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Miranda July isn’t done until the audience speaks

“When I’m doing something live in front of an audience. . .  I’m trying to get at what is live about it — what is the sort of present moment that particular night, those particular people, us in a room together,” Miranda July said.

Todd Cole

“When I’m doing something live in front of an audience. . . I’m trying to get at what is live about it — what is the sort of present moment that particular night, those particular people, us in a room together,” Miranda July said.

Miranda July wants to know what her audience thinks, and a tweeted thumbs-up or thumbs-down just doesn’t do it for her. She wants details. In filmmaker mode, she’s been known to “hunt people down” after screening the latest cut of a movie, she says, to ask them what they meant by a comment in the Q&A. She’s doing something similar right now with the novel she’s just finishing: Not all of her test readers are from her inner circle.

Saturday night, she’ll be in performance-artist mode as she brings a brand-new participatory piece called “Society” to the Institute of Contemporary Art. Hoping for thoughtful feedback that can help her as she develops the show, she’s putting her e-mail address in the program.

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Sunday, in a presentation called “Lost Child!,” she’ll talk about her work, which includes short stories, online projects, and two ethereal feature films she wrote, directed, and starred in, “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (2005) and “The Future” (2011).

July, 39, lives in Los Angeles with her husband, filmmaker Mike Mills (“Beginners”), and their toddler son. Speaking by phone from her office there, she warned there was much she wouldn’t be able to say about the new show. “I don’t want to give away stuff, you know?”

Q. A few weeks ago, you tweeted that you were “Looking for a person who lives in Boston & can make anything out of anything. Perhaps a seamstress or a sculptor. Must be avail on Oct 5th.” What was that about?

A. I realized I wanted to scrap that plan, but I sort of only could figure that out by talking to the woman I did find in Boston, who was very talented. [“Society” is] a new performance that I’ve never done before. It’s a work in progress, so aspects of it might not even work. It’s very, very audience participatory. Whoever happens to be there that night will play a huge role in determining what the show is. Because I work in all these mediums, I’m always looking for what is the thing that I can do in this medium that I can’t do in the other ones. So when I’m doing something live in front of an audience, I don’t want to do something that would ever be the same without that particular audience, because I’m trying to get at what is live about it — what is the sort of present moment that particular night, those particular people, us in a room together.

Q. A lot of your art is interactive. What does collaborating with strangers give you?

A. So much of my work is such a lonely process, where it’s just me alone in this house for years. So I think when there’s something that can engage other people, I feel like that’s the food I need to make the whole of what I do function. It feeds everything.

Q. Being married, having a child: How have those affected your work?

A. Being married to a filmmaker and someone who’s also a working artist, I think it maybe outlines and etches a little more clearly. I think initially maybe we tried to be more involved in each other’s work, and then by the time we were married, it was clear, like, no, this is great because we can totally have our own separate things and don’t need each other except as emotional support. It’s like you’re each dreaming a separate dream and you don’t want the dreams to get too close to each other or they’ll disrupt each other. And having a kid, my top fear about having a kid was that I wouldn’t be able to do my work, that I’m too work-obsessed to have a kid. And none of that turned out to be true. I would say that right now is probably like the best creative time I’ve had in 10 years. It’s really only been a good thing. The big caveat to that, if any women are reading this, is that’s hugely because I have the financial resources — like, I’m not sitting at home all day with my kid. There’s child care, and I can pay for that.

Q. Why do you think it’s been such a positive for your creativity?

A. You feel a whole range of things you’ve never felt before. And so that has a huge impact on your work because it kind of expands the territory and it also expands your relationship to the world and to humanity. It’s very connecting.

Q. Does it make you use your time differently?

A. Life gets really simple. I just do my work, which I love to do. And then I go home and I’m totally focused on my son. That sort of nebulous territory, especially on the weekends, especially on Sundays, that I used to have, where I often was depressed or sort of calling everything into question or spiraling in ways that I thought were important at the time, and I’m sure they were, now I pretty much just don’t do that. Which it turns out is fine. I don’t need quite as much room to just rattle around in as I thought I did.

Q. Why do you do what you do?

A. I think I’m one of those people who, like, I had to do this stuff to feel OK in life. I’m sure if you talked to my therapist, she’d have one or two ideas. [Laughs.] Maybe “spiritual” is the wrong word, but I do think there’s some aspect of it that’s not just psychological. It’s not just that I need to be seen or understood or that I need to connect, though that is all real. There’s these parts of the process that are very otherworldly, and those things — I don’t know where that comes from. Any musician or writer or artist would know what I’m talking about; it’s not unique to me. But it’s hard to put that into words. The best you can do is just make the work, you know?

Interview has been condensed and edited. Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.
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