A frame from Miranda July's Somebody movie

Miranda’s July Relational and Participatory Art

9 minutes to read
Article
Szymon Zbiegniewski
24/10/2022

We live in a society of constant data transfer. Every day people send thousands of messages to their families, friends, and strangers. Messages we send are becoming meaningless. As Naaman Wood and Susan Ward wrote in 2010, the pervasiveness of digitally mediated environments has fundamentally changed human interaction (Wood, Ward, 2010). The development of digital technology influenced the way we communicate with each other. Messages sent through mobile applications are mostly less emotional and meaningful. They became sort of automatic behaviors that we practice every day. Can this trend be reversed, and do we even want to invert it? Miranda July, an American performance artist, tried to answer this question in 2014. For July, the starting position is a magical moment of being in the NOW. What does it mean to be in the exact present moment? She created an art project in the form of a mobile application called Somebody. In this paper, I examine the meaning of the project Somebody by presenting it as a participatory and relational artwork. Why was the participation of ‘ordinary people’ crucial for July? What does Somebody say about us and the forms in which we communicate?

“Now is pretty creepy”

Miranda July labels herself as a director, writer, and performance artist. However, it's not correct to put July in any of these categories. During her life, she explored various genres of art and mixed them to create a specific genre of art. In 2012, a satirical press, The Onion, published an article: Miranda July Called Before Congress To Explain Exactly What Her Whole Thing Is. They wrote that: “many Americans are somewhat aware without being able to articulate what, precisely, she's driving at” (The Onion, 2012). While her definition of an artist is vague, her biography is understandable. She is the daughter of Richard Grossinger. Grossinger is a famous name in the USA. This family is the owner of one of the biggest resorts in the United States. Miranda changed her name from Grossinger to July when she was a teenager. She did not like the connotation of a big family name and wanted to be more independent (IPT, 2017).

The focal point of July’s artwork is being in the now, in an exact moment in time

July started with performance and never left it, even while she was doing other genres of art. Even though she is more recognizable for her movies and books, July finds performance art the most relieving (Tate, 2016). In the video for Tate, July explains that “getting to engage with an audience moment is a thing” (Tate, 2016). The focal point of July’s artwork is being in the now, in an exact moment in time. That is why performance outbalances other genres of art, such as cinema. They do not happen in the present, but they are a record of art.  July has an action view on art. Presented by a specialist in aesthetics, Sherri Irvin, this view argues that the artwork is the artist’s activity in producing it. It exists only in the present (Irvin, 2012). The notion of art in the present is so crucial for July that she uses it in different types of art. For instance, in her movies, we observe only here and now. Viewers will not see retrospective histories in a film such as Me and You and Everyone We Know, or a short film Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody? But the importance of the ‘here and now’ and participation of ‘ordinary people’ was the most crucial in July’s Somebody project in 2014.

Somebody

Figure 1: The logo of Somebody

In 2014 Miranda July started a collaboration with a clothes company Miu Miu. The company invited July to make a promo movie for a new clothing line. As she mentioned in one interview, she was surprised about this invitation because her films focus on everydayness, and Miu Miu is a high-fashion company (Miu Miu, 2014). To July’s surprise, the clothes used for this movie fit her style perfectly. Somebody is a compilation of real-life situations such as a breakup, a reconciliation of good friends, and a romantic proposal. A connector of these stories is a Somebody. Somebody is a mobile device app. Its purpose is to send messages to your friends and family. The catch is that messages are not sent directly to a receiver but to a stranger around the receiver. A stranger uses GPS to find a receiver and pass a message verbally. Therefore, in Somebody, a guy discovers that his girlfriend broke up with him through a Somebody’s message. A man professes his feelings and proposes to a woman through a waitress in a restaurant. The most surprising was that at the film premiere at the Venice Film Festival, July launched a real Somebody app, available on the App Store and Google Play. Everybody could participate in an art project and send a message to friends via strangers.

As July stated, the app was not high-tech. “The most high-tech part of Somebody is not on the phone. It is in the users who dare to deliver a message to a stranger” (July, 2014). Somebody made every two-way relation a three-way relation. This app was “The antithesis of the utilitarian efficiency that tech promises, here, finally, is an app that makes us nervous, giddy, and alert to the people around us” (July, 2014). While new social media apps give us new possibilities for communicating with each other through mobile devices, Somebody attempted to reverse a trend and come back to face-to-face communication. However, because of its popularity, Somebody could not last long. In 2015, the servers of the app became overloaded.  July shut down Somebody on October 31, 2015. Somebody was never meant to be a daily app. It was proof of how demanded face-to-face communication was.

Somebody as a participatory artwork

Somebody can be considered an example of participatory art. Participatory is a vague term. In a nutshell, it is a genre of art that depends on the viewer's involvement. While the term sounds general, Tom Finkelpearl, an American art promoter, attempted to make this definition more specific. He made a distinction between different sub-categories of participatory art (Finkelpearl, 2014). Finkelpearl mentioned the terms activist art, relational art, and community-based art, among others. Activist art, for example, are projects meant to make a positive difference in people’s lives. What makes them participatory is that “they were created through the participation of people in addition to the artist or art collective” (Finkelpearl, 2014).

The final project is the relationships that people created with strangers through this app

Somebody matches this definition. It is an art project that would be just an idea without participants. Somebody worked as a medium between strangers. The final art project is not a high-tech mobile phone application used to communicate with friends via strangers. The final project is the relationships that people created with strangers through this app. In one interview, Miranda July said that "the app is half human, half app. It facilitates the connection, but the high-tech thing is the human choice to approach a stranger to deliver a message that is not theirs” (Miu Miu, 2014). Some real stories that happened thanks to the Somebody app are available to read on its website. One interesting story belongs to Raphael in France: “Olivia showed up on her balcony as I was yelling her name from the street. It was awesome! Thanks to Somebody, she got a message from a friend far away, and I had a nice cup of coffee. We shared a great time meeting each other this way and talking about this amazing app!"

Similar stories can be found on Somebody’s Tumblr account. The app gathered brave people who wanted to exit their comfort zone. Consequently, they became co-authors of the art projec

Figure 2: Raphael and stranger

The aspect of relational aesthetic 

The question that needs to be answered is why Miranda July wanted to involve ‘ordinary people’ in her project. Why did she prefer real-life situations over directed scenes in movies? The first answer to these questions is that July is interested in performance and art as an action more than in films and records of the past. The ‘Now’ is the most attractive form of time (Tate, 2016). The interaction between people can be understood best at the exact moment when it happens.

Another answer to these questions is a type of participatory art that July used in her project. Somebody is a relational, participatory art project. To be relational, artwork must have relational aesthetics. In Participatory Art, Finkelpearl quotes French critic Nicolas Bourriaud: relational aesthetics is a quality that means that artwork creates “temporary and small-scale convivial moments and experiments in interpersonal relations that he hails as models for positive social interaction” (Finkelpearl, 2014). For Bourriaud, art is not about visual aesthetics but about the connections and relations it creates (Bourriaud, 1998). Art is not a form of escape to an ideal, utopian world. In relational aesthetics, little utopias happen every day in human interactions. 

July’s relational aesthetics

Thus, Miranda July is fascinated by ‘ordinary life’. She is a representative of a generation of relational artists. She prefers performance over films because only in performance she can experience interactions between people as they happen. Since her 20's, July has been fascinated by connections between people. How they approach each other and what keeps them together. This trend is visible in her short movies such as Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody? It is a story of a man who asks this title question to random people that he meets on the street. After they say yes or no, the follow-up question is how sure of that you are. The options are: very certain, confident, you think so, not so sure, and could be. Even though this film is staged, it has a relational message of how people treat their relationships with others. It also has a relational, participatory nature as actors are presented as random people without any connotations with a film. They look like simple participants. It gives a vibe of a participatory event.

However, before the launch of Somebody, July changed her object of study. She focused on how people avoid connection rather than connect. She said that people are likely to sabotage coming together (Tate, 2016). ‘Don’t come together’ is a natural human reaction in the postmodern world. Bourriaud predicted it in 1998 when he wrote that automation is reducing the relational sphere by removing face-to-face interaction (Bourriaud, 1998). However, he argued that art is an escape from reduced interactions. Art is a place of encounters. Encounters were the start for the Somebody project.  Users of the app are obligated to leave their comfort zones and encounter strangers with random messages. The name ‘Somebody’ suggests a transformation. By becoming a messenger for random people, users change from ‘nobody’ or ‘anybody’ to ‘somebody.’ This app reversed a degrading trend. The responses from viewers proved that people have the strength and willingness to make relationships with strangers.  

Human relations in making art

I think that Miranda’s July sentence in the Somebody’s goodbye message is a fitting conclusion to this paper. “Somebody has disappeared from the world forever. But you’ll still be here. And your friends are too. And there are strangers everywhere” (July, 2015). Even though Somebody had to be shut down, it passed a trial. July used her experience in presenting human relations to create a project that let people leave their comfort zone by using the concept of relational, participatory art. However, as the message says, Somebody was more of a mediator. The app was an ignitor that woke people’s natural behavior of creating relationships with strangers. In this paper, I used various art concepts, such as art as an action or relational aesthetics, to justify how crucial was July’s project for how we perceive relationships. “Now is pretty creepy,” but it is interesting how we can work with this concept.

References

Bourriaud, N. (1998). Relational Aesthetics (Les Presses Du Reel ed.). Les Presse Du Reel, Franc.

Finkelpearl, T. (2014). Participatory Art. In Kelly, M. (2014). Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

IPT. (2017, May 20). Dialogue: “Being Miranda July” [Video]. YouTube.

Irvin, S. (2012). Artworks, Objects, and Structures. In A. C. Ribeir. The Continuum Companion to Aesthetics. Continuum. pp. 55-73.

July, M. (2014, August 28). Somebodyapp. Somebodyapp.

Miu Miu. (2014, August 28). Miu Miu Women’s Tales #8 - Somebody - Miranda July Interview [Video]. YouTube.

Onion, T. (2017, October 18). Miranda July Called Before Congress To Explain Exactly What Her Whole Thing Is. The Onion.

Somebodyapp. (2016, June 1). Tumblr.

Tate. (2016, January 25). Miranda July – “I Began with Performance” [Video]. YouTube.

Willow, F. (2016, December 5). Miranda July’s ‘Somebody’TM: Technology in One to One Performance. CuratingtheContemporary (CtC).

Wood, N., & Ward, S. (2010). Stigma, Secrets, and the Human Condition: Seeking to Remedy Alienation in PostSecret’s Digitally Mediated Environment. Symbolic Interaction, 33(4), 578–602.