Jenny Odell on nature, art, and burnout in quarantine

One of my favorite episodes of The Ezra Klein Show used to be my conversation with Jenny Odell, just under a year ago. Odell, a visual artist, writer and teacher at Stanford, had just released her book How to do nothing: resist the attention economy, and we had a fascinating conversation about the importance of maintenance work, the problem of ceaseless productivity, the forces fighting for our attention, the comfort of nature and much more.

Much has changed since then. Odell’s book became a sensation: it captured a cultural moment and reached Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2019 list, and became a touchstone for many. And then, a worldwide pandemic hit, that radically changed the world in a way that made the core themes of Odell’s work more progressive and difficult. What happens if, instead of choosing to ‘do nothing’, you do nothing? What happens if you only have access to nature? What happens if the maintenance work becomes not only essential but also dangerous?

So I asked Odell back for a completely different conversation in a very different time. This is not actually a conversation about repairing the world at the moment. It’s about living in it and how it feels. It’s about the role of art right now, why we underestimate the most important work in our society, how we can have collective sympathy in a moment of broken suffering, where we can now find beauty, the tensions in productivity, the melting of time, our settlement with interdependence, and much more.

A slightly edited fragment from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.

Ezra Small

In our previous podcast, we talked about the work of another artist in residence at the New York Department of Sanitation, whose project was to try to put the art of maintenance at the center: the work of simply keeping people so alive often overlooked.

In this way, this crisis has forced our attention to turn to what is really essential, and much of it is care and maintenance work.

Jenny Odell

I’m glad you said that. The artist’s name is Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and in this particular piece of hair Shaking hands with hundreds of plumbing workers, she said to each of them, “Thanks for keeping New York City alive.” That is different at the moment, when people are suddenly very aware of the postman and the people who collect your garbage.

I shop at a supermarket cooperative that currently seems to be doing reasonably well. And some of the employees were very chipper in a way that really amazes me. When I said that to my friend, he said, “You know, it may just be because people are treating them with respect for the first time.”

I’ve been thinking about shifting attention. Our grocery store has the usual staggered lines with markings on the floor and if you stand in line just stand near this weird part of the building you would never be around. So now you have all this time to think about this wall. That seemed like a visual metaphor for everything else. The thing has always been here; now you are in a very weird relationship with it and you look at it, and you have a lot of time to look at it.

Clearly, this is all in the context of something really horrifying. But it does correspond to some of the things I’m talking about in the book in terms of diverting your attention from something that was previously common.

Ezra Small

One of the rules of the book that resonates right now is this: “Much socially necessary work is ignored or devalued as caring, a gender side issue to the real dynamics of the economy when in reality no shared life can do without it.”

And it is striking that when we had to sit down and classify essential workers, that was a concern. It wasn’t the heads of high-frequency trading firms. Now we have all these essential workers and we call them heroes, but in most cases we pay them as shit. They often do not receive proper protective equipment. That is why we praise these people as essential and treat them as disposable materials. There is such an incredible separation between our revealed reality here and our economic system.

We are so far from the end that it’s almost weird to have this part of the conversation, but I don’t want to see this pass without learning lessons about the secondary things that were revealed. Not only that we weren’t ready for a pandemic, but what actually was there all along.

Jenny Odell

I feel like we’ve seen things you just can’t see. When I go for a walk, I naturally walk up the hill and end up in an area where there are houses with their own tennis court. And I remember the first week walking around, it was so creepy not to see anyone except UPS trucks and Amazon delivery.

You can almost see one of these houses as a metaphor. Just think how many inputs go into this house to maintain that level of existence: landscaping, childcare, delivery, you name it. Now I feel hyper-aware of that layer that supports this other layer, which I normally take for granted.

It just feels gross to see that day after day. There were so many different privileges already, but if you were above a certain level now, you’re fine. And if you were underneath, you fall off the cliff. If there’s one thing I think is worth spending time in right now, if you have time, it’s just thinking about it.

Ezra Small

Is there art that you are thinking of in particular at the moment or that you find something special at the moment?

Jenny Odell

me actually Miranda July just interviewed very recently. So I thought a lot about her work. She has a project called ‘Learning to Love You More’ from the early 2000s, which gave rise to this kind of small art commission that had just been given to the public and who would then submit their documentation. It would be like “fix something.” And then you get all these photos back from people of chairs that were repaired or things like that. And many of the assignments are friendly in that spirit. It’s like looking around and seeing what you have and doing something weird with it that you’ve never done before. And then feel connected to all these other people who have done the same.

Ezra Small

Something Miranda July said in an interview was that this moment is the ultimate creative clue. And there has been a very interesting conversation – which my colleague Constance Grady wrote a great piece about – about the tension between the feeling of being trapped inside, so we have to be incredibly creative and think this is the ultimate nervous, anxious distraction. I wonder where you fall on that spectrum and to what extent do you think that’s even a choice we have?

Jenny Odell

It doesn’t feel like a choice to me. I think it’s hard for me to answer that because my kind of ‘way of creativity’ is so different from the traditional way of thinking about creativity. I have always believed that there is a dark matter of creativity, and I don’t assume knowing when I am creative and when I am not.

I always think about it the desk of floating objects, which is still my favorite project I ever made and really set the stage for the book. There was a year before that it was just slums. I didn’t make anything. I remember when I was really frustrated and confused. I didn’t really have a direction. In retrospect, it is so clear to me that it actually was when everything happened. By the time I got to the dump, it was the result of something that had been going on for a long time. And now I’m going back and reading those entries, and there are things in my journals that are almost literal phrases that ended up in the book that I just didn’t realize I wrote.

I think that because that’s my model for making things – where the part that doesn’t look like making might be more important than the part that reads like making – I don’t really want to make something. It’s not either-for me between that and being creative.

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