An extraterrestrial masquerading as a housewife, using platitudes as weapons; a math grad student who drowns himself in front of his teenage girlfriend; a timid passenger on a never-ending airplane ride who's falling in love with her seatmate—these are some of the characters Miranda July inhabits in her new multimedia performance Love Diamond.
OK Hotel, Saturday, December 12
To the strains of Zac Love's muted, pulsing electronic music, July's latest work, commissioned by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, creates scenarios of examination and surveillance. Keeping tabs on others has become an American pastime, and July's work—including her most recent Kill Rock Stars record, The Binet Simon Test—delves into this odd societal mechanism. On the album, accompanied by music from Donovan Skirvin (Ida Sessions) and Matt Steinke (Satisfact, Octant), July delivers cinematic snippets in which she plays several different characters at once: scientists, patients, talk-show hosts. She throws listeners into the middle of these scenarios—which are just one step away from bizarre reality—forcing them to figure out what's going on while it's going on.
Though you can't passively consume her work, July's recorded monologues sound hazily familiar, as though they've been cut and pasted from once-heard TV or radio shows. The situations often have a Kafka-esque quality: The subjects are confused and trapped; the doctors or interviewers enjoy total power; clich鳠twist into menacing symbols of hypocrisy and repression. "The exchange is so assumed, it almost becomes a code, and any actual meaning has to fall between what's being said," July says, describing her work over the phone from her house in Portland.
After a childhood spent in doctors' offices, the result of a still-undiagnosed eye disorder, July has firsthand knowledge of the dynamics between doctor and patient, and how this relationship can mimic other power relationships. Her experience informs Love Diamond's first half, which focuses on the life of a woman with an obscure medical problem. July says that her years as a patient led her to question "the bizarre dynamics of healing. Whatever it is—whether it's ophthalmology or herbal medicine—it's all faith healing on some level. And if you're faithless, that can be very weird."
When her eye problem returned four years ago, time "collapsed," July recalls. "I was instantly thrown back into memory—visual memory. That's why, in the first act, her age doesn't really matter. She feels the same whether she's 39 or 13. Whereas in the world, you're viewed differently."
July, only 24, has the insight of a much older artist, perhaps because she's been writing plays since she was 9. At 18, she staged her play Lifers at the Berkeley punk enclave Gilman Street, and that determined the course of her career. "I've never been all that suited to rock clubs, though that's what I've done until now," she says. "So in that sense, I don't 'compromise' or change my material for the situation."
Soon after her success with Lifers, July moved to Portland and performed in an early version of the experimental band the Need. "When I was with the Need, I wasn't any more of a musician or a singer than I am now," she admits. "We just thought, they're this really great rock band, and I have the potential to be a really great performer, so we split off."
July went on to make films (her most recent short, The Amateurist, will be shown at the next Rotterdam Film Festival) and to found Big Miss Moviola, a film distribution company that makes video chain letters, compiling female-made short films into tapes, which are then sent back to the contributors and sold to the public. In the insert to the Big Miss Moviola home-video collection, Joanie 4 Jackie 4Ever, July describes the project as "an arrow pointed at the missing movies. The nonexistent arts programs in schools. The dysfunctional outdated educational system. The art-is-for-artists conspiracy."
Despite her obvious talent, energy, and commitment, July faces the same hurdle as most artists in the commercial world: money, or more accurately, the lack of it. In a perfect world, she'd have a multimillion-dollar studio and a fireplace mantle covered with award statuettes. Instead, she works out of a room in a dumpy downtown Portland building. From these glamorous headquarters, she'll soon film a new Sleater-Kinney video and collaborate with the Olympia indie-electronic trio ICU. In February, she'll begin filming her first feature film—this time as an actress, playing a small part in director Alison McLean's adaptation of the Denis Johnson book Jesus' Son.
July would like to take Love Diamond on tour, but that probably won't happen till the middle of next year. "Since I can't really record it because it's so visual, I have to make the performances a big deal," she says with a laugh. "Make sure lots of people come and see it—and that I get paid."