Art & Design

November 23, 2015

Friends With You on How to be Truly Happy

Pharrell's favourite art duo talk optimism, animism, their new Netflix series and plans for next month's Art Basel Miami Beach

  • Written by Samira Larouci

Sam Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III are FriendsWithYou – or at least they want to be. The fine art duo has been working together collectively since 2002, across varying mediums, from paintings and sculptures to large-scale experiential installations like huge technicolour playgrounds at Art Basel Miami, which have become a yearly highlight.

“They’re more than just paintings and sculptures, they are two really large proponents for experience, which is the ultimate wealth as a human being on this planet” says Pharrell Williams, their long-time partner and collaborator, who they worked with on their short film, Cloudy on his i am OTHER channel.

Taking a couple notes from Murakami’s superflat theory, their work blurs the lines between high and low, spirituality and psychotherapy but most importantly, challenges the traditional boundaries of perception.

"Somewhere Over The Rainbow", Commissioned by The Morgans Hotel Group (at the Mondrian) for Art Basel Miami Beach, 2013

“Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, Commissioned by The Morgans Hotel Group (at the Mondrian) for Art Basel Miami Beach, 2013

With a Netflix deal underway for a TV series in 2017 that promotes spiritual awareness to young children, it’s clear the bridge between art and catharsis is becoming less of an abstract concept; and more of a practical day-to-day method to keep our heads above ground. Their mission is simple – to affect world culture by cultivating childlike moments of spiritual awareness.

In a time when caring has become controversial, Amuse caught up with one half of the duo, Sam Borkson, to find out how they stay so damn positive, how can we can truly be happy and what they’ve got planned for Art Basel Miami Beach.

When and why did you become fascinated with spreading love and happiness?
I felt like the world was such a cold place. People were becoming more and more disconnected from themselves and each other. It’s become normal to feel isolated. Overall, it seemed like there was a lack of spirituality for our generation. There’s no real sense of community anymore and as a man, being loving and cute seemed like an antidote to the isolation and consumption of negativity.

How did you start working with Pharrell?
He saw our show at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in 2007. I think he understood what we were striving for and wanted to join us. He helped us get our first studio together in Miami and has been such an amazing advocate ever since. We’re so grateful to him.

Is he a happy guy?
He’s a wonderful giving, talented, and quite prolific guy. Of course, he has the emotional spectrum we all do. It’s just that being happy is a focus of his.

Happy Rainbow in Hong Kong, 2012

Happy Rainbow in Hong Kong, 2012

Do you believe that something optimistic can still retain an emotional and intellectual depth?
Of course, just as much as something dreary or pessimistic. Depth is about the intention of that thing whatever it is. Each idea whether optimistic or otherwise is connected to such a deep chasm of related experience, thought, and exploration – at least as it lives in our work.

I feel like it’s more controversial to be an optimist than it is to be sad and angry…
Yes, we too think it’s the new punk. Being sad and angry is so easy today, our world is hurting and so is everyone in it. Mostly people commiserate about how shitty or tired they feel. I think to be happy and loving is so abnormal because it’s a commitment.

You grew up in Miami – did the sun influence your optimism?
Not really, Miami is kinda a ghetto place; everyone wants to act hard. That’s why this project was such a beacon for so many people. They wanted to feel happy, be cute and loving. I was really hurting as a young person. I had no tribe and I felt really alone. I fought a lot and still fight to love myself.

I understand you’re fascinated with filmmaker and mystic Alejandro Jodorowsky?
He has been using his art to heal the masses since he started. That’s also something we strive for. When we were able to work with him on our new book it was a dream come true. Every work he makes is transcendental and we strive for the same.

"Rainbow Valley" in Aventura Mall in Miami, 2006

“Rainbow Valley” in Aventura Mall in Miami, 2006

Your work effectively challenges the psyche of the viewer and their need to hold on to negativity – have people ever had ‘breakthrough’s or breakdown’s because of your work?
Yes, I can only speak for myself. I had had a difficult relationship with my mom since I was little, due to a broken home. We premiered our first bounce house at the Scope Art Fair years ago and she came and bounced. She got stuck in the corner and began laughing like a little girl. Her joy and experience inside my artwork allowed me to look at her as I never had before. This changed something in my mind and allowed me to forgive her and love her like a child.

Most artists work to heal themselves, your work tries to heal others – is this truly selfless or do you get happier from doing it?
Yes, happiness starts from healing ourselves and the vibrates out from there.

Do you find it difficult to work if you’re in a bad mood?
Not really, I’m always in a dark and light mood. I’m a really sensitive person and feel so many things throughout the day. My work is an ever-flowing river that I navigate in every type of head space from extreme dark to extreme light–all of that is necessary to make the best work. Change, discomfort, sadness; it’s all a part of it.

What’s animism and how is it relevant to your work?
It’s the idea that everything has a soul. This includes inanimate objects, as whatever they are made from has given them power and energy to exist. It’s a major theme in our work: if you can see the soul and life in everything around you, you can harness all the power and allow the world to be Friends With You versus everything being against you. It’s all perspective. If people could see that the clouds, our Earth–everything–has a spirit, we could and would treat them like us.

"Light Cave" at the Standard High Line, 2014. Image courtesy of Markus Marty

“Light Cave” at the Standard High Line, 2014. Image courtesy of Markus Marty

How do we retain this sense of childlike wonderment and awe in a world where we’re challenged to think otherwise on a daily basis?
I think it’s a gift we both have been able to maintain throughout or lives. Dancing, being silly and not taking it all too seriously is such an important part of freely experiencing and exploring our world.

What book would you recommend to someone going through a difficult time emotionally?
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein or Psychomagic by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

What have you got planned for Art Basel Miami next month?
We will be premiering some new experiences we’ve been creating using virtual reality, where you can actually play with and even hug a spirit. It’s called the Light Spirit and the technology we are working with is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It’s way beyond just a 360-degree movie you interact with it. It’s quite powerful. We will only be showing it to a small group of artists, curators, writers and friends since it is a brand new project we’ve been working on.


Opening image: “Starburst” at Brookfield Place in Toronto, 2013


  • Peter Snadden


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