twenty-hourlong projection with beds in which viewers could spend the night with his images. In the excerpt below, from chapter 10, I describe my experience of spending the night in SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL. As Apichatpong suggests, “Asleep, you become part of another kind of cinema in the making.”
I entered a space that was arranged with an evident care for the tranquil slumber of the occupant. The darkness of the hall reduced my self-consciousness of being in the sightlines of other people, while the generous allowance of space between the bunks also mitigated sensations of unwanted exposure. The coziness of the bed, made up with pillows and a fluffy cover, exerted its persuasive force—calling upon the supine body’s inertia as the ally of a passive mode of receptivity, converting my would-be industriousness to indolence. Adding to the feeling of comfortable enclosure was the thick auditory presence of the soundtrack playing from multiple speakers positioned throughout the highly reverberant hall. The susurrant, lapping, and streaming sounds that filled the space and dampened the noises of other visitors were reminiscent of the white noise devices that promise to enhance the listener’s sleep by wrapping them in a blanket of soothing sounds. Immersed in this wet acoustic bath of echoes, ensconced in a cocoon of light reflected on the walls and ceilings, I seemed to be inside the ultimate sleep machine. I was very content not to budge from my designated place until the next morning—as were the other guests, to judge from their reactions. Despite my insomniac tendencies and to my own surprise, I had an excellent night’s sleep.
As the evening progressed, images of sleeping figures appeared with greater frequency on the screen. Lying in the dark and unable to resist the sensation of relaxation that spread over me, I began to drift off. Sleep did not come quickly in this unfamiliar setting, but in fits and starts across a protracted transition. I would close my eyes and start to lose myself and then, suddenly recollecting my curiosity, open them again. Even with eyes closed, I continued to see an afterimage of the screen, a glowing white orb burned into the back of my eyelids. The orb persisted in my unseeing vision, aggressively luminous, giving me the strange impression that the film was looking back at me. After an indeterminate period of watching the film in such intermittent snatches, I began to feel the blurriness that announces the imminent arrival of sleep. The afterimage of the screen was joined and then replaced by the pictures that formed in my head, taking shape of their own accord and forming a stepladder down into the well of unconsciousness. Remembered images from earlier in the film appeared in this hypnagogic stream, while the phasing ambient sounds suggested new images. The recognition of these images and sounds formed the last of my semiconscious thoughts. Falling asleep, I finally gave in fully to the notion of SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL as a work not to be grasped in its totality.
In the middle of the night, I awoke to the image of a boat rocking on waters, shot from a position on the deck overlooking the bow. Reassured of the continuity of the journey of sleep, I reentered the waters. In the early morning hours, I opened my eyes to find a trick film playing on the screen. A child reading in his bed at night falls asleep, and the large window above his bed becomes a projection screen for his dreams. The boy climbs into a hot air balloon and takes off, then dives underwater and dances with jellyfish maidens. In my half-awake haze, I was all the more enchanted by the adventures of the dreaming child. In this figure I could dimly sense the reflection of myself in my present state, along with the echo of a familiar scene of early cinema in the current situation. This moment, with its allusion to a primal link between sleep and cinema, seemed to transmit an important message, one that could lead the audience to a recognition of their own sleep as an integral part of SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL. Despite this significance, though, it seemed to be lost on the others in the room, who by all indications were asleep at this precise instant when I happened to awaken.
Accompanying the awareness of my solitude in this moment was an inkling of the many other moments during which I would have been fast asleep while another member of the audience experienced a brief awakening of their own, accompanied by a different flash of insight in response to whatever was playing on the screen at that time. From the baseline of our communal slumber emerged countless image sequences to be experienced by individual viewers, a multitude of films seen and remembered by each one according to the unique timing of their own cycles of sleep. I went back under and entered an intense bout of REM sleep that lasted until morning, accompanied by vivid dreams that took their place alongside the images of the night. At breakfast the other visitors and I talked about our dreams and recorded them in a notebook provided by Apichatpong. The other pages were filled with the writings of the guests who preceded us. At the end of the run of SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, we were told, the book would be preserved, becoming another part of the work as the record of its collective undertaking.