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how to do nothing – Jenny Odell – Medium
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"What I would do there is nothing. I’d just sit there. And although I felt a bit guilty about how incongruous it seemed — beautiful garden versus terrifying world — it really did feel necessary, like a survival tactic. I found this necessity of doing nothing so perfectly articulated in a passage from Gilles Deleuze in Negotiations:
…we’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute. So it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying. (emphasis mine)

He wrote that in 1985, but the sentiment is something I think we can all identify with right now, almost to a degree that’s painful. The function of nothing here, of saying nothing, is that it’s a precursor to something, to having something to say. “Nothing” is neither a luxury nor a waste of time, but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech."

"In The Bureau of Suspended Objects, a project I did while in residence at Recology SF (otherwise known as the dump), I spent three months photographing, cataloguing and researching the origins of 200 objects. I presented them as browsable archive in which people could scan the objects’ tags and learn about the manufacturing, material, and corporate histories of the objects.

One woman at the Recology opening was very confused and said, “Wait… so did you actually make anything? Or did you just put things on shelves?” (Yes, I just put things on shelves.)"

"That’s an intellectual reason for making nothing, but I think that in my cases, it’s something simpler than that. Yes, the BYTE images speak in interesting and inadvertent ways about some of the more sinister aspects of technology, but I also just really love them.

This love of one’s subject is something I’m provisionally calling the observational eros. The observational eros is an emotional fascination with one’s subject that is so strong it overpowers the desire to make anything new. It’s pretty well summed up in the introduction of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, where he describes the patience and care involved in close observation of one’s specimens:
When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book — to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.

The subject of observation is so precious and fragile that it risks breaking under even the weight of observation. As an artist, I fear the breaking and tattering of my specimens under my touch, and so with everything I’ve ever “made,” without even thinking about it, I’ve tried to keep a very light touch.

It may not surprise you to know, then, that my favorite movies tend to be documentaries, and that one of my favorite public art pieces was done by the documentary filmmaker, Eleanor Coppola. In 1973, she carried out a public art project called Windows, which materially speaking consisted only of a map with a list of locations in San Francisco.

The map reads, “Eleanor Coppola has designated a number of windows in all parts of San Francisco as visual landmarks. Her purpose in this project is to bring to the attention of the whole community, art that exists in its own context, where it is found, without being altered or removed to a gallery situation.” I like to consider this piece in contrast with how we normally experience public art, which is some giant steel thing that looks like it landed in a corporate plaza from outer space.

Coppola instead casts a subtle frame over the whole of the city itself as a work of art, a light but meaningful touch that recognizes art that exists where it already is."

"What amazed me about birdwatching was the way it changed the granularity of my perception, which was pretty “low res” to begin with. At first, I just noticed birdsong more. Of course it had been there all along, but now that I was paying attention to it, I realized that it was almost everywhere, all day, all the time. In particular I can’t imagine how I went most of my life so far without noticing scrub jays, which are incredibly loud and sound like this:


And then, one by one, I started learning other songs and being able to associate each of them with a bird, so that now when I walk into the the rose garden, I inadvertently acknowledge them in my head as though they were people: hi raven, robin, song sparrow, chickadee, goldfinch, towhee, hawk, nuthatch, and so on. The diversification (in my attention) of what was previously “bird sounds” into discrete sounds that carry meaning is something I can only compare to the moment that I realized that my mom spoke three languages, not two.

My mom has only ever spoken English to me, and for a very long time, I assumed that whenever my mom was speaking to another Filipino person, that she was speaking Tagalog. I didn’t really have a good reason for thinking this other than that I knew she did speak Tagalog and it sort of all sounded like Tagalog to me. But my mom was actually only sometimes speaking Tagalog, and other times speaking Ilonggo, which is a completely different language that is specific to where she’s from in the Philippines.

The languages are not the same, i.e. one is not simply a dialect of the other; in fact, the Philippines is full of language groups that, according to my mom, have so little in common that speakers would not be able to understand each other, and Tagalog is only one.

This type of embarrassing discovery, in which something you thought was one thing is actually two things, and each of those two things is actually ten things, seems not only naturally cumulative but also a simple function of the duration and quality of one’s attention. With effort, we can become attuned to things, able to pick up and then hopefully differentiate finer and finer frequencies each time.

What these moments of stopping to listen have in common with those labyrinthine spaces is that they all initially enact some kind of removal from the sphere of familiarity. Even if brief or momentary, they are retreats, and like longer retreats, they affect the way we see everyday life when we do come back to it."

"Even the labyrinths I mentioned, by their very shape, collect our attention into these small circular spaces. When Rebecca Solnit, in her book Wanderlust, wrote about walking in the labyrinth inside the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, she said, “The circuit was so absorbing I lost sight of the people nearby and hardly heard the sound of the traffic and the bells for six o’clock.”

In the case of Deep Listening, although in theory it can be practiced anywhere at any time, it’s telling that there have also been Deep Listening retreats. And Turrell’s Sky Pesher not only removes the context from around the sky, but removes you from your surroundings (and in some ways, from the context of your life — given its underground, tomblike quality)."

"My dad said that leaving the confined context of a job made him understand himself not in relation to that world, but just to the world, and forever after that, things that happened at work only seemed like one small part of something much larger. It reminds me of how John Muir described himself not as a naturalist but as a “poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc.”, or of how Pauline Oliveros described herself in 1974: “Pauline Oliveros is a two legged human being, female, lesbian, musician, and composer among other things which contribute to her identity. She is herself and lives with her partner, along with assorted poultry, dogs, cats, rabbits and tropical hermit crabs.” Incidentally, this has encouraged me to maybe change my bio to: “Jenny Odell is an artist, professor, thinker, walker, sleeper, eater, and amateur birdnoticer.”

3. the precarity of nothing

There’s an obvious critique of all of this, and that’s that it comes from a place of privilege. I can go to the rose garden, or stare into trees all day, because I have a teaching job that only requires me to be somewhere two days a week, not to mention a whole set of other privileges. Part of the reason my dad could take that time off was that on some level, he had enough reason to think he could get another job. It’s possible to understand the practice of doing nothing solely as a self-indulgent luxury, the equivalent of taking a mental health day if you’re lucky enough to work at a place that has those.

But here I come back to Deleuze’s “right to say nothing,” and although we can definitely say that this right is variously accessible or even inaccessible for some, I believe that it is indeed a right. For example, the push for an 8-hour workday in 1886 called for “8 hours of work, 8 hours of rest, and 8 hours of what we will.” I’m struck by the quality of things that associated with the category “What we Will”: rest, thought, flowers, sunshine.

These are bodily, human things, and this bodily-ness is something I will come back to. When Samuel Gompers, who led the labor group that organized this particular iteration of the 8-hour movement, was asked, “What does labor want?” he responded, “It wants the earth and the fullness thereof.” And to me it seems significant that it’s not 8 hours of, say, “leisure” or “… [more]
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july 2017 by robertogreco

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