Interview: Bill Morrison

In January, artist and filmmaker Bill Morrison joined The Lantern for a Zoom interview to reflect on the Colby Museum’s fall downtown exhibition, Bill Morrison: Cycles and Loops.


Installation view of Bill Morrison: Cycles and Loops. Photo credit: Stephen Davis Phillips.


Gussie Weiss (Editor of The Lantern): Thank you for talking with me today! I was hoping to hear some of your reflections on the exhibition that just closed at the Colby Museum, Bill Morrison: Cycles and Loops, especially on what it meant to show your work in a gallery space.

Bill Morrison: I haven’t done a lot of gallery space stuff in comparison to how much I’ve done theatrical cinema. You know, generally, the difference is, in theatrical cinema, you have more of a captive audience, for better or worse. In making Cycles and Loops, I understood that somebody who wanted to see a complete revolution could do so, but that it would build over time and that it would build in conjunction with the other things that you could see at the same time or out of your periphery in the gallery, and that the gallery space itself would become kind of an environment. And, I think what you’re trying to do is achieve some kind of spirituality or transformation to transport people. Which, of course, the best cinema does as well, but it usually does with some context. That context is set up linearly over time, and the rules are established, and there is a beginning, middle, and end of some sort. Whereas that’s dispensed in the gallery. It’s a big ask to tell people to sit down and watch a film in a gallery with ambient lighting, ambient sound, and people coming and going. You’re not gonna get as much out of that film as you would in a theater. So, therefore, I think there should be different rules.

GW: I was also wondering if you had thoughts in the same way about the films’ being silent in the gallery, when I understand your cinematic films have sound as a central element.

BM: That was another consideration. Music and sound are really important to my films, and a lot of my work is done in collaboration with a composer—a lot of different composers—and, at the same time sometimes my work is criticized for that because I’ve made a choice and then I’m imposing that choice on the audience, and that footage is not able to go in a different direction now. So, I thought, in a way, with Cycles and Loops, this would be a chance to return these films that were all silent to begin with to their silence, and that there would also be a chance for them to live durationally. All the clips would go by in an instant, but now they’re slowed down and they’re looped, so they give people a chance to ruminate about them and create their own music and their own associations. I thought the silence was a way of opening it up.

GW: That’s really interesting to talk about bringing them back to their silence, because these are all sourced from archival materials. Can you contextualize that sourcing?

BM: I go around to archives and say, “You got anything rotten?!” And when I was young they’d be like, “Are you kidding? We don’t have anything rotten. We preserve films!” But as my reputation has grown, people are like, “Yes, we have rotten stuff! We’ve been saving for you!” In some cases, it is incumbent on me to find a lab who will deal with it—because it’s pretty nasty stuff—and other times they’ve already digitized it in house. In some cases, somebody finds me on Facebook and says, “I have this rotten stuff, do you want it?”

GW: Right, it’s starting to come to you.

BM: It’s starting to come to me a little bit. I’m sort of known as the ‘decay guy.’

GW: It’s exciting to give life back to them in a way that’s leaving them in their damaged state.

BM: In a way, their damage is a testament to how contemporary they are. That’s the prism through which we’re seeing them. Their newness is this damage; it took exactly this long for them to look this way.

GW: And how do you comb through all of the archival material? I imagine it’s hours and hours of film.

BM: I’ve looked at it so many times, that it’s the ones that haunt me. The ones that come back. And a lot of it is glop, so when a recognizable image comes through and you see that, it’s just this beautiful moment, it’s very clear. 

. . .

BM: Another thing that’s different about the gallery is there’s no financial burden or timeframe, so you can go multiple times, and if there’s someone you want to bring—‘I saw this show, you want to come with me next time?’—it’s more open that way. It can spread through word-of-mouth without the restriction of ‘it’s gonna close on Friday’ or ‘there’s only one screening at 7 o’clock on Thursday.’ It’s something that you can plan a social event around.

GW: Similar to the loops. It’s iterative in that way.

BM: They’re cycles and loops! I was just really grateful that it could have such an enormously long run at Colby, that it was up for four months or something, that was just great. I’m sure anyone who was used to going to galleries around Waterville had a chance to see it.

GW: I hope so! Now that it’s down, I’m wondering what you’re working on and if this informs your next projects as you walk away from this show.

BM: I never know how a past work impacts my next work. It’s all fluid to me. I just do whatever’s in front of me, and then after I’m finished and there’s some perspective, you go, ‘That’s a little bit like this thing you did four years ago!’ or twenty years ago. … I went in a seriously different direction last year when I encountered this cache of police surveillance footage that documented a police killing in 2018 using their own cameras. A friend of mine who’s a journalist sued for all this footage and got it all from the city, so it was just a plethora of material, and I was able to recreate this crime in a quad-split screen with all the cameras synchronized together and a continuous running time of thirty minutes. That film’s called Incident, and it did really well on the festival circuit. And then just last night, we premiered a piece that was part of an opera, which is the other type of work that I do: set-design and video design for operas in theater. It was about the Chinese immigrants who came to Angel Island, which is kind of like the Ellis Island of San Francisco, but rather than getting their passports stamped and sent off to start a new life, they were often held in detainment buildings for months, if not years, so it created this huge tragedy. So, there’s a bunch of different things, and I’m trying to figure out what will bubble to the surface first.

GW: That’s exciting! A lot of different directions.

BM: Yeah, I did a lot with nitrate, and I think this show at Colby kind of summarizes some of the high points with it. I think there are different ways of exploring our audio-visual heritage, and I’m interested in seeing the different eras and different media and different ways of depicting it as I move forward.