In this piece writer, artist and filmmaker Miranda July considers the accidental, incidental narrative archive of the screenshots she has collected on her computer over time. Her screenshots have been translated into collages by Miranda’s friend and collaborator, photographer Charlie Engman.
This is the first of three pieces re-published from LIMBO: a printed arts publication created to support out-of-work artists and creatives following the coronavirus crisis.
Taking a screenshot is not a creative act…it’s just the run-off from my life. I’m trying to show something to someone. I’m saying, “Like this” or “This is the one I want,” or sometimes to myself: “Remember this.” I’m trying to fix something visually. It has become second nature.
I’ve kept a physical archive – letters, notes, journals – since I was a child. I wonder what kind of record I’m making here, accidentally. The screenshots go straight into a folder automatically.
Often, what’s often appealing to me is a misuse of technology, or stretching it a little bit. Screenshots are just a built-in feature of your phone or your computer. There is no emotional or aesthetic framework to them. I think that’s part of the appeal to me. This is totally dry. This isn’t marketed. No one’s making any money off screenshots. It’s neutral.
So much energy is focused on the Instagram aesthetic, on the framing and sharing of chosen images. There’s something interesting about all the other pictures that we’re surrounding ourselves with, that we don’t choose to share. They are hastily done. You could never fake such bad cropping.
I screenshotted a news story that Plan B and Annapurna were producing my movie. There’s this sort of a porn ad attached to part of it, which is just one of those weird computer things – a juxtaposition that really makes no sense, some algorithm created it. It’s almost organic. That’s a case of me just grabbing something that I knew I’d never see again.
The Italian Crime Subplot? When I came upon those in the folder I was like, “Oh god, right, I forgot about this.” Someone was doing casting calls and auditioning all these young women who thought they were trying out for a movie of mine...so creepy. Several Italian women wrote me about this around the same time. I had my lawyer look into it. I think there was a cease and desist sent, along the lines of “You can’t keep impersonating me.” Frankly, I would’ve forgotten this even happened if it weren’t for the screenshots.
I like to see how loose the narrative can be, while still holding people. Charlie showed me his first draft of these , and I suddenly realized, “Oh, these are portraits. Of me. And I wonder what they are saying.” Your mind just can’t help but make a story, try to crack the code. That’s narrative.
I read about Charlie on It’s Nice That and started following him on Instagram. One day, when I was shooting Kajillionaire, I was shown some very preliminary marketing materials over lunch. They didn’t seem quite right, but I was in the middle of a shoot day. It wasn’t like I could go direct this whole other project. But I did understand that we needed to shoot the actors while we had them all together, so I opened my Instagram and said to my producer, Dede Gardner, ‘If we could get this guy...If I can’t be there, I think I’d like this Charlie Engman guy to be in charge.”
I DMed him right then, at lunch, and he wrote back before the end of lunch, and three days later, we had flown him out from New York, and he was on set shooting Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins, and Gina Rodriguez. I barely saw him, because I was directing the movie in another part of this big warehouse. But, the pictures were great, and now, they are being made into posters and his aesthetic carries through. Since then, we have hung out several times. Every time we make something, which isn’t unusual for either of us, I don’t think. We have that in common.
Charlie asked me to write the introduction to his book Mom, and I suggested that I have a conversation with his mom. It was an amazing FaceTime… of course I took screenshots of it! Right now he’s also designing the album cover for the Kajillionaire soundtrack, a project that’s very close to my heart. Like a lot of my favourite artists his work is sometimes messy to the point where it seems it might not hold together… but it does. There’s a real strength in playing with that edge.
One time he came over to my studio, I remember asking him about what he was wearing and him explaining how he had made or altered – added to – his shirt and pants. And a few minutes later we were making a video together, just for fun, and while we were shooting he accidently broke a pink bowl of mine and that made me happy… what I’m trying to describe is that we both have a kind of fluid sense of what our art is. He’s a photographer, I’m a writer. There is rigorous core skill-set, but I think we are both just always making things in whatever medium. A voice can come through anything really.
Some of these screenshots are of text exchanges or things that I didn’t end up sending. Like a tweet I wasn’t brave or stupid enough to post. There is a way in which our whole digital life kind of runs endlessly like a river, which is good and bad. You can always reassure yourself that the collective memory is very short and the online stream is ever-renewing and repairing. But also, it’s hard to hold onto anything. So, you hold on by screenshotting, it’s like taking a picture of water.
Miranda July by Miranda July is published by Penguin Random House; Kajillionaire is due for cinematic release in September 2020. Mom by Charlie Engman is published by Edition Patrick Frey