When did creative work become so boring? When did ‘digital-first’ come to dominate everything? …and why is nobody talking about it?
Offline Matters with Jess Henderson
Interview by Charis Poon
“In reading Offline Matters I saw the thoughts I don’t give myself time to think articulated precisely in black and white. Here in front of me were the contents of the inner monologue that runs through the background of my professional life as a designer, writer, and strategist. But this book is much better than anyone’s stream of consciousness, because the author, Jess Henderson, spells out with clarity and conviction the reasons behind those perpetual nagging sensations of dissatisfaction, boredom, and incredulity that is doing creative work for money.
Jess Henderson is a writer, researcher, creative strategist, and author of Offline Matters: The Less-Digital Guide to Creative Work. Her work focuses on slackerism, burnout, extreme creativity, and the social effects of technology on our every day lives. Her book, available now, is the culmination of Outsider, an experimental offline project, with a weekly email newsletter, that Jess led from 2017-2020 as a transdisciplinary adventure through the trials and tribulations of life in the creative industries. Both Outsider and Offline Matters question why we accept as default things like trend forecasting, social media solutions, “purpose” as branding, and cash-driven self-interest as creative work. The introduction to Offline Matters opens with this question, “Why do we find ourselves in unwavering devotion to the online when we know how much offline matters?” Jess goes on to describe the “digital-first” mindset the creative industry seems stuck in and compels readers to be a part of the resistance against a future where we and the work we do are drained of meaning, energy, and criticality.
In preparing to speak to Jess, I read Offline Matters cover to cover. Halfway through, I was feeling implicated — I recognized how things could be different, but wasn’t doing anything about it. And then came encouragement. In part two of the book, Jess writes about the dominant affect and public secret of our phase of capitalism being anxiety and precarity. This is the strategy she proposes, “Talking about our situation and feelings out loud, with others, creates the potential for responses to emerge. We discover overlaps in our lives and find these overlaps are caused by the structures we’re living in. We learn that our discomforts are imposed from the outside and not personal downfalls… Our public secret is protected by a culture of silence. In order to overthrow it, we need to take back the truth and our reality – shift it from the system back to the speaker. By exercising our voices together, we can change the way we see things. The perspective shifts, moving from the system’s viewpoint to our own. Our own vision and desires.”
Jess told me on our call how much Iggy Pop meant to her, and her wonderful irregular newsletter is titled NO FUN, so I got off our call and listened to “No Fun” by The Stooges. No fun my babe / No fun / No fun my babe / No fun… C’mon and lemme hear you tell ‘em / Lemme hear you tell ‘em / How I feel / I say c’mon lemme hear you / Tell ‘em how I feel
Offline Matters makes a space for us to have a discussion about how we feel: when creative work is no fun, let’s ask ourselves why.” (Charis)
Charis: How can I care for you in this conversation? What kind of care are you in need of?
Jess: This is such a wonderful way to open an interview. You’ve taken me aback by it. This strikes me as so emblematic of our present: both the heightened awareness for, and expected lack of awareness, for care. The importance of care.
There is what Michel Foucault calls the “author-function”, which includes an attachment of responsibility to the writer. In contemporary times, I feel this as a tripwire that can be set in any discussion of a work. If I was to ask for care in this conversation, it would be to see the book as an opening and not an end. It is a discussion, rather than a suggested “guide to life”.
It was made to talk and think with others, in the words of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “how to be in but not for, being against but being with”. This is our task. Where I’ve been at for the past year is very much thinking in terms of social practices that are ongoing and constant, rather than singular events (which have a start and an end) or being afraid of giving time to things that have no material output – which by no means denounces their worth.
Essentially, let’s say the care is in the understanding that this is a collaborative work. Not a lone person with an agenda.
Let’s talk about what you’ve been doing offline lately, what have the past few months looked like?
These past few months have been the greatest teachers of the importance of our social lives. Hanging out, walking around together outside with no destination, spending evenings out under the stars doing nothing but chatting. I’ve been profoundly socially hungry, naturally after being deprived. All I want is to be in the presence of others, swimming in existing friendships and meeting new people. It’s really surfaced for me how much there is to be found in our connective desire for being together and being physically available and alive.
There is still something deep in sharing and learning from others, something energising.
There is a frustrated energy in the opening of your book. Do you still feel this way about the issues you open up?
I learnt long ago to not be afraid of dissatisfaction. It is a powerful mode of bonding, of being with, of being right there alongside the reader. I don’t think in terms of audiences, I think in terms of comrades and users. It’s not someone up on stage preaching, it’s someone in the trenches too. Feeling all the feelings. There is a real visceral solidarity in sharing troubles, discomforts, problems — that’s why I wanted to include a piece on the radical feminist practice of “consciousness-raising”. The whole book is an exercise in consciousness-raising. In voicing and illuminating how we feel and what we see, disclosing and discovering that what we feel are personal problems or ailments are causes of the systems and situations we are in, not some personal failing or pathology.
The contemporary prescription for constant positivity can be crushing and dangerous. There’s nothing wrong with feeling dissatisfied.
I read an interview you gave, where Maisa Imamović asked you the question, “I feel like Outsider could last a lifetime and track down societal changes along the way. Does it ever feel like the project is becoming a burden, irrelevant, expired, and needs to be kissed goodbye?”
You said, “This isn’t because I think the message/s is exhausted, but because I am. I feel like I have been saying the same things for almost three years, and despite the snowballing external love for the project, I struggle to find the energy to continue it. Traversing our ongoing exploitation is tiring. As I have grown into new topics, new interests, etc, and also spend less and less time in these creativity-as-work environments, there is less interest for me to be found in preaching the same standpoint again and again.”
In that light, how do you consider the publication of the book? Does it bring you personal closure? In sending it out into the world, do you have expectations or hopes?
For quite some time I had felt ready to move on from Outsider, and although writing was a medium I used, I never identified myself as a writer, per se. There were things to think aloud about and talk over with others, and writing was there. I’m not somebody who had a personal longing to write a book, sometime during my life. But I was speaking with a mentor and they said “I think if you just walk away from this body of work, you might miss something later. It may feel like you’ve been saying the same thing for years but it still has a relevance, perhaps more now than before.” And so I felt a sort of duty to our Outsiders to make something of all our discussions and also to illuminate to the outside world many of the things going on in the creative-workplace that aren’t being talked about.
My only hope is that it can provide some kind of solace that how you’re feeling, you’re not alone. Already I’ve had young creative workers reach out asking if we can form a reading group to discuss and share. That is totally amazing to me. They’re saying, “Just this week the company asked the employees to face the new campaign, it totally didn’t cross my mind that this should be properly remunerated and not an expectation!” I’m so happy if it can help both new, younger workers and those older (and perhaps more powerful) identify exploitation and see possibilities for a wider scope of what can be considered as “creativity”.
Can you tell me about responses to Outsider that stick with you? What types of conversations do you have surrounding your newsletter? You talk about the Cult of Digital, do you get members of the cult continuing to try and convince you that the cult isn’t a cult?
The things that had the feeling of “coming out of the dark” stick with me most. People would open up with the most amazing personal accounts of their experiences, sometimes weeks after an email. Out of nowhere. Very dark things too. These responses taught me the deep correlations between the shift to the “digital-first” mindset dominating creative work, and increasing burnouts and exploitation. People are just so sad and bored with this work. What began as a simple noticing that the consideration for doing anything offline or not “data proven” was fading, became discussions of less enjoyment in the office and contradictions; like bosses reading “Digital Minimalism” and talking about how much they loved it, and then suggesting nothing but social media strategies to clients.
Because everyone found their way to Outsider in their own way, it was really a gathering of like-minds sharing experiences and wanting to find commonality and solidarity in that. Especially for freelancers who weren’t always working in teams. It was like having a team in a new space.
The word “cult” is used in jest, but the characteristics are eerily not that far away. There is a true belief that data can guide the way to “effective” creation. What those effects should be is obviously up for debate. We certainly found common ground in feeling that everything was becoming duller and less experimental. And that “doing what you love” became a dangerous sentiment that being able to do “creativity” as work should be satisfaction enough, not labour that requires fair remuneration.
I’m curious about your personal routine, if you would permit the question. Since reading your book, I have been thinking in moment to moment about whether I am simply in possession of something or being, whether I am passive or active, whether I am talking or doing. What does your day to day life look like? Do the thoughts you describe in Offline Matters, perhaps not about action in workplaces, but action in the day to day, guide your actions?
Yes, absolutely. I think every day about how to make creative work better for the people it involves. This is both about obvious things like being properly paid, reasonable notions of time, as well as consciously breaking out of capitalist concepts of exchange and interaction. For example, not everything has to be reciprocal in nature. I’ve been studying Cassie Thornton’s The Hologram, which is an excellent example of how to extend our practices of care beyond these boundaries.
In my day-to-day, interactions take priority. Talking, hanging, keeping in touch, chatting with family, friends, strangers. When we socialise we shrink the sense of self that can be so overwhelming and pressurising. It cultivates the feelings of interconnectedness we miss so much, all flowing into solidarity and empathy. When you feel like you have a lot of problems, feel stressed or overwhelmed, talking to someone helps so much! It brings that perspective, kind of like when you travel and feel the expansiveness of the world and are reminded how small you and your life are in that.
Socialising sort of antidotes alienation. We are not alienated because we work as machines — we are alienated because production takes up all the spheres of our existence. So any talk of “offline” for me helps to disconnect from that constant tug to be productive, and gives me space to notice the guilt and dilute that feeling of “my life is important”, and there is a self that needs to be made. But we only make ourselves through others, like Bantu and many traditions of African sayings teach: “a man is a man through a man” (I’m paraphrasing).
In the process of making this book and bringing it to publication, is there anything in it that you would reconsider — that you perhaps feel more strongly about or less strongly about now?
It’s a good question. In the process, there is a definite sense of needing to provide “solutions” or answers. Today everything is expected to be a self-help guide with clean bullet points and easy take-aways. But asking unanswerable questions is necessary and thinking together is far more the point. Stimulating thought, allowing for critical thinking.
What I learnt is two things: 1) About writing a “history of the present”. This is a key concept of Michel Foucault, who I already mentioned. In other words, “an analysis of what is”. He notes that our own times and lives are not the beginning or end of some “historical” process, but a period like, and at the same time unlike, any other. 2) There is a lack of writings from the inside of creativity-as-work. The worker perspective is unique, we are not the academics analysing the creative industries from an exterior position. It’s totally different to share what’s going on the inside. And every seemingly insignificant detail matters. Like the pieces in the book on panel talks or tote bags — it’s a very old tradition to examine culture and see what it’s saying on a broader scale about life today (whether politically, economically, socially, etc.)
You hold nothing back in your writing, with honesty that feels almost painful. I am thinking in particular of the piece titled, “Shock Me. Please.”. I recognize that the writing comes from a place of personal experience and that you write to be inclusive (“we”) rather than to condemn (“you”). When you write, what tone of voice are you aiming for? Is it you on the page or is it a persona?
Thank you so much for saying that. I am pleased that comes through. I am radically aware nothing is written in isolation, everything is collaborative. I am but a product of every conversation, every person I know, every writer I read. Fred Moten has a book titled Black and Blur: Consent Not To Be A Single Being, titled after a phrase of Édouard Glissant’s which he describes as the refusal to be individuated. Like this line from the epilogue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, I’m paraphrasing, “our destiny is not to be one but many.”
They are personal experiences, and they are compiled from shared experiences. I write under a pseudonym because this is not about me, it’s about all of us.
I like the quote: “Anything that shows up as individual only shows up that way because you didn’t look closely enough.”
You frequently use the word “weird” and “weirdness” in a positive sense, in a counter-cultural sense. What have you been doing that you consider to be “weird” lately? What “weird” things have you seen in the world that you want to see more of?
I am a huge fan of “weirdness”, in so many forms. I want to be surprised and shown somewhere my mind would have never gone on its own. For that I read a lot of magic realism, books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Shahidul Zahir, or Murakami, which are such amazing testaments to the possibilities of human imagination. I’m prioritising reading fiction and finding more ways to practice things that are “unproductive” (in a capitalist sense). Sales of non-fiction books have never been higher, and there’s a reason for that.
Otherwise, I scout the weird on the streets. “Search for Weird; Search for Strange,” as V. Vale says in his great zine Terminal Punk. Walking without destination is my greatest pastime besides socialising (though of course it’s ultra-fun to do this with others). Wandering around, reading graffiti, looking at stickers on rubbish bins, seeing how people spell words phonetically and improperly–maybe by accident, maybe not. It helps me open up, see where my own biases lie and locate the limitations that are lying inside my brain.
It also relates to an interest in what JG Ballard perceptively called “invisible informations” such as these stickers or “vandalisations”, or even bureaucracy correspondence and the latest ad slogans. All of which shape our culture below the level of recognition.
Generally, I really, really wish there was more allowance for “weirdness” in creative work. But I guess that’s what activates our own freedoms of expression too.
Can you describe a recent offline moment or conversation that grounded you?
Just this morning the elderly owner where I am staying wanted to show me his photos from a trip he took to Australia six years ago. It was totally amazing seeing what he found significant to photograph, and almost all of the photos had people in them (not just scenery). Every place they visited, they posed in. On the hotel beds, on the bathtubs, in the kitchen, they photographed themselves in almost every room in every place they stayed. There were no photos of food or panoramas, just people enjoying their holiday. He took pleasure in doing this slideshow so much, which was almost more special to see than the photos themselves.
Your book questions conditions of labor and work, but, at the same time, making Offline Matters must have taken a lot of work! Can we be busy with not work-work and have that busyness be fulfilling?
Charis, you cut to my core! As I was doing this I was thinking why why why? It was so painful and so hard. I’m a private person and I had great discomfort making something “public”. I do critique busyness culture, largely because I find myself in it and have confusion seeing exits, and here I am taking on a task that has made me busier than ever. That word you use, “fulfillment”, is key. We can always ask, who is it fulfilling to? The Super Ego, or will it fulfill others? It’s also that thing you mentioned in another conversation, “Can we feel okay when something exists even if it’s not shared?.” Of course we can do things that simply fulfill a personal calling too. We certainly have some abstract drive to create and manifest, and I want to clarify that many, many things can be considered in that manifestation! Like the aforementioned ongoing committed constant social practices with no material “thing” resultant. We shouldn’t be afraid of things with no immediate outcome or material output.
When people get together and think through certain things, it’s sort of like creating social fields. Not only in terms of creating a field for our survival but how to reach that place of turning survival into thriving. This is work too. In the positive sense. Doing the work with other people of imagining what that place could be.
In the busyness of our lives, we can find ways for forgiving and allowing ourselves to do this work. Not the job, the work. The listening, the conversation, the seeking out and being with. Recognising this work for what it is, not dismissing its immaterial outcome as unproductive or wasted time and effort…I’m not saying it’s easy. I guess that’s why we recognise it as work. Countering individualisation is work. Intimacy is work. Like cultivating a plant takes work. It is work.
You are critical of the self-help industry, but I see Offline Matters as a manual for a way of being. It’s not self-help as it is stereotypically known, and the language is very different, but it is still putting forth a way for being and operating. What do you see Offline Matters as sitting alongside?
I am critical of the self-help industry as it perpetuates individualism, and commonly attributes responsibility on a person who is suffering to solve their own suffering. That’s why I’m sceptical of workplace wellness programmes: when you’re stressed to the point of burnout, the suggested solution shouldn’t be “now find yourself an hour a day for meditation and yoga, on top of everything else you’re doing”. It also diverts attention from the cause: if your workload is too high, having a guy come in and teach mindfulness isn’t going to solve that. “Self-care” as a consumerist product is primarily about practices and regimes to be carried out at home alone. That’s sad. Stefano Harney says it well, “Nobody can take care of themselves.”
As for Offline Matters, it is hoping to return allowance for the consideration of alternatives. So often it feels like there are none, and that gets naturalised and limits our senses of possibility. If there’s something to help on, it’s that. I’m not prescribing some way of life, and certainly not suggesting “digital detox” rubbish. Our lives have gone online in all new ways thanks to the pandemic, and we have so many questions around that. We should all be asking questions and discussing them together — not to find answers but to find each other within that.
Does tuning into a third space and maintaining everyday radical activity get easier?
Like anything, it gets easier with practice, mainly because you learn how to do it and learn how to allow yourself to do it. From my experience, anything done in company is easier than done alone. That’s why Offline Matters is a mutual-aid guide in disguise as a handbook about creative work. The third space is cool because it gives options beyond the “binary” notions in our every day. I like what Angela Davis said, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
How have you redirected your desires and wants towards alternatives? What is it that you want to do now?
I want to be with others. That is the ache, and that is the balm. It is the biggest teacher for every lesson I want to be taught. The pandemic has shown me the possibilities people find in digital communities for this too. I’m hungry for in-person face to face interactions, which has ironically become the biggest alternative of them all!
Lately, how do you feel at the end of your days?
I felt a lot of despair over the past few months. And having the book come out is really scary, because I’m not a person who wants to have a lot of attention or be google-able! Oddly, at the end of the day is when I feel most calm and alive. I love being in places that come alive at night, with people mingling on the streets and hanging in parks until the early hours. At the end of the day is when I feel like I want to celebrate life (as corny as that sounds), and feel sensations of that thriving, not just surviving, as we’ve been talking about.
What brings you hope now? Have you felt increasingly more hope over the last three years when it comes to seeing your ideas gain traction?
I actually feel more hope as I’ve come to terms with the fact that the internet, social media, all of these things aren’t going away. I was very uncomfortable and felt a horrible friction as ways of life felt like they were so rapidly changing. The acceleration is insane. It’s like through these past three years of talking it over, I’ve “grown up” and learnt how to divert those irritations into a more generative disobedience. Learning how to say, “okay, that’s a very narrow definition of usefulness we are living in here”, and letting that give you permission to think otherwise instead of letting it oppress or drain you.
I think I’m getting more hope by accepting to have no hope in Silicon Valley taking some kind of ethical 180 and fixing all the harmful social effects of their creations. I love the vastness of human capabilities, including all our weirdness, and I feel good to embrace all that and not get caught up in feeling the “social media problem” is so urgent. Racial oppression and climate change are urgent. I’ve come to let social media disappointment go.
Franco Berardi, whose work I relate to very much, read an early draft of the book and shared with me how he sees a growing philosophical significance in the word/neologism “offline”. This came at a time when I was really grappling with how to think about what “offline” even means anymore. His notes on its increasing relevance in light of the pandemic was such a boost. He describes “offline” as a way to define the physical dimension of the real, in subtraction from the virtual dimension. I like this as a description of where we’re at with it for now, although it is always changing and will continue to.
What do you want to raise consciousness about? What would you tell our readers, in line with that?
Just question stuff and ask those questions with other people. If something doesn’t feel good, ask why? Don’t be afraid that “it’s only you” or that “I have a problem.” This is precisely the point, the problem lies elsewhere and together we can locate that. If we want to concept ways of life that are non-repressive and more generative, we can. We need more expansive considerations of what makes for creative work and, as Oli Mould says, what are we really creating here? More of the same, or something we actually desire?
and an excerpt of the book, titled ‘Fake Busy’ here.