By Cornelia Seigneur (Originally published in the print edition of The Oregonian Saturday Nov. 20, 2010)
Between 8 and 8:30 every morning, a man taps his cane on the art gallery window of the bSIDE6 building where Cristin Norine is spending a month alone — in full view of everyone who happens by.
“He goes to the window where I have my bedroom set up and I can hear him a little bit through the walls,” Norine said. “He’s saying, ‘Time to get up, don’t want to waste your day.'”
Besides those exchanges, and stares from the curious, Norine is restricting herself to living alone within the glass confines of the two-room art gallery on the first floor of the building at Sixth Avenue and East Burnside, communicating with others solely via modern technology — e-mail, Skype, texting, Twitter, social media in general — for all of November.
Norine, a freelance production manager between jobs, is collaborating with commercial photographer Joshua Jay Elliott. Norine’s monthlong experience is titled “The Future of Socializing”; Elliot is documenting the 30 days, calling his analysis “An Examinable Life.” Together, the two art pieces are known as the Public Isolation Project.
Elliott is viewing the experiment as a reflection of the way the Internet age allows for 24/7 accessibility with little privacy. All that Norine is doing, Elliott explained, is visible — except bathroom moments — much like our lives are lived on the Internet without privacy.
Even Norine’s every e-mail and website interaction is projected onto a large screen for all to see.
“Our lives are so accessible. People can see what is going on in your life without interacting,” Elliott said. “It’s happened gradually and we haven’t stepped back and had a public discussion.”
The public discussion — getting people to think about how modern forms of communication have saturated our lives — is part of the goal of the living art project. People are talking, Norine said. People come by and write notes to her on the window. She is getting e-mails from people she does not know, and CNN did a live Skype interview.
Norine and Elliott want people to consider modern technology’s grip on our lives.
“It interrupts luncheons. You see it, where we do that, we stop and answer text messages rather than just enjoy who we are with,” Norine said. “Or people have to a get a photo of the luncheon and then post it on Facebook. It’s like we need a Web presence to prove our existence.”
Norine is also analyzing if modern communication forms can meet our social needs.
At first, she was going stir crazy, but after day 15, she is getting used to being locked up without human contact. “But, I am starting to feel the effects of that. I am really wanting to be with people.”
There are tricks to living in solitary confinement. They created a makeshift shower in the bathroom, and a kitchen and closet near her bed in one section of the gallery. In the other area is her computer, couch and elliptical machine. Norine orders her groceries online through New Seasons, which delivers.
“One of my angels from above brings them to my room,” Norine noted, adding that she texts him, then hides in the bathroom when he delivers the items.
Benjamin Gray with Works Partnership Architecture, the company that designed the bSIDE6 building and has its office space upstairs from Norine, is one of Norine’s “angels.”
“I think it’s interesting. It’s cozy in there,” Gray said. “It seems like it would be hard to deal with the privacy issue; it is a very busy area.”
People are noticing.
Across the street from the bSIDE6 building is Rontoms, where Tim McMillan works as a barback.
“Walking by every day, I’ve developed a fondness for her. Customers have been asking what’s going on,” McMillan said. “I hope she doesn’t go crazy in there. There is something lost through technology.”
Elayne Shapiro, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Portland who had not heard of the project, said she has discussed modern forms of communication with her students during an interpersonal-communication class.
“Students were talking about how some people are with one person while texting with others, and asking, ‘Didn’t their parents teach them that?'” Shapiro noted. “Normatively, etiquette for modern technology is still evolving. We are the first generation that is living through this.”
Shapiro added that modern forms of communication are allowing for greater communication overall. “Through texting, parents are able to keep in touch so much better now with their kids,” she said.
In the end, it’s all about choices people make, Shapiro said.
“I don’t know if it is different than when other new technologies were introduced,” Shapiro said. “When TV was introduced, did that mean that we would never go next door to talk to your neighbor again?”
The Public Isolation Project has its skeptics. Robert Goldman, a professor of sociology at Lewis & Clark College who also had not heard of the experiment, said living in view of others is not being isolated.
“It is intriguing that someone would turn the notion of isolation into a spectacle,” Goldman said. “Plus, if I am texting with you, am I not being social? It is communicating; it is simply a new kind of communication. It is certainly part of where we are going.”
Indeed, people wonder if Norine could have done her project in a place without glass walls, allowing for genuine physical isolation.
The young creatives had thought of that.
“But, in secret, it wouldn’t have raised the awareness,” Norine said. “In public, it’s getting people talking. It’s getting people reflecting on their own Internet usage.”
That goal is being accomplished.
Well, half the goal. The other half is making it through the rest of the month.
(Link to oregonlive.com location of story: Oregonian website story Public Isolation project)