Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sleepless in Central Park

David Blaine, the endurance artist lived without any food in a clear box suspended over the Thames River for 44 days, has decided to take on sleeplessness. In September he plans on going 11.57 days without sleep, the number chosen because it's exactly one million seconds. He is hoping for permission to do this in Central Park in Manhattan. Blaine says he will not use stimulants.

I need a lot of sleep, and I resent it (I wrote Beggars in Spain, about people genetically engineered to never sleep, out of envy.) Nonetheless, there's something creepy about deliberately depriving your body of something so essential as a form of entertainment. I wouldn't have wanted to watch Blaine starve, and neither would I want to watch him go semi-psychotic, which is what happens if you go more than about three days without sleep. Reality blurs. You hallucinate. Your vision blurs and your body cannot process glucose. This is art?

Which raises my central question: When does performance art shade over into mere narcissistic attention grabbing? Nearly all artists, of every kind, want public attention (or they'd lock their work in a drawer, like Emily Dickinson, who was the exception). But doesn't "art" require more than physical peril? Shouldn't it somehow deepen our perception of the world? Even the silliest, most formulaic shoot-'em-up offers reinforcement of values we'd like to believe in: good can triumph over evil.

Or just call me a fuddy-duddy and have done with it.

This fuddy-duddy leaves tomorrow for Seattle, to teach a writing workshop at Hugo House. Blogging will resume from The Damp City.


Eve said...

Bravo on this post! I am an artist and writer and don't don't understand what passes for art now. I suspect I should be as extinct as the dinosaur, because 'oh my gawd' I still paint. I believe that art should evoke a response a tad higher than a gag reflex and the word "idiot!"

The Pondering Tree's Alpha Site said...

I'd rather have the sleep, says the insomniac who didn't used to be one.

S. F. Murphy

Mike Flynn said...

"Art" has more in common with "artisan" than with Romantic and Aesthete notions of the Artist as a lofty individual filled with fine sentiments delicately expressed.

Just as not every daub of paint on canvas is a "painting," not every public psychodrama is "performance." Art involves the application of skill to a medium -- words, music, performance, marble, etc. -- and lies in the intelligent (and intelligible!) choices made by the artist in the arrangement of parts. All this to convey something to the public. It is not the same thing as aesthete self-indulgence (although it may include that!) It is not the same thing as "making a political statement" (although it may do that, too: cf. Sibelius' Finlandia or Picasso's Guernica). It is not the same thing as driving home a moral lesson (although... but you're ahead of me.)

So what is the intelligent and intelligible arrangement involved in pulling the world's longest all-nighter? Such stunts may be perfectly OK for the Guinness Book of Records, but what do they say, ow do they illuminate, about the human condition?
+ + +
Is there (and should there be) a distinction between artists and performers? Is there a difference between what Mozart did and what Anton Stadler did? And what about Sharon Kam?

James A. Ritchie said...

I share your view on what constitutes art, but in Blaine's defense, he, and Chris Angel, seem less concerned with art than with testing the limits of what their bodies and minds can accomplish.

I once went five days without sleep, though it wasn't by choice, and I did begin to hallucinate late in the fourth day, though it didn't become serious, meaning I was fully aware of what was and what wasn't a hallucination, until day five.

At first, the hallucinations all took the same form. I'd lok at a painting or a photo, and it would become animated, like watching a TV, rather than looking at a still.

Then I started seeing people and things that were there, and even though I still, somehow, usually knew it was a hallucination, enough was enough, and I was forced to sleep.

Sleep deprivation is an interesting experience, and it teaches you quite a bit about yourself.

gdtownshende said...

11.57 days?!?! O.O

That thought alone makes my skin crawl. I think the longest I've ever gone without sleep is probably in the range of 36-40 hours. That was probably when I was still in the Air Force and working 12-hr shifts. The odd thing for me, though, is that even after such long bouts without sleep, I still tend to sleep only about 6-7 hrs, something my ex didn't believe until she witnessed it after I had been up for more than 24 hrs. I went to bed, and, without setting the alarm clock, I woke up 6 hrs later.

These days, though, my need for sleep has increased. It's still in the range of 6-7 hrs, but is now closer to 7.

David de Beer said...

Hi Nancy,

we're trying to get hold of you for an interview for the Nebula Awards Website. I don't know if you got our mails?

in any case, when you have time, please mail me at debeer dot david at gmail dot com, so I can give you the interviewer's addy.

Thanks, and enjoy the workshop.