In her last book, It Chooses You, writer, filmmaker, and artist Miranda July documented her encounters around Los Angeles with eccentrics she met via the Pennysaver classified ads. My favorite character was old Joe, who was selling “Fifty Christmas Card Fronts.” He’s not as intriguing or debauched as some of the others, but he seems kind, and wrings this bit of reflection from July after their meeting.
“I felt like I wasn’t living thoroughly enough—I was distracted in ways I wouldn’t be if I’d been born in 1929,” she wrote.
It’s an admission that simultaneously embarrasses and challenges . . . hold on. I want to check my phone. There’s a new app I just downloaded called Somebody. I touch its icon, a green square with open red lips. Using it, I can write a text message for a specific person, but instead of beaming it to my intended’s phone directly, another user, one geographically closest to the recipient, is directed to deliver it in the flesh. It allows me to provide stage directions in parentheses.
“It’s like writing scripts for strangers,” says July, who happens to have created the app. She knows we’re obsessed with our phones so she’s found us there.
July is at the Venice Film Festival for the launch of Somebody and the premiere of her new short. She’s unmistakable with her slight frame, brown curls, and blue eyes. As she enters the theater, fans come bearing glossy 8-by-11 glamour shots and Sharpie pens asking for autographs.
No one asks for an iPhone pic, which seems strange until you consider a certain trope in July’s output, the one that encourages a more hand-to-hand interaction with other human beings. In addition to Somebody and It Chooses You, there was the recent We Think Alone, a project in which she had some famous friends, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lena Dunham, share private e-mails in public newsletters.
“Privacy, the art of it, is evolving. Radical self-exposure and classically manicured discretion can both be powerful, both be elegant,” she wrote about the process.
Inside the theater, there’s a packed house including a neat row of girls: Kirsten Dunst, Dunham, Dakota Fanning, Felicity Jones, and Kate Mara all dressed in Miu Miu, the Italian fashion house that sponsored the app. July’s short film is the eighth installment in the brand’s Women’s Tales series.
After the screening, the festivities continue with a private tour of the current exhibition at the Fondazione Prada housed in Ca’ Corner della Regina. The show is called “Art or Sound” and includes a Rauschenberg orchestra made of junk and a creepy Maurizio Cattelan drummer boy (a 2003 piece named Untitled) that bangs his toy at unprompted intervals. July is wearing a black Miu Miu dress. Her shoes have diamond buckles. Everyone is celebrating an app in an 18th-century palazzo.
July is on her phone during the evening, fielding e-mails and troubleshooting Somebody version 1.1. A man says that he just tried Somebody to tell his wife he loves her; there were 20 possible delivery people nearby in Venice. By the end of the evening, 100,000 people have downloaded the app. At 3:30 A.M., July is Skype-ing with the head developer. There is news of a Somebody exchange at a Boston airport.
July is not on Instagram, though she doesn’t cast judgment on those who are. (“Your sense of shame or self worth at having an audience to begin with are things to talk with your therapist about,” she says.) She is on Twitter. To her, it’s a tool to be maximized much in the way she used to seek followers for her art.
“I expected no one to be interested without elaborate forms of inviting them in,” July says of her early days as an artist, putting up stickers with her writings all over the University of California at Santa Cruz, an analog version of social media.
She has never had a personal publicist, and says she doesn’t like people representing her or paying them to do so. Instead, July has her novels, essays, films, and performance art.
Somebody, which falls somewhere in the last category, is a subversive way to use the time-suck of the Internet. To her, the amount of downloads is irrelevant. She’s created a work of art that might simultaneously rattle online detractors while also asserting that social media may just bring us back together.
Later, standing in the lobby of the Excelsior hotel, I open up Somebody again. Without a message of my own to send, I select the “Floating” option, which lets me see what’s out there for the taking:
“Today is hot so I’m going on the beach sun emoji [CONFIDENTLY].”
One seems festival appropriate: “Good Luck for tonight! [KISS].” There are a lot of other “[KISSES].” People seem to be forgetting the text. And there’s one “[FIST BUMP].”
The best might be: “[LONGINGLY]
[GIVE HER YOUR PHONE NUMBER].”
Sadly, when it comes time, I can’t find the guy I’m supposed to fist bump. I’ve been staring at my phone.