Miranda July could probably do anything. She has made work as an artist, film director, writer, app creator, musician and actress. In all these fields, she has received immense praise. July has exhibited at the Venice Biennale, published five books including a novel and a book of award-winning short stories, created online projects, released two albums and wrote, directed and acted in two feature films. Yet somehow across it all, she makes things that feel authentic, intimate and truly unique. It is impossible not to like Miranda July.
July has been in London for much of the two months working on her latest project, a multi-faith charity shop created with Artangel, installed in the basement of the London department store Selfridges. July brought four charities together - Islamic Relief, the Jewish charity Norwood, the London Buddhist Centre and the Spitalfields Crypt Trust - to create an amalgam shop that celebrated the charities sense of hope.
Speaking on the phone from LA, where she lives with her husband director Mike Mills, July enthused about how her Artangel project was reaching an audience beyond the art world. “Someone could have a very emotional response to the piece without ever conceptualizing it as art. That’s an achievement to me,” July explains. “I think people sometimes worry about what they should think or feel when they realize it is art. Because it’s a fully functioning store, it could swerve around that. Yet still be meaningful and surprising.”
The accessibility of her approach is what makes July so interesting. “I feel like a lot of my ideas are actually pretty weird and could be done in a totally alienating way. My job is to invite people in. Making it accessible. Making things cheap, Making them in places where people already are. That gets really exciting.” Whether it is sculptures that work when people stand in them or interviewing strangers discovered through classified ads, July’s work only makes sense because of its everyday realness.
The 43-year-old artist was brought up in Berkeley, California. She dropped out of University of Santa Cruz and moved to Portland in 1995, where she worked as a performance and video artist. It was a decade later that she had her international breakthrough, with the touching and romantic indie film ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’. The film won four prizes in Cannes and the special jury prize at Sundance. July never looked back.
Thrift stores are familiar territory for Miranda. “I grew up shopping in the thrift stores like the Goodwill and the Salvation Army. That’s where me and my mom shopped and could afford. My first job was at a Goodwill store,” she remembers. July first discovered British charity shops in her early 20s, when she came to London to perform at the ICA and LUX. What blew her away was their breadth. “There are many little ones on every street for every cause, for every phase, for every kind of suffering. It seemed so British to me.” July’s ideas often emerge from real, lived experiences and responses to a place.
The Artangel project followed a creative collaboration with Miu Miu, where she created the art app Somebody which connected strangers through their phones. She wanted to try working with something unbranded in the context of the luxury store. “I think there is something political about making a utopic space,” July considers. She has spent up to eight hours a day in the store, watching people make friends and return with the families. Many have given the staff food in thanks. “They return again and again. Charity shops are not just a capitalist space. They function as a community space, for all different kinds of people,” July enthuses. On average the shops is earning £1200 a day - more than most charity shops make in a week.
July’s own taste in fashion - a fusion of vintage and independent labels - initially influenced her take on the project. All the goods were stockpiled in a warehouse and pieces were pulled weekly to restock the shop. Just before the opening, July went through thousands of items and pulled her favourites. “The funny thing I realized right away was that the audience was so diverse that a lot of my ‘special’ curated picks would just sit there day after day! And the Zara faux-leather, studded thing would get snapped up immediately. And it looked really good! I now have such a respect for peoples’ ability to find what’s right for them and for all the different vernaculars. A charity shop can speak to all of them.”
July’s living, breathing store also has a sense of narrative built into it. Stories come naturally to July in all mediums. The boundary between fiction and reality is very thing and loose for her. “It’s clear I’m making a real fiction from the ground up with books and movies. But a lot of times I’m interested in real people. I’ve cast real people in movies like someone I met through the PennySaver.” July explains. “I still am really interested in how you can make a narrative with strangers.”
When the shop closes its doors of October 22, July will return to LA to work on her third feature film. She has finished the writing and is currently casting the leads. July herself isn’t stepping in front of the camera this time, but like everything she creates you can guarantee her honest, open and individualistic take on life will exude from every scene.
By Francesca Gavin for Semaine.