“When did you shut off the stream?” I ask. “He turned off the light at 86 hours and 39 minutes, I remember seeing the 39 on the alarm clock,” responded one of their friends.
That’s how long it took two Ryerson students to film a reading of the King James Bible, front to back. Eighty-six hours, 39 minutes and 48 seconds.
On March 20, those Ryerson Image Arts students, Evan Arbic and Nicholas Facchini, began a four-day performance piece in which Arbic read the Holy Bible out loud, continuously, without sleep. The performance live-streamed on Twitch tv. Arbic locked himself in their shared apartment until he finished all 738,137 words of the King James Bible, while the director, Facchini, remained in the opposite room monitoring the stream.
The idea for the piece spurred from Facchini and Arbic’s mutual interest in performance art and desire to challenge themselves to create something that nobody at Ryerson had seen. “I came home one day and Nick just tossed this idea: What if someone just read the entire Bible all in one sitting?” Arbic says.
Though both students grew up in the Catholic school system, neither identify as Catholic. Arbic says he’s not religious at all, nor does he go to church, but that this piece has allowed him to reflect on the role religion plays in his life. “The Bible has become more of a symbol than it has become a text,” Arbic says. “At Catholic school, they’d say after every day and every mass: read your Bible. And none of us ever read our Bible, but then I decided at 19 that I was going to read the whole thing.”
“It’s not just sitting down and reading the Harry Potter series, it’s like, the Bible is hardly a thing that’s meant to be read,” Facchini says. “I always thought it was interesting that a Catholic person can hear the Bible or see the Bible and immediately have a spiritual connection to it, when most people have never actually picked it up and read it.” Arbic explained that the piece was an analysis of the Bible as a symbol in today’s society, rather than a text.
The director and actor team came up with their idea just a week and a half before its execution, barely giving them time to prepare. They researched, purchased the equipment and released a promo for the piece the night before. “I did enough research to know it wasn’t deadly,” Facchini says. “I made sure that there was no harm that could be done for staying up that long.”
The record for longest period without sleep for a human was set in 1965 by 17-year-old highschool student Randy Gardner at 264 hours (11 days and 25 minutes). Research on Gardner has allowed several other subjects to remain awake for seven to eight days in carefully monitored environments. Facchini was inspired by multiple “stay-awake” challenges that he viewed on YouTube, most of which were edited and did not exemplify the entire sleep deprivation process on camera.
On the surface, the challengers in the videos appear to be fine at the end, but none of them have undergone any testing. Even Gardner appeared to get through his 11 days in full health, until several tests revealed serious impairment to his ability to concentrate and carry out normal tasks. According to researcher John J. Ross of the US Navy Medical Neuropsychiatric Research Unit, who monitored the effects of Gardner’s experiment, Gardner’s senses decreased after just three days. By the 11th day, Gardner’s “attention span was very short and his mental abilities were diminished.” The Guiness Book of World Records actually stopped listing records for voluntary sleep deprivation so as not to encourage others attempting to break his record.
“There wasn’t much that I could prepare for beforehand with the whole no sleep thing,” Arbic says, “other than just making sure I got a really good sleep the night before. Then I practiced reading out loud for a while to see what it would feel like and how fast I could actually do it.” In order to keep Arbic awake and energized, Facchini prepared him about five light meals a day, combined with lots of caffeine. His longest break from reading was about two hours.
Arbic missed school in order to endure his performance, and hoped his absence would draw attention to the stream. “Hopefully whenever anybody asked where I was, the teachers and any of my friends, they would have the answer and they could pull up the live stream,” Arbic says.
They did have the answer. In fact, Arbic and Facchini received emails from the IMA faculty about two nights in, expressing concern for Arbic’s well-being and requesting that the performance be stopped. “They emailed almost everyone in our grade and said if you know Evan, tell him to stop,” said Arbic. Blake Fitzpatrick, chair of the School of Image Arts, addressed multiple emails to Evan on behalf of the faculty, but Arbic was convinced that the concerns, while fair, were more about the school’s liability then his own well-being and chose not to reply. He would have continued the performance as a personal project regardless, says Facchini, who knew Arbic would be more upset if he didn’t finish.
The negative space would construct these shapes; I saw giraffes walking through and people closing their windows. It felt very strange, but very real
When asked to comment, photography program director Vid Ingelevics explained that he and other faculty were drawn into the project when someone sent them the link to the live stream. “The concerns raised by our Chair,” says Ingelevics in an email, “came from a place of broad but human concern about Evan’s well-being as [Fitzpatrick] didn’t really know Evan and his classmates.
“From my perspective,” he continues, “once I had communicated with some of his classmates and got updates periodically, I was assured that Evan was not undertaking this alone in his room but was being supported and monitored by his friends.”
Later in the email, he addressed the performance directly. “This is what I think projects like this can be about,” he said, “the production of an empathetic web of connections created by Evan placing himself in a vulnerable position. We all expressed this in our own ways and, thus, our diverse responses were all part of the ‘performance’ in the end.”
After receving the faculty’s concerns, Arbic experienced the most difficult night of his performance. His tongue had begun to swell, causing him to bite down each time he spoke. “I had blisters on either side of my tongue, actual large blisters near the back of my tongue, that every time I would speak I could feel my teeth crushing them. Then at a certain point,” he continued, “I couldn’t take the pain anymore, I had to pop them. So I went into the bathroom and took a kitchen knife, very poorly cleaned it, took out my tongue and popped either one with the knife. It reduced the size, not the pain, but at least I wasn’t crushing them every time I spoke.”
Arbic drank a Red Bull at about 4 a.m. that morning because he was starting to blank out. “Immediately, I started to get into this weird, very strange state and I started to hallucinate,” said Arbic. “At one point, I went to the bathroom and I actually hallucinated my friend on the door, like a weird abstract image of her.
“When I would read the pages, in this all white room, the colours on the page would actually change and the negative space between letters would form images, like half my brain was reading and the other half was creating these images on the page. The negative space would construct these shapes; I saw giraffes walking through and people closing their windows. It felt very strange, but very real.”
On the fourth night, Arbic was nearly at his breaking point. On top of his blisters, he had developed what seemed like a throat infection but he continued to find motivation in his visitors and the near hundred friends who supported him online. Facchini nearly went without sleep himself that night so he could monitor the stream and make sure Arbic was OK. When Facchini had to leave their apartment for class, he made sure to have friends come over to watch in his absence. Of the growing audience checking into the live stream, there were religious childhood friends, parents, relatives, friends from Ryerson, people they had met online and people who had just stumbled upon it. By the end, over 80 people were simultaneously watching Arbic read the Bible from their own computers, rooting for him to finish.
<blockquote< I had never made anything that reached so many people, and at the end I just felt like I had really made the first mature work of my life
“When I was around 100 pages away, I was thinking: ‘Wow this is almost over.’ And I started to well up a bit because I was going to be so excited and so happy,” Arbic says. His dad, Neal Arbic, called him then to push him to finish. Being the former front man of Canadian alternative rock band A Neon Rome, he was all too familiar with the vocal strain causing his son’s tongue to swell and blister. Arbic’s father was checking the stream constantly, growing more worried with each click. At one point, he felt that his son wouldn’t make it after seeing him slightly delirious and exhausted in the early hours of Thursday morning, the third day of the performance. His wife met his concerns with the same panic.
Evan Arbic’s father, Neal, recounts the moment Arbic finished reading the Bible.
Eventually, Arbic seemed to recover, hurtling himself towards the last pages of the Bible. “By the end, I think he was doing 200-250 pages a day,” says Arbic’s father, Neal, “and I think that last stretch, after he sort of rose from the dead, he did like 300 pages and that was amazing. That part was amazing. And when he crossed that finish line and he had to wipe away the tears and as he hit Revelations, the last book, his voice kind of pitched up. It transformed how I looked at him,” Neal Arbic says. “I didn’t see him as a boy anymore, a boy would’ve stayed down.”
As Arbic flipped through the final pages of the New Testament, his anticipation built and tears poured from his eyes. They had estimated before that the last section was 225 pages. He was so close to finishing. But with nearly four pages left, Arbic couldn’t let himself lose focus. He quickly flipped over the 219th page, determined to finish as soon as possible, when he realized their error. When he turned over the page, there was nothing left to read. Shocked by the end having come so soon, Arbic couldn’t stop himself from crying. “It’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever feel again,” he says.
In the end, he placed the Bible on his pillow and turned out the light in his room. “After that, Nick came up and hugged me, and him and I cried,” says Arbic. “There were some close friends in the kitchen who had visited on and off throughout and we just all hugged, and they were like, ‘You did it, you did it.’ It was just this really great moment and we were crying and we said, ‘That’s the end.’ And that was kind of the end.”
After briefly speaking to his parents, the first thing Arbic did that night was shower and then sleep. Both he and Facchini slept for about 12 hours, and then returned right back to their regular schedules. Though not without reflecting on the success of their piece. “I had never made anything that reached so many people, and at the end I just felt like I had really made the first mature work of my life,” says Arbic. Still, he woke up early the next day to catch up on the school work he had missed during the performance. Now Arbic is trying to get the live stream footage into the School of Image Arts’ year-end exhibition, Maximum Exposure, while also working with Facchini to circulate their newest film, Gas, which was released on April 1.