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How to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger

This artist spent four hours texting random numbers with ‘Who Is This?’ Even Dov Charney replied…

The entirety of Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal’s last art performance took place on her phone. Outside of LA’s Francois Ghebaly gallery, she decided to troll locals by texting random numbers with “Who is this?” She dubbed it an SMS durational performance, which translated into four hours of conversing with complete strangers all on the 323 area code. Even American Apparel’s ex-CEO Dov Charney got involved. Together with Graham Kolbeins, she condensed the performance into a short video which, in her words, “speaks rather hilariously to the mania of texting and the bizarre possibilities of ‘connection’ in the iPhone age.”

What was the reason you decided to undertake this project?

Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal: I was standing outside of an opening with Graham Kolbeins (who made the video), and I got a text from a number I didn’t know that said, “Who is this?” I took a screenshot and sent it back, my way of saying, “Look i don't have your number either.” “Who is this?” is a now ritual of texting: “I lost my phone who is this? Sorry, who is this? Hey! But who is this?” As a performance, texting “Who is this?” over and over was compelling to us: a simple repeated action that could totally change depending on the responses it received.

What were some of the strangest responses?

Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal: My own desperation to talk to a person probably made me the strange one most of the time. I was surprised that so many people’s first question was my gender – such a revealing portrait of our culture, but completely bizarre, as who’s to say I was telling the truth? One person I reached told me it was his birthday. That was really my favourite moment of the piece.

Did anyone try to flirt with you?

Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal: The birthday boy sent some selfies, which I returned. I think a boy of about 14 tried flirting with me, but I cut it off pretty quickly. I also tried flirting to see if that would get me further into conversations. The rhythms of texting lend themselves to seduction – suspense, typing, suspense – and the context of anonymous communication mirrors how relationships work – the slow revelation of who you are.

Did you meet anyone as a result of the project?

Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal: No one I texted ever showed up, though I did give the address to a bunch of people. The very last interaction in the video is the only fake. My current boo (then cute acquaintance) had a 323 number and helped me end the performance. I saved his number in my phone as “Princess Knight.”

Are you still in contact with anybody you’ve texted?

Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal: The week of the performance I was still in contact with a few people. Dov Charney texted back the next day. A few others who were sleeping or their phones were dead. But I didn't maintain any of the conversations. Birthday boy has sent me the occasional "sup," and I've replied with the expedient "nm sup w u." The conversation doesn't really go beyond that.

What did you hope to achieve with this?

Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal: It really was a live experiment. I never practiced. I didn’t know how it would turn out at all. The project did manage to get at a lot of what I’m interested in about communication technologies – anonymity, the mania of simultaneity, the bizarre possibilities for ‘connecting’ – and about performance – the ethics of participation, the burden of entertainment. I think it was a complete failure for the audience that was there while it was happening, so I’m really grateful Graham could turn the documentation (a three hour screen-recording) into this video, which is hilarious and pathetic and accessible in a way that the live event was not. I'm working on another text project that deals in the language of chain messages right now. I'm definitely going to automate it.

The video is courtesy of Graham Kolbeins. Visit his website here