I'm walking down Lafayette Street. It's hot. It's Friday night. Miranda July's Somebody app, aimed at connecting strangers to each other through a messaging service similar to a singing valentine, is open on my phone. I scroll and look to connect.
I see one message that has no text, only the direction to act like a dinosaur, and another with [hug]and [sing] commands followed by "Isn't it nice to not live in Baton Rouge anymore?" I pass on them all. The message that stands out reads "I don't understand hows it works" inside an illustrated light grey cloud. No punctuation, a slight typo, and a brief expression that covers the bases: What is Somebody and how(s) does it work?
I click on the message, select "I'll Deliver This" and immediately panic. How will I find this person, what will I say to them, how will I act? What if they try to kill me or take my wallet? I have $7 on me and a bag of Haribo coke bottles to lose. What if I spend hours wandering and searching for this person and I never meet my match?
I cancel the offer, close the app, and decide now is not the right time. Tomorrow will be the day to find somebody.
"You know how you have your own weird way of doing things that feels natural to you?" Miranda July is on the phone and we're talking about her new first novel, The First Bad Man, about a lonely woman who ends up shacking up with a 21-year-old blonde girl, I've asked her how she's able to switch so seamlessly between creative mediums—from book to movie to app and back—each one seemingly lovingly and painstakingly constructed.
"I sort of admire people who can just write book after book after book and not get tired of sitting there. This way doesn't always seem like a savvy career move," she said. "I often feel like the outsider in every single area in which I work. Absolutely nobody takes me seriously in any industry." She laughed.
Much like her first foray into app software, July's other work has a learning curve. Dismissed by many as a confusing totem to whimsy and quirk, July's projects, regardless of medium, tend to raise brows or elicit eyerolls. I myself have been a member of this critical pack: In a review I'd written of The Future, July's 2012 feature film, I noted that "Her earnestness seems to breed only further earnestness, which has caused many to repel her work."
As July moves into technology, maybe apps will be her sweet spot, the ultimate modern form of performance art. The Somebody app, which July conceived earlier this year, was born after five months of developing. Its simple goal, July explained, was "really about how people in space, in public, could make projects together. You're not making art, but you're performing, or you're writing a script. You are kind of making art."
Doesn't this prospect, of putting two people in contact who have never met and who could attempt to steal each other's seven dollars, frighten July? The dreaminess of it is seemingly outweighed by impossibility.
"It is completely removed from me now," she told me. "In a performance of mine, everyone bought a ticket to that show, and they're already kind of pre-selected in a way. This is much more public and I guess that's a new challenge to me. It's less about the special little ghetto of like-minded people. It's nice to see that this isn't just an idea that is appealing to artists. It's more a basic human thing than that."
The Somebody app is in a number of ways a linear progression from July's last book, It Chooses You, whose premise was the influence for 2012's The Future. In all three, strangers interact in ways that are already readily available to us but through which we often shrink and demand to stay strictly strangers. July came to the idea of creating Somebody after remembering how fondly she'd loved her Penny Saver project (cataloged in It Chooses You), where she interviewed people who were selling their belongings through the classifieds. Like all of July's best work, the Somebody app deals with human connection in a manner that asks you to propose marriage to someone on the first date.
"I think I actually don't have some romantic or utopic vision of everyone connecting, or [of] perfect connection. Inherently, we always kind of connect in very kind of broken and clumsy ways," she said, which fits given the awkward interactions built in to the user experience of Somebody. In a tweet last week (one which July described as "bossy") the artist implored of her audience, "I'll be delivering messages in Silver Lake, LA, 12:45 today! Will lean toward heartfelt scripts that ask a lot of me." This is July's first project where the control is out of her hands but that doesn't stop her from trying to curate.
"I feel like people maybe take a cozier message away. It always kind of surprises me. It's nice, I don't mind it that much, but for the people who actually know me, there's a little gap between me—awkward, a little erratic—and that vision of connection," she said. On the phone earlier, July had described herself as "dubious" and "second-guessing," but as the artist became synonymous with her work, July as person and creator has come to represent an open-armed desire to bring us all together. And something about that pisses people off.
"Miranda July Called Before Congress To Explain Exactly What Her Whole Thing Is" is a headline that reads like truth, but is a product of The Onion's rarely off-mark humor. When searching for July's name on the New York Times, the headlines are nearly as funny as their parody: "Miranda July, The Make-Believer" precedes "Miranda July, The Craiglist Seller," which is a story published only one month prior to "Miranda July Is In Your House." Maybe it's her glassy big eyes that always tilt upward at a precise, pleading angle, or maybe it's her voice, which is metered at an intentional pace, like circle time story hour or Miss Honey's in the movie adaption of Matilda, but her detractors are eager to dismiss. As Katrina Onstad's stunning 2011 profile of July captures, July's haters think she ". . . has come to personify everything infuriating about the Etsy-shopping, Wes Anderson-quoting, McSweeney's-reading, coastal-living category of upscale urban bohemia that flourished in the aughts." The cliches never end.
Perhaps July manages to ruffle people because sincerity is having its uncool moment, and has for a good while. With shades of Zooey Deschanel and Wes Anderson, the artist is plagued by advocating for the power of the human spirit. She's a thoughtful champion for hot-gluing together our hopelessly fractured culture.
Take her performance art project "The Auction," a piece I saw performed two years ago at UCLA. Like the Somebody app, July's conceit is slightly convoluted, but stay with me: She brought an audience together, and asked for volunteers. One volunteer came on stage and July asked him for an item on his person, something he wouldn't be afraid to lose.
A Subway sandwich card was offered up. July interviewed the volunteer, asking mundane questions about the item (like you'd witness at an auction), then followed up with deeper questions about the person, his relationships, divorce, happiness. The item—a Subway sandwich card with potentially little actual redeemable money on it—now took on infinitely greater value, for it is connected to this human that the audience had begun to know and care for. The bidding began and the card went for a considerable amount of money to the highest bidder. This process repeated three times.
July then took all the money she'd collected (money, mind you, that she'd never once announced what she'll do with—for all we know, she could have been pocketing it and thanking us, have a good night)—and stuffed it in an orange envelope.
After the $188 is is tucked away, July spoke solemnly to the audience:
"We've all been in places where this money would be a windfall," July told us all, "So please close your eyes . . . and raise your hand if this describes you."
You get where this was going. July silently got up and gave the money to a person she selected out of the few whose hands raised. Even with my eyes closed and my hand down, I was rapt. I don't believe in anything, and it's controversial that the performance was a ticket-buying event of wealthy, art-loving patrons, but the power in her sentiment traveled through the theater, infusing weight into the air.
"It requires me to have more faith in people and in the group, you know?" July had said to me. "The spell that has to be cast; I'm doing that to myself, too. Because I'm a doubting, judgmental person."
The Auction, like a number of July's most heartfelt works, was unilaterally effective, perhaps because July plays the role of facilitator with such ease.
"I get that by 'really meaning it,' that can be repulsive almost. It can be cloying. That is something that, as a writer, that's one thing I look out for. I'm rarely thinking about it the way people who write that word are. I'm in this whole dense context of my whole inner world and all my demons. Precious? That's the least of my problems."
In a Q+A at the Apple Store in Soho, right before The Future's release in early 2011, Miranda July answered the question, "How do you feel about being described as precious?" In an ideal world, terms like "quirky," "cute," and "precious" would be removed from the description of any female artist's work and replaced with more thoughtful critiques with vocabulary that doesn't come off so careless and diminishing. Miranda July, with the "feminine" or "emotional" bent of her art, is treated like an artist for women or softies, when, on the contrary, she aims to appeal to everybody.
A few days after my first failed attempt, I readied myself for my second and third experiments with Somebody.
The New Museum is a hot spot for Somebody meetups. Users are better enabled to find strangers if they loiter around the front doors. Early Monday morning I pop open Somebody before leaving for work, and I'm greeted by a friendly color palate and a red-manicured fingernail signaling to either compose a message or pick up a floating one. I shoot off a few messages to the limited number of people in my contact book, all numbers that are imported from my actual phone book.
"Jenny? It's me, Dayna." (This is how all the messages begin as a matter of form.) I then add "Just wanted to say hi!" with a [kiss] command afterward.
"Cynthia? It's me, Dayna. Hope you're having a fun time on tour! [Hug]"
I briefly consider writing out an apology to a person whose heart I'd broken as the app graciously allows for empathetic and apologetic messages. Actions like [longingly], [crying], and [buy him a cup of coffee] all but demand attempts at sincere communication by proxy. July had even asked me to try writing some more in-depth messages, supposing that as a writer I'd make my communiqués longer and more detailed than the average person. But I decide for the time-being against it and send a [fist bump] to my buddy with no other text included.
Then I go into the floating messages section and select six different messages I'd be willing to deliver, all of varying length and format. The best one?
"[Itch your stomach really aggressively tight under your boobs or chest, look up and rolling your eyes say,] You look great."
Why not? Sounds theatrical.
Getting off the train near the New Museum I nervously check my phone to see if anything's come through. A confirmation, a notification, an air horn. The app pleasantly announces, "You don't have any current activity!" How can that be true? I've put myself out there for all of these possible exchanges, both as interloper and friend. But nothing is there—just two blinking eyes.
I get to work and begin checking my phone neurotically—maybe I'm missing something? Did I do this wrong? I read the instructions again. While I open and reopen the app, I mindlessly scroll through the floating messages section and it feels like I've opened a portal into other people's private correspondence, some brutally sincere, some clearly inside jokes, and others a meta statement on the app itself, much like "I don't understand hows it works."
Hours pass and nothing, so at the end of the day I return to the New Museum and loiter. I select a few more messages to deliver, but I'm starting to believe that either the app has issues or not enough people are signing up and checking it to make the delicate infrastructure work to completion. By following the experiment on Twitter, I'd gathered that a lot more people in the Los Angeles area were having success with the project, though the sample size still seemed small. A woman in a rainbow floral dress walks past me and I nearly stop her to forcibly inflict human communion.
In one last brutal attempt to force success, at home, I enlist my two roommates into a series of complicated connections with me, hoping that our proximity to one another will close the gap and give the app comfort enough to prevail. It doesn't work. I drink a glass of soda and turn off my phone.
The consequential dilemma with being a dreamer is that your dreams are rarely—if ever—guaranteed to flourish in reality. After having my faith dashed by the failure of the app, I thought about July's next project, the performance of "New Society." In it, July asks an audience if they'll stay there in the theater forever and form a new society with her. As an admirer of July, I was enchanted when she described it to me; as a pragmatist, I was flummoxed. Investigated in abstract, July's creative whims demand a lot, sometimes too much of people, more than they're ready to give.
When the artist's dreams aren't compatible with our collective modern psyche, is it worth dreaming them at all?
"You know how the movie is a little more seamless than the reality? Everyone's just totally surprised to get a message, you know? That's kind of how I pictured it. But I quickly realized that I don't think anyone wants some stranger coming up to them. You wanna know if someone's coming up to you that you don't know," July had explained to me on the phone.
"It was kind of fun to have the space of the movie to make that version. A perfectly safe world." I wonder while she pauses to ruminate if she's talking about the app still, or if there's something bigger on her mind.
[Image by Jim Cooke]