“Most of life is offline, and I think it always will be; eating and aching and sleeping and loving happen in the body. But it’s not impossible to imagine losing my appetite for those things; they aren’t always easy, and they take so much time. In twenty years I’d be interviewing air and water and heat just to remember they mattered.” – Miranda July, in It Chooses You
Miranda July is not everyone’s cup of tea, but she’s definitely mine. Admittedly, your interest in her writing and art projects may hinge on your tolerance for conceptual or performance art, and here is where I out myself: I am a huge fan of both. I of course realize that both conceptual and performance art are deeply weird, dorky things to be interested in, and it’s not something I bring up in conversation very often. I think it’s something I’ve always been interested in, though, even before I knew of its existence. Growing up, my best friend and I performed “art interventions,” although we didn’t think of them as such, as they were more like pranks performed out of boredom. One that comes to mind involved making fake bumper stickers and anonymously sticking them on the backs of cars; I preferred non sequiturs on my stickers, while my friend Laura preferred puns and parodies like “Men at Work: Give ‘em a Cake.”
There may not actually be that big a difference between a prank, and what we call conceptual or performance art though. Both are meant to confound and confuse, and hopefully make the audience/recipient of the prank reconsider or rearrange something in their everyday reality. The biggest difference may be that pranks are often mean-spirited or embarrassing, and art rarely is. And Miranda July’s artwork is definitely not something I would call mean-spirited.
I’ve been a huge fan of July’s work ever since discovering the web project Learning to Love You More she began with artist Harrell Fletcher back in 2002, a website dedicated to giving out “homework assignments” and then posting the responses sent in by anyone wanting to contribute. Past assignments have included everything from Assignment #38: Act Out Someone Else’s Argument, to Assignment #43: Make an Exhibition of the Art in Your Parent’s House. I have also enjoyed her short video projects, writing, and films.
While she was working on the script for her most recent film, The Future, July became distracted and began to procrastinate—mostly by surfing the Internet. After weeks of doing this, she decided she needed a break from the online world and turned to another distraction, interviewing people she found selling things in her local PennySaver. The majority of It Chooses You chronicles July’s interactions with this odd group of strangers: an elderly amateur singer selling her old suitcase, a shy teenager selling bullfrog tadpoles, an eccentric single mother selling her old hair dryer, and so on.
I liked this book more than I thought I would, having put off reading it because I was disappointed it was not a collection of short stories (I’d really enjoyed her last book). Rather than a traditional narrative, the book is part conceptual art project/part personal essay, but more cohesive and linear than I expected; in between visiting people she contacts in the PennySaver, July weaves together her own personal experiences with those of the people she meets. She is honest and thoughtful, and her willingness to attempt a connection (however tenuous) with people from all walks of life is admirable and comes across as genuine. Her observations on these strangers’ lives–their hopes, wishes, and dreams–are funny and surprisingly touching, as in this brief passage from the end of the book:
“We had to winnow life down so we knew where to put our tenderness and attention; and that was a good, sweet thing. But together or alone, we were still embedded in a kaleidoscope, ruthlessly varied and continuous, until the end of the end.”
Of course, some people might say, what business does a grown adult have in randomly interviewing people from the PennySaver, performing made-up homework assignments, or creating interactive spaces for people to walk through? To this I say, life can get pretty tedious and dull at times, and art has the potential to make it more interesting and fun. It also has the power to reframe our day-to-day experiences in such a way that the ordinary and often overlooked “dull” occurrences of life can be reexamined with fresh eyes.
Miranda July found inspiration in the PennySaver, and here’s hoping we all find inspiration in unusual (and ordinary) places in the coming year.
Happy New Year,