Award-winning costume designer to construct sculpture from Huron River trash in Ann Arbor residency

This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.

"I think that beauty is easy to achieve and even easier to understand. I prefer the grotesque — or ugly things," says Machine Dazzle. "Things that you wouldn’t think of putting together, but I put them together — and for the sake of queer joy."
The artist, who has been variously employed as a set designer, a costume designer, an art director, singer/songwriter, and all-around maker, likes to describe himself as a "radical queer, emotionally driven, instinct-based concept artist and thinker trapped in the role of costume designer, sometimes."
On March 14 at 5:30 p.m., Machine Dazzle will give a lecture at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater as part of the free Penny Stamps Speaker Series. His visit to Ann Arbor also coincides with his first major museum commission, a joint installation for the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design and the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA).
"I just want people to look interesting," Dazzle says. "I want things that are unexplainable. I don’t want to have to explain myself. I just want things that you haven't really seen. And I love to challenge the idea of beauty."

Machine Dazzle.
Dazzle is known for creating costumes that seem to froth with texture and color, energy, joy, a confectionery whimsy, and — often — a deep, underlying ache. He created the costumes and sets for Taylor Mac’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated musical "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music," won a 2023 Obie Award for Sustained Achievement in Design, and was the 2023-2024 recipient of a Roman J. Witt Residency, in addition to numerous other honors and awards.
Dazzle is aware of the singular position he occupies.
"I'm not just a costume designer," he says. "It's almost like I'm creating costumes that are their own characters. They have their own thing going on. And they may or may not have anything to do with anything else that's going on onstage."
"There are a lot of designers out there who could make a garment, but it's almost like … stock ideas for stock costumes," Dazzle continues. "And that's not what I do at all. I'm not status quo. If you say you want someone in a red dress … it's going to be red in an interesting way. I'm going to make red a character in the costume."
Dazzle says "instinct is almost everything" in his creative process, and that he draws inspiration for his work from "everywhere, everything."
"It could be the muffin that I had for breakfast," he says. "It could be the homeless person I saw in the street. It could be a tree that I pass along the way. It's the music coming from the cafe. It's the weather. It's everything. There's no such thing as not being inspired."

Machine Dazzle.
For his Ann Arbor installation, Dazzle will lean momentarily away from costume design and into sculpture. His piece, titled "Ouroboros," incorporates trash recovered from the Huron River and local waste management facilities.
Dazzle, who is accustomed to dressing performers, says he "got depressed" while working alone in the studio.
"I'm cleaning up after everyone's mess and this stuff was never going to be recycled," he says. "Things don't get recycled. It's a myth. Recycling is toxic and expensive. No one's doing it and there are not millions of people in this country washing things to prepare them for recycling — it does not happen. You know, things get put into the landfill and that's just the way it is. People think they're recycling but they're not."
The sculpture will make its debut following Dazzle’s Penny Stamps lecture, and Dazzle says it will "evolve" over the course of the following four months. Visitors are encouraged to return to see the sculpture change.
"It's daunting and also hopeless," Dazzle says. "I don't know what to do about it. Nobody knows what to do about it — because maybe there isn't anything we can do."
"I guess one of the things this project is about," he adds, "is trying to make order out of disorder."

Machine Dazzle will lecture at the Michigan Theater on March 14 at 5:30 p.m. His "Ouroboros" installation will be presented in three "chapters," opening March 14, April 30, and June 28 at UMMA. "Ouroboros" will close on Aug. 25.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Photos courtesy of Machine Dazzle.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.