It would be difficult to conjure up a scene more in contrast with Manhattan’s gritty self-image than the spectacle of Rainbow City. The art installation by Miami duo Friends With You consists of 40 stripey, colourful and unremittingly jolly, air-filled sculptures.
Originally commissioned by the Luminato Festival of the Arts, Rainbow City was unveiled in Toronto this time last year. It also appeared again, in association with AOL and Paper Magazine, during Miami Art Basel in December. Currently the installation is occupying a 16,000 foot plot on the corner of 30th Street and 10th Avenue in New York’s Chelsea art district where it will stay until July 6, helping to celebrate the newly-unveiled 10-block long extension to the city’s High Line – a disused elevated railway line that is being transformed, section by section, into a lush green park.
“AOL is involved in the opening of the High Line’s second section,” explains one of Friends With You’s co-founders Arturo Sandoval of the installation’s recent arrival in New York. “After the response we got at Miami Art Basel, they felt Rainbow City was in tune with the mission of the High 2 3 Line and suggested we should do it again. We’ve been working for six months to make it happen here in New York and to prepare for our first solo art show here too, in The Hole gallery on Bowery.”
Sandoval, along with Sam Borkson, formed Friends With You almost ten years ago. Since their first handmade plush toy product release in 2002 they’ve made friends with a wide range of people and brands, producing paintings, animation, sculptures, toys, prints, stage sets, furniture and even a suitably colourful paint job on a Rolls Royce that featured in a NERD video.
However, the pair maintain that their vision for their undeniably upbeat studio hasn’t changed since that first plush toy project. “We’re two funny guys that like having fun and we wanted to spread that,” says Borkson. “We’ve always maintained a steady vision of self-empowerment and a strong desire to connect with people,” he continues. “When we made our first toys, sewn by hand, we saw them almost as artifacts that would empower the people that came into contact with them. I guess we wanted to almost make a religion but without any of the associated dogma or constraints. Our basic formula has stayed true – reinterpreting rituals and creating spiritual tools to access and connect you to other people.”
As well as a philosophical formula, Friends With You’s visual style has a bright, colourful, cutesy Care Bear-meets-Miffy aesthetic. “The cutesy Japanese influence comes from us trying to communicate in a very reduced, simple manner,” says Sandoval. “This approach to symbolism and graphics has been influencing us and Western art for the last 200 years or more. Our aesthetic is a slimmed-down version. In fact, that was the first meeting ground for the two of us – we had the same liking for art and art direction and stuff coming from Japan.”
“I actually think we’re really on to something,” adds Borkson. “Cutesy is like the new punk rock. It’s way more rock’n’roll to be cutesy and nice these days than it is to be an asshole. Being nice genuinely shocks people now.”
Everything about Friends With You’s work is upbeat, the very opposite of cynical. In fact calling it work somehow doesn’t seem right as FWY’s output is the epitome of fun, adding to the contrast of Rainbow City arriving in bustling Manhattan. It is designed as a colourful playground for children and adults alike, where the installations can be interacted with and played with. Some of the inflatables can be spun and bopped, whilst others function as environments that can be entered and explored. As well as the sculptures, various cheery air-filled FWY characters will be wandering around dishing out hugs and button badges, promoting Friends With You’s positive message of “magic, luck and friendship” around New York City.
“The essence of Rainbow City is to do something that’s actually really important in NYC right now,” maintains Borkson. “Even though New Yorkers are open to being friendly, people are isolated in modern times, they’re on their phone or they’re in a rush – they’re not generally engaged with their surroundings. What we hope is that Rainbow City is an environment where you can let the child inside be evoked and you can really open your mind and open yourself, your friends, and the people around you to something new. We’re giving people a new environment in which to express themselves and act differently. No, it’s not going to the bar for a beer. It’s something different. I think people want and need more than just the norm.”