Major Project #1: Labor of Sleep

Art Criticism

This is a critique of a virtual artwork written in MLA format for my Digital Art Criticism course.

Labor of Sleep, Have you been able to change your habits?? is a video created in 2017 by Elisa Giardina Papa ("Labor of Sleep"). As an Italian-born artist, Papa currently lives and works in both the Berkeley, the U.S. and Sicily, Italy, where she created this piece. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Politecnico di Milano in 2007 and her Master’s degree from The Rhode Island School of Design in 2013. The co-founder of the artist collective Radha May, Papa has taught at several colleges, including Brown University and the ENAIP. In addition, she has given lectures and speeches at many institutions, such as museums and other schools. The artist has exhibited her art in some of the most prestigious galleries, such as the Museum of Modern Art (Papa 2018).


Papa has been active in the art world for about ten years. Her art is film-based and combines many types of videos into each piece; it explores the way film is made and experienced by large groups of people. Papa deals with the subject of personal identity and how it relates to public policy and technology ("Labor of Sleep" 2017).

Labor of Sleep was created specifically for the Whitney Museum of American Art. It is part of a recent series the museum commissioned for its website to represent the Sunrise and Sunset of New York City. When people visit the site during either sunset or sunrise, they will see a new project with the same theme ("Labor of Sleep" 2017).

Labor of Sleep runs different exercises incorporating multiple video clips over nine days. Papa has used a variety of technologies to develop her work, such as film, graphic design, three- dimensional animation, and video editing. The Whitney Museum explains, “The work examines the idea that sleep has become the newest frontier for gathering behavioral and biological data in order to optimize sleeping patterns, thereby turning the time that our bodies use to rest and replenish into a form of labor devoted to data extraction.” It emphasizes that, by trying so much to analyze and adjust the time we spend relaxing, we are causing more stress in our lives and losing sight of what relaxation truly means. By trying to make more time for rest, we are left with less time that could be spent resting in the first place ("Labor of Sleep" 2017).

On each day, a bell rings and echoes. White text on a bright pink screen accented with yellow and green indicates which day it is. So far, the program seems fun and inviting, but as each recording begins, the mood changes. A computer-generated voice instructs a user to improve his or her sleep through various commands, mimicking popular mobile apps deigned to make users’ lives more efficient. At the beginning of each day, the automated voice says, “A new sleep assessment is available for you today. Would you like to move on?” It either goes unanswered, such as in the second video, or moves on to a message such as “Before you sleep, give yourself permission to enter stillness. Allow yourself to enter quietness,” as in video three.

There is often imagery of a faceless human form in a white room along with indoor props, such as white tiles and walls, blue exercise bands, and potted plants. Sometimes only certain body parts—such as legs or arms—are visible. In the first scene, only the figure’s hair is visible as it runs through faucet (Lucky Charms 2017). I think scenes involving both the faucet and bands were designed to make the viewer feel inhibited by the industrial world.

Other times there is no figure at all. In these shots, the voice asks if the user has been able to change his or her habits. The camera faces the floor and captures a robotic vacuum cleaner attempting to pick up leaves or other plant material. It tries after much effort but fails, eventually driving away and leaving more of a mess than it intended to pick up. Afterward, a computer- generated face laughs as if to mock the app (“Labor of Sleep, Have you been able to change your habits??” 2017).

Papa incorporates numerous aspects of life into her art—from people to plants to digital devices—in order to show that attempts to change are part of a larger process. There are other patterns all around us, such as in the natural and technological world ("Labor of Sleep" 2017).

I believe this piece is successful for multiple reasons, the first being that it is original. Originality is important because it can communicate a message in a way that makes many people want to listen. It captivates viewers and makes them think deeply about what they are seeing (Bonnell). Papa constructed each scene down to the last detail. She chose specific sounds, texts, colors, and props, and lighting environment. She created her own animation as well. Even elements that have been designed and manufactured by someone else—such as the vacuum cleaner—are used in thoughtful, intentional ways.

By comparison, Riccardo Uncut is a work of art by Eva and Franco Mattes. The two offered $1,000 for someone to reveal the full contents of their cell phone’s photo gallery. The person they chose was Riccardo, and his 3,000 photos taken over more than a decade were made into a slideshow. This piece is not as admirable as Papa’s because it takes someone else’s pictures and simply puts them together. There are no extra elements that make the Mattes’ work very interesting or unique; the couple has not taken advantage of the vast array of digital programs and techniques at their fingertips. There is no experimentation other than timing in the transitions between photos ("Labor of Sleep" 2017).

I will also compare Papa’s work with The World’s First Collaborative Sentence. This is similar to Ricardo Uncut because it requires input from an audience. In this case, the audience is made up of many people who contribute their own thoughts through writing. However, there is little that the artist, Douglas Davis, has done to interpret their sentences in a meaningful way. He chose their font and background, as well as their colors, but did not make much of a creative contribution to the piece ("Labor of Sleep" 2017).


I also think Labor of Sleep is successful because it is interactive, allowing viewers to click on each video when they are ready to move on to a different day. Because of this, viewers can have some sense of control throughout a piece that is confusing and, at times, disturbing. One thing I admire about The World’s First Collaborative Sentence is that it offers even more interaction. Its audience has literally been a part of its creation; they can change the way it will be viewed forever. This is an exciting idea and a great way to engage an audience.

Riccardo Uncut, however, is not split into multiple segments and does not involve user input, other than that of Riccardo himself. It is a single video that can be watched after its play button has been clicked only once. If Eva and Franco Mattes had made the film more collaborative, they would viewers' desire for inclusion. According to Meg Floryan of Art21 Magazine, “Ours is a culture that has grown to expect instant gratification and an all-access pass; we are constantly ‘plugged in’ and busy narrating our lives by posting feedback and opinions online. We are wholly accustomed to interactivity, and art that reflects such reciprocation and proactive involvement resonates deeply with us” (Floryan).

Similarly, viewers often appreciate when a work of art contains more than one type of medium. An article in The Atlantic references a TED Talk in which Jinsop Lee, an industrial designer, explains that people tend to respond to and remember events that stimulate all of their senses.

Papa’s work engages both sight and hearing. The World’s First Collaborative Sentence is at a disadvantage because it only utilizes the visual medium. Riccardo Uncut plays a song in addition to its visuals, but it is still not as memorable as the former artist’s work. Labor of Sleep’s sounds, such as bells, wind, or water, are unexpected. Their strangeness is likely to provoke the viewer’s curiosity and keep them interested throughout the piece.

Labor of Sleep, Have you been able to change your habits?? is original, interactive, and multi-sensory. It is a peculiar, thought-provoking work of art that has caused many to think about their use of technology. It has the ability to gain attention even in the digital age, where immersive experiences matter more than ever.

Works Cited

N.a. “Labor of Sleep.” Whitney, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2017,

Papa, Elisa G. “Cover/CV.” Elisa Giardina Papa, N.p., 2018,

N.a. “Labor of Sleep, Have you been able to change your habits??” Lucky Charms for Dinner, N.p., 2017,

Forbes Agency Council. “Why Originality is a Creative’s Greatest Weapon.” Forbes, Forbes,

Inc., 22 March 2016, creatives-greatest-weapon/#3890517b7b5d.

N.a. “Riccardo Uncut.” Whitney. The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018,

N.a. “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence.” Whitney. The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012,

Floryan, M. “Interactive and Participatory Art.” Art21. PBS, n.d., art/#.Wx9td1MvzR0.

N.a. “The Art and Science of Our Senses.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly, n.d., think/the-art-and-science-of-our-senses/153/.

© 2020 by Lauren Renee Bigelow.