At 6:02 Monday morning, an email from Miranda July interrupted some groggy Facebook meandering (an element of my morning tedium I admit with chagrin). The subject line read, "an email that includes a dream you had."
Every Monday, through November 11, artist and filmmaker Miranda July will forward you an email from a handful of her noteworthy friends and acquaintances. For a twenty week project titled We Think Alone, July has summoned the likes of Kirsten Dunst, Lena Dunham, Karim Abdul-Jabar, and Catherine Opie, forwarding a selection of their private emails around a theme that she assigns. Like a modern-day collection of letters, We Think Alone, is a transient and familiar gesture of what July describes as self-portraiture.
Emails to your mom, about money, that give advice, or that mention Barack Obama, are examples of recent themes. The participants embrace varying levels of sharing. For the "something you want" week, actress Kirsten Dunst shared an email with the subject line "My mom and I" that included a photo of two sets of feet wearing matching Charlotte Olympia Cat-Face Velvet flats. That same week, basketball legend Karim Abdul Jabbar sent a punchy email to his son suggesting a birthday present idea, since his son is "always complaining [he] can't think of anything to get [Karim Abdul-Jabbar] for his birthday." Attached is a photo and specifications for a new set of annotated Sherlock Holmes novels. "Something you want" is put forward in varying levels of depth and intimacy, as writer Etgar Keret, sent the last photo of his son with his father.
We have grown accustomed to consuming presentations of people's lives through digital and social media with varied degrees of selective hunger. We Think Alone is no different. Photographer Catherine Opie's forward of an ad for a digital photography seminar from 2007 looks just like much of the junk mail that fills our digital trashcans. The email coming from Opie makes it no more interesting, (although as a longtime fan I did hope it would). This is a straightforward email project meant to exist in its true form -- as email. Appreciatively, July doesn't sexy-up the aesthetics, form or content. But on the other hand, within what seems like the exhausting life project of keeping up with emails, We Think Alone, can't help but also pile up in your inbox along with the emails from your mom, boss or best friend.
But if you are willing to take a break from your own email, to read more email, there are quiet moments of notable reward. These messages add layers to the constructed public personas we eagerly consume. One week, Lena Dunham shares a heartfelt apology email to her mother, artist Laurie Simmons, and in another email passionate advice to a friend in an unsupportive relationship. Fans would expect nothing less from Dunham, whose career and public persona embrace an awkward, sincere and exposing intimacy, whether you love or hate her for it.
Like our inboxes in general, We Think Alone is full of emails that are boring, heartfelt, professionally distant, weird and misunderstood all at the same time. Emails are inherently personal and private even though they are directed towards other people and leave footprints we can't see or follow. They are often composed and consumed in private ways and places, in your living room, in bed watching reality TV with a partner, on the toilet, at the gym, or while you fall asleep. And yet, they are fundamentally an exchange. Maybe, "we think alone" less than we ever have before, even if we are spending more and more time physically apart. Perhaps this physical distance is why we are so hungry for other people's lives.
Miranda July's We Think Alone project runs through November 11, 2013, in an inbox near you. For more information, visit wethinkalone.com.