»An inner voice whispered to me: You won’t be able to survive that«

Author, filmmaker, performance artist, Miranda July is an universal talent and artistically interested in the emotional abyss. In our conversation she talks about the moments in her life, that let her outgrow herself, about money troubles, motherhood and marriage.

Miranda July in her bathroom in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Since she moved she uses her old home as a studio.

Picture: Elizabeth Weinberg; Hair & Make-up: Stephanie Navarro

SZ-Magazin: Your artwork Services, that you did exclusively for the Edition46 of SZ-Magazin, starts on the 13th of March 2020: the day it became certain that your child would not be allowed back to school due to Covid-19. How did you feel that day?
Miranda July: I was shocked, and there was almost this sort of giddiness that comes with shock. And then it was all about planning our lives and how we would do our work, how we would divide the time looking after our child. That was a big challenge for me as an artist and a mother. Covid came at a time when I finally wanted to go out into the world to talk to people about my film Kajillionaire and my new book.

On that same day you had a phone call from a solicitor, a transwoman named Jay. The following months a conversation unwound between you, in which you wrote at the beginning, »We’ve been doing this for two weeks already and I think we’re going for two months more at least.« Nearly seven months later that sounds beautifully naive.
In March I could still taste normal life, and I spent most of my time wanting to go back to it. But I’ve cut that out since then – reminiscing on my life before Covid – I simply don’t allow myself to do it, it’s too painful. And I’ve stopped dreaming about the future as well, or at least I only think about the near future, never about one beyond the pandemic. And that’s a huge shift for someone like me, who normally spends a great deal of her time dreaming and planning.

What was it that drew you to Jay so much and made you want to work with her artistically?
I was going of a hunch, intuition, which is my job as much as anything. That first picture she sent me, with her bowing to money, and what she had written for it, I found that so honest. And it got right at the heart of our relationship, which was quite transactional: I gave her money and directions and she carried them out, like an actress on one of my sets. Over time that became so much more, my mood in the last months has been surprisingly dependent on whether or not Jay’d written and sent new pictures or not. Every time she went a step further, but I still never knew what she thought about our collaboration. When I showed her the final work, she said that it was the first thing in her life that she was ever really proud of.

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You are an successful artist living in LA, while Jay is a trans woman scraping by on the bare minimum in the Philippines. What did you learn about yourself through working with her?
When she first called, I immediately figured because of my own prejudices regarding her accent and tone of voice, ah, this is a solicitor and that I was supposed to transfer her money and then never hear from her again, but I thought, ‘Hey, I’m interested in scams, I’ve done scams myself, I just did a whole film about a family of con-artists,’ and so I tried to extend the conversation. And the longer I work with her, the more I ask myself: Can you work for a possibly illegitimate company and at the same time do a legitimate job? Because she does do real work: she calls self-published authors and offers services and she gets paid by her company for that, albeit poorly from my perspective. I find myself questioning the legitimacy of the supposedly »real« systems I work within. She is founding her own company now; I'm helping her a little bit with that.

How so?
I paid for some of the things she needed to begin, like an U.S. phone number. And she would like me to consider books to blurb, which I`ll do if I think it`s decent work. So many people use my name for their own reasons, I don’t see why she should have any less right to that than someone else.

It could fall back on you.
It could, but maybe I need to take that risk.

It sounds like you’ve become quite close.
And neither of us really feels comfortable with that. We know we often don’t understand each other properly. But we are making our peace with that. And we want to continue working together, let’s see where it will lead us.

You mentioned your film Kajillionaire before, about a family of con-artists. Where did your interest in that topic originally come from?
My father’s relationship with money was very fear-ridden, and for that reason, little scams were a part of our everyday. In the supermarket we would do something we called »slipping«, using the wrong coupons to the cashier. Once I was old enough to look after myself, it seemed morally okay to just take things without paying for them, and through that be smarter than everyone else. I did get caught a few times though, and actually I got arrested once. I quit stealing things once I had my first success with art, when I was about 23. Around that time I was invited to be a guest at a college’s evening event, and I remember scanning that room, looking for things I could take with me as I left – a box of chalk, a projector… In that moment I really had to decide what path I was going to go down. I chose not to take the box of chalk. But my relationship with money is still complicated today; I’m still something of a purist when it comes to what I’m going to do for money.

So, was stealing for you just about getting something without paying for it, or was it about the adrenaline rush as well?
I have to admit, I love a dare. Do you know these pickup basketball games? A group of big, sweaty men playing this super intense, fast-paced game on a court outside. I must have been around eight, and a friend bet I wouldn’t dare go up to them and just start playing, and even though to me those guys were huge and scary, I just ran in and started trying to take the ball off them! Which was obviously ridiculous – they swatted me away like I was some kind of fly. But I think there’s a connection there: the stealing, my interest in scams, my love of dares and my way of doing art. Trying to steal the ball off massive guys as a little girl, or being in a performance standing on the stage – for me it’s the same kind of high.

What’s happening when you’re standing onstage?
Onstage I can do things which in real life would never be allowed or are actually impossible – I can travel through time, or simultaneously be a daughter and her mother. I feel free when I’m up there, and I have an agility and freedom which I don’t in real life. It feels like being able to fly. It has something to do with the fear that comes with standing onstage as well, I think. Nothing I do is as scary as that. Writing, for example, is harder, but it doesn’t scare me. That’s why I don’t perform so much anymore – because it’s pretty brutal – but it’s also why I never want to stop.

To expose yourself and your ideas in front of other people is a risk, and you double that risk in that you often involve unprepared audiences in your live performances. Why do you do that to yourself?
Because I feel like it puts us in the same place. The fact that I can’t control them entirely, makes me so much more vulnerable. We get into real crises on that stage, but if we’re brave enough, something truly ecstatic could happen, in real time, not something for later but in the present moment.

What was one performance where that really worked out?
With my last big performance New Society at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it must have been 2015. At the top of the show we vote and decide to stay in this theater forever and form a new world in there, with me as a leader, which has to be this way, because it’s my show and I am the only one who knows what is going to happen. Together we write a new constitution, a new national anthem, a graphic designer in the audience – and there is always a graphic designer in the audience –­ paints our nations flag and the next 20 years of our sovereignty plays out over two hours, we grow older, we change and at the end of the performance we can face our own reality with shock again. This kind of time travel wouldn’t be so special in a movie but literally building a new society is extremely moving, the risks and vulnerability on both sides was tremendous. And for me as an artist, that is mind blowing, this very present emotional mess is maybe the most exquisite material an artist can work with, totally ephemeral, almost sublime in it’s elusiveness. The best documentation techniques couldn’t capture what happened in on that stage, and everyone in the audience knows that.

Your first artwork was a piece of theater, which you brought to the stage of a Berkeley punk club at 17 years old, in 1992. Interestingly, not dissimilar to the project you did for us. The piece was entitled The Lifers, the reason for which was your pen pal relationship with a murderer in prison. Where did you get the idea from to, as a teenager, write to a convicted murderer?
I spoke already about the importance of intuition in my work, and it was the same for me then, too. There was an advert in the newspaper for prison pen pals, and I found his name and number there.

Weren’t you nervous about writing to someone in prison?
I found it exciting, communicating with someone outside of my world, sounding out whether it’s even possible to do that. It’s pretty easy. In the end it’s just writing a letter, but it still feels crazy, like going to the moon. And then comes the waiting for a response; I love that feeling, being pretty certain that something is coming but not knowing what. It was exactly the same with Jay, the excitement, the curiosity, the impossibility of knowing what the other would say, that keeps me alive. Nobody had written to that guy in more than twelve years, and then I came along. Still, I have mixed feelings about him.

Miranda July, born as Miranda Grossinger in 1974, grew up in Berkeley, California. Her parents have a publishing house. July works as a performance artist, author and filmmaker. Her movie Me and you and everyone we know introduced her to a worldwide audience in 2005 and won the Caméra d’Or for best first film at the filmfestival in Cannes. In the years since a book of shortstories, a novel, two other movies and several exhibitions followed. Her last movie Kajillionaire was just released in Germany. The name July, that has been her legal name for a long time, dates back to her teenager years, when she published the feminist fanzine Snarla with her friend Johanna Fateman, who later became the singer of the band Le Tigre. The heroines of Snarla were called Ida and July and turned into alter egos over time. July lives with her child Hopper, 8, and her husband, the filmmaker Mike Mills, in Los Angeles.

Picture: Elizabeth Weinberg; Hair & Make-up: Stephanie Navarro

I always thought he would die in prison, but he’s out now, and that worries me, especially since I have a child. At the time I thought I had it under control, which was obviously not the case; he lied to me, and he’s definitely not a very nice person – I’ve read his case history. And I was still practically a child and not capable of judging that situation correctly.

Do you wish your parents had stepped in then?
There were a few moments in my life in which I wished someone had intervened. If I’d had different parents, maybe I wouldn’t have got the idea to write to a murderer or work in a peep show. But the level of drama was so high at home, that this kind of seeking for connections didn’t seem extreme to me. Also, I had interests and needs which I had to deal with in my own way, and that I do not regret. Still, i feel lucky that nothing too horrible happened.

After high school you started to study, but quit shortly after and moved in the middle of the 90s to live with your girlfriend in Portland to be a part of the Riot Grrrl scene there, the radical feminist punk scene, and to make art. What was that time like for you?
I was touring through the States at the time with my bands and as a performer, and I would be, say, in a small town in Texas, where punk was already a thing but Riot Grrrl wasn’t, the worst thing wasn’t being onstage and getting heckled or later getting shoved around in the mosh pit, but rather that guys just talked over me as if I didn’t exist.

While you were standing onstage?
Yeah, they just grabbed the microphone and started with their own stuff, even though I wasn’t done yet. Or the band on after me would start setting up their equipment while I was in the middle of my set.

What did you do then?
Kept an eye out for a woman in the audience, there was always one somewhere, and I would look her in the eye and give my performance to the end, for her. After I became more well-known and didn’t have to deal with that kind of pushback anymore, I sometimes asked myself »Why am I even doing this if it’s so easy and straightforward?«, until it occurred to me that, now, the energy which I used to put into asserting myself I was able to put into my art, and actually it should have been that way from the beginning.

How were your performances received in places where Riot Grrrl was already developed?
In that sense you can maybe compare Riot Grrrl to Me Too. Wherever Riot Grrrl appeared, it wasn’t that everything was suddenly as it should be, but rules were established which hadn’t applied before. Sentences like ‘no means no,’ and that you can’t bother and feel a woman up without asking her – it was pretty basic work. But I have to add that I came to Riot Grrrl a little late. Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill and all the others are a few years older than me, and I could build upon what they had already fought for. Everything moved so quickly for me not just because of my own fierceness but also because I had people who supported me.

Did you learn anything in that time about living as an artist which you still apply in your life today?
I can’t stress enough how valuable it was being around women like Rachel Carns and Kathleen Hanna, who was and still is a glamorous feminist icon in entirely her own way. And she was far from the only one: Corin Tucker, who had her band Heavens to Betsy, there was Team Dresch, who were queer, or Tribe 8, who were punk and queer and performed naked with their breasts swinging around. I fought for my own place on the stage of course, but the space for women, for queer people, for feminists had already been carved out by others. Self-defense was also pretty popular among women back then as well, which imparted strength and also safety. There was a sense of invulnerability in that. Because I didn’t have to put myself in danger personally, I could take risks with my art.

That reminds me of the protagonist of your short story Something That Needs Nothing. She works in a peep show and says, »I hated my job, but I liked the fact that I could do it. I had once believed in a precious inner self, but now I didn’t. I had thought that I was fragile, but I wasn’t.«
That story is my autobiographical short story, perhaps the only autobiographical one. And I do believe that there’s a precious inner self which you have to take care of, but in that time I was finding out that I was tough in ways I hadn’t been taught about. I am much tougher than my parents. Still, there was this inner voice which whispered to me that I wasn’t going to survive. And my answer at that time was: I absolutely can. I asked myself how fragile I was, really, and then I pushed it yet further: »Can I strip? Can I prostitute?« Sometimes you can only find the edge by going over it.

Miranda Julys visual world: a wall full of letters, pictures, souvenirs and inspirations.

Picture: Elizabeth Weinberg

With a newspaper ad you then found a man who paid you for sex. The advert said “Spoil me.” In your new book, the first encounter with this man is told from the perspective of a friend, who waited for you in the car outside, ready to intervene if something went wrong. In retrospect she wonders why she let you do something so dangerous. Weren’t you afraid?
I was nervous, but what should I have been afraid of? That he would rape me? That was part of the deal. And it was awful, but I wanted it to happen this way – I put up the ad, so I could choose him. We met a few times, and then he went on a long summer holiday with his wife and kids, but paying me a retainer first so that I would stay in contact with him. I knew already that I never wanted to see him again, but I took the money anyway, $2000, and I bought a laptop I needed for my work with it. And once it was over me and my best friend baked cupcakes together – because ‘Cupcake’ was his nickname for me – and on each and every cupcake I wrote the word ‘gone’: gone, gone, gone, gone. That was the separation ritual.

Have you ever regretted making this experience public?
I kept it to myself for a long time. At the beginning of the 00s there was this website called Suicide Girls which made out as if sex work was something really cool, and under absolutely no circumstances did I want young women to know that about me and come away thinking ‘if Miranda July did it, then it’s cool’. But then at some point I mentioned it in an interview, and I was waiting for it to blow up, but nobody reacted.

Because sex work isn’t so controversial these days?
I think it’s rather that with my first movie Me and You and Everyone We Know my image had swung so far in the other direction that people just had this super sweet impression of me. And so then I realized there are these dark themes in my work, which come from the darker sides of my self, and maybe it’s not so bad to address that directly sometimes. Especially now, where I’m respected as an artist and in a position of power myself. And it being in the book has provoked new reactions recently.

Such as?
Somebody asked me whether I was worried about the parents of my kids’ friends knowing that about me, but who’s to say none of those mothers have done sex work in the past? And maybe it can help those people heal, reading that someone went through these experiences and now talks about them in a more complex way, not with shame. And who knows, at some point my own child might think that hustling makes sense – maybe it’s good to have a mother who says ‘let’s talk about it, I have also made my experiences.’ A conversation like that would mean a lot to me. In a way the people most shocked by the whole thing were my parents. They were embarrassed and angry that they came off badly from it, but those kinds of reactions are exactly why we should talk openly about our experiences, to shed light where there is only shame and anger. Shedding light on them means they might not happen again, or might happen in a safer way.

You grew up in a publishing household – your parents are both authors. What was your childhood like in the 80s, in Berkeley, California?
North Atlantic Books, my parents’ publishing business, was in our house – the living room was the office. And that meant the people working for my parents would be going in and out every day, so these public and private spheres were always overlapping. In the back there was a mountain of boxes for shipping books in, and labels all over the place, and us kids had to help out too obviously, and that’s how me and my older brother learnt very early on what it means to get your ideas in the world. And sometimes I think that was more crucial for me as an artist than growing up in a particularly artistic environment, because maybe you can’t learn how to be an artist anyway, but what you can learn is how to survive as an artist, how to handle the business side of things.

A lot of creative people find they have issues with self-promotion.
I know. I think about it all the time – how and where I’m going to present my work, how I can best promote it, how I’m going to reach a more diverse audience. But I also notice constantly that other people find it not cool, like it’s unseemly to concern yourself with that as an artist. Like artists are supposed to sit back and see, and if it’s successful, it’s successful, and if not, then not. I think that’s an elite position; most people have to hustle to get anywhere.

What did you and your brother do to pass the time while your parents were writing?
Well my parents would sit in front of their typewriters the whole time. As a child it’s really not so easy to understand that kind of inner work. So while they were in their world, my big brother built a world for us.

In a figurative sense?
No, totally real. I remember one summer, he was maybe ten and I was five, where he built me a dollhouse, at least as big as I was, which we wallpapered and put carpet in, and built furniture for which we never could have afforded to buy. And he built a playhouse for me in the garden, with a kitchen and sleeping and living rooms and even an upstairs. Actually, building such a big house in the garden probably wasn’t even legal, zoning-wise. It was magical. And in that time he was already building beautiful wooden furniture, things like secretary desks, but which only a child could have built, because they had all these secret compartments – if you push here, this pops open, in there there’s a key for a drawer, and tucked away in the drawer were all his baseball cards, stuff like that. He was kind of a child prodigy until he found out the trees he was building furniture out of wouldn’t grow back. Then he just stopped. He’s been working for 30 years as an environmental historian.

"I discovered the concept of beauty only late in life", says July, who was part of the Riot Grrrl scene of Portland for a long time. In the back one can discover the paws of the cat Paw Paw from her movie The Future.

Picture: Elizabeth Weinberg; Hair & Make-up: Stephanie Navarro

What would you do while he building things?
Helping: sanding, holding things together after they were glued, holding up walls while he hammered. I was the ideal audience for him; we were huge fans of what we were doing.

Were your parents excited in the same way?
They were proud, but not overly so. At first glance our parents barely gave us any structure, but in a way, they set an example of structure with their work: We completed our projects just as they did. And the most important part for me was that we never had the feeling we were doing a kid’s version of anything, and I did the same when I was older. When I wanted to put on The Lifers, it was clear to me that I absolutely didn’t want to do it at my high school. The Lifers was a real theater piece with real actors, not students, even if they were amateurs. There was casting, there was a script, it happened in a club. I was a 17-year-old first-time director, but it was a professional theater production.

Was The Lifers really your first work, or was there something before that which you would call art?
At six years old I wrote a book called Lost Child. It’s a bit scary how close it is thematically to what I do today.

In what way?
Well, it’s about a girl who’s driven by a voice from the sky to leave the house, and the voice, which is everywhere, leads her through cities and jungle. I remember not knowing precisely how you’re supposed to finish a book like that. She ends up in jail and has to be freed by her father.

It’s sort of like the voice which talks to the main character in your film The Future.
Still today I continue to focus at that voice that feels slightly outside of me.

You’re a director, a writer, a performance artist – what was it that came first?
I always wanted to make films, and I asked myself whether I could pull that off. The Lifers was a test run, and I’ve always thought of my performances as live films as well, just without equipment. The short stories came later because I’d always had a fear of failure connected with writing – especially with my parents writing professionally, I absolutely did not want to find out I wasn’t good enough at it.

Long before you shot your first film, you created the Joanie4Jackie project, for which you called on young female filmmakers to send you their films on tape, and in return you sent them a tape with ten films by other women on it. What did you want to achieve with this project?
Joanie4Jackie was like throwing a stone out into the atmosphere to try and determine whether there was life out there. That project was very important for me because afterwards I didn’t feel so alone. I had no money, I had serious problems with my eyes and spent a lot of time in the dark – and suddenly I was in correspondence with all these female filmmakers from all over the place, and the person who got that thing up and running was me – I was the boss. That was huge.

With that project you aligned yourself decidedly against a white, heterosexual, male-dominated film industry. Would you say today, three feature films later, that something has changed there?
The first year I was at Sundance Film Festival, there was only one other film by a female director out of 16 films in the competition, last year they had gender parity. And I did have the sense this time with Kajillionaire that everyone knew they should finance movies by women, and so I perhaps benefitted from that with my third movie – and rightly so. It begins with a quota and then evolves into change: with every generation that watches more movies by women the thinking changes of what is possible for them.

Every artist has her own routine. Some work by night, some on drugs – how do you do it?
I do my art like an ordinary job. I wake up, write down what I dreamt that night, not really in order to use my dreams for my art, more as a devotional act to my subconscious. Then I go to my office, which I’ve set up in my old place in Echo Park, and I write. The morning is sacred to me, but interviews often get in the way of that, and in the afternoon, I take care of the business side of things. Since the pandemic started, I often spend that morning teaching my child and in any case I arrive home at 18:30 sharp every day for dinner. Weekends are pretty hard for me because I can’t work. Before we had Hopper I could at least read. Don’t get me wrong, children are a wonderful thing, but if I’m honest with myself, I want to constantly be doing something – weekends and holidays mean nothing to me. And since you brought up drugs: in the lockdown I like to take a microdose pill of mushrooms sometimes on Saturday mornings.

Does it help?
Yeah, it helps me sleep, und I wake up totally clear on Sunday and know what I have to do.

I read once that you stay overnight in your house in Echo Park once a week. Do you still do that?
Yes, being able to work until late at night with nobody disturbing you feels downright wild. When I suggested it to my husband and child they were like, ‘Great, we’ll order pizza!’

You were worried about asking them?
Yeah, even if it would never happen, I was worried that they might think I wasn’t coming back. And these nights do carry a certain risk. I can do what I want and I have total privacy.

The thing I find most interesting about this sort of absence is that removes someone somewhat from the control of their partner.
I don’t want to overstate the significance of these Wednesday evenings, but they are important because for me they’re tied to a great unknown: If I can do that, what else can I do? You start to see that family and marriage structures are arbitrary, and that you should ask yourself, in every little decision, why we do it that way and not completely differently. Moving in together, getting married, having kids, it doesn’t sound so altogether oppressive, but these structures start suppressing you as soon as you deviate from them by even a millimeter. Every marriage is founded on some degree of sexism, just from the way these relationships were conceived of historically, and I take the liberty once a week of escaping this logic at least for a night. And that’s not about saying I have a problem with you. It’s about being brave enough to be as much myself in my marriage as I am in my work.

Perhaps this question is too personal, but why did you as a queer, feminist female artist get married in the first place?
I always hoped to meet a life-long partner but I never had a strong sense about marriage, but Mike did. Still, when I did it, I wasn’t doing it for him, and that surprised me quite a bit. When he asked me if I wanted to marry him, it really overwhelmed me, this huge amount of love and commitment and, in that, the desire to build a life together. But marriage is a big challenge for me, and I think if I were to do it again, I’d probably say we need to find our own version of it, just because the structures we’re then going into are so powerful. Especially since we have a child.

What’s changed since then?
Please don’t get me wrong: My child is the best person in the whole world, and Mike is the person I want to spend my life with, so for that reason I don’t actually talk about the two of them in interviews – because those relationships are sacred for me. But the structures which these relationships take place within shouldn’t be sacred or untouchable – they should be discussed and challenged. Maybe one day my child is on the internet and comes across this interview… therefore I’ll just say: Sweetie, I would do anything for you! If you need me, I’ll stay home on Wednesdays too. But as long as it doesn’t bother you, I will take these nights for myself. Ah, it’s hard to talk about all that. Particularly in Germany, where you love your mothers so much, you really don’t want to come across as a bad one!

German women are fighting hard to be allowed to be “bad mothers”, so to speak.
And it’s about exactly that: to create this space in order to be able to talk and to write about that, about how many opportunities there are to live life or be a good mother. That we’re stronger than the system we live in, that there’s room for play and experimenting. We can’t allow ourselves to live in terror of being bad mothers or parents, and yet you can see this terror in me. I just hope that women needing encouragement right now can get some from this.

And the other people?
Yeah, well, I’m not really worried about them.