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Commencement

Orchestrating Attention: “The Most Substantive Work You Can Do”

5.28.20

Photograph of Jenny Odell

Jenny Odell
Screenshot by Harvard Magazine


Jenny Odell
Screenshot by Harvard Magazine

While quarantining, California-based artist and writer Jenny Odell, who sees walking as fundamental to thinking, found her usual refuge, Oakland’s Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses,  closed. Instead, as she told viewers tuning into the Graduate School of Design’s online Class Day ceremonies, she began walking the nearby hills. Soon, alongside her usual closely observed birds and plants, the shapes and sitings of buildings, the undulating landscape, the soil—and the rocks—moved into “the foreground of my attention.”

During subsequent weeks of walking, reading, and poring over Google Earth images: “I learned where I live: in a canyon carved by a creek that runs under the street just down the block from my apartment. I learned that a new housing subdivision set improbably into the side of a hill is a former quarry of metavolcanic rock, and that in some of the parks here you will find the shells of ancient marine animals from far out in the Pacific Ocean,” she said. “Most of all, when I look at that same outline of the hills that I have seen every day in the four years that I have lived here, there is some kind of explanation for what I’m seeing—it’s not just random lumps and angles. It’s reminded me of the progression from looking to recognizing, and how the framing of attention puts new things in our world.”

This idea is among those fleshed out in Odell’s arresting book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019)which caught the attention of the GSD’s then-new dean, Sarah M. Whiting. It “addresses our contemporary context of efficiency and techno-determinism—our global contemporary economy that, through information technology, has captured but not cultivated our attention,” Whiting emailed GSD students at the start of the fall semester. “Pay attention—even that expression implies an economic determinism, so maybe a better way of putting it would be absorblook carefully. And in addition to looking, remember that the worlds we design affect our senses, our relations, our histories, and our futures. Odell’s answer to reclaiming attention is place, and more specifically a focus on the natural world. Your answer may be different, but I ask you all to look carefully at your own attention. This mandate—to be vigilant of your attention—really is what a graduate education is all about.” (Whiting, who has since “stepped back” for cancer treatment, appeared on video to congratulate the class during the Class Day ceremony.) 

Odell reiterated that idea, calling the role of the artist and designer that of an “orchestrator of attention” (a phrase coined by artist/designer Sara Hendren, M.Des ’13, author of the forthcoming book What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World.) Such a person “can create the lenses with which we can see a completely different reality—a reality that was never fabricated, that has in fact been there all along. From the point of view of the solutionist or product-oriented version of design,” Odell continued, “orchestrating attention may look like nothing at all. But I would argue that it is the most substantive work you can do.”

Odell’s own concept-driven sculptural and visual art  has been exhibited around the globe. Her 2015 (and still in process) installation The Bureau of Suspended Objects is an archived collection of more than 200 objects from a city dump. As now researched, catalogued, and explained, the objects reflect a Bruno Latour quote: “The world is not a solid continent of facts sprinkled by a few lakes of uncertainties, but a vast ocean of uncertainties speckled by a few islands of calibrated and stabilized forms.” In 2010, she created Travel by Approximation: A Virtual Road Trip, a book recording her cross-country tour taken via the Internet, using online images, trip reviews, maps, and virtual tours, and Photoshop™-ing self-portraits into online published photos.

For Class Day, she spoke live from her apartment, but inserted a virtual background image of her beloved rose garden. Exposed to new, unexpected terrain,  Odell began using her birding binoculars to inspect faraway outcroppings instead. “Paying attention to rocks and thinking about a time frame outside not only my own lifetime but outside of human temporality ironically made me feel more at home in the world, or at least it helped me make sense of it…In quarantine, an experience in which all time threatens to collapse into the same meaningless day, I have turned frequently to these other temporalities,” she reported. “When I wasn’t thinking about the prehistoric collisions that made the hills I look at, I was looking at webcams showing eagles nesting in Iowa or peregrine falcons nesting in the UC Berkeley tower, where the babies became the size of their parents in a matter of weeks. I put a camera on a tripod and pointed it out my bedroom window, taking the same photo several times a day for more than a month, recording the changes in light and the passing of clouds and rain.”

Taking these sorts of “do nothing” ideas into account, while also striving to make sense of and respond to the existing world, Odell concretely advised graduates to: 

  • “Be patient.” In quarantining, she has found helpful a quote often attributed mistakenly to psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
  • “Drop the idea of getting it exactly right every time, or ever.” We are, she said, “each changing in a world that is also changing,” and perfectionism “attends an unrealistic view of the ego as a static, defensible thing that makes other static, defensible things, when that simply isn’t the way things work.”
  • “Whatever it is that you’re doing—don’t try to do it alone.” Even for those whose process appears solitary, much comes from communing with others—especially in unexpected ways. She said she has “no idea what will come from these encounters. That not only gives me a reason to pay close attention all the time—it gives me a reason to get up in the morning, because I never know what I’ll see and where it will lead.”

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Photo of the author sitting with two friends, all in masks, in the Radcliffe Quadrangle as they watched virtual Commencement

The author (right) sitting with blockmates Mike Shirek (left) and Ernie Omondi (center) as they watched virtual Commencement

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