A search for the muse between dusk and dawn

A Slice of Britain: A gathering of artists, insomniacs and eccentrics bed down in a London park to explore the power of the night – sustained by questionnaires on Proust and camembert, interactive slide shows and absinthe-laced jelly
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The Independent Culture

Heaps of people, wrapped in sleeping bags, are sprawled across the floor. A crowd, mostly trendy youths sporting brightly coloured wristbands, is staring intently at the stage. Food and drink wrappers are strewn around, and the smell of warm bodies mingles with that of alcohol and cut grass from the surrounding park. It could be any one of the summer's countless festivals, if it weren't for one thing: the near-total silence.

The middle-aged man holding the crowd's attention is no ageing rocker; the balding psychoanalyst is holding forth on the subject of sleep disorders and dreams. While his monosyllabic drone should be enough to send many into a coma, the 170 people who have gathered in Hyde Park for a sleep-over hosted by the V&A and the Serpentine Gallery are hanging on his every word.

Billed as a night of creative thinking, in which the artistic possibilities of the hours between dawn and dusk are explored through lectures, lullabies and interactive games, the event has attracted a mix of art lovers, insomniacs and eccentrics.

"I'm here because I don't sleep; I haven't slept properly in five years," says 52-year-old Michele Hardman cheerfully. Dressed in a striking black fedora and huge pashmina, Ms Hardman appears determined to kill a whole flock of birds with one stone. As well as filling the empty hours while everyone else is asleep, she is studiously taking notes to pass on to her Jungian dream analyst. Oh, and scouting the room for eligible men.

"This is the second all-night event I've been to this month," she laughs. "I meet interesting people. I might get a date. I did at the last one."

As the clock strikes midnight, a parade of people dressed head-to -toe in white, emerge from the dark park holding candles. Two men carrying a girl on a silver platter compound the sacrificial air of the slightly spooky scene, while a fair-haired young man in a bow tie bangs a giant gong and invites us to join him in a "midnight feast of trifles".

The man in question is Sam Bompas, one half of the Old-Etonian duo Bompas and Parr, who helped lift jelly from children's party staple to exotic foodstuff. There are two huge vats of the stuff, one of which promises to perk you up, the other to calm you down. There is a scramble to grab plates of the stimulating jelly, a bright-green mush laced with absinthe. It tastes much better than it looks.

Moments after the feast, people in white waste-disposal-style boiler suits swoop in to clear up, and it is back to work for the guests.

A man, sporting a medical-looking tunic and an old-fashioned moustache, hands out questionnaires asking participants about everything from sleep patterns to whether they prefer: "A jog, Proust or camembert?" The results will be presented later.

It is this interactive element which stops the event descending into a mere challenge to see who can stay awake the longest, explains Louise Shannon, the curator and deputy head of contemporary programmes at the V&A. "There is a long tradition of artists and writers suffering from insomnia," she says. "People will be doing drawings and writing, and we'll compile that into a pillow book at the end of the night."

One of those getting into the 3am spirit is Yuki Inowe, a Japanese artist. Surrounded by her sleeping friends – who have cunningly constructed a makeshift tent to block out the bright spotlights beaming down on them – she is sketching in a notebook.

"Night is best for me. I usually work until midnight but this is keeping me up later," she explains, turning back to her drawings with a purposeful air.

Soothed by film footage of animals sleeping, set to elevator music, by 4am many people have given in to sleep. While technically camping, this is about as deluxe and metropolitan as the great outdoors gets. Kitted out with brand new roll mats, sleeping bags and beauty goodies from Harvey Nichols, there is nothing here that could be described as roughing it.

A table of people wearing big headphones listen to rapid instructions from a French man telling them to draw random objects ranging from boxes to fish. While my efforts look as though they should be pinned on the wall of a primary-school classroom, a quick glance around the table reassures me that I'm not the only one with more enthusiasm than talent.

The audience guides German film-maker Heinz Emigholz through slides of his work. They offer guiding feedback using laser pens; if they don't like it, they can all point at the image of a skull and he will stop. "It is like being a stand-up, because you have to build a relationship with the audience," says the 62-year-old artist. "But it is quite serious."

Altogether too serious for some, including a 25-year-old magician, Tom Sykes, who keeps the festival-vibe alive with his confession that he gatecrashed the event by hopping over the fence. "I had my tongue firmly in cheek, "he says, laughing. "I'm surprised at how earnest everyone is."

In truth, the event has been well received by its intense participants, who lap up its novel mix of art, psychology, music, science and al fresco experience. There's little ambiguity about the degree of self-absorption involved in an event like this. But just to nail any doubt, one guest reveals that she is writing a dissertation on people who attend night-time art events.

A French student, Flavia Deprez, 24, explains: "There is a big difference between people who go to art events in the day and those who come at night. In the day it will still be the educated elite, but the evenings will be a trendier, more intellectual, crowd." Quite.