I didn’t expect to like Miranda July’s 8:30pm reading of her new Learning to Love You More book at Bumbershoot this year very much. So much success in so many media with such meager resources in so little time breeds envy, and envy contempt. But I was wrong, and came away loving her work just a little bit more, despite myself.
Our 11:30am visit to the accompanying Learning to Love You More exhibit before the crowds arrived did not bode well. Apparently the arts programmer at this year’s Bumbershoot had arranged with the family that lives next door to him to be the star of the show: they were commissioned to complete all 63 assignments on the LTLYM website so they could display the results for all to see. Why they should be given such a naming opportunity and preference to put their mark on the exhibit above all the regular contributors was beyond me, and I began to criticize both the idea and the entire LTLYM project to my wife, until she mentioned the older son was over there, perhaps within earshot. When I looked to see, who should I spot but Miranda July herself talking to him, with her penetrating blue eyes (does she wear blue contact lenses over blue eyes?) looking back at me as I tried to verify that it was really her, and not just someone who looked like her. One can never beware doppelgangers too much.
From that point on the entire visit became awkward, as in hurrying through an exhibit I’d now decided to despise I found myself catching up with July toward the middle of it, in a corner, and had to detour past her lest she suspect me a stalker. My wife was in no hurry to finish looking at the assignments herself, so I dropped off the explanatory page at the exit and entered again to catch up with her. I finally decided to leave and visit the bathroom while she finished – only to find July blocking the exit this time, locked in a confab with the mother of the assignment family. Throwing caution to the wind, I rushed behind her, hoping she wouldn’t notice me again – but probably just attracted her attention more.
When my wife finally emerged, we discussed the show. I mentioned hadn’t really liked LTLYM when I’d seen it exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum a few years ago, before July’s film came out; she didn’t recall it. What bothered me was the difficulty of reading July’s apparent sincerity in mounting the project, and my inability to get over a suspicion that, somewhere behind her equally apparent irony, she might be having a bit of a laugh at the participants, and the way she’d hoodwinked them into helping make her first big success. On the other hand, it seemed more wholesome than YouTube, Yahoo Questions, and similar phenomena (including my own minor efforts in this genre, the Shakespeare Questionnaire and Shakespeare Queries and Replies, both long since abandoned), in that it did not seem aimed at volume merely, did not run advertisements, and provided no opportunity for the usual flame wars and snarky comments that litter the Web landscape generally.
And we had liked her movie Me and You and Everyone We Know a lot when we saw it a SIFF or two ago, and had been disappointed when she’d had to cancel her talk on it, for which we had tickets, so she could leave for Cannes to accept her award. Indeed, I thought the movie quite smart and brave in the way it sedulously subverts the stereotypes basic to the witch hunts that break out with alarming regularity against suspected pedophiles, sometimes merely on the basis of children’s memories recovered, or implanted, by the psychologists assigned to investigate – and their baiting by FBI and news crew agents impersonating children online to ferret actual or potential ones out. It reminds us, as Freud himself did long ago, just how polymorphously perverse and prone to increasingly sexual exploration kids themselves are, amongst themselves – and how loath even the most borderline adults typically are to intrude upon those explorations, however tempted.
July’s evening reading dispelled my doubts, and increased my admiration. The studied spontaneity with which she presented what was obviously a well rehearsed show might, again, have annoyed me, except that if there were calculation on her part, it only seemed intended to encourage those of us in the audience to let our guards down, and open ourselves to the possibility of appreciation, and perhaps of wonder.
The sample assignments she showed us from the website were similarly nuanced, not so much naive art as an art sophisticated enough to make apparent naivete its actual medium of expression – as for example in Tim’s “Lipsync to shy neighbor’s Garth Brooks cover” report – to unexpectedly impressive effect. As July herself admitted, sometimes it seems like nearly everyone sending in assignments are white middle class art students themselves – so it’s hardly surprising they inhale her vibe and produce a kind of post-ironic art in response. Retrospectively, it even seems like the best of these reports contributed to July’s own aesthetic in Me and You, and I could have sworn that one or two bits actually made it into the script for the film – a fine case of artist and artistic audience feeding and extending each other’s creativity, in a kind of virtuous circle so unlike the vicious circles of internet flame wars, viral youtube trashiness, facebook friends list competitions, media witchhunts, and the American political scene in general.
July’s new project that closed her presentation was even more impressive: an entirely self-contained (within this particular audience) charity auction and actual act of charity that seemed as inherently eye-opening and critical of established charitable and non-profit institutions as I myself have been attempting to be on this blog lately, though with much less success. Keep it simple – so simple it seems quite artless and naive, without actually being so – and make it direct: that’s the secret of Miranda July’s most potent art, and the art her example inspires. Maybe she is pulling our strings – but there’s nothing to fear here. All is intended to promote our greater good – and she’s only too willing to let us turn the tables on her through the art we ourselves create in reply.