Miranda July

You Are Doing Good My Dear
By Andrew Maerkle

Concept sketch for Eleven Heavy Things (2009/10). All images: Unless otherwise noted, courtesy Miranda July.

Documentation of an email correspondence with Miranda July, January 1-20, 2011, compiled into interview format:

ART iT: This issue of ART iT addresses the theme “Text,” looking not only at artists who use text in their works but also artists who look at how the world communicates with us, and how we decode the world. Thinking about the idea of text – coding and decoding – what is communication to you?

MJ: Communication is really my main comfort in life. In one way or another I’m always trying to describe feelings in new and better ways. I will do this regardless of the outcome, even alone in a dark room. But the best – the creamy center – of life is when someone re-describes a feeling back to me in a way that I never would have imagined, but is more ecstatically accurate than what I could have come up with. This can happen in a book, a conversation, a performance – in any medium, by any person of any age.

ART iT: You frequently use text in your works but as a filmmaker you are also an image maker, and even with your piece for the 2009 Venice Biennale, Eleven Heavy Things, the idea was that people would take photographs with the sculptures. What is the relationship – or what are the differences – between text making and image making for you?

MJ: Yes, it’s a little bit of conundrum, actually – given what I said above – that I’m keenly aware that images (movies, performance, sculpture, etc) can communicate lightning quick, democratically and effortlessly. Writing is the tonic form, the undiluted, maximum strength me. All the other forms are a tiny bit more diluted – they’re less easy to control, more subject to the weather of collaborations, interpretations. The world comes in more. Which isn’t a bad thing, and is in fact what draws me to them.
I often vacillate for a while about what medium a new idea should be – last night I was thinking about a story that has a very odd sexual relationship in it and I wondered if people really needed to SEE that, or if I would be freer just writing about it. I imagined casting an actress with just the right kind of skin versus having to describe that skin in words.

Top: Installation view of The Hallway (2008) at the 3rd Yokohama Triennale, 2008. Photo Yoshinaga Yasuaki, courtesy of the Organizing Committee for the Yokohama Triennale.Bottom row: Eleven Heavy Things (2009) as installed at Union Square, New York, 2010. Photo Brian Paul Lamotte.

ART iT: You have published fiction writing, but text (notes, signs, impromptu intertitles, online chats) also appears in your art, film and online projects as a kind of disembodied voice. The “writer” is distanced from what is being expressed, giving the text a life of its own in the mind of the reader, as in your installation for the Yokohama Triennale in 2008, The Hallway. Is this aspect of the disembodied voice something you consciously explore with your use of text? If so, where does this interest come from?

MJ: In my most recent movie, The Future (which hasn’t been released yet), there is a very prominent disembodied voice – that of the moon. Only after I’d completely finished the movie did I think of this book that I wrote when I was six or seven called “Lost Child.” In this book a girl is led by a voice calling to her from the sky, “a voice buzzing in her head” – I actually drew a picture of the voice coming down from the sky with the words “You are doing good my dear.” The voice ultimately turns out to be the voice of a star – I remember feeling that this was kind of a cheap ending, but I couldn’t figure out any other logical answer.
I also can’t think of a great answer to your question, other than yes, I do seem to do that, and it’s resonant in a way I can’t explain. The Hallway and the sculptures for Venice were similar in my mind to when I’ve asked audience members to read aloud texts that end up sounding very confessional, as if the readers themselves had written them. Only with this new work, they read in their heads, so they are the audience of what’s happening with the voices in their heads.

ART iT: It’s interesting what you write about communication. I guess I should have thought to ask, would you say that many of your works are about different aspects of communication? And is sexuality a big part of communication for you? It seems from reading your short stories that many of your characters are sexually isolated, and this is also a reflection of how they function or don’t function in society. I like the idea that our minds communicate one thing and our bodies communicate something else entirely, which stayed with me in particular after reading your stories “The Sister” and “Ten True Things.”

MJ: I wouldn’t say my work is about communication, but connecting or not connecting with another person is often crucial to the lives of my characters, which I think is pretty human and realistic. I maybe focus more on the lead up to communication, the longing, the misguided impulses, such that these communications are very heavily weighted when they happen. For some reason I would never associate sex with communication. Maybe that is the woman in me that values talking SO much, and feels sex would be a very inarticulate way to communicate most things.

Above: Audience members perform backstage during Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going To Talk About, March 1, 2007, The Kitchen, New York. Below: Miranda July performing in Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going To Talk About, March 1, 2007, The Kitchen, New York.

ART iT: It also seems that you frequently cite the language of therapy. Does therapy relate to the disembodied voice at all? Are you necessarily satirizing the language of therapy, and the conditions that popularize that language in society, or is your interest more of an ambivalent nature?

MJ: I wouldn’t say that it’s exactly a satire, because I see a therapist and have benefitted from that. But therapy is also funny to me. It’s a funny kind of intimacy because it’s both so honest and complex, and so formal and ritualized. In fact, just thinking about it right now makes me want to write scenes. All these scenes would be drawn right out of my real life.

ART iT: You mention the idea that in The Hallway and Eleven Heavy Things viewers/readers are “the audience of what’s happening with the voices in their heads.” Do you see this dynamic, then, as a performative situation that is different from reading a book? Or is it a way of democratizing/imaging the process that already takes place when we read books?

MJ: I think it’s the same as when you read, but I tried to find ways to physically make the participant take on the “I” or the “you” in the texts. If it’s written that the “you” looks up and sees the word “JOY” and you can actually look up and see the word JOY on a post-it note attached to the ceiling, then maybe, in a very clumsy way, that encourages you to believe that the “you” is really YOU, your most intimate self. I also try write thoughts that are familiar, that maybe everyone has internally but doesn’t verbalize.

ART iT: In your first feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), computers play a significant role in the story, as the means through which the young boy Robby has the online relationship with the older curator, and of course the emoticon for “poop back and forth, forever” has taken a life of its own since the movie. What was the attraction of online communication for you in constructing the story?

MJ: For Me and You I think I just liked the structure of strangers writing and then meeting – it did not have to be online, what mattered was that it was an intimate, even slightly sexual (but innocent) relationship between two people who absolutely could not have that relationship in our world.
In the new movie computers are also important because everything changes when a couple turns off the Internet. As someone who manages to not be addicted to drugs or alcohol, it confounds me that something new that was invented in my lifetime could be so very addictive. It fills in all the cracks, all the frighteningly vague or boring or empty spaces where new ideas come from, which is why it is soooo delicious.

ART iT: Can you explain further what it means to “quit the Internet,” at least in terms of the The Future? In general, what is the context for the plot, about a couple who become unhinged from time and space when faced with the responsibility of looking after a terminally ill cat? Have you changed your approach from Me and You at all?

MJ: Well, these are questions that will be answered when you get to see the movie. I think it will be obvious that I haven’t changed my approach, in as much as the budget is about the same, and the cast again has no stars. But I hope this movie goes a little deeper into its characters – and most notably, it isn’t a comedy. There are funny parts, but ultimately it’s a very sad tale.
This couple quits the Internet the way any of us might, to stop the distraction. But it creates a space that perhaps allows things to devolve to the extreme in a way that might only happen over many years if you didn’t have to face the void within.

Still from the film The Future (2011). Courtesy Todd Cole, © 2011 THE FUTURE.

ART iT: Is the decision not to use stars in your films due to budget constraints, or a creative choice?

MJ: The first time I very consciously did not want stars; it seemed like they would be inappropriate for the story. This time I made a big show of being open to stars, met with lots of them, but ultimately felt like the relatively unknown actors Hamish Linklater and David Warshofsky were truly the best ones for the job. I’ll admit that it might be a little bit about control. I really want to have as much control as I can over the world I’m making and how it’s perceived. Of course, I love movie stars in other people’s movies, and will see a movie just because a certain actor is in it. I just haven’t made the connection to myself yet. Maybe next time.

ART iT: Do you think that film has in any way superseded your work in performance – do the two fields coexist for you or does film swallow up performance (and maybe everything else as well)?

MJ: Certainly many, many more people have seen the first movie than have ever seen me perform, or will ever. Nonetheless, I’ve been surprised that people still refer to me as a performing artist, even though it’s safe to say that none of these people have much of an idea of what my performances are like. I think maybe it is almost a way to say something about my movies, or even my books – if “performance artist” weren’t thrown in there then the words “author” and “filmmaker” would be misleading, too normal.
Maybe it’s not true, but I really believe that I’m pulling this off, that all the worlds are successfully co-existing. I do feel some (self-imposed) pressure to rotate mediums, to not do two movies or two books in a row for fear of getting stuck in one of those worlds. Freedom above all.

ART iT: Having worked across so many different creative fields, do you have any figures that you look to for inspiration? For example, when you first began experimenting with performance and video, did you have any model to follow or was that something that developed organically out of your circumstances at the time? Now that you are making feature films, do you have any particular filmmakers who you find have influenced you?

MJ: It is more as you suggest, that each thing developed out of the circumstances of the time. That is what happens when you don’t go to art school and are not surrounded by people doing the same thing (as I might have been had I, say, wanted to be in a band).
For a long time I felt embarrassed that I had so few references outside myself, but now that I am married to someone [the graphic designer and film/video director Mike Mills] who really sucks energy and inspiration from the many, many, books and movies he devours, I see that it’s just a different process.
That said, when I was 23 and someone gave me a cassette tape bootleg of an early Patti Smith performance, I felt electrified – and by the performances of Kathleen Hanna at the time, in her band Bikini Kill. They didn’t do what I did, but they were gutsy, which was the main thing I needed to see. I could figure out the rest.
Some of my favorite movies are: The Truman Show, Random Harvest, Groundhog Day and Somewhere in Time – all movies in which someone’s perception of reality shifts in an almost science-fictional way – that’s my favorite kind of movie. I wish I were more influenced in terms of craft, but I really forget about all that when I’m watching movies. I watch like a fan, with my mouth slightly open.

Screen capture of MirandaJuly.com, illustration ART iT.

ART iT: Final question. Visitors to your website are asked to enter a secret password before they can continue to the main content. I enjoy this because of course I already know, or assume, that any word I pick will allow me to proceed, but I still stop to think about a suitable word to enter. For me, your website serves as a reminder of the absurdity of how so many of our interactions on the Internet are controlled by arbitrary passwords. I also noticed, though, that your site seems to archive every password that is entered into the intro page. What happens to all these words?

MJ: Wait, how could you tell that the words are archived? They are, and the list is amazing. At first I was confused about how a word like HUBERT could have been entered 178 times, but then I realized that people stick with the same word, maybe because they think they’ve guessed the right word?(!) So far no plans for them, but one day I’ll publish them all. The most oft-typed word is LIGHT, at 19,126 times. Others include: LANGOROUS (154), PUSSY (173), TWAT (29), HOLE (27), FEMINISM (23) and JEFF (23).

Miranda July‘s The Future was screened as part of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, held January 20-30 at multiple venues in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah.

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