Review of Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep

trode2Better late than never? Behind the jump is a thorough review of recent exhibition Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep by Perth artist and academic Tarsh Bates.

Counting sheep: tenderness and terror

Tarsh Bates

‘Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep’ is a collection of artworks by Shannon Williamson and Loren Kronemyer that explore the intimacies of the surprisingly new field of sleep science. The works reflect an ongoing project in which Williamson and Kronemyer engage in a series of sleep studies with Williamson as the technician and Kronemyer as the subject. The artists employ multiple media forms, including sculptural works, video, drawing and photography, to express different experiences from their relative positions. Neither artist is interested in reproducible scientific data or statistics generated from a sleep study; this exhibition explores the subjective and affective qualities of science. The result is a haunting and compelling insight into personal and mechanical aspects of the universal experience of sleep.

Williamson is a trained sleep technician and artist and the sculptural works in this exhibition evocatively convey her experiences as a shift worker employed to watch others sleep. Using delicate techniques reminiscent of her previous drawing works, the sensitive and sensual sculptural series Packing for sleep: ears, eyes and teeth, elicits a strangely visceral muffling. Soft strips of pastel-coloured woollen blankets reminiscent of nurture and comfort, are stacked between plaster casts of ears, eyes and teeth. Veins, brain tissue and sound waves suggested by the rippling horizontal layers are muted and inhibited by the softness of the fabric. The strangeness of the opposite world of the shift worker is gently and powerfully evoked by these works.

In contrast, Kronemyer’s Bruxist conveys a much harsher relationship with teeth from the perspective of a sleeper. Bruxism is the grinding of teeth during sleep, considered a manifestation of anxiety. Kronemyer is a self-proclaimed “prodigious grinder.”[1] The remains of a wax crayon produced from a mould of Kronemyer’s teeth sits alongside the marks made on the gallery wall by the crayon. Drawing/grinding against the wall has worn the crayon to the gum. The Bruxist holds nothing of the nurture and comfort of Williamson’s Packing. It is a literal and horrifying demonstration of a common sleep experience.

Kronemyer’s video work The Untrained Eye also explores creative (or destructive) tensions between unconscious and conscious activity, here expressed through attempts to harness the random eye movements enacted during REM sleep stages. Two eyes are presented to the viewer, each covered with dots and lines. The eyes move according to data generated by eye electrodes during a sleep study. An incoherent scribbled line forms over the eye on the left, whereas the movements of the right and the lines that form over the eye appear more controlled, apparently forming the words underneath. A technical and absurd exercise in language acquisition, The Untrained Eye resonates with the training needed to read data generated during a sleep study. With its wide open eyes, the video also provides a surreal contrast to our inability to sleep with eyes open.

Kronemyer’s other sculptural work, Electrocardiogramophone, plays three sickly-sweet tunes on small hand-cranked music boxes. Children’s toys, these nostalgic and delicate objects cleverly translate the data generated by electrodes measuring her heart rate during an early sleep study into music. The study revealed a previously unobserved heart arrhythmia which evolved into an intense and traumatic experience in the care relationship between Williamson as technician (and carer) and Kronemyer as subject (and cared-for). The ethics of negotiating a potentially life threatening situation of which both were initially unaware is evoked by Electrocardiogramophone where the first music box plays a healthy heartbeat. The second box plays Kronemyer’s irregular heartbeat to the end. The third music box begins to play the irregular heartbeat but stops, indicating the possibility of death. Electrocardiogramophone is simultaneously sentimental and terrifying.

Like Electrocardiogramophone, Williamson’s SleeperLover iii transposes data generated during a sleep study into an affective kinetic sculpture. SleeperLover iii inflates and deflates according to moments of synchrony or asynchrony between the brainwaves of a sleeping couple (Kronemyer and partner). Two fully formed bodies appear under the blanket: brainwaves are in sync. The bodies disappear when brainwaves differ. SleeperLover iii is an evocative and tender examination of the intimacy of sleep between lovers: can we experience moments of union during sleep despite our discrete bodies?

The aesthetics of care suggested by Williamson’s Packing for sleep and Kronemyer’s Electrocardiogramophone are in full force in the documentation and outcomes of the performance Shift work: 48 hours. Williamson and Kronemyer spent 48 hours within the sleep laboratory, alternating sleep/technician shifts, “sharing the burden of the sleep scientist and subject.”[2] Their intention was to allow Kronemyer to experience the burden of care of the sleep scientist for her sleeping subject and to allow Williamson to be cared for as the sleeping subject. Awake time was highly structured, including completion of cognition surveys, writing, drawing, monitoring, videoing and photography. However, as is evidenced in the documentation, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” at least for Williamson: Kronemyer slept “like a baby” for 27 of the 48 hours, whereas Williamson slept for only 4. Shift work: 48 hours offers an eloquent and unique exploration of the individual nature of the experience of shift workers, and of sleepers.

The hell of Shift work: 48 hours is played out in the photographic series Collective Parasomnias. Sleep studies are usually conducted on people suffering from “parasomnias” or sleep disorders. Collective Parasomnias is disturbing to look at. Williamson and Kronemyer consciously enact behaviours from four common sleep disorders – REM behaviour disorder, bruxism, apnoea and sleep paralysis. These sometimes violent behaviours are normally experienced by a single sleeper, but the viewer is placed in an unnerving position of voyeurism as the artists perform intimate and visceral acts of restraint on each other.

We know so little about sleep, such an important and ubiquitous part of our lives. Sleep science is a very new science: it is only 40 years since William Dement’s pivotal book Some must watch while some must sleep launched sleep science into legitimacy. Importantly, the field is embracing artistic interventions and research able to describe and evoke the more subjective and affective aspects of sleep. In turn artists such as Williamson and Kronemyer revel in the opportunities that sleep technologies can offer as media for artistic expression. The intimate and deceptively innocent artworks in this exhibition provide unique and powerful insights into the elusive world of sleep. Intensely personal and yet universal, ‘Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep” is a sensitive and tender exhibition, a significant and important contribution to both sleep art and sleep science.

[1] Personal communication

[2] Personal communication with Williamson and Kronemyer.