The Urge to Purge, with Erin McGregor – Mél Hogan

Mél Hogan: Talk to me about Craigslist Missed Connections and how it inspired SECRET SWAP.

Erin McGregor: As a newcomer to Montreal, I was curious about what was happening in the queer community, where to meet people, how people become friends, and how people establish themselves in a new city. Craigslist is a great resource for that. I was inspired by CLMC (Craigslist Missed Connections) because of the openness of these online gestures. I am fascinated how a visceral reaction to a complete stranger manifests as a public demonstration of vulnerability in these online callouts, and how they assemble as a montage of courage and humility that is horribly romantic. One day, I decided to post a MC to someone whom I had talked to a few times. I ended up getting a response from them! Not only did this demonstrate that CLMC can work to meet people, or in my case, further a friendship, but that it can be used as a tool to establish a relationship of any kind.

MH: It would never occur to me in a million years to go to Craiglist to meet people. Can you theorize a bit on what makes some people more adventurous than others in this sense, and whether or not it is related to social media like Facebook that make people feel connected?

EM: It’s not really about meeting people online. It’s about the gesture. It’s about the tension between hope and vulnerability. This is how all relationships begin; we offer ourselves when we start a conversation with a stranger because ultimately, we are interviewing each other for the bits that we like and dislike. If everything aligns just right, or even if it doesn’t but there is something rewarding about the debate, we take initiative to pursue the relationship further, in whatever form it might take. To post a missed connection is to exercise the imagination, muster up courage, and to use language consciously to snag the intended reader, and only in hopes that their sentiments are received and reciprocated.

I think CLMC is sort of the aftermath to the Facebook account. It’s what you use when you don’t know the name of the girl who was making eyes at you all night, even after scanning the Facebook group’s guest list. It’s when all other resources have been exhausted. Now, I am not sure if CLMC makes anyone feel more connected in the way that Facebook appears to do, but I do think it gives us a chance to re-live the moment without regret. It serves a different purpose.

MH: I think we have to take a step back. It’s like a posting board for missed hook ups? I don’t get it. What is Craigslist Missed Connections?

EM: Well, a “missed connection” is a fleeting moment shared between two strangers, but despite the sensed connection, they fail to act on it. Craigslist — one of the largest posting boards — has a `Missed Connections` section that features posts made by people wishing to `reconnect` with a subtle glance or flirty smile. Although not all of these are romantically motivated, I found that many CLMC in the women for women section occur at public, openly queer events. I started asking myself `what is keeping these people from talking to each other` despite all of the obvious signs saying `go`? I started wondering about whether this was a trusting community and what would keep someone from just walking up to somebody pursuing a conversation.

MH: And also, it seems so gay-as-in-male as an approach. Is there a kind of mimicking of gay boy culture going on?

EM: I think it’s very easy to read the ‘women 4 women’ section that way. The problem of course, is that there are very few online testimonials of CLMC working for any group, not even just queer women. I am not convinced that the chances are good of someone actually acknowledging a lived “missed connection”, then posting online, the other person recognizing themselves in the post, and then responding if only they have had a mutual sentiment in the moment. Most posts make a direct comment about the likelihood of the connection being revisited, because the chances of it being read by the intended party is rare. Besides that, the ‘men 4 men’ section of CLMC seems to be a pretty happening place.

I think that ultimately all readers of CLMC end up hoping to recognize their name or their physical descriptions in a post. We read these posts and recall failed relationships or past lovers when reading through them, a glance in the line at the grocery store, always hoping that someone, somewhere out there, still desires us after all our shortcomings.

MH: Back to the swap. How did the swap work?

EM: I used the ‘women 4 women’ section of CLMC to post a series of ads, asking people to submit anonymous secrets. These secrets were promised a secret of equal caliber in return. This was to establish trust with the potential participants, all hopefully belonging to the lesbian/trans community of Montreal. Some participants sent in one secret, and received one in return. Others sent a few at a time and via email, I returned my own secrets, each new every time. Some of the women who participated disclosed secrets about infidelity, others, about personality quirks.

MH: So give an example of how you measure the caliber of secrets. Do you have a grid or is it just something you know right away.

EM: In terms of caliber, I judged the secrets instinctually and immediately. If you send me a bathroom secret, I’m going to send you one of my bathroom secrets. (You’d actually be very surprised how many weird things people do in the bathroom that they never tell anyone.) Send me something about a sexual experience, I’ll try to do the same.

MH: Can you tell me a secret? Did you exchange real secrets or make them up?

EM: To me, a secret is something you’ve never told anyone, motivated by fear of consequence, shame, guilt, or a need for privacy. It’s something that you haven’t spoken out loud to anybody. So sure, I have tons of secrets of things that have happened today that I haven’t told to anybody yet, but a true secret is a disclosure of sensitive information that is perceived to jeopardize the integrity of the secret holder or in some cases, of someone else.
Sure, I’ll tell you a secret… If you tell me one.

MH: Do you want a “true secret” or just a secret?

EM: Tell me a real secret. Get it off your chest.

MH: It just occurred to me that it is really hard to: a) come up with a secret; and b) disclose.

EM: When I was first imagining the project, I sat down and wrote down a list of secrets. I had five. I started writing them down as they came to me, kind of in little “ah ha” moments, but eventually found that depending on the way you spin things, anything can be a secret. I started imagining myself speaking to the community, as a newcomer, writing down all the things I wanted them to know about who I am and why I am worthy of membership. I think my desire to feel connected to people around me urged me to purge my secrets, if only for myself.

MH: OK. Here is my secret. Actually I have two for you.
1 – I can’t stand the look on people’s faces when they think they have said something really smart, and are proud of it.
2- I would never do it now, but I would redo it in a second.

Let’s see what you come up with now.

EM: Oh, what I wouldn’t give to find out what the “it” in that sentence is. Alright, here are mine.
1 – I haven’t unlearned everything I should have by now.
2 – A good conversation turns me on, but I can’t say ‘no’ if you touch me across the table.

MH: OK… What were some notable secrets you received in the Swap?

EM: One of my favourite secrets was “i cant stop cheating on my gf. with a guy. i wont fuck him but i cant stop sucking him off.” I really love this secret because this person is obviously struggling with both the guilt and pleasures of infidelity, and possibly even sexuality given the target audience.

Another communication came in the form of a narrative poem:

“I stopped crying most of the time in May.
I stopped crying in movies in August.
Now I’ve stopped crying all together but it doesn’t mean I’m not still hurting.
And as much as I despise her, I hate her too… and what she did, and what she turned me into.

She was my love.”

I love this piece because I think it inspires the reader to imagine the back story by drawing on our own experiences of heartbreak. I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to, and I really believe that solidarity and human connection is made through the exchange of similar or like experiences. Ultimately, that is the goal of Secret Swap.

MH: Are you a private person?

EM: I have been thinking about my relationship to privacy a lot lately. I am not normally a private person. There isn’t really a lot that I keep to myself. I talk myself through my day, my relationships, my experiences, through conversations and thoughts and feelings. I talk myself into existence. I wonder about whether I have a private life at all, because I literally talk myself through everything. It is how I come to understand myself. But it wasn’t always like this. I used to have a lot of secrets, a lot of things that I was ashamed to admit or just personal details that I thought would change the way people saw me. I eventually realized that I always felt better after I purged my secrets, and usually found out that others had felt the way I was feeling or had acted similarly in certain situations. For me, when I discover that others have similar experiences to my own, it helps the healing processes along and normalizes our seemingly extraordinary experiences of both suffering and pleasure.

MH: Apparently everything we say (gossip) about someone circulates back to them eventually. What do you think about this? Are you good at keeping secrets?

EM: Who says that? I think that in a lot of ways that is probably true. I can even think of lots of times in my life when I have spoken to the detriment of others, never thinking it would get back to them. I am forever apologizing for the missteps of my mouth. But then I think about all of the things that we never say. Things we never say to our family, to our friends, to lovers and potential loves, important things that they should probably hear. If it weighs heavy on the heart, I think we should say it, even if the sentiment is fleeting. Just think about all the things we never say. I’m not trying to advocate for the radical honesty movement because I believe there are good reasons why we keep things to ourselves, but the point is, eventually the reasons we have for keeping something private changes, or eats us from the inside out.

Am I good at keeping secrets? I think when I hear something that serves as an anecdote, or can teach someone else about themselves, they don’t register as “secrets” or “gossip” in my head. I think this is probably a fault of mine and very much tied to the verbalization of self that I spoke about earlier. For me, the line between “news” and “gossip” is fragmented because I am always trying to understand the bigger picture, the collective history of the community and that involves understanding human relationships and their evolution.
I also understand that the exchange and flow of information is highly mediated through the ego. We keep things to ourselves that damage our own reputations; we disclose the things that we will receive praise for and the things that damage the reputations of others. It is an ego boost having privy information, or information that can be used against someone else, so the project is not just about trust, but about flow of information, power and control.

MH: Your call states, “Anonymity is guaranteed.” Were secrets submitted anonymously?

EM: The whole point of the project was anonymity. I didn’t want to know who was submitting. In fact, someone admitted they had submitted a secret, and it changed the nature of the project for me, it altered the exercise to know that people from my circle of friends had placed a secret in the database. Secrets were submitted in emails, so no, they were not completely anonymous. However, the point of the exercise is not to keep track of the email addresses and corresponding secrets. So I don’t know who submitted what secret through what email, that’s not the way I’ve kept the records.
However, half the secrets in the database are my own, so reading them and trying to figure out which are mine is half the fun, I think.

MH: I want to ask you a question about “collecting” as an artistic process. Do you have thoughts on collecting? And since you collect other people’s ‘stuff’, are there issues of ownership, especially in terms of what you can do with them, display, share, showcase, analyze… though I get that the collection process is itself very much the core of the project, right?

EM: Even though the participants gave over their secrets willingly, I don’t feel ownership over them. I give access, certainly, but only under certain conditions. I mean, they aren’t mine, even if I can relate to some of them. I don’t feel like I own the database either, because I entered into an agreement with the participants. We each opened up, we each disclosed personal information. We entered into a relationship. I wouldn’t want to do anything to betray or jeopardize those relationships. I’m not sure I would feel right about just extracting secrets and not giving anything up in return.

This archive, the blog and the upcoming website, are more of a resource for those in our community who harbor secrets to the detriment of their well-being. I would like to think the archive could serve a purpose in the community, to help folks understand each other better. I think the archive is a sort of a testament to who we are.

Now, the original social experiment is over, but I still end up collecting secrets. Not only because people will always have secrets, or that I find this process of purging to be very therapeutic in many ways, but the project gave me a rite of passage to ask intimate details of friends and new acquaintances, and not feel like I had to justify myself wanting to understand how our secrets police us and influence the way we act. I feel really fortunate to be the kind of person that people, especially folks in this community, open up to.

MH: You had the opportunity to use a Bluetooth server to disseminate the secrets – tell me how this changed the nature of the project.

EM: The Bluetooth server allowed me to disseminate the secrets via cell phone and blackberry at the Interactions vernissage in Montreal in January 2010. It not only granted access (or in some cases, restricted access depending on possession of or type of mobile device) to the secrets, but allowed me provide a commentary on how gossip travels in communities such as this, and how access to sensitive information can be a signifier of membership. In intimate communities such as this one, especially coming from the outside and not understanding the history or context of existing relationships, I was suddenly able to recognize my own membership in this group of people via the content of text messages on my phone. What people decided to tell me as a newcomer, and even as an artist with a fixation for secrets and privy information, has really ultimately helped me establish the kind of creative work I want to engage in and who for.

MH: So what’s your next art piece about?

EM: Well, I would really love to keep working with ideas surrounding community, membership, trust, and divulgence, but at a more material level. I had problems giving open access to secrets using the Bluetooth machine, so I would really like to explore other ways to disseminate secrets to larger audiences. I am looking forward to exploring performative aspects of news and gossip. I have been working through an idea about an online queer exchange, involving a weekly online video blog challenge between queer women. It might be interesting to cross section this with the secrets project or other useful exchanges between members of the queer community.

http://secretswapmontreal.blogspot.com/

Erin discovered herself through the insights of Jackie Burroughs in an episode of Road to Avonlea and the lyrics of renowned singer/songwriter Jewel. Secretary school enraged her and turned her into queer feminist, but not before she released her first record, Girlspeak. After 4 years in Sociology & Women’s Studies at Bishop’s university, she was forced to leave because she kept terrorizing the conservative youth by erecting structures for various minoritized groups. She fled to Southern Ontario to pursue a graduate degree in Social Justice & Equity Studies at Brock University where her obsession with talk took over. Her research focuses on the links between conversation, news media and democracy on CBC’s The Hour. Eventually, she would abandon her commune, move to Montreal and assume her position as a professional auto-erotic aficionado. She now spends her time collecting secrets, apprenticing with Dykes on Mykes, and Facebook stalking. She is both a pop culture junkie and a compulsive liar.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by NMP Eds (not verified) on Mon, 05/03/2010 – 19:16.

Feel free to post your secrets here!