“Texting is tacky. Calling is awkward. Email is old.”
Artist and filmmaker Miranda July has decided to test the waters of our new, smartphone-infused phenomenology with her app Somebody. Designed with the support of Miu Miu as part of its Women’s Tales series, Somebody is a mobile messaging app created by July. Through Somebody, senders can relay messages to friends and loved ones through delivery people who serve as live stand-ins. Organized by the template “Hi, (Recipient’s Name). It’s (Sender’s Name)”, Somebody’s messages feature settings which allow senders to dictate the emotional tone of the message as well as include hugs and other gestures of affection.
The Somebody app was launched to the public at the Venice Film Festival last weekend with a short film by the same name. Framed as an advertisement for the app, Somebody stages various fictional scenes in which customers use the app to broker emotional occasions in their lives. While the film’s comedy draws from the manner in which digitally relayed messages fail to approximate face-to-face contact, Somebody explores the new types of relationships created between app-laborers and their temporary employers. In the opening scene of the film, a weeping girl sends a break up message to an unsuspecting boyfriend. The bad news is delivered through a Somebody proxy who relays the girl’s “It’s not you, it’s me” parting words. After the message is delivered, the courier consoles the boyfriend with an embrace, transforming the moment into an oddly tender interaction between two strangers brought together by the randomized infrastructure of a digital platform.
In a sense, the Somebody film is a theatrical schematic for the chance interactions that will be generated by users of the Somebody app. Designed by July as a work of public performance art, the app is a collective investigation into the new forms of intimacy created by mobile technology.
032c spoke with Miranda July in Venice to get her reflections on the launch of Somebody.
When we think mobile app creators, we normally think of venture capitalists and eager dorm-room entrepreneurs. As a filmmaker and an artist, what inspired you to use an app as your medium?
MIRANDA JULY: Without really meaning to, I use the Internet, email, and digital technology all through my work. It’s never “about” that, but I like mundane, available materials — and the digital world has become that. If you’re interested in participatory, social art it’s hard not to wonder what could be done with these smartphones that we all carry with us and have a bundle of mixed feelings about. Very few people just feel neutral about their phones, so it’s a ripe, accessible, powerful material.
In your companion film to Somebody, you’ve created quite a hilarious satire on the ways in which technology has come to broker our inter-personal relationships. But, at the same time, there are moments in the film when we see the app creating moments of tenderness between complete strangers. Is your project an out-right critique of app culture, or is it more complicated than that?
I certainly don’t know enough about app culture to have a critique of it. In fact, I only have one app on my phone: Uber. Every time we had to make a programming decision, I’d pull out my phone and say, “Well, Uber does it this way…” and all the developers would roll their eyes. There’s a very steep learning curve there. I made the movie as I would any other movie — loving the characters, and feeling curious and consumed by them. I felt it should be funny because I wanted it to function as an ad for the app, but I also wanted to be sexual in new ways, tender — all the things I would want of any work. If there is a critique in there, it is a critique of efficiency. I’m not convinced that the things I want most in life can be made efficient, and so I hope the app will give a little jiggle to the part of our brains that values a more laborious kind of magic.
In the last scene of the Somebody film, the app is at the center of an unconventional sex triangle between a man, a woman, and a potted plant. Do you feel as though the mediated atmosphere created by mobile devices frees us to do things that we normally wouldn’t do in person? Have apps made us more in touch with our libidos?
I imagine that people have more arenas for their different “selves” now, not all of them embodied. Sex has always been about becoming someone else – a naked, sticky person who does and says things she would never do with her blouse on. So perhaps yes, perhaps we now have more permutations of “the other me.”
Now that the app is out in the world, what kind of feedback have you been getting from people who have used it?
It’s so new! So far, we are just amazed anyone is using it. Someone in Chelsea went to send a message to a friend and found that there were twenty delivery people nearby to choose from. This was on the same day it was launched. So far that kind of simple thing is totally wild to us.
What’s a message that you’d like to send to someone today?
I’m in Venice and my husband is in California. I’d like a message from him. It’s a little tricky with the time zones, also he’s in the mountains with no cell phone service.