Rebeca Soto and David Alvarado share their love story on COVIDtv CONNEX. Credit: s. nicole lane/Instagram

I love love. As a serial monogamist and someone who regularly writes about sex, I can’t help but gravitate towards the topic in all areas of my life. It’s relatable, it’s common, it’s exceptional, it’s simple, it’s so fucking hard. With more than 90,000 singles living in Chicago, it’s tough dating in the Windy City. Earlier this year the Reader relaunched our Reader Matches in hopes of regaining a classic—and sometimes successful—approach to dating. Using words and text, folks can express their emotions the old-fashioned way. So when I saw Julia Arredondo’s project, COVIDtv CONNEX, I was immediately smitten.

The Humboldt Park-based artist has been working with live infomercials since the end of 2019, introducing viewers to underrepresented artists with her Columbia College thesis project QTVC Live! on Instagram Live. Existing in the way that late-night TV shopping channels do, QTVC is a way for DIY Chicago to sell and advertise their work on video. Once the pandemic hit, Arredondo started COVIDtv, which is even more virtual. The artists introduce their work on their own Instagram and Arredondo coordinates the event. COVIDtv CONNEX is a special event highlighting dating profiles where folks apply, pay for ad space on a sliding scale of $2 to $10, go live with a 15-minute video, and wait for the love letters in their DMs. All proceeds will go to the Honeycomb Network, an LGBTQ coworking space founded by a Boricua queer woman in Humboldt Park.

Arredondo says she’s not on any dating apps. “That’s not how I meet people. I meet people at the train stop. I meet people really organically.” So staying stuck in her home has made dating in isolation a little difficult—something we’re now all too familiar with. “I’ve been using social media professionally for at least five years now. Five to ten years depending on which interface we are talking about,” says Arredondo. “Social media is a part of my communicative process and how I disseminate my work.”

Arredondo has always wanted to be a matchmaker. “Love has always been one of my favorite subjects to write about and to read about. I am recently totally single since living in Chicago. I’ve been thinking about what I want in a relationship. I want that partnership!” In a 15-minute window, folks discuss their needs, wants, personality traits, dislikes, zodiac signs, and sense of humor. What we can’t see on a dating app through texting, we hear in the person’s voice, in their actions, and we understand who they are. Where texting leaves dead air, these video dating profiles brazenly present the person.

I tuned in to COVIDtv CONNEX on Sunday—Arredondo made a flyer with a schedule from noon until 6 PM. The broadcast wasn’t just back-to-back dating profiles but also included blissful lovers sharing their story and being interviewed by Arredondo. A live painting session with Jaqui Arte (@artejaqui) kicked off the day where viewers could watch the artist paint corazoncito paintings, which are religious motifs found in Mexican folk art, as well as discuss healing practices and working through trauma. The first dating profile included a participant sitting outside in a butterfly garden. They explained their wants and their expectations in a partnership. “I’m not looking for something casual,” they explained through a forthright live video. Couple Manny and Risa (@bigcitybug and @manny_suena) had viewers swooning over their 19-year relationship, which they discussed in an unscripted way. “We orbit each other,” said Manny. “But we don’t crowd each other,” said Risa. Just being with one another and enjoying each other has made their love last. Another dating profile featured a teacher in Little Village who is a proud “super lesbian.” For 15 minutes, each participant decided what and how much to share, with little dead air. Some folks had a more scripted bio, whereas others went on tangents—one participant showed us the lamb meatballs they had just cooked. Overall, the folks were incredibly transparent and vulnerable. It’s brave to go live on Instagram. It’s even braver to discuss your fears and desires.

Arredondo recalls the matchmaking service that came to her high school, where students could pay $5 to be matched up with another single. “I think it’s fascinating!” she says. However, finding participants has been challenging for COVIDtv. “Maybe it’s the willingness to be vulnerable in that way. Because I’m ready for that challenge in a big way.” She goes on to say, “I don’t know if people are comfortable talking about love as publicly as they were at some point. We can talk about sex but not love.” On dating apps, folks can remain somewhat private. They choose to display images of themselves that are the most attractive, most adventurous, and most alluring, whereas a live video is a form of reality of who the person is. Straightforward. No frills. And with the digital age, we consume photos with a quick thumbs up or a thumbs down. We judge dating app users, or Instagram profiles, by a curated selection of images. Talking on camera for 15 minutes is a refined Tinder bio. After dating participants go live on their Instagram COVIDtv CONNEX, they can keep their video up for 24 hours and folks can direct message if they are interested in connecting.

Alas, I’m aware that love can’t always be patient and kind. Arredondo knew that vulnerable online experiences may invite trolls to doxx in the comment sections. Before airing, Arredondo e-mails a safety note to all participants that includes certain measures that could create a safe Internet environment. She suggests that each participant have their own moderator (including Arredondo), pre-block any ex-lovers or bosses, readjust sharing activity, and refrain from discussing private information. Nevertheless, participants Gabe and Laura experienced racist and transphobic harassment during their broadcast in the comment section. Arredondo writes on Instagram, “Not only was it distracting, but there was something particularly scary about it. It felt bad. To be visible in the world without much worry is a privilege. To be visible on the Internet without much worry is a luxury. I know trans folks are targeted regularly in this country, but it didn’t register to me that even the Internet is not safe. How do we prevent this behavior from perpetuating? How do we protect?”

In an e-mail sent to me later that night, she asked, “Is the public conversation about love only reserved for gender normative folks?” These participants are being vulnerable on the same platform where bigots choose to invade, pillage, and do harm. How do we define safe space and how can we protect folks for future incidents? All types of dating models produce unique repercussions for visible marginalized people. In “Enabling Online Safe Spaces: A Case Study of Love Matters Kenya,” Maaike van Heijningen and Lindsay van Clief write that controlling safe spaces online is difficult and has its advantages and disadvantages. “While we acknowledge that online spaces are inherently complex and paradoxical, we must also remember that they are emerging spaces (Rosenfeld and Noterman 2014). Safe spaces, both inclusive and separative, are necessary when people feel they have no voice in society or a safe place where they can share their experiences. They are an important and useful means of minimizing the risk that voices are not heard.”

This is the first round of dating profiles through COVIDtv CONNEX, and new participants can sign up for next weekend’s slot airing on 6/28—apply here to submit your 15-minute video before that date (slots are limited). No matter your relationship situation, there is complete joy that comes from watching the dating profiles and couple’s advice segments. Hearing about what people want from love and hearing from people who are living with love is charming and inspiring. I felt a special sort of love for my partner on Sunday, hoping that we can grow like Edra Soto and Dan Sullivan and taking immense advice from Rebecca Soto and David Alvarado. It’s unique to see partnerships so unabashedly displayed and to love your loved one out loud.

Arredondo wants her platforms to grow in the future. She hopes to eventually work with folks who can help with editing, scheduling, organizing, and design. She explains that the idea of building a team is also tied into her search for a partner. “I want my lover to be a part of my team. Let’s fucking build together. That’s why being public on social media, for me, isn’t a problem. That’s my goal is to build that team.”   v