how to do nothing
This is the transcript of a keynote talk I gave at EYEO 2017 in Minneapolis. An adapted version appears in my book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.
I’d like to start off by saying that this talk is grounded in a particular location, and that is the Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses in Oakland, California, otherwise known simply as “the rose garden.”
In the most basic sense, that’s because I largely wrote this talk in the rose garden. But it’s also because as I wrote it, I realized that the garden encompassed everything that I’m 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: birds.
What was I doing in the rose garden in the first place? I live five minutes away, and ever since I’ve 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 wasn’t exactly a conscious decision; I needed to go — like 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. 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.
1. making nothing
I want to backtrack a little here just to say that I’ve long had an appreciation of doing nothing — or more properly, making nothing. I’m 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.
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.)
And most recently, during my residency at the Internet Archive, I have been collecting “specimens” from ads in 1980s BYTE magazines — specimens being objects or conglomerations of objects that I find intentionally 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.
This project might remind some people of Richard Prince, who removed the text from Marlboro ads in order to comment on the appropriation of the myth of the American cowboy, a myth which is itself an endless chain of appropriations. There’s a long tradition of work like this, which comments on an original act of appropriation — or that reinterprets, annotates, proposes new meanings for what we already have.¹
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.
A more recent project that acts in a similar spirit is Scott Polach’s Applause 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-off area. They were ushered to their seats and reminded not to take photos. When the sunset finished, they applauded, and refreshments were offered afterward.²
And here in Minneapolis, at the Walker, many of us have gotten to experience James Turrell’s sky room (officially Sky Pesher), in which one can contemplate an isolated patch of sky. I enjoyed visiting the room on three consecutive days, each time seeing different kinds of clouds moving at different speeds.
Besides the sky itself, what I most loved about this room was the slant in the wall, this generous architectural invitation to look skyward for as long as one could afford to stay.
2. the architecture of nothing
That brings me to what these few projects I’ve mentioned have in common. The artist creates a structure — whether that’s a map or a cordoned-off area — that 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. Architecturally, the rose garden wants you to stay a while.
Not far from the rose garden is the Chapel of the Chimes, a columbarium 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 personal belongings, allowing you to attempt to consider someone’s entire life from beginning to end, and by extension your own life, from beginning to end.
It’s 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 tell you that you’re somewhere in a complicated maze.
I’m also interested in labyrinths in general as designs — especially modern-day labyrinths specifically intended for contemplative walking.
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 spatialized or visual. One example is Deep Listening, the legacy of the musician 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 unrest of the Vietnam War.³
Oliveros defines Deep Listening as “listening in every possible way to every thing possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, of one’s own thoughts as well as musical sounds.” She distinguished between listening and hearing: “To hear is the physical means that enables perception. 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, I’ve always found it weird that it’s called birdwatching, because half if not more of birdwatching is actually birdlistening. I personally think they should just rename it birdnoticing.
In any case, what this practice has in common with Deep Listening is that observing birds requires you quite literally to do nothing. It’s sort of the opposite of looking something up online. You can’t really look for birds. You can’t 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 motionless 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 me — doing this regularly makes me late to things.)
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.
The location of the rose garden when it was built in the 30s was specifically 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 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).
This isn’t 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 that’s occasioned by something terrible, like illness or loss, and sometimes it’s 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 experience. 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.)
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 precious, 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 affliction 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.
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, “it’s 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. I’m 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.
And so at the end of this stretch of open time, my dad shopped around for jobs and realized that the one he’d had was actually pretty good. He describes it as a humbling experience. But also, because he’d discovered what was necessary for his own creativity, he wasn’t 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 observation 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 intricacies and contradictions.
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 “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 it’s 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 for — and thus the spatial underpinnings of — “what we will.”
A public, non-commercial space demands nothing from you in order for you to enter, nor for you to stay; the most obvious difference between public space and other spaces is that you don’t 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.
Because it interfaces between the theme park and the actual city, CityWalk exists somewhere in between, almost like a movie set, where visitors can consume the supposed diversity of an urban environment while enjoying a feeling of safety that results from its actual homogeneity. In an essay about such spaces, Eric Chaplin and Sarah Holding call City Walk “a ‘scripted space’ par excellence, that is, a space which excludes, 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 ferocity.
(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.
Still, it wasn’t surprising to me to find out recently that the rose garden is in an area that almost got turned into condos in the 70s. I’m appalled, but not surprised. I’m also not surprised that it took a concerted effort by local residents to have the area re-zoned to prevent that from happening. That’s because this kind of thing is always seems to be happening: those spaces which are not seen as commercially productive are always under threat, since what they “produce” can’t be measured or exploited or even easily identified — despite 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 efficiency. 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 entrepreneurs. 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, content 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 available to connect, to produce in exchange for a temporary salary. (emphasis mine)
The removal of economic security for working people — 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will — dissolves 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.
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 development of our personal brand, time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on “nothing.” It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive.
It’s 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 compromised leisure, a freemium leisure that is a very far cry from “what we will.”⁴
While I was going through those old BYTE magazines, looking for specimens, 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.
Part of what’s 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: It’s a microtasking site where individual “entrepreneurs” sell various tasks — basically, units of their time — for $5, whether that’s copy editing, filming a video of themselves doing something of your choice, or pretending to be your girlfriend on Facebook. Fiverr is the ultimate expression of Franco Berardi’s “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 essentially 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.
This isn’t 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 cardboard cutout I found in the office).
The office had instituted something called the Results Only Work Environment, or ROWE. The idea of ROWE was to abolish the 8-hour workday, 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 office, in your car, at the store, at home — aren’t those all then “work environments”? At the time, in 2011, I surprisingly didn’t have a phone with email yet, and when this happened I saw the writing on the wall and put off 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 creators 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 you’re faced with every day isn’t, Do I really have to go to work today? but, How do I contribute to this thing called life? What can I do today to benefit my family, my company, myself?
To me, “company” doesn’t belong in that sentence. Even if you love your job! Unless there’s 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 morning — and 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 connection — and the difficulty of maintaining any kind of silence or interiority — is already a problem, but since the election it’s 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 misinformation, at a rate that is frankly inhumane. I am not saying don’t read the news, or what other people have to say about that news, but there is clearly a problem — not only of quality, but also of speed and attention 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 contrary, 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 offended my senses and cognition as a human who dwells in human, bodily time. The connection between the completely virtual and the utterly real, as evidenced by something like Pizzagate, 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 searching 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.
Just after the election, I also 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 you’ve never seen one, night herons are typically hunched over in a grumpy-looking way, but also kind of stoic in their grumpiness.
They have long necks like other herons, but they keep it secret and always stay in this sort of football shape. Without really thinking about it, I modified my path home from the bus to pass by the night herons whenever I could, just to be reassured by their presence.
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 they’d 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 doesn’t go back any further.
I also started noticing some crows in my neighborhood. At the time I had just read The Genius of Birds, and I’d learned the crows are incredibly 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 person. And then once in a while I’d notice that one was gone, but I couldn’t be sure who took it. Then a couple times I saw a crow come by and swipe one, but it wouldn’t 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.
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 because 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.
I soon discovered that Crow and Crowson preferred it when I threw peanuts off the balcony so they could do fancy dives off of the telephone line. I can’t read crow minds but it seems to me that they really do enjoy doing this, and I enjoy seeing it.
Sometimes they don’t 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. It’s 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 there’s this guy.
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, they’ll come back later and re-bury it, which suggests to ethologists that they possess theory of mind.) One of my favorite 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.
This isn’t only about me watching birds. I think a lot about what these birds see when they look at me — and I’m 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.⁵ They don’t know what my work is, they don’t see progress — they 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 off, 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 garden, 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 reminder of my own animality and the animateness of the world I live in.
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?”⁶
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 terrifying torrent of information and virtuality is any regard, any place, for the human animal, situated as she is in time and in a physical environment with other human and nonhuman entities. It turns out that groundedness requires actual groundedness, in the ground. “Direct sensuous reality,” writes Abram, “in all its more-than-human mystery, remains the sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now inundated with electronically generated vistas and engineered pleasures; 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 haven’t 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. I’m lumpy, I’m an animal, I hurt sometimes, and I’m different 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 listen, to remember what we are and where we are.
5. nothing for something
I want to be clear that I’m not actually encouraging anyone to “do nothing” 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 mourning 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 ourselves. It’s a kind of nothing that’s 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.
That’s 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 — self preservation as an act of political warfare – and not what it means when it’s 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 excuse to buy an expensive bath oil.”
But beyond strategic / activist self preservation, there’s something else to be gained here: Doing nothing teaches us how to listen. I’ve 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 ecologist who records natural soundscapes, put it: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”
There are a lot of us, and I’m 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 off 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 encourage 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 understanding your perspective. Writing about the circulation of information, Berardi makes a helpful distinction between connectivity and sensitivity. Connectivity is the rapid circulation of information among compatible units — an 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 don’t change, nor does the information.
Sensitivity, in contrast, involves a difficult, awkward, ambiguous encounter between two differently shaped bodies that are themselves ambiguous — and this meeting, this sensing, requires and takes place in time. Not only that, due to the effort of sensing, the two entities might come away from the encounter a bit differently than they went in.
This always brings to mind a month-long artist residency I once attended with two other artists in an extremely remote location in the Sierra Nevada. There wasn’t 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; I’m sort of the quintessential California atheist. I have really fond memories of the languid, meandering conversations we had up there about science and religion. And what strikes me is that neither of us ever convinced the other — that wasn’t the point — but we listened to each other, and we did each come away differently, with a more nuanced understanding of the other person’s position.
So connectivity is a share or, conversely, a trigger; sensitivity is an in person conversation, whether pleasant or difficult, or both. Obviously, online platforms favor connectivity, not simply by virtue of being online, but also arguably for profit, since the difference between connectivity 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 infosphere … and the crumbling of the sensory membrane that allows human 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 incompatible, although every in-person encounter teaches us the importance of nonverbal expressions of the body, not to mention the very matter-of-fact presence of the body in front of me.
So, self preservation and the cultivation of sensitivity — these are two somethings we might get from nothing. But there’s one more: an antidote to the 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; there’s a turkey that sometimes makes the rounds, and Grayson the cat, who will sit on your book if you’re trying to read.
But the most constant regulars of the garden are volunteers doing maintenance. Their presence is a reminder that the rose garden is beautiful in part because it is cared for, that effort must be put in, whether that’s 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 often will see park visitors walk up to them and thank them for what they’re doing.
When I see the volunteers pulling weeds and arranging hoses, I often think of the Maintenance Manifesto, by the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Her well known pieces include Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside, 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 City’s 8,500 sanitation men, in addition to interviewing and shadowing them. She has in fact been a permanent artist in residence with the New York sanitation department since 1977.
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 maintenance worker. I felt completely abandoned by my culture because it didn’t have a way to incorporate sustaining work.” Her 1969 Maintenance Manifesto is actually an exhibition proposal in which she considers her own maintenance work as the art. She says, “I will live in the museum and do what I customarily do at home with my husband and my baby, for the duration of the exhibition … My work is the work.”
Her manifesto opens with a distinction between what she calls the death force and the life force:
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 Oakland — through home, work, community service, volunteer efforts or combination thereof.” In an old industry 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 volunteers in the garden, sprucing everything up, repainting things. It took me a while to realize they were preparing for Mother of the Year 2017.
Presumably, there are many Mothers of the Year to come; the promenade 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!)
I’m mentioning this celebration of mothers in the context of work that sustains and maintains — but I don’t think that one needs to be a mother to experience a maternal impulse. In particular, thinking about maintenance and care for one’s kin (however you define your kin) always 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 1906 earthquake to Hurricane Katrina, she gives detailed accounts of the surprising resourcefulness, empathy, 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 immediately following a disaster. Solnit writes:
When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up — not all, but the great preponderance — to 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 I’m suggesting here is that we adopt a protective stance toward ourselves, each other, and whatever is left of what makes us human.
I’m suggesting that we protect our spaces and our time for non-instrumental, non-commercial activity and thought, for maintenance, for care, for conviviality. And I’m suggesting that we fiercely protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of others, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.
Abram writes that “all our technological utopias and dreams of machine-mediated immortality may fire our minds but they cannot feed our bodies. Indeed, most of this era’s 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 control — by our terror of the very wildness that nourishes and sustains us.”
There are certain people who would like to use technology to escape their own mortality. Ironically, this desire is a perfect illustration of the death drive from the Maintenance Manifesto (“separation, individuality, Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path — do your own thing; dynamic change”). To such people I propose that a far more parsimonious 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-effacing enjoyment.”
Of course, such a solution isn’t good for business, nor can it be considered particularly innovative. But in the long meantime, as I sit in the deep bowl of the rose garden, surrounded by various human and non-human bodies, inhabiting a reality interwoven by myriad bodily sensitivities besides my own — indeed, the very boundaries of my own body overcome by the smell of jasmine and just-ripening blackberry — I look down at my phone and wonder if it isn’t its own kind of sensory deprivation chamber.
epilogue: nothing planned
You may be wondering what this means for me as an artist — a digital artist. I’m 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.
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.
I think of the hours and hours that I have now spent in the rose garden, putting off returning to my work on a glowing two-dimensional screen an arm’s length from my face; or the days on which I’ll leave just to get coffee and wind up almost involuntarily on top of a hill four hours later, regardless of the shoes I’m wearing; or the fact that the last five or six books I’ve read have had to do with animal intelligence and the importance of landscape in memory and cognition. I don’t know where any of this, where I, will end up.
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 don’t know what I’m 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,⁷ 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.
At that moment, my boyfriend happened to send me a podcast about Gordon Hempton, the author of One Square Inch of Silence. In the middle of the podcast, there’s a part where he plays a recording he’s made of thunder.
In the midst of everything that was going on, hearing this thunder gave me a feeling that is honestly impossible to verbalize — and so I won’t. Instead, I will leave you with this recording of thunder by Gordon Hempton.
— — — — — — — — — — —
¹ An almost better example from the same era is Sherrie Levine’s After Walker Evans. Frequently misunderstood as a postmodernist stunt, Levine’s 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 poor — the expropriated — Levine was calling attention to the original act of appropriation whereby Evans first took these photographs [FSA project], as if to illustrate Walter Benjamin’s observation, in ‘The Author as Producer,’ on the economic 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.’
² Another great project in this vein is Joe McKay’s 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.
³ One might wonder why I didn’t choose to talk about John Cage instead. Indeed, Oliveros was a colleague of Cage’s as well as a performer of his music. In her study of the two composers, Tracy McMullen argues that Oliveros’ practices differed from Cage’s because they included a “focus on embodiment, improvisation, and the dismantling of the mind/body dualism troubles the primacy of the individual and the universal over the contingent,” whereas Cage’s music did not include improvisation and sought to keep the self (his self) intact. Oliveros’ group performances of Sonic Meditation are particularly good examples of McMullen’s formulation:
Improvisation privileges listening and responding and therefore highlights intersubjectivity — the ways our actions and sense of self are constantly constructed through interaction with our environment.
⁴ To add to these perils, art and anything involving ambiguity, poetics, and slow answers is severely threatened in such an environment. When I heard about Trump’s plan to defund the NEA, it felt like the barbed edge of a long-running failure to recognize the value of the arts through the economic lens of efficiency — a failure the Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico noticed as early as 1913:
In the face of the increasingly materialist and pragmatic orientation of our age … it would not be eccentric in future to contemplate a society in which those who live for the pleasures of the mind will no longer have the right to demand their place in the sun. The writer, the thinker, the dreamer, the poet, the metaphysician, the observer … he who tries to solve a riddle or to pass judgement will become an anachronistic figure, destined to disappear from the face of the earth like the ichthyosaur and the mammoth. (quoted in Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy and Uta Grosenick, Surrealism)
⁵ In her book Deep Listening: A Composer’s 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 difference between life and death for the creatures of the environment. Listening is survival!
⁶ Abram proposes that observing and communicating with animals temporarily invites us into their perspective – a “bird’s 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 ‘contemplating,’ 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 doing 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 withdrawal from participating in it.
⁷ My beginning to be able to piece all this together is largely thanks to the following inspirations: David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception 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 Regional 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 Manifesto” 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 unknown, protecting the self. I’m not embarrassed to love nature, wild animals, 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 LRLX’s State Change)
Final note: photos and videos here without credits are mine.