Peek into the inboxes of the rich and famous from Lena Dunham to Kirsten Dunst

A new project by the film-maker Miranda July gives subscribers a sneaky look at the private emails of well-known figures. In the wake of the Prism affair, it asks timely questions about our online lives, she tells Alice Jones

I don't like to boast, but yesterday I received emails from Lena Dunham and Kirsten Dunst. Lena was letting me know that she'd decided against buying the $24,000 Swedish sofa ("Just too expensive :)"). And Kirsten was cc'ing me on some financial admin to do with selling her car to her friend Jessica.

In truth, I wasn't the intended recipient, nor was I the only person to receive these emails. Girls creator Dunham and Hollywood actress Dunst are two of 10 public figures who have agreed to throw open their Gmail accounts for a new project. The writer and film-maker Miranda July asked stars of film, fashion, science and sport to comb their sent folders and forward her 20 emails they have written to other people. She in turn is now forwarding those private emails on to the public – in the name of art. Who needs Prism?

July's artwork, titled We Think Alone, was commissioned by Magasin 3, a warehouse gallery in Stockholm, for a show of "decentralised" art, or art created for outside the traditional exhibition space. It exists only in cyberspace and the inboxes of subscribers, who can sign up for free at wethinkalone.com.

"There will be nothing in the gallery itself," says July, who lives in Los Angeles. "I don't even have to go to Stockholm." Every Monday for 20 weeks until November, subscribers will receive a round-robin package of 10 emails from the group on a specific theme. The first, sent out yesterday, was An Email About Money, hence the insights into Dunham's furniture-buying habits and the fate of Dunst's old car. Future themes include An Email to Your Mom, An Email About Something You Want, An Email that Gives Advice and An Angry Email. All of the emails were written before the project started, to give the most authentic picture of the senders.

"I'm always trying to get my friends to forward me emails they've sent to other people – to their mom, their boyfriend, their agent – the more mundane the better," explains July. "How they comport themselves in email is so intimate, almost obscene – a glimpse of them from their own point of view."

July was originally going to ask her closest friends to contribute. "But then I thought that wouldn't be interesting to anyone except me," she says. "I realised that people needed to feel like they were friends with the emailers too. It seemed like a good use of famous people."

Along with Dunham, every girl's fantasy best friend, who says that the project is "one of the coolest things I've ever been involved with", July asked fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, the basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Sheila Heti, writer of How Should a Person Be? to contribute. The Israeli writer Etgar Keret, photographer Catherine Opie, Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist, and artist Danh Vo make up the group.

It is a deliberately mixed bag. "I needed someone who would deliver, and knew that Lena Dunham would be totally uninhibited," says July. "Then I chose Kirsten Dunst as an actress whose power comes from you not really knowing who she is." Fellow writer Heti is a friend, who in turn suggested her neighbour Smolin – "I needed someone who wasn't an artist. Someone whose head works differently..." Abdul-Jabbar, the highest scorer in NBA history, came on board when July found, to her surprise, that he had written a blog praising her as "the voice of a generation". "I know no one in sport. But I knew he was a fan of mine." Did anyone say no? "No one."

July is best known for her films Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future but has form with collaborative art. In 1996 she created Joanie4Jackie, "an all-girl video chain letter" to share short films made by women. Then, in 2002, she founded the online project Learning to Love You More, for which she and artist Harrell Fletcher set regular assignments for artists – Repair something; Climb to the top of a tree and take a picture of the view; Document your bald spot, etc. It ran for seven years, 8,000 people took part and the work is now in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's collection.

For July, who has her hands full with a new novel and a new baby, email proved a convenient medium for her latest artwork. Having found her correspondents, she compiled a list of subjects and simply waited for her inbox to ping. The replies ranged from the mundane to the outrageous, the administrative to the intimate. "I felt different kinds of discomfort reading them. I'd feel evil, then moved. When I first read Catherine Opie's, I was just screaming at my desk. They were unbelievable," says July. "And I was kind of surprised with Lena Dunham by how many are to her boyfriend. I assume Jack [Antonoff] knows she's doing this. And that he's cool with it."

Future mail-outs will include Dunham dispensing righteous relationship advice to a friend, Heti pondering whether to buy a new dress, the Rodarte sisters drawing up a detailed list of props for a shoot and Opie giving her niece or nephew some tough love about his/her high-school grades.

The thrill for subscribers is the chance to spy on the real lives of brilliant people. "But is it real, or is it a total illusion?" asks July. The project also raises questions about the method of communication which rules modern life and the 21st-century tendency to overshare online. Does our email style reflect our personality? Does using all caps on screen equal a VERY SHOUTY person in the flesh? Or are these emails a construct, a self- portrait in tersely tapped-out words, chosen to create an impression? Why is Dunham choosing to share that she has decided against buying a $24,000 bespoke Swedish sofa? Does it show us that (a) She has good taste (b) She is successful (c) She hasn't let her newfound wealth go to her head, or (d) All of the above? Do we glean anything more from a sweet snapshot of Dunst's feet and those of her mother in matching ballet shoes, than an illusion of intimacy with a superstar?

"It's very odd to see the way they construct themselves," says July. "It was quite sweet, really. More human and less crass than I expected. I worried that they would expose themselves too much, but in fact, everyone knows how to protect themselves. I became interested in the artful ways people came up with of protecting their privacy."

The first batch arrives in the wake of revelations about America's controversial surveillance programme, Prism. The timing is coincidental, says July, but the idea grew out of growing discomfort about the Byzantine privacy settings of social-networking sites. "Privacy, the art of it, is evolving," says July. "Does privacy even exist right now?" Not when it comes to We Think Alone, for which the original correspondence is reprinted in full, with only the email addresses and occasionally addressees redacted. "It has been quite a legal headache, to be honest," admits July.

Subscribers – 31,000 so far – will not be able to reply and there are no plans for a book. "I like that you can't buy it. That it's ephemeral." And there are, notably, no emails from July herself. "It seemed cleaner to just be the curator," she says. "I'm a pretty private person. Email is serious for me, I use it intimately. I don't think I'd do this even if someone asked me to. And I turn my internet off for most of the day."

wethinkalone.com

The emails:

--------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Sheila Heti 
Date: Sun, Dec 20, 2009 at 1:59 PM
Subject: Re:
To: Helen DeWitt


Hi Helen,

Well, you are asking the wrong person about how to make money. 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. I recently sold a book to Faber which I wrote
with a friend of mine (sort of "everything my friend Misha knows" --
he spoke while I transcribed). They bought world rights for $7000,
half of which Misha takes. Minus Markus's commission.

I have many ideas and beginnings for new books which is what I plan to
work on in the new year, but it's a crazy way to live.

I tried to pitch a story to Glamour (sort of the DOs and DON'Ts of
setting up your friends) and while they finally accepted it, they kept
making it shorter and shorter. I don't know how much I'm going to get
from it in the end, but I figure, who has more money than American
women's magazines? I don't have an endless supply of ideas for that
genre, though.

I spent several months in the fall working as a temp. I am loathe to
take in a tenant in the extra room in my apartment, which is, anyway,
only $1000.

Why don't you come to Toronto? It's a very good place to be; not very
expensive, not so cold this year, and I could help you find a place.
Smart and serious people around and no big troubles.

I am thinking of self-publishing these books I have in mind. When I
think of your experience with YNH it seems harder than one would
expect. But I don't know why I should give world rights to a place
like Faber for $7000 -- I could make more than that, I think, selling
them on my own.

It's insane that you couldn't sell LR. I just don't understand that. Is it really too
contoversial? That's scary. I wish I had my own press.

Maybe if you send me your most recent version I could pass it to some
people I know at big presses in Canada (Random House, etc). It might
not make a difference, but it might...

yours,
Sheila

 

------ Forwarded message ------

From: Lena Dunham

Date: Sun, Apr 7, 2013 at 6:53 PM

Subject: Re: Liljevalch Sofa Update

To: LD Assistant

decided it's just too expensive:)

On Tue, Apr 2, 2013 at 7:19 PM, LD Assistant <> wrote:

TOTAL PRICE (estimate) INCLUDING SHIPPING $24,035.24

whenever you pick the fabric I can order for you! :) xox

 

***

------- Forwarded message -------

From: Kirsten Dunst

Date: April 24, 2013, 3:41:57 PM PDT

To: H

Subject: Hi Sandy

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.

Thanks, Kirsten

Sent from my iPhone

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