Nowhere is the spirit of Dallas more alive than in its artists. Their cultural brain power and unstoppable ambition bring us new events and festivals, revitalize neighborhoods, reflect on our blunders and offer us things to take pride in. Our artists challenge the status quo of theater, film, visual art and dance, and by doing so, chart the city’s destiny. Every year, the Dallas Observer pauses to salute the voyagers exploring strange new artistic worlds. With the annual Mastermind Awards, we offer a $2,000 check to aid these artists, organizations and art collectives. Many were deserving of the honor, and choosing just three was a nearly impossible assignment for our selection committee of previous winners and established writers and artists. Allow us to introduce you to our 2016 Dallas Observer Masterminds, the artists at the forefront of the city’s expedition into a more creative future.
Man on the Edge: Michael Morris
Michael Morris arrives at Mudsmith with a film canister under his arm. In it, his ongoing project, Blue Movie, featuring the legendary Dallas stripper Candy Barr. The name carries a double meaning as the pornographic footage is processed as a cyanotype film, which removes the silver chemistry from the 16mm film and renders the color a rich blue. He showed the first version of it in 2012 at Oliver Francis Gallery on a loop as part of It’s Just Meant to Be — his only solo exhibition in Dallas to date — but he’s hoping to transfer it to film so he can submit it to festivals.
Morris explains all of this before he’s taken the first sip of his black coffee, which he notes is wildly overpriced. He’s been described in publications, including the Observer, as one of the city’s hardest working artists. Glasstire described him as “tireless;” D Magazine said, “there’s hardly an avant-garde media scene without Morris.”
He’s a Dallas native, and his first artistic outlets were poetry and performing in hardcore and punk bands in the suburbs. He wandered into the world of video art while attending Richland College in the mid-’90s. Originally, he entered the multimedia department thinking he’d study sound production. But when he took a video class he was intrigued. That fixation deepened when he attended University of North Texas, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film and discovered the films of medium-pushing artists like Kenneth Anger and Barbara Hammer.
These pioneers of experimental video art created new visual languages, using the moving image to shed light on women’s issues and homosexuality. Drawn to their poetic use of the medium, Morris felt he had found direction for his own practice.
He returned to Dallas in 2010 after earning an MFA in Moving Image from the University of Illinois-Chicago. He wanted to bring some of the energy from the robust new media scene there back with him, so he began planning events and screenings. His message has been welcomed. “Mike is one of the most fearless and intelligent artists and individuals I know,” says Danielle Avram, a Dallas-based writer and curator. “He routinely works under the radar, without pomp or posturing, and genuinely does his best to up the level of artistic discourse in Dallas.”
Morris participated in Avram’s educational classes on video art, “Four Nights, Four Decades,” and started a short-lived, under-attended screening series, “Contemplative Cinema.”
Eventually he joined forces with the Video Association of Dallas, working closely with Dallas VideoFest, for which he’s now a curator of experimental programming. Last year he helped launch Dallas Medianale, a video art festival and exhibition at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary.
“We have good festivals and events that come up periodically that are great for video art or new media art,” Morris says. “But not consistent programming, especially programming in a theatrical setting, which is something I’m dedicated to.”
Morris uses deeply personal material for his work, relying on aspects of his upbringing in the Bible Belt to explore subjects ranging from religion to the failings of memory and language, all the while seeking to create a proper tension between the video’s aesthetics and its content.
When it comes to material, he uses equipment that even other filmmakers evolved out of years ago. (When Kodak announced the revival of the Super 8 camera, Morris was one of those celebrating.) Like many artists, he finds himself often just as attracted to the tools as to the work itself. “I’m interested in intensely subjective storytelling, films that have intense meditation, [are] discursive, text heavy, a little bit theoretical but also emotionally potent,” says Morris. “But I also just totally love geeking out over ways of making film.”
This year, once he has Blue Movie on film, Morris hopes to find time to buckle down and work on a single, larger project. But it’s unlikely he’ll allow himself any downtime, as not a month goes by without Morris’ name attached to a new project or group exhibition. An old adage says “work expands to fill the time allotted,” but Morris doesn’t have any time to waste.