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Manufacturing the Sublime at The Windmill Factory

Reflecting the Stars, 2011

When I first met Jon Morris, he was one of the lead actors in Fuerza Bruta, the aerialist driven, immersive theater extravaganza at the Daryl Roth Theater in New York City’s Union Square. Morris shared his grand plan with me to install LED lights on Pier 49 off Bank Street in Manhattan. The solar powered lights were to be fixed to the end of the old pier supports and intended to look like stars in the middle of the Hudson River.

It sounded ambitious and a little dangerous. It sounded technical and magical. It sounded impossible. But he did it. Two years later, Morris opened Reflecting the Stars, and kicked off what has been two years of nonstop creation for The Windmill Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Reflecting the Stars is the perfect example of what Morris wants to do: Create ambitious work that is a little dangerous.

“I believe in making the impossible possible,” says Morris. “One element that we love to include in all our work – and we don’t like to talk about it so much – but it’s an element of danger. Danger produces adrenaline. It just works.”

Reflecting the Stars, 2011

The Windmill Factory’s journey started with a loft on East 3rd Street in Williamsburg, which Morris took over in 2009. He was looking for a live/work space that was large enough to rig, rehearse and test designs. When Windmill Factory began, being in Fuerza Bruta and having the special loft gave Morris the time and space to spread out and create fun and interesting work. It attracted unique artists, and soon enough, he was collaborating with them.

“Over four years, it’s been amazing to see what a space can generate,” says Morris. One of the first fortuitous encounters was with Ana Louisa Constantino. “My partner in crime,” says Morris. 

In 2009, Constantino and Morris met on Craigslist when she sublet a room in the loft. Four years later, she still lives there when she is in Brooklyn. Constantino has worked as a project manager in new media, advertising and art production in Miami and her hometown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Together, Morris and Constantino are The Windmill Factory.

Reflecting the Stars gave The Windmill Factory something they previously didn’t have with philanthropic entities: street cred. Prior to 2011, despite having over ten years of experience producing and performing theater, dance and aerial performances, when the company applied for grants for installations, funders were excited about their ideas but were  unsure of how Morris and Constantino would execute their plans. So, they built their portfolio with smaller events and by employing friends and close colleagues. Their first project was The Wedge at Burning Man. 

The Wedge, 2009. Photo by Steph Goralnick.

The Wedge was a 30 ft tall, 24 ft wide, 72 ft long grassy ramp angled skyward that offered aerial performances, a lounge, and over 30,000 people the opportunity to take over one million slides down its ramp. After that summer, they created other installations, haunted houses and events in The Windmill Factory’s loft. Finally, after two years, they launched Reflecting the Stars.

Then, the phone started ringing, and when they picked it up, MIT Media Lab was on the other end.

The Media Lab was honoring the renowned Canadian theater director, Robert Lapage, and they wanted an installation celebrating theater and technology to accompany the event. Morris wondered what might happen if he set up giant special effects fans in a circle, flipped them on and dropped 150 balloons of various sizes in the center. That fanciful idea is now known as The Balloon Vortex.

Morris brought on Robert Bose, an artist known for creating lit-up balloon chains in the desert during Burning Man, to illuminate the vortex’s masses of air-filled rubber. Using radio control chips to change the LEDs colors, Morris placed a control center at the heart of the vortex so the audience could interact with the installation. Live music by Firehorse, led by Leah Siegel, elevated the experience to what Morris calls a “sublime art pause.”

“It’s that moment in life when you see a piece of art, it kind of takes your breath away,” says Morris. “And it’s like nothing else exists. We try not to create work unless it has that moment. That unwritten, unspeakable moment.”

And when these sublime art pauses succeed, big brands pay attention. Shortly after the Lapage event, Red Bull picked up the Balloon vortex for an event in Boston.

Balloon Vortex, 2012 - Red Bull

These days, Morris is developing individually addressable LED body suits, working on a music video in Times Square using time lapse video projection on steam, and assistant directing an international immersive theater project. In the meantime, Morris is happy to be regrouping and making some simpler work. Last month, The New Museum invited The Windmill Factory to create a surrealist installation titled Welcome to You, which they installed on the street outside of the museum as part of the New Museum’s Ideas City Festival. It had no technology, basically consisting of a door and a mirror. And it felt great.

Welcome to You, 2013 - New Museum, NYC

“I love to create work like that,” says Morris about Welcome to You. “My biggest challenge in life is to keep it simple. And I was really happy. I feel like I’m evolving as an artist now because I’m starting to learn how to create simple, beautiful work.”

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