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Jenny Odell Follow

Jun 29 43 min read

how to do nothing
This is a version of a keynote I gave at EYEO 2017.

Id like to start o by saying that this talk is grounded in a particular lo-


cation, and that is the Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses in Oakland, Cali-
fornia, otherwise known simply as the rose garden.

In the most basic sense, thats because I largely wrote this talk in the
rose garden. But its also because as I wrote it, I realized that the gar-
den encompassed everything that Im going to talk to you about, which
is the practice of doing nothing, but also the architecture of nothing,
the importance of public space, and an ethics of care and maintenance.
And also, birds:
this guy

Why did I write this talk in the rose garden? I live five minutes away,
and ever since Ive lived in Oakland the garden has been my default
place to go to get away from my computer, where I make much of my
art and also do most of my work related to teaching. But after the 2016
election, I started going to the rose garden almost every day. This
wasnt exactly a conscious decision; I needed to golike a deer going
to a salt lick or a goat going to the top of a hill. It was innate.
What I would do there is nothing. Id just sit there. And although I felt
a bit guilty about how incongruous it seemedbeautiful garden versus
terrifying worldit really did feel necessary, like a survival tactic. I
found this necessity of doing nothing so perfectly articulated in a pas-
sage from Gilles Deleuze in Negotiations:

were riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images.
Stupiditys never blind or mute. So its 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 dont
stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express them-
selves; 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 rar-
er, 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 thats painful. The function
of nothing here, of saying nothing, is that its 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.
making nothing
I want to backtrack a little here just to say that Ive long had an appre-
ciation of doing nothingor more properly, making nothing. Im not
lazy, but the most I have ever made or constructed is a new context for,
or perspective on, something that already existed.

For instance, in my series Satellite Landscapes, I painstakingly removed


the ground from photomerged screen shots of infrastructural sites on
Google Earth, pretty much solely so that people could consider them
more carefully, or at all.

Satellite Landscapes: Valero Oil Refinery, Benicia, CA


Satellite Landscapes: Hyperion Wastewater Plant, Los Angeles

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 corpo-
rate histories of the objects.
exhibition at Recology SF in 2015, with scannable tags

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.)

And most recently, during my residency at the Internet Archive, I have


been collecting specimens from ads in 1980s BYTE magazinesspeci-
mens being objects or conglomerations of objects that I find intention-
ally or unintentionally surrealist. I am not doing anything to these
images except removing the text and cropping them. Even in the cases
where that removal is more technically challenging, it feels more akin
to some kind of historical restoration.
the man on the left is having a private moment with dos and unix
original ad / specimen

This project might remind some people of Richard Prince, who re-
moved the text from Marlboro ads in order to comment on the appro-
priation of the myth of the American cowboy, a myth which is itself an
endless chain of appropriations. Theres a long tradition of work like
this, appropriation that comments on an original act of appropriation
or that reinterprets, annotates, proposes new meanings for what we
already have.

Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1989


Thats an intellectual reason for making nothing, but I think that in my
cases, its something simpler than that. Yes, the BYTE images speak in
interesting and inadvertent ways about some of the more sinister as-
pects of technology, but I also just really love them.

that is a computer wielding a riding crop

This love of ones subject is something Im provisionally calling the ob-


servational eros. The observational eros is an emotional fascination
with ones subject that is so strong it overpowers the desire to make
anything new. Its pretty well summed up in the introduction of Stein-
becks Cannery Row, where he describes the patience and care involved
in close observation of ones 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 per-
haps that might be the way to write this bookto open the page and let
the stories crawl in by themselves.

The subject of observation is so precious and fragile that it risks break-


ing under even the weight of observation. As an artist, I fear the break-
ing and tattering of my specimens under my touch, and so with
everything Ive ever made, without even thinking about it, Ive 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 car-
ried out a public art project called Windows, which materially speaking
consisted only of a map with a list of locations in San Francisco.

photo: Tanya Zimbardo / SFMOMA Open Space

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 ex-
ists in its own context, where it is found, without being altered or re-
moved 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.
no disrespect to Richard Deacon or George Rickey

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 ex-
ists where it already is.

A more recent project that acts in a similar spirit is Scott Polachs Ap-
plause Encouraged, which happened at Cabrillo National Monument in
San Diego in 2015. Forty-five minutes before the sunset, a greeter
checked the guests in to this cordoned-o area. They were ushered to
their seats and reminded not to take photos. When the sunset finished,
they applauded, and refreshments were oered afterward.

photos: Scott Polach

the architecture of nothing


Theres something that these last few projects Ive mentioned have in
common. The artist creates a structurewhether thats a map or a cor-
doned-o areathat holds open a contemplative space against the
pressures of habit and familiarity that constantly threaten to close it.
This architecture of nothing is something I frequently think about at
the rose garden, which is not your typical square garden with simple
rows of roses. Instead, it contains a branching system of paths and
stairways through and around the roses and the wilder elements of the
garden.

Everyone moves very slowly, and yes, people do quite literally stop and
smell the roses. There are probably a hundred possible ways to make
your way through the space, and just as many places to sit. Architec-
turally, the rose garden wants you to stay a while.

Not far from the rose garden is the Chapel of the Chimes, a columbar-
ium designed by Julia Morgan, another labyrinthine space whose many,
many rooms contains hundreds of containers of ashes. Some of those
containers are also annotated with cards, letters, photographs, and per-
sonal belongings, allowing you to attempt to consider someones entire
life from beginning to end, and by extension your own life, from begin-
ning to end.

Its also wonderfully easy to get lost in this place. My favorite part of
the building is a map which contains no you are here marking, so all
it does is give you an appreciation of how complicated the maze is that
youre in.
you are \_()_/

Im also just interested in labyrinths in general as designs. Labyrinths


are really old and have served various purposes, but most contempo-
rary labyrinths are specifically intended for contemplative walking.

labyrinths in Lindisfarne, Scotland (photo: Lesley Wilson) and Sibley Volcanic Reserve, Berkeley, CA (unknown photographer)

Labyrinths seem to function similarly to how they appear, a sort of


dense infolding of attention; through two-dimensional design alone,
they make it possible not to walk straight through a space, nor to stand
still, but something very well in between.
I should note that this infolding of attention does not have to be spatial-
ized or visual. One example is Deep Listening, the legacy of the musi-
cian and composer Pauline Oliveros. Classically trained in composition,
Oliveros was teaching experimental music at UC San Diego in the
1970s. She began developing Deep Listening as a way of working with
sound that could bring some inner peace amidst the violence and un-
rest of the Vietnam War.

Pauline Oliveros (with the accordion) and the Ensemble performing Sonic Meditations, 1970, Rancho
Santa Fe, CA (scan: Bradford Bailey)
Oliveros defines Deep Listening as listening in every possible way to
every thing possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such in-
tense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, of ones own
thoughts as well as musical sounds. She distinguished between listen-
ing and hearing: To hear is the physical means that enables percep-
tion. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically
and psychologically. The goal and the reward of Deep Listening was a
heightened sense of receptivity in a general sense, a reversal of the
norm:

In general, our cultural training dominantly promotes active manipulation


of the external environment through analysis and judgment, and tends to
devalue the receptive mode which consists of observation and intuition
(Software for People: Collected Writings)

As it turns out, I had my own introduction to a form of deep listening,


but it was through the practice of birdwatching. Actually, Ive always
found it weird that its called birdwatching, because half if not more of
birdwatching is actually birdlistening. I personally think they should
just rename it birdnoticing.

birdnoticing tools

In any case, what this practice has in common with Deep Listening is
that observing birds requires you quite literally to do nothing. Its sort
of the opposite of looking something up online. You cant really look for
birds. You cant make a bird come out and identify itself to you. All you
can do is walk and wait until you hear something, and then stand mo-
tionless under a tree trying to use your animal senses to figure out
where and what it is. In my experience, time kind of stops. (You can
ask anyone who knows medoing this regularly makes me late to
things.)

What amazed me about birdwatching was the way it changed the gran-
ularity 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 cant imagine how I
went most of my life so far without noticing scrub jays, which are in-
credibly loud and sound like this:
video by Seth 707

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 didnt really have a good rea-
son 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 dierent language that is specific to where shes 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 ac-
tually ten things, seems not only naturally cumulative but also a simple
function of the duration and quality of ones attention. With eort, we
can become attuned to things, able to pick up and then hopefully dier-
entiate 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 re-
treats, and like longer retreats, they aect the way we see everyday life
when we do come back to it.
The location of the rose garden when it was built in the 30s was specifi-
cally chosen because of the natural bowl shape of that area, so that
when you go there it does feel physically and acoustically enclosed, or
remarkably separate from everything around it. When you sit in the
rose garden, you truly sit in it.

Likewise at the Chapel of the Chimes: Although some rooms open up to


the sky, there are only a few side windows to the outside world, and
half of the rooms are underground.
Even the labyrinths I mentioned, by their very shape, collect our atten-
tion 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 trac
and the bells for six oclock. And in the case of Deep Listening, al-
though in theory it can be practiced anywhere at any time, its telling
that there have also been Deep Listening retreats.
labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Franciso (photo: Erik)

This isnt a new idea, and it also applies over longer periods of time. I
think most of us have, or know someone who has, gone through some
period of removal that fundamentally changed their attitude to the
world they returned to. Sometimes thats occasioned by something ter-
rible, like illness or loss, and sometimes its voluntary, but regardless
that pause in time is sometimes the only thing that can precipitate
change on a certain scale.

One of our most famous observers, John Muir, had just such an experi-
ence. Before becoming the naturalist that we know him as, he worked
as a supervisor and sometimes-inventor in a wagon wheel factory. (One
of his weirder inventions was a study desk that was also an alarm clock
and timer, which would open up books for an allotted amount of time,
close them, and then open the next book.)
no thanks. (from The Atlantic, Old, Weird Tech: John Muir Mechanical GTD Desk Edition)

Muir had already developed a love of botany, but it was an eye accident
that temporarily blinded him that made him reevaluate his priorities.
The accident confined him to a darkened room for six weeks, and he
was unsure whether he would ever see again. The 1916 edition of The
Writings of John Muir is divided into two parts, one before the accident
and one after, each with its own introduction by William Fredric Bade.
In the second introduction, Bade writes that this period of reflection
convinced Muir that life was too brief and uncertain, and time too pre-
cious, to waste upon belts and saws; that while he was pottering in a
wagon factory, God was making a world; and he determined that, if his
eyesight was spared, he would devote the remainder of his life to a
study of the process. Muir himself said, This aiction has driven me
to the sweet fields.

My dad went through a period of removal when he was my age and


working as a technician in the Bay Area. He got fed up with his job, and
figured he had enough saved up to quit and live extremely cheaply for a
while. That ended up being two years. I recently asked him how he
spent that time, and his answer was that he read a lot, rode his bike,
studied math and electronics, went fishing, had long chats with his
friend and roommate, and sat in the hills, where he taught himself the
flute.
a spot in China Camp State park where my dad spent a lot of time (Google Street View)

After a while, he says, he realized that a lot of his anger about his job
and outside circumstances had more to do with him than he realized.
As he put it, its just you with yourself and your own crap, so you have
to deal with it. But that time also taught my dad about creativity, and
the state of openness, nothing, maybe even boredom, that it requires.
Im reminded of a 1991 lecture by John Cleese (of Monty Python) on
creativity, in which two of the five required factors he lists are time.

John Cleeses factors for creativity

And so at the end of this stretch of open time, my dad shopped around
for jobs and realized that the one hed had was actually pretty good. He
describes it as a humbling experience. But also, because hed discov-
ered what was necessary for his own creativity, he wasnt the same the
second time around. He went from technician to engineer and started
racking up patents.

(And by the way, my dad shares the same penchant for close observa-
tion that I do. This is a typical text from him.)
This got me thinking that perhaps the granularity of attention we
achieve outward also extends inward, so that as the perceptual details
of our environment unfold in surprising ways, so too do our own intri-
cacies and contradictions.

I like to draw blobs

My dad said that leaving the confined context of a job made him under-
stand 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 Oliv-
eros 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 part-
ner, 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.

the precarity of nothing


Theres an obvious critique of all of this, and thats 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 o was that on some level, he
had enough reason to think he could get another job. Its possible to
understand the practice of doing nothing solely as a self-indulgent lux-
ury, the equivalent of taking a mental health day if youre lucky enough
to work at a place that has those.

But here I come back to Deleuzes right to say nothing, and although
we can definitely say that this right is variously accessible or even inac-
cessible 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. Im struck by the quality of things
that associated with the category What we Will: rest, thought, flow-
ers, sunshine.
graphic and song by Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, 1886

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 or-
ganized 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 its not 8 hours of,
say, leisure or education, but 8 hours of what we will. Although
leisure or education might be involved, what seems most humane is the
refusal to define that period.

That campaign was about a demarcation of time. So its interesting,


and certainly troubling, to read the decline in labor unions in the last
several decades alongside a similar decline in the demarcation of public
space. True public spaces, the most obvious examples being parks and
libraries, are places forand thus the spatial underpinnings ofwhat
we will.

Oakland Free Library, Melrose Branch (photo: Sanfranman59)


A public, non-commercial space demands nothing from you in order for
you to enter, nor for you to stay; the most obvious dierence between
public space and other spaces is that you dont have to buy anything, or
pretend to want to buy something, to be there. Consider an actual city
park in contrast to a faux-public space like Universal CityWalk, which
one passes through upon leaving the Universal Studios theme park.

CityWalk in Orlando, FL (photos: Orlando Informer)

Because it interfaces between the theme park and the actual city, City-
Walk exists somewhere in between, almost like a movie set, where visi-
tors can consume the supposed diversity of an urban environment
while enjoying a feeling of safety that results from its actual homogene-
ity. In an essay about such spaces, Eric Chaplin and Sarah Holding call
City Walk a scripted space par excellence, that is, a space which ex-
cludes, directs, supervises, constructs, and orchestrates use. Anyone
who has ever tried any funny business in a faux public space knows
that such spaces do not just script actions, they police them. As Mike
Davis has noted, scripted spaces can be boiled down to a form of crowd
control:

Ultimately the aims of contemporary architecture and the police converge


most strikingly around the problem of crowd control the designers of
malls and pseudo-public space attack the crowd by homogenizing it. They
set up architectural and semiotic barriers to filter out undesirables. They
enclose the mass that remains, directing its circulation with behaviorist fe-
rocity.
(City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles)
In a public space, ideally, you are a citizen with agency; in a faux public
space, you are either a consumer or a threat to the design of the place.

The rose garden is a public space. It is a Works Progress Administration


project from the 1930s, and like all WPA projects, was built by people
put to work by the federal government during the Depression. I like
thinking about this when I go there, that this rose garden, an incredible
public good, came out of a program that itself was also a public good.

announcement (1932) and photo (1936) from the Oakland Tribune

Still, it wasnt surprising to me to find out recently that the rose garden
is in an area that almost got turned into condos in the 70s. Im ap-
palled, but not surprised. Im also not surprised that it took a concerted
eort by local residents to have the area re-zoned to prevent that from
happening. Thats because this kind of thing is always seems to be hap-
pening: those spaces which are not seen as commercially productive are
always under threat, since what they produce cant be measured or
exploited or even easily identifieddespite the fact that anyone in the
neighborhood can tell you what an immense value the garden provides.

Currently, I see a similar battle playing out for our time, a colonization
of the self by capitalist ideas of productivity and eciency. One might
say the parks and libraries of the self are always about to be turned into
condos.
Franco Berardi, in his book After the Future, ties the defeat of labor
movements in the 1980s to rise of the idea that we should all be entre-
preneurs. In the past, he notes, economic risk was the business of the
capitalist, the investor. Today though, we are all capitalist and
therefore, we all have to take risks. The essential idea is that we
should all consider life as an economic venture, as a race where there
are winners and losers.

The way that Berardi describes labor will sound as familiar to anyone
concerned with their personal brand as it will to any Uber driver, con-
tent moderator, hard-up freelancer, aspiring YouTube star, or adjunct
professor who drives to three campuses in one week:

In the global digital network, labor is transformed into small parcels of


nervous energy picked up by the recombining machine. The workers are
deprived of every individual consistency. Strictly speaking, the workers no
longer exist. Their time exists, their time is there, permanently avail-
able to connect, to produce in exchange for a temporary salary. (empha-
sis mine)

The removal of economic security for working people8 hours for


work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we willdissolves those
boundaries so that we are left with 24 potentially monetizable hours
that are sometimes not even restricted to our time zones or our sleep
cycles.
then and now

In a situation where every waking moment has become pertinent to our


making a living, and when we submit even our leisure for numerical
evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram, constantly checking on
its performance like one checks a stock, monitoring the ongoing devel-
opment of our personal brand, time becomes an economic resource
that we can no longer justify spending on nothing. It provides no re-
turn on investment; it is simply too expensive.

Anthony Antonellis, Facebook Bliss

Its a cruel confluence of time and space: just as we lose noncommercial


spaces, we also see all of our own time and our actions as potentially
commercial. Just as public space gives way to faux-public retail spaces
or weird corporate privatized parks, so we are sold the idea of compro-
mised leisure, a freemium leisure that is a very far cry from what we
will.

Privately Owned Public Space (POPOS) in San Francisco (photo: Staeiou) / social media consultant in Nosedive (Black Mirror, Season 3, Episode 1)

While I was going through those old BYTE magazines, looking for speci-
mens, I came across a lot of ads about computers whose main point
was that they were going to save you time working. This one, the
power lunch, is one of my favorites.
he is drinking milk

Part of whats so painful about this image is that we know how this
story ends; yes, it did get easier to work. From anywhere. All the time.
Compare the power lunch with this ad, one of a series by Fiverr that I
saw in an Oakland BART station.
For anyone unfamiliar with Fiverr: Its a microtasking site where indi-
vidual entrepreneurs sell various tasksbasically, units of their time
for $5, whether thats copy editing, filming a video of themselves do-
ing something of your choice, or pretending to be your girlfriend on
Facebook. Fiverr is the ultimate expression of Franco Berardis fractals
of time and pulsating cells of labor. And here, the idea that you would
even withhold some of that time to sustain yourself with food is essen-
tially ridiculed. Yes, these people work from home, but unlike the man
with the sandwich, they must work from home. Home is work; work is
home.
emotional labor that can be done at any time from any place

This isnt constrained to the gig economy. For a few years after grad
school, I worked in the marketing department of a large corporation
(where I would amuse myself by taking Photobooth photos with a card-
board cutout I found in the oce).

yes, these photos are a cry for help

The oce had instituted something called the Results Only Work Envi-
ronment, or ROWE. The idea of ROWE was to abolish the 8-hour work-
day, and that you could work whenever from wherever as long as you
got your work done. It sounded nice, but there was something in the
name that bothered me. After all, what is the E in ROWE? If you could
be getting results at the oce, in your car, at the store, at homearent
those all then work environments? At the time, in 2011, I surprisingly
didnt have a phone with email yet, and when this happened I saw the
writing on the wall and put o getting one even longer. I knew exactly
what would happen the minute I did, that every minute of every day I
would in fact be answerable to someone, even if my leash was a lot
longer.

Our required reading, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix it, by the cre-
ators of ROWE, intended to describe a merciful slackening of the be in
your chair from 9 to 5 model, but I was nonetheless troubled by how
the work and non-work selves are completely conflated throughout the
text. And so they write:

If you can have your time and work and live and be a person, then the
question youre faced with every day isnt, Do I really have to go to work
today? but, How do I contribute to this thing called life? What can I do to-
day to benefit my family, my company, myself?

To me, company doesnt belong in that sentence. Even if you love


your job! Unless theres something specifically about you or your job
that requires it, there is nothing to be admired about being constantly
connected, constantly potentially productive the second you open your
eyes in the morningand in my opinion, no one should accept this, not
now, not ever. In the words of Othello: Leave me but a little to myself.

This constant connectionand the diculty of maintaining any kind of


silence or interiorityis already a problem, but since the election its
seemed especially like a crisis to me.

Those same means by which we give over our hours and days are the
same with which we assault ourselves with information and misinfor-
mation, at a rate that is frankly inhumane. I am not saying dont read
the news, or what other people have to say about that news, but there
is clearly a problemnot only of quality, but also of speed and atten-
tion span, which seem to be inversely related and driving each other.

Berardi, contrasting modern day Italy with the political agitations of


the 1970s, says the regime he inhabits is not founded on the repression
of dissent; nor does it rest on the enforcement of silence. On the con-
trary, it relies on the proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion
and discourse, and on making thought, dissent, and critique banal and
ridiculous. Instances of censorship, he says, are rather marginal when
compared to what is essentially an immense informational overload
and an actual siege of attention, combined with the occupation of the
sources of information by the head of the company.

It is this financially incentivized proliferation of chatter, and the utter


speed at which waves of hysteria now happen online, that has so
deeply horrified me and oended my senses and cognition as a human
who dwells in human, bodily time. The connection between the com-
pletely virtual and the utterly real, as evidenced by something like Piz-
zagate, or the doxing and swatting of online journalists, is deeply,
fundamentally disturbing on a human phenomenological level. I know
that in the months after the election, a lot of us found ourselves search-
ing for this thing called truth, but what I also felt to be missing was
just reality, something I could point to after all of this and say, this is
really real.
birds
Around this time that this collective anxiety started really picking up, I
began noticing a few types of birds in my neighborhood.

First, it was a couple of night herons that perch outside of a KFC in my


neighborhood, almost all day and night, pretty reliably. If youve never
seen one, night herons are typically hunched over, sort of grumpy, but
also kind of stoic in their grumpiness.

the colonels

They have long necks like other herons, but they keep it secret and al-
ways stay in this sort of football shape. I remember specifically feeling
comforted by the presence of these birds, like I could look up from
whatever trash fire was happening on Twitter and theyd probably be
there, unmoving with their pointy beaks and their judgy eyes.
In fact I even found them on 2011 Street View, and I have no doubt they
were there earlier, but Street View doesnt go back any further.

vintage heron

I also started noticing some crows in my neighborhood. At the time I


had just read The Genius of Birds, and Id learned the crows are incredi-
bly intelligent and can recognize and remember human faces. They can
in fact teach their children which are the good and the bad humans,
good being ones who feed them and bad being ones who try to catch
them or do something else weird. I have a balcony, so I started leaving
a few peanuts out for the crows.
For a long time, the peanuts just stayed there and I felt like a crazy per-
son. And then once in a while Id notice that one was gone, but I
couldnt be sure who took it. Then a couple times I saw a crow come by
and swipe one, but it wouldnt hang out. And this went on for a while
until finally they decided they would not land on the balcony, but they
would hang out on the telephone wire nearby.
hello there

One started coming every day around the time that I eat breakfast, and
sometimes it would caw to make me come out on the balcony with a
peanut. Then one day it brought its kid, which I knew was its kid be-
cause the big one would groom the smaller one and because the
smaller one had an undeveloped, chicken-like squawk. I named them
Crow and Crowson.
the distinguished crow and crowson

I soon discovered that Crow and Crowson preferred it when I threw


peanuts o the balcony so they could do fancy dives o of the tele-
phone line. I cant read crow minds but it seems to me that they really
do enjoy doing this, and I enjoy seeing it.
selected acrobatics by crow and crowson

Sometimes they dont want any more peanuts and they just sit there
and stare at me. One time Crowson followed me halfway down the
street. And frankly, I spent a lot of time staring back at them, which I
imagine looks very weird to my neighbors. But again, like the night
herons, I found their company comforting, somehow extremely so
given the circumstances. I found it comforting that these essentially
wild animals recognize me, that I have some place in their universe,
and that even though I have no idea what they do the rest of the day,
that they stop by my place every day, that sometimes I can even wave
them over from a faraway tree.

And then theres this guy.


this guy again

This scrub jay lives in a particular corner of the rose garden. Scrub jays
can also identify humans, and they also enjoy peanuts. Every time I go
to the garden, I listen for that inimitable shriek, and if I hear it, I sit at
a particular bench and wait for him to come out. Scrub jays are smart
in part because they can remember up to 200 locations where they
buried food for later. (And in fact, if they notice another bird watching
them hide something, theyll come back later and re-bury it, which sug-
gests to ethologists that they possess theory of mind.) One of my fa-
vorite things to watch is a scrub jay taking a peanut, searching for a
good spot to cache it, hammering it into the ground with its beak, and
then artfully placing dirt and leaves on top of it to camouflage the spot.

hiding a snack for later


This isnt only about me watching birds. I think a lot about what these
birds see when they look at meand Im sure anyone who has a pet is
familiar with this feeling. I assume they just see a female human who
for some reason seems to pay attention to them. They dont know what
my work is, they dont see progressthey just see recurrence, day after
day, week after week.

And through them, I am able to inhabit that perspective, to see myself


as the human animal that I am, and when they fly o, to some extent, I
can inhabit that perspective too, noticing the shape of the hill that I live
on and where all of the tall trees and good landing spots are.

There are ravens that I noticed live half in and half out of the rose gar-
den, until I realized that there is no rose garden to them. These alien
animal perspectives on me and our shared world have provided me not
only with an escape hatch from contemporary anxiety but also a re-
minder of my own animality and the animateness of the world I live in.
raven territory

Their flights enable my own literal flights of fancy, recalling a question


that one of my favorite authors, David Abram, asks in Becoming Animal:
Do we really believe that the human imagination can sustain itself
without being startled by other shapes of sentience?

And, strange as it sounds, this finally explains my need to go to the rose


garden after the election. What is missing from that surreal and terrify-
ing torrent of information and virtuality is any regard, any place, for
the human animal, situated as she is in time and in a physical environ-
ment with other human and nonhuman entities. It turns out that
groundedness requires actual groundedness, in the ground. Direct sen-
suous reality, writes Abram, in all its more-than-human mystery, re-
mains the sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now
inundated with electronically generated vistas and engineered plea-
sures; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky can we
learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions that
now claim us.

When I realized this, I grabbed onto it like a life raft, and I havent let
go. This is real. The living, breathing bodies in this room are real. I am
not an avatar, a set of preferences, or some smooth cognitive force. Im
lumpy, Im an animal, I hurt sometimes, and Im dierent one day to
the next. I hear, I see, and I smell things that hear, see, and smell me.
And it can take a break to remember that, a break to do nothing, to lis-
ten, to remember what we are and where we are.

nothing for something


I want to be clear that Im not actually encouraging anyone to do noth-
ing in the larger sense. There is so much racial, environmental, and
economic injustice to be angry about and to be acted upon right now.
There is also so much to be mourned. In Oakland, we are still mourn-
ing the 36 victims of the Ghost Ship Fire, many of them artists and
community-minded people.

Ironically, in such a situation, I believe that having recourse to periods


of and spaces for doing nothing are even more important, because
those are times and places that we think, reflect, heal, and sustain our-
selves. Its a kind of nothing thats necessary for, at the end of the day,
doing something. In this time of extreme overstimulation, I suggest that
we reimagine #FOMO as #NOMO, the necessity of missing out, or if
that bothers you, #NOSMO, the necessity of sometimes missing out.

Thats a strategic function of nothing, and in that sense, you simply


could file my talk simply under the heading of self care. But if you do,
make it self care in the activist sense that Audre Lorde meant it in the
1980s when she said that caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is
self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare and not what
it means when its been appropriated for commercial ends. (As
Gabrielle Moss, author of Glop (a Goop parody book) put it, self care
is poised to be wrenched away from activists and turned into an ex-
cuse to buy an expensive bath oil.) I think thats an easy enough dis-
tinction for all of us to make.
Audre Lorde in 1983 (photo: Robert Alexander)

But beyond strategic / activist self care, I think theres something else
to be gained here: Doing nothing teaches us how to listen. Ive already
mentioned literal listening, or Deep Listening, but this time I mean it in
a broader sense. To do nothing is to hold yourself still so that you can
perceive what is actually there. As Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecolo-
gist who records natural soundscapes, Silence is not the absence of
something but the presence of everything.

There are a lot of us, and Im certainly not immune to this, who could
stand to learn how to listen better, and I mean listen to other people. As
a lover of weird internet things, I definitely do not want to write o the
amazing culture and also activism that happens online. But even with
the problem of the filter bubble aside, the platforms that we use to
communicate with each other about very important things do not en-
courage listening. They encourage shouting, or having a take after
having read a single headline.
I alluded earlier to the problem of speed, but this is also a problem of
listening, and of bodies. There is in fact a connection between listening
in the Deep Listening, bodily sense, and listening, as in me understand-
ing your perspective. Writing about the circulation of information, Be-
rardi makes a helpful distinction between connectivity and sensitivity.
Connectivity is the rapid circulation of information among compatible
unitsan example is something getting a bunch of shares very quickly
and unthinkingly by likeminded people on Facebook. With connectivity,
you either are or are not compatible. Red or blue; check the box. In this
transmission of information, the units dont change, nor does the
information.

Sensitivity, in contrast, involves a dicult, awkward, ambiguous en-


counter between two dierently shaped bodies that are themselves am-
biguousand this meeting, this sensing, requires and takes place in
time. Not only that, due to the eort of sensing, the two entities might
come away from the encounter a bit dierently than they went in.
This always brings to mind a month-long artist residency I once at-
tended with two other artists in an extremely remote location in the
Sierra Nevada. There wasnt much to do at night, so one of the artists
and I would sometimes sit on the roof and watch the sunset. She was
Catholic and from the Midwest; Im sort of the quintessential California
atheist. I have really fond memories of the sort of languid, meandering
conversations we had up there about science and religion. And what
strikes me is that neither of us ever convinced the otherthat wasnt
the pointbut we listened to each other, and we did each come away
dierently, with a more nuanced understanding of the other persons
position.

view from the roof


So connectivity is a share or, conversely, a trigger; sensitivity is an in
person conversation, whether pleasant or dicult, or both. Obviously,
online platforms favor connectivity, not simply by virtue of being on-
line, but also arguably for profit, since the dierence between connec-
tivity and sensitivity is time, and time is money. Again, too expensive.

As the body disappears, so too does our ability to empathize. Berardi


suggests a link between our senses and our ability to make sense, asking
us to hypothesize the connection between the expansion of the infos-
phere and the crumbling of the sensory membrane that allows hu-
man beings to understand that which cannot be verbalized, that which
cannot be reduced to codified signs. In the environment of our online
platforms, that which cannot be verbalized is figured as excess or in-
compatible, although every in-person encounter teaches us that expres-
sions of the body, indeed the very matter-of-fact presence of the body, is
as important, if not more, than what is verbalized.

By championing nothing and in particular the idea of nothing


productive, I am also criticizing the prevailing rhetoric of growth. In
nature, things that grow unchecked are often parasitic or cancerous.
And yet, we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over
the cyclical and the regenerative. Indeed our very idea of productivity
is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do
not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.

This is the place to mention a few regulars of the rose garden; theres a
turkey that sometimes makes the rounds, and Grayson the cat, who will
sit on your book if youre trying to read.
you will stop reading and pet me now

But the most constant regulars of the garden are volunteers doing
maintenance. Their presence is a reminder that the rose garden is beau-
tiful in part because it is cared for, that eort must be put in, whether
thats saving it from becoming condos or just making sure the roses
come back next year. The volunteers do such a good job that I very of-
ten will see park visitors walk up to them and thank them for what
theyre doing.
(left photo: Morcom Rose Garden blog)

When I see the volunteers pulling weeds and arranging hoses, I often
think of the Maintenance Manifesto, by the artist Mierle Laderman Uke-
les. Her well known pieces include Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Out-
side, a performance in which she washed the steps of the Wadsworth
Atheneum, and Touch Sanitation, in which she spent 11 months shaking
hands with and thanking New York Citys 8,500 sanitation men, in ad-
dition to interviewing and shadowing them. She has in fact been a per-
manent artist in residence with the New York sanitation department
since 1977.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside, 1973


Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation, 197980

Ukeles interest in maintenance was partly occasioned by her becoming


a mother in the 1960s. In an interview she explained, Being a mother
entails an enormous amount of repetitive tasks. I became a mainte-
nance worker. I felt completely abandoned by my culture because it
didnt have a way to incorporate sustaining work. Her 1969 Mainte-
nance Manifesto is actually an exhibition proposal in which she consid-
ers her own maintenance work as the art. She says, I will live in the
museum and I customarily do at home with my husband and my baby,
for the duration of the exhibition My work is the work.

The manifesto opens with a distinction between what she calls the
death force and the life force:

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Maintenance Manifesto, 1969

The life force is concerned with cyclicality, care, and regeneration; the
death force sounds a whole lot like disrupt. Of course some amount
of both are necessary, but one is routinely valorized, not to mention
masculinized, while the other goes unrecognized because it has no part
in progress.

That brings me to one last surprising aspect of the rose garden. I first
noticed this as a series of numbers in the tens. Each number signifies a
decade, and within each decade you will find 10 plaques, one for each
year, with the names of various women.

As it turns out, the names are of women who were voted Mother of the
Year by Oakland residents. The feature was added to the garden in
1954.
To be Mother of the Year, you must have contributed to improving the
quality of life for the people of Oaklandthrough home, work, com-
munity service, volunteer eorts or combination thereof. In an old in-
dustry film about Oakland, I found footage of a Mother of the Year
ceremony from sometime in the 1950s:

And for a few days this last May, I noticed an unusual number of volun-
teers in the garden, sprucing everything up, repainting things. It took
me a while to realize they were preparing for Mother of the Year 2017.
Malia Luisa Latu Saulala accepts 2017 award (photo: Sarah Tan)

(Presumably, there are many Mothers of the Year to come; the prome-
nade goes all the way up to 2050. I also want to give a shout out here
to my own mom, who has volunteered on top of working for much of
her adult life, and who currently supports parents with foster children.
Hi Mom!)

Im mentioning this celebration of mothers in the context of work that


sustains and maintainsbut I dont think that one needs to be a
mother to experience a maternal impulse. In particular, thinking about
maintenance and care for ones kin (however you define your kin) al-
ways brings me back to Paradise Built in Hell, in which Rebecca Solnit
examines and dispenses with the myth that people become desperate
and selfish after disasters. From the 1916 earthquake to Hurricane Katri-
na, she gives detailed accounts of the surprising resourcefulness, empa-
thy, and sometimes even humor that arise in dark circumstances.
Several of her interviewees report feeling a strange nostalgia for the
purposefulness and the connection they felt with their neighbors imme-
diately following a disaster. Solnit writes:

When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up
not all, but the great preponderanceto become their brothers keepers.
And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amid death,
chaos, fear, and loss. Horrible in itself, disaster is sometimes a door
back into paradise, the paradise at least in which we are who we hope to
be, do the work we desire, and are each our sisters and brothers keeper.
She suggests that the real disaster is everyday life, which alienates us
from each other but also from the protective impulse that we harbor. In
a similar vein, what Im suggesting here is that we adopt a protective
stance toward ourselves, each other, and whatever is left of what makes
us human.

Carissa Potter Carlson, Comforting Thoughts, 2017

Im suggesting that we protect our spaces and our time for non-instru-
mental, non-commercial activity and thought, for maintenance, for
care, for conviviality. And Im suggesting that we fiercely protect our
human animality against all technologies that ignore and actively dis-
dain the body, the bodies of others, and the body of the landscape that
we inhabit.

escaping the need to eat / escaping the planet (photos: Soylent / Jae C. Hong)
Abram writes that all our technological utopias and dreams of ma-
chine-mediated immortality may fire our minds but they cannot feed
our bodies. Indeed, most of this eras transcendent technological visions
remain motivated by a fright of the body and its myriad susceptibilities,
by a fear of our carnal embedment in a world ultimately beyond our
controlby our terror of the very wildness that nourishes and sustains
us.

Peter Thiel (photo: Heisenberg Media) and Ray Kurzweil (photo: Ed Schipul)

There are certain people who would like to use technology to live
longer, or forever. Ironically, this desire is a perfect illustration of the
death drive from the Maintenance Manifesto (separation, individuali-
ty, Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow ones own pathdo your own
thing; dynamic change). To such men I propose that a far more parsi-
monious way to live forever is to exit the trajectory of productive time,
so that a single moment might open almost to infinity. As John Muir
once said, Longest is the life that contains the largest amount of time-
eacing enjoyment.

Of course, such a solution isnt good for business, nor can it be consid-
ered particularly innovative. In the meantime, as I sit in the deep bowl
of the rose garden, surrounded by various human and non-human bod-
ies, inhabiting a reality woven together by myriad bodily sensitivities
that are not my ownindeed, the very boundaries of my own body
overcome by the smell of jasmine and just-ripening blackberryI look
down at my phone and wonder if it isnt its own kind of sensory depri-
vation chamber.
epilogue: nothing planned
You may be wondering what this means for me as an artista digital
artist. Im right about at that point that my dad was when he started to
wonder about what he was doing. From this perspective, I look back
and notice that my most extensive work has used Google Earth, a way
for me to spend hours and hours looking at a representation of the
earth, albeit from a digital remove.
Athabasca Oil SandsSyncrude Mine, 2014

I think too about how one of my most rewarding experiences as an


artist was my physical engagement with actual objects of refuse at the
Recology SF dump, turning things over, opening them up, questioning
them not only with my mind but with my hands, noting an age that
was not just a number but often a smell.

diggin in the pile (photo: Stephanie Pau)

I think of the hours and hours that I have now spent in the rose garden,
putting o returning to my work on a glowing two-dimensional screen
an arms length from my face; or the days on which Ill leave just to get
coee and wind up almost involuntarily on top of a hill four hours lat-
er, regardless of the shoes Im wearing; or the fact that the last five or
six books Ive read have had to do with animal intelligence and the im-
portance of landscape in memory and cognition. I dont know where
any of this, where I, will end up.

went for an espresso and

So, as a thank you gift for listening to everything I have to say about
nothing, only to have me essentially tell you that I dont know what Im
doing, I want to give you a little bit of nothing:

Several years ago, before I had begun to think about any of this in any
conscious way, I was riding Caltrain home from Stanford in the
evening. Anyone who has taken Caltrain knows that a typical train car
is filled with people doing work on their computers or tablets, since
many of them are going to and coming from tech companies in the
Peninsula. As I remember it, I myself was characteristically stressed out,
thinking about a million things that I needed to do, and in general just
feeling very rigid and confined by own specific concerns.

hurtling through the peninsula (photo: SBGrad)

At that moment, my boyfriend happened to send me a podcast about


Gordon Hempton, the author of One Square Inch of Silence. In the mid-
dle of the podcast, theres a part where he plays a recording hed made
of thunder.

In the midst of everything that was going on, hearing this thunder gave
me a feeling that is honestly impossible to verbalizeand so I wont.
Instead, I will leave you with this recording of thunder by Gordon
Hempton.

https://open.spotify.com/album/5TlrKFP8wm1ED6pSiudm16

An almost better example from the same era is Sherrie Levines After
Walker Evans. Frequently misunderstood as a postmodernist stunt,
Levines photographs of Walker Evans iconic works were not meant to
be pictures, but rather pictures of pictures (or of picturing). As Craig
Owens puts it in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture:
In representing these canonical images of the rural poorthe expropriat-
edLevine was calling attention to the original act of appropriation
whereby Evans first took these photographs [FSA project], as if to illustrate
Walter Benjamins observation, in The Author as Producer, on the eco-
nomic function of photography: [Photography] has succeeded in making
even abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionable perfected manner, into
an object of enjoyment, i.e., a commodity.

Another great project in this vein is Joe McKays Sunset Solitaire, in


which he created custom software and projected his screen onto the
side of a shed, attempting to match the changing colors of the sunset.

photo: Jaime Cortez

One might wonder why I didnt choose to talk about John Cage in-
stead. Indeed, Oliveros was a colleague of Cages as well as a performer
of his music. In her study of the two composers, Tracy McMullen argues
that Oliveros practices diered from Cages because they included a
focus on embodiment, improvisation, and the dismantling of the
mind/body dualism troubles the primacy of the individual and the uni-
versal over the contingent, whereas Cages music did not include im-
provisation and sought to keep the self (his self) intact. Oliveros group
performances of Sonic Meditation are particularly good examples of Mc-
Mullens formulation:
Improvisation privileges listening and responding and therefore highlights
intersubjectivitythe ways our actions and sense of self are constantly
constructed through interaction with our environment.
In her book Deep Listening: A Composers Sound Practice, Oliveros
notes that animals are by definition Deep Listeners:
When you enter an environment where there are birds, insects or animals,
they are listening to you completely. You are received. Your presence may
be the dierence between life and death for the creatures of the environ-
ment. Listening is survival!

Abram proposes that observing and communicating with animals tem-


porarily invites us into their perspective a birds eye view on my
own environment being what I describe here. For me this brings to
mind something Hannah Arendt wrote in The Life of the Mind, even
though I suspect the two would have disagreed on many points (Abram
disdains, while Arendt admires, an intellectual remove from things)
that contemplating something requires seeing it from the outside:
the word theoretical until a few hundred years ago meant contemplat-
ing, looking upon something from the outside, from a position implying a
view that is hidden from those who take part in the spectacle and actualize
it. The inference to be to be drawn from this early distinction between do-
ing and understanding is obvious: as a spectator you may understand the
truth of what the spectacle is about; but the price you have to pay is with-
drawal from participating in it.

My beginning to be able to piece all this together is largely thanks to


the following inspirations: David Abrams The Spell of the Sensuous: Per-
ception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (and Walden Pond
Books in Oakland, the ultimate store for book-wandering, where I
found this and many other books I mentioned here), Redwood Re-
gional Park, conversations with my mom, dad, and my boyfriend Joe,
Leaning Into the Wind (a 2017 documentary on Andy Goldsworthy), and
work by friends in Living Room Light Exchange e.g. Nature Mani-
festo by my bird buddy Elisabeth Nicula, in which she says:
The act of observation inserts a separation between the self and nature,
protecting nature. Observation inserts nature between the self and the un-
known, protecting the self. Im not embarrassed to love nature, wild ani-
mals, and plants. I love them as individuals and as ideals. There is no
hierarchy of creatures. There is no hierarchy of rocks, water, air and skin.
(Nature Manifesto in LRLXs State Change)

Final note: photos and videos here without credits are mine.

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