"Are you still a writer?" Miranda July asked me the other night at the New Museum, following a dinner in the museum's penthouse "Sky Room." Then she disappeared.
I had reminded her of a time she emailed to gently inform me there was a mistake in an essay I'd written (July had named a low-carb Coca Cola "C2" in the early aughts, not "Coke II" in the mid-eighties). She was smaller than she looked in photos, I thought, and felt the way she asked that question about my writing was slightly off but sort of sweet.
It all made more sense the next day. July was part of the eighth annual Seven on Seven conference at the New Museum on Saturday, where she was paired up with writer and programmer Paul Ford to present a collaborative project. The idea of the conference is to pair seven artists with seven technologists, with the loose requirement they present anything—often an app or an artwork—during the powerpoint-heavy conference. Last year, the most well known pair, Ai Weiwei and the technologist Jacob Appelbaum, met at Ai's studio in Beijing for a day to produce a set of subversive panda toys. (This was the first year that Rhizome, the museum's new media-focused affiliate that began the event series in 2009, didn't set a 24-hour time limit for the collaborations.)
The last team to take the stage at this year's iteration, July and Ford began telling a story with an incantatory second-person refrain. You were born here. You bought this. You made this. You posted these—all with corresponding cell phone photos, videos and screenshots projected behind them.
Mostly, though, the content was spoken. "Congratulations on learning Debussy's Clair de Lune," July intoned, her voice at once steady and melodic. "I think we can all agree with your mother when she says, 'Makes me want to move the piano out in the field so you can play by the light.''"
When a crappy cellphone video of a waitress singing happy birthday played, I realized these were not fictional characters but real people. Slowly, it dawned on us who "you" was.
The first part of the piece in which I was the "you" referenced an interview I did with the actor Harry Dean Stanton. "He asked you, 'What are you wearing?'" recalled July. "He asked me that too!" I whispered.
But then I recognized something of someone else in the room: "Beyoncé sent you flowers." I'd remembered reading a tweet about that from Jenna Wortham, The New York Times staff writer and conference participant who was sitting in the audience too.
By the time an Instagram of my butt flashed across the screen, I had figured out what was going on: July and Ford had cyberstalked all of us, culling together a story beginning with births and ending with deaths and goodbyes from the raw material of our social media performances.
Someone told me they got goosebumps. Someone else told me they were filled with a sense of dread. One person told me they felt violated. Their address was included as well as something they'd written in response to a family member dying. Someone else described feeling annoyed that the audience's vulnerability was not matched by the performers'. Others seemed to be flattered and immediately tweeted about their inclusion in the piece.
Our daily practice of social media performance has intertwined visibility and vanity. I'm reluctant to admit that I felt a swell of pride for being included more prominently than other audience members. When my "content" flashed across the screen, I felt a rush of endorphins not unlike when you log onto Instagram and see new "likes."
I didn't get a chance to ask Wortham how she felt about it. But her presentation, a collaboration with the rapper Junglepussy, prefigured the performance by Ford and July. Inspired by the exhaustive visibility that comes with the sort of public personal-professional personas Wortham and Junglepussy both maintain online, their talk took issue with how normalized internet researching and social media stalking has become. "Stop googling people before you meet them!" Junglepussy urged.
July and Ford's project stood out from many of the others during the day-long event because it was not explicitly a critique about the internet or the stories we tell about technology. Their presentation used social media as a raw material rather than presenting a thesis about how we live with it.
"For that one person it might be an intense experience, but it would be meaningless to anyone else," July said, calling me from a cab on her way to the airport. "I believe that it could have felt scary to someone but it's all a blur to everyone else. That was the principal we worked from."
To organize such a large sample of data (the audience was made up of at least 150 people), Ford designed a searchable tool to sort through tweets. Ford and July also recruited mutual friend Starlee Kine, creator of the pseudo detective podcast Mystery Show, and they hired an assistant. Making all the posts and grams into a compelling narrative required a lot of drudgery, they said.
'For the most part people are really aware and careful of what they share, but the further you get from New York and from a certain class, basically the less that's true.'
Although many parts of the story they told were generic or universal—sunset pictures, posts about David Bowie and Prince dying—July noted the specific nature of the audience: "It was basically collectors, people in tech, and people in art." July wanted to unearth more intimate or idiosyncratic details than what people tend to freely share on social media, like where they work, and so she often found herself using information based on what a mother or sister had posted.
"For the most part people are really aware and careful of what they share, but the further you get from New York and from a certain class, basically the less that's true. If your parents are living in the middle of America and working class, they might be sharing a ton of person information about you that you would never share because you are in tech in New York," she said. "There's this kind of homogenization—like this person looks like everyone else but through digging you realize that they came from a lot further away to get here than the majority of the people they are working with."
Ford noted that there is a privilege to who gets to be private—art collectors don't have to tweet but it's sort of a requirement that freelance artists and tech company employees do. But, he said, "Privacy was not the focus," for him and July. "Narrative was the focus." The performance was meant to raise questions, he said: "What is the story that can be told from this? Could we find enough stuff to make a story based on the raw material that is out there?"
The work was very much in line with July's narrative-rich, sometimes overtly-sentimental practice, which includes movies like You and Me and Everyone We Know and the short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. "My interest was that there's this group of people that is only going to be together on this one day and never again—who are they? What can I do with the raw material of us?"
"It's funny," July added, "because later I sat in two other audiences right after the performance." The night of the conference, she saw an orchestra play in a church and then saw The Crucible on Broadway, because one of her friends was in it. "I was immediately in these audiences on the same night. It was funny to look around at all the people sitting with me and realize how little I knew about everyone around me. It's the kind of thing I would think about anyways."