Hans-Ulricht 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.

Hans-Ulricht Obrist, photographed by Jürgen Teller. Photo used with permission.Hans-Ulricht Obrist, photographed by Jürgen Teller. Photo used with permission.

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.

Like? 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.

Namely? 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.”

Up next Next up: Sleep Sleep, you black-eyed pig, fall into a deep pit full of ghosts. — Icelandic lullaby, early 19th century. Greetings from Iceland, where the sun A Place, between Sleep and Awake
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