Camera Obscura 19.1 (2004) 180-197
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Some Kind of Grace:
An Interview with Miranda July
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| Figure 1 |
Miranda July. Courtesy Miranda July
"I come from very far away. I come from the basement." This line, from one of Miranda July's sound pieces ("I Can-Japan,"on the CD The Binet-Simon Test, issued by the indie rock label Kill Rock Stars), captures the absurd logic that pervades her art. July's work inhabits das Unheimliche, the uncanny space—a world in which the familiar or close at hand is suddenly made foreign. Her prodigious output, which includes CDs, videos, online projects, multimedia performances, visual art, and short stories, defies straightforward description, but uniting this diverse oeuvre is her ability to unearth secrets and dig beneath the faulty foundations of domesticity. July is interested in the impulses that lurk just under the surface: the monsters that dwell in the basement and either speak our deepest fears or embody our most extreme fantasies.
Developing complex tableaux with the use of her body, voice, sound, and video effects, she presents multiple characters (often played by July herself) who attempt to navigate and manage the world around them through complicated systems of control. The scenarios she presents are sometimes otherwordly or fantastic—a secret agent from another planet infiltrates a nuclear [End Page 181] family, a woman buries herself in her backyard—but like the best science fiction, they strike one as profoundly true. She also has an expansive sense of humor, and with it she plumbs the small, sweet hopes inside us and reacquaints us with the abidingly strange and beautiful human touch.
July, a twenty-nine-year-old artist based in Portland, Oregon, has been hailed as "the most engaging performance artist at work today (period)" and "an enfant terrible of the punk scene."1 Often likened to the performances of Laurie Anderson or the early films of Chantal Akerman, July's work traffics in both the severe and the banal conditions of contemporary life: environmental illness, family dynamics, obsolescing technology, surveillance, and medical experimentation. In her live performances Love Diamond (1998) and The Swan Tool (2001), the participatory elements are reminiscent of the art of Yoko Ono, while her portrayal of multiple characters brings to mind the theatricality of Cindy Sherman. But such comparisons are strained, not only because July does so much but also because her art, whatever form it eventually takes, rushes out of her with an explosive force, and trying to explain it can feel like trying to sculpt water.
For the past eight years, July has been part of a broad community of artists, musicians, and filmmakers in the Pacific Northwest. Often working with very little money, and springing from homegrown, hybrid gallery/music spaces, Portland artists have cultivated a distinctive scene encouraging crossover between the arts. This sense of possibility helped July foster and deepen her experiments in multiple media. Her collaborative video projects were initially sparked through her association with the explicitly feminist alternative culture forged by young women through fanzines, punk bands, and do-it-yourself aesthetics. It was partly her involvement in this DIY culture that led her to found Joanie 4 Jackie (formerly Big Miss Moviola), an independent, woman-made video distribution system that allows women and girls to share their work with each other and to find bigger audiences. It is, as she puts it, "a challenge and a promise": if a woman makes a video, it will get seen. Every video that is sent to Joanie 4 Jackie is put on a compilation tape with nine other videos and then sent [End Page 182]
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| Figure 2 |
Joanie 4Jackie logo. Courtesy Miranda July
back to all the participants. These random selections of ten shorts function like a chain letter, circulating amongst the women and providing a system of feedback. Participants are encouraged to correspond with each other, and contact information is found in the booklet that accompanies each tape...