Vanguards Meets the Man Behind Nine Inch Nails’ Stage Show

The Windmill Factory's Jon Morris turns lights and video into rock and roll performance art

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    Photography by Will O’Hare

    The web series Vanguards returned this week with a renewed focus on innovators in the performance space of music and visual arts. Each episode of Vanguards delves into the unique creative process of a single artist. This fourth installment examines the work of conceptual artist and actor Jon Morris, whose past engagements include the high-flying Cirque du Soleil, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the postmodern theatre performance Fuerza Bruta.

    The sequence’s opening makes it clear that Morris is an athletic ball of energy. However, his hyperactivity is less focused on a freewheeling parkour style and more on a precise series of movements within the urban playground of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Morris founded The Windmill Factory after immersing himself in New York’s hybrid dance theatre scene.

    The Windmill Factory is a creative art agency of sorts that lists a number of festivals, museums, brands, and bands as past collaborators, including Phantogram’s visually arresting 2016 US tour. The main draw of the episode, however, is Morris leading the collaborative charge on Nine Inch Nails’ haunting festival tour, which this author was fortunate enough to witness at Lollapalooza in 2013.


    In keeping with Trent Reznor’s modular construction and industrial breakdown of sounds, Morris choreographs seven movable LED video screens as well as mobile light carts throughout the performance. Synths, guitars, and drums are individually delivered by the crew moments before the musicians join the melody while the LED screens cavort about the stage in an eerie merry-go-round of static visuals and frightful silhouettes.

    This piecemeal collaboration is the result of Morris bringing all of the design teams and performers together as an ensemble rather than existing as individual departments. It also highlights Morris as a true innovator and artist willing to take risks, whether he’s creating something brand new for the stage, predicting how a novel piece of technology will interact with the audience, or just doing dangerous handstands on the edge of a roof.

    You can catch up with all episodes of the Vanguards web series here.

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