Miranda July is holding up a pair of jeans emblazoned with a huge embroidered mermaid. “We have two denim categories,” she is saying. “The type that everyone would want, like Levi’s, or the crazy stuff, extreme denim.”
She is in a warehouse in North Acton, sorting through racks and piles of clothing that have been donated to four charity organisations, the Norwood Jewish Charity Shop, the London Buddhist Centre, the Spitalfields Trust and Islamic Relief for sale in their London shops. July herself is dressed in a slim grey suit, and a skinny T-shirt emblazoned with the Nike logo — a nod perhaps to the marathon task that lies ahead.
July is a polymathic artist from Los Angeles, whose work ranges across cinema (2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know), performance, writing (her novel The First Bad Man was published in 2015), apps (Somewhere allows users to deliver a painful message using a real person) and installations — her work Eleven Heavy Things appeared at the Venice Biennale in 2009. She started making films in her teens, and played in bands in Seattle in the 1990s, changing her own name to that of a character from one of the many fanzines she produced at the time. (Her parents, Lindy and Richard Grossinger, are Berkeley-based publishers of alternative health and spiritual titles. “I had a leftie upbringing,” she says.)
Under the auspices of commissioning organisation Artangel, July’s latest project — with the official title “Artangel & Miranda July present Norwood Jewish Charity Shop, London Buddhist Centre Shop & Spitalfields Crypt Trust Charity Shop in solidarity with Islamic Relief Charity Shop at Selfridges” — opened in London this week. It is, to all intents and purposes, a multifaith charity store, a little bit downbeat, with its slat walls and staff in blue aprons, but provocatively placed on the third floor of Selfridges department store, that superliner of luxury that sucks up several blocks of Oxford Street, London’s consumerist heart.
July’s intervention is both fact and fiction: a real shop containing real stock for sale, and an invented space where various narratives will unfold. July herself has chosen the items, some according to her Style Guide (shoes: blingy or orthopaedic), though much is standard fare. Part of what attracts her to the project, she tells me, is that “the clothes and books and bric-a-brac all have their own pre-existing histories, and represent lives of real people.”
The last time July was in London, two years ago, it was to recreate a performance called “New Society” that she’d first staged in New York and then Los Angeles, where she lives. In 120 minutes, she persuaded the audience to participate in the origination of a new society, designing its flag, its currency and writing its constitution.
“London was terrifying,” she says. “There were long moments of absolute silence, with no one coming forward. But once people actually joined in they were strikingly good. I have a sense that a Londoner will go out on a limb — even an insane, ill-advised limb — by expanding their sense of dignity to develop some legitimacy.” She’s clearly hoping to harness that again, and over a more extended period.
When she presented “New Society” in the US, July asked the press not to talk about it until after the last performance. She said then that she wanted the audience to have “the now rare sensation to sit down in a theatre with no idea what will happen.”
A similar embargo was placed on this latest project, an act that might seem unnecessarily precious or self-important. A group of journalists was invited to meet July at a London hotel on the day of the opening, with no indication of where they would be going or what they might see. I had been exempt from this arrangement, but sworn to secrecy. July says the embargo was because she wants people to discover the store “without prejudgment and expectation”, which I’m sure is both true and disingenuous. That the project also evokes the idea of religion at a time when, in its most fundamentalist form, it threatens our daily lives must surely have played a part in the desire to avoid any attention ahead of time.
But she has a point. Now the shop is up and running, for visitors — both those who simply stumble across it, a thrift-led pause in Selfridges’ aspirational arena, and those, including some of July’s 125,000 Instagram followers who will be more interested in the bespoke July-designed label attached to every item and the customised Selfridges bag they’ll get to carry out of the store — it plays first and foremost to our knee-jerk response to shopping.
Staff, drawn from the participating charities’ existing stores, have nonetheless been briefed for the possible questions that may well be asked. (Example: “Is this religious?” Answer: “Charity shops welcome everyone, regardless of creed.”) Perhaps at best it might neutralise the more negative associations now firmly attached to certain beliefs.
July has never touched on religion before in her work. Her more frequent terrain is the psychosexual — characters in her films and novels often take part in peculiar relationships and acts — and the social. She describes her lack of understanding of any kind of theology as “California provincialism. It feels like a blind spot. So with this project I’ve consciously gone towards the unknown, understanding I would feel out-of-it and uncomfortable at times,” she says.
Those who will be working in the shop (there are no Selfridges staff involved) include local girls in hijabs from the Islamic Relief Store in Whitechapel, a glamorous Brazilian from the Norwood Jewish shop, and a smartly spoken woman from the Buddhist centre, a convenient but by no means inaccurate sample of London’s diverse population.
The stories that unfold among them will be part of the project. “There is a kind of chatting and familiarity that happens within a work day that is hard to get to any other way,” says July. All are invited to record their experiences in video selfies and send them to July once she returns to Los Angeles. “But just point the camera at the ceiling if you don’t want me to see you,” she says. An assistant suggests leaving a book by the till, for those who’d really just prefer to write down their thoughts.
The outcome of the event, which runs until October 22, will be a book documenting shoppers, staff and some of the more intriguing interactions and experiences that occur along the way. Lucy Pardee, who specialises in street casting for film directors such as Andrea Arnold, will be on hand to conduct interviews, or as July says, “to check out the ebb and the flow”.
But in the meantime, the shop will be making money for the charities involved. All profits will be divided four ways, with 2.5 per cent donated to another charity of their choice (this in the spirt of Islamic system of Zakat). “It’s a human right to be able to give to charity,” says July. And hers to turn it into an extended piece of performance art.
Photographs: Hannah Starkey; Getty