Jenny Odell on nature, art, and burnout in quarantine
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Jenny Odell on nature, art, and burnout in quarantine

Swans glide across the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park as the sun sets in London, England. | David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

How the artist and writer is thinking about this moment.

One of my favorite episodes of The Ezra Klein Show was my conversation with Jenny Odell, just under a year ago. Odell, a visual artist, writer, and Stanford lecturer, had just released her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, and we had a fascinating conversation about the importance of maintenance work, the problem with ceaseless productivity, the forces vying for our attention, the comforts of nature, and so much more.

A lot has changed since then. Odell’s book became a sensation: It captured a cultural moment, made it onto Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2019 list, and became, for many, a touchstone. And then, a global pandemic hit, radically altering the world in ways that made the core themes of Odell’s work more prescient and more difficult. What happens when, instead of choosing to “do nothing,” doing nothing is forced upon you? What happens when all you have access to is nature? What happens when the work of maintenance becomes not just essential but also dangerous?

So I asked Odell back for a very different conversation in a very different time. This isn’t a conversation, really, about fixing the world right now. It’s about living in it and what that feels like. It’s about the role of art in this moment, why we undervalue the most important work in our society, how to have collective sympathy in a moment of fractured suffering, where to find beauty right now, the tensions of productivity, the melting of time, our reckoning with interdependence, and much more.

A lightly edited excerpt from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.

Ezra Klein

In our previous podcast, we talked about the work of another artist in residence at the New York Department of Sanitation whose project was to try and put focus on the art of maintenance: the work of simply keeping people alive that we so often overlook.

There’s this way in which this crisis has forced our attention to go to what is really essential, and a lot of it is care work and maintenance work.

Jenny Odell

I’m glad you mentioned that. The artist’s name is Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and in this specific piece of hers she shook hands with hundreds of sanitation workers and told each one of them, “thank you for keeping New York City alive.” That hits differently right now, when people are suddenly very aware of the mailman and the people picking up your trash.

I shop at a grocery co-op that seems to be doing fairly well right now. And some of the employees have been very chipper in a way that really surprises me. When I commented on that to my boyfriend, he was like, “you know, it might just be because people are treating them with respect for the first time.”

I have been thinking about that redirecting of attention. Our grocery store has the usual spaced-out lines with markings on the ground, and as you stand in line you just find yourself standing near this weird part of the building that you would never stand near. So now you have all this time to contemplate this wall. That seemed like a visual metaphor for everything else. The thing has always been here; now you’re like standing in a very weird relation to it and you’re looking at it, and you have lots of time to look at it.

Obviously, this is all in the context of something really horrific. But it does align with some of the stuff that I talk about in the book in terms of redirecting your attention from something that was habitual before this.

Ezra Klein

One of the lines of the book that feels resonant right now is this one: “Much socially necessary work is ignored or devalued as caregiving, a gendered afterthought to the real dynamics of the economy when in reality no shared life could do without it.”

And it is striking that when we had to sit down and classify essential workers, it was caregiving. It wasn’t the heads of high-frequency trading firms. Now we have all these essential workers and we call them heroes, but, in most cases, we pay them like shit. They’re often not being given proper protective gear. So we’re praising these people as essential and treating them as disposable. There’s just such an unbelievable disconnect between our revealed reality here and our economic system.

We are so far from the end of this that it’s almost weird to have this part of the conversation, but I don’t want to see this go by without us learning any lessons about the secondary things that were revealed. Not just that we weren’t ready for a pandemic, but what was really here all along.

Jenny Odell

I feel like we’ve been seeing things that you just can’t unsee. When I go for walks, I naturally walk up the hill and end up in a neighborhood where there are houses that have their own tennis courts. And I just remember the first week that I was walking around, it was so eerie to see no one out except for UPS trucks and Amazon delivery.

You can almost think about one of these houses as a metaphor. Just think about how many inputs go into this house to maintain that level of existence: landscaping, child care, delivery, you name it. Now I feel hyperaware of that layer supporting this other layer, which I normally take for granted.

It just feels gross to see that day after day. There were already so many different levels of privilege, but now if you were above a certain level, you’re fine. And if you were below it, you’re falling off the cliff. If there’s anything that I think is worth spending time doing right now, if you have time, it’s just thinking about that.

Ezra Klein

Is there art you’re thinking about in particular right now or that you’re finding something in particularly right now?

Jenny Odell

I actually just interviewed Miranda July very recently. So I’ve been thinking a lot about her work. She has a project called “Learning to Love You More” from the early 2000s where it had prompts for these kind of like small art assignments that were just given to the public and then they would submit their documentation. It’d be like “repair something.” And then you’d get all these photos back from people of chairs that had been repaired or things like that. And a lot of the assignments are kind in that spirit. It’s like, look around you and see what you have and do something weird with it that you’ve never done before. And then feel connected to all of these other people who have done the same thing.

Ezra Klein

Something that Miranda July said in an interview was that this moment is like the ultimate creative prompt. And there’s been this whole interesting conversation — which my colleague Constance Grady wrote a great piece on — about the tension between feeling that we’re trapped inside so we should be unbelievably creative and finding this to be the ultimate nervous, anxious distraction. I wonder where you’re falling on that spectrum and to what degree you think that is even a choice we have?

Jenny Odell

It doesn’t feel like a choice to me. I think it’s hard for me to answer that because my sort of “mode” of creativity is so different from the traditional way of thinking about creativity. I have always had this view that there’s like dark matter of creativity, and I don’t presume to know when I’m being creative and when I’m not.

I always think about the bureau of suspended objects, which is still my favorite project that I’ve ever made and really set the stage for the book. There was a year before that that was just doldrums. I didn’t make anything. I remember being really frustrated and confused. I didn’t really have a direction. In retrospect, it’s so clear to me that that’s actually when everything was happening. By the time I got to the dump, that was the fruition of something that had been happening for a really long time. And now I go back and I read those entries, and there are things in my journals that are almost verbatim sentences that ended up in the book that I just didn’t realize I had written.

I think because that’s my model of making things — where the part that doesn’t look like making is maybe even more important than the part that reads as making — I’m not feeling too anxious to make anything right now. It’s not an either-or for me between that and being creative.


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