In the hunt for human connection, is art a safer bet than Tinder?

Like half of the people on dating apps, these artists were fed up with swiping.

Like half of the people on dating apps, these artists were fed up with swiping

Jaclyn Brown. Detail of "The never ending desert," 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

"What are you wearing?"

"R U Up?"

"If I send you naked pic tonight don't judge me. LOL."

It's 2020. If you use dating apps, you may have seen one of those opening lines, but Jaclyn Brown has definitely been on the receiving end of all three of those messages — texts she's worked into paintings she's produced over the last few years.

"Whatever's happening in my life, I just sort of paint," says Brown, a Canadian artist based in New York. And for many people like her, life involves swiping — and all the good, bad and just-plain-trash that comes with it.

The following people 'r' up

In just three years, the number of North American adults using dating apps has doubled, jumping to 30 per cent according to the latest Pew Research Center study, and if you're young or young-ish (i.e. under 49) that number's significantly higher. People in their 20s? Half of that demo's doing it. And as for what to try, the options are endless, even if the viable dating pool is not.

There's Tinder, the industry juggernaut, whose latest marketing campaign leans into its rep as the app for "something casual." (Its 50 million international users seem cool with it.) Or Bumble, which works more or less the same, but brands itself as the lady-like alternative. (Unlike the competition, straight men can't message first.) Hinge promises more monagam-ish romance, selling itself as the app "designed to be deleted." Or there's any number of micro-targeted options: Dig (for dog lovers); Sapio (for brain lovers); Bristlr (for men with beards and the people who long to stroke them).

For those who loathe the cycle of match, chat, meet up, flake, they might be candidates for Hater ("the app that matches people based on what they hate") — but really, they're just the norm.

Looking for love, finding frustration

Roughly half of users feel "more frustrated than hopeful" about their adventures in people-browsing, according to that previously mentioned Pew study. There's a major lack of trust that's simmering online  (71 per cent say that everyone's lying "to appear more desirable"). And among users' big complaints? The threat of harassment (35 per cent report unwanted messages and images, and that number — big surprise — skews higher for young women).

But for those seeking love, companionship or an awkward grope over a couple episodes of Seinfeld, frustration is simply reality. To date is to use a dating app, and while you could technically meet someone anywhere, right now, your chances are better online.

When Brown made her first dating profile, she was trying to get her head around the experience. Some people would just start a WhatsApp thread with five of their closest single friends. She paints.

Jaclyn Brown. "His Cactus," 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

At 30, Brown was a widow. Her husband, also an artist, died of cancer in 2013. Dating again was enough of a challenge; meeting people online felt even more bizarre. "I started painting because, oh my gosh, this is crazy. It helped me deal with getting back in there," she says. Her pieces are usually packed with cutesy hat-tips to internet culture — kittens, smileys, poo emojis. (It was a self-care strategy, she explains. Adding "happy things" takes her attention off reality a bit.)

"A lot of the time I was like, 'Oh, I'd rather be painting than actually going on dates,'" she laughs. "But I think it's been my journey, in a way, of dating."

She'll occasionally copy/paste message threads and drop them in different scenes. Dick picks are swapped for cactuses. (So many cactuses.)

"It's not like people know my past," says Brown. "But they can take their own kind of humour from [the paintings]. Like, I've had to deal with these texts."

Alison Kruse and Erin Williamson totally have, too, and to Feb.16, the duo has a small exhibition at Gallery 1313 in Toronto, a selection of paintings (by Kruse) and textile pieces (by Williamson). All the works are emblazoned with messages that'll seem creepy or familiar (or both). Like the show's title, You Up?, the sayings tap into Tinder clichés.

Alison Kruse. "I didn't mean to string you along," 2020. (Instagram/@a.s.kruse)

In the centre of the room, Williamson's piled an antique couch with satin pillows. There's a hand-stitched phrase on each one — things like: "come over and I'll treat u nice" or "I didn't mean to string you along." Similar lines are scratched into Kruse's paintings. All the texts were sent to Williamson, and they're the last messages from long-evaporated matches.

Like Brown, the 20-somethings were swiping on Tinder and Hinge when they started working on the project, struggling to make sense of the situations they kept repeating. The show's particularly interested in hookup culture, they explain.

Is it possible to actually get what you want on an app? "Hookup culture appears to be really simple," says Kruse. "You want one thing: you want physical touch or you want casual contact or whatever." But it's a situation that can turn "chaotic," says Kruse, if there's no emotional honesty and trust. And in their observation, those are hard things to build when you're using an app.

"Dating apps give you the ability to be so detached that you can send the same message to 10 different people," says Williamson. (That's not just a fact, it's a strategy.) "We've lost a lot of the intimacy."

"It's really hard for people to become vulnerable in the way that we want them to at this point," says Kruse.

Adds Williamson: "Making art about it has definitely helped to kind of cope and kind of grasp what is going on." She and Kruse are developing an art collective (it's also called You Up), hoping to connect with other creatives who are interested in the same ideas — a gambit that might be easier than landing a second date considering how many artists are out there doing just that.

Art imitates swipe life

Among the notables, there's Danish artist Marie Hyld, who recruited Tinder matches for her 2018 series Lifeconstruction. In the photos, Hyld convincingly plays house with a rotating cast of strangers: they cuddle on the couch, share a bathroom, spoon in bed. The project was about investigating the nature of intimacy, and the "ease of deceiving on social media," and as she writes on her website: "Throughout this project, I learned how surprisingly easy it is to paint a delusional picture of a life. It made me realize that we, in this digital age, are communicating more than ever — although we're not spending as much time cultivating true meaningful relationships."

Tinder (or Grindr, or whatever) hookups are so mainstream you can build a massive playlist on the subject, and other app-enabled phenomena — like the anguish of an unanswered text — are equally effective subjects for a Top 40 smash. (Ghosted? Some people react by sobbing into a sack of Cheetos. Florence Welch wrote this.)

Match smash! One of Joanna Skiba's Tinder drawings. (Instagram/@joskiba)

And then there are the endless meme accounts. (This one, Lillian x Tinder, mines pervy messages for LOLs. But the artist behind it is also exposing all the racism and fetishization she experiences online as a woman of colour.)  Audrey Jones's Tinder Diaries is more of a web comic, but she's just one example of someone who's spun sketchy text threads into grotesque portraits of Tinder dudes. Hell, even my own OkCupid frustration drove me to doing something similar. Way back when, posting doodles to Tumblr felt more productive than wasting every night on the app (even if the drawings were objectively janky).

But not everyone has the same weary attitude. In Joanna Skiba's experience, online dating is pure jokes. "I've always had a little bit of fascination with Tinder just because I find it so funny. It's just interesting how people try to distil who they are into a couple of images and maybe one or two sentences. It kind of makes people into a bit of a commercial product," she says.

For an exhibition at Satellite Project Space in London, Ont., last fall, Skiba — a recent graduate of Western University — took a few of her favourite bios and paired them with pencil-crayon drawings of cheerful tchotchkes. An action figure of the Incredible Hulk, for instance, is "just a dude with a big heart and even bigger personality." Like anything you buy online, your date might not be exactly as advertised.

Some day, we'll look back at this and laugh

Skiba might be going for LOLs in a different way than, say, Brown and Kruse and Williamson, but even those three artists are having a laugh about their dating experience. After hand-stitching a list of emotionally loaded texts, Williams says the messages lost their meaning. "I look back and a lot of them are just funny to me." Says Brown: "I like to take the funny things and use that, because it's the little ironic things that we all experience."

Installation view of Erin Williamson's work at Gallery 1313 in Toronto. (Instagram/@youupcollective)

Even if the jokes are hiding a complicated mix of emotions, comedy has a way of making one person's dating experience instantly relatable, as confounding and individual as it might be. And it's been a successful formula for Tinder Tales, a storytelling event that's expanded across the country since launching in Toronto roughly five years ago. This February, the show hits 17 cities, from Victoria to St. John's. Adelade LaFontaine created the format, which she describes as "comedians sharing their real and ridiculous stories live."

"Between my friends and I, we all talked about it" — it being online dating — "but only amongst ourselves," she says. "There were times where it was frustrating. Like, 'I don't get it? Everything seemed so awesome and then this person just ghosted me!'"

"I think you can get seriously down about things if you're online dating, or you're trying all the apps and you're not having any luck," says LaFontaine. "You can feel bad about it, but if you come to one of these shows, you see more of a humorous perspective and you realize it happens to other people."

Since launching in Toronto, Tinder Tales events have spread to cities in six provinces. (Photo: The Rec Room Toronto/Courtesy of Adelade LaFontaine)

In 2015, couples were ashamed to say they met on Tinder, says LaFontaine. Now, "it's almost a shock when people say they met in any way other than through an app." (This 2019 study from Stanford University backs her up.) Still, the Tinder Tales storytellers are dealing with the same essential anxieties every year, she says — though they have some new vocabulary to describe recurring hazards: breadcrumbing, catfishing, cuffing.

"As funny as it is that we make up these terms and stuff, it can be hurtful," says LaFontaine. "But we have a space where we can share [stories] and feel like it happens to other people as well. And so we don't feel alone in this process of figuring out this new way of dating."

And isn't that what everyone's looking for online: some kind of connection?

Says Brown: "I want the viewer to take away their own stories and their own humour."

"It's just kind of nice to see other people laughing and saying 'I've had those kind of experiences. I like how you've put it into art.'"

Jaclyn Brown. Dream Man, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.