main pictureMiranda July with Jay Benedicto: Services (Copyright © Miranda July / Mack Books, 2022)
The circumstances in which Miranda July‘s latest book was designed are as unique as a lunar eclipse or other celestial phenomenon requiring an improbable and incredibly elaborate set of events to be perfectly aligned. While all of July’s work is imbued with an extraordinary and sometimes surreal magic – including her first novel, The first villain  and his latest film, Kajillionaire  – this latest project by the famous filmmaker, artist and writer is attached to a unique and unexpected architecture. Services (published by Mack) was born because just when the escalating pandemic and the reality of an impending lockdown became frightening for her, July received an offer of help that she would have declined at almost n any other moment in history.
At a cafe in her hometown of Los Angeles, she read an email from her child’s school informing her that they were closing indefinitely due to Covid. The news was a shock. Reeling from the dawning reality of what the pandemic could mean, she was more receptive and porous than ever to the new possibilities that presented themselves. At that very moment – as a perceived vision of her world gave way to a new and uncertain future – July received a cold call, offering “services”. Normally, she might have hung up, but at this extraordinary moment, the opaque offer was enticing.
Not only did July indulge the saleswoman in her pitch, but she started asking them about their own lives. The voice on the other end of the line belonged to Jay, a trans woman who loves karaoke in the Philippines. The couple spoke, transcending the confines of the sales script and stepping into more intimate faith territory. After suggesting that they stay in touch, July began sending Jay on a series of creative assignments; they responded with what July describes as “striking, inventive and honest imagery.” Their resulting six-month dialogue later became Services – a 23-foot-long “book sculpture” charting the entire arc of their collaboration so far.
Below, we emailed July about her ongoing artistic relationship with Jay, protecting her attention span from the insidious lure of cellphones and taking things “very, very far.”
Emily Dinsdale: Could you present this project and the affinity you felt with Jay?
Miranda July: It all started when the pandemic hit – I had just read my child’s school email about indefinite school cancellation when I received a phone call from an unknown number. He was a lawyer [salesperson] but maybe because I was in shock from the email, I didn’t hang up. I listened to their pitch, then I asked them where they were [the Philippines]how old were they what was their gender [trans woman]what they liked to do [karaoke], and I suggested that we keep in touch. We collaborated over the next six months and created the body of work that Services.
ED: What do you think has been the emotional impact of the pandemic on you personally?
MJ: I was in shock, still trying to figure out what was going on and plan how to get out of it, emotionally and in terms of time, since I became a mother. I was aware of how lucky we were to be able to stay home and continue to operate and like everyone else I experienced crushing disappointments; things I had been working on for years suddenly disappeared. In retrospect, I think my degree of disappointment was actually an indication that something was wrong with my life – I’ve made some massive changes over the past year that could be summed up by the wise proverb: YOLO.. .. although I’m not convinced that you only live once.
ED: How would you describe the arc of your relationship with Jay?
GM: I mean, it’s still going, but so far I’d say we started out like any new collaborator, trying to feel how much we could trust each other. Then there was the (ongoing) phase of Jay blowing my mind by accepting my nervous little homework and coming back with such striking, inventive and honest imagery.
All the while I’m paying her, like I would pay anyone for their work, but also a relationship develops – so we became vulnerable to each other and sometimes we got angry and then we we recovered, thanks to the conversation. But it was incorporated into the project. To collaborate, we each had to face a reality that was completely unknown to us, and therefore prejudices were inevitable.
I couldn’t use my experience as a yardstick for reality – which isn’t always comfortable, but ultimately feels pretty good. You can simply: let go. Nothing bad will happen if you loosen your grip on “the way” you do things. And I don’t want to speak for Jay, but I imagine she started doing it right from the start, on that first phone call, as she answered my questions.
“I’ve made massive changes over the past year that could be summed up by the wise proverb: YOLO…although I’m not convinced you only live once” – Miranda July
ED: When you started corresponding with his message, did you have any idea that it would become a book? How have you seen it evolve?
MJ: As I told Jay early on, I was asked Suddeutsche Zeitung Magazin create a new work for their Edition 46. Each year they invite an artist to do so, and past artists include Sophie Calle and Maurizio Cattelan.
I was hoping that our collaboration would lead to some work that I could use for this, but of course I had no idea if it would come to fruition. Edition 46 is wonderfully available – it comes in the journal – but it was also important to make a very permanent and beautiful record of the work, which I did with this special edition from Mack Books; we made them with Bookworks. There are only 25 of them and they are quite large, 23 feet long, so they look more like sculptural objects than books.
ED: One of the things I love about your job is how often you take an idea and walk it to its furthest logical conclusion. Could you tell us a bit about this concept?
GM: Ha, I guess so. I think I have this fear of being a wimp, of not going all the way, and that’s usually led me to go very, very far.
ED: Your curiosity for the world and for the inner life of others seems so limitless. How do you think this is something that happens naturally to you? Or is it something you cultivate?
MJ: It’s not like everything and everyone interests me, but I guess I’m generally willing to take risks when my instincts suggest it. And a certain amount of time, it’s rewarding and I learn something, and then after many years of living like that, I find that I’ve kind of cultivated that as a practice. But see, I don’t like to be tied down in any particular way, so even this self-assessment feels like a trap. Which perhaps indicates that I am more motivated by a need for freedom than by curiosity.
“I have this fear of being a wimp, of not following through, and that has usually taken things very, very far” – Miranda July
ED: For many people cell phones have depleted their attention span, but you have integrated apps, messages and new technologies into your work in very inventive and interesting ways that connect people rather than isolate them. . Could you tell us about your relationship with technology and how you managed to exploit its potential without seeming to have impaired your creativity?
MJ: I’m in the same boat as all of us, constantly struggling with my phone, trying to protect my attention span. My job depends on my ability to have long thoughts, sustained for years, so fuck Facebook, etc. to make the tools as addictive as possible.
But the technology itself is still quite interesting to me and I consider it our job as people living in this time to use it for our own purposes and ultimately shape what it is. It was easier at first, with projects like Learn to love yourself more, and now it’s like trying to collaborate with the drug heroine but not getting addicted to the process. In fact, I always get addicted and then I have to start over.
ED: What are you currently working on? What future projects are in preparation?
GM: I just finished a novel that I started just before the pandemic. It’s a big problem.
Services by Miranda July is published by Mac and is available now in a limited edition of 25.