Hypnos Project. A User's Guide

Beetroot in conversation with Hypnos Project exhibition curators, Yorgos Tzirtzilakis and Theophilos Tramboulis

What happens to the body during sleep? How do we spend one third of our lives? During sleep our most secret and repressed self emerges. At the same time, our body becomes vulnerable. The Hypnos Project is a festival of the Onassis Cultural Centre. It consists of an exhibition of modern and contemporary art, a series of performances and sleepovers, a series of sound works and walks, lectures and discussions, a theatre production, a pyjama party, and a special magazine issue.
Βeetroot spoke to the curators of Hypnos Project exhibition Yorgos Tzirtzilakis and Theophilos Tramboulis.


BEETROOT: What is Hypnos Project?

YORGOS TZIRTZILAKIS: It is not a conventional themed exhibition, but rather a segmented programme of happenings, meetings, exhibitions, publications, activities, and performances opening with a two-part question: What is sleep for us today? And what is its relation to contemporary culture and contemporary art? It is a project we worked on with the entire Stegi [1] team and this is one of its most interesting aspects. Preparation took place on the basis of the idea of the editorial team. To this collaboration was added a course at the Department of Architecture at the University of Thessaly. And, instead of a catalogue, we published a magazine issue. All these taken together constitute a rethinking of curatorial practices: for such a topic, a standalone exhibition is both outdated and restrictive. This is why we attempted to rethink its processing mechanism. That is, the mechanism for approaching, opening up, disassembling and reassembling sleep on multiple levels.

THEOPHILOS TRAMBOULIS: From the perspective of sleep we can understand a lot about contemporary culture and society. Usually, we think that sleep begins where civilisation ends. That when we sleep there is no place for society, the economy, politics. We fall asleep and we forget everything, we retreat and only when we wake up does public life once more begin, the suffering of the body and of work. But it is not so. When we sleep, our bed itself, our bedroom, the person sleeping next to us or not sleeping next to us, what we wear, our hours of sleep make up social life and reflect social life. The history of art is full of sleeping bodies in which relationships are captured: what work and rest means, what the technologies of the body and of gender are, what the representations of health and disease are, what public and private spaces are, and, of course, the known relation between sleep and death, eros and psyche, dreams and the unconscious. These are ultimately the themes running through the exhibition and the entire segmented programme.

Y.Τ.: What understanding did we gain from such “work”? First of all, that sleep is not restricted to what we consider as sleep. What we call sleep culture is not identical to the time we close our eyes but is related to the modus vivendi of rest, indolence, so called Mediterranean nonchalance. That moment of apparent inaction, idleness, désoeuvrement or inactivity, which many consider to be a passive moment, but which is in fact an overheated factory. For the surrealists, real life begins when someone sleeps. That is, the work of a large invisible factory begins. When we talk about sleep, therefore, we mustn't confine it to the trap of the conventional definition or its literal sense. Second of all, are the combinations contained within the word itself: for example, the relationship between sleep and death, the relationship between sleep and love – as Theophilos said earlier: the twin brother of sleep is death, which explains cemeteries. [2]

T.Τ.: Consider how much we look at people sleeping without realising it. We look at people who sleep next to us but there is also an explicit or implicit culture of the sleeping body, the poetic sleeping body, as in the surrealists, of the body surrendered to the voyeuristic gaze, or of the medicalised body, let's say in psychoanalysis, which placed sleep and dreams at the centre of its hermeneutics. Until now, looking at people sleeping was in a way a benefit of intimacy, an intrusion of privacy or a medicalising intervention. If we happened to see someone sleeping in a public place, we felt we were intruding, whether it was a tired person on the bus or a nonchalant holidaymaker. Today this has changed. Public sleep, the way in which the sleeping body is inserted into public space, is one of the major symptoms of social disorder. Public sleep is today a gaping wound. Either in the circumstances of the homeless in cities or of course the circumstances under which displaced people sleep in this global political rupture.

Y.Τ.: During our research we identified a critical change: everyone knows about the cyclical character of everyday life, which distinguished our activities from one another: at night we go to our bedroom to sleep and in the morning we go to our place of work, or wherever else. However, today we observe another mixed kind of space, a new architectural typology, which we could call the “bedroom-office”. Think about how many are those who sit or lie on their beds with their laptops, iPads or smartphones, sending messages or performing various tasks. It is a new form of working in bed, in which not only the labour of the dream takes place, the overheated factory of the unconscious, but also some of the contemporary forms of immaterial labour. Bedrooms no longer are the clean and purified space of rest or love, but a space smudged by the hands of immaterial labour. This is a new phenomenon.  

T.Τ. : The bedroom, that is, is no longer exactly a private space which only the eyes of a select few may penetrate. Here we have once more a correlation between sleep and public space, because new forms of economy which transcend public control, open bedrooms in a form of hospitality exchange. The bedroom is an open space which does not correlate sleep only to retreat but also to the multiple exposure of the body. For the past century and a half in Greek art, sleep, the supine body, is a slow burning theme. There is a thread that makes up a history of Greek civilisation through sleep. We do not profess that the exhibition follows this thread  in a systematic way and goes back to the sleeping or awake Minotaur, it is not an Ariadne’s thread – though sleeping Ariadne in Naxos is a postmodern fetish. Yet it is a thread which attempts to identify the way in which sleep has been imprinted on bodies from the 19th century to this day. And the big gamble and risk for the exhibition –which has made us lose our sleep– is whether this can create a coherent reframing of the 19th century, of Greek modernism and of today. Whether we can see this continuity. Because we consider Gyzis, Lytras, Iakovidis to be great taboos which we do not touch either to love or to reject. We do not touch them at all. And we don't discuss them in relation to today. This is the thread we are trying to weave a little bit, around the great repressed motif of sleep.

Y.Τ. : Great painting from the Greek 19th century, in which we discern a gleam, an explosion of the themes of rest, love and daydream, was characterised as an “ethnography”. Something inferior, that is, which is concerned with representations of the family, the grandfather, the grandmother, the newborn, the ways of life and normality, as well as the supine woman with flowers in the vase next to her, and the woman resting from hard labour. On the other hand there existed expansive rhetorical themes, politics and revolution.  Yet sleep is an existential condition. And this is a major political issue of our time. It is not something abstract and closed, concerning only medicine or architecture, biology or psychoanalysis. This painting from the Greek 19th century is an initial inscription of biopolitics into contemporary culture. The second is that great painting – which some have cunningly and wrongly identified as corresponding exactly to the representational painters of the 1980s and 1990s – is linked to the cutting edge of today. For example, we can link a supine woman by Theodoros Rallis to the odalisques and to colonialism. We can, on the other hand, see it another way, as evidence of an attitude towards life. In essence contemporary life is a mechanism of acceleration, which today is called upon to clash with these phenomena and these repressions. To clash with issues which we do not consider to be political but which in fact are more political than that which we consider political. This is our contribution I think. The fact that we attempt to address an issue which initially seemed metaphysical or ontological, and which we place at the centre of the political consciousness of modern man.

B.: This political aspect of sleep interests me a great deal. So what is sleep? Is it democratic? Is it communism? Is it a monarchy? What is it?

T.Τ. : Sleep is one of the first issues coming to the fore when one thinks of democracy. The idea of large buildings in which all people sleep together, public dormitories that is, is a fundamental issue for philosophers of the Enlightenment. Sleep is neither democratic nor monarchic, there is no politics in it. Where politics comes into it is in the way we think about sleep. Today we think of sleep mainly as a disorder. Either as disorder in public space, homeless, refugees, or as a disorder of individuality, sleeplessness, oversleeping, paralysis. I think that what Yorgos was saying earlier, is that we tried to abandon typical political definitions –communist, liberal, or whatever else– and to create new forms for the political, exactly through such processes. This is the big gamble as set by the biopolitics of our time, the control of the body. This is why I insist so much on the fact that we are looking at bodies sleeping. The body of the other we see sleeping, is the body we wish to appropriate. The time of sleep is the time of our gaze looking at the body of the other. On the other hand, of course, it is also the time of the sleeping subject. Either the erotic body, male or female, which sleeps, or the displaced body of the outcast, the sleeping body has its own time and its own normality, impenetrable to us. Between those two temporalities of sleep lies the political circumstance.

Y.Τ.:  It is true in any case that the democratisation of sleep was a goal of modernity. Modernism tried to establish hygienic living conditions for all of society and, in this sense, attempted an initial democratisation of sleep: all must have a minimum condition of sleep hygiene. Yet here we must go a step further and see that this condition was tackled by modernity as an idealisation of bodily exercise. At the centre lies the athletic body, the sweaty body. This appears contradictory: on the one hand modernity considered that we must have hygienic living and sleeping conditions, yet at the same time we must not sleep too much. As we know, Savoir Vivre and the various Guides for Good Behaviour, already since the 17th century, dictated that we must not stay in bed for too long. Gradually there started to emerge the spectre of work and the anxiety of waking. It is, therefore, a matter that remains marginalised in contemporary debate. In this sense, we can claim that Hypnos Project  wishes to disrupt this immobilised theme. We must also neither forget nor underestimate the fact that the theme of sleep runs through all of popular culture. In a few words, we tried to examine the issue in its entire spectrum, from great artists, such as Gyzis among others, to popular culture. The documentation, for example, of sleeping practices in the experiences of spirituality or hypnotism, already from the dark period of the interbellum.

T.Τ.: And the way in which the juxtaposition between sleep and work changes, to which Yorgos referred to earlier. Sleep in classical capitalist economy is a regulated and regulatory eight hours, an imaginary limit for health which we must reach, in three equally divided parts of the day. Eight hours of sleep, work, rest. To this limit the worker must respond both through their imaginary as well as neurotically. Today when the conditions of production are changing, the regulatory limit for health is different, and smaller, it has been limited to six hours of sleep, or five hours of sleep. And it has been dressed up with the expression "this is how much I need to sleep". A new rule, we need less and less sleep, because economic circumstances are changing.

Y.Τ.: This theme is also a practice of “anti-discipline” if we think about it. We examine the topic from various angles, attempting to not limit it neither to its metaphysical and dream dimension, nor to its instrumental one. Sleep, and everything that relates to it is, in a strange way, a productive moment for humans.

T.Τ.: In the exhibition there are also large (in size) works, from the 19th century as well as very small etchings which have not been shown much, or at all. There are also contemporary works in conversation with these, there are unexpected versions of great artists we know in a different way, there is archive material with photographs from popular culture magazines. The voices of sleep, which make no distinction between high and low culture, run through modernity, from the old masters until today.

Y.Τ.: It is not, therefore, an exhibition, but a machine. The exhibition, in the conventional sense, let me repeat, appears to be outdated at this time. Our goal was to disturb the existing norms for exhibitions. In his sense, Hypnos Project is a machine that perforates the issue.

T.Τ.: A [sort of] hole punch.

B.:  I have the sense that sleep is connected to love. Somehow. Or perhaps to sex. Is this true based on your research? Or through the exhibits by the artists, do they somehow touch on love?

T.Τ.: Look, when you say love, yes, we do sleep after sex –not everyone– or in any case sleep is a very common metonymy for love. We say, I am sleeping with someone, without making clear whether this is a sleeping arrangement –whether we are indeed sleeping next to each other– or whether it’s a nice way of saying you are in fact not sleeping with someone, you do everything but sleep with them.  But what's important as regards love is not whether you really do sleep after sex or not, it's the investments you make on the sleeping body. What can you see when someone is sleeping? That is I think where it is very much linked to love. To what you are allowed and not allowed to see on the sleeping body of the person next to you. What conditions are created in the public dormitories we talked about earlier, when so many same sex bodies are sleeping? Because the big ban in public dormitories was for mixing of the sexes. While the beginning of the 20th century came with mixed beaches, and we could swim together, only much later– and it is still not completely true , for example in trains– was mixed sex  public sleeping allowed. This means two things. It means, on the one hand, that there is a ban on looking at the sleeping body of the opposite sex, but it is at the same time a great reminder that in our culture, that which is repelled –that is, homoeroticism– is that which makes bodies coherent on a social level. Public sleep therefore, and gazing at the other –men looking at male bodies sleeping and women looking at female bodies sleeping– is an erotic and a sex condition going far beyond what we do when tired and sweaty from sex, we doze off a little.

Y.Τ.: I would somewhat disentangle it from the erotic. I think it has to do with how we perceive the ideal place for sleep –the bedroom– which belongs to the realm of woman. The man, drawing from the anthropological tradition and from the stereotype of the warrior, must stay awake. Moreover, let us not forget that the nightmare also belongs to the realm of sleep – and we do have some works relevant to that in the exhibition – as do worry, as does autoeroticism. And of course the vast expanse of the unconscious. The sleeping condition reminds us of a primal natural state of the human body. And this does indeed retain an erotic character.  Equating sleep with the erotic may have to do with our own desire. Perhaps also with our own anxiety: I will fall in love so I can sleep, or I will fall asleep to fall in love. But I think that sleep carries within it some traces of a natural fact that connects us to the retreat of the Ego but also to the movement of the stars or –to exaggerate a little bit– even with how pebbles roll downhill on Taygetus at night.

T.Τ.: We tend to believe that love  –and all which turns on it– are essentialist, our very existence itself. That we are best distilled on that aspect which concerns love. That is and is not true. Gender  –in the sense of the formation of the gendered subject– and our desire are two very fundamental things. Is it or is it not the centre of our existence? I think they extend far beyond love but they always come back to it.

B.: Tell us a bit about the exhibition, because we keep hearing it: it is not exactly an exhibition in the traditional sense. That you tried to create a situation into which us visitors enter, not to see the exhibits, but to feel sleep.

T.Τ.: Exhibitions –particularly exhibitions featuring such artists as Parthenis, Tsarouchis, Moralis– tend to be approached as a space devoid of meaning and miss en scène, where each work retains it its artistic autonomy. We see every work because it is beautiful. And it makes sense for the work to be there because it is beautiful. Our own approach is more dreamy, more sleep-like.  One enters a state and slowly discovers the works, which may or may not be contemporary. They may or they may not be beautiful.

Y.Τ.: They may not even be works. It could even be you who is looking at them. This is a prerequisite we discussed at quite some length. Art exhibitions slowly became identified with the so called white cube. Later with the neurosis of reappropriated space. We tried something different. We tried not to showcase the works one by one but to create a mechanism, a whole through which we wander as somnambulists, in the sense that we move disorientedly. That is we tried to create “de-grounding”, an unreality. For example, one can wander around the Stegi basement and fantasise about the stratosphere for a moment. The concepts of the ground and of the route become unclear and at the same time a part of the exhibition and an exhibit. This is something we persisted with: the precedence of the atmosphere and not just the idealised masterpiece. All the works at the Stegi basement function within the whole narrative. On the other hand, in placing the works inside a historic building, that of the Onassis Foundation, we opted for a different strategy: the logic of the “partial object” and the principle of complementarity through difference.

T.Τ.: We must at this point stress that the “we” we are referring to includes Flux, Thanasis Demiris and Eva Manidaki, with whom we discussed at length about the directorial dimension we wished to create, and who created a formidable labyrinth in which we unfurled the string of sleep.

B.: Can you tell us anything about your own sleep?

Y.Τ.: The strange thing is –and this often happens– that when one preoccupies oneself with a subject, it plagues you, it becomes a symptom. We cannot tackle a topic without bearing the cost. The topic itself dictates how you will behave. This does not mean that whoever is occupied with sleep will sleep more. Quite the opposite. It means that you must grapple with the origins, the gaps and the troughs of the issue. Thus, my preoccupation with the topic meant a prolonged disorder in my sleep. Through its becoming a symptom.

T.Τ.: As happens to me often, I am not sleeping well, without knowing why. Now with Hypnos, I know why I am not sleeping well. Afterwards, when the exhibition is over, I will once again not know why I am not sleeping well.
Y.Τ.: One’s preoccupation with sleep can disturb –and thereby uncover– one’s sleep itself. It gradually and over a long period rearranges one's entire existential perception: what the essence and the function of sleep is and, in this context, what you are and –mainly– what the Other is.

This is always the issue. Of both the exhibition and the publication with which we are going ahead. It is a set of texts, in the form of a magazine, about sleep, without ever getting to sleep in the way we would expect them to. Sleep advice or physiology of sleep, psychology of sleep. No. The texts that are about sleep talk about the other, talk about desire, talk about death, talk about the uses of sleep –in the military for example– or about sleep disorders in people sleeping in the streets, talk about sleep as the construction of an architectural space. Therefore, when talking about sleep one never talks about sleep, in much the same way as when talking about a subject one does not talk about a subject. To talk about a subject, one needs to talk about another subject. If one wants to talk about love one has to talk about sleep. And if one wants to talk about sleep one must talk about war. So one tries to talk about these issues while at the same time not talking about them. It is like a lovers’ quarrel and trying find excuses to address the issue they never want to address.

Y.Τ.: In rhetorical terms we could say that there is no autonomous discourse in sleep. In the sense that when we talk about sleep we are awake. When we sleep we don’t talk. This is the paradox. This is why we talk about sleep by encircling it, fooling it, nudging it.

Transcribed by Vassia Lyri
Translated by Despina Biri

Tranlator's notes
[1] The Onassis Cultural Centre ( in Greeek: Στέγη Γραμμάτων και Τεχνών – Stegi Grammaton ke Technon) is informally referred to as “Stegi” in Greek (Translator’s note).
[2]  Cemetery: From the Greek verb  κοιμάμαι [koimamai = to sleep, which we usually call graveyards.

Transcribed by Vassia Lyri
Translated by Despina Biri

First published in Greek on the supplement "Anagnoseis" of the newspapaper "Avgi", 12.5.2016.

Hypnos Project 18 APR – 19 JUN 2016
What happens to the body during sleep? How do we spend one third of our lives? During sleep our most secret and repressed self emerges. At the same time, our body becomes vulnerable.
The Hypnos Project is a festival of the Onassis Cultural Centre. It consists of an exhibition of modern and contemporary art, a series of performances and sleepovers, a series of sound works and walks, lectures and discussions, a theatre production, a pyjama party, and a special magazine issue.
Curators: Afroditi Panagiotakou, Elisavet Pantazi, Konstantina Soulioti, Theophilos Tramboulis, Yorgos Tzirtzilakis, Pasqua Vorgia
Coordination: Elisavet Pantazi, Konstantina Soulioti, Pasqua Vorgia
Concept: Afroditi Panagiotakou, Elisavet Pantazi
Architectural Design: FLUX – office (Eva Manidaki & Thanassis Demiris)
Click here for more information
Exhibition at the OCC opening hours: everyday 12:00-21:00
Exhibition at the Onassis Library opening hours: Wednesday-Friday 12:00-20:00 & Saturday-Sunday 11:00-15:00