Visual Culture

Miranda July on Killing Somebody

Artsy Editorial
Oct 30, 2015 3:17PM

Portrait of Miranda July by Elizabeth Weinberg.

For the past year, Miranda July’s app Somebody has facilitated the transmission of messages to people you know via strangers. Type a note into the app—with instructions regarding how the message should be conveyed, if you wish—and another user will be sent on a mission to find your friend and deliver it verbally. The app was created with the intention of eliminating the disconnection, dissociation, and alienation that’s often part and parcel of  the digital age. But this Halloween, two iterations later, July is killing Somebody off. I stopped by the artist’s L.A. studio to find out why.

Alicia Eler: When Somebody launched, it felt like a big moment. What’s it been like this past year?

Miranda July: It was a really steep learning curve. I thought that at some point I would know, you know? I got so much knowledge, and all right up until the very end. If you start an app without knowing what your goal is, you’re already in kind of a weird position. Usually people either know it’s frivolous fun, and it’s a pretty cheap app to make and maintain, or they have an investor—and you wouldn’t have an investor if you didn’t think it was going to make money. And I had, essentially, a patron.

As if Somebody were a painting?

Yes. It’s as complicated an app as there is, really. At launch, in its first iteration, it wasn’t working well, and then Miu Miu and I did a complete rebuild. That was satisfying. It was really great just to have it work. But there are hundreds of improvements, so many things we could do with it to make it better. And that updating requires continual investment. So I poked around, and I met with people who were excited about it in the tech world. At that point, the app was not just someone’s idea. It already existed and had 10,000 users per day, a plan of how it could grow, and it had me and Miu Miu. Then I started learning about stock and things like that for the app. Then it gets a little confusing: can it be an art project and a thing you’re pitching? People were like, “How are you gonna monetize? What will ads look like in the little clouds?”

I never could quite stomach any of the sort of “best-case scenario” outcomes that make it successful, one of which is to sell it—that’s what everyone dreams of. Then suddenly it’s this other company, and that’s almost like a betrayal of the original idea, one that was actually in reaction to all those other things. Somebody is one individual woman’s response to what she’s feeling in response to her phone, and that’s such a unique, special thing, for that to happen.

Does that mean the project can’t continue, if it doesn’t become absorbed by the rules of the tech industry?

I think it can happen. But it’s a very personal choice. People kept asking me, “What do you want?” Hiring people and having it not take up much of my time was sort of a dream. But if it’s successful, it would always take up a chunk of time every week. It felt best to keep it as an art project. And that was, in a way, a rare thing to get to do.

It’s interesting to think about Somebody in relation to your films Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011). In these films, the narratives eventually end. In the Somebody app, there are so many open-ended narratives of people meeting each other by delivering and receiving messages, and levels of intimacy therein. But there are no longer narrative arcs. Instead, the commonality is the app itself, the possible community it proposes, and the disparate experiences it fosters.

I think of it like a conceptual artwork. I didn’t see Tino Sehgal’s piece at the Guggenheim. Most people only read about that piece, but it still functions as a piece of conceptual work. Somebody doesn’t work for those people who aren’t treating it as a concept to begin with. And those who participated in the app will be like the few people who participated in a performance at a museum. Somebody reflects the time that it lived in; maybe that's enough. 

—Alicia Eler

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019