Editor Jacqui Alexander examines how Airbnb is changing the way that we experience cities, and interpret buildings Read more →
Sleeping Is No Mean Art
The title is from Nietzsche, though I am loath to quote so quickly into the proceedings. Perhaps it’s best to get it out of the way, and henceforth quote from the building itself. I wish to speak about sleeping in a rather pedestrian fashion here. The heat is turned off by decree at half-past-ten. On midwinter evenings it already starts to cool down from around nine. Here in the carcass of the generously-glazed, sixty-five-year-old concrete building of the post-war-period, it was recently supposed, that with a half-past-ten shutdown, there would still be a sufficient amount of latent heat, providing approximately ninety minutes at not-unbearable temperatures for any late evening workers (me, others), until the temperature would drop markedly to a minimum controlled temperature of eight degrees Celsius, remaining as such until six in the morning, when the central system would once again ramp-up to the settings of individual radiators in each room. A cost-cutting measure, it was called. Needless to add, it is a building ill- equipped for the prospective sleeper.
A window escapes its latch, or a human exits a door, and a vagrant gust of wind curls its way inside. By some perverse democracy, wind is meted out to each room equally, accompanied by creaking sounds, slipping like smoke underneath doors thought sealed, or at least thought locked, and into vigilant ears without asking much permission. At quarter-to-eleven, Sunday evening, I pour one-point-seven litres of water into a kettle and, when it has reached a boil six minutes later, I fill up a water bottle, precious object, which I will later clutch in various positions lying on some cushions, in some blankets, under a desk, in the basic throes of sleep.
As some doors are locked after five in the evening, using the bathroom from then on requires the following course of action: opening the individual room’s door on the second floor and closing it upon exit, turning right and walking four metres, pushing a swinging door that creaks, walking four metres and turning left, walking three metres to a staircase, descending twelve steps to a landing, turning right onto the kickback stair, descending twelve steps more to the first floor, walking four metres and turning left, pushing a second swinging door that creaks, walking eighteen metres, turning right, walking four metres, turning right, opening a bathroom door, walking two metres, opening a bathroom stall door, and turning right.
During this course of action, I dwell upon the winter previous, in a cold but nearly snowflake-less place, where my dearest companion was a heater, pitbull-sized, gas-powered, menacing, and always beeping at me. I began to register those sounds — and furthermore all other beeps made by household appliances in my life — as censored expletives: I’m bleeping running low on bleeping gas, you bleeping bleep. By the warmth of that jovial heater, I sit at a desk alternating two tasks, mild and medieval, which the building sanctioned. One is copying an etching of Inuit fishermen in the Arctic landscape, famously portrayed on the reverse side of a now-defunct Canadian two-dollar bill. I am scoring the image with an exacto-knife into a letter-size sheet of cellulose acetate. Hunching over, it always puzzles me how none of their faces are visible, a sombre tableau of backs, boots and boats foregrounding the vast tundra. The second task, when the first task begins to wear, is sewing together a gigantic patchwork quilt out of individual tissues. Progress is so painstakingly slow, so moot, that I sometimes let out hysterical laughs in the direction of the heater, who in response burps back some cheap vulgarity.
I’m not the building’s sole occupant. Spaces, objects, amenities and the small community of affiliated events are shared by other prospective sleepers. Here is a summary. Cleaning a refrigerator. Adjusting a radio. Washing dishes. Opening a door that should remain closed. Scratching a back on a radiator. Adjusting chairs so more fit around a table. Rearranging plates in a cupboard. Using a washing machine. Inserting a two-euro coin to pay for a two-hour time-window of washing and drying. Putting detergent in a small drawer that receives liquids. Taking clothes out of a bag and putting them in a machine. Pressing some buttons and selecting some presets. Locking a door. Turning on a light switch that activates a fan. Urinating. Moving a chair from the middle of a room to a wall. Taking off glasses. Adjusting a shower head. Adjusting temperature. Removing clothing. Washing face, hair, body. Standing very still for some minutes under hot water. Standing very still for some minutes under hot water.
Then water bottle, cushions, blanket, desk, sleep. But not long after, I hear the sounds of men shouting in a foreign language. Car doors slamming, engines revving, the thuds of heavy objects. Under the desk, I imagine them gesticulating wildly, all cocked chins and loose limbs. I approach the window just in time to witness one of two cars throw on its headlights and pull out of the parking lot. The other one, a more rundown beast, is still parked there; the driver runs to the passenger side to refasten a clearly faulty door before darting back around, getting inside, throwing on his own pair of headlights, and puttering off. What are they doing there, so early in the morning, shouting? Is a deal going down? Or an argument? Perhaps their sheer noisiness rules out more clandestine scenarios. Perhaps just a misunderstanding. They are the only ones left in a glitter-and-streamer-filled cobblestone heath, the last men standing after a week of Carnival-season revelry outside the building and beyond. Two cars full of four men full of hot air puttering away in pre-dawn light. I withdraw.
Waking up in a building is not the same as waking up in a house. Apartments are probably buildings too, not unlike this institute in some respects, but they all undergo some special renovation to disguise them to be houses.
Monday morning starts with the sound of hundreds of clear, green, or brown glass bottles dropping a certain number of feet and clanging or breaking on contact with each other, out of one recycling-station container into the steel receptacle of a dump truck. This happens at seven-thirty sharp out in the lot below my window. At the wane of the year, whatever dawn in the air is still groggy and unsure of its footing is awoken fully by the glass drop. In any case I don’t need an alarm on Monday mornings.
Of course more than one alarm alerts the prospective sleeper. Consecutive spills of cascading garbage, avalanches, from one receptacle to the other, start slowly, then crescendo as they pick up speed – tin against tin, glass against glass, screaming materials grasping for each other on the way down. The sphincter of one receptacle opens from some lever, and the mouth of the other receptacle opens from another lever. Basic gravity does the rest; it does the waste in. This occurs from seven-thirty until seven-thirty-five. Something is disposed of daily, according to the particular rhythms of the municipal collection service. It also means some garbage collections are louder, messier, or of slightly longer duration than others. There are six public receptacles where the local community comes at all hours, disposing of their bottles and their cans and their cardboard boxes. They are not as deep as — but are spaced in a way similar to — gravestones and their plots. They resemble a small village church cemetery, surrounded on three sides by black-painted metal fencing. The passing of trash and recyclables from one receptacle to the other is the mental image that begins my day as I lie on a mattress under a desk.
Another quotation, and I swear this is the last one; two is already two too many. It is from Daniil Kharms. It goes like this:
This is how hunger begins:
In the morning you wake lively,
Then comes the loss
Of quick reason’s strength—
Then comes calm,
And then horror.2
But I apologise; now I must offer one more, from Debord, who wrote, “Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs,”3 which was written on a recent Facebook post by Michael Ashkin. Ashkin himself once wrote, “The beginnings and endings of all products are messy, primordial, antisocial.”4 We’re now up to four quotes, and properly ensnared. Garbage continues to cascade. Those men making noise in the parking lot last night: it was Nietzsche and Kharms in one car, wasn’t it, and Debord and Ashkin in the other, or was I dreaming it; Nietzsche and Kharms pulled away first, then Debord got in the passenger seat, and I got to the window just in time to see Ashkin refasten the faulty door, and while pulling away the circular headlights darted straight into my window, illuminating the back wall for an instant before disappearing down the road.
Am I trying to write something about circumstances that are less than ideal? I sleep in my clothes, lest someone wrest me from clutched bed sheets, rousing me out of something I don’t know what. Why should it be lied about, I love to sleep in my clothes, and I lie in wait for the rousing. Days fly by in some merciless way. It’s ten-to-eight, but I will not get up yet. All the ingredients of town outside — silver sky, tan streetlights, concrete, cobble, brick, bushes, clumps of sand, and the effluvia of centuries of religious and economic puritanism — turn the light in the room to a phosphorescent, toilet-bowl blue. My sleep thrives, weed-like, but my work suffers. Work is a city surrounded by weedy forests of sleep. I have already rescinded the claim elsewhere that I will make a project — should I reject the notion that I work at all, as well? Would it be an overreach to dwell upon the fact that I sleep so successfully?
At eight, the streetlights switch off in unison, out to the national border fifteen minutes’ walk away. I picture a nation of streetlights instructed to hold their glowing orbs in the air all night, and then, finally, they are allowed to drop their outstretched arms, lower the glowing orbs in a single, heroic wave, conclude the night with an exasperated sigh, and wander off home to get some rest.
The front door to the building is one floor lower, fifty metres away, but still I am convinced I hear its inaugural swing each morning. Behind whoever enters, it is left to slam nonchalantly, and settles back into its natural state, which is closed. This slam sets off a chain of events, a vibration through materials, from doorframe to concrete floor, to concrete wall, through a window sill and through its glazing, through a number of these a number of times, to the point where it reaches me deep on the second floor in an instant. The mattress, paltry as it is, deadens most of the vibrations originating from the door, but there’s a single toe I dangle off the edge, touching the floor. Just then, the light of real sunshine reaches my eyes, and a dying pulse of the first slammed door reaches my sentinel toe. Two realisations from two opposite ends of the body race towards my centre of gravity, and I awake. Look around: rise with resignation, exit the back door with determination, take a deep breath.
1 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (New York: Penguin Books, 1969).
2 Daniil Kharms, “26”, from The Blue Notebook, accessed December 9, 2013, http://www.uglyducklingpresse.org/catalog/online-reading/the-blue-notebook-by-daniil-kharms/
3 Guy Debord, Panegyric (New York: Verso, 2004), 8.
4 Michael Ashkin, “Untitled (Sayreville, NJ)”, in Untitled (Experience of Place) (London: Koening Books Ltd., 2003), 36.