Rush the Gates
Miranda July is trapped onstage. The Portland performance artist is stuck up on a catwalk, sandwiched between two video screens like a specimen pinned to glass, her every move choreographed to the live score composed by DJ and microbiologist Zac Love. Her trademark puff of platinum hair, an apt hybrid of Einstein, Warhol, and the Bride of Frankenstein, is restrained beneath a flat brown wig and headset. In what she calls her "live movie," The Swan Tool, July portrays Lisa Cobb, a woman unable to choose between living and dying. Instead the insurance drone who moonlights with a service that unlocks car doors takes literally the confines of her claustrophobic life by burying herself alive in her back yard. In her humdrum existence, Cobb is trapped by what July calls the "profound tyranny of doubt."
"That's the frustrating thing about burying yourself," observes July by phone from Oregon. "You're in there, you know, and that part is buried now. All that happens to that part [in The Swan Tool] is symbolized by this hairy thing that is in a room. There's a guard guarding the room. Various people, like the cleaning woman and messengers, keep trying to get in and the guard has to deal with them. It's really mundane. Until the right transactions happen, there's no access down there. But the two worlds affect each other and slowly they interact by the end." The subconscious bubbles up to the surface with alarming regularity; art invades life.
Conceived, written, directed, and performed by July, the 45-minute show has toured across the country and abroad since 2000. But this Thursday's performance of The Swan Tool, presented by Miami-Dade Community College's Cultura del Lobo Performance Series, is likely the final incarnation of what July describes as an intensely sad story that is really funny too, as a tale that gets across "that particular ache of just living."
Unlike the character she plays, though, the 28-year-old July hardly seems to be in limbo. The Berkeley native started out performing in local bars and punk clubs, such as Gilman Street. After two years at UC-Santa Cruz, July dropped out of college, to the chagrin of her writer parents. She moved to Portland in the mid-Nineties, finding a musical outlet with like-minded outfits Ce Ce Barns Band and The Need, releasing solo-performance CDs on the Kill Rock Stars label, and making a music video for riot grrrls Sleater-Kinney. Her experimental short films (The Amateurist, Nest of Tens, Atlanta, Getting Stronger Every Day) have screened everywhere from the Guggenheim to the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and her 27-minute Nest of Tens was selected for this year's Whitney Biennial, along with a sound installation of chameleonlike voices, called The Drifters, which she created for the museum's elevator. She even showed up on the mainstream screen, playing the nurse with a black eye in the movie Jesus' Son.
Like her cohorts in the riot grrrl movement, July hijacks media in the service of women. In 1995 she gained a cult following with a "lady-made video chainletter" she called Big Miss Moviola (now Joanie 4 Jackie) and a set of interviews she called the Missing Movie Project. Both experiments explored the question July posed to random women on the street: "If you could make a movie, what would it be about?" The Missing Movie Report on Joanie4Jackie.com muses: "What are the missing movies about? It is hard to even guess. Maybe they are very sexy and very violent. More sexy and violent than we can imagine. Maybe they are Dullsville. Nobody knows." In 1999 July told the Austin Chronicle: "Girls write Big Miss Moviola everyday wanting, wanting, wanting. And I'm not just gonna send them a girl-power T-shirt; I am going to invent ways for them to see work that will change the way they view what is possible."
Although July says she hated her last day job, she found another symbol for what is possible -- as well as the concept for The Swan Tool -- working for a service that unlocked car doors. "Mostly it was just the name," she says of the car-opening device, "but [the tool] also was kind of cool 'cause it was like a big 'U.' It just went underneath the window and into the inside so you could easily see it in there and physically lift up the lock like a little finger."
With The Swan Tool, July attempts to lift the lock off our logical thinking brains. "It's like that moment in good science fiction where you just are able to go with it," she says of the wild premise of her performance, "then in like bad science fiction, you're like, 'Whoa! Whoa! What do you mean they're made of air?'" Or, as she told the Washington Project for the Arts: "Like everyone else, I am trying to make you feel something very specific. Sometimes it is so specific that language has to be used almost as a decoy, to distract the guards while I rush the gates."
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