THE GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE in Los Angeles recently acquired the archives of Joanie 4 Jackie (J4J), the feminist video “chain letter” begun by artist, filmmaker, and writer Miranda July in 1995. Art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson, who worked on the project in its early years, spoke with July to reflect on its history, this accession, and the launch of joanie4jackie.com.
JULIA BRYAN-WILSON: What was the motivation behind Joanie 4 Jackie?
MIRANDA JULY: J4J was an underground network for circulating videos. I invited self-identified girls and women to make and send me short movies, and I would send back a VHS tape with their movie and nine others on it. It was a simple way for women to see each other’s work. I was attempting to bring filmmaking into the feminist do-it-yourself fold, as women all around me were doing with music in the Riot Grrrl scene in Portland, Oregon. I had just dropped out of collegeI hadn’t yet made a movie myself. I felt like I needed to create a context first to allow moviemaking to seem possible.
JBW: When we met in 1996, I was also interested in DIY video, stemming from the feminist film theory and AIDS-activist work I had studied in college. For me, J4J was a way to put those theories into action in some meaningful waythe project seemed like a possible wedge into capitalism and patriarchy.
MJ: Completely. In my early writings about J4J, I discussed how we, as women, by virtue of being raised to be so self-conscious, are making movies all the time in our heads as we move through the world. I didn’t care about notions of talent. Every submission was accepted and each artist could create her own private definition of success. Even so, most of the movies were from young white women, and I became fixated on the movies that weren’t being made. For The Missing Movie Report, 1996, I walked around Portland with a camera and tape recorder, asking women, “If you could make a movie, what would it be about?” The answers were stirring and kind of heartbreaking.
JBW: You were interrogating the technology’s relationship to age, race, access, and privilege. When I look back at our documents from twenty years agoposters, letters, journals, grant applicationswe had grand ambitions. We wanted to pair up college students who had access to equipment with local high schoolers who didn’t. Meanwhile, neither of us had the money to own a video camera ourselves. The project basically consisted of two friends and Kinko’s.
MJ: Eventually, I got a grant to buy a camera and a video projector so I could screen the movies all over the country. And at every screening, I made a movie with the audience and projected it. I was always trying to show how easy the medium was. Of course, this was pre–camera phone, pre-YouTube.
JBW: You’ve always been very precise about self-historicizingyou saved every piece of memorabilia related to the project right from the outset. How does it feel to have that unofficial collection enter the official archive of the Getty?
MJ: Well, I planned for this! So it’s a complete relief. When I first met with curator Glenn Phillips, I went in with the feeling that I would have to use my name to get J4J into the institution. But what he really cared about was that this collection of women’s work fit perfectly into their archives of feminist video collectives. I walked out of that meeting a little tearful, realizing that they were specifically looking for voices that wouldn’t be represented anywhere else and wouldn’t necessarily be saved or valued.
JBW: Last fall, the Getty also acquired the Harmony Hammond archives. They are increasingly demonstrating a commitment to preserving feminist and queer archives that embrace defiantly homegrown, non–“high art” material.
MJ: It’s exciting to see. After almost a decade, I stepped away from the project to focus on making my first feature [Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)]. At the Sundance Film Festival, there was only one other movie made by a woman in competition for the Grand Jury Prize, out of sixteen. When you come out of nowhere as a woman with a feature film, everyone wants an explanation. How could you have had the balls to do that? The answer was J4J. These women filmmakers that I had surrounded myself with were my primary reality. It was a shock to realize we didn’t change the world. In fact, it still really sucks out here. That’s when I decided I should probably make the archive public, through a new website and with a permanent institutional home.
JBW: J4J did have an impact on many of the people who were involved in some way, such as Astria Suparak, K8 Hardy, and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. The project, and our friendship, also shaped my own interest in feminist, alternative, and amateur production. Insisting that the biographical and the critical should not be divorced is a queer method of historyone beautifully enacted in recently published writings by Hilton Als, Douglas Crimp, and Maggie Nelson. For me, J4J made legible how personal relationships and artistic/scholarly work feed and structure each other.
MJ: Yeah. Even though it’s pretty embarrassing to look back at us as twenty-two-year-olds, the handmade grandiosity of J4J was crucial: If you’re starving for something, there are probably a lot of other people who need it too.
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