"Cast Off" by Brandon Morse (2018)
"Cast Off" by Brandon Morse (2018)

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Tectonic plates collide in “Equator,” sending material spewing forth into the world. Black matter erupts along a seam in what might be an oceanic trench or the root of the Rocky Mountains. Majestic, even meditative, the video draws in viewers as it grinds out obsidian forms.

Brandon Morse’s work gives us process two ways. “Equator” (2018), a four-channel installation, suggests the violent formation of new earth, or some volcanic process like it. Yet the motion in “Equator” is its own process, not just a rough depiction of nature. The core of the piece is a generative video, meaning the artwork is an unfolding algorithm rather than an animation. 

There’s something else at work in Equator, which is also the name for Morse’s show on view at Dupont Underground. For this suite of software works, Morse generates violent conflict at intersecting planes. The unrelenting focus on churn, shown across multiple works, hints at a preoccupation. It’s subtle—definitely that—yet searing. In the right light, Equator is a taut essay on borders: what they mean, how they work, how they don’t work. Morse’s show is a prime example of how art with a political bent doesn’t need to look literal to be critical. 

Equator assembles five works, several spanning multiple channels. Three made with this show in mind are organized around horizontal borders. “Slip” (2018), for example, tracks a wavy, undulating delineation where two rotating surfaces meet. Morse’s visuals tend to defy easy description: Imagine two silver rolling pins turning against one another (viewed through the lens of powerful hallucinogenic drugs). In fact, the three-channel video follows an algorithm, with rules set by Morse that detail the pitch of the shadow cast by crests in the forms or the glare off their metallic surfaces. (The pieces on view at Dupont Underground are videos, the artist explains, but the ideal works themselves are software files.) 

“Slip” is less explosive than “Equator” or “Peel” (2018), a single-channel work whose surface appears to unspool from a tilted axis. The silver striated surfaces that meet in “Slip” don’t so much clash as unfold; the border between them is smooth and negotiated. Silky and languid, the action in “Slip” is no less mesmerizing than the punch of “Equator,” even if it’s a lot less dramatic. Both show ways of conceiving of borders, which can be the site of instability, unrest, and revolt but also transaction, congress, and osmosis. 

Equator caps off a productive year for Morse, who also showcased some generative videos at Fab Lab D.C. in April; he projected a multi-channel piece (called “Prow”) at VisArts in Rockville last December. “Subduction” (2018), a two-channel work at Dupont Underground, revives the unsettling egg-like forms he debuted in a mind-bending convex dome projection at Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium in 2016. Of his recent works, a piece called “Tête-à-Tête” (2014) stands out as a D.C. favorite: a generative video in which two clouds of wiry flagella square off in a space that looks like it could be a Julie Mehretu painting rendered in code. By all appearances, Morse’s work draws a wealth from abstract painting. Abstraction alone distinguishes his work from a whole lot of artists who use computer science to create: The field tends to be over literal and navel gazing.

Equator also comes out ahead of most recent shows at Dupont Underground. Two years in, the sometimes unforgiving space has a better record as a party venue than a contemporary art gallery. However, given its long curve of a wall and industrial backdrop, it’s hard to imagine a better space for chilly video works that emphasize action across a horizontal plane. 

It would be overstating it to say that Equator adds up to any prescription for the ongoing border debate in America (whose contours conservatives and liberals can’t agree on anyway). “Apogee” (2018) breaks with the broader horizontal line: This video depicts a twitchy asteroid form that emanates spheroids under a pulsating strobe. If there’s any narrative connection to the rest of the show, it’s in the strict sense of paranoia that this piece and its unrelenting pulse evokes. 

Equator is less a show about the politics of the border than an abstraction on the anxiety caused by this debate. Borders, broadly construed, are falling all around us, even as new autocrats arise to erect walls in angry reverberations of the past. To say that without words is a challenge for art; to say that through process is an achievement for Morse. He’s a fitting artist to take on the idea of borders. What else are they if not an abstraction, simple and disruptive and defining? 

At Dupont Underground to February 2019. 19 Dupont Circle NW. Free. dupontunderground.org.