Intro from Jay Allison: This is a good one. Transom’s “In Conversation” series is proud to have Jenn Brandel (Journalist; Curious City, Hearken) dig into all manner of things with Miranda July (Filmmaker, Artist, Writer, Audio Lover). For starters, here are a few areas these two have in common: They both are self-taught, adept in various media, builders of custom technologies relating to human interaction, keen on audience participation, into designing for women, averse to traditional expressions of “the news.”
It’s refreshing to step outside the cozy but claustrophobic frame of reference we’re used to, to listen to two creative people riff on the larger world we inhabit, while keeping us in mind all the while. Public broadcasting is always in need of inspiration; come find some. And, if that’s not enough incentive, there are quizzes and assignments. (And p.s., the accompanying GIFs by Arthur Jones are a delight.)
What Miranda July Can Teach (& Remind) Us About Making Media for the Public
Admittedly, I over prepared for this interview. Beyond spending many evenings researching and thinking, I also hijacked every one of my hangouts with friends for months, turning brunches and walks into tactical conversations about July’s work and what makes it so compelling and unique.
Along the way, it became clear that Miranda July’s work shares much in common with public media’s work. Here’s just a short list of the overlap. Both July and public media makers:
- Produce audio / radio / video / films
- Publish a newsletter
- Make apps
- Perform live shows
- Sell branded bags for the super fans (July’s is not a tote bag for the farmer’s market, but it has quite a few compelling uses)
- Toggle between nonfiction and fiction storytelling
- Have a distinct sensibility, so much so that The Onion has had their fun with both July and public radio
- Create deep intimacy and empathy with audiences
All things were considered, which meant I had far too many questions for an hour’s worth of time. (Here’s what I had prepped for the interview, if you’re curious.) This also meant I surely missed a lot of opportunities to follow interesting threads that emerged, and go deep where my antenna sensed more to plumb, because there was just too much ground to cover.
So rather than present a straight Q&A, here’s a distillation and expansion on some highlights of the conversation … a quasi-interview turned “classy listicle” (if that’s not an oxymoron). The accompanying audio is fairly different from what’s below, so feel free to give both your time.
OK. On with it. Here are 9 key takeaways from my conversation with July — many of which I can’t help but think hold lessons and creative challenges and opportunities for public media.
- Audio work teaches rigor
- Make people feel the news
- Lena Dunham is coming for your job
- Comfort with vulnerability is a super power
- Not taking risks? Red flag
- Generosity over genius
- The audience = wild cards, and that’s great
- Audience engagement is an iterative process
- What some of you asked her
Though Miranda July may be most well known as a filmmaker and author, her earliest work was in audio, creating radio plays in her early twenties. One early piece was called WSNO Radio Sno: Broadcasting From the Coldness of Your Heart in which she played the host and all of the callers. I wondered how she decided on audio as one of her earliest forms of expression. She explained that the term “radio plays” wasn’t intentional — it came about as a kind of shorthand way to explain the work.
MJ: Really I wanted to be making movies and for some reason, it never occurred to me to just get as close to Hollywood or a professional filmmaker as possible. Instead, I would do things like what I called a “live movie,” which was aka a play, or a performance.
But in my head I really was thinking of it as, well, I don’t have the equipment, but I’ll do everything I can do now, and I’ll write the whole script and I’ll play all the parts. I was sort of a little punk, a little avant garde, so it wasn’t narrative, but a lot of them were feature length and I was very conscious of that.
Before I did those live movies, I worked my way into that by doing shorter movies, and then I recorded those because I was in the Riot grrrl, punk music scene in the northwest. Without actually being a good singer or musician or anything, I was just in that scene because everyone I knew was, and so each thing I did I tried to figure out how to frame it within that context for a little while before I discovered the theater world, the film world, the literary world. Everything had to be kind of in the music world even if it wasn’t music. Everyone around me thought that way, too.
Among the places July performed these live movies / radio plays was at punk shows in Olympia, Washington — the center of a legendary music scene and home to labels including Kill Rock Stars and K Records. The heads of each label saw July’s radio play performances and approached her about doing albums. She said yes.
MJ: I fell in love with audio at that point as a result of that. And it only continues; that will never end. And I really was in deep there because it wasn’t digital yet at the beginning. We were recording onto tape and it was pretty complicated. I think it was my first experience with rigor, with the kind of rigor that later would be required to make movies and being unafraid of equipment and realizing, oh, there’s all these cool tools that can augment what you’re doing and that kind of hands-on approach. It’s so lucky that I learned that first with audio and then applied it to a million other mediums.
It’s interesting to think that’s probably one reason why I didn’t even think twice before deciding to make an app (although maybe I should have), was because no one around me ever thought twice about recording themselves in the DIY punk scene. You would never say like, “Oh, but I don’t know how to do that.” That wasn’t the atmosphere. That’s not what DIY stands for.
Turns out July’s experiments in audio started well before the radio plays of her twenties.
MJ: I started recording myself as a child, as many of us did. And I always thought it sounded fantastic. I mean, I think just the pure miracle that you can do that takes a while to wear off. So certainly as a child recording myself, that was just pure magic.
She recalled that one of the first recordings she made as an adult, (on her first Kill Rock Stars album, Ten Million Hours a Mile) had music from an old cardboard record she got at a thrift store.
MJ: So it was like this real artifact, and its oldness inspired me, and the piece is really about time travel and going back in time and kind of undoing my parents’ love, so they won’t conceive me. That piece is so intimately tied to sound because it began with this old paper record. It added this level of polish to have music at all, and I remember I slowed down my voice. I was able to do effects for going back in time and so in a sense, it was the medium that allowed the magic trick of time travel to happen.
If you’re curious about some of July’s other audio / radio work (beyond countless interviews on radio shows / podcasts), check out: three stories she wrote and performed for WNYC’s now defunct The Next Big Thing, a story and commercial she read for Lena Dunham / Buzzfeed’s podcast Women of the Hour, and her role in an early episode of Starlee Kine / Gimlet Media’s Mystery Show.
Okay, let’s get personal. It’s uncomfortable to admit: despite having worked in the news business as a reporter myself, I’m not a news junkie. I don’t really even like consuming news much of the time. It often feels inaccessible. Maybe because it’s reported by people who present themselves with bulletproof confidence and who somehow just seem to know everything. These are traits I don’t easily relate to. I also find it hard to relate to the people the news tends to be about: those who are in enormous positions of power, or those doing remarkably terrible or heroic things. The extremeness of it all skews two-dimensional, less realistic and less real than intended.
It’d feel more honest and human if every broadcast or article ended with some sort of disclaimer like, “Well, that’s all we were able to find out for now. We could be wrong! There are countless sides to this story and this is just one of them, and there’s simply not enough time in the day given the constraints of the space we have to fill, of living life and running a business, to have gone into more context and complexity. But still, we hope this helps you understand the world a little better and know that we did our best.”
(Learning to Love You More was a series of prompts — “assignments” — July and her creative collaborator Harrell Fletcher gave to the public across various media, which resulted in various media created by the public.)
Feel the news.
Go to http://www.democracynow.org/streampage.pl and watch the current show. When the segment is over, choose someone from the news who made an impression on you. Imagine that you are them, and act out a moment of their day today. Choose an ordinary moment, one without dialogue, when they are alone — maybe the moment after they hang up the phone, or before they go to sleep. It doesn’t matter what they are doing, only that you try to feel what it feels like to be them today, given what you know about their life right now. Take a picture of this moment, with the help of a self-timer or a friend. Don’t bother dressing up like them, don’t worry if you aren’t the same race or gender as them. (And don’t choose going to the bathroom, everyone else will do that.) Send the caption for the photo in an email — it should include the relevant news, for example:
D O C U M E N T A T I O N:
Make a photograph and give it a descriptive, concise caption.
There are many incredible public submissions to this prompt and I encourage you to check them out. Here are a couple of my favorites.
Litchfield, Ohio USA
Monday, January 5, 2009: President Raúl Castro, who declared,”Life is an eternal struggle,” at today’s Cuban anniversary celebration, clips his overgrown toenails.
Los Angeles, California USA
Wednesday, January 9, 2008: After lending his support to candidate John Edwards on stage in New Hampshire, Desperate Housewives star James Denton reads the label of his new facial cleanser.
I asked July about this particular assignment from Learning to Love You More and its genesis.
MJ: I think I’m someone who always has trouble with the news. Like I want to know. I’m obviously a curious person, but I learn through intimacy and through identifying. And so in a really clunky, sort of almost overtly simplistic way it was like, okay, well, what if you made an assignment out of that, made it your assignment to identify with these people who are very hard to identify with? What if you became them and really embodied them? And they are actually people with feelings who do all the mundane things that you do? And so it shouldn’t be that hard. You could do it right now.
Harrell and I often talked about “make it dumber.” When in doubt, instead of trying to have a sophisticated way into that problem of feeling alienated from the news, what’s the dumbest way you could try and connect? Because a lot of problems are kind of limbic, they are kind of dumb — it’s like you can’t get in there intellectually necessarily. And that’s most obvious when you actually can empathize. Like as a mother, you see some horrific thing that’s happening to another mother in the news. And then you identify all too much and it’s incredibly painful and overwhelming in its own way. So maybe you can use a little bit of that ability that you do have to try to identify with unappealing people, with people you’re angry at, with boring people, to move away from yourself but keep that reality.
For public media makers: How can you make the people and problems you cover more intimate and relatable?
As a follow-up, I asked July what kinds of news she thinks actually does a good job being informative, relevant and accessible in the ways that she can relate to. Her answer was Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter. It’s a newsletter started in 2015 by Dunham (best known for her HBO show Girls and film Tiny Furniture) and writer / producer Jenni Konner.
MJ: I wasn’t sure what she [Dunham] was going to do with that [Lenny Letters] and my pants were pretty much blown off. Like, oh, you’re just gonna try and change the world! I mean the first interview was with Sandra Bland’s best friend. Just a very startling news source that no one was going to anticipate. I read every single thing I could find on Sandra Bland. It was one of the wormholes I fell down and I know I wasn’t the only one. So hearing from her best friend was exactly what we wanted.
MJ: She [Dunham and the Lenny Letter] went on from there [covering] Hillary Clinton and a lot of less famous people doing really powerful things. And then a sprinkling of frivolity, which I think is really savvy.
For public media makers: What angles are missing in stories that you as a human, not a reporter, are personally curious about? Even bigger: what would a news report look like to you if you could make all the rules and conventions?
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As I mentioned earlier, one of the things that turns me off of the news is its lack of recognition of the humanity and vulnerability of all involved. One of the major things that turns me on in July’s work is its bold insistence on humanity and vulnerability.
July is a war reporter from the front lines of the human psyche, acknowledging and trespassing through the painful and awkward thoughts and emotions we all have, but suppress, consciously or not. She is not vulnerable in the common “help me, don’t hurt me!” sense; she wields vulnerability like a weapon.
I wondered how she’s become so comfortable with putting herself in difficult situations and remaining present, trusting and able to deal with whatever comes her way. I asked her if it was a struggle, or if there’s a certain kind of power or delight she derives from vulnerability?
MJ: Not consciously, but, I was interested to see early on just how vulnerable can I be. And not in safe places, by the way. I mean this would be like on stage at a hardcore show that I was somehow booked in between two hardcore bands. But that seemed like the power that I had. I wasn’t going to out-tough anyone another way, but that would be a way to show “I could eat you for breakfast, I’m so unafraid.” Like — “this is how fearless I am, I’m going to be utterly vulnerable up here.” And so it wasn’t a soft, girly, twee thing I was doing at that time. It had actually a lot of anger behind it. Like any person in their twenties, I had all sorts of things I was rebelling against. And that was the way I could do it.
Then I think over time I realized like oh, wow, this isn’t an act; this in fact makes me feel safe because it’s my own, like: I’m making the ground, I’m making the context, I’m the rules. I guess, so the opposite of that is: I’m not making the rules. And then, you know, it all kind of falls to pieces. Like I’m trying to imitate the person next to me. That’s where I’m at my weakest. I’ve lost.
For public media makers: What would your work sound / look like if you allowed yourself to be your most vulnerable?
July said she notices when she’s not being vulnerable, and when she’s rehashing old ideas and playing it safe. When that happens, she said, “I’m kind of put off by myself.” She explained further.
MJ: For me that can be as simple as someone’s asking for me to do something. Instead of doing something new and scary, I am like, “I don’t have all the time, I’m just going to give them something that’s a lot like something else I’ve already done.” And that always feels so terrible to me. I know a lot of people do that, I mean, that’s like a fine and respected thing in art. But I feel like, there was no risk there and so I’m not that interested in what I made. And then it’s like, well why even bother?
And that only happens every once in awhile, but a red flag goes up if I’m repeating myself. I have ideas, and often the ideas that don’t work out are not mysterious enough to me. I’m excited about them, because I know everything about them. And at first it takes you awhile to realize that, like oh wait, huh. This project is over before you even began because I know everything about this topic. And so just catching yourself when you’re not marching into the unknown … that’s not like a perfect science, I march into the known frequently, and I’m like, oh, everything is very brightly lit here, and clear, and I am not needed. And then I have to be embarrassed and, “oh, I’m not doing that project any more” and start over.
For public media makers: In what parts of your practice are you repetitive and playing it safe? Are you open to being comfortable with making yourself uncomfortable?
The risks that July takes with her work often take on the form of crafting experiences with the public. She doesn’t just take her audience’s experience into account when creating work; she often makes work that explicitly requires participation to become realized. Her recently completed run of a live performance called New Society centered around the audience’s reactions and creativity to prompts July expertly framed.
(Aside: this audience-as-makers tendency aligns with the work I’ve been exploring in the past few years. In the experimental radio series I founded called Curious City, no story can happen without the public’s involvement. Every story starts with the public. Along these same lines, and as a pre-cursor to Curious City, I co-founded a dance happening for women in the early 2000s called Dance Dance Party Party. Each workout class requires a different participant to run it by curating a list of their favorite dance songs. There’s no instructor; the people in the room create the class collectively and it’s never the same experience twice.)
I asked July why, as an artist, she makes so many two-way pieces and opts to be inclusive, rather than creating more rarefied work that sits at an arm’s length from her audience.
MJ: Well one thing I’ve been thinking is, the very first thing I ever made that sort of garnered any attention, like my first real press, was Joanie4Jackie. Originally it was called Big Miss Moviola, and then I got sued or something. So Joanie4Jackie — I called it a chain letter, and I invited women to send me their short movies. I would compile them onto VHS tapes (cause this was the earlyish 90s) and I would send the tapes back to the women, and they would get to see their work and the work of nine other women. And this was a really clunky way, pre-YouTube, for us to have a sense of context as women filmmakers. And when I say “us,” I hadn’t actually hadn’t even made a movie yet; I was just trying to get up the courage to do that, and so this was how I began. And by the time the third compilation came out I was on it. I was really proud that I had something to contribute to my own project.
Anyways, all that is just to say that I grew up in a house that also had a business — my parents’ publishing company — and so what I grew up seeing was how you make something from beginning to end, and then how you get people to come to it. And all the work that takes. And so that to me was my sense of what you do as an adult. So it’s no surprise that Joanie4Jackie was really so much like my parents’ publishing, in a way. And I think I just kept doing that.
Now it’s less obvious, or it seems “artier.” It got less looking like distribution or something. But that impulse is very, very second nature and comforting to me and it’s not quite the same thing as being an artist. And it’s easier in some ways because what’s required of you is not so much genius as generosity.
Thinking about the audience’s experience, or the participant’s experience … it’s just a totally different muscle. I would say that I’m coming to it not exactly from a participatory art point of view. If I’m really honest, I came from it from the point of view as the child of a small business owner.
My parents themselves were writers, but what I saw them mostly doing was meeting people they thought were interesting and saying, “Do you have a book?” And, you know everyone’s got a book. And then them being so excited, they were like [whispers] “Guess what? He has a book. Not only does he have a book, he has ten unpublished manuscripts and we’re going to publish all of them!” Somehow they made this work, by the way, financially. It’s both the nuts and bolts, and it’s also that having enthusiasm about someone else’s work was something that could run parallel to making your own. And that that would make a good life.
And we should throw in, lest I sound like a saint or something, a sense of greed. A sense of, “Eureka! I just found something so amazing that the world doesn’t know about yet, and I’m going to get to be the one to introduce them to the world.”
For public media makers: What does your audience want from you and how do you *know* that’s what they want?
“Audience engagement” is increasingly seen as not just a nice idea, but necessary for public media and for all news, really, because having an audience who shows up and clicks and cares is a necessity for business survival. This capturing of attention and affection is becoming all the more crucial as competition for eyes and ears becomes ever fiercer. I asked July whether she feels more pressure doing solitary work or doing work that requires audience engagement.
MJ: It’s less stressful if it’s all on me because I know what I can do and it’s just a matter of trying and trying again, and fixing and troubleshooting; whereas with other people, they’re such wild cards, and that’s what’s great about them. I especially work with a lot of non-artists and specifically because I don’t know what’s going to come out, because I’m not focused on talent as much as that everyone’s interesting, and that the present moment is interesting, and let’s try and have at that right now.
So I love that. I’m never more alive and high than when I’m on stage and when it’s not just me, it’s someone I’ve just met in that moment on the stage. But gosh it feels nice to be sitting in front of my computer after that.
For public media makers: When do you feel most alive in your creative process? Do those moments involve other people? Why or why not?
I asked July which piece or project she’d spent the most energy taking the audience experience into account and really designing it with them in mind.
MJ: Oh, god. I feel like that process has just gotten more and more refined. I can think about how [with] Learning to Love You More, Harrell and I would write these very detailed instructions, and then we would start to get the first results that those instructions created, and we’d see like, oh my god, what?!
So it’s like a bad game of telephone, and so we would keep adjusting and keep adjusting our instructions until they elicited the response that we were looking for. It’s like we’re pointing at what we think is interesting, and we’re like using the power of our finger. But ultimately the thing you’re looking at is not our finger; it’s the thing we’re pointing at.
If you’re asking a lot of your audience, you need to have the support to back it up.
So if you’re asking a lot you have to give just exactly the right kind of support that makes it feel easy to do that thing — easy and natural, like you were already about to do it. And that’s also what you do when you’re directing. You’re trying to find what is the fewest number of words you could say so the actor should interrupt you and go, “Oh, I got it,” because you’ve already started a line of feeling in them and they’re going to go finish your sentence on the screen.
When I think about it, that’s so similar to what you do when you make an app. You’re not there holding the person’s hand; all they have is these instructions.
For public media makers: What kinds of audience engagement do you do? And do you have the support to back up what you’re asking of participants, and to iterate until you can achieve the kind of response you’re hoping for?
The past few years, I’ve been really interested in how audiences can participate in, influence and contribute to acts of journalism before they’re published (via WBEZ’s Curious City and now Hearken). So I asked some public media makers, the prime audience for this piece, what they’d ask July, if given the opportunity. Here’s a roundup of what we had time to cover.
Logan Jaffe is a multimedia reporter for WBEZ’s Curious City, and she wanted to know: When July thinks about the role of the public and her relationship to it, if she had to pick a preposition, what would she choose? I make work for the public, with the public, of the public?
MJ: I’d have to say with and for.
Amira Anne Glickman is a freelancer who wanted to know how July experiences guidance.
MJ: Hmm. Yeah, guidance is something I only discovered when I entered my thirties, because I’m self-taught; I didn’t go to school for any of the things. And not just self-taught, but like really poo-pooed the whole idea of being taught — it seemed uncool to me. So I completely missed the boat on guidance — even the fundamentals of the editorial process. And then it just seemed like free money once I got it.
I was like, oh, you can be helped? And that’s allowed? Like you don’t just have to suffer as much as possible and experience the very finite limitations of your own brain? You can actually get a little bit of help and go way further. And yeah, since then I feel like now so often I’m just learning. So much of what makes me feel good and like I’m doing good work is that I’m just learning from other people; that I have the right people around me that I’m learning from, or that I’m reading the right interviews. But that’s been a real shift. I mean, I would have thought that person was uncool in my twenties.
As the interviewer I snuck in one tiny quick last question. It’s the question that everyone in public media asks and is perhaps the most important question of all, which is, what did she have for breakfast?
MJ: I had French toast that my husband made and he, as it turns out, has never made French toast before. It was completely wrong, but very endearing.
Special thanks to those who pitched in to make this happen or help me think / breathe: Samantha Broun, Sydney Lewis, George Lavender, Starlee Kine, Laura Starecheski, Lulu Miller, Avery Trufelman (and Morgan Dewey!), Logan Jaffe, Shannon Heffernan, Joe Hulbert, Gretchen Kalwinski, Kate Joyce, Betsy O’Donovan, Aaron Wickenden and Amira Anne Glickman (who made the wonderful talisman below for good luck).