In August 2014 artist Miranda July unveiled ‘Somebody’, a new form of instant messaging. Instead of the sender’s message instantly reaching the device of its recipient, it is sent to a Somebody app user nearby, who then delivers the message in person, complete with stage directions so they know how to deliver it. July pitched the concept to fashion house Miu Miu after they invited her to create a short film, with the idea that the film would be created only if the app would be too. After working closely with designers Stinkdigital, the fully functioning app was unveiled at Venice Film Festival alongside the premiere of the Somebody short film. July does not see the app as a replacement for modern forms of communication, but as ‘a far-reaching public art project, inciting performance and conversation’[i]. In this essay I examine how Somebody embodies the characteristics of the One to One performance genre, whilst also pushing the medium into new territory through its embracing and exploring of technology.
‘One to One work engages with the dramaturgy of relations constructed between one and an other’[ii]. Typically this work focuses on relationships between individuals, enabling strangers to come together for unique encounters whilst also reacting to ‘a specific socio-cultural situation and Zeitgeist’[iii]. In order to achieve intimacy artists often distance themselves from technology; presenting situations that allow space for reflection whilst simultaneously responding to socio-cultural situations through their rejection of the virtual aspects of modern life. ‘The intimacy proffered by live performances has previously been framed as ‘real’, and a deliberate intervention into and resistance to the ‘virtual’ relationships engineered via digital interfaces such as Facebook and Twitter’[iv]. Alternatively, Somebody reflects the reality of modern society’s ‘endless hunger for communication, technology, avatars and outsourcing’[v] through its inclusion of key components of cultural influence (smartphone apps) and utilises these to enable intimacy. It redirects rather than resists the common uses and perceptions surrounding technology and interaction, removing the efficiency of smartphone communication through privileging the humanity the app may still facilitate, whilst engaging with the dramaturgy of relations through the emphasising of characters, placing two strangers together to create a scenario.
Somebody works by prescribing specific roles of the sender, messenger and recipient. Within this the messenger is the most performatively conventional: becoming a character, prompted by a script and stage directions. If we examine comparisons between artists Adrian Howells and Sam Rose ‘His performance is as structured, crafted and repeated as Rose’s. But his skill is to disguise that skill, to try and persuade us that this is not performance’[vi] Howells achieves effectiveness through his maturity as a performer; Somebody does this through the conditions of its format. The messenger has a structure, but the implied immediacy of digital communication compels one to prioritise delivering the message rather than rehearsing its delivery. There is no skill to disguise, no possibility of overly staged performance, as it must be improvised somewhat immediately. The role of sender is more problematic, and here Erving Goffman’s ideas on performance in everyday life become key. His argument that we change our performance of identity depending on those we are surrounded by is increasingly common in the analysis of modern communication. With the rise of social media every piece of virtual information becomes part of the constructed identities that we perform. Using Somebody has the potential to become an evolution of this: the sender moves beyond constructing a virtual identity by placing this virtual identity into another body as representative. They remain within artificiality.
The anticipation of One to One performance is also a key part of its experience. ‘In practical terms, the spectator books a performance slot during which they alone encounter the work.’[vii] One to One work is often done at festivals, and whilst audience members must wait their turn, knowledge of the work’s nature tends to circulate. There is awareness and expectation of what will occur when one finally enters the performance, which adds to the experience of the work itself, either through the appearance of awaited action, or the addition of heightened temporal awareness[viii]. The same can be found in Somebody, as soon as one is registered for the app there is an sense they could be drawn into a One to One encounter at any time. Similarly to Dror Harari’s viewing experiences ‘I had to put myself on a list and await my turn, not knowing exactly how long it would take’[ix] one has a vague notion of what is coming, but an even vaguer knowledge of the material conditions surrounding its arrival. In Harari’s case these material conditions were monitored through the choreographer ‘regulating the order of viewing’[x]. Somebody works differently, moving beyond the constraints of the human event once again. As recipient, anticipation comes from the lack of knowledge of when a message will arrive or from whom. There is an innate liminality as the messenger takes on the role of sender, yet is distinctly not them[xi]. As messenger there is expectancy of the eventual need for performance, however there is some security in the script and the agency to reject the message. The senders again take on an interesting role, excluded entirely from the performative encounter once their message is sent, left with the build of anticipation without witnessing its realisation. However their use of the app also provides them with the opportunity to take on the messenger position at some future date. Here lies a distinctive interplay of artificiality; senders remain in a state of performed virtual identity until they are chosen as messengers, finally finding freedom in their encounters with strangers. With live performance there is a definite end, for users of Somebody there is ongoing anticipation from the moment of the app download, intensifying and furthering each experience of intimacy as it emerges over unknown lengths of time.
Somebody works to find ephemeral liveness without a distancing from the digital. Whilst current technological forms can tend towards social isolation there are methods through which technology can be utilised to enable genuine interaction, heightened intimate encounters and human communication. July’s use of technology is not perfect, but neither is live One to One encounter. While Somebody does not eradicate all forms of digital artificiality, it certainly effectively utilises the digital to transform into the liveness of One to One work. The app gives each individual the opportunity to create and develop their own unique One to One encounters together, instead of a spectator stepping into a fully pre-created experience; whilst technological intervention avoids overly staged performance and favours intimacy. However, this more malleable form takes certain liberties with consent and trust that must not be ignored. There are certainly issues surrounding the heavy reliance on people to not abuse technology, but Somebody succeeds in transferring these questions to all technology. The app doesn’t just react to the Zeitgeist but questions it despite not directly addressing it. Technology is the mode of production and it’s usage enables questioning of this mode. We don’t just question human interaction, we question human interaction in relation to. One to One work engages with dramaturgy of ‘one and an other’, the Somebody app means this other can be an individual, or the digital itself. The app demonstrates that both live and digital work have their shortcomings, but both may still be effective in different ways. We don’t need ‘deliberate intervention’ and ‘resistance to’[xii] technology to find authenticity, we simply need to know how to use it.
Francesca Willow is a London-based performer, writer and dramaturg. She originally trained in Contemporary Dance at Trinity Laban before studying an MA in Theatre and Performance Studies at King’s College London. She is open to a wide variety of work, but particularly loves collaborating with artists from other mediums.
[ii] Deirdre Heddon, Helen Iball and Rachel Zerihan, ‘Come Closer: Confessions Of Intimate Spectators In One To One Performance’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 22.1 (2012), 120-133, p. 128.
[iii] Dror Harari, ‘Laotang: Intimate Encounters’, TDR: The Drama Review, 55.2 (2011), 137-49.
[iv] Deirdre Heddon, Helen Iball and Rachel Zerihan, ‘Come Closer: Confessions Of Intimate Spectators In One To One Performance’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 22.1 (2012), 120-133, p. 121.
[vi] Deirdre Heddon, Helen Iball and Rachel Zerihan, ‘Come Closer: Confessions Of Intimate Spectators In One To One Performance’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 22.1 (2012), 120-133, p. 130
[vii] Deirdre Heddon, Helen Iball and Rachel Zerihan, ‘Come Closer: Confessions Of Intimate Spectators In One To One Performance’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 22.1 (2012), 120-133, p. 120.
[viii] Dror Harari, ‘Laotang: Intimate Encounters’, TDR: The Drama Review, 55.2 (2011), 137-49, p. 141
[ix] Dror Harari, ‘Laotang: Intimate Encounters’, TDR: The Drama Review, 55.2 (2011), 137-49, p. 141
[x] Dror Harari, ‘Laotang: Intimate Encounters’, TDR: The Drama Review, 55.2 (2011), 137-49, p. 138
[xii] Deirdre Heddon, Helen Iball and Rachel Zerihan, ‘Come Closer: Confessions Of Intimate Spectators In One To One Performance’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 22.1 (2012), 120-133, p. 121.