Miranda July began her career in the experimental video art scene of the ’90’s and has since catapulted into the mainstream with feature films such as You Me and Everyone We Know and The Future. Her idiosyncratic vision has also inspired books (No One Belongs Here More Than You), music (Margie Ruskie Stops Time), and performance art (she’s performed at the Whitney, the Walker Art Center, and many other venues).
For her latest project, July ventures into the crowded world of phone apps. With help from programmer Andrew Badr, she created Somebody, a messaging app that requires interaction with strangers. Here’s how it works: When you send a message to a friend, a total stranger delivers it in person. The sender can specify the emotional tenor with which the message should be delivered—options include tearfully or screamed. It’s all about pushing people out of their comfort zones.
The concept is consistent with themes July has explored throughout her career. Whether it was the chain letters in her 1995 piece “Joanie4Jackie,” where she interacted with her audience via snail mail, or the private emails of her 2013 piece “We Think Alone,” July has always been concerned about how people communicate—or fail to.
“I don’t actually think Somebody is a good replacement for texting, email, or phone calls,” July says, “but it’s worth thinking about what exactly are the feelings our phones bring us. I mean, I know I can’t be apart from mine, but does it actually bring me joy? What brings me joy is surprising, fleeting interactions with strangers—like helping a woman who has dropped her pears—that takes me outside myself and gives me a brief high: Humanity!”
Since the app is intricate in that it requires a third person near the recipient to actually deliver messages, it’s not as casual (or efficient) as standard text messages, voice mails, or emails. Official hotspots had to be designated at locations such as LACMA and the New Museum. And the video promo above had to secure initial funding at the Venice Film Festival. (Fashion lable Miu Miu ultimately helped make the app a reality).
July’s intention is clearly not to create a lucrative app, but to urge people to interact more tangibly with the world around them. On the first day of its launch, Somebody saw 100,000 downloads, an encouraging reception for something that’s essentially an art project. Then again, this is Miranda July’s world—we’re just using her app to navigate it.