This week’s blog post features an interview between curator, Emily Rueggeberg, and filmmaker, Mike Morris, the creator of ARK. ARK is on view in the Hawn Gallery now through November 4, 2018.
Emily Rueggeberg: What draws you to the experimental film format as opposed to traditional films?
Mike Morris: Moving images are an amazingly open group of technologies that have been interpreted pretty narrowly if you think about the formal approach of the film industry. Experimental film is a tradition that opens cinema to these expanded possibilities. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of meaningful work to be done within more traditional forms, but cinema doesn’t necessarily need to be a strictly illusionistic storytelling medium. When you’re working with film, you’re working with a physical, photo-chemical, and mechanical medium that can be manipulated to create many kinds of images in a highly formalized or improvisational manner.
You’re working with a temporal medium where image events can be arranged in time, to allow something more like a musical experience to unfold for the viewer. You’re working with a linguistic medium, where these temporal events can be ordered as poetic statements as much as narratives. You’re also working with a synesthetic medium in which sound and image can both be created with the same fluctuations of light. When you add digital technologies to your tool set, the possibilities are exponentially greater, but the physical medium of film has qualities that make it special. In the very early days of cinema before narrative film as we know it was formalized, filmmakers very literally experimented with what this new medium was capable of. Cinema was a meeting place where the rational and scientific impulses of the turn of the 20th Century overlapped magical and spiritual cravings that grew in the wake of modernism’s alienating effects.
Experimental film can be seen as a way of returning to this earlier, more open engagement with cinema. I think it’s important to explore this history as moving images spread out into our lives through digital and mobile technologies in ways we may not understand as cinematic, but when examined through this historical lens may reveal conclusions we wouldn’t otherwise recognize. All of these aspects of cinema are why I always come back to it as the foundation of my art practice.
ER: Recently more museums and galleries are creating exhibitions around films and videos. What do you think has sparked this move from displaying more traditional works such as paintings and sculpture to the moving image?
MM: Part of this is a natural, if belated, acceptance of art being made with new technologies into the institutional parts of the art world. Video art is half a century old now, so it’s about time. New Media surrounds us like the air we breathe (polluted or otherwise), so it would be ridiculous if it wasn’t represented in the art world. Another reason is that technology has developed to the point that showing moving images in a gallery setting is easier and less expensive than it used to be. Showing a looping video with an inexpensive digital projector isn’t that much more difficult than hanging a painting these days, and that wasn’t the reality until pretty recently. But showing film in a gallery has never been easy, which is why what Jeremy, Scott, and Brad have done for this exhibition is so remarkable.
The fact that this is becoming more common, with artists like Tacita Dean, Matthew Buckingham, Lisa Oppenheim, et al. regularly installing looping films in museums and galleries, or works by mid-century avant-garde filmmakers being installed in art institutions like we saw with the DMA’s Truth: 24 Frames Per Second exhibition, speaks to a different phenomenon.1 On the one hand, there’s a growing recognition of the importance of the film medium as something distinct from digital video and seeing works projected in their original medium is important. On the other hand, there has been a softening of the divide that separated the world experimental filmmakers built for themselves decades ago in film festivals and microcinemas from the art world and the art market. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on who you ask. My own perspective on this fluctuates depending on the work and the way it’s installed. Some works need to be screened in a theater and some need to be seen on a loop. With the installation at the Hawn Gallery, we’ve struck a rare balance between these modes, really transforming the gallery into a cinema while laying bare the mechanisms that are usually hidden from view.
Left: An installation view of Phil Collins’ ‘The World Won’t Listen,’ a homage to fans of The Smiths that’s part of the DMA’s show Truth: 24 frames per second. Marabouparken, Sunbyberg, Sweden, 2011. Jean-Baptiste Béranger
Right: From the exhibition: Truth: 24 frames per second at the Dallas Museum of Art. Pratibha Parmar, Memory Pictures, 1989; video, color, sound, 24 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Kali Films, Pratibha Parmar; photo by Sunil Gupta (Sunil Gupta/Dallas Museum of Art)
ER: Your film uses archival footage from the Jones Film and Video Collection. Can you talk a little about your inspiration for working with the archival footage and your process for creating the film?
MM: Making this film with the prints from the Jones archive was a pretty special opportunity. I’ve had the privilege on one other occasion, though that was specifically working with the WFAA TV film archive, while this was with their 35mm print collection. Approaching this wealth of material was pretty daunting knowing where to start, but after spending some time browsing the titles, a few things jumped out at me as interesting possibilities. There are many ways of working with found material, ranging from Dada style collage to Situationist Détournement to meme-style supercuts and more. I love the work of filmmakers like Bruce Connor who would treat bits of found footage like cultural artifacts that revealed the workings of society’s unacknowledged subconscious desires. I also love the work of Jesse McLean who reveals so much absence and distance in how we experience the world as viewers through mediation. Both of these filmmakers’ approaches inspire the way I work a great deal, but my framework for how I approached the prints in the collection was a little different.
I really wanted to celebrate the role of the archive as a place of preservation whose motive is theological at its core. Why do we want to save these films once they’ve done the work of entertaining us? If they disappear, is that a loss with spiritual implications? This approach may ignore some of the more problematic complications of archives, but in this moment when the scale of media creation and openness of access to it is unfathomable but the lifespan of that media may be questionable and historical perspective seems pretty rare, I felt it was important to draw some attention to the processes of history and preservation. The 1928 film Noah’s Ark suggested itself as the main source of material because it’s the story of an entire civilization being destroyed by nature but also of a new civilization growing out of the parts that were saved. Making a new film from bits of these old films feels like an analogous activity.
The actual process of working with these prints was slow and difficult by choice. I knew the goal was to project a new film as a loop in the gallery, and making new footage that didn’t destroy the original prints without digital manipulation limited my options. It meant making contact prints in the dark room that would retain certain artifacts in the image and sound that in most cases might not seem ideal, but that I found useful for accentuating the qualities particular to film. I worked with them in the dark room every day for months, finding images that looked interesting and exposing them under an enlarger, then developing them by hand. In some cases I bleached parts of the image off the new negatives to hint at the kinds of degradation film goes through when not stored in ideal conditions or flipped the film and re-exposed it again to create the kind of mirrored image we associate with digital effects. The finished film print bears the mark of these and other processes of making new copies from the original films.
ER: What do you see as the cultural significance of film archives?
MM: Archives are complicated. On the one hand, they perform the important role of preserving history I mentioned before, but they can also tightly restrict access to history or play a role in how history is interpreted. What is so wonderful about how Jeremy and Scott have allowed me to work with the archive is that it allows a real openness to the material and the possibility of re-interpreting it as an artist. The archive is a living organism where new meanings can find their way into the world and not a tomb locking history away from the present. While I tried to create a bit of a pun between “archive” and “ark” to suggest the archive is a vessel of preservation, the word actually comes from the term archon which means “ruler”. This reveals that the preservation of history is fundamentally about power and control, which is frightening, but when archives are open to be interpreted in different ways it subverts the darker possibilities this suggests. I hope that ARK hints at both of these aspects of the archive.
ARK’s filmmaker, Mike Morris, is an artist and educator based in Dallas, Texas. Morris works primarily with film, video, and expanded cinema forms. His work responds to the rapid changes in how moving images are created and experienced in the 21st century, affirming the traditional space of experiencing cinema while also exploring the implications of new media. He has performed and screened his films and videos at museums, galleries, micro-cinemas, and film festivals internationally, including events at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, The International Symposium of Electronic Art in Vancouver, Oak Cliff Film Festival, Chicago Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Cinemathèque, and the Texas Biennial.
Ark is on view August 20 – November 4, 2018
at the Hawn Gallery, located in the Hamon Arts Library at SMU.
Join us for an Opening Reception Friday, September 14, 5 -7pm
Mike Morris will give a gallery talk at 5:45 pm
1. For more information on the DMA’s Truth: 24 Frames per Second see https://www.dma.org/art/exhibitions/truth-24-frames-second