We have our doubts about Miranda July’s “We Think Alone” project. The work asked nine friends in the culture business to share emails under a new theme each week, for a period of twenty weeks. Her star-studded “collaborator” list includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lena Dunham, Kirsten Dunst, Sheila Heti, Etgar Keret, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Catherine Opie, Lee Smolin, and Danh Vo and she’s assembled the cast to demonstrate that how we comport ourselves over email “is so intimate, [it’s] almost obscene.” The project, according to July, will help us learn more about the participants, and presumably ourselves.
That’s a little overstated, but whatever. We get the point. Email is meant to be private, and we know this because we all use email. But what, exactly, will this exercise teach us about privacy, communication, and the participants?
In our eight weeks of receiving correspondence, that much has been unclear. Themes have included emails about something you want, emails to mothers, and emails about business. Through this we’ve learned that Kirsten Dunst writes extremely brief correspondence, Sheila Heti is always working on a book project, and Lena Dunham’s interests and motivations are made transparent in almost all of her email. Overall, what we’re offered is a systematic tracking of the artist’s creative process, though seemingly just to prove that these artists have one.
In this week’s art issue, we find out that Kirsten Dunst bought Elizabeth Peyton’s Marie Antoinette and wants to know its insurance value. She played Marie Antoinette in the 2006 movie by the same name, so Dunst’s selection feels like a mix of self-interest and self-promotion. Lena Dunham’s email about Tommy Kha, a student of her mother’s who’s exploring the preconceived notions his family has of him reads the same way. (Because anything referencing family seems to pertain to what Dunham does).
That’s not their fault. July’s created a context vacuum in which these reads are inevitable, despite the participants’ intentions.
We’d love to give you an excerpt, but we’re forbidden by a privacy not at the end of each email; likely a reflection of July’s interest in exploring trust. The emails themselves have been cleaned up, too, to delete full names, subject lines, and the like.
This vacuum is made especially clear in the emails like Danh Vo’s who selected an email from a larger conversation thread thereby rendering it largely unintelligible. We know he was bcc’ing someone on a conversation about how a Buenos Aires trip, blow jobs, and gallery weekend have made him think “something is not the same,” but nothing more.
That’s not how intimacy occurs over email. It requires an exchange. Here, you’re part of a listserv in which you’re supposed to let the email wash over you. (July never says that, but that seems to be the way her project’s supposed to work.) The result is more like producing a survey of what’s in other people’s email, than it is any kind of exploration of what intimacy means. Individual emails are then elevated to a stand-alone work.
Even the exchanges that best match July’s aims fall short for this reason. Catherine Opie, for example, sends a photograph of a young boy to her partner, telling her how much the child resembles their own. She then says she’s got one more shoot until she’s home. The email perfectly crystallizes July’s interest in the kind of intimacy that’s formed through seemingly mundane exchange, but ultimately fails to communicate how these relationships work. That’s because digital and IRL relationships are never formed through a single message, but rather, thousands of them sent over a period of many years. They just don’t reduce.