Artist Miranda July lets you spy on celebrity e-mails

The "We Think Alone" project makes public famous folks' e-mails on topics like money and advice. "Our inner life is not actually the same thing as our life on the computer," July notes.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
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Leslie Katz
3 min read
Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall

Ever wish you could peek inside someone else's e-mail inbox? Say, your boss'? Your girlfriend's? Lena Dunham's?

Actually, you can (well, Dunham's, at least).

For the next several months, performance artist, actor, and director Miranda July is giving the world a look at private e-mails written by celebrities, including the star of "Girls"; NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; actress Kirsten Dunst; and Israeli writer Etgar Keret.

The project, called "We Think Alone," aims to explore the way people present themselves in online communication and how that may or may not differ from their non-digital personae.

"I'm always trying to get my friends to forward me e-mails they've sent to other people -- to their mom, their boyfriend, their agent -- the more mundane the better," July -- who's probably best known for directing and starring in the film "Me and You and Everyone We Know" -- writes on the project page. "How they comport themselves in e-mail is so intimate, almost obscene -- a glimpse of them from their own point of view."

On the HBO show "Girls" Lena Dunham plays a character prone to overexposing herself. Dunham's own private e-mails appear to be more subdued. HBO

No, "We Think Alone" has no relation to the NSA's PRISM program (and July says she came up with the idea for the project long before the NSA brouhaha). All participants, from the well-known to the probably lesser-known, such as theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, have agreed to share their digital correspondence with anyone who wants to read it. It's an intimate, and sometimes deliberately boring, look behind the public mask.

"Our inner life is not actually the same thing as our life on the computer," July notes. "A quiet person might !!!! a lot. A person with a busy mind might write almost nothing."

Those who want to view the e-mails sign up on the project site to receive a themed batch of 10 messages each Monday between July 1 and November 11. Topics so far have included money and advice, with Dunham's gentle, but firm cautionary words to her friend with the apparently bad boyfriend getting lots of viral play as a exemplary model of the your-guy-sucks e-mail genre.

"He's not for you bc he's not for anyone," Dunham writes. "Do you hear me? Good."

Routine, but also revealing
The authors penned their e-mails before "We Think Alone" started, but they do get to choose which ones to contribute based on July's list of subjects. Some of their choices are downright quotidian ("My friend Jessica is buying my car for 7,000 I gave her your info for payments," Dunst writes). Some are wise and profound, some personally revealing: "I have less than $1000 in the bank and no credit card debt and no savings. I am hoping that my new book will sell in the States and elsewhere in the new year to save me," Canadian author Sheila Heti writes in the 2009 e-mail she offered for the money-themed week.

Which e-mails participants decide to share, of course, can be as telling as the social media choices that craft people's digital trails, possibly in perpetuity. "Self-portraiture is quietly at work here," July acknowledges.

The project was commissioned by Swedish art exhibition venue Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall as part of "Tip of My Tongue," a series of events and projects meant to "point away from the site of the exhibition itself, towards other virtual or parallel existences and experiences."