Cortney Cassidy of 'Homes'

by Meg Miller and Laurel Schwulst

Laurel Schwulst: What’s your kitchen in San Francisco like?

Cortney Cassidy: It’s a pretty interesting kitchen actually. It’s funny you would start there.

LS: Yes, here we all are, in our kitchen in New York. I had to ask, as a grounding principle…

CC: Ours is really big. We live in a really tiny apartment but our kitchen is massive. It has a black and white checkered floor, and all the countertops—there’s like four different countertops—are red and sparkly. We have a skylight, it’s my favorite part. And there are so many cabinets. There’s a stove and a fridge.

Erik Carter: It reminds me of the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks.

CC: We call it the Black Lodge. And I named our internet the Black Lodge, after our kitchen…

Meg Miller: Do you spend most of your time in the kitchen?

CC: I think I spend the most time on the couch or on the bed. I’m not much of a cook.

LS: You started your Homes channel earlier this year, about six months ago. Was there something in particular around that time that prompted you to begin?

CC: It was not planned at all. If it was six months ago, it was winter, so I was definitely at home. Maybe I was in bed. I was seeing a lot of people put their homes on their Instagram Stories.

MM: Were you saving them for a specific reason?

CC: At first it was for personal inspiration. But then it evolved and wasn’t that anymore. It’s become this kind of voyeuristic act. When people post on Instagram Stories, it’s temporary, and the poster knows it’s temporary. I’m archiving and making them permanent in some violating way [laughs].

I also find the images quite peaceful. When people take photos of their living space, I think they’re probably feeling very comfortable in that moment and simply want to share their comfort. I like to feel comfortable. I also like to feel the nice weather from indoors, which is probably why I like to see pictures of the outdoors taken from inside a room. Like a nice view of trees and sunlight through a window, maybe framed with curtains.

LS: What kind of people do you follow?

CC: They’re mostly my friends, and a few of them are interior design enthusiasts. For instance, my friend Kim has a really good Instagram account: she often documents interiors from old books, from the ’70s and ’80s. I don’t take screenshots of her books, but I do take screenshots of her apartment. She moved into it a couple of months ago. I’m archiving her progress.

MM: Does she know?

CC: No she doesn’t know. She would like it, I think [laughs]. In some ways, once I collect a screenshot from Instagram of someone’s home, I feel like that home belongs to me now, too. I get to look at the screenshot any time I want and put myself into the moment the photo was taken. Almost like house swapping, only the other person doesn’t know.

LS: I noticed that within your collection there are different types of screenshots. When I was preparing for this interview, I decided there were three types: first, someone directly showing some furniture piece or their apartment in general. Second, the advertisement of an available sublet.

CC: Yeah, sometimes I feel like I’m giving those ads a little signal boost and helping them out.

LS: The third type of image is my favorite. It’s like, “Oh this is just a picture of my dog, but meanwhile I have a beautiful apartment in the back.” Technically it’s less direct than the others, but I’m sure the poster certainly knows it’s not only about the dog.

CC: Right. They made the subjective decision to make that exact crop.

LS: I like what you said earlier about people simply want to share their comfort. Even though it can be seen as selfish or bragging, it’s also quite generous to share comfort. You said collecting the screenshots likewise makes you feel at peace.

CC: Yes, it’s a nice feeling. Organizing makes me feel calm. I’m searching for a certain kind of content, digging through the noise to find what I want to see.

MM: Are you really organized?

CC: It helps my anxiety. If you have a very organized life, you have less to worry about.

When you typically view Instagram Stories, they’re one at a time, taking up the whole screen. When I saw all my Instagram Stories screenshots in a row I thought, “That looks so cool.” There’s something so peaceful and organized in how it looks as a collection.

MM: Have you noticed any patterns from the collection? Any interior patterns, where it’s like everybody puts their kitchen table beside their kitchen island or something? I mean, nobody does that.

CC: The main trend I see are the plants. They make the spaces really nice.

EC: It’s a status symbol. Because the people we follow are around our age—in their late 20s, early 30s—getting their lives together. So it’s a way of showing off that they’re getting themselves organized.

CC: I think about that often. We’re at the nesting time in our lives. We’re making our spaces very comfortable.

EC: It makes sense people want to share their nests. People’s living spaces are extensions of their personalities. And the more intimate that space is, maybe the closer it is to their personality. Sharing your space is a way of projecting yourself to the world.

CC: Yes, seeing a vignette of a home without the person present in the image is like getting to see another angle of them, almost like it’s their echo or ghost.

One of my concerns is that I need to expand my bubble. Interior designers are usually not as interesting because it’s not as organic or real, it’s just the homes they work on. And that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for people in their real homes.

The project has evolved. At first, I wasn’t very strict. But by now, I’m carefully paying attention when I see a home in Instagram Stories. I have a list of qualifications. If there are a bunch of people in it, I don’t capture it. That’s a lifestyle moment and not a living moment, if that makes sense.

I used to work for Dwell magazine, which featured all these “natural” but still very staged, modern, and expensive looking places. Perhaps it’s always in the back of my mind as something I don’t want.

LS: It’s interesting to think about nesting over time, as I’m sure people have been nesting at this age for generations. It makes me wonder how people shared their nests in each generation in collaboration with the technology or distribution methods available at the time. I wonder if advances in technology are parallel to advances in sharing intimacy.

MM: Yeah, Instagram Stories is really intimate, for a moment, but it goes away. At least in theory.

If Dwell were to go into a home, it would be frozen in time and accessible later. It might seem intimate because of its subject matter, but it’s actually not intimate at all.

CC: When people post to Instagram Stories—not just homes, but anything—I think most people don’t consider all possible environments and contexts in which their posts will be viewed. It could be on so many different screens in so many different places, public and private, so many different eyes. People are looking on the train. The people above you who are standing can see it, too.

EC: Or if they’re archiving it, in an Are.na channel.

CC: These people are putting it out there. I’m just taking what they’ve given me. I’m not taking anything private. This is the dilemma I have when I take these screenshots. I feel a little sorry.

MM: Your project highlights where we’re at with social media today. It’s strange we haven’t gotten over this cognitive gap. When you put it out there, it’s out there. It’s always shocking when your post comes back to you from a third party.

CC: Like, “Whoa, somebody saw this?”

MM: Yes, even though you know that it’s public, you can’t get past that mental hurdle. I don’t know if that’s something that will change the more and more we live with these platforms. Or if humans can’t foresee dissemination when it’s just you and your tiny device.

LS: Even though today we’re trying to make communicating through computers more human by making it ephemeral, it doesn’t change the underlying fact that copying and dispersion are always possible through this technology.

EC: I always feel a weird disconnect between something I’m making and seeing it out in the wild. It feels so personal when you’re making it by yourself, and then all of a sudden someone is doing something else with it.

LS: How long do you think you’ll continue presenting Homes?

CC: I don’t know. I don’t have any plans to stop. Until someone gets upset that I took a screenshot of their Instagram Stories, I guess. I’ll probably do it for as long as I use Instagram, which I’m not sure how long that will be.

LS: I took a big break from social media recently. And what brought me back was this quote from an Adrienne Rich poem written in 1973 called “Diving into the Wreck.” She says you can’t understand the wreck—which means you can’t understand society—without becoming one with it. Even though, earlier when we were talking, you said you hate it when you wake up and immediately start scrolling, you’re obviously a researcher trying to understand. And you have to be there, within it, to do this research. You can’t be outside.

CC: It’s so true you say that. And it actually makes me feel better. Most of my practice and writing and most of the things I create come from this place of being online since that’s where I experience it. Sometimes I wonder if I left, would I fall apart? Would I have nothing to inspire me anymore?

MM: Since people you know follow you on Are.na in addition to Instagram, do you think about what they think when they see their social media from one platform being transferred to another?

CC: Yes, I do think about that sometimes. A friend will start following my channel on Are.na, and maybe a week later they post a photo of their home on Instagram Stories. And I wonder if it’s coincidental or if they want to be on my Are.na channel. While I think about it, no one has ever said anything. This is the first time anyone has ever talked about it [laughs].

I have a friend who was scrolling through Are.na while his mom was visiting. He had just come across a batch of Homes I uploaded. His mom leaned over and exclaimed, “Oh, that’s nice.” So that was great feedback. Moms will love it.