The Artist behind the Viral Book “How to Do Nothing”

Alina Cohen
Aug 26, 2019 4:48PM

Cover of How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell. Courtesy of Jenny Odell.

Portrait of Jenny Odell. Photo © Ryan Meyer. Courtesy of Jenny Odell.

Jenny Odell, the artist who wrote the hit book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019), has in fact done quite a lot. As an artist, she’s exhibited in China, the United States, France, and Dubai. Since 2013, she’s taught courses on internet art at Stanford University. She’s written for publications including the New York Times and McSweeney’s, and she’s still promoting her book. Last but not least, Odell’s also an avid birdwatcher.

Reading Odell’s new book, it doesn’t take long for the writer to admit that she’s not advocating indolence at all. “The fact that the ‘nothing’ that I propose is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity explains the irony that a book called How to Do Nothing is in some ways also a plan of action,” Odell writes in the introduction, boldly acknowledging her radical agenda. She actually wants her readers to engage more thoughtfully with technology, look at the world more mindfully, and espouse a program of environmental conservation. A subtle line of aesthetic inquiry quietly undergirds Odell’s political proclamations, suggesting the value of art in a society obsessed with social media and getting ahead.

In her Stanford classes, Odell recently told me by phone, she’s used to explaining “how the experience of making and looking at art is different from our idea of productivity.” Computer science majors enter her classroom with analytical, itemizing, and optimizing mindsets: They want to know how her courses, such as “Digital Art I” or “Creativity in the Age of Facebook: Making Art for and from Networks,” will help them get a job.

Jenny Odell working on her project the Bureau of Suspended Objects (BSO), 2015 - ongoing. Photo by Stephanie Pau. Courtesy of Jenny Odell.


Odell encourages her students to think differently about art and its unquantifiable benefits. For her, artmaking is about observing the world, appreciating unpredictability, and luxuriating in “the part of the process where you don’t even know what you’re doing yet.” Yet she also acknowledges the particular irony that the type of thinking she advocates “can help you get jobs.” Employers, after all, value creativity, open-mindedness, and new perspectives on old problems.

Odell herself specializes in that final quality, making art that she describes as creating a “new framework for someone’s attention.” Her conceptual practice often involves collecting and curating objects in a way that encourages viewers to look at them differently.

One of Odell’s ongoing projects, Bureau of Suspended Objects (or BSO, 2015–present), involves documenting and showcasing trash, her own property, and small purchases from stores such as Walmart. She’s presented the various components—such as a deflated soccer ball, a chipped license plate, an empty green bottle, and a shiny backpack—on shelves and behind glass, dignifying them in a new way. Odell has presented this work at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. She also produced a book, The Archive of the Bureau of Suspended Objects (2015), which details the monetary values, manufacturing locations, and corporate histories of items she found during a residency at the Recology dump in San Francisco. Odell is hardly the first artist to make art from trash, but her care and obsessive documentation when dealing with refuse may be unprecedented.

Unrelenting curiosity is at the core of all of Odell’s work. For a 2018 New York Times article called “A Business with No End,” she turned an interest in faux-Amazon storefronts into a multi-chapter investigation that took a surprising, circuitous route through the raid at the Newsweek office, a California bible college, and airport construction. Odell didn’t set out with a specific outcome in mind: She leapt down an internet rabbit hole, open to wherever it might lead. Her new book advocates exactly this sort of imaginative and intellectual wandering.

While Odell’s work fits squarely under the umbrella of conceptual art and owes a debt to artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Haim Steinbach, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, she also writes about her appreciation for David Hockney’s painting practice. “As soon as I started researching his evolving interest in technology—not just media but technologies of seeing—I realized I might have more to learn from Hockney than from any other artist,” she writes. Hockney has theorized that an image contains “the amount of time that went into making it,” an idea that gives an extra dimension to flat canvases: They’re not just pictures, but vessels for an artist’s hours and days in the studio. When Hockney veered into photography, he shied away from the typical snapshot, which takes less than a second of a shutter click to produce. Instead, he took multiple pictures of the same place from different perspectives, juxtaposing them into a collaged whole. These artworks imagined photography as an extended act of looking instead of a momentary glance.

In How to Do Nothing, Odell recounts her own enlightening experience of listening to John Cage’s experimental Song Books (1970), which include sounds rarely heard during musical performances—shuffling cards, for example, and a whirring blender. After “hearing” Cage’s work in person, the artist claims she was a different person, “transfixed by sound” and more awake than ever to the daily noises that surround her.

Cage is most famous for his piece 4’33’’ (1952), made up of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence “played” by a musician sitting at a piano. “Each time it’s performed, the ambient sound, including coughs, uncomfortable laughter, and chair scrapes, is what makes up the piece,” Odell writes. As Cage’s cheeky “silence” gives the listener plenty to hear, Odell’s sense of “nothing” gives the reader enough to look for, examine, and appreciate for a lifetime.

Alina Cohen