December 07, 2017

Five Questions with Jenny Odell: Mining Online Imagery

Jenny Odell would spend 80% of her life in the library if she could. Her work combines the mining of online imagery with writing and research—collecting, tagging, cataloguing—and she has been compared to a natural scientist. In addition to teaching internet art and digital/physical design at Stanford, Jenny has exhibited her art internationally. Her work has appeared in TIME Magazine’s LightBox, The Atlantic, The Economist, WIRED, NPR’s The Picture Show, PBS NewsHour, and a couple of Gestalten books. Recently, for a Google data center in Oklahoma, she designed a mural that contains satellite imagery from Google Maps.

Here, Jenny shares with us her thoughts about how clearing time and space is an essential element in her creative process. She’ll dig deeper into this topic when she presents “How to Do Nothing” as part of our speaker lineup at January’s conference. Do you have your tickets?

What is your relationship to the creative process?

“For me, the creative process is what happens when I give myself unlimited (or as close to unlimited as I can manage) time and space. Given those conditions, I trust that it will happen, so I spend a lot of my effort clearing other things away to make that space. I also find that the creative process requires both a state of openness (to new ideas or serendipitous connections) and a state of being closed off (from outside concerns, and sometimes other people) enough to focus on finishing something.”

How or where to you find inspiration?

“I’m lucky to have a lot of friends who are amazing artists, so I get a lot of my inspiration from them. I also live near a killer bookstore (Walden Pond) where I’ve run into a lot of the books that ended up being the most important to me, and I spend a lot of time wandering in the Stanford library. But most important, I go on really long walks where I have time to stop and observe things on a small scale. It doesn’t really matter what the destination is; just the act of walking has proven to be hugely generative for me.”

What was one of your biggest creative challenges?

“Besides simply maintaining the time and space for a creative practice, my other biggest challenge is condensing and tying together what are often very disparate interests (as well as disparate references or sources of research). Sometimes when your interests sprawl in every direction, it can be difficult to pull it all together in a way that can communicate to someone else. Again, I find that that just takes time and waiting for things to settle.”

When did you first realize you needed to be in a creative field?

“I don’t remember a moment when I realized I needed to be in a creative field, so maybe I’ve just always felt that way—it seemed like a given. That said, I believe that most people are creative in their own ways. Within the context of something like conceptual art, for example, someone deciding to take a different route to work one day can certainly be considered a creative act.”

Who is one of your heroes and why?

“Hannah Höch, one of the first artists to work with photocollage. I’m not only inspired by her recognition that mass media could be used as artistic material (a radical idea at the time), but also that she didn’t back down 1) as a female in a male-dominated field, and 2) as someone who was considered a ‘degenerate’ artist by the Nazi party, who harassed and intimidated her and many other collage artists because their work wasn’t representational or obvious. Höch pursued photocollage for her entire life. I admire her commitment, and I also recognize and identify with the semi-obsessive quality of her way of working.”

BONUS ROUND: What was your first job?

“Drawing caricatures at Paramount’s Great America!”