Arts & Culture News

Filmmaker Michael Morris Investigates Mortality and Our Desire to Fight It

Durational art like film forces its creators to imagine how viewers will perceive it. How long do you have to communicate your message before something else calls their attention and they walk away? It’s a problem inherent to all contemporary art, but one to which film is especially susceptible. Lip service is paid, but rarely does film get its due in the art world.

Dallas-based artist Michael Morris has been exploring solutions to this problem for years. One of the masterminds behind Dallas Medianale, VideoFest’s recent expansion into video art and conceptual film, Morris believes video art deserves the same attention paid to its mainstream cousin at movie theaters. 

His film performances are one of the solutions he's developed and Friday evening he'll present his next one, titled “Hybrid Cinema: Films, Videos, and Expanded Cinema" at his Oak Cliff studio. The event will include a group of performances and works in various media he has created over the last several years.

The performance and screening is the final piece of a three-part work called Black Boxes and Dark Rooms, which has been an early career retrospective of sorts for Morris. The first element was a gallery exhibit; the second, a performance and screening during one of the Dallas Ambient Music Nights at RBC in Deep Ellum.

These performances have been slightly under the radar thanks to the legal fire Dallas arts venues are currently under, but they presented a welcome opportunity to to delve into Morris’ emotionally charged and deceptively nuanced work.

Despite his obsession with the raw material of his media, his films are moving and highly accessible to the casual viewer. “There are still experiments to be done for sure,” he’s quick to point out, “but I wouldn’t be satisfied if I didn’t feel I was telling a story. I want people to get it even if they don’t speak my language.”

The gallery exhibit portion of Black Boxes and Dark Rooms was named and designed to replicate the feeling of a dark cinema house, while it self-consciously pointed out all of the expectations we have of a traditional movie-going experience. Sounds from the different artworks competed with each other, and mediums and tools interpreted and re-interpreted each other.

The exhibition as a whole served to remind its attendees that even if it doesn’t seem like things are competing for your attention in a black screening room, everyone’s experience of a film, a sound or a piece of art is wholly unique. It’s that duality, the feeling of being alone yet being together, that Morris captures so well in his work.

In his large 16mm film piece, Epistle (to Jenny Vogel), bits of text with an anxious author cross and re-cross the screen. The sentence, "I’m still learning to speak of those things that are unspeakable,” quivers before disappearing.

Contemporary art is all about speaking of things that are unspeakable and unknowable. But while most art that's born out of a deep-rooted anxiety about the world is brutally dark, Morris’ work has a tone of curiosity rather than doom.  

Although highly polished, his work remains experimental because of how it explores visuals and the way they affect text and meaning. His love of technology and lifelong dedication to the manipulation of it is characterized by a respect for its power.

Morris’ art career has been punctuated by individual works he refers to collectively as the “Hermeneutics Cycle,” hermeneutics being the interpretive study of a text. In those works Morris juxtaposes various media, forming a single “piece” that forces them to “interpret each other." It's an invitation, if you take it, to consider the role of interpretation in our everyday experience; its necessity and its failure. 

“Each work, in its own way, taps into an anxiety around the dichotomy of archival and ephemeral forms of moving images,” Morris says of the work he'll be presenting in Oak Cliff on Friday. Several pieces focus on mortality; the mortality of the image, and of course of the people in the films, too.

Morris has a deep interest in French film critic and theorist André Bazin’s conception of the relationship between a film and what it’s portraying. What is the film’s role in its subject? Does the film create the subject? Or does it simply, and artificially, preserve it?

Morris says that like all artists his primary motivation is to fend off mortality through preservation. Speaking of the unspeakable, doing the impossible — that’s why we have art. Morris’ helps us to imagine a world where impossibilities are made real, while it critiques the desire for that reality with equal passion. 

Hybrid Cinema: Films, Videos, and Expanded Cinema by Michael A. Morris will take place Friday, July 29, from 8:30 to 11 p.m. at the Church in the Cliff, 1719 W. 10th St. Admission is free.

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Jennifer Smart
Contact: Jennifer Smart