Jenny Odell Considers New Temporal Realities

Talks with Ross Simonini

“I think it’s insane to expect anyone to be working at full capacity during a slow disaster like this.”

Jenny Odell is a writer and visual artist who researches the peculiar nature of our collective, contemporary reality. Many of her projects focus on technology and infrastructures, using augmented reality, satellite images, and Google street view to map out the unseen movements of energy our world. Likewise, she tends to exhibit her work at hubs of human interaction, like the dump, the San Francisco Planning Department, the New York Public Library, and Google’s headquarters. Her acclaimed book How To Do Nothing (Melville House, 2019) took a parallel approach to her visual work, using a collage of ideas to question the pace of life under capitalism. In the pandemic year that followed its publication, the book’s thesis has only become more potent. 

—Ross Simonini 

ROSS SIMONINI: How has your concept of “nothing” changed during Covid?

JENNY ODELL: I wouldn’t say that it’s changed much, only that I’ve recognized its importance and how challenging it can be to maintain. Trapped inside with the news and a general air of urgency, it can feel really counterintuitive to make space for anything like reflection, surprise, or joy, as well as longer (or nonhuman) timescales that exist outside the news cycle. I find that in the past year I’ve had to be more deliberate about keeping “nothing” in my life.

RS: In the beginning of the pandemic you weren’t doing much work. Has that changed?

JO: When the pandemic started, I was on spring break, and was also just feeling generally paralyzed — so I spent my days walking around and around in the hills. Now I’m teaching, and also working on a second book. But I’m also making a prodigious effort not to be busy, because I think it’s insane to expect anyone to be working at full capacity during a slow disaster like this. I tried to give my students less work this year too. Simply processing what’s happening is a monumental task that we need to make space for.

RS: What about your input? Have you been reading much?

JO: I’ve been reading a lot for this new book, which is about time — how time became money, the temporal experience of climate dread, and how to see different temporalities. Incidentally, a lot of this reading has provided a really helpful perspective on current events. Early in the pandemic, I read Philip Dray’s There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, amidst articles about the lack of protection for essential workers. Now I’m reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which has illuminated the current discourse around abolition. And I’ve been going through some issues of the academic journal Time and Society, where the stuff on desynchronized work schedules and time pressure are really interesting in the context of the pandemic, with parenting and working from home.

I also read Capital, Volume 1 and watched David Harvey’s online lecture series on it. I have this suspicion that the pandemic gave a lot of people the same idea, because at the beginning Volume 1 was backordered on Bookshop. Then, when I was ready for Volume 2, that was suddenly on backorder. (It just arrived in the mail two days ago.) Makes sense to me—if ever there was going to be a year where everyone reads Capital, this would be it.

RS: How do you usually read? How does it fit into your life?  

JO: I’m not sure whether to say that I read for research or pleasure, because to me they’re the same thing. But since I usually have some sort of project or burning question in mind when I choose books—and because I am an ungainly interloper into so many unfamiliar disciplines — it means that I read more nonfiction than fiction.

Within that, I think I have two ways of reading. One is very measured: I’ll read a chapter or two of something a day, usually before bed, using stickies and writing in the margins. Later, I type up all of the quotes that I marked, adding to an archive of notes that I’ve essentially kept since grad school and made use of quite a bit in How to Do Nothing

The other way starts out the same, but then for some reason I get really drawn into it, so much that sometimes I’ll forget or give up on taking notes. I think it usually has to do with the quality of writing. In the piece I wrote this year for the Paris Review about reading Emerson’s essays, I said that reading them made me feel drunk. Those are the kinds of books that I’ll read nonstop for as long as I can get away with, and they come from all over the map: Robin Wall Kimmerer, Byung-chul Han, and Henri Bergson are a few who have made me lose my bearings.

RS: Like you, I’ve been thinking about the perception of time during the pandemic. People keep saying things to me like, “that year went by so fast because all the days are the same” or “everything is moving so slowly.”

JO: I’m really interested in the running joke during the pandemic that every day is the same day—or that we never got out of March (e.g. referring to a day as, like, March 100th). I think it really points to the importance of novelty in feeling like time is moving forward. Because of course time is moving forward—I was reminded of this at the beginning of the pandemic by the sycamore trees growing leaves, and I’m reminded again by those same leaves falling down.  But if there’s less novelty, then there’s less to remember, and so looking back it feels like not as much time has passed.

I was talking to my friend this summer (around March 150th) about what we’d been doing—he was watching Chinese soap operas to brush up on his Chinese, and I’d been reading all these sociology papers about time, for my book. Because every day seemed the same, it didn’t feel like time had passed, and yet we each had this new knowledge. We were joking that it was like Neo in The Matrix when he gets a bunch of stuff uploaded into his brain and suddenly says: “I know kung fu.”

RS: The last few years, I haven’t had a permanent home, and I’ve noticed that being nomadic has expanded my sense of time. If I spent a year in a place, I’d have a similar amount of memories associated with it as I would to the places where I spent a decade, or a few months. My memory is more focused on where I am than how long I’m there. 

JO: I think that we map memories onto places—even more, that our memories live inside places. I remember last year visiting the library in Saratoga that I used to go to in high school, which I hadn’t been to since then. It turned out that I only remembered half of it, and when I walked into the (previously) un-remembered half, all of these other memories flooded back with it. Or more generally, when I look across the bay at San Francisco, I feel like I’m looking at my 20s. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always scoffed at the idea of uploading one’s brain, because my memories are all scattered across the landscape, and I have to travel across it to re-encounter them. 

Since the pandemic has been an experience of mostly not moving around, at least for me, it’s been an interesting challenge to try to seek out novelty on my same old neighborhood walks. The scale is much smaller than actual life events, but it does hold to some degree: there is the time before I found a GIANT mushroom on a tree trunk along the sidewalk, and the time after that… there was the time when the parks were closed, and the time when they were open. And a few weeks ago, I saw a varied thrush for the first time in my entire life. As if to emphasize the before-and-after quality of a first-time sighting, in birding we call this “lifer.”

RS: In your research, have you come across any new concepts of time that have changed your experience of it?

JO: I’m currently reading Carlo Rovelli’s The Universe is Not What it Seems and even though that book is mostly about quantum gravity, the recap of what relativity is really blew my mind… this idea that time is passing faster for your head than your feet. (For anyone interested, see the Atlantic article, “Study: Your Head is Older Than Your Feet.”) Obviously, the uniformity of things like global time zones is a political fiction; that’s something I’d already thought about a lot. But reading about relativity makes me appreciate how truly un-uniform time is, on a granular scale. Rovelli talks about how, if you asked what someone was doing in a different galaxy right now, you can’t answer that question, because it just doesn’t make sense — it’s like asking whether something is “above” or “below” something in outer space. It’s been a real lesson in how much our experience of time is bound by language, concepts, and our embeddedness in a very specific context, even when you strain very hard to see outside of it.

RS: For you, does the amount of time you put into something affect the work? Do you think audiences can feel that time?

JO: In How to Do Nothing I mention that David Hockney preferred painting to photography because more time was put into it, and that this allowed the viewer to inhabit or spend more time with the piece. He was very into this kind of durational looking, and doing whatever he could as an artist to get people to do that. I think I feel the same way; when I was making those collages in the early 2010s of hundreds of things cut out from Google Earth screen shots, I was making a visual argument that the viewer should closely consider quotidian things like swimming pools and basketball courts. It’s this implication that if I found it worthwhile to take the time, then you might too.

I think a lot about the relationship among time, difficulty, and complexity. There is a lot going on in How to Do Nothing, lots of different things from different sources. Some of that is because those are the things I happened to encounter in the course of my wandering, but some of it is a deliberate attempt to slow the reader down. No disrespect to books that are more straightforward — but I wanted mine to be like this cabinet of curiosities that you couldn’t just rush through because each thing was its own little world and deserved attention.

RS: How have you approached teaching online during COVID? Has the experience opened up any new modes of teaching?

JO: I’m lucky that my class is in digital art, so it’s been easier to shift into online teaching than, for example, painting or sculpture. Because I want to be sensitive to Zoom fatigue, it’s made me have to think about what a meaningful use of our time together is, and how to give them prompts and things that they can sort of get lost in on their own time. We seem to have struck a great balance with the students working independently, but coming together to celebrate and get excited about each others’ work. Honestly, our Zoom meetings have been so pure, a real ray of light in the midst of all this.

I also expanded the part of the class about browser-based art and online exhibitions, since that’s what we’ll be dealing with for the foreseeable future. We try to think about this kind of experience not as a compromise or substitute for in-person exhibition but as a medium in its own right that you would make different kinds of projects for. After all, an online exhibition means that many, many more people can see the work than would be able to in a gallery—and you can make it interactive. As an artist, what do you do with that? It’s an interesting question, with a rich history in internet art dating back to the 1990s.

RS: How are you training your attention these days?

JO: I try to have parts of the day where I’m only doing one thing. A lot of the time that’s walking or hiking alone, but I would also put reading, yoga, and phone conversations with a friend in this category. I think it’s a matter of pacing: even if you’re sitting still while looking at social media, your mind is being yanked all over the place—so I’m trying to create or seek out situations where I can just rest in something for a while.

Recently I had one of those experiences where you realize something about yourself that’s almost painfully obvious. I had parked near a trailhead off of a highway in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and was so excited about hiking that I enthusiastically went down the wrong side of the ridge. After about fifteen minutes I realized that the trailhead I wanted had been just across the highway, and that if I had looked at the map for even three more seconds, I would have noticed that. In How to Do Nothing, I talk a lot about patience and gaining context, but I think some of this is in response to my own instinct to jump into things too quickly. That impatience can stem from excitement (being excited to hike) or anxiety (reading a headline), but either way, it’s something I’m trying to be more aware of. I’m trying to artificially insert little pauses everywhere, and to do this until it becomes natural.

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