"I have no real interest in technology," says filmmaker-author-performance artist Mirandy July. But her work—be it in prose, on film, or in the email-based art projects that she takes on with some regularity—reflects that there’s something about the way people interact with one another digitally that has her attention.
Her debut feature, You and Me and Everyone We Know, featured an unforgettably awkward, sad, and funny cybersex scene. Several years ago, she began collecting email addresses of fans who wanted her to send them their fortune (she still writes fortunes every week). And now, in her latest project—a partnership with Stockholm’s Magasin 3 Museum entitled We Think Alone—she’s curating the private emails of a group of 20 collaborators and sending them out every Monday to anyone who wants to see them.
The collaborators on We Think Alone range from the famous—Kirsten Dunst, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lena Dunham—to the famous-in-their-own-niche (theoretical physicist Lee Smolin). But the project isn’t about celebrity, July says. "I wasn’t thinking about it like that," she stresses. "I actually started the project thinking no one would be particularly famous—I would just invite my friends." The project’s time constraints—it runs for 20 weeks—led her to recruit some names that would engage people quickly, but the focus remains on the way people communicate, not necessarily what they’re communicating. July has learned some interesting things in the process of creating that project.
When the museum initially approached July about creating a decentralized, email-based art project, she suspected that her idea and the final product weren’t exactly what they had in mind. "I think they expected me to write something or make something, since I’m a writer and an artist," she says. "But I thought, Well, why do that, since there’s already an infinite amount of very interesting, ready-made material?"
"Very interesting" is in the eye of the beholder, but July’s eye beheld some strong appeal in seeing the way that different people communicate even things like their clerical affairs. "I made a list of 20 different topics, sort of genres of email, and I sent those to 10 different "meritable" people—some of whom I know and some who I had to do some work to get to—and they had to scavenge through their Sent folders and find one example of each of these kind of emails. Then each week, there’s kind of a themed compendium of all 10 of them," July explains.
The first theme in the series—which started on July 1—was "money," which is a topic that everyone has at least a passing interest in. In fact, that interest turned We Think Alone into tabloid fodder in its first week: Perez Hilton ran a story with the headline, "Kirsten Dunst & Lena Dunham Reveal Financial Deets In Eye-Opening Art Installation!" while Jezebel’s read that "Lena Dunham Realizes That $24,000 for a Sofa is Expensive." And while it’s definitely interesting to learn that even an actress like Dunst, who’s been famous since she was 12 years old, also expects to collect on the $7,000 she charged when she sold an old car to a friend, there’s more to the project than simple voyeurism.
"I know," July laughs. "’The-stars-are-just-like-us’ thing! Yeah, I get that there’s kind of no way around that feeling. But I have a limited amount of thoughts on that territory. I guess what’s more interesting to me is not just getting to see that they’re just like us, but getting to see who they are—that no one is actually ‘just like us.’ Everyone is a specific person living their life, with their own humanity or whatever, and I feel like, over time, that’s more what you’ll experience than just that little fizz of connecting it to yourself. I like reading that stuff, too."
July isn’t bothered that people are interested in the project for what it reveals about the personal lives of her more celebrated collaborators—"it’s interesting to me to have an art project that is so democratic that probably a good percentage of the people that subscribe to it aren’t thinking of it as an art project," she says—but as the project continues, the cumulative effect is likely to be less about Lena Dunham’s sticker shock and more about communication.
The second week’s emails, on the topic of "advice," are less likely to provide fuel for the gossip blogs. Dunst was unable to find an advice email that she’d sent; Dunham’s addresses a friend in a bad relationship in a way that anyone who’s familiar with her work will find unsurprising; Abdul-Jabbar urges a young fan who wants to become a pro ballplayer to stay in school. But there’s a balance that July is careful to strike between the intimacy of a personal, thoughtful email and the intimacy of a mundane, administrative email. How does someone who pours her heart out to a friend in lovely prose respond to a question about couch prices?
"That is a special interest of mine, for sure," she says. "Anyone I’m close with, I’m curious how they are when they’re not with me. It seems very pure to see my girlfriend Sheila Eddings’s email—her more clerical emails are really thrilling to me because we only talk about the most intimate, personal stuff, so I don’t even know how she behaves when she’s dealing with what, in fact, is a large chunk of our lives. The really long, intimate ones are great, but I also have some topics that purposefully don’t even allow for that, because I wanted to veer towards the mundane."
In the time between when July conceived of the project and when it launched, something funny happened: A heated international dialogue about email and privacy opened up around the Edward Snowden revelations about the extent of the NSA’s surveillance program. July says she "thought this up long before the NSA thing happened," but that doesn’t mean it’s not also part of the context of the project now—or that some of the themes of the project don’t deal with the same issues that are built into what We Think Alone is doing.
"Privacy is changing," July says. "It’s not something you can be totally passive with anymore. You have to decide how private you want to be and be active in that. I was thinking in terms of Facebook, and the imprint you leave every day, and I think a lot of people are thinking about that stuff."
Ultimately, while this project obviously isn’t art in response to the NSA wiretapping revelations, July says that her role as an artist includes being in a position to tap into the same sentiment that’s threatened to make Snowden’s leaks a major international scandal. "I see my job as to listen to things that come from my unconscious, and if they come from deep enough, hopefully they connect to something that’s not just me," she says. "That’s not just my job, that’s an artist’s job—not to get caught too much in the level of just the chatter, but to dig from the place of deeper common fears. And then, with any luck, you’re not alone in what you’re considering."
Of course, being alone in what you’re considering is how most of the emails included in We Think Alone were composed—that’s also part of the point of the project. But who someone is in those moments when they’re advising a friend, handling a mundane financial decision, or whatever else comes out of the next 18 weeks of emails isn’t a full portrait of a person. No one is just the couch they didn’t buy or the career advice they offered to someone who asked for it—and July isn’t the one in charge of dictating those portraits to the project’s audience: The subjects are.
"I like the thought of people telling their own stories, so it’s really important that they chose these emails," July says. "It’s not me crafting some version of them, but for anyone who cares to sort of connect the dots over 20 weeks, something will be revealed about each person, regardless of what they share. You get to see them choose again and again and again what to share."
For July, in fact, the hardest part of overseeing this project may have been letting her collaborators actually make those choices. "It’s funny—I’m so used to editing and crafting things, and if I didn’t like a take, I’d just tell them to do it again, if I’m filming a movie," she says. "I didn’t do that with this, and there were times I was actually sort of nervous—‘Are you sure this isn’t going to ruin your life?’ I had a few sleepless nights where I tried to play out different scenarios of how people’s lives could be ruined."
Learning to let go of that element of control was a healthy part of the process for July. "In the end, it is a collaboration. I have to trust these people," she says. "That was kind of great for me. In the end, now that I have a little distance and all the emails are in, and I’ve bundled them all up, everyone was right. They all made wise choices."