RESEARCHING, VEGGING, LURKING, OBSERVING, trolling — whatever you call it, artist, author, and auteur Miranda July exploits that ever-uncomfortable desire of the modern individual to know the intimate, seemingly mundane details of the lives of those around her. In “We Think Alone,” a project commissioned by the museum Magasin 3 in Stockholm, July has convinced 10 high-profile figures — from fashionistas to theoretical physicists — to share a series of their own past and personal emails on subjects ranging from money to advice.
The project, an email a week delivered straight to readers’ inboxes, creates a tension between its audience, its participants, and the respective portraits that these subjects chose to create through their self-curated emails. We see a softer side of sports star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in riffling though his emails about his upcoming children’s book, a caring side of Lena Dunham with her straightforward advice on love, a girly side to Sheila Heti through a self-taken photo of herself in a dress that she wants to buy. And yet, do we — can we — actually know them at all? Through the mundanities of these individuals’ lives, July gives us fleeting images of how, in fact, to be mundane. But can the mundane be generalized? How does one reconcile private and public lives? Miranda July and two of the project’s participants, docu-photographer Catherine Opie and author Sheila Heti, come together to discuss what intimacy looks like in a modern world … or if it even matters.
Emily Hunt: Miranda, what was your process in choosing participants for this project?
Miranda July: I started with my friends and tried to kind of diversify from there. I remember I specifically wanted a photographer because I knew that photography is a big part of email, and I thought long and hard about who that would be. Catherine was my first choice, but I thought it was unlikely she would want to do it. And then I tried to push outside of artists and writers into areas I know nothing about, like sports and theoretical physics.
EH: Why did you think Catherine might not agree?
MJ: I mean now that seems silly; I guess I know Catherine a bit better now. I think, “Of course, she was the perfect person!” Basically I thought that this would be beneath everyone I respected.
EH: Sheila and Catherine, why did you agree?
Sheila Heti: I would do anything that an artist I was friends with and respected asked me to do for her art. When Miranda asked me, I didn’t even have to deliberate. I didn’t even think beyond the first stages. I thought, “What does this mean? It means I have to spend some time looking through my email.” Not that 50,000 people would be looking through my email. I really just thought about it from a work point of view.
Catherine Opie: I met Miranda briefly at a Rodarte fashion show, and my partner Julie and I had our son with us. Both of us are huge fans of her work. I was just like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll do this. You’re super cool.” I’m so glad to be a part of it because I really like reading everyone else’s emails. When I picked my emails, I didn’t think about the ramifications (of which there haven’t been any) of putting out fairly personal emails. The world of email is so quick, so when I was looking through them, I really wanted it to have more of a personal feel, a portrait of how I feel as an artist when I’m making images.
EH: What difficulties did you face in choosing the emails? Did you feel you censored yourself?
CO: In sending [the advice email] to my niece, I wanted to choose an email that really was advice, and to be honest, I don’t think I have that many advice emails to choose from because email for me is not letter writing. It’s usually just getting back and forth and exchanging quick ideas for business. I still actually sit and write letters. But with my niece, because of her generation, her only way of communicating is through email. I just feel like this email is advice that everyone is giving teenagers as they’re going through school and trying to figure out how to make their lives better, and it seemed like the most honest and sweetest one that I could put forth that, again, shows a portrait of myself and my personality.
MJ: Yeah, it’s funny, that email is so… well, I don’t know if you felt this, Sheila, but I simultaneously related to Catherine and also to her niece. I had this thought, like “Catherine’s such a great aunt. Am I going to be that good of an aunt to all my little nephews when they run into trouble?” And then I also so remember seeing that teenager going like, “Fuck that!” But my sense is that she was more receptive than that.
CO: [laughs] Yeah, that she was. The story ends well. She ended up doing tutoring and going to a junior college.
SH: I like that that email is a picture of how important family is. Not just parents but other people. I had an experience with a woman who wasn’t my family, and she told me to go to university. She was just a woman I respected whom I worked with, and I liked that. You don’t usually see that in our culture, portrayals of the importance of other people to a kid, and I saw that in your email.
CO: Aw, thank you Sheila. It was really funny, the other day I was at an opening, and someone walked up and said, “I’m following the emails. You wrote the craziest email to your niece!” And I was like, “Oh dear,” because I kind of forgot what I put out there to you, Miranda. They were like, “So you quit swim team and you were a stoner?” And I was like, “Oh, shit.”
EH: So that was obviously one of your more candid emails. Do you think candidness has changed in the internet age? Are we more candid in emails than we are by telephone and through letters?
SH: I think that’s what’s so interesting about this project. Some people have whole relationships over email, and some people just use it for one sentence from their phone. I don’t think you can generalize.
MJ: Totally. I will say, though, that there’s a sauciness that’s possible in email and in all these forms of digital exchange. Like, imagine sharing a nude photo with someone. Obviously that happened through letters, but you have the kind of alibi with email that you didn’t think about it that hard because it’s so quick and easy to do. I would say for myself, I think a lot more nude pictures are shared now, which is kind of weird when you think about it. I don’t know if that’s intimacy, but that’s an odd twist for the history of letters. This has nothing to do with this project, but there are some territories I wish I could have gone into more, but I had to think of the group.
CO: Well you just created the category of nude pictures that you didn’t, in fact, go into. Did you think about that at all? That kind of vulnerability? Now I’m asking you a question.
MJ: Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve thought of it since. I feel like I’ve been thinking about “Well, what’s missing?” And it would be that. It would be something about sex or the body, but you know, it’s pretty hard to ask that of Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, and of course the Rodarte sisters who, you know, are already stepping back and doing everything they can not to reveal. So yeah, I’ve been toying with that.
EH: In what ways has the internet affected your communication or your artwork?
CO: Well, it’s made communication easier, that’s for sure. But I don’t know if it’s as great as the communication I had before the internet when I was writing long letters by hand to my friends. My one best friend from college, when I moved to Virginia and she was in California — I probably was utterly in love with her and closeted but, what the hey — I would write to her every day. I would sit in my room every day and write to her in a journal. I don’t think that we have that kind of exchange anymore. And I feel bad when I think about the letters I have in my basement in a shoebox, personal letters, and realize that those are now very few and far between. To actually get a letter from somebody that’s handwritten, I miss that idea and that history because it’s amazing, going into those archives. And I think an email archive will be much different. We’ll know that later on, from presidential libraries and so forth. But there is something about when I go in and look at Susan Sontag’s archive at UCLA, about the exchange of letters and the handwritten letter. There’s a great handwritten letter from Berenice Abbott to Ansel Adams that is totally poised off of the way he photographed the Japanese internment camps. That kind of exchange through email, I think, would be different.
SH: I have a lot of relationships through correspondence. And I wrote letters, and I have a suitcase full of letters, and I think there is something beautiful and special about the pen and the page. But for me I probably write like five [email] letters a day. I’m back before the age of the telephone somehow; I wake up in the morning, and I spend an hour with my correspondence. Not every day, but I’d say about an hour of correspondence each day if not more, aside from business stuff, just friendship stuff. And I wouldn’t do that, I don’t think, if there wasn’t email because I like being able to write and then the next day get a response. You can’t really preserve it, but I don’t care about preserving it. I just like the process. And I like having conversations with people, but I like reading long letters from people. I never thought I’d get past the letter thing, and I hadn’t as a teenager, but my life is like that now. It doesn’t feel artificial. I guess I’m corresponding with a lot of writers, and I’m a writer, so there’s a great pleasure we all take in it. I would have been surprised 10 years ago if I’d heard that I’d spend a huge part of my day writing letters.
MJ: Right. Well, you know I’m in that same camp, Sheila, because we probably spend a couple hours a week just writing to each other.
CO: That’s so nice. I don’t get any long letters on email from friends. I guess when I write a letter I still sit down and write it by hand and send it in the mail. I tend to write it down. If it’s my older friends I still use pen and paper.
CO: Why? I like it. I guess I like the aesthetics of it. I think it’s like I read books now on my iPad, but I still buy the book I downloaded for the objectness of it. For me, it’s like typing, getting my thoughts out that way, is not the same as having a pen in my hand and writing a letter on a piece of paper that I found in Italy or something like that. It’s a very object-based thing for me I guess. And because I’m not a writer, and I’m not used to typing. I make images, and those images for me are, you know, how I take the paper and white it, and they become objects on rolls. It’s an aesthetic I think. Although now you guys have me thinking that I should be writing letters through email.
SH: You can talk about these absolutely petty, daily things that, for me, if I were to try to write letters by hand, I’d think, “Uh, these thoughts are not grand enough to send through the mail. I can’t complain about my day in a paper letter. It’s gotta be bigger than that.”
EH: Catherine and Sheila, your art deals with real people. Why study real people rather than imagined ones?
CO: I’m more interested in treating histories in relation to our time in life. It’s kind of a selfish pursuit that comes out of incredible curiosity, but it’s also about the importance of what a document can do to create a history in our own minds of how people were thinking and how they were representing the time that I’ve lived in. So it’s actually pretty selfish to a certain extent. It’s about looking at the world. It’s my curiosity.
SH: For me, you choose everything. You choose the real world; you choose your dreams. I don’t see a category distinction. It’s like, you’re alive, and when you’re alive everything is there before you. It’s not like, “Okay, I’m going to use fiction now, and now I’m going to use real people.” Real people are fiction. You make them up. You decide who they are, just as the things you imagine are based on things in real life.
EH: Sheila, I recently read an interview in which you said that creating fictional characters is slightly exhausting. Why?
SH: Well I said that four years ago or something. It’s the way I felt at the moment I was doing the interview. I mean, I think everything is exhausting, and it’s also very compelling. You go through phases: now that’s exhausting, now that’s compelling, now that’s exhausting, now that’s compelling. You know?
CO: [laughs] I know.
SH: It’s not a big aesthetic statement. You just do what you’re interested in doing that day, or that month, or that year. It’s not that I’m telling other people what’s valid or what they should do; for me, it’s not a decision I made about the rest of my artistic career. It’s that month! Or that year! And I don’t even think you need to ask why as long as you follow it.
EH: Why do you think that we enjoy seeing the private aspects of people so much? Is it because we want to be like them?
MJ: A lot of the private things are the more mundane things. The things that we make public are usually kind of exciting and big. And we have a lot of examples of how to be exciting and special. I think there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing how other people, people that you know of, famous people, how they do very normal things because you actually don’t have a lot of examples of that. A lot of us move around doing our jobs, interacting with agents or accountants and sort of wondering, “Is this how other people are?” It’s not terrifically hard, but when you think of an example of how everyone else is in an everyday sphere, it’s kind of illuminating because you think, “Oh, okay, that’s how I can be” or just how to be. This is sounding kind of Sheila Heti, isn’t it? But that’s what I noticed. The things that we’re calling mundane are actually kind of rare.
CO: What I like about Miranda’s project is that it’s very much the written word in relationship to the mundane and exactly what people have spent years doing in terms of just wandering around with the camera trying to capture the everyday. So in a certain way, it’s like a picture of the everyday, but it exists within the private files of our emails that go forth publicly. And I think for me it was a really interesting correlation: what it is for me to go out and about and bear witness to our world.
EH: By including these more banal aspects of life, does it make these well-known figures seem more relatable?
MJ: I wasn’t that focused on the celebrity aspect of it. It kind of came about through the back door. I was thinking, “Well, this is probably going to spread a little more quickly if people know who these people are, and that could be useful because it’s a very finite project, and you kind of want to be ‘in’ on it from the beginning.” The project pretty much just tries to encompass life, our life, in the widest sense possible through email. But yeah, the celebrity aspect popped up, and I was like “Oh yeah, I forgot about our incredible lust for that!” But I think that over the course of 20 weeks, your experience is pretty different from something that’s trying to sell you something. It’s not contextualized. Everyone’s speaking for themselves, voluntarily.
SH: The reason I think that Miranda felt the need to use celebrities, and she’s not said this to me, is that you have to feel like you’re getting drawn deeper into ideas you already have in your head, sort of like a friend. And then you see their email, and that email is a contrast with the preconceived idea you have of that person. If it’s somebody nobody’s ever heard of before, it’s not a back door. It’s not backstage. You have to have a stage to have a backstage. Lena Dunham has a stage. You have an idea about her. If you don’t have the idea of somebody, you don’t get that tension between a preconceived idea and what is being shown to you in this project. In order to get a sense that you’re experiencing somebody’s privacy, you have to get an idea of somebody’s publicness, and you can only get that with celebrities.
MJ: Yeah, exactly. You’re right. That was how I got there. And it’s funny, when some people suggest that I sold out or something, that this really should be done with regular people, I do think exactly just what you said. Honestly, it wouldn’t work.
EH: Do you think there might be a preconceived public idea of you that contrasts with who you really are?
CO: I think mine is changing, but I’ve always been surprised that people were often really scared to meet me. They were surprised I was nice. I got that early on. Throughout the ’90s they would say, “Wow! I was really scared to meet you. You’re so nice!” And it was just so interesting that people thought because my work had an edge that I was edgy, too. But I think the thing that people don’t know about me is that I have this incredible sense of humor and kindness that is really important to me in terms of how I navigate the world, and I don’t think that necessarily comes through in my work all the time. Why, I don’t know. But people are always surprised that I’m nice. I’m like, “God, do I seem like I’m an asshole through my work?”
MJ: I think I have kind of the opposite problem. People think I’m nice, and somehow, I don’t know how this got started. I think I wore too many bright colors or something. Nice and fun and if you hang out with me, it’s just going to be this whimsical, magical experience. The people who know me know that, you know, I’m nice enough. But I don’t think that’s the overriding [quality]. I think I’m a hard worker, and I have all the sort of voracity that comes with that. That’s a hard question to answer because you do end up sounding like you’re trying to advertise the new, better version of yourself that you wish people knew. But I’ll just say that actors choose to work with me and then actually experience working with me, and I think sometimes they’re a little disappointed because it’s not quite as light-heartedly whimsical as they imagined. Like I may be kind of tougher or something.
EH: Was there any email response that really surprised you?
MJ: Catherine was the first person to turn hers in. And she did hers very neatly, all 10 at once. All the qualities she just described, they really came across. Humor and warmth and not a scary person. I remember that’s where I started gaining confidence about the project and was hugely relieved. Beyond that, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, pretty much every single one of his emails I’m surprised by because I have so little context. They all came quite late, and they were sort of wonderful. I have a sort of disbelief still that those are even a part of the project.
EH: And, finally, is honesty the best policy in a project like this?
CO: Gosh, that’s a complicated question. That’s a whole philosophical discussion right there. For the most part, yeah. But it depends on what notion of whose honesty you’re revealing. Are you revealing your own honesty in relationship to an opinion that could absolutely devastate somebody? I think it’s impossible to know who anybody is. It’s a portrait. My portraits aren’t supposed to reveal everything about somebody, just a moment. These emails are a moment as well.
SH: I don’t think this project’s about honesty. I don’t think we’re being honest here. I think we’re being honest in our art. These are portraits. If you look through 100 emails or you look through 10,000 emails, and you pick 20 to show the world, that’s not you being honest. That’s a very deliberate, thoughtful series of decisions. Honesty may be one of the things you’re considering, but I don’t think that’s number one. I don’t even think that was something that I was thinking about — “How can I be honest? Which emails are honest?” They’re all just emails I sent. And you pick the email that you think works in this context with this project and will be interesting in this context. I don’t think I thought about the word honesty once.
MJ: I don’t care, really, about honesty. I think probably this was more about vulnerability and how vulnerable to make yourself. We talked about that, Sheila. And you kind of make decisions at certain points to be more vulnerable because otherwise it’s not art. I listen to people respond to this project, friends of mine. I see people judging people who didn’t make themselves vulnerable quite harshly. Whoever didn’t make themselves vulnerable is sort of like the loser of that week. It’s interesting to watch, and that also might just be my friends. I surround myself with sort of vulnerability-junkies. Of course, those people who are not making themselves vulnerable are still being honest. That’s what’s honest for them.
SH: I don’t understand how you can be dishonest in this project, though. That question of, do you want to show yourself as a work of art? Or do you want to be personal? Are you trying to entertain? How often should you be utterly banal? Is your audience Miranda, or is your audience the 100,000 people who are going to sign up for the list?
CO: Your audience is yourself.
SH: Your audience is yourself. Yeah. And when Miranda pitched this project she said, “This is for a museum in Stockholm,” and I was like, “Great! Who’s gonna go to see this? People in Stockholm.” I didn’t care because it just didn’t have the reach. Not that people in Stockholm don’t matter, but it sounded very far away, and I didn’t understand the incredible intimacy that this project has. This atmosphere of intimacy — when I get the emails in my inbox, I read my email very clearly; I don’t really have a nervous feeling about it, but when I read the others’ emails I feel this crazy intimacy, and that’s what you want. That’s a great work of art that makes you feel — like you’re so up close to these people when really, you’re not.