Meet FriendsWithYou, The Positive-Thinking Art Duo With A Pharrell Co-Sign

Ahead of their showcase at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche festival, the artist duo talks collaborating with pop’s finest and the importance of human connection.

September 28, 2015

During the summer of 2012, the Tuen Mun Town Plaza in Hong Kong was filled with a forty-foot, 16-piece, multi-colored interactive bounce house made of smiley face inflatables, fiberglass, and see-through resin. The installation was called Happy Rainbow, and it was designed by artist collective FriendsWithYou with the mission to “envelope the visitors and transcend them into a higher state of self awareness." FriendsWithYou was founded by Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III, and the duo has worked closely with Pharrell, exhibited at Art Basel, N.Y.C.’s High Line, Design Exchange, and Albright-Knox, and are even creating an animated children’s show for Netflix—all with the philosophy of spreading the message of “magic, love, and friendship.”

Borkson hails from Florida, Sandoval from Havana; the duo formed FriendsWithYou in Miami in 2002 and now base their project in Los Angeles. It’s no surprise that the collective’s origins are all warm, beachy places—the work of FriendsWithYou is based on the idea of inclusivity, shared experiences, and becoming one with the universe, which is a pretty damn sunny way of thinking. Their works include resin sculptures of anthropomorphized objects, animated short videos, and brightly colored large-scale installations, which they’ll be showing in October at Toronto’s contemporary art festival, Nuit Blanche. But before that, they’ll be talking about their creative process and the role of the contemporary artist at the Soho House for the i·co·nog·ra·phy series on October 2nd. Fellow award-winning artist and Nuit Blanche exhibitor JR will join them to discuss the power of art to revolutionize culture. Ahead of that, The FADER talked to Borkson and Sandoval of FriendsWithYou about the changing nature of art and exploration, and the importance of human connection.

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How did you two meet and decide to make art together?

SAMUEL BORKSON: We just started playing together pretty much, it was always fun and experimentation and still is.

Why have you set out to spread positivity through your work? How does your work communicate positive energy?

BORKSON: Our work is not only about positivity. It’s about facing the darkness with no fear and the entire spectrum of the human experience. Our work is a reflection of what we want for ourselves and then people have the choice to see it as they like.

ARTURO SANDOVAL III: The goal is to create communal experiences that make you feel something beyond the self and into the whole, basically the goal of all spiritual endeavors, and in doing so we use a very simple graphic language.

Why are magic, luck, and friendship such significant concepts to you?

BORKSON: It’s a magic incantation of sorts. Magic is the great possibilities of the metaphysical, luck is the idea that we don’t have control, and friendship is about recognizing what is all around us!

SANDOVAL: "Magic, Luck and Friendship" was our original slogan. It was very much in tune with the first couple of projects we did together specially the idea to mass distribute a line of mystical toys that we empowered with “magic” and we distributed and sold them as products. The slogan was a way to shorthand all that we wanted to accomplish with those toys and I guess it is a good way to describe some of the work that came later.

You’ve worked with Pharrell, who is a huge pop star. How do you maintain a balance between pop culture and art? Highbrow and lowbrow? Why is that combination important—in life and in art?

BORKSON: We love P. He is an incredible inspiration to us. We are all-inclusive. The art world is important because it contains the living dialogue of all ideas and allows us to experiment and explore freely, but that doesn’t mean we need to exclude the rest of the world from this conversation.

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“We have the opportunity to be cultural engineers, and create works collaboratively with people who inspire us to make a powerful impact on the world and culture.”—Samuel Borkson

Why such large-scale installations? What is it about occupying a large space that conveys a positive message?

BORKSON: We make work on many different scales from small sculptures to larger scale installation, and now we are extending that into virtual realities. What we love about working large is to breathe life into a concept that dwarfs us and gives us perspective of where we are in the universe. It’s nice to be small sometimes.

SANDOVAL: The scale was used as a way to create a setting, a space where we are now inside of, and in doing so bringing the viewers into union and into a cohesive mood. We don’t use the scale as concept on its own but more as a tool to get what we want out of the interaction, to immerse you inside the art and create a new soup with you—the color, the symbols, and everything else that fits to taste.

What will your Netflix show True & the Rainbow Kingdom be about? Why did you decide to make a children’s show?

BORKSON: It’s a fun experiment into modeling a world where the characters function with compassion for each other and the world they live in. It’s such a challenge to work in the preschool world and collaborate with so many people. We think if we can teach love and show a beautiful sustainable world maybe kids that see this will help make the world good and work collaboratively to do so. It fits into our practice in such an exciting way.

SANDOVAL: It kind of happened organically. We had made a set of simple wishing toys and from there it just kept growing into wanting to expand that idea to the widest audience and specially introduce the idea of magic back into kids. Seems that the postmodern human was so averse to teaching our youngsters that there are things that transcend reason and this is a topic we are still exploring. We are in our mid- to late-thirties now so when we were starting to make art, it was the internet explosion and I think we take that same liberty that was allowed there in how we express our ideas, and this is just the latest example of us pushing that idea further.

“The beauty of art is that it’s not a solution but an exploration. Our work is about exploring modern ways to create connections with each other.”—Arturo Sandoval III

When asked about your book We Are FriendsWithYou, you said that at the core of your work was the encouragement to “Grow your own happiness and let it emanate from you like a hungry vine spreading and affecting everything in its path.” How can one grow one’s own happiness? How do you hope your work will inspire one to do this?

BORKSON: I feel the human brain is always balancing contentedness or being happy with change and discomfort. I think we all find what makes us happy and it’s constantly changing. We are changing so much daily, we take in so much information. I feel for myself, feeling everything is how I stay most happy, just being real with my emotions and not being too hard on myself. I feel since the work is so personal, all of these thoughts and personal explorations go into the work since our work is mostly based on the concept. I do feel personally that the more I have worked on myself, admitting and finding who I really am, has helped me attract some of the best people as my friends and collaborators. So if it works for us, hopefully everyone can find their own version in their life. We are wanting to heal ourselves and have that vibrate. We feel humans are a collaborative species that have been isolated, but if you make yourself good you will attract people you can build awesome community with.

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SANDOVAL: I’m not sure how to grow that “happiness,” and I’m not sure that we know the answer at all. Our work is about creating moments and objects that create communion and as far as I understand it, that is directly linked to happiness. We are most happy when we are amongst the ones we love and when we are fulfilled in our roles, but how to get there is an ever-changing puzzle, and all we do is create interventions and tools to navigate it. The beauty of art is that it’s not a solution but an exploration. Our work is about exploring modern ways to create connections with each other, with symbols, etc.

With all of the terrible things going on in the world, how do you stay committed to your mantra? Do you think that your art, and other contemporary art has the power for change?

BORKSON: It has to. Art is about ideas and the human journey through a dialogue of exploration. That is our art. All that darkness that exists in the world has a light counterpart. It all has to exist, but we feel the global villager will probably go through many rough years to get to the Star Trek model where we are all a happy, thriving planet that works together and money doesn’t exist. But who knows? We are in the process of the unknowing and exploration. We think, being artists in this world, we have the unique ability to do so much more than art has even done. We have the opportunity to be cultural engineers, and creating works collaboratively with people who inspire us to make the best and powerful impact on the world and culture.

SANDOVAL: We stay committed to keep exploring and creating symbols to hold us together. Those terrible things that humans do to each other are the result of not seeing us in the other. That is the greatest of all human faults and difficulties. Once you belong to the universe and realize that the differences are minuscule and mostly an illusion of difference, then I think all those problems will go away. Our FriendsWithYou project is about making experiments to introduce new ways of feeling part of that whole and ways of creating fun interactions that in turn create lasting tides.

Can you tell me about the inspiration behind your work? Why anthropomorphize clouds, for instance?

BORKSON: Native Americans believed that spirits traveled as clouds. It’s our way of saying that friends are all around you. Everything is all around you to give you power and it’s yours to recognize we are part of it all. It’s a beautiful place to be when you aren’t different from me and we are all in this for the same reason. The Cloud is something that makes us feel good and if we can elicit an emotion from people through relativity, it allows us to empathize with the sculpture. If it makes you feel good we are happy.

SANDOVAL: I think that anthropomorphizing—wow, that is a mouthful—is a great way to make difficult concepts friendly and accessible. We have used it extensively in a multitude of ways, applying it to abstract ideas and to inanimate objects with a freedom that is to be envied. It is also a great way to challenge the assumption that we are in control of the physical world, and to some degree we started using it as a way to create a dialog with what is beyond our “reasoning.”

Who are some artists—past and present—who you are influenced by? Are there any artists that you dream of working with?

BORKSON: There are way too many to name and also not include. Always in my mind I feel we are the baby of Jodorowsky, Miyazaki, Tezuka, Buddha, Warhol, Murakami, Nauman, Guston, Basquiat, Turrell, Irwin, Kelley, and Burden. But I mean it is all together somehow.

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Meet FriendsWithYou, The Positive-Thinking Art Duo With A Pharrell Co-Sign