Say hello to FriendsWithYou. For more than a decade they have created a world of whimsical characters, playful animations, plush toys and inflatable installations. Recently the duo relocated to a secret location somewhere in Los Angeles and Installation sent Daniel Rolnik out to find them. FriendsWithYou will join a lineup of ten nationally and internationally recognized artists to participate in the inaugural installation for the newly founded The Arts Initiative. Curated by Miami-based gallery Primary Project, the installation will open on August 1 in Chicago’s first fully enclosed mall, the Fashion Outlets of Chicago. The aim of the Initiative is to change the way the public relates to the arts and who better than FriendsWithYou to create a fantastical and imaginative experience for the young and the young at heart?
Photography by Rainer Hosch
“Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.” – Buddha
If you’re the type of person who wishes the wizard never revealed himself in The Wizard of Oz, please read no further. This is a portrait of the wizards behind FriendsWithYou – a world of characters and rituals. FriendsWithYou is a name that the artists Arturo Sandoval III and Sam Borkson gave themselves over 12 years ago. “We’re coming at you with this positive vision that’s colorful and healing, but it’s also punk rock because it’s been created by two men.” It’s a philosophy that stemmed from a problem FriendsWithYou wanted to solve. A problem that the guys were able to articulate clearly to me, which was a relief since so many artists say they’re trying to solve a problem, but never actually tell you what that problem is.
“Open source spirituality is the base of what all our art is about. We are saying that maybe the ego is not the answer. Maybe that’s what we fool ourselves into believing and really our lives are actually more meaningful than that. People are tired of feeling angry and hurt. So, we wanted to come up with a solution of dealing with this core spiritual problem. Instead of yelling and fighting about it, we decided to give everyone a chance to play and hug. But our art isn’t only about positive feelings. You don’t make rainbows without the darkest clouds and rain storms. Bad feelings are real. Everybody feels down at one point or another and we realize that. But we don’t choose to let that be our message, that we’re hurt and we’re ugly and we’re stupid. We’re all humans and we’re not so different from each other. We just choose to focus on the positive things in life.” They view their art as having evolved in a variety of stages. Starting with a series of plush toys they released years ago to now creating fully immersive installations all over the world. However, it is with the former that FriendsWithYou first entered my consciousness as well as many others.
I was in high school and my best friend had one of their plush toys in his house. It was a character named Malfi with big swinging arms and a base like an inflatable punching bag. And we adopted it as a totem of troublemaking, which was especially fitting since I think my friend had stolen it from his younger brother. “Malfi was an organic creation and people loved it. It was crazy. It was a mix of ingredients from our personalities- kind of funny, kind of fatty, kind of weird, kind of all the things that made us our own special guys.” The plush toys set the stage for FriendsWithYou’s career, though when I press them for the best part so far, they agree that the best adventure has been the whole adventure itself. “Looking at each exhibit as an individual thing used to depress us. We would see the formation of this overpowering emotional achievement and get sick afterwards.”
I think this is something that many artists experience once they’ve finished a body of work for a show. I call it the “dreaded birthday party blues.” You know, that feeling the day after your birthday party when no one is celebrating you and you have to go back to your normal routine. However, they must have had a solution to the dreaded birthday party blues, due to the way they were talking about it. So I asked them a series of questions, which led to the discovery of an answer that in two years of interviewing artists, I had been waiting desperately to hear. A cure. “You fool yourself into making day-to-day goals, but in the end it’s really about developing the concept as a whole.”
It’s the cure for writer’s block, painter’s block, the birthday party blues, and any kind of creative emotional barrier. And it’s simple. To have a goal, even if it’s abstract at first, will keep you on a path to success. This is especially proven true with all the research today that points to the brain behaving like a computer. Meaning, if you give yourself a set of directions, you can complete a task. After all, a computer without any directions is just an idle screen. “We’re evolving and so the pieces we are trying to build in the future are bigger than what we can master with our own hands.”
It’s all part of the reason they recently moved from Miami to Los Angeles last year. Miami is a small town when compared to the art meccas of New York and Los Angeles, even though it doesn’t seem that way when Art Basel rolls into town once a year. There are only 400,000 people in Miami compared to nearly four million in Los Angeles and over eight million in New York. “Los Angeles is an amazing place to vocalize your dreams and have people believe in you. Even if you’re saying something abstract, like you want to help the world. One of our main rules from the beginning was that we wanted to be impactful and create an experience that wasn’t passive. That’s why we shied away from traditional art forms. We felt they were amazing and there were complex ideas behind them, but youngsters interact with the world a lot quicker than those forms of art are able to convey. We felt that we had to be more immersive and incorporate all of your senses like smell and touch as well as vision into our practice. And one of the ways to do is by having a reductive and clear message.” Hayao Miyazaki, the celebrated creator of Japanese animations such as My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, influenced FriendsWithYou immensely. They recognized how Miyazaki through animism, the belief that nature has soul, and personifications, was able to convey complex ideas to children. And they fell in love with that concept.
But that doesn’t form the whole picture. The guys are just as influenced by the controversial artist Paul McCarthy as they are by the more wholesome Miyazaki. There’s even a large wooden Pinocchio hanging in their office, which is a reference to one of McCarthy’s most famous works, as well as one of his art books on their desk. “We’re taking in all the best information from the past, everything you see on YouTube, Mickey Mouse, the world’s religions, our favorite artworks, and putting them in a big caldron.”
“Art is like engineering to a certain extent. You don’t start from the beginning. We’re not trying to learn how to draw in perspective because we’ve already figured that out. The dialogue of art now revolves around taking what has been done and progressing those ideas further. For example, Paul (McCarthy) has been able to affect people in a hardcore way. We’re learning from that and doing it in our own wholesome style.”
A wise man once said to me that talking about an artist’s practice was literally like watching paint dry. That being said, FriendsWithYou gives their take on how they approach their work, “We go through a very traditional process, once we know what kind of system we want to repurpose and what concept we want to rebrand. For example, when we created Rainbow City we were inspired by the Holi Festival in India. Our problem became how do we give people the experience of the Holi Festival in a way that Westerners will feel comfortable with. We’re down for having colorful powder thrown in our faces, but a lot of people aren’t. More people are down to bounce in a bouncy house.”
Featured image ©Rainer Hosch 2013