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The art of reading e-mails

Published torsdag 25 juli 2013 kl 11.29
"A voyeuristic side to it"
(5:38 min)
A Swedish contemporary art museum commissioned a work from American artist and filmmaker Miranda July that consists entirely of e-mail, some of which celebrities have composed. July has become something of a celebrity, herself. Photo: FRANCOIS MORI / AP / Scanpix

Can e-mail be art? Stockholm museum Magasin 3 posed that question this summer by commissioning an unusual artwork, "We Think Alone," giving thousands of people a peak at the private emails celebrities send. And you don't need to go to the museum to experience this exhibition: it comes straight to subscribers' inboxes once a week.

"The art comes to you. That's what we like about it," says Richard Julin, chief curator of the contemporary art museum.

As part of "On the Tip of My Tongue," an exhibit Magasin 3 launched this summer, the museum commissioned a work by the American artist and filmmaker Miranda July, which is based entirely on email.

For example, subscribers to the project can read tidbits like this:

"decided it's just too expensive:)", which Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the American television series Girls - also a hit here in Sweden - wrote in an email to her assistant this spring. Dunham had been considering buying a sofa - incidentally one made in Sweden. But it would have cost her well over US$ 20,000, and so, she opted against it. Yes, even celebrities have their limits.

Every week, people who subscribe to the project get to read a batch of ten emails compiled from the archives of Lena Dunham, the American actress Kirsten Dunst, the Canadian writer Sheila Heti, the American basketball star, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote this winter, and even a theoretical physicist, Lee Smolin.

Although the project was commissioned by a Swedish museum, the specifics are the brainchild of the American artist, Miranda July, who tells US National Public Radio (NPR) that e-mail appeals to her, because it serves such a wide range of purposes.

"We both use it passionately and emotionally and also for our most mundane clerical uses," she says.

Each week, the emails concern a different theme, ranging from money to advice, to emails that mention Barack Obama.

Richard Julin, the curator, compares the emails to a form of portraiture.

As for the involvement of celebrities, the artist Miranda July tells NPR that she wanted to use some big names to attract a more diverse audience than just the art crowd.

The strategy seems to have worked, with more than 70,000 people subscribing during the first week of the project. Judging by the reaction on social media, curator Richard Julin says many of the subscribers are from the US, where the artist is best known, but also from Sweden. However, Julin insists that publicity is not the reason they decided to work with Miranda July.

And Miranda July, herself, says that at its core, the project isn't really about celebrity, or at least not in the way the tabloids see it. Rather, the project concerns how people think in private.

With all this talk about online surveillance these days, reading these weekly dispatches from other people's lives almost begs the question: what kind of portrait are your emails painting of you?

"We Think Alone" will continue until mid-November, and is free to sign up for.

Brett Ascarelli / Radio Sweden

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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