Sally Jacques' Book of The 64 Beds Project Under the Covers

It's 7:30am. Twenty men are outside my window, laughing, coughing, speaking Spanish. I am hung over. I am thirsty. Hungry. I did not eat enough yesterday.

I am not dreaming the intermittent pounding on the roof of my parents' house. I equate it with the intensity of being in labor, where the contractions are now about a minute apart. The pounding echoes throughout the house, making it seem as stable as a lean-to. The dogs are barking. My mother's screaming. I'm yelling, "No! Oh, God! Shut up!" (Later, I will discover that one of the dogs has rammed into my mother's face, possibly breaking her nose. At lunchtime, she will break her tooth eating a turkey sandwich.)

And of course, there is no baby being born. It's only the men coming to install a new roof on my parents' house. Is this what it's like to sleep under the highway, I wonder, or in the ditch by Barton Springs Road where the train passes overhead? Is this what it's like to sleep in the hustle and bustle of the comings and goings of cars and buses and the everyday outside world? Surely not; I am extremely uncomfortable, but at least I have a safe, warm bed and a leaky roof under which to be extremely uncomfortable, and that can't be said for someone who is homeless.

It was to raise awareness about this very issue, the issue of homelessness, that prompted Sally Jacques in December of 1988 to create a performance event entitled 64 Beds. The event involved an all-night vigil in the Mexic-Arte Museum, incorporating 64 beds created by 64 visual artists; 64 "Sleepers" -- individuals from the community, some of them homeless persons -- each of whom was assigned to one of these beds; and 24 artists, who performed for the Sleepers and led them in rituals associated with bedtime and rest. The event succeeded not only in raising awareness about homelessness but also in raising money for organizations serving those without homes, Helping Our Brothers Out (HOBO) and Caritas House of Austin. Based on its success, Jacques repeated the event in Houston and Washington, D.C.

Now, seven years later, Jacques has written a 64-page book, also titled 64 Beds, which provides a visual and written record of the 1988 project and serves as an informative guide for those interested in undertaking social projects of this dimension and scale.

One night I had a dream in which I saw a large room; the walls and wood floors of the room were painted black. Lying side by side, shining through the darkness, were rows of beds covered in exquisite silks. Each bed was lit by a single light, and next to the mattress was a book.

In my recollection of the dream, the atmosphere felt quiet, like the silence one experiences when lying by a pool of water or looking at the sky, slipping out of the physical world and somehow entering into the mystery of a single moment. -- Sally Jacques

This, Jacques writes, was the conception for the 64 Beds project. The Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching, provided the number 64, which it describes as the total possible states of experience in a changing world. Each visual artist who agreed to take part in the project was assigned a state of experience (and the idea of being homeless) which he or she could use for inspiration in making a bed. Every artist was asked to keep a journal of their process in making the bed, and these were displayed at the vigil.

The only restrictions placed upon the artists were that the bed be developed from a 6' x 3" piece of foam rubber and that a person be able to lie down on it. Many of the beds were created with comfort in mind, but not all. Some contained such items as nails, trash, and dried grass; one contained a 6' x 3" piece of plywood, much to the dismay of the Sleeper.

Jacques writes that "a few of the beds were designed to constrict the Sleeper's movement. One resembled a wire mesh cocoon which required that the Sleeper slide into it and remain prostate on their back for the night. Another bedcover had a blue-collar worker's jumpsuit sewn onto it as a pair of permanent pajamas which the Sleeper was instructed to climb into and `wear' for the evening. Finally, the creme de la creme of psychological discomfort, was a representation of a six-foot vagina made of bright magenta satin, fully-lined with tiny plastic penises. This bed was occupied by a 6'3" male who gamely donned the plastic ball and chain attached at the foot of the bed, posing a bizarre yet serene image as he slept."

What made the dream particularly powerful to me was that it brought up recollections of my past. My earliest childhood experiences were a daily reality of communal living and paradoxically, feelings of separateness: of being shuttled between an orphanage to a day school and back; of eating, bathing and sleeping in a group yet still experiencing an enormous sense of isolation from the lives of the children at the day school who had parents. -- Sally Jacques

Writing the book was a difficult process, says Jacques. She felt she could not just talk about the 64 Beds project; she needed to uncover the book's own entity. Ultimately, she says, "the book found itself." In doing so, it seems to have embodied the same spirit of collaboration that fueled the project. Many of the main participants in the vigil have included thoughts and details from the pieces which they performed, providing the reader with a variety of perspectives on the project. Some collaborators offer elaborate comments on their work, some only a brief remark. The concept of collaboration is intensely meaningful to Jacques, and she felt it was important that the book honor that and the community.

Out of necessity, the book covers so much information from so many different people -- information about the project, the issues, the community, the artists, the performance pieces -- that it has a difficult time bringing it all together. At times the book feels disjointed. But that difficulty is easy to overlook considering the book's overall value. The issue of homelessness still urgently needs to be addressed and the 64 Beds book does that, providing detailed documentation of an event that succeeded in dealing with the issue, even in a relatively modest way.

In the orphanage we all slept side by side. The sounds that we listened to and the experience of sleeping in such a vast impersonal space were not unlike life in a homeless shelter. Children crying, footsteps in the hallway, bodies thrashing around restlessly, echoes, strange shadows on the walls made sleep difficult. In that environment, you learn to merge, you develop an inner world, because the outer world is not explorable to you. You rely on the inner world so that it becomes strong, and with it, you can go anywhere. -- Sally Jacques

So, is this what it's like to sleep under the highway? I don't know, and Jacques' book doesn't provide the answer. But that isn't its intent. It exists to tell the story of an event which may have kept some others from having to find out the answer to that question.

Mark Teagen was homeless when he took part in the 1988 vigil. He writes, "I was a Sleeper, and I think what I enjoyed most about it was the peaceful feelings of friendship you felt in there. You don't really have that feeling out there on the streets all the time. You know when you're walking around and saying hello, you just get a real good feeling in there, where everybody just loves each other." Reading those words from someone who knows the answers to those questions I wondered about that morning at my parents' house made me think that if the 64 Beds project did nothing else, it spread a lot of love over a long evening. And there's something of value to keep in mind there, too.

By the way, my mother's nose was just bruised, and she was able to get her tooth fixed later that day. Me, I got out of the house and came back to Austin -- and slept like a baby the whole way. n

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