Forty Days of Dating: An Experiment in Performing Intimacy

Once upon a time there lived two young, hip, successful New Yorkers. Their names were Jessica and Timothy.  Jessica and Timothy were each tired of the dating scene – it was just too hard!  Jessica loved to be in love, but was starting to wonder why her Prince Charming was so elusive.  Timothy, on the other hand, liked to date lots and lots of women, and couldn’t even think about settling down.  Jessica and Timothy had been friends for a long time, and they had an idea.  “Why don’t we conduct an experiment,” they thought, “and date each other?  Let’s try it out for forty days, and see if we learn anything in the process”.  And thus they embarked together on a great adventure.

Such is the premise for Forty Days of Dating, the project of graphic designers Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman which came to a conclusion early last week when the finale episode of their saga was published online and they revealed on the Today Show that they did, in fact, break up at the end of their experiment.  The entire process was meticulously and artistically documented through photographs of accumulated items from their dates, quirky videos, and no shortage of colorful, text-based graphic design.  It should not go unnoted, by the way, that Tim frequently saved and photographed the receipts from their various activities, as if to show that affect can be reduced to commodity.  Money is a recurring theme throughout the project, and Tim’s criticism of Jessie’s spending habits while at Disney World instigated one of their worst arguments.

Courtesy of fortydaysofdating.com.

Courtesy of fortydaysofdating.com.

This project bears many of the marks of great performance art, but unfortunately falls short on self-awareness and reflexivity.  Although the pair established a structure of a set of rules, they paid little attention to some of the more fundamental issues at hand, a point highlighted by Matt Lauer when he asks how exactly they defined “dating” (to which their frustratingly vague reply is that they intentionally “left it open”).

But regardless of whether or not they called their project a performance or not, their “experiment” falls into the same category as “performances” and “games” in that they share a common attribute: they are widely understood to be separate from “real” life.  But that is precisely what is so fascinating about 40DoD – it blurs the boundaries between these two spheres, and forces one to really think about what it means to “date”.  Early on, Jessica finds inspiration in the Charles and Ray Eames quote “Life is work is life is work is life” and is thrilled at their boldness in taking “the term ‘personal project’ to a new level”.

(Stefan Sagmeister, http://www.sagmeisterwalsh.com/) Courtesy of fortydaysofdating.com

(Stefan Sagmeister, http://www.sagmeisterwalsh.com/) Courtesy of fortydaysofdating.com

Jessica later expresses her belief that a “real” relationship requires physical intimacy, which ignites her feelings of attraction toward Tim.  She seeks this kind of intimacy throughout the project.  Tim, on the other hand, reflects towards the end of the project and even after they sleep together, that none of it has been “real” dating.  Even their over-involved therapist, Jocelyn, seems to think the whole thing is a sham, and criticizes the duo for being cowardly for embarking upon this elaborate project instead of just “really” dating.  I find these assumptions problematic and over-simplified, and I wish the project would have focused more on what “real dating” is, and less on what would “really” happen between them after Day 40.  If they are going through the motions of dating, and it is eliciting emotions, then in what way is the experience inauthentic or their feelings invalid?

Jessie and Tim are not unaware of the ways in which their performance and their day-to-day lives intersect.  Thanks to some prompting from the therapist, they begin thinking about themselves as being cast in certain roles which determine their actions.  From the outset, Tim was the philandering commitment-phobe, and Jessie was the hopeless romantic.  Observing the ways in which these roles inhibited their actions within the confines of the experiment allowed them to think more broadly about how we play roles in our lives every day.  Changing one’s actions, therefore, must often begin with changing one’s assumed role.

Courtesy of fortydaysofdating.com.  Full video at http://vimeo.com/72207777.

Courtesy of fortydaysofdating.com. Full video at http://vimeo.com/72207777.

One of the more interesting parts of the project was a day where they spent 8 full hours holding hands.  They never switched hands or broke their grasp, even to put on jackets, or for bathroom visits.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s 1977 performance of “Relation in Time”, in which they spent 17 full hours seated back-to-back and physically tethered together by their hair.  Images of Jessie and Tim facing each other seated in rigid chairs are even reminiscent of Abramovic and Ulay’s 2010 reunion at “The Artist is Present”.  Unfortunately, it was exactly these parallels between 40DoD and the the groundbreaking work of an artist whose life work is about deconstructing the boundary between life and performance that made the former pale in comparison.  But the powerful aspect of these disparate projects that the two couples do hold in common is the beautiful truth that “two people who co-create something will forever be linked” (Day 28).

Unfortunately, what had great potential to be a provocative work of art in 40DoD was underwhelming and superficial.  My greatest frustration with the project was that it was never made explicitly clear what the two hoped to discover or say with the project.  So much of the narrative drama revolved around external pressures to “really” date (at one point they even attend a party where people actually demand that they kiss in front of everyone in order to prove that they are “really” together), and internal confusion about what, in fact, the experiment was supposed to be.  Was it dating?  Was it just spending every day together?  “Should” they have sex in order to authenticate the simulated experience?  More interesting, relevant, and useful to ask, in my opinion, would have been: is the sense of attraction that evolves from the constructed intimacy of their project the “real” deal?  Even if they sell out?

Emma Waldron (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Emma WaldronEmma Waldron is a Rutgers alumna and currently works with first-year students as an academic advisor.  She spent her formative years in Boulder CO before relocating to the Garden State, and recently spent a year living in Bristol, England where she completed her MA in Performance Research.  Her research focuses on the concept of authentic identity, and her dissertation addressed issues of gender and musical performativity in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  Emma has recently become vegan, and documents the transformation on her blog “I Am What I Eat”.  Emma spends a lot of time thinking about Judith Butler, iambic pentameter, vegan cookies, Ralph Waldo Emerson, sunshine, drag queens, Nordic larp, and tea.

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