Arts·Stuck at Home

This is what happens when you sign up for phone calls from quarantined strangers

Stuck at Home with CBC Arts...and Quarantine Chat. We tried the app/art project made for a global pandemic.

Stuck at Home with CBC Arts...and Quarantine Chat. We tried the app that's made for a global pandemic

Danielle Baskin, one of Quarantine Chat's creators. (Quarantine Chat)

Leah Collins and Lise Hosein are Stuck at Home. Different homes. And while they're holed up in their respective Toronto apartments, they'll be trying some of the most inventive arts and culture they've discovered online. The world doesn't look the same right now. Neither does art. Join them and see how COVID-19 is changing how we consume all kinds of culture. 

Just how lonely are you right now? Would you pick up a call from a total stranger — someone calling from Maine or Milan or Kuala Lumpur? 

In late February, artists Danielle Baskin and Max Hawkins launched Quarantine Chat. It's an app/art project, one that functions a bit like what your mom called a "party line," and if you sign up, expect to get phone calls — old-timey phone calls — at multiple times throughout the day. If you pick up, you're matched with another caller. Surviving a global pandemic might be the only thing you have in common, but in little more than a month, the Quarantine Chat community has grown to more than 5,000 users — humans who've volunteered for a conversational adventure. 

It's a global audience, says Baskin, and she tells CBC Arts that it's especially popular in Italy, Australia, England, India and the States. When it began, however, she didn't imagine she'd be in isolation herself, doing Quarantine Chats from her home in San Francisco.

When I pick up the phone I feel totally transported to wherever someone else is.- Danielle Baskin, artist

"When we launched it, we thought it was more of a novelty thing," she says. "Like, 'Oh, maybe it'll cheer people up.'"

"We had no idea, at the time, that the whole world would end up in lockdown."

To try Quarantine Chat, users must first download Dialup. It's a free app — a voice-chat service that Baskin and Hawkins first created last year. (They've put it to use in past art projects, including one where users are linked at the wee-est hours to share the details of their dreams.)  

"We keep making improvements and changes to it," says Baskin, "but our goal is to create an experience for people over the phone, and I think an artwork sort of transforms someone's perspective on something, or makes them feel different."

"When I pick up the phone I feel totally transported to wherever someone else is," she says. "I feel like I have all these memories and stories and that I have travelled, in a way, even though I've just been home."

Late last week, CBC Arts staffers Leah Collins and Lise Hosein downloaded the app, and surrendered to making friends with various disembodied voices. Here's how it went for them.

(Quarantine Chat)

Leah Collins: Let's chat Quarantine Chat! I'm going to start by basically asking you an interview question. You OK with that?

Lise Hosein: Yes'm.

LC: Excellent. So, if we weren't writing about this, Lise, would you have tried Quarantine Chat?

LH: Yes. It's my vibe even during freedom.

LC: Really? What do you mean?

LH: Um, I enjoy such things as '90s-esque party phone lines and relational art practices. I also like strangers?

LC: Strangers are OK, but I'm also a borderline introvert. Getting random telephone calls from random people isn't something that's been missing from my life, and isolation is feeling pretty cozy right now. This pricked at my comfort bubble a little. But I'm still glad I tried it. 

LH: Were you apprehensive?

LC: Every time the phone rang! And there's something about the aesthetics of the app that kind of heightened that feeling, I thought. The synth hold music has a sort of sci-fi flavour that really amped up the anticipation and anxiety. What's going to happen when I pick up?!

LH: I mean, I really enjoyed the wait. I could have spent more time with the soundtrack.

LC: Ha! Props to Benjamin Mastripolito and Kevin MacLeod, the app's evil-genius composers. What happened on your first call?

LH: When I picked up there was voice that I remember as robotic, but was probably real. It gave me a question to "guide" the conversation, which I think was a really important structural move to prevent everything from becoming amorphous.

LC: Yes. I appreciated the prompts, especially the really general ones. I got stuff like: "What do you see outside your window?" "What's a fear you no longer have?" In my experience, though, nobody wanted to start with those questions. Coronavirus was the biggest thing on everyone's mind. What was the prompt on your first call? Did you discuss it?

LH: The question was, "How do you feel differently about your relationships during isolation," or something similarly worded.

LC: That could be a sensitive question. What was it like discussing it?

LH: Strangely enough, I don't think we discussed it particularly as it sort of turned out to be the atmosphere of the call itself. I was connected with a retired ham radio operator in Michigan, who was decidedly lonely and perhaps looking for somebody to date. I thought it was nice that he was trying this out as a dating line, and he was cool about me politely asserting that this wouldn't be that call. The chat was pervaded with a tone of isolation, like I was talking to somebody living in a house where they only see trees outside their windows.

(Quarantine Chat)

LC: You know, I always found myself getting lost in the atmosphere of each call, which might sound strange. I mean, it's the telephone. You can't see who's on the other end. You don't know what they look like; you don't really know where they are. All you have is sound and a few small conversational details, but that's enough to build a world — to take you someplace different.

When I reflect on the mish-mash of conversations I've had over the last few days, a lot of sensory impressions stick with me. The sound of a rooster crowing outside one person's home in Ghana. A caller's mom shouting "Happy Easter!" to me while he was mid-sentence. Or the quirks of the voices themselves! The enthusiasm and warmth when people first pick up is wonderful. And the accents — like this one guy in New England who could be Owen Wilson's voice twin. Maybe it was Owen Wilson. Wow.

Actually, "Owen" said something that really stuck with me. He said he signed up because there's "not much random in life right now." I thought that was perfect. 

Stuck at home, there's plenty to keep me busy, and I can still call friends and family. But the world is as small as my studio apartment, and I've built a steady routine. Even my Houseparty chats are scheduled, so a call out of nowhere is the closest thing to a chance encounter right now. And the most random details of those quarantine chats wound up sticking with me. I found myself wanting to share them with people — like, "Hey! You'll never guess what happened to me today. A guy in Toledo called me while he was gardening and he wants to move to China!"

LH: I agree about it being a sort of sensory-deprivation tank. It's like everything is heightened. I noticed all the background noises, too: accents, small cultural differences. Like Jackson, Michigan mannerisms.

LC: What's an example of a Jackson, Michigan mannerism? I have to know!

LH: Um...I mean, obviously a projection of whatever I think (and don't know) of Jackson, Michigan, but like a downhome-ness with a trace of potential serial killer?

Just kidding. He was quite nice. Michigan is nice. Michigan is great.

But what is a ham radio, anyway? Do those still exist? He was a fictional character. I'm convinced he was a plant.

LC: It's entirely possible! I think I went into this with a whole lot more trust than I might in a normal situation, though. Most of the people I spoke with seemed to be very open about their feelings and their lives — disarmingly so. A conversation that'd start with stats on the number of local COVID-19 cases (and two guys seriously opened their calls by Googling the latest info) would inevitably turn into something more like dorm-room philosophy. Like, what are their thoughts on how the world's going to change because of the pandemic? How are they going to change? One guy told me that after this is over, he wants to make more friends. After three weeks in isolation, he said he'd learned that "people are a gift."

Small talk isn't boring when you're living through a global pandemic. (Quarantine Chat)

LC: Is there something different about talking to a stranger on the phone versus real life, do you think? Or text? Or Zoom? Maybe we all just bought into the good-natured, Kumbaya ideal of universal connection that's driving this project? Is that why people are so open?

LH: Hrm. It's interesting that you went into it with trust being one of your dominant feelings. I'd say I was just going into it like an explorer. I wasn't sure what I was going to find and I was excited about whatever I did.

In the most notable conversations I had, COVID was a backdrop, even a focus sometimes, but mostly just the context for a very human conversation.

Question: do you think the dorm-room philosophy element had to do with the age of the people you were on the call with?

LC: Ha! It's possible. I didn't ask people for their ages, but the ones who shared that info with me were all in their 20s. But it's probably not fair of me to label those conversations "dorm-room philosophy." Snark is my standard operating mode, that's all.

I have to admit that it's kind of amazing to have a conversation with a stranger that goes beyond small talk, and that multiple people wanted a sounding board for their big hopes and fears. That said, I got plenty of small talk, too  

LH: Like, what they were eating, what the weather's like? I mean, those things persist, even at the end of the world.

LC: I can tell you what the weather was like in Ohio, Florida, London, Ghana, Vermont and Saudi Arabia over the last few days. And one small corner of Los Angeles smelled like fresh-baked banana bread on Sunday. Yeast is apparently scarce there, too. And most of those people would recommend Tiger King on Netflix. Money Heist comes a close second.

LH: I thought we all knew how to make yeast-less bread now. And seriously, Tiger King was boring and bad. Why are people so into it?

LC: Save that question for your next Quarantine Chat. I'm sure you'll get an answer.

LH: You know what? I'm definitely asking that FIRST in my next chat. The stories I was hearing were less about Tiger King. My Jackson, Michigan friend told me about the birds he'd seen recently. A filmmaker from Baltimore gave me a primer on the bifurcated nature of the city and told me the story of how she'd just helped to apprehend four men who had recently carjacked someone and were driving around with a flat tire. These were just stories from the day, set against a landscape that's pretty emptied, so things like birds or carjackings get more sharply outlined.

(Quarantine Chat)

LH: I was and wasn't surprised by the number of people using this. And I was encouraged. I think the phone is the most amazing device and it's too infrequently used in this way. I ended up becoming pen pals with one of my fellow chatters. People were actually in there to talk, to make connections, to find out how people in other parts of the world are dealing, to talk about their fears or the dream they had last night. It was a genuine connection for a few minutes — or a tool for connection, anyway. I'm going to keep doing it.

LC: The community is still relatively small, but it's growing. When I interviewed Danielle Baskin, one of the creators, she said that a lot of people email her about their experiences, and they tell her they're making new friendships through Quarantine Chat. She's working on adding some features so that users can stay in touch through the app, if they want.

I don't think I'd try any of those options, though. The ephemeral nature of the experience was part of what made it unique, even though it's bittersweet at times — the dropped calls, especially. I wound up dealing with a bunch of technical glitches while I was using it. More than a few times, calls would cut out unexpectedly. And I've got to say that would mess with my feelings a tiny bit — which surprised me. It was easy to get invested in someone, and their story, even after a few minutes.

One guy in Florida was in the middle of telling me why he'd enlisted in the Marines. Just a few minutes before, he said that the app had been cutting out on him a lot. He said it was an "emotional letdown" whenever it happened. I hope he's OK.

Did any of the calls — or just the app in general — change your perspective on something?

LH: I can't say they changed my perspective, but they threw a few things into higher relief. We're not alone, at all. Loneliness is real and undeniable, but mostly simultaneous and shared right now. And you can find connections all the time if you're looking for them. However, there is a hierarchy of privilege in the ability to cope with this: who has the time, the means, to make the connection you need.

Also: the more able you are to articulate your experience during these very strange days, the more likely you are to find community — even if your community is two people on a phone.

(Quarantine Chat)

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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