I ask myself all the big questions, every Sunday.
In 1997, Miranda July wore a snowman’s head to an art opening in Portland, Oregon. At the time, her outfit did not seem particularly unusual: July was known around town for her already snowman-like hair, which she bleached white to the point of disintegration, teased into a giant tangle, and powdered like an old-fashioned wig. She bought the head at a garage sale – she couldn’t afford the whole costume – and though it was filthy, its carrot nose had fallen off, and its eyebrows were crooked, she managed to give it a kind of decrepit glamour.
Despite this appearance as a snowman-woman hybrid, Miranda July is not a mythical creature. Yes, her accomplishments are fantastically, almost superhumanly, impressive for someone her age (she turned 34 in February): the multiple laurels for her independent, feature-length film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), including a special prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for her book No One Belongs Here More than You (published by Scribner in 2007), her inclusion in two Whitney Biennials, a Rockefeller Foundation Media Arts fellowship. The list goes on: a Creative Capital grant for her participatory website Learning to Love You More (a collaboration with Harrell Fletcher), screenings of her experimental videos at places like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Guggenheim, and the Rotterdam Film Festival, and live performances presented at venues such as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.
You could be thinking, ‘What a bunch of lucky breaks.’ The truth is, she works ridiculously hard – obsessively, intensely – all the time, and she has been actively pursuing creative projects since she was a teenager. July’s public debut as an artist came when she was sixteen, when she wrote and directed a play, The Lifers, which was staged at the legendary all-ages club 924 Gilman Street in her hometown, Berkeley, California. Lawrence Livermore, seminal music journalist, was so struck by its raw, do-it-yourself energy that he wrote that The Lifers was more punk than any band.
July does not have any art school or professional training – but nor is she wholly self-taught, having learned from and alongside an improvised network of artists, musicians, and writers she has worked with over the last fifteen years. After dropping out of college, July moved to Portland, where she lived for the next decade. She began performing spoken-word pieces at rock clubs; gradually, she transitioned into alternative art spaces, telling ever more complex stories that integrated audience participation and visuals ranging from slide shows to digital video.
During this time, she also founded Joanie 4 Jackie (formerly Big Miss Moviola). Joanie 4 Jackie was a non-commercial distribution system for women video-makers in the pre-YouTube mid-1990s. Any woman could submit a video short and July would put it onto a compilation tape with nine other videos; she then re-circulated these new ‘chain letter’ tapes so each video-maker could see what others were making. Joanie 4 Jackie was an explicitly feminist project, stemming from the anti-consumerist ethos of third wave feminism. Feminist concerns are also evident in July’s early short video works, which explored mother/daughter dynamics, voyeurism, and female spectatorship. In her videos The Amateurist and Nest of Tens, her characters hunt for or establish patterns, imposing their own personal systems of control onto the bewildering world around them. She extended these themes of unexpected longing and loss in Me and You, her short stories, and her recent performances.
July’s work, whatever the medium, speaks to the complexities of desire, especially the tenuous bonds forged between people in extreme circumstances. While her videos, film, artwork, fiction, and online ventures have gained international recognition, she has also sought out local interactions with diverse audiences – as an artist-in-residence at a high school in Miami, Florida, for instance, and in her work with young girls in the internet project How Will I Know Her, created with Emma Hedditch.
July currently lives in Los Angeles, and is working on her second feature-length movie. In this interview, she reflects on her formative conversations – both with herself and with others – and discusses her drive for bracing emotional honesty. July’s work is often funny, but it is a dark, gallows humor, unafraid to confront death, perversion, loneliness, alienation, and emptiness. (In the first scene of Me and You, a man sets his own hand on fire.) The snowman’s head may be a costume, but it is a mask that tells the truth. The snowman cannot last past winter; it is a reminder of fleeting existence and mortality.