When Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July founded learningtoloveyoumore.com in 2002, the idea was born out of their observation that "our most joyful and even profound experiences often come when we are following other people's instructions." They began to issue regular assignments for anyone who cared to participate and published the scattershot results on the site. Ranging from the hilarious ("Assignment #60: Write a press release about an everyday event") to the heartfelt ("Assignment #39: Take a picture of your parents kissing"), each set of instructions was designed to send participants out into the world to learn about others as much as themselves. That quietly revolutionary goal blurred the lines between its creators' diffuse bodies of work. Where the social practice experiments of Fletcher spring to life through interaction, July's stories, films, and performances all mine the naked vulnerability of the personal—whether relationships with others or the secret life of the interior. More importantly, that goal resonated with would-be collaborators and critics alike. Since its inception, some 5,000 reports have been filed online and, in 2004, the site was included in the Whitney Biennial.
But flipping through the pages of Learning to Love You More, a newly released paperback collecting a selection of the past five years' reports, it seems that the project's theoretical genesis is far more compelling than the results it has yielded. Numerous assignments—"Assignment #9: Draw a constellation from someone's freckles" or "Assignment #33: Braid someone's hair"—are cloying, unrevealing, or, worst of all, indicative of a pandemic emotional disconnect. For all its starry-eyed stabs at community building, the project is haunted by an unspoken pessimism: namely, that we products of the information age are so unaccustomed to genuine intimacy that we need a series of exercises to rise above our crippling solipsism and flex our withered emotions. Of course, the exaggerated skepticism of that appraisal is silenced by those contributions that do inspire compassion. Take Annie Chester of Seattle's gorgeous photograph of her parents, Sue and Colby, locking lips. Seeming to exist only for one another in that instant, their faces disappear as they kiss for their daughter's camera without a shred of hesitation. It's so unspeakably sweet, it makes you feel human again.