Miranda July’s Internet Interventions
Ahead of Miranda July's Melbourne appearance, Connor Tomas O’Brien takes a look at the singular artist's online experiments. From encouraging strangers to document their bald spots, to forwarding Kirsten Dunst's email correspondence to 100,000 readers, July's projects are much like her fiction – drawing us closer to strangers, and toward strangeness itself.
In 2014, Miranda July introduced Somebody, an app designed to facilitate the real-life sharing of messages to faraway friends, by turning willing strangers into conduits. The response from those unfamiliar with July’s oeuvre was … confused. ‘This is kinda sick. Yet another way to avoid just confronting yourself with your feelings,’ opined a reader on the Verge. ‘This app sounds like a stalker's paradise,’ wrote a commenter on the Guardian. ‘If you don't have the courage to send the message yourself, don't bother.’
Somebody, certainly, was an unusual app. While it was based on the ‘sharing economy’ principles of Uber or Airbnb, it had no business model, was deliberately inefficient, and invited awkward encounters. The appeal of Somebody was less technological than literary – it was, after all, an app that allowed users to find themselves in the middle of others’ stories.
Soon after launching, Somebody served as the focal point of the premiere episode of the Reply All podcast. The episode included a piece about a message – ‘I fucking love you’ – sent across the country from a woman to her ex, and delivered by a ‘stocky blond man neither of them have ever met’. The story is heartbreaking – at one point, the ex-girlfriend, Ariel, explains how she hoped the message might ‘plant a seed that would sit there … maybe forever… we could be 80 and at some point he would be like, “you know that one time [you sent that message]; let’s try this again”.’ When the Reply All hosts ask Ariel why she didn’t simply call her ex to share her feelings, she says, ‘I don’t know how to say that to him.’
There are other Somebody stories, many of them posted on the app’s Tumblr, of memorable messages sent, delivered or received. In one, a woman named Amber recalls sitting under an umbrella with a stranger and asking him (on behalf of another) to mend a friendship. In another, Kate receives a message immediately following her divorce (‘everything is going to be okay’), relayed through a man she’s never met. There are stories of marriage proposals by proxy, song requests and fist bumps.
What is most interesting about the stories told by Somebody users is how closely many of these stories mirror the most memorable vignettes from July’s own fiction. In July’s novels, short stories and films, many of the moments that resonate are those of inexplicable, unexpected and melancholic intimacy between strangers: an actor tenderly sniffing the armpits of the woman seated next to him on a plane; a woman falling asleep nestled beside a man in the middle of a seizure; or two antagonistic near-strangers finding sensual pleasure in their hostility. Readers sometimes mistakenly situate July’s work in a Wes Anderson-ian alternate reality, when most often, it could just as easily exist within our own. After all, there is nothing impossible about most of the worlds July creates in her fiction. What makes her work surreal is that we are wholly unused to the possibilities opened up to us simply by entering deeply into the worlds of those we don’t know.
Miranda July is a unique technologist. For years, in subtle ways, she has worked to make the internet a more peculiar and tender place, by constructing platforms that overturn the accepted rules for online interaction in order to bring strangers together in meaningful ways. In her 2013 project We Think Alone, for example, July subverted the conventions of email by forwarding private messages from famous friends (from author Etgar Keret to writer/actor Lena Dunham and actor Kirsten Dunst) to a mailing list of 100,000 silent readers. The exercise had a broader purpose: to encourage readers to interrogate how we conduct ourselves in private and, perhaps, to take up the practice of allowing glimpses into the minutia of our own recorded lives. ‘I’m always trying to get my friends to forward me emails they’ve sent to other people – to their mom, their boyfriend, their agent – the more mundane the better,’ July told the Independent. ‘How they comport themselves in email is so intimate, almost obscene – a glimpse of them from their own point of view.’
One of July’s first online projects is perhaps the most significant. Learning to Love You More was an ‘online art space’ that operated from 2002 to 2009, where July (and co-conspirator Harrell Fletcher) offered assignments for readers to complete and a space to display the results. The project (since acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) now serves as a unique time capsule: a repository of variously odd and banal and extraordinary tasks recorded and uploaded by hundreds of strangers from around the world. ‘Spend time with a dying person’ instructs assignment 31; ‘document your bald spot’, ‘make the saddest song’, ‘write the phone call you wish you could have’. As with many of July’s projects, Learning to Love You More offered an exploration of the effects of unexpected intimacy.
In one of the most affecting assignments, strangers were asked to submit video re-enactments of scenes from the life story of Laura Lark – an American artist who had submitted, to fulfil an earlier assignment, a 6000 word memoir on mental illness, hospitalisation and the complexity of family dynamics.
‘It was enlightening and life altering, to be sure,’ Laura Lark says. ‘And an amazing way to put warmth and humanity into cyberspace. To this day I believe that it threw a metaphorical monkey wrench into my psyche, and it's still there. I still can't decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.’ She describes the feeling of watching the videos as ‘surreal’ – especially two submissions produced by participants based in Japan. ‘The idea that someone who spoke another language, who lived so far away, whose culture and upbringing were radically different from my own, could so effectively process my information into something that we both recognised was one that I had never intimately considered.’
Other past participants remark on how moving they found Learning to Love You More. ‘I’m forever grateful to this project for a plethora of reasons,’ Peter Max Lawrence says. After watching You, Me and Everyone We Know, July’s first feature film, he remembers ‘immediately scouring the internet for other works by Miranda. I had been looking for ideas on how to use the internet as a more solid tool for collaborative art and social projects and Learning to Love You More hit every note for me.’ He ended up completing 90% of the assignments and plans to complete all of them by the end of this year.
There are now other online projects in the vein of Learning to Love You More – sites designed to encourage anyone to create and share their work with strangers in a meaningful way. The Art Assignment is one – a weekly online video series produced by PBS (and directly inspired by Learning to Love You More), in which different artists share a technique or concept and invite viewers to respond to it and engage with others’ attempts. Often, the Art Assignment’s projects involve the same kind of usual and empathetic collaboration favoured by July. In Lenka Clayton’s ‘Lost Childhood Object’ assignment, for example, participants are encouraged to ask somebody to describe a cherished childhood object, then to recreate it and give it back. As with July’s collaborative online projects, the joy of this kind of assignment is discovering new ways to develop intimacy by, say, baking Nintendo 64 controller cookies, sewing miniature dresses, or paper-crafting green jelly jump ropes.
When Somebody was shut down late last year, it was referred to as a ‘brilliant failure’, but the idea that July’s online projects are unsuccessful because they eventually terminate (or, sometimes, don’t work exactly as planned) is perhaps based on a misreading of July’s intentions. Her apps and websites aren’t start-ups – they’re participatory artworks. They are free to exist well outside the expectations placed on Silicon Valley businesses to monetise and disrupt and streamline and data-mine.
‘If [Somebody were] successful, it would always take up a chunk of time every week,’ July has explained. ‘It felt best to keep it as an art project. And that was, in a way, a rare thing to get to do.’
Projects like Learning to Love You More or We Think Alone or Somebody are perhaps designed to be fleeting – to exist long enough to grant some strangers the opportunity to learn more about one another and to develop stories about themselves. It’s useful, almost, to see Miranda July’s online projects as internet interventions, designed to course-correct us as we allow technology to draw us too far away from the rough, weird edges between us, where most life exists.