This spring, Harrell Fletcher (our professor and co-director of the program), invited his longtime friend and previous collaborator to visit one of our classes. It was through this experience that I had the opportunity to interview artist, writer, and filmmaker, Miranda July.
I’m not going to pretend that I don’t think it’s extremely cool that I got to interview one of my favorite artists this year.
Learning to Love You More, a collaboration between Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July, was a project where you could complete assignments from the artists and submit your work to the website where it would be posted and added to the growing archive. When I found the website, it was around 2007 (the project ran from 2002-2009). I was in high school and lucky enough to grow up in Oakland at a time where there were a lot of DIY community art spaces, like Rock Paper Scissors Collective, which still exists today. I was really interested in participatory artworks and artists who used the intimate details of their lives in their work.
I find that those things still draw me to socially engaged art; the everyday quality of it and how it often includes people outside of the art world. In my current practice, I’m making work about the immateriality of memory and the power of play. I’m interested in voyeurism and fantasy and the blurry line between public and private.
It was really cool to have a conversation with one of my favorite artists about some of our shared interests. I think that Miranda’s work can feel like an invitation into her private world and I appreciate how she let me into that world for a little while.
Luz Blumenfeld: I think so much about you being in the public eye. Do you feel like that’s changed the way that you make work? Do you ever find that there’s a hyper-visibility or something?
Miranda July: Well, I had about 15 years, from when I was a teenager to age 30, when I was working to create an audience, and I thought I’d done a pretty good job of that, you know, for an artist and a performer and someone on the fringes. And then when I was 30, my first movie came out. I was not used to being recognized so I suddenly had a different sense of myself in the world; it was a bit of a creative crisis, it felt sort of alarming. So while I stayed ambitious, I didn’t think, oh, and now I want to get even more recognized in the street. It was like, okay, this is good, if I could maintain this in such a way that I could always make my work, but not ever go beyond this level of anonymity, because that actually might actually prevent my work. So that kind of became the goal, to just maintain that level. Which I have done, so I’m really used to it at this point.
Luz: Yeah, that makes sense. I would imagine that too much visibility would be hindering in a lot of ways. I mean, artists are already so inside of our own heads all the time about our own work and ideas, but I can’t really imagine the kind of constant input from the outside, or at least, that I think is more visible with how much social media there is now.
Miranda: Right, I know. But you tend to not end up in this space accidentally; you tend to want it on some level. Whether that’s healthy or what kind of wounds that comes from— people who don’t want attention have a very clear path to not getting it.
Luz: I’ve seen you use Instagram in your work in a really interesting way lately. It felt almost like a play to me, that piece that you did with the actor Margaret Qualley. That was a really interesting way to use the platform that I hadn’t really seen before. I want to know what you’re thinking about with how that platform can be used for something that it’s not really supposed to be for? And like, what making that work does?
Miranda: Yeah, I mean, though I had made these feature films and sort of normal-ish books, I kept being the same artist person that I always had been. So my interests have remained very curious as to what are all the different ways that work could be – not just distributed, but sort of…that the path the work takes to get to the audience [can be] part of the work.
So even though I’m surrounded by people who are like, yeah, I want to get my TV show made, or my movie made, there’s a kind of flattening through that whole process – you gain a lot but a lot is also ruled out by the process, no matter how organic or improvisatory you try to be. I think I became very aware of this while making Kajillionaire. On the one hand, I was so happy, I had a bigger budget than I’d ever had, a lot of trust. And it also gave me the space to see what it inherently wasn’t, you know. Even at its best, it wasn’t going to be spontaneous and immediate. With my wonderful but large crew I wasn’t going to be the way that I would be with just one other person—
Luz: Yeah, like that level of intimacy—
Miranda: Yeah, and then there was a year between the time I finished Kajillionaire and it coming out and in the meanwhile, I was making things and sharing them the next minute through Instagram— the complete opposite. And that made me so happy in a way. There was a purity to that; for all the dirtiness of Instagram and Facebook, there is also something that can be pure about cutting out all those middlemen— all the other companies besides Facebook. So yeah, I had had in my head, what if you could make a movie through Instagram? and actually, the original idea was to have it be decentralized. So you would have to jump from my Instagram to Margaret’s Instagram to other people’s, and you’d kind of follow it.
I met Margaret one week, and I wrote a little script and we had that first FaceTime, which is the script basically, the next week. So we didn’t know each other at all. Now, we’re good friends, but this was kind of how we got to know each other. And then Jaden Smith, I saw him in the comments, I saw he was following.
Luz: Yeah, that was wild. Was that actually an organic thing that happened? I couldn’t tell.
Miranda: Yeah, I mean, neither of us knew him. He did write a comment, just an emoji or something. And then I DMed him and said, hey, do you want to, like, play a role in this? And he was like, yes, you know, he just wrote right back. So I wrote out a four page script. He’s a really good actor. He memorized it really quickly and we shot it through FaceTime and screen recorded on Thanksgiving Day. He was into the idea that it was gonna go on his [Instagram page] first because I still had the decentralized idea. And we’re watching it together over the course of that day, and I was like, Not enough people are jumping— you know, it’s not working. I need to post it.
Luz: Yeah, the attention span is so wild with that.
Miranda: Right? I mean, it was just kind of an experiment. I just wanted to try it, but yeah, and so then I posted and it was really exciting. It was exciting for him and me and Margaret and all the people involved because it was very raw, and it was all strangers. And it was all in real time, roughly. Everyone involved… that’s what we’re here for; that kind of collaboration. Especially for someone like him, or even Margaret, who are used to having a lot of handlers involved, to even have the power to be like, I’m in and be doing it the next day, without signing anything… it’s a great feeling. A totally normal experience when you’re younger or in the art and performance world, but not in this business. Actual trust.
Luz: Yeah, that makes sense. I feel like it was also really exciting from a viewer’s point of view because at the very beginning, I really couldn’t tell if it was like, a bit, or something that’s playing out in real time, or something kind of in between the two. Especially knowing your work and the way that you play with intimacy. So for a while, I really couldn’t tell, but I was like, I’m not sure it matters. Like this is really interesting, a way of interacting with this platform— artists connecting and using that in a way that is different from— I just feel like I use Instagram to like, very low key promote things and remind people that I make what I remember to post on there, but it’s really boring, and I don’t love it.
Miranda: Yeah, I’m in that same boat most of the time. I have something that I’m working on that I’ll do closer to next year, that is another very different but kind of Instagram-based project. And it is such a different way of— when it becomes your art, like with the Margaret thing or like this new thing, it [the platform] suddenly loses all of its power, its normal power, and only becomes this tool, like Microsoft Word or something.
Luz: Yeah. It’s like some sort of medium and also kind of a weird obsession at that point.
Miranda: Yeah, it’s nice to know that the mechanism itself isn’t good or bad. You know what I mean? It’s like other tools. The company is specifically gearing it in this addictive direction but it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s part of why I always like to tangle with whatever the current technology is, just to remember that these companies are making choices that are not in our best interests. But we were always going to make these tools and there’s something hopeful about seeing ourselves still in the technology, I think.
Luz: Yeah, I think about Instagram and Tiktok a lot. There are certain parts of it that are kind of built into the culture that I do find really fascinating, and it’s also totally oversaturated. But you can scroll through people’s live feeds on TikTok and on Instagram too with the reels. It’s so voyeuristic; it’s like another thing I do sometimes which is to go to a camming site and just check out people’s rooms because it’s so intimate— sometimes the person has it all set up and it’s like a set and sometimes it’s just someone’s bedroom.
Miranda: So where do you look at that, like Only Fans or something?
Luz: Before Only Fans there have been camming sites. The one that I know about is called My Free Cams and the way the website is designed kind of feels a little old internet, like it’s all a grid of profile pictures. And then when your mouse goes over one of them, it gives you a preview of their room in real time. I think it’s such an interesting way to get a glimpse into someone’s private world.
Miranda: And it’s not just the room empty without the people in them?
Luz: Sometimes. If you catch someone at the right moment where they’ve just left the room to get something then you are just watching an empty room. And it’s fascinating to me because it is in real time. And I think for me it’s along the same lines of when Google Earth first came out, and it was like, oh my god, you can just see the world as it is. And that’s insane— almost like time traveling.
Miranda: Agreed. I haven’t dug into camming or Only Fans or anything like that, but because I worked in the peep shows when I was in my 20s, I often think, oh, right. That’s what I would be doing if I was in my 20s, now, probably, and it’s much better in some ways. So much safer. And that makes me curious about it. It still seems to have potential. And then it’s interesting Occasionally if I’m extra broke, I’ll think well, I guess I could be a cam girl…
Luz: Right? That’s always on the back-burner.
Miranda: …and then I have to sort of grapple with being a real niche taste now, being older. When you’re young, it almost doesn’t matter what you look like, because you’re young, right? But I’m in a special category now.
Luz: I was wondering if there’s kind of a medium or an area of art that you haven’t explored ever before, but you still want to, like, maybe that feels kind of out of reach for whatever reason?
Miranda: Well, there’s things that just aren’t gonna happen, like singing or playing the piano; I’m just kind of wistful, like, I just have no aptitude. It might as well be sports or something. But then there’s things like— I mean, in a way dance falls in that category of something where it’s like, Well, I actually don’t have a lot of aptitude. I can’t follow choreography or anything but there’s a colloquial form of dance that we all have access to, you know, just like dancing in a club.
But it’s funny. The other night I was being interviewed on stage by a friend, by Carrie Brownstein. And she was talking about dance in my work, and me dancing, and she said, but it’s always mediated by the phone, right? It’s on Instagram. Would you ever just dance on stage, like, do the same kind of dance? And I said, yeah, sometimes I have dreams where I do that, you know, when I’m asleep. And she said, would you do it now? And this was in front of 500 people. So I tried. I put on music—
Luz: Oh like, now now.
Miranda: Yeah, it was very shocking. But I’ve known her forever and she knows it’s hard for me to resist a dare. But it was interesting to see how I sort of couldn’t do it. I mean I did something, including some push-ups? And the audience was very nice. But I couldn’t think the way that I do when I’m alone in my room. And when I’m alone, I have time to sort of get into it, you know? And have it be bad, and then have it get better. And I have a mirror! I can see oh, that looks cool, or I can even record it and play it back. And this was without all of that. And I realized like, oh, I do have dancer friends who, given a stage and an audience, they would have endless things they could do, and I simply didn’t have that at my disposal, not with any immediacy, but it made me feel sort of hungry. I’d like to be able to be that kind of person. So maybe in a way, I’ve been in training, in my room, to figure out that next step. But I wouldn’t have seen the gap if I hadn’t tried in that high stakes way.
Luz: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, those ways of showing a dance are so different. I feel like with your phone and with Instagram, you have some control to a certain extent. And giving up control as an artist is kind of impossible for a lot of us, or just feels really scary.
Miranda: I think because I have these dreams so often, you know, like sleeping dreams where I’m dancing and it’s just all going so well. It was like I just wanted to see— it was like the equivalent of well, maybe I can fly, you know, and almost that dangerous. Luckily not fatal, but I did see like, oh no, I can’t, not yet. But I think I could get there. It didn’t seem impossible. I felt vaguely humiliated, but in a way that I felt I could survive.
Luz: I feel vaguely humiliated on social media, I think, and like, in my everyday life, just having a body and being perceived.
Miranda: Yeah, it’s awful. But it’s also like, where we’re at.
Luz: And so much connection can happen through that. I’m thinking about some sort of meeting in between the peep show and dancing on stage and wondering, when you were doing that work, did that feel humiliating? Or like you were really exposed? Or did it feel like you had more control? I’ve been interested in recreating a peep show because there aren’t really any anymore, just so that I can experience what it feels like to have the curtain be pulled back temporarily.
Miranda: Yeah, it was kind of interesting. I mean, they were all there in Portland too, where you are, but I guess they’re gone. It certainly wasn’t creative, although it does pop up in my work sometimes. There’s a peep show in one of my short stories. But at the time, you’re so concerned with like, am I gonna get people today, will I make money and so, it’s sort of deadening the way a lot of other jobs are. Yeah, the thrill is gone pretty quickly.
Luz: Yeah, that makes sense. I’ve done camming both for work, and also just kind of for fun to see what people do, and they’re very different experiences. I think you are really good at looking at intimacy in your work, beyond like, bedroom sexuality, and into the intimacy of people’s inner worlds and how weird they are. And like how universally weird they are. I think that’s something that I find that you’re really good at and I look for in your work.
Kind of going back to the work that you did with Margaret Qualley and the intimate 1:1 thing— I’ve been thinking about art projects that are really just for you and another person or just for you. And what does it mean to share that or share the existence of that, but maybe not the whole project? Or to share it at all? And what do you gain with either? Have you made work that’s really just for you, or just for another person?
Miranda: Yeah, that project with Margaret, weirdly, for how public it was. Part of why it felt so real is that I really needed a ritual in my real life to help me with a real problem. And I think, because it didn’t cost or make any money, you know, because it wasn’t created as part of a market in that way, and despite the large audience, I thought of it as very pure and, and the fact that it ends with a literal ritual…a nod to the whole thing being a ritual. I’ve talked about this with Margaret, how it worked. It was effective.
Luz: Like it felt like a closing?
Miranda: It shifted me into a different place forevermore, and this had to do with the specific people that I worked with and met along the way. Even the penny circle and even the audience, even people being invested in it was part of the ritual. We were talking earlier about fame or ambition, with this project I felt that I graduated to another level where it wasn’t so much a striving within a genre, but rather a ritual for myself. We sort of intensified it by being watched, but the spell was complete enough that it stayed sacred. And then I went on from that and spent the last four years writing a book that was a similar experience. I can’t believe it’s just a book because it feels like a four-year seance. I don’t know, I can’t quite explain this. In any case, this may have also happened when I was younger but frankly, I was completely entranced by just the goal of making a movie, or writing a story, you know, and having it be both true and honest and good took all my focus. So the witchcraft aspect of it – the thing that goes beyond the medium – wasn’t quite as available to me.
Luz: And then there’s that thing that happens, where you’re striving towards something for so long, and you get to it, and then everything shifts. I’m trying to get better at taking a step back and being like, oh, you’re here, you made it to that point that you were trying to make it to for a really long time. So, what are you looking for now? And I think it’s a great place to be. And it’s also fucking terrifying. Yeah, it’s actually so scary to be doing what you want to be doing. It’s weird, right?
Miranda: I remember when I was young, living in Portland, I would have these kinds of board meetings with myself, just in my notebook that were like, what do you actually want to do? I’d do it each week, so it’d be a constant refocusing. Just because you were so gung ho last week about this doesn’t mean – you keep refocusing. I think I need to start that up again, but not about work. Maybe not a board meeting but some other ritual.
Luz: I find myself drawn to certain Jewish rituals. I was raised Jewish, but more culturally than religiously. But when I was growing up we did practice Shabbat sometimes and it’s such a nice ritual to light the candles and have some bread and that ritual of closing out your week. And there’s another part of it on Saturday night, at the end of the sabbath, called Havdalah, where you light these braided candles and you smell this little spice box, and it’s supposed to awaken you to the start of another week.
Miranda: Oh, wow, that’s so cool. I’m half Jewish – Jewish enough to smell a little spice box.
Miranda July (she/her) is a filmmaker, artist, and writer. Her books include It Chooses You, The First Bad Man, and No One Belongs Here More Than You (winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award). July’s fiction has been published in twenty-three countries and has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. She wrote, directed, and starred in The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know (winner of the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance; re-released by The Criterion Collection in 2020). Her most recent movie is Kajillionaire (2020). July’s art works include the website Learning to Love You More (with Harrell Fletcher), Eleven Heavy Things (a sculpture garden created for the 2009 Venice Biennale), New Society (a performance), Somebody (a messaging app created with Miu Miu), and an interfaith second-hand shop located in a luxury department store (presented by Artangel). A limited edition of her most recent work, Services, was produced by MACK Books in 2022. A monograph of her work to date was published in April 2020. Raised in Berkeley, California, July lives in Los Angeles.
Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is a transdisciplinary artist, writer, and educator. Third generation from Oakland, California, they currently live and work in Portland, OR where they are a second year in the MFA in Art + Social Practice at Portland State University. Their first book, More and More Often, will be available this summer. You can see more of their work here.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program