‘But are strangers REALLY that interesting?’

'N' Phnom Penh // APRIL 2015
‘N’ Phnom Penh happened at NUK Cafe. Now inviting guests for ‘N’ in Bangkok, London, and Copenhagen.

I TOLD HER the truth. I was a little dejected. Another ‘No’ for Bangkok ‘N’.

Slow going, this. Asking 16 strangers to get tickets for something they’ve never heard of, that asks them to pick a date together, that comes from ‘the internet.’

It works like this: 16 people, on their own paths, converge ONCE for a conversation about a theme that starts with ‘N.’ In a venue that has an ‘N’. In a city with an ‘N,’ too.

16 people x 16 cities.

Being interviewed about ‘N’ the concept

I MET A FRENCHWOMAN on her way home. She was fascinated with ‘N’, but she was also skeptical. ‘Pessimistic,’ she said. But she had me, when she asked a terrific barrage of questions. She is in marketing.

It went something like this.

You need a ‘speech.’

DK: A speech? No, no, that sounds like… no. this is just… This is just what I’m doing! ‘N’ is the thing I need to do! I don’t know. Oh, you’re saying I’m not being clear about what it is. About how to make it accessible? Oh, that. Yeah. I’ve been criticized for this. It’s kind of like jazz or esoteric theater, isn’t it? You know, I don’t want to be like that, though, even though I think jazz and esoteric theater could be messaged in a better way so more people see how cool it is to go out into the weird space of improvisation or just thinking deeply and connecting lots of threads in a thoughtful, artful way. Not like Mashable, you know? Anyway. I realize, you’re right: it’s about how well have I communicated what I’m offering, what I’m making, why I care about it, and why I’m inviting people. Okay. Hit me.

What’s in it for you?

DK: Connection. Just once. Nothing hard. Outside of work and family. Connection, yeah. I was in reporting and news for four years as a staff writer. And before that, I did a lot of independent traveling, on my own dime, from savings from jobs in architecture, cafes, the usual gamut of oddball things that one does if one is in their young years and learning about the world. And I found from all this learning that there is only ONE thing that really turns me on. Great dialogue. It doesn’t have to be smart, or overeducated, or labeled something. It just has to be GOOD. And you can design for that. You really, really can. I have a seven-point checklist now, that I developed when I met some of the greatest people who make you feel, quite quickly, at ease. So I took what I learned from all the conversations of my life and made ‘N.’

Related: Some years ago, this idea was foreshadowed in Ireland, in our 2003 short video, ‘Teddy O’Neill.” Watch it here >

Because the magic happens in the MOMENT, and it’s not about being prepared for it, or looking for ‘a website,’ or an app, or a ‘perfect person.’ It’s about right there, right now. Eye contact. Being in the same place at the same time. Sheer chance. For me, making that happen simultaneously for 16 people is a real achievement. It’s way more interesting to me than sitting about writing or drawing and trying to pitch my work to loads of people in the hope of ‘being published.’ This is being published, this blog, right here. You’re reading. If you weren’t reading, I wouldn’t be writing.

And it’s only because there is a RECEPTION that anything meaningful really happens. It’s only because the SENDER has a RECEIVER, and they are locked in a conversation that’s timeless and wordless because it hits on a sensation that only they can know. I know, it’s really big stuff here, what I’m talking about. I call this moment of reception ART. Everything else, when ‘artists’ go around the world talking about themselves but not caring who’s listening so long as the room is full, well, everything else is just public masturbation.

Why do you do this?

DK: Make space. For real. In a short, designed block (a volume?), and not get overwhelmed with the work of human contact. I know, it sounds crazy psychology kookiness. But sure, Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols informs this. So does Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. So does ‘Basic Writings’ by Heidegger, if you want to know, and all those guys who figured out that when you change the way you look at things on a quantum level, the things you look at change.

How do you choose whom to invite?

DK: Gut feeling. I’m looking for people who are: Open. Making. Doing. Sharing. Yet the invitation process is designed to let people self-select.

What do people need this for?

DK: The ones who balk at this are the ones who need it the most. But of course, I can’t say that. The reason people need this is because we have to get out of our heads sometimes, our usualness, to find out what’s really interesting. To go to the edge and see what’s there, and sometimes that’s just not what people want to do. One person put it this way: ‘I’m not ready to emerge a butterfly.’ Fair enough. But if you want to realize your fullest self, you have to push yourself to the edge, and break it.

But are the strangers you meet REALLY that interesting?

DK: EVERYONE is interesting.

Concept of ‘N’: One moment can change the vector of your life forever

AS I WAS packing my things and taking leave of this lovely new acquaintance yesterday afternoon, I was marveling at how the conversation lasted two hours. She is probably on a plane right now. She and I will possibly meet again but it is going to take a lot of coordinating so it’s not totally one hundred percent guaranteed.

Still, we had a connection. We talked about life, and what people really crave and how we just want to talk, and be heard, and then she told me about the meaning of someone she knows’ tattoo, and drew it for me in my notebook, and we talked about that. Action. Dialogue. Things happening. Things having mattered.

Confirming the reality of our own existence and its worth because we had eye contact, or if the SENDER isn’t alive anymore, (Guy Debord’s book Society of the Spectacle popped out of my bag during this conversation), then you can still have that CONNECTION even through temporal space. I told her about the red dress I got at a boutique right after seeing Dali’s Dream. The shopkeeper made a comment about something that she saw in me, (and I can share that, if I ever meet you in real life.) I stopped blogging at this site about my personal stuff because I realized it wasn’t being RECEIVED in a way that let me know it was being received. And I couldn’t ask, ‘How are you finding this?’ Even if that response is something crude or rude, it’s still a response. And you know, when you have people saying NO that just means you’re on your way to something very interesting, indeed.

So we were saying all this, and then I took a deep breath, and it felt like the Dream again and also reading Debord, and I looked at her and said, ‘Thank you for the great conversation! I really learned a lot.’

‘So did I!’ she said. And then, there it was. The answer to her question, the title of this section. Are the strangers you meet REALLY that interesting?

‘Yes!’ I cried. ‘See??!’

We laughed. Then she said, ‘I knew you were gonna say that.’

‘It’s not about being right.’

She knew I was gonna say that, too.

Read more about ‘N’

DK’s ’16N’ project gathers 16 people for ONE moment of conversation. See DesignKompany.com/16N