Sunday, March 20, 2011

FriendsWithYou's Mischievious Spirituality

Last summer, I had the pleasure of interviewing "experiential artists" FriendsWithYou for the Heroes & Villains project. I am thrilled to report that the book has finally gone to the printer, and should be available in a few months. In the meantime, I thought I'd share this interview with you, because I think they have some fascinating things to say about their very unique mission. So snuggle up with Sam and Tury of FriendsWithYou, and prepare yourself to learn about their own special brand of magic.

"Wish Come True Festival," Toronto, 2010

Erratic Phenomena: Sam, you grew up in Plantation, Florida, and Tury, you're from Havana, Cuba. Tell me about your experiences of growing up. As boys, were you outgoing adventurers, or did you pursue a quiet life of the imagination?

Tury Sandoval: Growing up in Cuba was about the best thing that has happened in my life. I can't tell you enough about it, it shapes every day of my life. Growing up without the commercial B.S. that kids are exposed to in first-world countries is just the best thing for the imagination. I was a wild little street kid. My parents would let me roam the city on the weekends and after school. Most weekends I would go to the country, where I'm originally from, and run around in sugarcane fields and hunt jutias, a small ratlike creature. It was pure magic, climbing giant trees in the countryside. You know that comic book Black & White? It was like that, and I was like the character Black.

Sam Borkson: I was a ball of fire. Exploring everything, living like a little grownup, and dreaming my own realities for as long as I can remember. I read comic books, loved cartoons like Ren & Stimpy, and being from south Florida, I was a professional tree climber and pool warrior. I was creating and performing whenever I wasn’t causing trouble in one way or another, and even though I was nicknamed “El Diablo” by my family, I was a lightning storm of love just waiting to share my love with the universe.

Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Art Basel Miami, 2010

EP: Were there any artists in your families, or people who nurtured your creative impulses?

Tury: I come from a family of artists. My dad — a musician — is an anomaly of nature, the most talented person I know. My mom is just an amazing craft powerhouse and my brother is an accomplished painter. Even though they are all artists, it was not forced upon me, it was something that was rather natural.

Sam: My family was crazy, and I was a tornado. Coming from different walks of life, they were creative with how they lived their lives — mostly independently, or outside of societal norms, trying to build something for themselves. I was a potpourri of many ideas, which I mostly formulated on my own.

"Wish Come True Festival," Toronto, 2010

EP: Did you have a special relationship with any of your toys when you were kids?

Sam: I mostly liked comic books, and some toys — but more than playing with toys, I liked hanging with actual people and making up games and interacting. I never got swept up in that societal pressure to get everything. I used to destroy G.I. Joes with a bat for hours, and that was the most fun I had with them. I would then piece them back together to make blobular hunks of melty plastic. I would experiment with a light bulb — heating them up, watching them drip and recombining them. This violent destruction wasn’t looked upon positively, for sure.

Tury: I used to make some of my toys. The ones that I remember the best and loved the most were las carriolas. This was a contraption that we used to make out of wood and industrial ball bearings — like a stripped-down version of a scooter, but they were fast as hell… we used to race them downhill in Havana. I left all my skin on those streets.

"Wish Come True Festival," Toronto, 2010

EP: The two of you met in Miami's rave scene, and soon discovered that the contents of your sketchbooks looked almost identical. How did it feel to discover someone who was so in tune with your own strange wavelength?

Sam: We met through Miami friends, but we started hanging in Orlando before we hung in Miami. By 2002, we had started FriendsWithYou. We both had this exuberance for life and a mischievous nature of fun and silliness. That is where we connected, mostly, and the art was a product of this fun and adventurous relationship.

Tury: It was like an explosion… we had friends in common who shared this super goofy and explosive kind of vibe. To reiterate what Sam is saying… I think that was the true glue to us working together. Once we started working together, we found so many other things that made the partnership possible. It’s something that is hard and rewarding at the same time… it’s special for sure. I’m happy we can collaborate together and make each other’s work (and life) better.

"Rainbow Bench"

EP: The initial inspiration for your Friends came from the playful talismanic characters that Japanese kids like to attach to their backpacks. Japan's cuteness epidemic has been attributed to the trauma the country suffered during World War II, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their cultural subjugation under the American occupation. The Japanese are said to have turned their cute side toward the world as an act of submission — a survival mechanism. Would you relate your mission with the Friends to a similar subconscious impulse in our culture? Are we Americans now exuding cuteness as an antidote to the world's perception of us as a greedy imperialist juggernaut?

Tury: That’s interesting. I feel you make a good point about the similarities that the US is showing in this post stage of world domination that we have enjoyed for the past 60 years. I feel like we wanted to have an overall positive and spiritual message, and this cute language is what we felt was appropriate. It’s a good vehicle to say the things we want to say.

I think we made those decisions based on the suitability of the language, rather than to make a point in comparison to the Japanese culture. At the time we started making the toys, there were a lot of hippie-type graphics, and we were seeing this hard line in design. We wanted to be a lot lighter than that.

Sam: When we started with the FriendsWithYou project, I was inspired by this idea of cuteness — this way of almost being pathetic, or kawaii. After fighting so hard my entire life, I felt the same way. Why bark and bite any longer? I just wanted to kind of roll over and show my belly to the world.

I feel we did this to build a persona for ourselves that the world could love more easily, something that supported each person in this world, not just our own art. Something bigger. I think it expanded in our minds as we saw its healing nature. We didn’t want to be thug or gangster, we wanted to make the whole world shine together, to be hopeful and bright and help the world regain its sense of spirituality. I look at it as us fighting a huge demon with rainbows.

Wishing Toys (via toy photographer Brian McCarty)

EP: As modern tools of spirituality, your art toys are intended to open the perceptions to a belief in something greater than ourselves — specifically, to make people aware of the energies that bind us to all living things and to our planet. Why do you think the life of the imagination is so important for mankind today? Are those who can still access a sense of wonder and awe better prepared for life in modern society?

Tury: It’s not so much about the ones that have that sense of wonder, but the ones who don’t, and need other forms of spiritual outlet — to believe in the collective powers that we have and the spiritual realm of things. That is our message and what most of our work revolves around. Reinterpreting simple magic and rituals — like superstition — into modern terms is important for the younger generations that don’t like the old religions. We are redesigning this simple system and marketing it to anyone we can reach.

Sam: We think people have so much potential and power. We just are ready to see all of us act on some next-level shit — like combining our information, getting rid of our borders and starting to act like a global village.

Malfi plush

EP: The ambassador of the whimsical land of FriendsWithYou is Malfi, a pear-shaped black-and-white fellow with criss-cross eyes and a bright red grimace. You've described him as an earth spirit — a concept that will be familiar to those who've seen Miyazaki's film Spirited Away — and ascribed to him both positive and negative powers and a propensity for hugging.

Sam: He is the ultimate magical wizard and performs great feats just by willing it. He opens the doorways to perception and adventure and he can lead you to all different kinds of luck, good and bad! So good luck and be careful!

FriendsWithYou Have Powers, Gestalten book cover art

EP: The FriendsWithYou installations are "experiential art," dependent on audience participation to create an immersive, impactful environment. Can an encounter with an artistic creation truly change the way people think about the world around them?

Tury: We always wanted to make experiences that are most powerful, similar to having a religious revelation but using joy, play, color, interaction and all the senses to evoke those feelings. This is something that we love to do and that we think is the most modern way of making art — engaging the individual in a communal setting, making them feel something that is magical and exuberant and letting them fill in the blanks with their own adventures.

Miami Art Basel 2006 (via David Choe)

EP: Tell me about your collaborative relationship with graffiti vandal-cum-vagabond art star David Choe. Why do you think your penchant for cuteness and magic meshes so well with his raw sexuality and reckless abandon?

Sam: He is exactly like us. A sweet, awesome person. We connected immediately and stuck together from the outset. He doesn’t have borders or rules in his mind — everything is about the enjoyment of life, which we are big advocates of as well!

"Skywalkers" Miami Art Basel 2010

EP: Corporations have seized a foothold in this art movement as a means to make their brand more interesting to the public, and the two of you have benefited by harnessing their prodigious cash flow to realize some of your more grandiose visions. What's it like to work under the auspices of a corporate brand which has its own particular agenda?

Tury: Our parameters are easy…. we want them to help us make things that we can’t because of economical reasons. We use their resources to put our message out there, and we keep the corporation as far away from us, and the message, as possible. It’s tough. We attempt to self-finance most of the work, if possible. There are other instances that art institutions finance — what we just did for Luminato Festival of the Arts was without any direct corporate sponsor and done solely for the people of Toronto. We are humbled when institutions like that let us make the work, and when corporations let us do it.

"Skywalkers" Miami Art Basel 2010

EP: You've mentioned that animator Hayao Miyazaki is your "ultimate inspiration." His films often focus on spiritual journeys through landscapes in which nature and technology are colliding. In My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki unveiled a cast of strange yet cuddly forest spirits with magical powers which seem quite analogous to your own creations.

Sam: I love everything he has ever done! He is an amazing genius and wizard of magic and the unperceivable. Each of his films is so incredible to us. They all have so much magic and so much love and simple spirituality, and that’s where we connect.

"Field of Dreams," Taipei, Taiwan, 2010

EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring right now?

Sam: Through my own personal adventure through life, I am being inspired by each and every moment. Just by swimming in the ocean or creating work or my friends or my surroundings, I am in a constantly simmering soup of magic, like a big black cauldron.

"Field of Dreams," Taipei, Taiwan, 2010

EP: Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

Sam: We are really trying to make the best life adventure for ourselves, and all the people we make art and culture for! We plan to help the world come together somehow through our culture manipulation — to make people love and be spiritual and enjoy their time here on Earth. We want to give the greatest experiences of a lifetime to whomever we can reach in our lifetime and after!

Magic, Luck, and Friendship. We are FriendsWithYou.

"Wish Come True Festival," Toronto, 2010

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