The first in our four part series on the Sociability of Sleep (SoS) provides an introductory overview of the project and its resulting exhibition: InSomnolence
How do we know sleep? Why is sleep an important yet understudied site of inequality in modern society? The Sociability of Sleep (SoS) is a research-creation project rooted in questioning the epistemologies and equities of sleep.1 Funded by Canada’s New Frontiers in Research Fund Explorations programme, it ran from 2021 to 2023, culminating in the art exhibition InSomnolence, which featured the work of a number of local (Montreal-based) and international artists.
One of our motivations behind the SoS project was to better understand, value, and care for the multi-faceted nature of sleep. We created opportunities for cross-disciplinary conversations in order to expand how we study and create knowledge about sleep (Dement 1999; Kroker 2017). For SoS this meant collaborating with researchers, doctors, and artists from wide-ranging fields including our own (cinema and media studies) but also from psychology, neuroscience, and medicine, as well as performance art, sound art, and more.
The InSomnolence exhibition took place from June 21 to July 13, 2023 in a large cavernous space in downtown Montreal. The works exhibited were the result of artist residencies, as well as the varied outputs from the ongoing research-creation workshops that were held during the two years of SoS. Our goal as curators was to invite experiments that explored the ways that sleep is a social and shared activity. How do we care for the sleep of others? How do others help us know our own sleep? How do we sleep together and/or apart?
In order to create a serene atmosphere, a dark blue light filled the space and was accompanied by an ongoing loop of low ambient sounds. Against the backdrop of sweltering hot summer days, this created a sensation of entering into a refuge, finding a welcoming cool room peppered with comfortable furnishings meant for sitting, sprawling, and lying down. In lieu of stiff benches, we offered the risks and pleasures of falling asleep together, amidst strangers, listening and looking in on the dreams and rest of others, and simply letting states of fatigue and half-sleep register in the body. Visitors napped and lingered, often spending a few hours on site.
The goal was not merely to rest, but to also consider the many forms that sleep may take across societies and cultures, as well as the ways it permeates our identities and our well-being. It is a difficult topic to capture in any singular way, since sleep is nothing if not paradoxical: it moves across, lingers, and expands thresholds of consciousness, but is also it moves between the public and private, individual and collective, body and environment, matter and mind. All of this makes sleep a site which requires a multiplicity of questions, approaches, and collective imaginaries. In the project we strived to reopen sleep to all of its complexities, to question the standardised practices we are told are optimal (e.g., 8 hours of sleep at night), and to reassert sleep as site from which we may learn about ourselves and each other.
Our objective with InSomnolence (as well as the other public events, such as our monthly Sleep Salons thematic dialogues), was to bring together scholars from research and practice domains, and to form a community of sleep researchers invested in thinking about sleep beyond a primarily medicalised discourse. However, our work continues to define ‘critical sleep studies’ in a way that is not simply tied to a critique of the science and medicine of sleep, or of an economically-driven “sleep-industrial complex.” Rather, we are looking to expand how we engage with sleep in ways that affirm its constellation of embodied, political, social, and experiential characteristics.2
During the first edition of our Somnambulations graduate colloquium (January 2022), we glimpsed the wide range of sleep research currently taking place across university departments. Tagged as an event exploring ‘New Directions to Interdisciplinary Approaches to Sleep’, it was co-organized with SoS postdoctoral fellow Josh Dittrich. Held online in the wake of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, this was a time of anxiety and uncertainty. A conversation exploring the risky sides of sleep—as a site of vulnerability, normativity, precarity, and activism—felt all the more appropriate.
Speakers took up sleep through a variety of lenses, including sensory media and sound (Devon Bate and Josh Dittrich); literature and music (Cedric Keyser and Sandra Huber); and contemporary visual and performance art (Josie Roland Hodson, Stacey Cann and Victoria Stanton). In addition to these creative forms, other topics included critical approaches to the methods used in quantitative sleep studies, the history of dream research and disordered rest, and the standards that emerge from medicalised and commodified sleep. Through these studies we began to question the ways that sleep optimisation has become another part of capitalism’s productivity engine, selling us the promise of rest.
The artist collective The Bureau of Noncompetitive Research closed the 2022 colloquium with Steeped In, an online performance and invitation to rest, that mobilised longstanding but under explored practices of collective sleeping and dreaming.3 This testified to our desires to share somatic experiences of sleep online, even at a distance, even during our most solitary endeavours. The programme and full talks from the event remain accessible online.
In the rest of this four part series we recount the activities that took place in summer 2023— the Somnambulations 2 symposium and the InSomnolence exhibition—as events which represent the ideas driving the Sociability of Sleep (SoS) project as whole. We hope to convey the importance of developing new approaches to studying, representing, and knowing sleep.
About the authors
Aleksandra Kaminska is an Associate Professor of Media Studies and Research-Creation in the Department of Communication at the Université de Montréal. Her work in media aesthetics, material and visual cultures, and the history of technique and technology has been published in journals such as Theory, Culture & Society, Leonardo, Convergence, and the Canadian Journal of Communication. She is also co-editor of a number of special issues including most recently for the journal Intermediality/ Intermédialités on Sleeping/Dormir (2023).
Alanna Thain is an Associate Professor of Film and Cultural Studies, and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies in the Department of English at McGill University. She is the director of the Moving Image Research Lab (MIRL) and the research team CORERISC, the Collective for Research on Epistemologies of Embodied Risk. She is author of Bodies in Suspense: Time and Affect in Cinema (University of Minnesota, 2017) and co-editor of States of Immersion: Bodies, Media, Technologies (Amsterdam University Press, 2024) and LoTechPopCult: Screendance Remixed (Routledge, 2024).
Dement, W. C., 1999. The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep. New York: Delacorte.
Kroker, K. 2007. The Sleep of Others and the Transformations of Sleep Research. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
1 Research-creation is term widely adopted in the Canadian academic context. While its definition continues to be debated, it broadly refers to research with a creative, practice-based dimension.
2 And while this first phase of our activities is now complete, our research on sleep continues. We are working on the documentation of SoS activities, including a physical catalogue of the InSomnolence exhibition. And we recently published a special issue of Intermédialités/Intermediality 41: Dormir/Sleeping (2023), which includes a number of articles based on presentations from the Somnambulations symposia.
3 See for example: Haiven, M. 2023. “Dreaming Together: Artists Mobilizing Collective Dreaming Methods for the Radical Imagination.” Capacious 3(1): 41–59; Hodson, J. R. 2021. “Rest Notes: On Black Sleep Aesthetics.” October (176): 7–24.