by Heide Foley
It seems everyone who has ever written about Miranda
July desperately wants to accurately describe her, but
cant. Singer, spoken word artist, performance artist,
living movie, the future, insert blank here
plays with words, sounds, spaces and light like a true
pioneer cutting her own egde. She makes her path out of
whatever is handy - old tech, new tech, non-tech - and
it is the craftmanship with which she does it that shows
her talent even if it is hard to describe. Her greatest
assest is that she listens even when she is talking. She
puns but she's straightforward. She tells you what you
already know but it sounds like you've never heard it
before. She's skinny and languid, but she's moving light
years faster than you. From sexplotation and abuse to
scientific inquiry and utopia, you get the feeling she
is exploring parts of herself to a degree that would give
the rest of us the heebee geebeeies. Further, you get
the feeling you are somehow contributing to it. Her niche
is polymorphous but I certainly trumpet her cause. She
wants to burn our brains.
What kind of person invents these coded, socially introspective
performances? I got on a plane at my own expense and flew
up to Portland, OR to find out.
When you arrive downstairs call up to the window
cause theres no bell, she explained, and
Ill throw down the key. It's morning, sunny
out, which is unusual for Oregon and I'm glad I'm not
standing in the rain as I try to get the particular attention
of window # 4 in the brick wall of twelve windows and
a 3 story fire escape. She is quiet as she leads me through
her few rooms. Her apartment is cluttered with nostalgia.
A broken horsey, a costume tigers head, a tutu,
a childs viewfinder, etc. My curiosity grew like
dustbunnies. The walls are of varying texturesstripes,
harlequin diamonds, and blistered black paint. A computer
and couch fill the main space. So, maybe you could
lie down on the couch. I suggested. You can
be the Patient and Ill be the Psychiatrist
Heide Foley: Tell me about your childhood.
Miranda July: Well, Ive always been a performer.
When I was younger I thought, Oh Im gonna
make movies and by movies I meant mainstream movies
or, Im gonna be an actress in
mainstream movies. I think I started writing before I
started anything else. At some point Ill go back
to that. I dont consider writing for performances
and movies really writing because Im there to back
myself up, whereas when its the written word it
has to be so much better.
HF: Tell me about your mother.
MJ: She wasnt a hippy mom but she did have these
weird, like, art cards. I dont know what they were,
but she would say, Now why dont you make up
a story about this picture? That was all it took.
Id be off on these long stories. Shes a writer
herself and so she always made me feel like everything
I had to say was important.
HF: So youd say you have a really positive image
of your mother?
HF: And your father?
MJ: I dont really remember my dad at all before
twelve or so. I talked about that with my brother. Ill
remember isolated incidents, but I cant really,
ya know. I think I was a little bit scared of him. He
had, like my hair, big. Only black. It was somewhat terrifying.
HF: Did he live with you?
MJ: Yah. We were all a totally tight nuclear family, but
um, I think my relationship to him is
I could really speak to him in his own language and be
some kind of mirror or confidante or something.
HF: Tell me about your childhood friends.
MJ: I had sex with a lot of little girls and gave birth
to lots of dolls. I grew up in Berkeley and girls were
smarter. There was more ESP happening or something. I
have always had really passionate best friends.
HF: Did boys not like you?
MJ: I didnt really have any friends that were boys
until last year. [laughs] Boys just seemed boring. There
was a boy in second grade who was my pet monkey. When
he was with me he could only jump around in a little squatting
monkey position. Sometimes he would try to give me little
monkey kisses, but I wasnt fooled, ya know, I wasnt
going for it.
HF: What do you remember most about growing up?
MJ: I got sick. I had a mysterious eye disease. I was
nine. Nobody could figure out what it was but it made
it so I couldnt go out into the light. So I stayed
inside a lot. And I went to just like zillions of doctors.
I remember, um, cause, I have it again nowit
came back two years ago, whatever it isand when
I look at the machine that they make you look through
to examine your eyes, I have these really horrifying memories.
They told me to pretend that the two big black optical
view finders were Mickey Mouses ears. I look at
them now and Im like, what the fuck? It doesnt
look anything like Mickey Mouses ears. If it does,
it looks like some menacing robot alien Mickey Mouse.
Im thinking, this isnt a fun game!
Having the eye disease now casts me back in time. I think
thats why Im focused a lot on memory with
my new work.
i make sevens
HF: Tell me about your new work?
MJ: The new film is called The Amateurist. Im editing
it mostly from two different tapes. One is all surveillance
footage of the Universal Girl. The camera stays in one
place and Im in my white cotton bra and panties
and girl haira long wig. Its real
human hair. [laughs] The Universal Girl is just doing
the things every woman in history has done in front of
the camera, from flirt to turn her back and pout to flipping
it off to whatever.
In the other footage Im this Other Woman discussing
the Universal Girl on the screen. The Other Woman is describing,
almost designing and constructing, the Universal Girl
shes watching. Language just slips and slides. The
Other Woman is drawing attention to all these little details
almost clinically like, Oh look. Did you see the
way she just touched her hair to her mouth? Shes
not supposed to do that. Thats really bad.
And you dont know if its becasue of her conditionlike
a medical conditionor because her every move is
being monitored like a superstar. Behavior becomes totally
loaded with meanings in response to whatever the Other
Woman is narrating. You cant tell whether the dynamic
is of a doctor to a patient or an agent to a star.
HF: Have you always been preoccupied with identity?
MJ: [laughs] I grew up a block below Telegraph Avenue
where lots of different identities were happening. I remember
walking down the street with my parentsthis was
when I was youngerand I used to have this game where
every person I saw I could feel the sensation of what
it would be like to have their face. I would barely have
to change the outside of my face and I could just feel
what that demeanor was like. It really creeped me out.
I remember telling my brother about it and asking, Do
you have that? [laughs] He was probably like, No!
I dont really think that it is unique. We probably
all receive different imprints from every person we pass.
HF: Describe what kind of person you want people to think
MJ: [points out a big cockroach, says its stealing
the moment] Thats a really hard question.
HF: Ok, lets break it down. Many of your pieces
focus on image, which do you identify with most?
MJ: A woman asked me about my hair. She said, Do
you just want to shock people? What I like about
my hair is not that its dramatic, but I think it
rings certain bells. It has reference points in history,
art and fashion which I may not even be doing, but in
terms of the visual, I feel that, like Cindy Sherman,
I capitalize on the collective memory of popular culture.
I was thinking the other day that when I am on stage its
an invitation to be completely intimate with as many people
as happen to be in the audience. Its a very generous
thing, in one way, because its an intimacy that
I dont even know how to give, sometimes, to my closest
friends. Its stingy in the sense that it can turn
off when I leave the stage. Although sometimes I dont
know how to find that off-ramp. I have to fight to not
be as mesmerized by the audience on certain nights, because
I can feel this thing
When the lights go down Im
left wondering how to get to that same place with my friends
without getting them on stage with me. Ill wonder
if the only route is that I continue performing? That
could only happen to us in that room that night, you know.
Performance is a vehicle for that. [laughs]
HF: You perform very odd and fascinating characters like
the kids who cant feel physical pain or the guinea
pig medical researcher who failed the test.
MJ: Im totally in love with people. Im astounded
by the completely bizarre ways that everyones functioning.
Just constantly. Ioh god this is embarrassing!but
I have a little piece of paper taped to my steering wheel
where I take little notes of things. I wish I had a little
place to take notes everywhere. I mean it really just
floors me every time I go outside. Its pretty much
all I can do to maintain in the presence of
HF: Of what?
MJ: Well, like even at the post officeit really
is the littlest interactions Im talking about. Im
waiting in line and Im getting closer and closer
to the interaction and then its my turn and I go
up to the counterthis happens every morningtheres
like four different choices of people working there and
each one makes me excited and nervous in a different way.
[giggles] And then it happens. I interact with them. And
its usually like, Can I buy a stamp?
And they give me my change. [laughs] But I get so keyed
up before it. I can so anticipate whats going to
happen, but sometimes something weird will happen. Like
theyll make a little joke or something, you know,
and Ill just practically shit my pants. [laughs]
I dont know. Maybe I should get out more.
HF: Do people in your real life mutate into characters
like the secret agent man or the people creating germ
MJ: More so recently. My first album was much more inspired
by emotions and this ones inspired by structures.
There are certain structures that seem so delicious Ill
just fall in love with them. It makes my mouth water to
imagine doing something thats been done before but
with a sort of, um, I dont know, a sly grin that
makes you feel like the only reason it feels familiar
is that you had a nightmare about it!
Ive been completely obsessed with language thats
overused to the point where the words are just code words,
and then the structures are stand-ins for actual dynamics.
For example any dynamic on any of the albumsthe
stripper and the customer, or my new piece where parts
of it follow the dynamic of a witness being cross- examinedI
dont really give a fuck about a stripper and a customer,
or even court dramas, its just that those are structures
which I can use to point at whats not happening.
Whats not interesting is whats happening in
court because that is so boring. But the dynamic between
oh god, its like, whatever happens to seep into
that dialogue causes the whole system to malfunction.
Thats a territory I am interested in right now.
Screw the Hollywood Industrial Complex. Big Miss Moviola
asks ladies to make their own movie. If the answer is
no, then write it down for the Missing Movie Report. Miranda
is exploring the community of women to the nth degreeas
far as they will let her. Its a community she is
also building by advocating action. Big Miss Moviola is
a project Miranda July started in 1995 in which she invites
ladies all over the world to send her their videoswhen
she gets 10 videos she edits them into a compilation tape
and sends that back to all the participants. She calls
the process a challenge and a promise, Grrl, if
you make the movie I promise somebody will see it.
The compilations are non-selectiveshe uses everything
sent in. The primary purpose of this is to create a low
budget distribution network. With the likes of award winning
director Myra Paci as a participant, and titles such as
How the Miracle of Masturbation Saved Me from Becoming
a Teenage Space Alien, it might just be a fun game. There
are already five of these world-circulated, cult-status,
underground, girl-movie chainletterseach
trademarked with zine-style xerox art, interviews with
the moviemakers, gossip, and girl-movie secrets.
Miranda creates. Probably while you are sleeping. Straight
from her living room to yours. In three short years, having
virtually no capital and no distribution, she has become
the interest of major media mouths including The Village
Voice, Interview, Sassy, Seventeen, Ms. and yours truly.
Branding women as the Lady Glitterati of the New Movie
Uprising, she promotes the idea that by making their own
porno, sci fi, stop action, kung fu, how to, confessional,
western, soap, etc., they are making history. Miranda
writes, directs and stars as all the characters in her
own short films: the award winning Atlanta, The Amateurist,
and her latest Love Destruction.
This enterprise is powered by passion but fueled by common
sense. Miranda was one of eight artists awarded the Frank
Foundation Grant in 1997, established by photographer
and filmmaker Robert Frank. She will apply the grant to
cover start-up business costs for her own manufacturing
factory. Her first product was a two hour best of
compilation, called Joanie 4 Jackie 4ever, from the Big
Miss Moviola tapes. Second, hopefully, by being able to
commission women for Big Miss Moviola productions. Check
college theaters for screenings.