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by Heide Foley

It seems everyone who has ever written about Miranda July desperately wants to accurately describe her, but can’t. Singer, spoken word artist, performance artist, living movie, the future, insert “blank” here…She 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 there’s no bell,“ she explained, ”and I’ll 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 tiger’s head, a tutu, a child‘s viewfinder, etc. My curiosity grew like dustbunnies. The walls are of varying textures—stripes, 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 I’ll be the Psychiatrist…”

Heide Foley: Tell me about your childhood.
Miranda July: Well, I’ve always been a performer. When I was younger I thought, ”Oh I’m gonna make movies“ and by movies I meant mainstream movies or, ”I’m gonna be an actress” —in mainstream movies. I think I started writing before I started anything else. At some point I’ll go back to that. I don’t consider writing for performances and movies really writing because I’m there to back myself up, whereas when it’s the written word it has to be so much better.
HF: Tell me about your mother.
MJ: She wasn’t a hippy mom but she did have these weird, like, art cards. I don’t know what they were, but she would say, ”Now why don’t you make up a story about this picture?” That was all it took. I’d be off on these long stories. She’s a writer herself and so she always made me feel like everything I had to say was important.
HF: So you’d say you have a really positive image of your mother?
MJ: Totally.
HF: And your father?
MJ: I don’t really remember my dad at all before twelve or so. I talked about that with my brother. I’ll remember isolated incidents, but I can’t 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. [laughs]
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… [pause] until 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t fooled, ya know, I wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 now—it came back two years ago, whatever it is—and 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 Mouse’s ears. I look at them now and I’m like, what the fuck? It doesn’t look anything like Mickey Mouse’s ears. If it does, it looks like some menacing robot alien Mickey Mouse. I’m thinking, this isn’t a fun game!
Having the eye disease now casts me back in time. I think that’s why I’m 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. I’m editing it mostly from two different tapes. One is all surveillance footage of the Universal Girl. The camera stays in one place and I’m in my white cotton bra and panties and “girl hair”—a long wig. It’s 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 I’m this Other Woman discussing the Universal Girl on the screen. The Other Woman is describing, almost designing and constructing, the Universal Girl she’s 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? She’s not supposed to do that. That‘s really bad.” And you don‘t know if it‘s becasue of her condition—like a medical condition—or 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 can’t 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 parents—this was when I was younger—and 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 don’t 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 you are.
MJ: [points out a big cockroach, says it’s stealing the moment] That’s a really hard question.
HF: Ok, let’s 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 it‘s 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 it’s an invitation to be completely intimate with as many people as happen to be in the audience. It’s a very generous thing, in one way, because it’s an intimacy that I don’t even know how to give, sometimes, to my closest friends. It’s stingy in the sense that it can turn off when I leave the stage. Although sometimes I don’t 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 I’m left wondering how to get to that same place with my friends without getting them on stage with me. I’ll 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 can’t feel physical pain or the guinea pig medical researcher who failed the test.
MJ: I’m totally in love with people. I’m astounded by the completely bizarre ways that everyone’s functioning. Just constantly. I—oh 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. It’s pretty much all I can do to maintain in the presence of…
HF: Of what?
MJ: Well, like even at the post office—it really is the littlest interactions I’m talking about. I’m waiting in line and I’m getting closer and closer to the interaction and then it’s my turn and I go up to the counter—this happens every morning—there’s 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 it’s 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 what’s going to happen, but sometimes something weird will happen. Like they’ll make a little joke or something, you know, and I’ll just practically shit my pants. [laughs] I don’t 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 warfare?
MJ: More so recently. My first album was much more inspired by emotions and this one’s inspired by structures. There are certain structures that seem so delicious I’ll just fall in love with them. It makes my mouth water to imagine doing something that’s been done before but with a sort of, um, I don’t know, a sly grin that makes you feel like the only reason it feels familiar is that you had a nightmare about it!
I’ve been completely obsessed with language that’s 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 albums—the stripper and the customer, or my new piece where parts of it follow the dynamic of a witness being cross- examined—I don’t really give a fuck about a stripper and a customer, or even court dramas, it’s just that those are structures which I can use to point at what’s not happening. What’s not interesting is what’s happening in court because that is so boring. But the dynamic between… oh god, it’s like, whatever happens to seep into that dialogue causes the whole system to malfunction. That’s 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 degree—as far as they will let her. It’s 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 videos—when 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-selective—she 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 “chainletters”—each 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.
—Heide Foley


"Reality is that, which if not dealt with properly, will kill you" -Dan Foley

heide foley
P.O. Box 3126
Sausalito, CA 94965
415-331-6203 (voice)
[email protected]