Tag: interview

Hans-Ulrich Obrist on Sleep

The famous curator’s schedule barely allows for sleep. But his job requires it.
A talk about fighting the internal clock – and embracing it.

What does sleep mean to you?
My understanding of it is very much influenced by the work of the German professor of chronobiology, Till Roenneberg, whom I met a few years ago during the DLD conference in Munich. We have had conversations ever since and even plan to do a book together. He explores the impact light has on our circadian rhythms and what phenomena like social jet-lag, the misalignment of biological and social time, do to our body.
What are his findings?
He developed a chronotype questionnaire and in his book Internal Time, he explains how our circadian rhythms work. We often think that we choose our sleep patterns, that we choose to be an early bird or night owl, but he tried to demonstrate that our patterns are actually genetic. We are all bound to our internal clock, and it can be extremely harmful to try to go against it. Roenneberg focuses on the social jet-lag that results from that and defines it as the difference between mid-sleep on free days and mid-sleep on workdays. It’s interesting to see how people will wake up at a specific time without any exterior alarm clock but just because of their inner alarm clock. When I was younger, I didn’t think much about this, I went against my internal clock almost daily. It produced some interesting things and ideas but it’s not a sustainable lifestyle.

“Productivity fueled by an immense amount of coffee”

During the early 1990s, you tried the Balzacian coffee-regime, drinking dozens of cups of coffee per day. Was that such an attempt to defeat your internal clock?
At that moment, I was very fascinated by the productivity and the sheer output of Balzac. I was just embarking on my first book project and it took me forever. I kept thinking about how I could increase my output and reach a more dynamic form of productivity. When I found out that Balzac’s productivity was fueled by an immense amount of coffee – up to 52 cups a day –, I thought that his method was worth exploring and so I tried it out for a year.
Did you stick to his 52-cups-a-day-rhythm?
No, I probably drank between 30 and 40 cups a day but often just small espressos. There were, however, days, when I did reach the Balzacian threshold.
Did it help you boost your productivity?
Very much so. I was extremely productive, finished my first books in no time but I knew that it wasn’t a sustainable way to work or live, so I switched methods and tried the da Vinci rhythm – which again means going against the internal clock. His rhythm was sleeping 15 minutes every three hours. It did actually prove to be more efficient than the Balzac regime because I was even more productive and less tired but there were other problems.
It’s not compatible with social life. At the time I had an office job at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and it proved extremely difficult to maintain it throughout a regular working day, so I had to stop. But there was also the problem with the internal clock because if you sleep for fifteen minutes, you won’t just wake-up by yourself. You need gigantic alarm clocks that could wake up entire dormitories because you are tired and you want to sleep some more. A little bit later, I started to work on a book about dreams and that really changed my whole attitude because I realized how important it is to adhere to the internal clock. I discussed this with Hélène Cixous, who wrote the magnificent book Dream I Tell You and writes down all her dreams when she wakes up in the morning. It made me realize that you don’t dream a lot if you don’t sleep a lot and that if I wanted to explore my dreams, I needed to sleep more.
So what is your current sleeping routine?
After discussing this with Roenneberg, I focused more on my internal clock and found out that the best thing for me is to go to bed relatively early, around midnight, and then get up between 5 and 6 am. That way, I can use the time in the morning and work and read before my actual day of work at the office begins. Once I understood the importance of my internal clock, I started to organize my entire life accordingly.

“We have to revive the daily ritual”

You also founded the Brutally Early Club, where you meet with people at 6.30 am in cafés in London to debate and discuss. What was the impetus behind that?
Since I wake up early and am ready to work around 6 or 6.30 in the morning, I figured I could also have meetings with other people at that time instead of just working alone at home. Also, in a city like London, everybody is so busy all the time that it is very difficult to organize meetings. You have to plan it months in advance and it is impossible to improvise. But at 6.30 in the morning, everybody is available because the regular working day has not yet started and there is no hassle to get from A to B.
It also demands a certain discipline to get up that early if you are not used to it.
It does, but it is also a ritual. The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said that we live in a time in which the ritual is dying and that we have to revive the daily ritual. In a way, the Balzac regime and the da Vinci rhythm were already an attempt to ritualize my life.
Isn’t sleep in a way the most widely shared daily ritual because it is an activity that most people do roughly at the same time?
It is very much a ritual, since every person has a very own and specific internal clock. Some of my friends cannot sleep before 4 am because it would go against their internal clock, but to most people that seems unusual. I even know people who can’t sleep at night but only during the day. There is also creative potential in that.
In what way?
I once had a research assistant who always came to work late because he couldn’t get up before dusk, because he was sleeping during the day and working at night. Given the usual office hours, that turned out to be a bit of a problem. However, that was during the time I discovered my internal rhythm and noticed that our internal clocks were exactly the opposite from each other. He could work best at the time I was sleeping and I realized the complimentary potential in that so I hired him to be my personal assistant for my book project. He comes to my house around 11 pm and then we work together for an hour before I go to bed and he works throughout the night until I get up around 6:00. We have a briefing and then I take over again – very convenient.
What’s striking is that sleep for you seems to be about productivity, or the lack thereof, while to most people it is about rest and relaxation.
It is about optimizing my working process and to stretch the realm of the possible, that’s true. But I don’t think that it is about output, I am not a factory. It’s about curiosity and my desire to learn. I am constantly under the impression that I lack time to read or write and obviously sleep gets in the way of that. I was very influenced by a monastery near St. Gallen my parents took me to when I was a kid. I was fascinated by the drive of the monks during the Middle Ages to gather and conserve all the knowledge. Even in the 18th century, the idea of the Universalgelehrte was flourishing with people like Athanasius Kircher. But we know today, that that is virtually impossible, that there is a limit to what you can learn or know. So it’s rather an input than an output problem.
Following the logic of optimization, sleep must be a waste of time to you?
I used to consider it that. But I realized how important for example dreams are and you can only dream if you sleep enough, so sleep is not a waste of time but a necessity.
Many artists cherish what is often called “creative sleep” as their most important source of inspiration because it is in your sleep that you reach the vital subconscious part of your mind power. Does sleeping trigger your creativity as well?
Definitely! Sleeping is a parallel reality and we can use the insights it offers. I have actually embarked on a project recommended to me by Hélène Cixous. Every day when I wake up, I write down my dreams, I compile them. Another thing that I encountered is that the sleeping structure or pattern is also very similar to our patterns in the state of wakefulness.
In what way?
In the 1990s, I was basically a nomad, traveling on trains nearly 365 days a year throughout Europe and Asia to investigate art. Around the year 2000, I decided that it was time to settle down and so I took a job in Paris and later moved to London, where I live and work now. So over the last 15 years, I have been living pretty much in one place. But I use the weekends for my own research, so to speak, and spend almost every weekend away. So you see that I have fixed daily or weekly rhythms and that these also change over time. The internal clock is not just about when we sleep and when we are awake, it’s also about what we do when we are awake. Changing your structure is important because you make different experiences and can learn from them.

“The bed is one of the most powerful metaphors for the human condition”

De-structuring wakefulness?
Not de-structuring but re-structuring it from time to time. There is an interesting book by Jonathan Crary called 24/7 in which he cautions against our permanent availability. With every new device or medium, you become more available and accessible and how time is being modernized and standardized. This ties in with what philosopher Édouard Glissant had to say about mondialité and how globalization forces out to re-define time and space. It is extremely important to de-link and break free from this 24/7 circle and that usually happens at night when we sleep. I also do it during the day, when I switch off my phone and read or write.
In a way, sleep is standardized because we do it not only at specific times, but also at a specific place: the bedroom. What are your thoughts on the concept of the bedroom?
It’s an interesting concept. To me, the bedroom is always connected to books and reading. I can’t sleep unless I read something in bed. It’s not only a place I go to to sleep but also to read and unwind. So I always take a lot of books with me when I am traveling to make myself at home.
Sleep is obviously an essential part of our lives, but in comparison to other aspects of life, it is relatively neglected in art. Why do you think that is?
There was an exhibition at the 21er Haus in Vienna called “Sleepless”, curated by Mario Codognato. It examined the role and importance of beds in art, like when Yoko Ono and John Lennon got into the bed for the “bed-ins” to protest against the war. It is striking to see how many artists used the iconography of the bed in their artworks. It is probably one of the most powerful metaphors for the human condition. Life usually starts in beds and very often ends there. There are the big topics of art such as death, life, love or fear, and in a way, these topics are all very much related to sleep and the bed.
When you sleep, you are as close to death as you can be as a living person. Jean Cocteau once argued that sleep is not a safe place because we are completely vulnerable.
The moment you fall asleep, you give up every bit of conscious control over your body and mind. There is the saying that every day is a new life and hence you die every single night and are reborn every morning. John Steinbeck once said that it is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it. So yes, we are vulnerable during our sleep, but more often it helps us solve our problems. It’s also interesting how sleep is connected to silence. Francis Bacon famously said that silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom. That quote often reminds me of an encounter with the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer I had.
How so?
I visited him at his home to interview him. We talked about sleep and at one point during the interview, he just fell asleep. I didn’t know what to do because there was no way I could just shake him and wake him up.
What did you do?
I let him sleep for 15 minutes when the phone suddenly started ringing. That woke him up and he told the person on the phone that he could not talk now because he was in the middle of an interview. He perfectly realized what had just happened. So he looked at me and said: “You would have had great difficulties transcribing my silence”. I could understand why it happened because it happened to me a lot during my Balzac and da Vinci days.
Falling asleep during activities?
I once fell asleep on the treadmill while running. It was just for a second, but it was definitely a strange dynamic at work. That dynamic fascinates me about sleep. There are two quotes I like a lot about sleep.
Hemingway once said that he loves sleep because his life has the tendency to fall apart when he is awake. The other one is probably my favorite. It is by Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”

Kenneth Goldsmith on the end of the Internet

The internet seems endless. But is it really? A conversation with American poet and artist Kenneth Goldsmith.

Will the Internet end?
There is an old hacker joke, a website that says “You have reached the very last page of the Internet. We hope you have enjoyed your browsing. Now turn off your computer and go outside.” So there is an end and it was made in the very early days of the Internet.
But the joke only works because the Internet is endless.
You have to understand that the List end of the Internet has been discussed and debated since the very inception of the net. The joke is of course an allusion to the Internet being finite. I think that once an infinite system is made, that which codifies it as such are the discussions of its finitude.

“Media become fetish objects”

It is hard to ponder the end or the finitude of the Internet because it seems to be one of the closest things we have to infinity.
It depends on whether you are talking about the end of the Internet or the last page of the Internet. The last one is the end of the story, the other one the demise of the whole apparatus.
Let’s focus on the apparatus for now.
It’s true that media rarely die. They might lose relevance but they won’t be destroyed or completely replaced. Newspapers or TV are losing audiences by the millions, but I don’t think that they will just disappear. Some media even have revivals. Take the vinyl record or analogue watches: they have turned into fetish objects. At some point, objects lose their edge vis-à-vis other objects. We don’t get rid of these objects, we just assign them a new role. I can see that happening to the Internet.
The big difference is that the Internet is, contrary to the objects you just named, not a tangible thing that can be easily collected.
Can you touch radio? You operate it, but you can’t touch it. It is ephemeral. It is always there, but we don’t perceive it unless we turn it on. Marshall McLuhan always argued that every media assumes the form of the previous media, thereby extending it but never killing it.
Media are a product of continuity?
Exactly. The Internet is based on webpages, so it is an extension of magazines or books. Then you have things like online radio or online TV. It’s a webstream, but we call it online-TV. Every media morphs into another one. The same will happen to the Internet.

“Too much is always too much”

What distinguishes the Internet from other media, however, is its capacity to store and archive a sheer limitless amount of information – because that capacity is built into its very foundation.
Maybe it’s different in Europe, but in the US, there is a real archival craze. Everything that is not yet digital is being digitalized. Before the Internet, newspaper reports were copied onto microfilm. So this urge to keep copies of everything is not new.
But the extent to which this archiving is being done surely has changed with the advent of the Internet. Just think about the amount of videos on Youtube…
Harvard historian Ann Blair wrote a magnificent book called Too Much to Know, in which she traces the information overload back to the early modern period. During the 15th and 16th century, there was already too much to know, which is why things like anthologies emerged to help us condense knowledge.
You don’t think that the Internet has propelled this information overload to new heights?
It did and it didn’t. I can only emphasize that I don’t want to distinguish the Internet too much from other media because I see it as a continuity of older media. So I don’t think we should use a new metric. Too much is always too much. It is assumed that we can only know 300 people in our life; I have 5.000 friends on Facebook.
Which again underlines the point that the digital realm, in contrast to the real world, enables us to go beyond the limits of finitude. The interesting thing is that this gives us the potential to archive even the mundane or seemingly unimportant. Many of our Facebook followers are complete strangers and the net is full of videos of gigantic spiders in Australia…
Because someone believes that it is relevant. Maybe we are seeing the varieties of importance now. Also, because of the abundance of material, the actual acquisition of that material trumps the use of the material. Many of us spend more time gathering material from the web, downloading and storing it, than we do actually using the material. On my laptop, I have more books than I will ever be able to read in the next ten lifetimes – and yet I keep gathering more. I can finally have the library I always desired.
People like the cultural critic Simon Reynolds argue that the abundance of material will lead to cultural inertia because we can’t cope with the amount of information. Do you agree?
It is a problem but a luxurious one. I’d rather have a problem of abundance than of scarcity. I would rather have too much food than too little food although it might make me fat and die earlier.

“Abundance is ripe with innovation”

One could argue that scarcity fosters innovation whereas abundance triggers laziness.
I don’t think that the amount of information is crucial. We just have to think about information differently today. You don’t always need Cheryl to reinvent the wheel. Take the brilliant remix culture in music: it is a recombination of existing material to create something new. Sampling has produced some of the best music of the last decades, so I have difficulties seeing the problem with abundance.
I guess one of the main issues with sampling or remixes is authenticity. It feels copied but not created.
Why would anyone care about authenticity at this point? I highly doubt, that most people can even define authenticity. I have grown very tired of these pessimistic arguments about our culture not being authentic or innovative. Abundance is ripe with innovation. Innovation of a different kind, yes, but innovation nonetheless. I am not going to look at my iPhone and lament the fact that we no longer carve wood the way we used to.
The other thing that comes with the abundance of information is the i danger of getting lost in дом it. I catch myself watching random Youtube videos almost daily. You taught a university course called wasting time on the Internet because you believe it to be a worthwhile activity. Why?
You’re engaged with what is going on, isn’t that wonderful? My Facebook feed throws up a dozen things per day that really fascinate me and that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise. That never happened with television. The Internet is much more interactive, and therefore I don’t consider random browsing to be a waste of time.
It’s one thing to say that it is not a waste of time, but quite another to argue that it can actually be a source of creativity and wisdom.
I don’t understand why we feel shameful about it. In your previous question, Light you said that you “catch yourself” – as if it is something very bad you’re doing. It’s not.
I don’t know why, but I wouldn’t feel guilty reading a book for an hour or two – quite the contrary actually.
We need to get over that. The thing is that while you’re browsing, you are reading, so it’s not different at all from reading a book. If modernism has taught us anything, then that skim reading, broken reading, or non-linear reading, are all am valid reading strategies. Why do we only consider reading as going through a book beginning to end? The fact is that because of the Internet we are reading and writing way more than we used to. It might just be e-mails, status updates or search bar entries, but that’s writing and reading as well.

The Internet won’t stretch into infinity”

Surely there is a difference between writing an article and typing a status update?
The status update tends to be shorter, yes. But all your Facebook and Twitter updates combined are your autobiography. A student of mine used to write e-mails to himself with things he must remember. It was like a status update addressed to himself. As his final project, he printed out all these e-mails that he hadn’t read in 10 years and turned them into a book. It was a diary, a very accurate picture of where he had been 10 years ago. Back then, these e-mails meant nothing to him, but 10 years down the road they reminded him of so many things he had lived through. We erroneously dismiss status updates as insignificant. That writing is often more personal than anything else we write.
Postings are often very personal, which is why many people feel a certain unease knowing these entries might outlive them and become visible to a large amount of people.
Of course it is much more public than a personal diary but the blind spot in your theory is that you trust the apparatus to still be around 100 or 150 years from now. The Internet won’t stretch into infinity. The operating system will change, Facebook and Apple will go out of business, these things happen all the time. People upload things into the cloud, thinking that their material is safe, but it’s not. The cloud could collapse at any moment. I download and archive furiously because I don’t trust these things. Just think about Megaupload. The Internet will not end, but many parts of it will at some point. Servers crash, domains expire, companies go out of business, so if you love something, download it.
Our generation will leave behind more information than any previous generation. What do you think successive generations will make of all the digital material we have produced and saved?
Again, that is assuming that the material will still be around in 100 years or so, but you are right that we will leave behind a lot of material and information. I however think that successive generations will be much more interested in their own lives and not so much in ours.
We look back at previous generations.
Some us do, many of us don’t. The notion of presentism is very powerful when it comes to the digital realm. People live in the present – especially online. The world changes every time a webpage refreshes. When something falls off the bottom of the Twitter feed, it’s gone. I like this sense of being in the moment; it’s almost a Zen concept. We have regained a craving for the present. I like that.
But this fixation on the now might lead to an inability to let events unfold or deepen. Following that logic, 9/11 would have been yesterday’s news by September 12th.
It was. On September 12th 2001, the question wasn’t “what happened?” Seven but “why did it happen?”. Of course the event wasn’t forgotten, but the questions had changed by the next day.
As a concluding question: How would you design the last page of the Internet?
It would say: “You have reached the very last page of the Internet, click here for the next one”.