Miranda July has been getting a lot of sexts. Strangers from all over the world have been sending her intimate confessions; her phone buzzes all day and night. But these texts aren’t random. July solicited them. “I was suddenly having to edit my movie and I was very turned on the whole time. It was as if you had just had a steady diet of porn, and then it was like now work,” she tells me. The sext collection is part of the casting and writing process for a short quarantine movie, Jopie that July has been making. It's made entirely from contributions from her Instagram followers and their families, including their own film snippets, character names, and a score—all directed by July, and created under lockdown due to the pandemic.
This story could have been about those sexts, and it could have been how her Instagram community has been a source for inspiration and support during her time in quarantine. Especially now as her third feature film, Kajillionaire, has been delayed from summer to a likely fall release—and her recently published book, Miranda July, published by Prestel, which features oral histories of her expansive decades-long career as a prolific boundary-pushing filmmaker, artist, and writer never got its deserved release party.
But on the day we met at her Echo Park studio in Los Angeles, masked, sitting 10 feet apart, there were some bigger issues at hand. As we sat in the scraggly tree-shaded backyard a short distance from my own home, July and I discovered we had recently gone to the same coronavirus testing site near Dodger Stadium. She took her kid along, since schools are closed and July and her husband are essentially taking turns as stand-in second grade teachers. July also filmed the entire process complete with dystopian hazmat suits and cheek-swabbing to capture this moment in history and normalize the experience for her Instagram community.
Then, just hours after our interview ended, Los Angeles exploded into riots sparked by the Minnesota police’s killing of George Floyd. Protesters and police clashed, looters ran rampant through downtown L.A. and storefronts transformed with hastily thrown on plywood panels with scrawls like “We’re with you,” “I can’t breathe,” and “Justice for Floyd.”
When all of this was happening, I turned, like so many of us, to Instagram to check in on my people and make sense of the news, including mayor-mandated curfews beginning as early as 1 p.m. in nearby Beverly Hills. My feed was flooded with support for Black Lives Matter and snapshots of peaceful protests turned violent. July’s personal feed, too, spoke directly to what’s going on. She highlighted calls to action like contacting Congress to support condemning police brutality, donating to George Floyd’s official memorial fund, and tips for writing impactful letters to local representatives. “Do it with your child, if you have one, so they understand this is very important,” July advises on one Instagram post.
So much had shifted in the world—once again—since our earlier conversation when we were smiling over explicit sext messages and sitting several feet apart trying not to touch our faces.
I had to call her.
“I feel changed by the last few days,” July tells me. “Frankly, even just on a visual level with the pictures of cars on fire it’s a language that I think speaks to how a lot of people feel, but especially young people.… I think it feels like the reality.”
She acknowledges that so many of us, still weary of the coronavirus for various valid reasons, remain in our homes and are interfacing with the wave of nationwide protests and unrest on our phones, often on Instagram.
“It’s interesting because I’ve been kind of lamenting that Instagram became the world during quarantine. There was the real world, and then there was social media. I’m exaggerating obviously; you can take a walk, and read a book,” July says. “But now that Instagram is completely dominated by images of protests and calls for political action you can’t get away.”
She says it’s perhaps heightened our political awareness—and given many of us a collective action we can feel a part of.
I sent her an image of half a dozen members of the National Guard standing several feet away from her studio in our neighborhood. July acutely points out that they were simply stopping for fuel. “But even that is surreal,” I say, looking at the massive Humvees overshadowing Sunset Boulevard that have transformed our neighborhood into a military state overnight.
“Yes, they were there,” she says gently. I mention that they’re just a few miles away now, in downtown, patrolling Los Angeles City Hall.
A long, weary pause passes between us.
I think about how the one thing July told me she has really missed during quarantine is going to a museum and sitting in front of a painting and letting herself cry.
I wonder aloud if it’s too much to look to art to create order from chaos right now, especially when the chaos feels so big. I don’t explain what I mean by “big,” but I don’t have to—it’s the same thing July has been calling out on her own Instagram feed: a broken criminal justice system, systemic racism, economic uncertainty, and so many young people pent up at home. What is art’s role in all this?
“The truth is, when I’m in a crisis, art is very powerful for me,” she says. “A song can be my saving grace because it’s so important to have your feelings come out and to feel something.”
She adds that, yes, our nation needs real, systemic changes to happen, but you can also want to make art or enjoy art—it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
I hear a helicopter rumble in the distance. She can probably hear it too.
I mention how the sounds in our neighborhood are changing. In our last conversation we had delighted over the sweetness of the banging of pots and pans, and occasional drum solos every night at 8 p.m. that clang nightly to support the health care workers. When July first heard the clamors, she was initially startled. “I was like, Oh, everyone spontaneously was like, I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore.... I thought we’re all so lonely and had enough that we just all started yelling at the same time,” she says.
Now the nightly 8 p.m. neighborhood clanging is still celebrating our health workers—but it’s starting to be drowned out by the sounds of explosions, police sirens, our phones abuzz with emergency alerts and helicopters chopping.
When each week becomes more unpredictable than the next, July considers, engaging in communities and art is one way to keep up with what’s going on. "This is a crisis, and we’re heading into an election—maybe we’re capable of more now,” she says.
That’s it. That’s the story worthy of this moment.