THIS SLEEP ARTIST IS CREATING ‘SELF-PORTRAITS’ FROM BRAIN WAVES
When we think about sleep, it’s not always a pretty picture. We have a bedtime routine, set an alarm, pop in our retainers, and get the job done — it’s a nitty gritty process that we’ve done forever, so it’s lost quite a bit of luster over the years. We’ve got days to seize and lives to live, after all.
But Laurie Frick is changing all that.
The Texas-based artist (and former artist-in-residence at the Neuroscience Research Center at University of Texas) uses different forms of data to create her art — including sleep data. After measuring her own sleep for months, she built wood and watercolor drawings featured her brainwaves in action. The result? Beautiful and entirely individual “self-portraits” that reflect the dynamics of sleep throughout the night. Here, we chatted with Laurie about where she gets her inspiration, her thoughts on the self-quantifying movement, and how she puts herself to bed every night (we’re sure it’s far more artistic than our bedtime routines).
You make art using data — a pretty unorthodox approach. Tell us about how you got your start.
I worked in the neuroscience lab at the University of Texas, so I’ve delved into the world of data and the brain before. I’m an engineer and I have a tech background, and I went back to school to get a graduate degree in art. I didn’t have those fields to have much overlap, but art is a reflection of how you see the world — so I stopped trying to separate the two.
I started out making work about the measurement of time — but that’s a really hard thing to measure. Eventually, I became more involved in the quantified self movement, and I just got deeper and deeper into what we can measure about ourselves. I kept obsessing over it. I made one thing and the next, and then I started giving talks about the future of personal data.
You did one project we find particularly interesting about sleep and brain waves. Can you share how that project came to be and what motivated you to study sleep?
Sleep is a really easy way to measure your time without having to write anything down. Sleep data isn’t so different than your waking data — you’re really busy while you sleep and there’s a lot going on. Sleep holds so many secrets, and people have this fascination with that chunk of time. Everything about sleep is kind of mysterious.
So fascinating! What was the process like and what did you learn?
I used a sleep tracker to track my sleep, where I could get data sets for REM, light sleep, and deep sleep. There were several big breakthroughs as an artist that came from this process. It was a way to learn about myself in a way that’s accurate night after night. Through this data, I started to see myself differently then thought I was. I thought I was a great sleep, but turns out, I’m not — I was confronted with this real data and it was honestly kind of disappointing. But the way my husband saw himself was wrong too — he thought he was a bad sleeper, but he’s actually great most of the time. He just remembered the bad parts the next morning. The funny thing is, that is representative of his personality too.
Then, I started using data from other people anonymously — and as I visualized their sleep, I could see whose it was. Their sleep patterns were uniquely identifiable, and even after three nights, I could see the different “portraits.” It’s almost like a fingerprint, and it struck me that the patterns of your data could be identifiable and individual — that if I made artwork based on sleep data, somehow innately you would see yourself in it and be able to recognize that. You’d hold a sense of familiarity and comfort in a way that you didn’t quite have an explanation for. I could play back your data in the form of art, and you would love it but not realize why.
It’s kind of similar to why people like certain music or colors. Part of it is learned of course, but there’s a fluency and preference that you can’t explain. The work that I make takes the idea of gathering more and more data about ourselves and then displaying it a way that is beautiful and creates a sense of identity. We can use it to understand our history and see more of ourselves in the future.
Wow, what an impressive endeavor! Your art is made of a bunch of different materials, like wood and paint. How did you decide on such interesting canvases?
I look for materials that feel obvious, familiar, and organic. Whether that’s leather, acrylic, wood — cereal even! Biology and technology can feel cold and distant, so part of these choices are to give the art a warmer, more human quality. People expect this data to be scientific and prickly, but I’m trying to push it the other way. They’re things that you know.
As a sleep company, we quantity sleep a lot — and clearly you have too. What do you feel like is the power behind being able to quantify sleep?
I measured sleep for 1,000 nights, and I honestly was able to improve my sleep. You get better and you start to understand the basics of sleep. I’ve gotten a lot calmer about it too. I knew when I woke up at night that I’d always fall back asleep because the data showed that. That panic of “I have to get to work in 3 hours” kind of goes away. You also know and learn that sometimes, you can get a really crappy night’s sleep and you’ll be fine. For people who are bothering to track, who have a schedule, and who know what it means to be “on” and how sleep does that, measuring gives you peace of mind.
As a busy artist, you must have a unique relationship with sleep. Tell us about your nighttime routine.
I spend half my time in Austin and half in Brooklyn, so I put the same sheets on both beds. I buy the same pillows, same sheets, same detergent, same bedspread. I like to have that comfort level. I also make sure it’s really dark and cold.
The other thing I’ve learned is that when you need to get more sleep, you can’t sleep in. You need to go to bed earlier. People think they’ll make up for being tired by sleeping in, but you’re not going to get more sleep tomorrow. It has to start tonight.
So what’s for your art — and where can we see it?!
Right now, I’m working on the idea of understanding behavioral patterns from data and then anticipating those patterns later on. That’s everything from the microbiome in your stomach to your energy levels. I can grab your data and know how you’re going to feel because I know how much you slept and how much vitamin D you got. As humans, we’re algorithms with a ton of inputs — and ultimately, we should be able to predict how we’re going to feel. From there, what if I could look at not just the data about you but also the people you spend time with to understand how they influence you? Because the nature of who you are is based on the people around you — and I want to get to the point where that’s also a prediction of who you spend time with.
Right now, I’ll have pieces at MassArt in Boston starting this month, and I’ll display some work at Pennsylvania Art and Design and in Memphis next year. The work about people should be done next year, at my gallery in Los Angeles.
‘It’s almost like a fingerprint, and it struck me that the patterns of your data could be identifiable and individual’ Laurie Frick