If Dr. Phil is the baby boomer generation's archetypal life-advice guru, then Bunny Michael is the millennial antidote. Dubbed "Instagram's resident therapist," the New York City-based multidisciplinary artist – who, like Dr. Phil, isn't an actual licensed therapist – swaps tabloid TV for internet memes and tough love-isms for gentle compassion, all to remind you to stop being so damn hard on yourself already.
Mx. Michael, who is gender nonbinary, has worked for over a decade as a musician and visual artist but is perhaps best known for their "Me and My Higher Self" Instagram memes they've been posting for the last three years: double images of Mx. Michael, with one offering a more spiritually enlightened take on their doppelgänger's critical dialogue. (For example: "Me: I wanna be accepted. Higher Self: I accept myself.") Inspired by 2016's "evil Kermit" phenomenon and a workshop with astrologer Chani Nicholas, the memes are playful ("Me: I'm turning into my mother! Higher Self: That's beautiful.") but ultimately sincere encouragements to viewers.
"The Higher Self memes are a narrative that's about when you decide to face your issues, or become more aware of the choices you're making and why, and you start to become on this path of healing yourself of your trauma and learning how to be compassionate with yourself," Mx. Michael explained. The altruistic affirmations – a through line across all of Mx. Michael's creative disciplines – are also what pulled Contrast Film Festival co-founders Jeremy von Stilb and Tish Sparks to showcase Mx. Michael's work at this year's second annual boundary-pushing, beyond-queer multimedia fest.
Performative enlightenment may abound at Contrast, but where are the fest's titular films? Sparks acknowledged this year's lineup intentionally features more performance and non-film elements than 2018's inaugural fest. When Sparks and von Stilb weren't finding as many films that excited them, they pivoted to multimedia (see below for films screening). Explaining the duo's curation process, Sparks continued, "We try to step outside of ourselves, look at potential lineups, and see how we feel." If that lineup, however nontraditional it might be, brings joy, it means they're on the right track. "We just hope people wanna jump on and take the ride with us."
For von Stilb, "Me and My Higher Self" reminded him of a show he hosted after Trump's election called "Yes You Can!" "It was a night of comedians doing motivational speeches," he recalled. "Some were ironic, but for the most part the event was meant to lift people's spirits after reeling for a few months after the election." Considering the news cycle hasn't changed, von Stilb said reviving the evening of motivational speaking, music, and comedy with local performers and comics, such as Erica Nix and Greetings From Queer Mountain's Ralphie Hardesty, plus Mx. Michael, was a natural link. "We literally want people to feel like more is possible for themselves after this experience."
And hopefully folks will leave "Yes You Can!" feeling transformed in one way or another. Mx. Michael's talk, the meme-maker elaborated, will dial in on how self-acceptance can be harnessed "to create a loving and more accepting world ... and why we already don't do that in our culture." (As Mx. Michael philosophizes, embracing compassion is a "basic evolutionary step" essential for survival and yet a constant struggle.) Later in the night, the Dallas-raised artist will perform a music set, and the day before that they're screening their Instagram web series What Would HigherSelf Do? released earlier this year.
"Me and My Higher Self" taps into our pervasive, if millennial, obsession with self-care and self-improvement and implores us to ask: "What really brings us joy in our life?" Michael explained that the project is universally relatable, especially to those "that are evolving to – becoming to – the awareness that love is truly your only power, and that the material world – what we've been told will bring us happiness – is actually an illusion." Just look to Mr. 45th, Mx. Michael encouraged. "We have somebody in the White House who supposedly has all of the power and all of the money and is one of the most miserable people that is alive."
What Would HigherSelf Do? plays as part of Make Yr Own F*ck’n Show, Sat., July 20, 7pm @Austin School of Film, 2200 Tillery. "Yes You Can!" A night of queer motivation, comedy, and music @Cheer Up Charlies on Sun., July 21, 8pm.
Contrast Film Festival, July 18-21. Tickets and info at www.contrastfilmfest.com.
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