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In the Studio | Jenny Odell


We love the way Jenny Odell sees the world—in categorical cutouts, arranged into visually pleasing puzzles of parking lots, boats, and planes. This unique, thoughtful artist has been a wonderful addition to the 20x200 artists cadre! Get to know the lady behind the art: peek into her sunlit SF workspace, read about her advice for her students, nab her genre-spanning work playlist, and more...  – Team 20x200

Studio Speak
Where's your studio?
My "official" studio is in a book-stuffed corner of the living room in my apartment in the Mission. But my studio is also sometimes the cafe around the corner, BART, Caltrain, the Stanford library, or those funny little desks they have at the SF airport.

What's your favorite tool in the studio?
Definitely my Wacom Cintiq -- it's basically a tablet and a giant screen at the same time. Nothing beats swiping endlessly through Google Maps.

What do you wear when working in the studio?
I'm not very deliberate about when I am and am not working, so I'm usually wearing whatever I was when I got sucked into some project. In the morning, it's probably pajamas, and if it's the evening, probably my teacher clothes (in which case I usually forget to take off my shoes or my coat).

What's the first thing you do when you arrive at your studio?
MAKE COFFEE! So much coffee.

What's on your in-studio playlist?
Somewhere deep in my being is a inexplicable proclivity for late 70s, early 80s disco -- Shalamar, D Train, The Whispers, Kashif... Other music on rotation is jazz (Fats Waller, Oscar Petersen), jangly stuff (Talking Heads, the Smiths), and old soul (Marvelettes, Four Tops). When I'm deep into cutting things out, I'll listen to This American Life, Snap Judgement, etc... currently waiting for more Invisibilia episodes to come out!

What's your favorite way to sweat it out?
When I'm working really hard on something, I find it completely necessary to go on a walk up the hill behind my house. (The irony is not lost on me that I'm taking a break from looking at aerial imagery on my computer to essentially look at San Francisco from an aerial point of view.) Going on a walk -- smelling, seeing, and hearing things -- is an important bodily reminder that I'm not just some cerebral force moving things around on the internet.

What's your favorite way to procrastinate in the studio?
One of my favorite ways to procrastinate is to send weird photoshops back and forth with my friends, of increasingly absurd scenes made out of stock photos. But actually the way I most often procrastinate is to start working on some entirely different project than the one that I'm supposed to be on -- especially if there's a deadline. This often starts with a "I wonder what it would look like if..." and then suddenly 3 hours have gone by.

Which artists' 20x200 editions do you most covet?
I most covet Penelope Umbrico's editions because I've admired her work for a long time, and I love the way she's able to capture the collective perception of a unitary thing (the sun, the moon, etc.).

Jenny's favorite studio tool—her Wacom tablet!

Whens, Hows & Whys

When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist?
I think I was just born with it in me. When I was really little I used to make those paper sailboats and then draw really, really tiny people that I'd cut out with scissors and put in the boat. Sound familiar?

But I guess my aha moment for wanting to be an artist *for a living* was when I started teaching (art). Up until then I had been making all my work on the side of a corporate job, but once I was freed up to pursue it more directly -- and exchange ideas about it with my students -- I saw how integral artmaking and writing are to my understanding of the world.

What was your path to becoming the artist you are today?
I have to give my parents props here for encouraging my weird artistic habits since the day I was born (both of my parents, though they work at other jobs, are wonderful artists). I also had possibly the best high school art teacher ever. I was an English major in undergrad but even then was taking art classes and thinking about how art and writing could be combined. And then I got an MFA in Design and Technology from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2010. As indispensable as that all was, I should mention that I almost feel like I'm still in school, because I learn new things and meet new people all the time. 

How do you get over creative blocks?
There are a couple of ways I get over creative blocks:
1) Go to a string of gallery exhibitions and see what other people are doing.
2) Do something completely unrelated to my work, like going to the symphony. (Often this ends up being somehow weirdly related in my head.)
3) Drop it / go easy on myself. Artists aren't factories and we shouldn't expect ourselves to churn out amazing ideas all day every day.

What do you like best about 20x200?
The thing I like best about 20x200 is that it allows more people to have my work in their home than would be possible otherwise. For me, it's the best of both worlds -- you get to utilize the unparalleled distribution network that is the internet, but at the end of the day, people are getting lovely physical prints. And I always like seeing photos of my pieces in different personalized settings.

What's the best advice you try to impart to your students?
The most important advice I give to my students is to take care of themselves. Everything about digital media and the way we consume it turns us into what Franco Bifo has described as "smooth, compatible parts of a system of interoperability," With the amount of time we spend projecting ourselves through our laptops and phones, it's increasingly difficult for us to remember ourselves as humans with all of the difficulties, subtleties, and joys that being human involves.

To me, taking care of oneself isn't just about eating and sleeping enough (though college students certainly need reminders about that), but about being self-aware and constantly coming back to the curiosity that has connected us to our surroundings since childhood.

If Google did not exist, what do you think your art would be like today? What direction would you have taken?
In all likelihood I would still be working with cutouts, just from other sources. Most of my work has to do with isolating something in order to invite a closer look at something overfamiliar; while satellite imagery is obviously ideal for this because it's such an alienated perspective, I think that this method works with any kind of imagery. So it's possible I would have ended up doing physical collage, or some other kind of similarly decontextualizing practice.

Also, just because we're dying to know: what's the craziest thing you've come across while hunting down items for your work?
Definitely the KFC logo that, for many years, was visible from Google satellite view just outside of Rachel, NV (a town close to Area 51). It was made out of 65,000 square plastic tiles and dubbed in KFC's press release as the world's first "astrovertisement." In fact, the logo looked so sharp and clear on Google Maps that I tried to click it, before I realized it was physically there. (Technically speaking, however, it wasn't actually physically there. Not long after the logo was installed, it was destroyed by a storm, but it persisted on Google Maps -- which is where it was meant to end up, anyway.)

We spy some 20x200 art!
Jane Mount's "132 Birds Leaving AMNH (Response to Jason Polan)" and Craig Damrauer's "Modern Art" sit by Jenny's desk.


The 411 on Jenny Odell
Jenny Odell is a Bay Area native who mines imagery from online environments, most typically Google Maps, in an attempt to create candid portraits of humanity and its built environment. Because her practice exists at the intersection of research and aesthetics, Odell has often been compared to a natural scientist (specifically, a lepidopterist). Her work has been exhibited at the Google Maps Headquarters, Les Rencontres D'Arles, Arts Santa Monica, Fotomuseum Antwerpen, La Gaîté Lyrique in Paris, and East Wing Gallery in Dubai. It's also turned up in TIME Magazine's LightBox, The Atlantic, The Economist, WIRED, the NPR Picture Show, and Imagine Architecture (Gestalten, 2014). Odell teaches at Stanford University.

Professional Site: Jenny Odell     Twitter: @the_jennitaur      KQED Video: Mining the Internet with Jenny Odell