Do-It-Yourself Girl Revolution

Performance Artist Miranda July

Do-It-Yourself Girl Revolution

For Miranda July, it's all about exposure: exposing via zines the stories that don't usually get told, exposing the work of other girls through her video chain letter, "Big Miss Moviola," and exposing her own troubled heart and weird intellect through films and multimedia performance. Barely into her mid-20s, July is well-established as a darling of the performance art scene, the zine scene, the film scene, and just about every other scene of which you can be a darling. It helps that she started young -- putting on plays at Berkeley's famous Gilman Street while still in high school -- and hasn't stopped since. In the past few years, she has been extremely prolific, playing with the band the Need, directing a music video for Sleater-Kinney, and starting the only lady-made movie chain letter in the world. On top of it all, she makes short films and performance art pieces that are actually good. And not just good for performance art, that chronically misguided and misunderstood art form, but really good. For the last two years she has even been able to support herself off her art. "No day job" -- how many performance artists can say that? Her two-part, 90-minute, live-onstage performance piece, Love Diamond, which she brings to Austin this month as part of the Cinematexas Festival, is rich with textures varying from the booming authority of a science lecture to the syrupy pastels of a 1960s promotional film. Intercut with these lush pastiches of propaganda are stark, clinical scenes that could have been taken straight out of a surreal eye exam (July had an undiagnosed eye disease in her childhood), stock footage of suburbia and outer space (which appear to be eerily connected), and frank discussion about cellular structure.

What's incredible is that despite her extreme hipness, July convincingly portrays some of the least hip characters imaginable. In her short film, The Amateurist, July is both a middle-aged scientist (the watcher), observing with a mixture of bitter disappointment and chirpy enthusiasm, and a sulking, scantily clad "subject" (the watched) who lounges around, angry and bored out of her mind. These, and many of July's characters, are completely alien to any familiar reality. And yet July inhabits them so completely that they are engaging even though you wouldn't want them coming anywhere near you in real life. The Amateurist was the grand prize winner at last year's Cinematexas Festival.

Throughout Love Diamond, July morphs with ease into a lovestruck airline passenger, a primped, frenetic housewife, a 13-year-old girl, a white-lab-coated interrogator, and a motley blend of other humanoids, most of whom tend to be somewhere between a little and unbelievably naive. July is drawn to innocence because, as she explained in a recent correspondence via e-mail, "The innocent woman is only innocent because she knows that if she shows what she knows nobody will like her and she won't be able to do all the important things she needs to do. Innocence is like an art form."

Artist Jenny Holzer -- to whose work July is no stranger -- writes, "You are guileless in your dreams," and Miranda July's most guileless characters do indeed exist in a kind of dreamlike haze. They are amazing to watch disintegrate, as they frequently do both in July's films and in stage pieces such as Love Diamond. In "Planet Sweet Chariot," the first part of the two-part Love Diamond, Tini Santini's obsessive-compulsive suburban mother (who cleans the outside of her house with a loofah and may very well be an alien spy) beams sun-streaked radiance. But every so often it's as though the Doris Day record skips. In a cheery monologue about keeping Tini and her sister confined to the house (because of "the atmosphere"), she says, "I just want things to be good. And simple. Is that so much to ask? I don't think I ask for so much, so much, so much --" The woman's features cloud over for a minute; her perky veneer cracks; then she uneasily regains her composure and once again all is bright and happy as a laundry soap commercial. But in that instant you see the strain involved in working to make everything okay.

"Planet Sweet Chariot" is a surreal biography from multiple angles, nearly all of them foreign and neurotic. Take this anonymous piece of narration, for example: "We have been watching Tini every day for 14 years now. Why does she keep living? Why not breathe deeply underwater?" Possibly this combination of opinions, observations, and stories is a representation of how we humans, especially us girls, think about ourselves. The "especially girls" part comes from the fact that women, especially teenage girls, are constantly observed, quantified, sized up. The ensuing state of self-consciousness transforms many people into a compilation of others' fantasies. This may sound like the all-too-familiar "sexy billboards are evil" diatribe, but really it's more sophisticated. Girls watch themselves closely not just because they want to be supermodels, but just because unconsciously, girls tend to grow up "from the outside in, contorting through the world in order to have things be easier."

In part two of Love Diamond, entitled "The Titan," a woman leaves her Titan (who may be a planet or a god or some guy -- we don't quite know) for a dopey human male. She and "the human" make their escape by plane. The woman is relieved to be free, until she finds that the plane must endlessly circle the Titan, whose gravitational pull and video cameras ensure the woman will never escape. Politely, the woman asks the stewardess, "And when did you say that we land?" Reply: "Weflyforeverweflyforever." But the woman is almost okay with that because she is positively swooning over her new idiot boyfriend. So what is the "love diamond," after all? July describes it as "the universal thing-that-you-want-most. It is the embodiment of yearning and desire, and it is unattainable because you made it up yourself, just to have a reason to live." Though Love Diamond is a one-woman show, July has a musical collaborator in Zac Love. Microbiologist by day, deejay by night, Love is best known for his musical collages and soundscapes under the name of Between Friends and for his part in the experimental deejay duo the Multnomen. "It's really remarkable that I got him to sign over his life to me like this," July observes.

But it seems as though oodles of people have no problem signing their life, or at least their work, over to Miranda July. In the past four and a half years, through her alternative film distribution system Big Miss Moviola, July has received close to 100 movies from lady filmmakers worldwide. Founded in 1995, Big Miss Moviola works like this: You send her a movie you've made, and you get back a compilation tape with yours and nine other girls' movies, as well as biographies of and letters from all the other movie makers. The compilations are then screened regularly around the country and are sold via mail order. Last year, July added The Co-star Series, which accepts proposal submissions from curators who compile movies themselves.

The concept is simple, but the implications are profound. Take the premise that girls are always making movies in their heads because they are constantly being watched. So maybe what happens when you turn the camera on yourself and stop looking through the eyes of others is that you become your own fantasy. And other people start to see the world the way you do, and the "missing movies," the stories that don't usually get told (for example, the tale of a commune-raised girl learning to masturbate in Joanie 4 Jackie 4Ever) suddenly become available.

This do-it-yourself, girlcentric strategy is reminiscent of the ongoing zine scene, which started more or less with Bikini Kill. July herself worked on a fanzine called Snarla for years with her best friend from high school. As July points out, Big Miss Moviola, like fanzines, relies upon the postal system, which by virtue of its simplicity and accessibility means you can send your movie out in the mail and (what a concept!) something will actually happen. According to July, "That is the Big Miss Moviola "Challenge and a Promise.'"

Another part of the challenge is making the work of women more universally available. "I want the work of "avant-garde' women film/video artists to be standard fare for teenage girls," July explains. "Can you even imagine what the future would be like if millions of girls were not only trading fanzines and their own movies, but trading videotapes of the work of Eleanor Antin and Jenny Holzer and Sadie Benning and Kristin Lucas?" If you can't quite picture it, July will help with the details, too: "Girls write Big Miss Moviola every day wanting, wanting, wanting. And I'm not just gonna send them a girl-power T-shirt; I am going to invent ways for them to see work that will change the way they view what is possible." The last time July was in town for Cinematexas she wound up being cast as "a nurse with a black eye" in Allison MacLlean's forthcoming movie adaptation of the Denis Johnson book Jesus' Son. She's back this year to perform Love Diamond and screen as much of her new 30-minute, eight-actor film Nest of Tens as she has cleaned up by then. (At press time she was still frantically editing it.) Funded by the Andrea Frank Foundation, Nest of Tens is rumored to be something resembling a "real movie" in the conventional, scripted sense of the term; but no, she's not saying what it's about. July never describes her films until they're done because, she notes, "As with Love Diamond or The Amateurist, the meanings all stay submerged until they announce themselves; I can only make the holes for them to come out of." Whatever emerges in the end, expect something that brings Miranda July one step closer to achieving her revolutionary plans for art, girldom, and the good of us all. end story

Miranda July will be performing Love Diamond on Thursday, September 23, 8pm, at Austin Museum of Art -- Laguna Gloria, as part of the Cinematexas Festival, presented by the Austin Film Society. For more information on Cinematexas, see schedule on p. 66 or call 471-6497.

To submit a tape or order copies of past chain letters, write: Big Miss Moviola, PO Box 14284, Portland, OR 97293.

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