Three time zones and three thousand miles away, artist and writer Jenny Odell was invited to be the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s 2020 Class Day speaker in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In her forward to Inhabiting the Negative Space, which presents Odell’s speech in print as the ninth title in The Incidents book series, Dean Sarah M. Whiting notes that Odell brought “a combination of frankness and optimism that made each of us feel like we were in conversation with someone who knew every one of us individually.” Within the text, Jenny states that she herself finished her undergraduate studies in 2008— straight into a recession. Ten years following her graduation, she wrote the book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, rethinking the meaning of productivity and observing individual and collective attention and will.
Excerpt from The Incidents: Inhabiting the Negative Space
By Jenny Odell
I believe that we individually have the ability to direct our attention—for example, to see in multiple time frames at once, or at the very least outside of the default temporality of everyday life. But I also believe that we need help doing this, and that’s why the role of the artist and designer that’s most important to me right now is indeed one as an orchestrator of attention, someone who can create the lenses with which we can see a completely different reality—not one that is imaginary or fabricated, but that has in fact been there all along. ——— Of course, doing this requires close attention on the orchestrator’s part as well, which is what brings me to the second idea I mentioned, of design as response—not to the world as you want it to be or expect it to be, but a response to the world as it really is, right now, in all of the detail that unfolds if you just give yourself time to see it.
One of my favorite practitioners of this mindset is the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka. Fukuoka is known for perfecting a system in the 1970s that he later called “do-nothing farming.” Flouting the established protocols for traditional rice farming, he devised a way of farming that used far fewer inputs and less labor. Instead of flooding fields and sowing rice in the spring, he scattered seeds directly on the ground in the fall as they would have fallen naturally. In place of conventional fertilizer, he grew a cover of green clover and threw the leftover stalks back on top when he was done. ——— In the end, Fukuoka’s farm was more productive than neighboring farms, and it also rehabilitated the soil instead of depleting it, as so many farms do over time. The system was even capable of creating farmable soil on inhospitable strips of land. ——— What I want to stress here is time. It took Fukuoka decades of observation and failed experiments to arrive at this system. Rather than imposing an abstract will on a compliant piece of land, what he was doing was more akin to patient collaboration. As you can imagine, for someone who finally figured out how to do more by doing less, Fukuoka had a great sense of humor. In his book The One-Straw Revolution, he wrote,
“Because the world is moving with such furious energy in the opposite direction, it may appear that I have fallen behind the times,” and, “That which was viewed as primitive and backward is now unexpectedly seen to be far ahead of modern science. This may seem strange at first but I do not find it strange at all.”
In that book, Fukuoka talks about an experience he had as a young man, when he was studying plant pathology under a brilliant researcher. Fukuoka essentially overworked himself to the point of hospitalization, and when he was discharged he wandered to a hill overlooking the local harbor and fell asleep underneath a tree. When he woke up in the early morning, he was shocked into awareness by the flight of a night heron—incidentally one of my favorite birds. He wrote,
“Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood just one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth: ‘In this world there is nothing at all. . . .’ I felt that I understood nothing.”
It’s easy to read despair into that phrase—“understood nothing”—but what Fukuoka is describing is a moment of exhilaration, and the underpinnings of the humility that eventually led to do-nothing farming. To understand nothing is to see everything—to have an empty enough mind to observe what is actually there. After all, it was humility with respect to the land and its inhabitants that allowed Fukuoka to design a successful system, one that made use of and did justice to the already-present intelligence in the ecosystem. To come back to Pauline Oliveros, you could say that he was practicing a form
of deep listening.
The Incidents is a book series based on events at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Learn how to purchase Inhabiting the Negative Space, copublished by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and Sternberg Press, Spring 2021.