Zach met Ellie through an ad Zach posted on Craigslist seeking a partner. After just one meeting, they knew they were destined to be together… in a conceptual relationship. Cramming years of coupledom into just ten days, Zach and Ellie created a unique artistic project that had even their closest friends questioning what exactly was going on between them. Ellie documented the project in photos and meanderings on a blog called the Seven Day Conceptual Relationship, and after reading her posts from beginning to end, I had a few questions for the faux pair. View a photo slideshow of the rise and demise here.
Flavorpill: So you and Zach met via Craigslist and decided to perform a lifetime of experiences in a little over a week. What exactly happened at this meeting?
Ellie: Things went really well when we both met. As the blog says, it was a bit awkward because I was sitting next to a student when I spotted him and went up to him before he could get to me. By doing that I foiled his sweet plan to have a muffin sent over to my table. During our first meeting we just chatted as any two people would who are getting to know each other for the first time. I found it hard to pretend that we had never spoken on the phone before and were just talking for the first time. This sort of set a precedent for how the rest of our relationship would go, which was to change frequently in and out of character and mix up real emotions into fictional situations.
FP: You wrote on Seven Day Conceptual Relationship that the project was scripted. What were the parameters?
Ellie: The parameters were as Zach originally conceived of them [play acting to move through an entire relationship — from the stage of initial flirtation into marriage, child-rearing, and finally divorce — in seven days]. What actually happened is that we followed the script as a structure, but changed stuff as it suited us as individuals with new ideas in what became a collaboration.
Zach: Ellie and I worked together to flesh out and add to those original directions. We were constantly communicating because we had different ideas about what sort of activities we were excited about or comfortable with. I had always imagined that this dialogue would be necessary, but I didn’t imagine having a partner that would take such an interest in participating in the planning stages. That was a pleasant surprise! We did follow the parameters very closely, but the parameters certainly evolved as the relationship progressed.
Ellie: We spent a lot of time talking and planning for the next day: what was to occur, what props we needed, what kind of photos were going to be shot, etc. A lot of what happened was dictated by our surroundings and things we never could have planned for — mostly that was interacting with real people in our fictional roles.
FP: You ended up having the relationship to ten instead of seven days. How many days did the project itself last?
Zach: It ended up coming out to ten days of encapsulated relationship because we wanted to add days to represent wedding planning, domestic living, and a post-separation existence. In real-time, it took us almost three weeks to finish. The idea of doing all the days consecutively is appealing, but it would have been impossible for us for logistical and, perhaps, emotional reasons.
Ellie: Our first date was April 1st and we finished April 26th. We probably had a relationship day twice or three times a week.
FP: Why did you model this project on typical relationship pattern, which neither of you subscribe to, instead of something that felt more in sync with both of your ideals?
Ellie: Zach conceived of this idea with friends long before he met me or knew of my ideals. We just happened to be a good match, and it was something that I was interested in exploring. I was nervous about how much I’d have to step outside of my comfort zone for this, what would be required of me that I wouldn’t do in real life, and about somehow being humiliated through the process. Fortunately none of these things really became issues. As far as the ‘norm’ goes, I think I am more embedded in it just because of my age (34) and that I’ve been in some of the situations in the script before more so than Zach has. I still reject many parts of the norm though.
Zach: It’s true. I have serious reservations about following this path in my real life, and I would imagine that most people, if questioned, would express some degree of skepticism regarding some of the norms that we’re emulating here, even if they’re full-on participants. I was surprised at how natural a lot this pretending felt, really. It should have felt very foreign, I suppose, for a guy like me to suddenly find myself escorting my ostensibly very pregnant wife around town, but people accepted and even embraced us to such an extent that it really felt pretty natural. We were following a script, but we were playing ourselves, and therefore we interpreted the parameters in a way that felt familiar. These norms are problematic in a lot of ways, but they can also be powerfully comfortable on account of the extent to which they permeate our society.
FP: People have gotten divorced because of ‘adulterous’ relationships on Second Life. Was it important to do this project with two single people?
Zach: I came up with this concept while I was dating someone, but I didn’t try and attempt it until I had been single for a while. It might be interesting to note that the first person that agreed to try the capsule relationship with me ended up being married in real life! She may have been a real-life mother, too, for all I know. I didn’t find that out until she emailed me after our “Day One,” saying that she had to pull out of the project because her husband wasn’t as okay with her being involved as she’d originally assumed he would be.
I hadn’t heard about the phenomenon of cheating in your Second Life, but it’s pretty fascinating. Just the fact that we can use the label “romantic relationship” to describe the interactions between two individuals who are controlling computer-animated bodies online speaks to how blurry the lines can sometimes be. I can understand how a romance that isn’t fully grounded in the physical world can be real. I’ve dated people long-distance, and I’ve dated people who were celibate at the time we were together — and in those cases, the relative lack of body-to-body contact didn’t changes the feelings that I had for the other person.
FP: What were people most curious about when you told them about this conceptual relationship?
Ellie: Many people were curious about how emotionally and/or physically involved this project would actually get. The constant question about what we were going to do on the honeymoon got a bit tiresome…
Zach: That was number one on the FAQ list, for sure.
Ellie: But I suppose that sort of curiosity is natural. My stance was that my lips are sealed, but if we were to have a conceptual baby, then we’d have to have conceptual relations prior to that, right?
Zach: Also, people were very curious to know why we wanted to do this to begin with. A lot of people were excited enough about it to express an interest in being a part of it in one way or another, which was encouraging, and we got lots of beneficial feedback.
FP: How close to your ‘real’ self was the character you were playing? The line did not come across as clearly delineated, but the blog reader doesn’t have the luxury of seeing you “live”, so it’s hard to tell.
Zach: Right — the line between our real and our fake selves was indistinct at times. We had the option of acting this all out in character, but we chose to play it as ourselves. We were supposed to behave as if we were still ourselves, but we were dropped into these fictional scenarios. Our “first date,” for example, was very much like any other first date I might go on, though some of the later steps were much more challenging. We didn’t have to pretend to be different people, but we did have to pretend that certain fictional things had come to pass in our lives.
Ellie: We are not actors and never set out to be actors in this project. There were times we had to ‘act’, but there were other times that we were just ourselves in situations that were fictional. Personally, I like the fuzzy nature of this part. I liked how in the beginning people thought that I was really engaged because they hadn’t read the blog, or how Zach and I had so much emotional crossover that sometimes it was even hard for us to tell or separate the two. I think this adds so much more richness to the project.
FP: You both had trouble getting into character at the beginning.
Ellie: For me, it was because I have never done this before and I felt a little silly. I remember feeling a little silly on our first date when we had to hold hands. I was trying to photograph it with my other hand and it all seemed so contrived.
Zach: I was just feeling very conscious of making sure that Ellie was comfortable with what we were doing, and I was distracting myself with that a little bit early on. I didn’t want to come across as too big of a weirdo! I feel like I was taking cues from her, during our initial meetings, regarding how deeply she wanted to immerse herself in her role, and that made it harder to immerse myself in mine.
Ellie: All of this trouble really vanished by the proposal day; the day we ‘fell in love’ in the park on a lovely spring day. Somehow we just fell into it really easily and from then on it was second nature. Maybe that is because the stakes were higher and it was beyond the normal first date situation. That was the day we got engaged, so we had to jump into it more intensely.
Zach: After that third day when we were supposed to be madly in love, I really did relax a bit because we really ran with the scenario and made it feel very real. After that day, we were both on the same page and we knew we were going to be successful in pulling the project off.
FP: On the blog, Ellie makes a switch from writing as her “real” self to writing more “in character” once she “gets pregnant”. Suddenly the project didn’t feel so good to her anymore, both in character and out of character. Was this a distressing moment for both of you?
Ellie: I wrote a huge rant about not wanting to have children out of character and this, of course, carried into my character and the narrative. It actually ended up shaping the whole end of our story because I feel so strongly about not having children. It was distressing to pretend to do something I’d never do in real life while also having a fear of being discovered as a fake pregnant woman. Before we had the pregnant day, I was very nervous and upset about having to do it, but this also ended up being okay and actually sort of fun. I now feel some sort of odd affinity with pregnant women, just because I had a belly for a day and actually convinced real people that I was pregnant. That was a huge relief and sort of fun, but certainly didn’t change my views about anything in real life.
Zach: This was a moment at which I was very concerned about Ellie and started really questioning the project as a whole. I didn’t get much sleep the night before the pregnancy day, and woke up from anxious dreams in which she was stressed-out and I was guilt-ridden for putting her through the embarrassment. Oddly enough, those real-life emotions bled into the capsule scenario in a very appropriate way. If I had, in fact, pressured my wife into bringing a child to term against her better judgment, I’m sure that I would feel very guilty about it. For me, our nervous anticipation of that day added a lot of emotional depth to the project as a whole.
FP: What were some things that happened that you didn’t anticipate?
Ellie: I didn’t anticipate that Zach and I would get along so well in real life, or that we’d actually be convincing in different situations in public. Along those same lines, I didn’t anticipate people’s reactions to us being so genuine. The biggest thing I didn’t anticipate was having real emotions enter into the mix which was sometimes uncomfortable, but ultimately enriching for the project.
Zach: I never anticipated this being something that I would pour so much time and energy into. I initially viewed this project as a personal experience that I was excited about having, whereas it was Ellie who really transformed it into a more public art piece. I don’t have the extensive art background that she has, and I was just lucky that she was the one that found my ad and responded. Right from the beginning, she had specific ideas for the sort of photos that she wanted to create, so I think a lot of her forward-thinking mentality came out of that. As the project went on, the artistic element solidified and our relationship as collaborators developed, but early on I was more content just to go with the flow. I knew it was a major undertaking, but Ellie’s enthusiasm and dedication to this really pushed this beyond where I ever imagined it could go.
FP: What will happen with this project now?
Ellie: We are in the process of recording audio of us talking about the project and Zach is still writing about it, so we’ll see what happens. We want to make a book, publish it, have an exhibit, etc. Any takers?
Zach: We’re also considering creating a conceptual dating matchup/documentation Web site as a part of the final project so that more people can experience this sort of thing in their own way. It’s been a worthwhile experience, and lots of people have expressed interest in participating. I would love to hear about how different people would approach doing something like this.
FP: Did you learn anything about ‘real’ relationships from your conceptual one?
Ellie: Unfortunately, I learned that I bring myself and my relationship patterns into any relationship I’m in, even a fake one. I was hoping I could try out being someone else in a different situation, but it doesn’t work that way. I can’t claim to understand how having a baby can change a relationship for real because that is just insulting to everyone who actually does it, but I do have enough friends with children to know that it does change, and I did feel that in some ways in our conceptual relationship. I will say that the conceptual relationship is far more tiring than a real relationship because of all of the planning and the speed!
Zach: After the ‘we’re in love’ day had happened, I became confused about how to interact with Ellie outside of the conceptual relationship. Some of emotions that came out of doing this project were real, and I wasn’t sure how to express them outside of the constructs on the concept relationship. I felt, in a way, dependent on the dating rituals that I thought we were supposed to be critiquing. Outside of the capsule relationship, everything was uncertain, but inside of the capsule relationship, everything made sense. To certain extent, these structures I wanted to poke holes in ended up chewing me up and spitting me out a little bit.
More than ever, I understand the appeal of these behavioral norms. Over the years, I’ve always felt a sense of dissonance when I’ve imagined myself being in these stereotypical situations, but now that the project is over, I feel like it’s easier for me to understand why so many people choose to go down these pathways. Maybe it’s easier to imagine myself going down them, too.