A sweet-looking young boy sits in the park unpacking a picnic basket and waiting for someone to arrive. Along comes a burly older man, fresh from his outdoor gym routine and stops in front of the boy, bending on one knee. For a moment the man checks his phone and then asks for the boy by name. Then, in an awkward and surprisingly emotional performance the man breaks up with the boy. Well, to be more accurate, the man breaks up with the boy on behalf of his girlfriend.
Scene 1 of actress/artist Miranda July’s quirky new film project, Somebody. Part social experiment, part commentary, the tongue-in-cheek tagline says it all: “When You Can’t be There, Somebody Can”. Think of it like the high-tech version of a singing telegram. The project contains a short film (beautifully shot) and a mobile application for free download.
I love Somebody’s witty parody of “routine” digital experiences. Specifically I love the extreme scenarios of mediation. In a sweet, musing kind of way, it makes you wonder how far you would go. Take this scene: A woman is seated in a restaurant, a waitress walks over with her phone, asks for her by name and then proposes marriage on behalf of an errant partner – brilliantly performed by July herself.
Another scene: two women have a catfight. It look irresolvable until a passing pensioner pedestrian “messenger” delivers a reconciliatory note.
Beyond the cute parody (it’s light), this is a very nicely packaged (beautiful wardrobe courtesy of the film’s commissioner Miu Miu) commentary on our posthuman selves. In the best scene of the film – one with clever cybernetic overtones – a pot plant asks its owner for water via a proxy: the man’s lover. Things get nicely twisted, when the pot plant’s missives turn into sort of techno erotica (much funnier than it sounds). Potplant: “Test my soil, deeper!”
Running with the posthuman theme, feminist technoscience writer Donna Haraway might call this notion of distributed consciousness: living intimately ‘as’ and ‘in’ a biological world. Haraway’s work interrogates the divisions of nature/culture and human/machine. She refutes these so-called divisions, preferring “enmeshment” instead. She coined the term “natureculture” to explain the concept. The point is: drawing a dividing line between us, mobiles (and even thirsty pot plants) is irrelevant anyway. July’s film delivers the same message in a good-humoured parody.
Somebody is a brilliant hack of technology; in the project’s own words: “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.” In visualizing affect – nearly all the scenes are real heart-wrenchers – the film tries to humanise technology. It introduces us humans back into our own technological exchanges in a speculative way. Naïve? Probably. Damn entertaining? You bet.
Somebody app is available for download via iTunes. No proxies needed.