Out of Print

How to Follow ‘Nothing’

by Jonty Cruz
Photos courtesy of Jenny Odell.

As she finishes her follow-up to How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell talks about the dangers of designing with no context, advocating for care work, and what to expect from her second book.

While talking to Jenny Odell a couple of weeks ago, there was a moment when I wondered if I was wasting her time. For some people—specifically those she seemed to base her last book on, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy—they might see this interview as unproductive for Jenny. She was deep into writing her follow-up, after all, and her deadline was fast approaching. With a week and half left, things were getting down to the wire for Jenny and yet here she was spending a couple of hours talking about The Legend of Zelda with me.

This isn’t to say that she doesn’t care about her deadlines or that she makes a habit of cramming the work at the very last minute. Jenny’s been working on her second book for over a year now, but some ideas need to simmer—to be allowed to gestate until they’re ready to spring up.

“From the point of view of the industrial model of time, it would look like I was doing everything really, really last minute,” Jenny tells me. She admits she still finds it hard to resist judging herself in that way, questioning the manner in which she chooses to spend her time. “But the truth is that I planted a bunch of stuff at the beginning and now it's all coming out,” she says. “You just have to write like a farmer. When something starts growing, that’s when you need to speed up to match the pace of that thing. You need to keep up with that. There are [ideas] that are now coming out and I’ve just got to stand here and get them out.”


Jenny Odell is an artist, educator, and a New York Times best-selling author from Oakland, California. In 2019, she released How to Do Nothing to critical acclaim. It’s been hailed by former U.S. president Barack Obama as one of his favorite books from that year and most recently by Lorde who credits How to Do Nothing as a driving influence for her most recent album, Solar Power. Both the book and its author have a keen understanding of the growing concerns regarding the attention economy and the commodification of time. And while the book’s title might seem to place it within the growing self-care lifestyle trend, Jenny tells The Guardian that she hopes “learning ‘how to do nothing’ may serve as self-care in the original sense that Audre Lorde intended it—as a strategy of self-preservation for activism.”

Last year, Jenny gave the virtual commencement address at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. In her speech, which was recently published by MIT Press as Inhabiting the Negative Space, she tells the graduates that design can respond to the realities of today “if you just give yourself time to see it.”

Time is also at the core of her upcoming book. Whereas How to Do Nothing was a manifesto against the capitalist notions of optimization and time as money, her attention now, it seems, is solely on time. “There’s a language to time,” she says. Jenny aims to discuss and explore it as much as she can, from the lens of indigenous culture to climate dread to activism. But before she’s done with that, she talks to Out of Print about LinkedIn, travel influencers, and the real disasters we’re facing today.

The following interview was conducted over Zoom and has been condensed for publication.

“I think the distinctions that people make between the visual and the non-visual are really arbitrary.”

Out of Print: Hi, Jenny! Thank you so much again for agreeing to this interview. I want to start by asking about your relationship with your mom. I love that you talk about her both in your book and at your Harvard commencement address. I’d like to ask how your relationship with her has informed your work.
Jenny Odell: My mom is a very seemingly diminutive person. She's not going to get up in your face but she will still get her way, in some way. [Laughs] And she's also weirdly subversive in these ways that aren't immediately obvious. So that's totally my style, too. It’s like how I wrote this book that has this nice flowery cover that looks like something people read when they go on vacation, and it’s actually this anti-capitalist manifesto. [Laughs] That's totally my thing, to be sort of under the radar.

What I also love about how you write is how you first establish a place to sort of ground everything you want to talk about, and that allows it to feel personal without being too heavy.
I'm glad you said that because that's kind of the approach that I'm going for with this new book, where I actually am much more explicitly trying to set different chapters in places, similar to how the Rose Garden is invoked in How to Do Nothing. I was playing Zelda while I was thinking about this, and that game’s basically a geographically arranged story. You go around, and this happens here, and there. There’s just so much information in this new book, that I felt organizing it in that way would be helpful. So I'm trying to frame it as, OK, let's just go for a walk and look at these things that have something to do with what we're talking about. It won't just be me throwing this information at you. Because I don't even think I could handle that.

Essentially that’s like how your mom kept your work and your data growing up, and now you’re turning them into stories.
Yeah, totally. Actually, my mom and I are in the middle of this text conversation right now because I asked her to find something for me. I came across it a few years ago but she can't find it now. But I know it's there. It’s this report card that I made [to grade] myself as a person. [Laughs] On the one hand it’s cute but it's also heartbreaking and disturbing because it has categories like “being a good girl” or “cleaning my room.” I’d give it to my parents and they would try to humor me. [Laughs] So I was asking my mom to find it because the chapter I'm writing right now is about how much time-pressure comes from people comparing themselves to other people. How you think you don't have any free time, but you actually do. It's just that the things that you think are necessary are based on comparisons to other people. And that sense of comparison is drilled into you as a child by grading, and how you don't really learn how to relate to people other than [through] competition. So I said, oh, I gotta find that thing to show how early on you internalize somebody grading you.

So speaking of school, you were an English major, and then you went into art and design. I'm curious how you found your way there.
So when I was an undergrad, I also took art classes. And I always liked both [English and design], so I was trying to find a way to do both of them. And now I feel I sort of have, which is really nice. But yeah, I applied to two design MFA programs with a very naïve belief. I thought by doing that I would be able to have it both ways with words and visuals. I just had a very naïve understanding of the whole thing. I did go to Parsons for a summer program in undergrad that was in graphic design and liked it. But the MFA program—actually both programs that I applied to, and especially the one that I went to—was really the opposite of practical graphic design. [Laughs] It was super interdisciplinary, almost to a fault.

In what way?
I would justify it as whatever department you're in was almost completely nominal. It was arbitrary. I have an MFA in design. It doesn't really mean anything. It just means I have an MFA from SFAI [San Francisco Art Institute]. Also there were just three other design people and one of them dropped out. [Laughs] And so I was just kind of this weird orphan that would end up in weird classes and be with the photo people or the painting people. But then it ended up being useful in unexpected ways. I took some critical theory classes there and some of those things [I learned] are in How to Do Nothing.

And then I think, being in these classes with people who are in other disciplines, actually might have prevented me from doing work that's trendy or work that someone in [my] discipline is supposed to do.

So I did kind of end up doing what I wanted, which was a lot of writing that was also visual, and involved research. And that’s still how I work, basically.

When you said that you wanted to do some writing in your design course, that was also my dilemma back in college, since I took up design, too. And then just quickly realized very early on that, oh, I'm not a designer. So I just said I'll try to write as much as I can in my design course.
I mean, honestly, I think that should be encouraged because I think the distinctions that people make between the visual and the non-visual are really arbitrary. I've noticed that my writing sounds very imagistic. There's a way of writing that, when you read it, it feels visual. And then there are ways in which images can be read and interpreted in a similar way to text. And if you're doing a certain type of research, images and text, [while they aren’t the same], they're two different kinds of material that you can use.

Did you ever read that essay Good History/Bad History?

Oh, no, what’s that?
It was written by Tibor Kalman. He did this magazine called Colors back in the ‘90s. He was [the founding editor-in-chief] and he did all this really weird, controversial stuff. He was kind of known as this iconoclast and was pissing off a lot of people here and there. He gave a presentation at a design conference in the ‘90s that was called “Good History/Bad History,” and was basically just calling people out. He was calling people out for borrowing visual styles without any research or context. I think he was talking about how people were ripping off modernist style, you know? And now I think you could say the same thing for punk or grunge. Just cynically ripping that off and using it almost like a filter. And in that essay somewhere he says that he hates the phenomenon of the coffee table book, where it's just all images and there's no writing and there's no context. And this is my problem with visuals when it’s very narrowly defined and doesn't have anything around it. And it's all so shallow.

“It just really feels to me like you have this increasingly small billionaire class, right? And they just leave everyone else to fight for the scraps. And it's getting worse and worse, because there's fewer and fewer scraps. It’s just so demoralizing to me.”

Since we're talking about research, I’d like to ask how research plays into your artistic process.
So something that my cousin and I talk a lot about is, if you tell our moms something, like, “Hey, mom, I'm at a park,” or if I take a photo of a flower for her since she really likes flowers, she'll reply, “Oh, that's cool. Did you know that it's named after blah, blah, blah.” She'll just go on with this long list of information. Our moms just enjoy looking things up. My cousin is the same way and I’m the same way. It's actually almost like a problem. I can't not do it. So it's been a really big problem with this book I’m working on. Just last night, I needed to go to bed but I wanted to just have a sentence about grading for this chapter. So I found all these academic papers on the history of grading, and then I wanted to know what that's based on. So then I got papers on that, and then next thing you know an hour goes by. I don't feel like I have any control over that. [Laughs] I'm just a curious person. I can't go on vacation without reading all the plaques or all the international signs, and then I'll go on Google to read more about it.

I guess it’s less a part of your artistic process, and more that it’s really just wired into your DNA.
I think for a lot of people and artists or writers or whatever, who have some kind of abiding concern, a lot of times it can probably be boiled down to something pretty elemental. That it was maybe already present when they were a kid. Like when I was a kid, I was already really into just looking at stuff. According to my mom, I always wanted to be outside and examine rocks and plants or whatever. That’s just what brings me joy on some deep, pre-intellectual level.

Have you played the most recent Zelda?

No, but I would imagine it to be similar to when I played Pokémon growing up on my Game Boy. I know my character has to go there or do that but I just want to explore a bit.
Yeah, exactly, that element of exploring. And so this Zelda game, it’s open world and it’s really beautiful. And when I started getting to the end, when I had explored everything, I got deeply sad. I actually didn't even finish the game. I was so sad that there wasn't anything left for me to [find]. And my boyfriend warned me at the beginning of the game. “Oh, you're bad at everything right now. You should really enjoy that because at some point, you're going to be too good and you're going to have beaten all the bad guys. And that’s it.” And I said, I don't know what you're talking about. And then two months later, I was so sad, like, why even open the game anymore? And parks are the same way for me. If I realize I've been on all the trails, I get really sad. Because I want there to be more around the corner. Which is funny because that's also the problem, right? Like with my research, if you have [access to] a bunch of journals, then there’s always something around the corner for me to just keep going. So I tried to figure out how to modulate that. [Laughs]

I want to ask you about LinkedIn in relation to How to Do Nothing. I’ve been going to LinkedIn a lot this last year and a half. And a lot of the things there are like, “Hey, this is how you succeed. Look at me, I was this person and because of XYZ, I’m now the head of a startup.” And as someone who doesn’t see myself as that or maybe even want to be that, I find it hard to navigate LinkedIn. I’m curious about your thoughts on that.
That's one of the points I try to make in my new book. I don't want to be flippant about it because some people really need that, you know? But yes, it's actually this question that’s coming up a lot in this chapter that I'm writing right now—where it's about time, and it's sort of a critique of individual time management and bootstrapper culture. For example, I have a critical reading of this book that's aimed at working mothers, called 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think. And it's a time management book where you can really be a career woman and you can be a mom if you just follow these steps. I understand this book is marketed to individual people who are just trying to make it and it's probably helping some people. On the other hand, the help that is being offered is to step on other people on your way up. It’s really competitive and that’s why I was looking up grading stuff. So it's a really tricky question. What you were saying about how you don't feel good about LinkedIn, I think a lot of people don't feel good about that. A lot of people who are on the corporate ladder, they probably don't feel good about the ladder also. So it becomes this really difficult question of who is going to take on the risk of not doing that?

It's hard. I think it's just hard to hold two things in your mind at the same time. In this case, the two things are: this is the world that we're in, it’s currently very competitive; and there are things that you have to do to get ahead. So in that sense, 168 Hours is correct. It's actually good advice in that regard. But then it's also true that that sucks. [Laughs]

You could try to imagine a world in which we have some other way of relating that’s not competitive. And it's not a zero-sum game. And it's really interesting to think about, for me personally, of this just because of my upbringing. But it's also really hard to imagine that. Even as a thought experiment, you run into these barriers, these mental barriers about how you literally cannot imagine success that's not at someone else's expense.

One of the things I mention at some point in the book is my friend, who has a garden, was trying to give me some lettuce because she had to get rid of this lettuce. And I said, oh, I don't want to take your lettuce because that’s minus her lettuce. And she said no, she wanted me to have it because if she doesn’t cut that part of the outside out, then the middle part won't keep growing. And my brain couldn’t handle that. Because I'm so used to “if I give you something, I don't have that anymore.” It’s these really deep-seeded things about competition and the sort of reality of how everything is set up increasingly to be that way.

It just really feels to me like you have this increasingly small billionaire class, right? And they just leave everyone else to fight for the scraps. And it's getting worse and worse, because there's fewer and fewer scraps. It’s just so demoralizing to me.

Yeah, when all the publications were sharing the recent climate report and how we have x amount of years left, there were still some talking about what we as individuals can do. And I would just feel so sad and angry because at the end of the day, it’s maybe the three or five corporations or whatever who can actually change things. Whatever action I do feels so pointless in a way.
Yes. That's why my climate chapter is kind of me trying to keep pointing the attention in that direction—which a lot of people have also already said. But then again, it's still tricky because you also don't want to say that individual people don't have any agency.

We do have individual agency. It's just very structured by certain things, and the only way to get around that would be to not act in individualistic ways. People think of collective action as a union. But collective action is also all the things that lead up to that, like you talking to your co-worker about how this sucks. That's already the beginning of something.

“I think because of Instagram, and [quantifying] likes and seeing that number, it's just constantly pounding into your head and thinking of how to get a higher number. Maybe that isn't the right way to be thinking about it.”

I want to go back to social media for a bit. This is something that’s really been on my mind, and how people on Twitter talk a certain way. It doesn’t matter if you’re sixteen, thirty-five, or forty, it seems to me like everyone is talking the same. And since you talk about context collapse, I wonder if that’s an effect of it.
Honestly, when I was looking through the questions you sent me, that question, that's something that my boyfriend and I complain about all the time. [My boyfriend] would tell me, “There are people we know who are forty and they're speaking like they’re in their early twenties. Why are they talking like that?” [Laughs]

We complain about that a lot but I never thought about that in terms of context collapse and how the voices have also collapsed. It’s sort of a tone that is learned, right? I haven't really looked at the feeds of Twitter or Instagram for a while now. And Joe, my boyfriend, was saying you can really tell the temperature of the water when you go back in. Things like that become a lot more noticeable. The vocabulary, the language, the emotional register, the pacing, and just the sort of hysterics. It’s stuff that I talked about in How to Do Nothing, but I think, even when I wrote that, I was on social media more than I am now.

Do you also see that on Instagram or even in the greater world of art and design?
Again, that kind of comes back to that question of how much can one individual resist the structures of capitalism. If you want your work to be noticed, it has to speak a certain language. And I think this is why I've been so interested in double meanings lately. That's the way that I like to do it, where I'll speak your language but I'm also gonna say something else that will be understandable to whoever is ultimately reading it.

I do think that, generally speaking, there is the world and the market, and you're there and you deal with it. And that means that there's going to be this inevitable, coalescing style. And then it happens a lot faster because of things like Instagram.

Something that Joe and I talk about a lot is, and [I recognize] not everyone can afford to do this, but it’s about trying to make things on your own terms and having to already accept that you're not going to make any money from it.

That sounds like Out of Print to me. [Laughs]
Okay, so there’s this zine collective in Oakland and they sell things on their website. And there’s this one about the “Land to the Tillers” movement in the Philippines. It’s really beautiful. It’s eight dollars or something. I didn't know about any of this stuff. It’s way more direct and it’s much more different than just looking at this on Instagram.

Did this zine go to a million people? Probably not. But I'm reading it and it's important to me and it's going to go into things that I make. So I think it's also important to remember that it's not always a quantitative thing. What if you made something and only five people saw it, but it was like the five most advantageous people? And they would actually continue it on into some other form. I think because of Instagram, and [quantifying] likes and seeing that number, it's just constantly pounding into your head and thinking of how to get a higher number. Maybe that isn't the right way to be thinking about it.

To sort of connect to that, in one of your interviews you said that Mission Peak, one of the trails you’d hike, was being eroded by Instagram. May I ask what you meant by that?
Yeah. It's literally physically being eroded. [Laughs]

Oh! Okay! [Laughs]
I mean, I guess you could say also, it's metaphorically being eroded. [Laughs] But my understanding is that there's a trail that you're supposed to use. But then there's another trail that's faster to get to that spot where you would take the Instagram photo. And it's way steeper. So it erodes faster. That's something I've learned in the last couple years and during the pandemic: when lots of people have gone to parks, things erode really quickly from people just walking on them a lot more than intended. Or that bridge in Venice that became structurally unstable, because so many tourists were standing on it and taking photos.

So many of these tourist spots, I imagine, already had this problem, but then Instagram just took that to the extreme in a way.
It's just really hilarious. It's like there’s this search for authenticity. When I was researching that kind of Instagram-fueled phenomenon of consuming places, I googled the most popular travel influencers and one of them had this video where he goes to the Philippines. They're very bro-y and white. I don't remember where it was in the Philippines, but he was just like, “It's really authentic here.” Basically saying that the locals are real and it's not like those other tourist-y places. It’s so interesting. He's picturing this place as a product but he doesn’t know that the people who live there are aware of that. He doesn't see that.

I mean, you could almost even connect it to tokenization, right? Or exoticism. When someone sees a person as something different and interesting but in a “consume me” kind of way.

Jenny Odell at her 2015 show, The Bureau of Suspended Objects.

There’s a line in your New York Times essay where you say, "I want people to make work that is deliberately useless in a way that pokes at prevailing notions of usefulness. Art seeks not to resolve or produce, but remains (and, indeed, luxuriates) in the realm of questioning." Could you talk more about that?
The word “useful”—I always think, well, useful for what? And how something that's very useful in one context is completely useless or even harmful in another context. And the problem is, if everyone is participating in a system like the one we have now, which is very much organized around capitalism—and the personal accruing of capital to oneself, because you're financially insecure and you don't know what's going to be coming down the pipe—then useful means something really specific. And I can't blame someone for participating in that, but I think it's really important to remember that that's one scale of value.

This is what happened with my book. People read the title How to Do Nothing, and they get mad that it's not about how to do nothing. But I say in the very beginning of the book what I mean by “nothing” in this world. Like how, in this world, “this” is useful, but it would be useless somewhere else. So what’s “nothing” is also not nothing in this other world. I think that just shows how much people are stuck in this one kind of “nothing” that just means not being productive. They can't imagine anything outside of that.

So one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was how your writing—specifically Inhabiting the Negative Space—really resonated with me in the same way Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet did. Both speak with a similar empathy and both talk about patience in a creative sense. I really latched onto this line from Rilke: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves…” I want to ask, what have been some of the questions that have excited you the most?
First of all, I just have to say that I’m so honored by that comparison. Because that book for me, and for so many people — it's been really important. But yeah, that line in particular, about loving the questions, I think about that all the time. I've been leaning on it really, really hard in the last year, because this book [I’m working on] is me dealing with these questions about privilege, participation in the system, and also about how to live in a morally responsible way in the present. And that’s the question, right? I don't think I'll ever answer that.

There were these moments in the last year, both because of what was happening [with the pandemic] and then with the George Floyd protests—and then there were the California fires here—and I was trying to write this book, and sometimes I would get really hard on myself about those questions. Like, why haven't I answered this question yet? Why don't I have an airtight answer? Or even why am I not an airtight moral person? You can be very cruel to yourself in that way. And so I kept having to bring that line up over and over again in my head, and how that question is the point. You don't ever answer that question because your life is the answer to that question. That's been a really important reminder for me.

The questions for me, I would say, [are] oriented a lot around time because the new book is about time. And so maybe the best way to put it is that you can know a lot about the present system and how it's organized—and its various injustices, the historical reasons for those injustices—and then you can know a lot or think a lot about how things should be or how they could be great. But how do you build the bridge between now and then? That's the question. And so many people have thought about that. There’s a history of utopian thinking and there are so many threads in activism and thinking about: how do we get from here to there? And then you go into: what's my individual role in getting from here to there? Which brings up questions of how, in the struggle to get from here to there, who can afford what? Who can afford to refuse and how much and in what ways? How can you use your privilege to do that in the most optimal way? That involves not hating your privilege and not hating yourself for your privilege. It’s trying to turn around and do something with it.

Those are the things that, even if I weren't writing this book, those are the questions that sort of plague me every day. So I feel like I can't ever rest in one or the other. I can't rest in the present because it's not just. But then I can't rest in the future because the reality is that people are living in the present and you can't abandon them.

There’s this other line from Letters to a Young Poet about embracing solitude. Does this resonate with your time during the pandemic in any way?
I think the pandemic really taught people how much they needed the opposite, right? Like people really need to be seen and recognized and heard. At the same time, I think, I feel like I should reread Letters to a Young Poet now because I have a very different understanding of solitude than I used to have. I talked about it a little bit in How to Do Nothing, but there's this German philosopher and sociologist, Hartmut Rosa, and he has this term, “resonance.” An example of not-resonance would be if I went out and I went about my day, and I spent the whole time just kind of annoyed that people are in my way, and how I just need to get this thing done. And I didn't even notice the weather or the birds or anything. So then an example of resonance would be if I went out and I did those things, too, but the whole time, I was very aware of everything, every stranger who passes, every bird that goes by, every leaf on a tree.

Rosa’s current take is how the current cultural definition of a good life is one where you get more. You get more of everything all the time, more friends, more money, more opportunities, more possibilities, more years on your life. And so he is sort of suggesting that resonance would be a better measure of the good life. The question, “How resonant is your life?” could also be “How awake are you to your life?” And so in that regard, I don't actually really know what solitude is anymore.

Solitude is based on a human sort of measurement. We say someone's alone when they're not around other people. But for indigenous worldviews, agency is sort of spread through everything like rocks and other things that we would call inanimate. Those are subjects and you're a subject. So if you're one of those things, you're not alone. And you are seen and regarded by those things. But that requires you to see them as having that agency. And there are sentences in How to Do Nothing, where you can see me figuring that out. I say that I don't know what it means to be alone in nature because at that point I had not read about this kind of history of who isn't or is a subject. So now, thinking about it that way, and when you read Letters to a Young Poet, and he's encouraging you to embrace solitude, you could almost reread that as saying that you should experience resonance. And you can maybe experience different forms of resonance in the absence of people. Because the absence of people is the absence of cultural expectations. Especially if you're a person who has experienced a lot of prejudice in social society, maybe going to some place alone and just being alone that is free of people, but is full of other things, maybe you can get to experience a different, richer form of self than you would otherwise.

That sounds like a form of inner peace to me.
So something I had written in my notes the other day was the phrase, “peace of mind.” It sounds almost passive and settled but—and here I'll speak for myself—the thing that makes me feel the most peaceful is to feel at home. Like imagine you were spending a bunch of time with people you did not feel at home with. And then you finally returned somewhere where you did feel at home. That's peace. So the idea of resonance is that you are at home more easily, because you're not in this world of dead, inert things that have no meaning to you.

And in contrast to that kind of sense of peace of mind being a passive or quiet thing, I find it to be the opposite. It’s when everything feels very alive, and is responding to you and has energy. Because peace, it just always sounds like nothing is happening. 

So much of the conversation surrounding your book is about a new or ideal way to be productive. But would it be fair to say that you’re also advocating for a different way of seeing time?
I think, in a way, How to Do Nothing was kind of like grasping in the direction of time—and that I'm still currently and more explicitly grasping with this new book. But time itself actually dissolves pretty quickly into other questions about meaning and value. For example, commercial time or mainstream time management—the idea is that you should only do things that are important to you. This, assuming you have the ability to do that, which many people don't. But say you do, so the question is: what's important to you? What do you want to do with your life? Why do you want to do that? And that leads into the question of what is a good life? What does a meaningful life mean? Those are hard questions.

One of the things I'm trying to do is contrast this capitalist time frame—and the way they see time is something that you squeeze every last drop of value out of until it's gone—versus the indigenous timeframe or the Seven Generations Principle timeframe, where you always think seven generations ahead.

So the question is, what is time even for? Not just on an individual level, but on a societal level. What is even the point of what you’re trying to get out of it?

“The thing that makes me feel the most peaceful is to feel at home. Like imagine you were spending a bunch of time with people you did not feel at home with. And then you finally returned somewhere where you did feel at home. That's peace.”

There’s a part that profoundly struck me when you talked about Rebecca Solnit and how she suggested that the real disaster is everyday life. I’d like to ask what for you is the real disaster?
I think it’s a sense of alienation. Other people have written about alienation quite a bit already but it’s kind of what I was saying earlier about having to step on other people on your way up the ladder—and how that’s not just about those people who are getting stepped on, it's also about the person stepping on them and how that person is demoralized also. Nobody wins in that system, except for the people who are making the ladders.

There's this cruelty that everyone is expected to live with. I was taking a bus downtown in San Francisco yesterday and I was in an area that has a huge homeless population. And there's a new Whole Foods being built. And in the window, there's this really tone-deaf ad, and it says, “Come one, come all, come hungry.” I have to look at that. Everyone has to look at that. And how fucked up is that? That's the disaster.

I don't know how much we've actually internalized. I think a lot of people have these desires to live in a different way that isn't so alienating and isn't harming other people with every single action that we take. And so, when real, actual, visible disasters happen, I think it just highlights that thing that's already been going on the whole time. It just becomes visible. It becomes more difficult to bear because it's somehow crystallized into a moment.

That speaks so much to what’s been happening here recently, where healthcare workers are talking about strikes because they haven’t been given the financial aid owed to them. At the same time, the government was talking about building a memorial wall to pay tribute to all these essential workers. And healthcare workers and their advocates responded by saying, just pay the workers first instead of building that wall. Given how much you advocate for care work and maintenance, what can art and design do in this situation?
I mean, that's a perfect example. We had our own, probably less egregious examples of that kind of symbolic gesturing and how they want to give us some kind of tribute. No, just pay us.

Something I’ve really been inspired by is this movement Wages for Housework. It was a feminist movement [in the ‘70s], where the demand was wages for housework. One of the points of that whole discourse was: why is some work paid and other work isn’t? It’s a really basic question. And it’s work that is equally, if not more, important to society that for some reason is not paid.

I should say, at that time, obviously, there were a lot of people and particularly women of color who were domestic workers, so they were getting paid for housework. But the point of Wages for Housework was basically was trying to highlight that really arbitrary distinction between valued work and undervalued work.

So the way that it's phrased is a demand. “Pay us.” Don't sanctify it like, “Oh, aren't mothers so wonderful? They do so much! Let's give it out for the moms!” No, just pay her. Put your money where your mouth is. I think that The New York Times actually wrote a piece on wages for housework during the pandemic, because that was coming up again, where people are demanding you put your money where your mouth is.

That brings up something I was hoping to talk to you about. How so much of design and art these days is a mandate to create, or maybe more precisely to produce. But from what I’ve gathered from your work, your approach is more restorative or about repairing instead of just throwing things away.
It makes me think of something that I used to try to get across in my classes, where I think my students would sometimes come in with this idea that art is something where you make a thing and you make something from scratch. And then you get paid for it. And the idea of a collage would really sort of trouble that distinction for them because it's made out of things that other people made. And then someone could even make your work into a collage. So I was really trying to get them to think of everything that way where you're kind of a node that was collecting all of these previous influences and work into some sort of knot. And then you send that out.

I feel like, with books, if you read a real acknowledgement section for a book, it would be longer than the book. If you really tried to do an accounting of where you got your ideas from, it would probably be your whole life, right? And so thinking about work that way, even if you're not directly collaborating with someone, you still see your work as a collaboration with the past. And the future is a bridge that makes it possible for other people to make work. That's way more interesting to me. And I also just think it's closer to the truth. Just the way things get made, the way ideas happen, it's just not confined to an individual person.

From reading your work to listening to your speaking engagements, there’s a sense that you’ve cracked the code in a way. I found it both surprising and yet oddly relatable that you said in your interview with The Creative Independent that you “frequently have a hard time focusing on one thing at a time.” Now that I’ve gotten to talk to you even for just a short while, it feels like you’re somewhere in the middle. Would that be a fair assessment? And how do you navigate that?
Yeah, I mean, that's one of those ongoing questions, right? I don't have a problem doing the work because I'm interested in it. It's more the fact that there are too many potential things to focus on and I'm a very curious person, so I could at any given moment, you know, [focus on that]. So the way that I've currently been managing it is just trying to accept or impose limits. It goes back to what I was saying about time management, and what do you want to do with your life. I'm thirty-five and that's kind of a weird age where I'm young, but I'm also not young? [Laughs] And so I have to start to [accept] there's just some things that I can't do. I can't do everything.

There's always gonna be that thing around the corner. That sort of tells you that you actually don't want to get to the end. You never really want to get to the end. So just take your time and remember to enjoy it. And in order to enjoy it, you can't be rushing through it.︎

Jonty Cruz is a writer and creative consultant based in Manila.