The Message is the MediumNovember 19, 2014
Locating Technology considers technology and artworks in rather broad terms, such as: mechanical objects, analog and digital photography and video, and computer and web-based work. Through these types of works, writers explore the evolution of technology and its effects on artists’ processes, disciplinarity, and the larger social context of media creation, dispersal, access and interactivity.
Somebody interjects playful performative aspects into digital communication.
In Alone Together (2011), psychologist Sherry Turkle argues that our increasing use of screen-based platforms (email, text messaging, social-networking sites) buffers us from the potential spontaneity and awkwardness of embodied moments, which are crucial to the development of children and adolescents. Millennials have grown up completely immersed in digital culture, and some have entered adulthood preferring the safety and distance of screen-based relationships to physical ones, even when it comes to sexual or romantic exchanges. Paradoxically, as technology has inextricably connected us to one another, many of us settle for superficial screen-based relationships. In many of Miranda July’s eclectic films, writings, and artworks1 she explores the uncomfortableness of face-to-face encounters, public collaboration, privacy, and public persona. In Somebody (2014), July’s most recent project, she creates an indirect flow of communication where third parties can deliver messages in person. With its insistence on physical presence and intonation, Somebody interjects playful performative aspects into digital communication. While ambitious, July’s project cannot alleviate the problems with electronic communication and social networking; Somebody struggles with many conceptual, logistic, and technical problems. However, by merging technology with the possibility for spontaneity, play, and unease, July provocatively disrupts conventional standards for communication and efficiency to reimagine how technology could facilitate social interaction.
In allowing users to conveniently communicate with those not immediately around them, email and texting2 eliminate or ignore users’ physicality. In contrast, Somebody interjects the body by requiring that two of the participants (deliverer and receiver) be physically present and available. Using the GPS on smartphones, the app locates the message recipient and deliverer based on their proximities to the sender. The app indicates participants’ distances down to a tenth of a mile and displays their photos. The project develops radiating circles of engagement, with the author and recipient at the core, and integrates a third party who delivers the message. If message writers can’t find an available deliverer or choose not to have it delivered, they can allow it to linger on the app by “floating” it. Any user in the area can volunteer to deliver “floated” messages. When a message is “floated,” its network expands beyond three people to include the community of Somebody users for an indefinite amount of time.3
Just as some of us use emoticons and extraneous punctuation to impart tone in our emails and texts, Somebody includes a menu of inflections or accompanying gestures—including nervously, crying, hugging, kissing, etc. In addition to selecting from the prescribed options, users can customize their delivery approach. By designating the gesture and tone, the sender takes on an almost directorial control of the delivery, transforming it from the strict transmission of information into a potentially theatrical moment. Depending upon the message’s content and delivery style, its emotional weight could be mitigated or enhanced. July expands communication beyond written text to suggest the importance of our bodies in displaying and receiving information.
To further enhance Somebody’s performativity, the app prompts the deliverer to begin the message with “[Recipient’s name]? It’s me [the sender].” The deliverer, who may be a stranger, becomes a stand-in for the sender. As Turkle has written extensively on the power and diversion of role-playing, some may find ease in performing while others may self-consciously assume the role. In contrast to online role-playing, like Second Life, Somebody raises the stakes by having the performative aspect occur in person. Additionally, with scenarios that are probably closer to everyday life, Somebody eliminates the safety net of the purely fantastical context of many online games. While all parties agree to participate, they navigate the vulnerability of live social situations.
Somebody operates like the children’s game of telephone, in which people are linked together in a chain of messaging where each exchange carries the potential for error. While reading and writing always struggle with or exploit the slippage of language, July’s messenger adds another level of interpretation, possibly moving further away from the original intention. The deliverer may be entering larger narratives without knowing the context of the event preceding the message, or what will occur afterward. Additionally, the receiver is dependent upon the deliverer’s performance to interpret the sender’s intention. While communication conventionally attempts to create clarity between parties, in Somebody, the accuracy with which information is disseminated is placed in the hands of the individuals involved and their errors and interpretations.
To accompany the launch of Somebody, July also produced a short film of four vignettes of people using her app. In her film, July wields creative control over the depiction of her app, which may serve as an idealized version of its use. The film begins with Jessica, a Caucasian young woman crying in her messy bedroom. Jessica messages her boyfriend Caleb, a young Caucasian man, as he enjoys a pleasant picnic in the park. For a message deliverer, Jessica selects Paul, an older, husky African American man exercising in the same park as Caleb. Jessica has selected the message to be delivered in crying mode, and so Paul affectedly cries and tells Caleb that: “It’s me Jessica. I so totally love you. I just, I can’t. I just can’t be your girlfriend anymore. I can’t. It’s not anything you did, you’re perfect.” Paul breaks from his portrayal of Jessica and awkwardly pats Caleb on the back, telling him he’ll be okay. July continues this unease and discord in the remaining three scenes: Blanca and Yolanda, two Latina young women, fight and make amends via an elderly Caucasian woman; a marriage proposal is delivered by a waitress; and a workplace love scene is interrupted by a plant that comes to life and plays out sexual innuendoes. In these fictionalized rendering of her app, July weaves each narrative across demographics and species where the language, characters, and scenes clash with conventional expectations.
To encourage participation, July has partnered with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The New Museum; Yerba Buena Center for The Arts; Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Walker Art Center; and Museo Jumex (Mexico City). In coordination with talks and exhibitions, the museums are designated as “hotspots” where users are invited to congregate and use the app. I attended July’s talk at the New Museum, Somebody: An Evening with Miranda July, where attendees were not encouraged to use Somebody because of the poor cellular reception in the basement. I also attended the opening for Alien She at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where the socializing, art, and music distracted many from using the app.
With technological bugs4 impeding some of the success, July’s project also faces social or user issues. During July’s talk at the New Museum, she expressed that she wants the technology to work better. An audience member who lives in Europe explained that people use the app at bars to send messages, but no one delivers them. July acknowledged that not having the messages delivered is a problem with the project. She also expressed her hope that people would write better things, rather than just sending “Booyah” out into the world. The responsibility for the app’s struggle to engage people lies partly with its design, but also suggests that users must write compelling messages that others would want to deliver or act out.
While July’s project may encounter many problems, such as people not fully participating and technological issues, she does put forth an interesting proposition and creates an opportunity for play. In order to push the boundaries of engagement and demand that technology serve us, not the opposite, we need to experiment and pose questions. July challenges technology’s streamlined system with obstacles and opportunities for error and interpretation. Additionally, by creating potentially awkward, silly, and open-ended situations, July interjects a humanness and embodiment into technology. While art and technology have different criteria for success, the lack of participation is problematic in both terms. As July has challenged the virtual efficiency of digital messaging, she may have created too many obstacles for participation in the artwork. With all of its problems, Somebody works most successfully as a conceptual proposition that imaginatively prompts us to consider what we want from technology.