Purple Magazine
— The Brain Issue #33

nordstorm by olivier zahm

interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
with MIRANDA JULY
style by MASHA ORLOV
all clothes available at nordstrom.com  /  sustainable style

the brilliant california artist, performer, director, and writer on what’s coming next a new movie,
kajillionaire, and a new book on her 30-year career and on her life in silver lake, advocating for a more sustainable world

miranda july will be published by prestel in april 2020
kajillionaire will also be released this year, starring evan rachel wood, gina rodriguez, debra winger and richard jenkins

OLIVIER ZAHM — You have a new book, Miranda July: This Is Not the First Hole My Finger Has Been In, nor Will It Be the Last, and a new movie, Kajillionaire, coming out soon. What’s the movie about?
MIRANDA JULY — The story revolves around this older couple, played by Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger, and their grown daughter, Evan Rachel Wood, who’s this long-haired, butch-looking woman… and they do very low-stakes crimes to get by in Los Angeles. It’s a little unreal. Some of these crimes are like, “Wait, what?” [Laughs] “Could that really happen?” Although, I will say, a lot of these crimes I did myself when I was a young punk.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were a punk? I didn’t know that! [Laughs]
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, punk enough, I guess. There’s a big Bay Area punk scene that was very formative. Anyway, the movie’s kind of about how every family’s like a cult, and it’s the child’s job to both be the best member of the cult and yet leave it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And the child has to run away.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, and the movie captures that moment, the crisis of that betrayal. Gina Rodriguez plays a pivotal role in it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a reflection of your own childhood?
MIRANDA JULY — I mean, I don’t write autobiographically. I wrote this entire script being like, “What is this? There’s a heist! This is ridiculous. Why am I writing this movie?” But I just kept going, and this one really came from my unconscious, almost like I was taking dictation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like writing on autopilot…
MIRANDA JULY — Right, I still have a document that’s everything I wrote the first time, and it’s basically the whole story. Only when I was done with that first draft of the script did I read it through, and I suddenly felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and was so sad. I thought, “Oh, shit! This is my story, too.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s not literally autobiographical.
MIRANDA JULY — Not in any way you could put your finger on. The second something’s literal, I’m out. My brain just stops working. So the fact that I was able to keep it not literal for so long was a real joy. My best space is when I have a fiction that can hold the emotions… that’s really free… I got all these feelings and complexities without ever having to think, “How am I going to show what my dad…?”

OLIVIER ZAHM — On a biographical note, until I read your book, I didn’t know that your parents were in publishing.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah. They published books that at the time seemed so wacky and niche. And now it’s all really popular: raw foods, crystals, alternative healing… They’re doing great now, you know? But you can imagine, in the ’80s and ’90s, it was just weird Berkeley stuff. There are some cool seminal books. All the time when I’m at the acupuncturist, or whatever, I’ll look and see their little logo on some book. They started it in the ’60s and it’s still going. I mean, it’s kind of amazing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, real counterculture stuff?
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, totally. It started out as a super cool-looking literary magazine.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you mention in the book that, being involved in this small business, your father was always anxious about money. And it transmitted, this anxiety, or rejection of materialism…
MIRANDA JULY — Right.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is money a topic you like to work with?
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, in a way. And in a lot of my recent work, I’m working with money as a material. It’s a good object, art-wise. [Laughs] But I would say that my father’s anxiety isn’t even regular thriftiness, it’s more OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] than that. Often when he’s tipping, or something, I notice he’s doing some really weird things with what the number has to end on. Once I asked him, “Why that amount?” And he had some explanation that he was really adamant about, like kind of annoyed with me that I’d questioned it. But yeah, a lot of corners cut. Things that made a big impression on me and my brother. We always were like, “Oh, my God, he just told us to use the wrong coupon.” That we thought of as really sketchy. But whatever, it was also so minor.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The book covers your work since 1992 — a period of 28 years. It’s really impressive. Not only because you use different media — film, performance, sculpture — but also because there are so many ideas involved. But all of your different works have a lot in common, and you use every opportunity to express a similar intuition. In a way, there’s always a political aspect in what you do. Would you say that you’re still optimistic, in that you think that through art we can change things
MIRANDA JULY — [Pauses] Yeah, I don’t usually think of my work as overtly political, but I think I know what you mean.

OLIVIER ZAHM — For example, you created this new charity shop in London with different religious groups.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, I invited different faiths to work together on the practical business of running a store, a Christian-Jewish-Islamic-Buddhist charity shop in Selfridges.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Amazing. You created this New Society theater experiment where the idea is that, for two to three hours, you gather people together and play the role of a leader, discussing ideas for a new order. Was the public involved in the performance?
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, they agree to live with me in the theater forever and form a new society — that’s the premise. And they vote. I mean, I don’t force them; they agree.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That was an ambitious performance.
MIRANDA JULY — I’m so ambitious, so that was a terrifying show to do. It was a scripted show that had all these holes in it for whoever was there that night. For example, every night I had to pray that there was someone who could play piano because I had a keyboard onstage and the music for the whole show was always going to be played by whoever was there each night.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Audience members would participate?
MIRANDA JULY — Oh, yeah. And they had roles in the New Society, like people who had — in real life — a medical or healing background. My shirt was ripped into strips to make armbands so they could be identified as the medics in the society. Twenty years go by in those two hours, so a lot happens. I fall in love with an audience member. A child is born and dies, really sadly. And things become a little depressing, and then we vote at the end and decide to leave. And there’s a moment where I describe what’s happened to the world in the last 20 years, and it’s pretty dark, environmentally speaking.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It could be the truth.
MIRANDA JULY — I know. The things I say seem so strange, but they’re possible. Because it’s too hot, for example, people live during the night more. It’s a subtle thing — the world shifts more to the night-time because it’s cooler.   

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s also a new currency?
MIRANDA JULY — We make money, yeah — out of the programs; they’re ripped into new currency. That performance was one of my favorites, probably because it really walked the line of what’s possible. It almost wasn’t possible. So every time I did it…

OLIVIER ZAHM — How many times did you stage it?
MIRANDA JULY — I did a week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I did it in London, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco… I did maybe seven different sites. But I didn’t do a world tour. I also had to keep it out of the press because I didn’t want people to know beforehand. Because then they’d have a chance to mess with it. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s an incredible piece, I’m impressed. It involves every­thing: your writing, performance, playing…
MIRANDA JULY — And it was a mix of real and fiction, which I increasingly love.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But this is also an example of how your work deals with society’s problems and connections between people. I’m really amazed by the fact that you’re still exploring the possibility for change.
MIRANDA JULY — I mean, when you talk about the brain in relationship to the Earth, I have to keep being interested enough to live. And I think with any kind of curiosity and interest, there’s hope. For me there’s always some degree of rebellion in curiosity. I’m coming to realize more and more that I have to feel like I’m pushing against the way something is supposed to work. I do that in my daily life, and also in my work in order to get excited, and to actually be happy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So in that sense, you open the door a little bit. People are so cynical these days — especially the younger generation. It’s as if everything’s closed, that there’s no alternative anymore, don’t you think?
MIRANDA JULY — Mm-hm. I’m a little surprised, when I’m making things with people who are in their early 20s, how confounded they are by the things I suggest. It does make me think, “Ah, things must feel so shut down and impossible if you are coming of age right now.” At the same time, because of how connected they are, they don’t accept a kind of internalized shame and marginalization that’s in my bones. I love that so much; as a woman I get so much out of that worldview.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When you see, for example, the way they grow up with technology and social media, and the level of control that the young generation has… their life is transparent to any kind of authority. We didn’t grow up like that.
MIRANDA JULY — I was talking to Jaden Smith, who’s 21 and Will Smith’s son. That’s probably the youngest person I’ve chatted with recently. We were about to do this scene together, and he was like, “I have some questions first.” He had a long list of questions about my work. And they were not the ones that I’m used to. He said, “Now, is that activism? Or what do you call that?” And I was like, “Well, it’s art.” And I think, in some ways, there’s more space now in activism for kids — they see boldness there. Art is almost the same as branding or something.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Art is Gagosian.
MIRANDA JULY — Exactly. So the idea that I’d do all this labor and that there’s no commercial aspect to it, it would have to be activism. That would be the only explanation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In a way, you speak to so many generations — to my generation because we’re from the ’90s and started with a new mentality, which was really antagonistic toward the decade before but also closer to the punk revolution. And then, for many years, I had the feeling that there was no new state of mind, or no new generation emerging. And recently, for the past five or six years, a new wave has been coming up with a different state of mind, let’s say, nonbinary revolution or gender revolution.
MIRANDA JULY — Right, multi­plicity is the norm, so my whole multidisciplinary thing isn’t weird to them — doesn’t even register as a thing.   

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s not even a statement.
MIRANDA JULY — Right, and I love that. It’s like, “Phew, we’ve moved on.” I’m so ready for the kind of mind that doesn’t even need to ask that question.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In the ’90s, this multidisciplinary approach to art was a statement.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah. And the reality now is that everyone’s multidisciplinary. I mean, there are places where this lack of distinction could feel offensive — not separating commerce and art, for example. But we’re not separating a lot of other things, either. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s so true. Also not completely separating your life from your work.
MIRANDA JULY — That’s the basic thing — you sculpt your life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Exactly, through your work and vice-versa. There’s also something that your work has addressed since the beginning: the importance of vulnerability. Your work provokes a lot of emotions: sadness, but also joy, fear…
MIRANDA JULY — Desire.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you accept your vulnerability. And you use it and show it in your work. So, is it positive or negative? Is vulnerability something that we should fix in our brain? Or should we keep it as something precious, or creative?
MIRANDA JULY — Vulnerability’s not inherently good or bad: but it’s a place where you could be hurt. And that’s sort of what it feels like. So that’s a pretty interesting place, pretty alive. It’s probably either interestingly shut-down or interestingly yearning and open, or maybe both.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a life source.
MIRANDA JULY — That’s your gold, especially as an artist. You may have had a fucked-up childhood, or whatever experiences, but you own your vulnerability and your own bent messed-up-ness — that’s yours. You get to have that! [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — So it’s not something that we have to fix with drugs or therapy or…?
MIRANDA JULY — I mean, you can. I do therapy from time to time. But it’s never really to fix it. And through art and conversations with friends and sometimes with therapy and weird healing modalities, you’re searching.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What about meditation?
MIRANDA JULY — Sometimes. In different kinds of meditation, you can feel yourself in a loop, and you’re like, “Where’s the door? I know there’s some way out of this.” My method is to keep working. I mean, it’s really hard work — second by second, day by day. I love that kind of work, but that’s what I’m doing most of the time. And it feels like a gift that this gets to be my work.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is the material of your work looking for new doors in yourself, but also in the world and its systems?
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, there’s some part of me that loves fucking with systems: what’s the most un-app-like thing you could do with an app? Or, what’s Instagram, for example? This thing has ruined my life. Could I get anything good out of it? It always feels like a big challenge to me, like it’s some mean kid at school or something. And I’m like, “I’m not going to leave it alone. I know it’s got something real inside, and I’m gonna bother it until it breaks open.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — You want to unleash it. So you disrupt or slightly destroy the system of communication, so that something unpredictable or surprising comes out of it. You try to create this situation of discomfort or…
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, but to surprise people, not to make them uncomfortable. I always feel that surprise is the best state to be in. It’s a state that people can do something else with, so if you can give that to people, that’s a useful thing. Of course, it also can make people mad.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you see yourself as being linked to the women artists of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s who used performance and pushed women’s art onto the scene?
MIRANDA JULY — [Hesitates] Well, sure. But I always feel a little gap because I didn’t grow up studying those artists. I was self-taught, so I often came to people pretty late. When I started performing, I wasn’t that aware of a lineage of performance art. I was much more influenced by movies, and I was scripting things and playing the parts and…

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s the LA influence, right?
MIRANDA JULY — Well… Lots of kids wanna make movies. My parents were writers. “Can’t do that, that’s not cool… What am I gonna do? I’ll make movies.” So for a long time that was the framework, regardless of the medium.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m speaking about performance art because I think it’s beautiful to maintain this noncommercial tradition in the art world, which is much more commercialized, much more about selling. Even though you’re a sculptor, too. But also, on the fringes of social media, where people are always hiding behind their phones. You make it real. It’s a physical commitment, and people are craving that, don’t you think? It’s pure art, in that sense.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, it really is. I try to have the same freedom in cinema. Filmmaking has this huge, heavy infrastructure behind it — it’s very male, it’s always been commercial. And it hasn’t included so many different kinds of people. So from quite a young age, I was always trying to figure out how to remake that into something that I could relate to.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Especially for a woman.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah. You know, this new movie’s quite big for me — budget-wise — and I felt so lucky to have that level of support this time. But it’s not the only way to do things and maybe not the best — it’s not a spontaneous medium. It’s hard to work from the unconscious. It’s hard to engage with your collaborators easily. It’s very hard to improvise. When I finished making that movie, my first instinct was, “Okay, that was amazing. My best filmmaking experience so far. How would you do something totally differently? Could I make something right now without asking anyone’s permission?” I think working in a more lo-fi way is completely valid because it holds a different energy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Even your Instagram account is artistic in that sense. Your videos are little improvised performance pieces. Do they come to you naturally?
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah. Initially I’d make them when I was traveling, and I’d be stuck in some situation and would want to feel free, so I’d be on the airplane or in a hotel room — the limitations being inspiring.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The isolation, too.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, it’s so lonely. But more and more, if I’m going to hang out with a friend, I write a little script, and when we’re done hanging out, I say, “Hey, you wanna try something?” Spike Jonze, Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Engman, you know, people who I’d guessed would be game, and they were. And I was kind of depressed this summer and began to realize those were some of my most joyful moments — like we’re both nervous, we’re really going out on a limb together. It’s intimate. So I’ve just been building on that. Not as my main work — more like a way to take a break. But that’s always how it starts… you’re just fucking around until suddenly you’re not.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you can experiment with new possibilities at any moment?
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah. It’s almost like a form of self-soothing or something.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think that artists like you have a different brain? Is there an artist’s brain?
MIRANDA JULY — Hm. I’m always a little worried about my brain. [Laughs] I’ve actually had conversations with Mike [Mills, July’s partner] about, “Would it be weird to just get an MRI?” [Laughs]I fell down the stairs when I was really little, like headfirst, hitting every step with my head. And every time I get craniosacral therapy, the person touches my head and they go, “Oh!” Once, someone went, “Oh, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, eh?” Meaning, like, “Boom, boom, boom, down the stairs.” Like something had hit my head repetitively. And I’m always shocked. For them it’s like looking at a scar, or something. It’s clear to them that there was some repeated impact.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re doing great! But, as an artist, you process information differently, right?
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, maybe. Sometimes you can really understand your brain in terms of what you remember and what you forget. Different people have such different things their brain holds on to.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have a notebook for writing your thoughts down?
MIRANDA JULY — I used to have a notebook, and I kind of miss that, but I… [shows phone] these are all different categories.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Ah, really? Wow! You have a lot! Like what, 100 categories?
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah. Like this one, the new movie, there’s like 600 notes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — No way! So 600 notes in one category?
MIRANDA JULY — In one category, yeah.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you really organize your artistic brain in a serious way. I mean, it’s like 100 categories — so many notes inside, like hundreds of notes.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah. [Laughs] Because otherwise, I’ll start to feel a little crazy. Like I have to be able to go…

OLIVIER ZAHM — To write down, classify, remember.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah. And right now on my desk at my office is a piece of paper that has the six top projects. I just stare at it every morning — I go through the list and check in my head like, “Where are the fires?”

OLIVIER ZAHM — I love to organize — I think it’s beautiful. It’s part of the process — it’s the invisible skeleton of the work.
MIRANDA JULY — I could do a whole interview, a whole conversation, where we just talk about our methods.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Speaking about your everyday life: you’re very conscious of your environment and ecology. Does it come from your Californian upbringing?
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, probably it was shamed into me [laughs], growing up in Berkeley. I mean, I grew up saving water from the get-go. There was always a drought. And there was this pretty heavy-handed anti-materialist ethos that I grew up with, which was overkill. I’ve definitely rebelled against it and been like, “Wait, surfaces actually are important and contain meaning.” But I will say, they were right on a lot of stuff.

OLIVIER ZAHM — They were totally right. It’s been 50 years since we’ve been impulsively destroying the planet at the speed of light. And we knew it.
MIRANDA JULY — I know.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you realized that your parents were right, and now, in your everyday life, you behave like that? Or you try to?
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, I try to. It’s really challenging. My child can’t throw out things because he has too much empathy for them; everything is alive. It’s really interesting to think, “Right, we have to actually find a new home for even this cheap, broken plastic step stool.” If you have empathy — even for inanimate objects — it’s not a bad way to approach sustainability. Because the only way you can keep making trash and destroying the world is if none of these things are alive and nothing matters.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So do you buy a lot of vintage clothes?
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah. Since my childhood. One of my greatest pleasures is visiting with the vintage collector Jenny Tsiakals. She drives all over the country with her little dog just talking to people and exploring their attics or digging through abandoned stock. She knows my sizes and my taste, and when I’m trying something on she tells me the story of how she came by it. I grew up shopping at Goodwill with my mom, so that’s not new, but now — even just in the last few years — it’s meaningful in a new way. There’s an urgency…

OLIVIER ZAHM — The sense of urgency totally changed. Because before, in the ’70s and ’80s when we grew up, we knew because of our parents that that was bad. Now it’s different. Now there’s a countdown to the end of the planet. There are even scientific reasons to panic.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I really want every issue of Purple to have a feature on sustainability, like this Nordstrom Style story. Of course, it could be seen as a contradiction, as the whole fashion world is pushing for novelty and new collections. But fashion — and also art — are at the avant-garde of the new way of living. And definitely, we have to work with this contradiction.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah, I know, it’s a very strange time and hard to address. I’ve tried in different ways over the years. In my last movie, The Future, I tried to get at it; it didn’t click with anyone [laughs]. But I was really panicking.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When was that?
MIRANDA JULY — It came out in 2011. There was a point in that movie where Hamish Linklater’s character is speaking about the Earth and he says something like, “You know how in the cartoons, when the wrecking ball hits, there’s always that moment right before the whole building falls down? We’re in that moment. The wrecking ball’s already hit, and it’s all about to fall down.” At the time, he seemed like a crackpot. But now everyone knows we’re in that moment.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And people are frozen, too.
MIRANDA JULY — They’re frozen, yeah. And it’s just too big a thought to get through your head. And, in a lifetime, to have your sense of the future change so dramatically — from being an endless chain of generations. There’s so much hope built into that idea of great-great-grandchildren. Now we can see what hope there was in that. So we’re all looking for examples of people living and making art in free fall. In dire circumstances. We might be among the last, but we’re not the first people to have lived with their entire life seeming fairly doomed — most of us probably have ancestors who lived in dark times. We were talking about vulnerability — what if you took on the vulnerability of the environmental crisis as yours? This is our pain, it was a long time coming but now it’s ours to make the blues with; to make something new that will help us survive.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Exactly. And transform us.
MIRANDA JULY — Yeah. It’s your birthright, as someone who’s alive right now. It’s a nightmare, but it’s what you have to work with. Take it.

END

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Dennis Gots at THE WALL GROUP, hair
­­ — Natasha Severino at FORWARD ARTISTS ­­, make-up — Andrew Hazeltine and Byron Nickleberry, photographer’s assistants — all clothes available at nordstrom.com/sustainable style

[Table of contents]

The Brain Issue #33

Table of contents

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