Duet is a digital art installation at 46 The Calls in Leeds that features excerpts of conversations between people in India and the UK on its large light panels. The conversations are taken from the associated Duet app, which anonymously connects participants, inviting them to exchange details of their lives by answering one question a day. Duet, a collaboration between Leeds interactive art studio Invisible Flock and Quicksand, an Indian research and design lab, aims to build communication between two continents across one year to mark the 70th anniversary of Indian independence. The conversations can be explored by the public. Here, participants reveal what that communication was like.
The idea of an anonymous yet deep personal exchange of thoughts and feelings is perhaps lost in today’s information-supercharged environment that we inhabit. That one can reflect on a simple yet thoughtful question, craft a measured and honest response and expect something similar is a rare thing in a world full of instant opinions, clashes of ideas and talking heads everywhere. Duet has helped bring a small but happy modicum of joy into my day. The questions most times force you to stop whatever you are doing and think back on your day or observe your surroundings more keenly. Your own answers sometimes tend to surprise you. Answers from across the oceans definitely surprise you as well and present just enough of a picture for you to then lend your own shape and colour to whatever brief glimpse you have received of another life in another culture. The app itself is simple and easy to use. The notification of a new question for the day being posted is increasingly something I look forward to, the responses even more so.
I didn’t really think too much about Duet when I signed up. Building a picture of someone on the other side of the world through shared messages sounded like a fun social experiment, and not much more beyond that. But actually, building a picture of someone, in other words getting to know them, feels significant. Connecting with people is what makes you cry when you’re involved in the storyline of a film, it’s a favourite character from a beloved book, it’s making friends, or the beginnings of a romantic relationship.
I had a penpal when I was about 10. She was from Australia, and we dutifully wrote to each other for years. Duet has captured the thrill of when I used to receive a letter from her. There isn’t anything else quite like it because with each new message a discovery is made and you piece the person together. It’s anonymous. I’m not sure why this is important, but it is. Occasionally I think it might be nice to meet my partner, to ask him a bit more about an answer he gave, but ultimately I want to keep him a mystery.
There’s something liberating about the anonymity and gradually getting to know my partner. I haven’t felt the need to say anything remotely private and nor has he, but it’s comforting to share a daily thought with the same person over time. I know he’s into food and the outdoors, which area in Delhi he lives in, but I have no idea about what he looks like or what he does for a living.
In fact, I’m not 100 per cent certain he’s even a he.
Do I like my partner? Do we have lots in common? Strangely it doesn’t seem that important; it’s more than that. We are both bound by Duet, and each answer feels welcome no matter what – a time to relish in the different ways we interpret the same question, rather than discounting someone because they are not the same as you.
I like the questions I’m asked. Some are easy and everyday (“what food could bring you comfort today?”) and others invite you to mull over them all day and craft a careful answer. Some inspire a real conversation with actual people, and this strange little app has become a talking point for my friends that are doing it.
I enjoy the humour that comes from different interpretations of the same question.
“What would you invent if you could?”
Me: “Flying carpets.”
Him: “A cure for cancer.”
He’s obviously a better person.
From the grey UK I like to imagine life in India as it is told to me by my new, nameless friend.
I’ve been using Duet for a while now. When I first signed up I was struck by the simplicity of its design. There are no settings to configure or notifications to wade through. You install the app, get a few simple instructions and are ready to go. Muted pastel shades and subtle musical tones make up the backdrop of the app and give you a sense of calm and serenity, setting the mood, if you will. I love how intuitive and user friendly the app is. I read the instructions just once. Easy swipes to the left, right, up and down is all there is. You navigate through the screens almost on instinct. I was also impressed by how the screen was kept plain and uncluttered (free of buttons and other paraphernalia). It was as if I had a blank slate to put down my thoughts. I thought it was the perfect tool for quiet reflection! The questions are interesting and they get me to pause a while and think before I respond. I find myself having to fine tune my observations, be a little more curious about life and the place I live in. It forces me to engage deeper with my relationships with people and my surroundings. The app is non-intrusive and makes very few demands on you – there is no need to put up a picture, or record everything you do/think or have forced conversations. Neither are there unnecessary alerts or annoying reminders asking you to respond. It allows you the time and space to think about what you do and what you really want to say. A lot of times it feels like you are learning things about yourself while having another person on the other side to stimulate your thoughts. I like the fact that the app gives you the sense of being by yourself, yet allowing you to make a meaningful connection on the outside.
I’ve really enjoyed my daily questions. It creates a time to pause and reflect, sometimes to be amused by the question, sometimes to stop in my tracks and think… I just don’t know, I need to really think about that. I enjoy the way my partner interprets the questions. I feel the similarities and differences of our lives and what matters to us. I have at various points been un-paired when partners haven’t responded but this feels OK, this moves and changes and someone else comes along. It may even be the same person – you just don’t know. I love this about it – the anonymity. It feels very freeing and very different from my normal life.