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Jenny Odell, the artist and author, seems on my display. She’s 35 years outdated, with lengthy darkish hair, a fringe, and large glasses with darkish frames. She’s in her kitchen in Oakland, California. She loves nature and for some time she taught artwork and design at Stanford. In her artwork she finds objects and pictures, typically on the web, and arranges them into stunning shapes. She likes random issues and considering deeply about them. 4 years in the past she printed a guide known as How To Do Nothing, the place she explains that the web, by being such a helpful servant to us, has managed to show itself into our grasp; the result’s that we now not take note of what’s actually essential.

Get off all these apps, she says, and begin the true world, which really does want our consideration. Barack Obama mentioned How To Do Nothing was one among his books of the 12 months.

Now Odell has written a brand new guide, Saving Time, during which she says that our woes are even deeper and extra pernicious than she’d thought. We’ve got a worse downside than the eye financial system, she explains – our understanding of time itself.

It’s 10.30 on a sunny California morning for Odell and 5.30 on a darkish British night for me. That is “clock time”, the kind of time, Odell believes, that has taken over our brains, versus all the opposite kinds of time – sundial time, tidal time, time as represented by the circadian rhythms of bushes, birds, bugs, reptiles and mammals, together with us. There are a lot of extra varieties of time, too: geological time, seasonal time and, of pressing concern, local weather time. There are lifespans and well being spans. There’s time that appears to face nonetheless. After which there’s time that involves an finish, whenever you die. Nevertheless it’s clock time our society is concentrated on, clock time that harms us, divides us, steals from us and makes us destroy the planet. Clock time is all about productiveness, cash and financial development. However clock time is known as a fantasy.

‘I like to pay really close attention to the things in front of me’: Jenny Odell in Piedmont Park, California.
‘I prefer to pay actually shut consideration to the issues in entrance of me’: Jenny Odell in Piedmont Park, California. {Photograph}: Winni Wintermeyer/The Observer

Given the circumstances, I can’t fairly greet Odell with both “Good morning” or “Good night”, as a result of neither would precisely be true. In our dialog, it’s each 10.30am and 5.30pm. Clock time is already messing with us. “Time,” I say, “have to be simply concerning the hardest factor to consider.” Odell is silent for some time. “Sure,” she says.

Wanting again in time, she tells me she grew up in Cupertino, California, “in a neighbourhood that’s now extraordinarily unaffordable because it’s actually near Apple”. Her American father was {an electrical} engineer; her mom, from the Philippines, labored for Hewlett-Packard. Odell is an solely little one. Her mom seen “that I used to be happier if I used to be exterior. I favored to pay actually shut consideration to the issues that have been in entrance of me. I really feel like there’s a deep assumption in me that no matter is in entrance of you, there’s one thing fascinating about it. I belief that there’s one thing there to see.”

Of her dad and mom, she says: “I feel it’s additionally vital that they left me alone quite a bit. They weren’t helicopter dad and mom. So it allowed me to get actually, actually absorbed in what I used to be doing.” She was typically “making little methods, and simply not being interrupted. That’s nonetheless form of my favorite feeling.”

Thirty-odd years later, Odell has moved just a few miles away to Oakland, the place she lives in a big condominium block along with her boyfriend and the place she nonetheless pays shut, obsessive consideration to the objects round her. Now she tries to make sense of them. “One thing is true of all my work, whether or not it’s artwork or writing,” she says. “I really feel like I’m at all times attempting to do the identical factor, which is: simply transfer somebody, as a result of I feel for somebody to really feel like they’ve been touched or moved is a approach by that crust that everybody grows to simply get by the day. Besides in these moments when… one thing occurs, otherwise you expertise a murals, or have a dialog that pierces that crust.”

We’ll get to her artwork in a second, however first I need to have a dialog about clock time which, Odell believes, drives us mad and makes us develop the crust, the armour, to get us by the day. Odell’s place to begin is that clock time, which has nothing to do with solar, moon, tides or seasons, is infinitely fungible. Regardless that – the truth is, as a result of – it’s not actual, you may divide it into tiny items which, in our excessive market financial system, could be purchased and offered. However a hierarchy inevitably develops – some abilities are extra useful in a given financial system than others, which means that one particular person’s time is price greater than one other’s. To elucidate this to me, Odell cites the opening scene of Charlie Chaplin’s movie Trendy Instances. The essential half is “the intense distinction between the very relaxed boss in his very quiet workplace taking his dietary supplements, after which a tough reduce to the manufacturing unit ground” – the place Chaplin, who can’t sustain with the manufacturing unit’s machines, retains bashing into folks and is sucked into the bowels of the manufacturing unit. Later, to extend his effectivity, Chaplin’s boss hooks him as much as a force-feeding machine, which matches haywire and assaults Chaplin, bashing him within the face time and again with a corn cob. “I think about the corn cob malfunction one of many funniest film moments I’ve ever seen,” writes Odell in Saving Time.

We talk about the speeded-up world we reside in – instantaneous espresso, microwaves, lifts that elevate 30 instances sooner than they did after they have been first invented, banks that make use of buying and selling bots to purchase and promote shares in thousandths of a second. Time is cash and we’re all merchants of our time, even after we get AI machines to do it for us. However in a world of quick automobiles, quick meals, quick lifts and apps on our telephones that may inform us the quickest route from A to B, we really feel extra rushed than ever. Odell, who taught artwork and design at Stanford, says: “One factor that used to occur quite a bit was that I might be speeding to my class and I’d have all my baggage and papers and stuff, and I’d be very stressed about what I used to be going to do in school, after which I might be arrested, I might cease as a result of I might see some chook, the Stanford campus has plenty of birds, and migratory birds, and I used to say, once I would describe these moments, that point stopped. To me, that could be a second of affection – I’m utterly taken over by love and curiosity. However I considered it later, and it was like, , it’s not that point stopped – it’s simply that one timeline stopped. The timeline of me speeding to class, and considering that I ought to have ready extra. That stopped. However, particularly within the case of a migratory chook, I used to be really seeing a unique form of time. That chook is just there a part of the 12 months – and whenever you see it, it’s a must to take into consideration the place it’s been and the place it’s going, which could possibly be extremely far-off. One sign will get weaker after which the opposite one will get stronger.”

When Odell was a baby, she tells me, her mom learn her a narrative a few boy and a ball of thread. “It was from a guide that my mother bought from a storage sale, which she nonetheless has. A witch visits this younger boy, who’s impatient by nature, and offers him a ball of thread. She tells him that if he pulls the thread, time will go sooner and he or she warns him to not pull it an excessive amount of, as a result of it solely goes in a single route. Like time.”

In fact, the boy retains pulling the thread – he at all times needs to get to the following stage of his life. “He pulls it when he needs to go dwelling from faculty, however then he additionally pulls it as a result of he needs to marry his sweetheart. So he’s pulling it and pulling it – after which he’s an outdated man.” Then, lesson realized, the witch provides him one other probability. “The ethical for me,” says Odell, “as a kids’s story, is that you simply solely get one life. For me, it ended up extra as a narrative about the truth that time solely goes ahead. As a baby, time stretches out perpetually in entrance of you. I feel I used to be deeply terrified by that story.”

Odell finds it useful to make use of two historical Greek phrases, chronos, which signifies the time that marches ahead relentlessly, and kairos, which might imply “transcendental second”. Nonetheless lengthy or brief your life is, numbered in years, may matter lower than the variety of transcendental moments you get to expertise. Like whenever you see a tremendous chook and the whole lot else falls away – the bundle of papers you’re holding, the truth that you’re in a rush, the category you’re about to take. Or like falling in love? “Sure,” says Odell. “I’ve at all times been inquisitive about ego-effacing issues. One thing that makes your boundary a bit of bit blurry. Some folks would describe that feeling as love. Like whenever you see one thing that’s so stunning that you simply virtually assume that you simply’re exterior your self. Or whenever you really feel so strongly in direction of somebody, otherwise you really feel a lot empathy that you simply really feel you don’t fairly exist, like, individually from them. These are all issues that soften the boundary across the particular person. Which is why it so typically appears to not make sense.”

Falling in love just isn’t about productiveness, says Odell. It’s not about private achieve: “There’s one thing about falling in love that doesn’t make any sense.”

While you fall in love, you’re out of time. You’re past the realm of chronos, and into the realm of kairos. How else are you able to obtain this state? You possibly can commune with nature. Otherwise you could be moved by artwork. Odell says this occurred to her at a John Cage live performance. “Not solely did it change how I heard sounds throughout the efficiency itself, I walked exterior and I felt like I had a listening to help, like I might hear the whole lot within the metropolis, virtually as if for the primary time. I’d lived there for years at that time. And I don’t assume I’ve ever heard something the identical approach once more. I really feel my listening to has completely modified.”

A transcendental second. Kairos. As an artist, Odell seeks these moments. In one among her initiatives, she collected a whole bunch of images of objects from Google Earth – as an example, swimming swimming pools and sewage crops – and organized them in circles, to be painted on the wall of an enormous Google knowledge centre in Oklahoma. Form of like Damien Hirst on an enormous scale. In one other work she created a self-portrait made out of images of trash known as Rubbish Selfie. In 2015, she was artist in residence on the San Francisco dump. She spent a 12 months sifting by rubbish. “I used to be given plenty of time and area, uninterrupted, simply to enter this pile of trash and pull issues out, and spend mainly so long as I wished to, attempting to elucidate the existence of those objects, what they have been made out of. It mattered to me that it was trash. I wasn’t selecting issues out of the rubbish that have been stunning or classic.” A deep reference to objects misplaced to time. “It was one of many happiest instances of my life,” she says.

Saving Time: Discovering a Life Past the Clock by Jenny Odell is printed by Classic at £20. Purchase it for £17.60 at

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