You’ve Got Mail
Miranda July on ‘We Think Alone,’ Her New Email Project
The artist tells Isabel Wilkinson about a project to send her famous friends’ private emails to the public.
Miranda July is in your inbox. Literally. The filmmaker/writer/director/artist has launched a new project, We Think Alone, which will bring emails from her friends, many of them well known, into your inbox.
The project, which rolls out over 20 weeks, will send subscribers an email blast every Monday morning. In it will be an assortment of emails curated from her friends on a range of subjects—from “angry emails” to “emails to your mom.”
The first batch of emails came on Monday—and all were about money, presented without context. The first was an email from Kirsten Dunst to someone named “H” (all email addresses and recipients’ names have been redacted): “My friend Jessica is buying my car for 7,000 I gave her your info for payments. She’s going to pay 2,000 up front and then pay the rest as fast as she can. Don’t know the paper work involved, but Warren mentioned he had something. Thanks, Kirsten.” The next is an email from Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy: “can we get our money back on the wrong pins?” There’s also an email from photographer Catherine Opie about an upcoming project, and an email from Lena Dunham to her assistant, “LD Assistant,” about a $24,000 couch, about which she writes simply: “decided it’s just too expensive.” Reacting to the project, Dunham tweeted Monday: “I have never felt more raw than sharing an email about my finances.”
The emails are simultaneously mundane and eerily revealing; they shed light on how people in the public eye craft their private identities. But the correspondences also underscore, in some way, the way all of us present ourselves over email: excessively formal or passive-aggressive, lovey-dovey, flakey, overly excited. It’s an exercise, if anything, in identity creation.
July, who is based in Los Angeles, originally was approached by Stockholm’s Magasin 3 Museum with an assignment to create a project using the medium of email. She’s worked on the Web before; her crowd-sourced art project Learning to Love Your More ran for seven years and was acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. July decided to focus the project on a few notable people—some of whom are friends, others she barely knows—from Dunham and Dunst to basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret and theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. She asked that each person submit emails they have sent on a variety of subjects and, several release forms later, was provided with an assortment of revealing—and often hilarious—glimpses into people’s lives.
“Everyone’s comfort level is different—I learned that right away,” July told The Daily Beast. “I was surprised by how un-paranoid everyone was.”
July says she was fascinated with the way people “negotiate their relationships.” Catherine Opie, she says, “divulged in a way that was very moving to me. I felt like I was getting to see someone from their own point of view, almost. I related so much to how hard she works on her relationships. Especially when I compare myself to my husband. I think, ‘God, I would have so much more time if I didn’t spend so much time caring about other people’s feelings and writing long emails.’ Reading her emails, I had a new pride. She is living a really full life. She is not just an artist. She is engaged with her family and with her friends in a really full way.”
When it comes to art, email feels like the last frontier—the last thing that hasn’t, yet, been packaged as contemporary art. We Think Alone feels at first somehow too quotidian and mundane, wholly un-artlike. How can a simple email, filled with other people’s emails, be art? Does an email I am forwarded inviting me to a happy hour next week count as art? What about an automated monthly statement email from Chase? But maybe those are the wrong questions to ask. After poring through Monday’s installment, the better question may be, what does our digital imprint say about who we are?
That’s the question July gets at in this project, and it’s almost beautiful that she’s not editorializing or providing commentary around any of these emails. They’re little windows into people’s lives—frozen in time and sitting alone in our inboxes.
It makes one realize that there’s something counterintuitively artistic, too, about the way an email looks—at its most basic, pared down in that simple, almost early-Internet kind of way. July says she thought about how “everyone will be looking at these things on a phone or an iPad, so it is actually sculpture. The housing for it changes—it’s something you already own.”
You can sign up for We Think Alone at wethinkalone.com.