Sleeping as an act of revolution – Johannes Harder’s ‘Sleep Tapes’

An essay by Brian Strauss.
Originally published in Anatomy and Sleep, 2(2), pp. 151-182, 2019.

The cultural importance of Johannes Harder’s ‘Sleep Tapes’ cannot be properly analysed without the historical context of the sleepless epidemic in Europe happening from 1987 to 1990. A time period not talked enough about, the sleepless epidemic was not technically an epidemic – there is no death toll, because its effects have been more psychological than physical. Following the worldwide bombings by US citizen Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, and his terrorist attacks in Europe in the late 1980s, mass hysteria reached a critical point in April 1987, when a bomb detonation on live television killed two moderators and injured 51 people in the studio – the Unabomber became a reality to West-Germans alike and caused the European sleeplessness that would define the coming years.

The Unabomber’s eco-terrorism has been widely discussed in scientific and popular media, but rather than initiating an anti-industrial revolution in Germany, it caused chronic tiredness for millions. Kaczynski’s strategic placement of the bomb in a German TV show is unique in the history of his attacks until his arrestment in 1995, and it has sparked theories on the terrorist’s hopes of moral alignment of the West-German public, especially because of the high number of green-party supporters in the country at the time.1 But similarly to the aggressions of the Rote Armee Fraktion in earlier years, the Unabomber’s expectations for a revolution were not met, and they triggered disgust rather than interest.2

The chronic sleeplessness which followed the attack is still widely discussed in science. Some call it mass hypnosis, and some speak of economic factors that reduced hope for millions of Germans: inflation, higher living-costs and the fear of a Russian attack. But while the sleeplessness cannot yet be fully explained, it is factual that it dominated the media at the time and defined the reality of millions of working-class individuals. Tired of bad economic conditions, fear of war and terrorist attacks, millions became sleepless for nights on end, measured in a worse economic state of the country as a whole and the rise of populist political actions starting in the summer of 1987. Other measures include headlines including the keywords ‘sleepless’, ‘insomnia’ and ‘epidemic’ in popular media, as well as a rise in the prescription of sleep medication that has never been measured before, resulting in addiction and further sleeplessness for hundreds of thousands of Germans until at least 1993.3

The German sleeplessness, or German tiredness, became a European one in late 1987 and surfaced as a phenomenon in Poland, France, Spain, Czech Republic, Hungary and more states. Sleep became a headlining topic in Germany as well as these states, and the so-called epidemic raised questions about European society functioning as a whole. Rest was a rare entity, and the psychological damage happening to millions through this insomniac phase is still to be examined.

Johannes Harder’s ‘Sleep Tapes’ play an interesting role in this, addressing mainly philosophical questions on rest and sleep in the sleepless epidemic. Though it has not been clearly stated by Harder that his performance had any political intent, it surely did have a political taste regarding sleep as a political category in 1989.

Williams (1999) states that “Harder made sleep audible in a time of sleeplessness. If you ignore everything he has stated about dreams and the exploration of mind, sleep lies at the very core of his project; sleep as a basic human function, one essential to life. Showcasing sleep at a time when it was greatly missed in the masses – that’s how he achieved societal relevance with the Sleep Tapes.”4

It is hard to grasp from today’s standpoint how a documented act as simple as sleeping can be seen as revolutionary. As Courtney would argue, “sleep as a basic function had lost certain simplicity,”5 which is why the focus of Harder’s art project was brave on its own. Sleep was not something to be joked about, but it did appear as a focus in several artworks by internationally renowned artists at the time.

The ‘Sleep Tapes’ can be seen as a revolutionary act, because the project opposes sleeplessness not only as a crisis, but also as a symptom of a Europe-wide fear of terrorism. Some even argue that Harder’s project can be considered anti-terrorist in the way that it showcases sleep as an alternative to quick and violent decisions.6 Rest and reflection rather than immediate action – Harder’s recordings leave room for interpretation.

[1] Gotthardt, B. & Young, H. (2009) Germany’s political parties during the cold war: A history of turns. 2nd ed. London: Crossroads.

[2] Helm, B. (2017) „Natürlich kann geschossen werden“. A history of terrorism in post-war Germany. 1st ed. Berlin: S. H. Klein.

[3] Hart, K. (2010) The Sleepless Epidemic in Numbers. 1st ed. Oxford: Blanco.

[4] Williams, J. G. (1999) Performance Art in Context. Examining the Greats of the 20th Century. 2nd ed. Austin: Texas, p. 352.

[5] Courtney, L. (2005) ‘The Sleep Tapes: 15 perspectives’, Anatomy and Sleep 8(1), pp. 69-99.

[6] Gates, B. (1998) Anti-Terrorist Movements in Europe. 3rd ed. France: Digestée.
2024 half of a rainbow