Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | April 2019 | 14 minutes (3,693 words)
“I almost got locked in here once,” Jenny Odell tells me as we step into a mausoleum. We’re at the Chapel of the Chimes, which sits at the base of Oakland’s sprawling Mountain View Cemetery. The chapel first opened in 1909, and was redesigned in 1928 by Julia Morgan (the architect of Hearst Castle) with Gothic flourishes that mirror the Alhambra in Spain — rooms are filled with glass bookshelves, marbled hallways spill out into courtyards, skylights abound, and once you’re inside it’s difficult to find your way out even if you, like Odell, come here on an almost weekly basis. The books that line the walls are not actually books, they are urns. It’s essentially a library of the dead — the acoustics are perfect and there’s no sound inside save for our footsteps. The Chapel used to keep cages of canaries scattered around, but people wouldn’t stop setting them free.
Odell is an artist and writer with a low voice and perfect bangs who likes libraries, birds, and large scale municipal waste and energy infrastructure. You may know her from The Bureau of Suspended Objects — an installation for which she archived and cataloged the history of assorted bits of trash, compiled while she was an artist-in-residence at the Recology’s San Francisco dump. You may also have read her November article for the New York Times, “A Business With No End,” which traced a strange drop-shipping operation, managed through an Amazon storefront, back to Olivet University — a bible college in San Francisco controlled by an evangelical cult known as “The Community” that has spent the last several years running Newsweek into the ground. Or you may have read a version of a speech Odell gave at the 2017 Eyeo Festival that went viral after it was posted on Medium. That speech has since been expanded into a book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, published this week by Melville House.
How to Do Nothing sounds like a self-help book, but Odell is not suggesting you delete any apps off your phone or download a meditation app or spend 44 dollars on goop’s “Calming Vapor.” The contemporary idea of self-care has been so thoroughly co-opted by brands, Odell points out early in the book, that it has become all but meaningless. “Did you read that thing about the products that Alex Jones was selling and goop?” she asks me — referring to a Quartz article by Nikhil Sonnad that showed how notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow were selling identical herbal supplements under different branding. “I love that piece,” says Odell. “When I saw that I was like, ‘I can never write anything better than that.’”
In an era when literally everything seems both life-threatening and entirely predictable, she has a knack for peering into the margins and pulling the sublime out of what might otherwise be dismissed as shit. Waste-treatment plants become beautiful, bird watching is a political act, and retail supply chains begin to look occult. If How to Do Nothing can be understood as a self-help book at all, it’s as the first self-help book for climate anxiety. More accurately though, it’s a call for the kind of detailed, sustained attention that has become a hallmark of Odell’s work.
The only child of two tech workers, Jenny Odell grew up in Cupertino, California, a nondescript suburb about an hour south of San Francisco. “The big transitions had already happened by the time I was a kid,” Odell says. “The big tech had already moved in [although] we didn’t have startups. So it was sort of weird; when I moved to San Francisco, I had the feeling that all the interesting stuff had already happened and I was showing up on the eve of it’s departure.” This was, I think, not an uncommon feeling among millennials who grew up in or in close proximity to cities that used to be famously cool and continued to mythologize their diminishing coolness throughout the ’90s and the ’00s. It seemed like the opportunities for dramatic change had passed — a Starbucks ethos was ascendant and every movie was a romcom — until suddenly the economy collapsed and the environment swiftly began to follow suit. History changed shape.
In person, Odell is funny, self-deprecating, and somewhat goofy — describing and imitating the birds we see as we walk through the cemetery as if they’re old friends of hers. Night herons are slightly creepy “footballs”; Towhees, borrowing a phrase from her dad, are “chirp bombs”; and a Cooper’s Hawk makes a sound that her bird book describes as “nasal barking.” Odell is carrying a duck umbrella, which people continually compliment while I’m with her. Northern California has had a particularly rainy winter this year and today is no different — the sky keeps opening up in fifteen minute increments, forcing us to take cover under awnings and trees until it subsides. Odell tells me she bought rain pants recently. “I hate the word lifehack, but they really are a lifehack,” she says. “Now there’s no limit to the amount of time I can be outside, I can just stand here and it’s fine.”
Like a screenshot of the afterlife — crowds of tiny ghosts.
Odell went to Berkeley for undergrad and majored in English, writing her thesis on Emily Dickinson’s fascicles — the delicate, hand-sewn booklets in which she kept her poems. Graduating in 2008 and looking for any way to make money, she applied to graphic design MFAs and ended up with a full-ride to San Francisco Art Institute. “They have to give a full ride to one person in every department, but the department I applied to — which was Design and Technology — had only four people in it, so.” She shrugs, laughing. It was a considerably less career-oriented program than she’d expected, which was arguably for the best. “I think if I had gone somewhere else I might’ve run the risk of making work that was a little bit trendier? [But] I was only in conversation either with myself or people in another discipline, so I think I made stuff there that was less influenced by what I was supposed to be making. Because I didn’t know what I was supposed to be making.”
Google Street View launched in 2007 and was immediately a source of uneasy fascination across the world — blogs began compiling street view glitches; in 2009 residents of the affluent British village of Broughton (which is now quite thoroughly mapped on Street View) formed “a human chain” to block the car from entering; and the following year some Norwegians, dressed in scuba gear, tried to chase it out of town. Odell, who was using Street View constantly in an attempt to find a way to navigate around the hills between San Francisco Art Institute’s two campuses, became intrigued and began screenshotting and painstakingly photoshopping Street View images. In 273 Instances of the Man in Busch Gardens, Odell tracks a park employee who has likely been assigned to chaperone the Google camera man through Busch Gardens — he is in every shot. In All the People on Google Earth, she takes large crowds off of piers and beaches and crops out everything but human beings. The result is funny and surprisingly beautiful, like a screenshot of the afterlife — crowds of tiny ghosts wandering around or lounging on towels.
Eventually she moved on to infrastructure, taking a road trip that followed the path of the electrical lines that provide San Francisco’s municipal power all the way to a dam at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite; as well as photo-merging screenshots of wastewater plants and cutting them out in order to force people to consider them more closely. “Even as testaments to the best in engineering, the structures take on a tragic air,” Odell writes of a collection she titled Satellite Landscapes.
“They are already monuments; that is, they are monuments of a time (now) when the world careened toward total environmental irresponsibility, when more and more was borrowed against a disappearing future and we knew it. Inside the plants, everything has been maximized and streamlined, but the plants themselves form the constellation of something whose logic is closer to that of a tired man who’s lost all his money in a windowless casino and now slumps forward to play some more. This is the tragic air: that they already look like dinosaurs, like relics of a failed time from the perspective of a time when we will know better — or when we are no longer here.”
After graduating from SFAI Odell answered a Craigslist ad for a temp job in visual merchandising at the Gap, which seems to have sparked her ongoing fascination with, and somewhat apocalyptic vision of, retail. “I just have these very vivid memories of seeing boxes of samples from the factory in Sri Lanka or something … seeing someone take it out of the box where it’s currently two dollars and then put it on the table and fold it and now it’s thirty dollars. And I was like oh, this is just a contextualization lab, that’s all it is. And I am obsessed with context — what happens when you put objects in other contexts.”
There’s this weird cognitive violence to seeing a joke online followed by something really terrible. And it makes both the joke and the disturbing thing make even less sense.
She spent three years at The Gap and has accumulated, at this point, a deeply strange and impressive résumé. Odell teaches internet art at Stanford and has been an artist in residence at the aforementioned San Francisco Dump, The Internet Archive, The San Francisco Planning Department, and The Museum of Capitalism — a roving installation, that exhibits capitalism as if it were already a thing of the past. She’s compared her work to that of both an archivist and a natural scientist, but lately, as she’s gotten deeper into investigating the surprisingly spooky world of e-commerce, she’s moved further in the direction of digital folklorists like Trevor J. Blank —- a professor at SUNY Potsdam who has written about fake Amazon reviews as a form of digital performance and once spent eight days tracking a barrage of Tim Tebow jokes in the comments section of ESPN.com. Odell is not the first artist to make use of Google Street View nor is she the first to use the dry language of archival work and bureaucracy as a framing structure (The Center for Land Use Interpretation is a big influence), but it’s her ability to meld big tech and trash and internet ephemera with an ecological understanding that makes what she’s doing so unique. Odell is interested in the terroir of objects and phenomena — whether that’s a scammy free watch being sold on Instagram or an atmospheric river arriving in the Bay Area from the Philippines — and although she describes herself as “sort of the quintessential California atheist” she has managed to synthesize her research into something that approaches the spiritual.
Odell brought me to the Chapel of the Chimes before we walked through Mountain View Cemetery, because these two places — along with Oakland’s Morcom Rose Garden — are where she goes when she needs to do nothing. Free time has essentially disappeared over the last ten years. Wages have stagnated, full time jobs with benefits are elusive, and even our “leisure” time — scrolling through Twitter, for example — is increasingly mediated and monetized by ever larger and creepier tech companies. Faced with all of this, Odell argues that doing nothing has become a political and psychological necessity.
“I just think we evolved to understand things in a certain way,” she says. “That’s not going to change overnight. Even if you have to artificially reintroduce some of that into the internet — if there’s a general feeling of disorientation right now that might be a really important thing to do. The way I interact with stuff online seems like it’s missing adjacency and continuity … I don’t understand what I’m looking at because it’s not in a place where other things around it would help me understand it.” The internet was built without an ecosystem or a coherent structure and because of that it’s been defined largely by agents of commerce. Long gone are the halcyon days of dumb music message boards, and what’s left over is eating us alive. “There’s this weird cognitive violence to seeing a joke online followed by something really terrible,” says Odell. “And it makes both the joke and the disturbing thing make even less sense.”
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As class and social structures become more rigid and our tastes and interactions are increasingly stratified by algorithms “we’re less prone,” Odell writes “to the encounters with those who turn us upside down and reorganize our universe — those who stand to change us significantly, should we allow it.” Odell, for her part, met her boyfriend (the writer, Joe Veix, who last wrote about driving an e-scooter as far into the wilderness as his venture-backed chariot would take him) at a party in New York when she was twenty-one. They didn’t speak again until Odell went back to New York five years later for a “show” at a startup. “They had printed out my work and put it on the walls of some startup office and it was actually their holiday party,” she says. “ It was horrible, they didn’t even try to introduce me to anyone. I kind of anticipated that, so I invited all five people I knew who lived in New York. And he was one of them.” They kept in touch and currently live together in Oakland. “It’s funny because Facebook was actually really instrumental? But at the same time we’re like, ‘We met at a party.’ It’s so old school.”
Odell argues that completely abandoning the digital world that has grown to torment us — logging off and dropping out, in the manner of the communes of the ’60s — is unhelpful, bordering on irresponsible. “I think there’s a really narrow definition, especially here [in the Bay Area], of innovation. It usually means making new platforms or products — but if you innovate a new platform, it’s going to require almost the same ingenuity to design regulation for it … My argument [is] against seeing slowing down or restoring as somehow stagnant. I think you can apply the same exact amount of innovation and energy and focus to that. But it requires a shift in the collective ego a little bit.”
I went … in search of a word that would help me explain what Odell’s work communicates and initially settled on ‘shadowtime.’
Odell began to write How to Do Nothing in the wake of the 2016 election and much of the book centers on the way she managed to cope by embracing the ideas of bioregionalism, as articulated by the environmentalist Peter Berg. The phrase was first coined by Allen Van Newkirk, who founded the Institute for Bioregional Research in the 1970s, and as a philosophy it emphasizes humanity’s connections to nature, rather than framing mankind as an enemy. Bioregionalism, Odell writes,
“has to do with an awareness not only of the many life-forms of each place, but how they are interrelated, including with humans. Bioregionalist thought encompasses practices like habitat restoration and permaculture farming, but has a cultural element as well, since it asks us to identify as citizens of the bioregion as much as (if not more than) the state. Our ‘citizenship’ in a bioregion means not only familiarity with the local ecology but a commitment to stewarding it together … It’s important for me to link my critique of the attention economy to the promise of bioregional awareness because I believe that capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance toward the environment all coproduce one another.”
“I’ve been using this term ‘retro botany,’” Odell tells me, “like botanizing your past?” She only recently learned what kind of tree was in front of the house she grew up in (Modesto Ash) and why they don’t plant them anymore (they attract aphids). “People talk a lot about how climate change is not … well, now it’s very palpable, but something that people were saying is that it’s so gradual you can’t perceive it. But there are populations of birds that, within a year, can disappear. And if you care about them and you like seeing them, you care about that in a really different way — it feels like a personal loss to you, it’s not a statistic.”
As she’s speaking it begins to hail.
“Rather than using art to express an emotion,” she told KQED in 2015, “I’m more interested in using it to understand my — and maybe our — place in a larger system that seems increasingly difficult to understand.” As her work has progressed, though, it’s become clear that she is actually expressing a very specific emotion — it’s just one for which we don’t really have a word yet. I’m writing this in March and it’s currently seventy degrees in Alaska. I don’t have a word for that feeling — “dread” is there, but not quite accurate. My brother works at a radio station in Texas and spends the summers fighting forest fires. On one level my reaction to that is easy to articulate — it’s a dangerous job and I worry about my brother — but the bigger feeling is more complicated. A fire is no longer just a fire, it feels like a message from the future. On his end, my brother told me that the guys he works with know there are more fires but they don’t talk about why.
People are aware on a biological level that something is wrong and at a certain point what looks like apathy may, at least partially, just be a language barrier. In 2014, two artists named Alicia Escott and Heidi Quante founded The Bureau of Linguistical Reality, a crowdsourced dictionary that sought to address that gap. I went on their website in search of a word that would help me explain what Odell’s work communicates and initially settled on shadowtime: “a feeling of living in two distinctly different temporal scales simultaneously, or acute consciousness of the possibility that the near future will be drastically different than the present.” Clicking through, though, I saw that Odell had actually contributed a word — tralfamidorification:
“a disorienting experience where a discrete object becomes a node on a network. Those who experience tralfamidorification may walk through the world seeing a ‘beach towel’ at one moment and then experience briefly the ‘beach towel’ opening up into a black hole of information regarding the production line for the materials, the factory they were assembled on, the human suffering in creating these objects, the resources extracted, the shipping containers they were carried to and fro in, etcetera, — moments later the experiencer of tralfamidorification may feel the ‘black hole’ close and they return to the present moment and the object or ‘beach towel’ before them.”
In her book Odell puts this more succinctly. “Reality is blobby,” she writes. “It refuses to be systematized.”
The hail picks up, increasing in size from microbeads to peas. Odell seems thrilled. “I don’t think I’ve seen hail in years,” she says, bending down to inspect it more closely. “I have to take a picture, I have this thing where I take two pictures every day. It’s kind of the opposite of the picture you would take for Instagram, it’s just a picture to jog your own memory a year later. I find the most effective ones are some weird textural detail that only makes sense to you.” She tells me that a few weeks ago she arrived at Stanford early during a rare break in the rain and took a quick picture of the sun shining through the holes in her shoes. “It’s not a good photo,” she says, “it’s just about like, ‘I had my shoes off and there was sun.’”
So can what Odell is suggesting work broadly? I want to think so. Obviously there are limits to who can afford to refuse to play the attention economy game, and she admits that telling someone who cannot allow themselves free time that they should take more walks is absurd. Even Thomas Merton — a mid-twentieth century activist monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, and whom Odell holds up as a model of informed, participatory refusal — might have difficulty following the same path today. My mom lives a couple hours away from the Abbey of Gethsemani and when we went there a few months ago there were barely any monks left. Reading a flyer I realized that not only do you have to renounce all worldly belongings to join the Abbey, you can’t bring any debt with you. Charities can alleviate some of the burden, but even becoming a monk won’t necessarily help you escape student loans.
But Odell maintains that the right to inertia is a labor issue. “Just because this right is denied to many people doesn’t make it any less of a right or any less important,” she writes, pointing out that the decline of labor unions has been mirrored by a decline in public space. There is plenty to be frightened of right now — but a culture that valorizes working yourself to death and keeps you in a constant (usually unproductive) state of agitation in order to benefit large corporations is inherently sick. Doing nothing, Odell is saying, or making time to do things that aren’t immediately profitable, is not laziness or frivolity but a necessary step to thinking clearly about what lies ahead. I’m not sure it will be enough to save humanity as a species, but it could definitely help keep us sane. Although, even here, amidst the hail in this exquisitely beautiful cemetery, not all is peaceful. About fifteen feet away from us, along the concrete beside the mouth of the pond, someone has painted a large skeleton, throwing up the ‘devil’s horns’ hand symbol as he drowns. “THE DROUGHT IS HERE,” it says beneath him. “KILL THE RICH.”
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Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer and a bookseller based in Philadelphia. She’s written for The Awl, The Outline, Medium, and others.
Editor: Dana Snitzky
Factchecker: Ethan Chiel