How to Unsettle People by
Jenny Odell: In Celebration of a Small Rebellion
Sent: February 27 2008 00:16
To: Z, Y
As I already mentioned to Z, there has been a person sitting
in the Tax library space and staring out of the window with a
glazed look in her eyes . . .
Female, very short hair, she said when asked that she’s a
trainee in Marketing.
She sat in front of an empty desk from 10:30am, went for
lunch . . .
In 2008, employees at an office for the accounting firm Deloitte were troubled by the behavior of a new recruit. In the midst of a bustling work environment, she didn’t seem to be doing anything except sitting at an empty desk and staring into space. Whenever someone would ask what she was doing, she would reply that she was “doing thought work” or “working on [her] thesis.” Then there was the day that she spent riding the elevators up and down repeatedly. When a coworker saw this and asked if she was “thinking again,” she replied: “It helps to see things from a different perspective.” The employees became uneasy. Urgent inter-office emails were sent.
It turned out that the staff had unwittingly taken part in a performance piece called The Trainee. The silent employee was Pilvi Takala, a Finnish artist who is known for videos in which she quietly threatens social norms with simple actions. In a piece called Bag Lady, for instance, she spent days roaming a mall in Berlin while carrying a clear plastic bag full of euro bills. Christy Lange describes the piece in Frieze: “While this obvious display of wealth should have made her the ‘perfect customer,’ she only aroused suspicion from security guards and disdain from shopkeepers. Others urged her to accept a more discreet bag for her money.”
The Trainee epitomized Takala’s method. As observed by a writer at Pumphouse Gallery, which showed her work in 2017, there is nothing inherently unusual about the notion of not working while at work; people commonly look at Facebook on their phones or seek other distractions during work hours. It was the image of utter inactivity that so galled Takala’s colleagues. “Appearing as if you’re doing nothing is seen as a threat to the general working order of the company, creating a sense of the unknown,” they wrote, adding solemnly, “The potential of nothing is everything.”
Looking at The Trainee, it’s clear that the reactions of others are what make such acts humorous and often legendary. Stopping or refusing to do something only gains this status if everyone else is doing what is expected of them, and have never allowed that anyone would ever deviate. A crowded sidewalk is a good example: everyone is expected to continue moving forward. Tom Green poked at this convention when he performed “the Dead Guy,” on his Canadian public access TV show in the 1990s. Slowing his walk to a halt, he carefully lowered himself to the ground and lay facedown and stick-straight for an uncomfortable period of time. After quite a crowd had amassed, he got up, looked around, and nonchalantly walked away.
As alarmed as the sidewalk crowd might have been, the TV audience delights more and more in Green’s performance the longer it goes on. Likewise, Takala might be bemusedly remembered by even those who sent the frantic emails, as the one employee who did the (very) unexpected. At their loftiest, such refusals can signify the individual capacity for self-directed action against the abiding flow; at the very least, they interrupt the monotony of the everyday. From within unquestioned cycles of behavior, such refusals produce bizarre offshoots that are not soon forgotten. Indeed, some refusals are so remarkable that we remember them many centuries later.
That seems to be the case with Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic philosopher who lived in fourth-century Athens and later Corinth. Many people are familiar with “the man who lived in a tub,” scorning all material possessions except for a stick and a ragged cloak. Diogenes’s most notorious act was to roam through the city streets with a lantern, looking for an honest man; in paintings, he’s often shown with the lantern by his side, sulking inside a round terra cotta tub while the life of the city goes on around him. There are also paintings of the time he dissed Alexander the Great, who had made it a point to visit this famous philosopher. Finding Diogenes lazing in the sun, Alexander expressed his admiration and asked if there was anything Diogenes needed. Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my light.”
Plato’s designation of Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad” wasn’t far off the mark. While he was in Athens, Diogenes had come under the influence of Antisthenes, a disciple of Socrates. He was thus heir to a development in Greek thought that prized the capacity for individual reason over the hypocrisy of traditions and customs, even and especially if they were commonplace. But one of the differences between Socrates and Diogenes was that, while Socrates famously favored conversation, Diogenes practiced something closer to performance art. He lived his convictions out in the open and went to great lengths to shock people out of their habitual stupor, using a form of philosophy that was almost slapstick.
This meant consistently doing the opposite of what people expected. Like Zhuang Zhou before him, Diogenes thought every “sane” person in the world was actually insane for heeding any of the customs upholding a world full of greed, corruption, and ignorance. Exhibiting something like an aesthetics of reversal, he would walk backward down the street and enter a theater only when people were leaving. Asked how he wanted to be buried, he answered: “Upside down. For soon down will be up.” In the meantime, he would roll over hot sand in the summer, and hug statues covered with snow. Suspicious of abstractions and education that prepared young people for careers in a diseased world rather than show them how to live a good life, he was once seen gluing the pages of a book together for an entire afternoon. While many philosophers were ascetic, Diogenes made a show of even that. Once, seeing a child drinking from his hands, Diogenes threw away his cup and said, “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.” Another time, he loudly admired a mouse for its economy of living.
When Diogenes did conform, he did it ironically, employing what the twentieth-century conceptual artists the Yes Men have called “overidentification.” In this case, refusal is (thinly) masked as disingenuous compliance:
When news came to the Corinthians that Philip and the Macedonians were approaching the city, the entire population became immersed in a flurry of activity, some making their weapons ready, or wheeling stones, or patching the fortifications, or strengthening a battlement, everyone making himself useful for the protection of the city. Diogenes, who had nothing to do and from whom no one was willing to ask anything, as soon as he noticed the bustle of those surrounding him, began at once to roll his tub up and down the Craneum with great energy. When asked why he did so, his answer was, “Just to make myself look as busy as the rest of you.”
That Diogenes’s actions in some ways prefigured performance art has not gone unnoticed by the contemporary art world. In a 1984 issue of Artforum, Thomas McEvilley presented some of Diogenes’s best “works” in “Diogenes of Sinope (c. 410–c. 320 BC): Selected Performance Pieces.” Arranged in this context, his acts indeed sound like the cousins of the works from the twentieth-century antics of Dada and Fluxus.
McEvilley, as so many others throughout history have, admires Diogenes’s courage when it came to flouting customs so customary that they were not even spoken about. He writes, “[Diogenes’s] general theme was the complete and immediate reversal of all familiar values, on the ground that they are automatizing forces which cloud more of life than they reveal.”
When McEvilley says that Diogenes’s actions “[thrust] at the cracks of communal psychology” and “laid bare a dimension of hiding possibilities he thought might constitute personal freedom,” it’s easy to think not only of how easily Pilvi Takala unsettled her coworkers at Deloitte, but every person who, by refusing or subverting an unspoken custom, revealed its often-fragile contours. For a moment, the custom is shown to be not the horizon of possibility, but rather a tiny island in a sea of unexamined alternatives.
From How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. Used with permission of Melville House. Copyright © 2019 by Jenny Odell.