Artists FriendsWithYou Will Bring Their Surreal Vision to TV Show for Netflix

FriendsWithYou have always straddled the line between art and commerce.

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Art collective FriendsWithYou, known for their surreal and colorful large-scale installations and playgrounds, will be taking their art to a whole new platform: television. It’s been announced that the LA-based duo of Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III will be producing an animated children’s television show for Netflix called True & the Rainbow Kingdom, in collaboration with Guru Studio, Home Plate Entertainment, and Pharrell Williams’s creative venture i am OTHER.

“As artists, we really had no idea what the business of TV was, but from the beginning of our practice, we wanted to affect as many people as possible with this idea of an idealistic future—a vision of a future that’s good for the future of our world—and make that into something that reaches as many people as possible, especially kids,” Borkson told artnet News in a telephone interview.

The show centers around a young girl named True, who works as a fixer in the Rainbow Kingdom. She takes three magical enablers called “Wishes” on her adventures, and has a feline friend named Bartleby. “We use the word ‘Wishes,’ but really what they are is a proxy for her will,” said Sandoval, “empowering her to problem solve and get through the adventure.”

The 10-episode first season is slated to debut in the first half of 2017, says Bill Schultz of Home Plate Entertainment, the production company helping FriendsWithYou navigate the TV industry. A second season will arrive later that year. Each episode clocks in at 22 minutes.

FriendsWithYou, Installation view of a unique inflatable sculpture at Brookfield Place Toronto (2013).Photo: Ernesto DiStefano via FriendsWithYou website

FriendsWithYou, Installation view of a unique inflatable sculpture at Brookfield Place Toronto (2013).
Photo: Ernesto DiStefano via FriendsWithYou website

FriendsWithYou have always straddled the line between art and commerce, highbrow and lowbrow, like a pair of hyper-positive Takashi Murakamis. On one hand, they’ve collaborated with Hello Kitty, and on the other, they make work for blue chip gallery Paul Kasmin in New York. Their monograph, released last year by Rizzoli, featured essays from Dallas Contemporary director Peter Doroshenko, weird legendary filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowksy, and pop star Pharrell.

And if you dig a little deeper into their work, it becomes evident that a lot of the emphasis on “happy characters” in their work—a smiling cloud, for instance—actually derives from studies in animism, the belief that inanimate objects, animals, and plants contain a spiritual core. It’s an unusual belief system to take to preschoolers.

“The world [of the Rainbow Kingdom] is alive,” said Borkson. “If we can teach little kids that the world and the ocean is a character, like it’s their grandfather and grandmother, that these ideas exist in nature, then maybe we can make this vision for an idealistic future society where babies grow up thinking like this. It’s a beautiful seed inside the brain, but it’s also fully inside of our work—making animism accessible, and pushing the idea of love.”

If an artist’s job is to communicate concepts, what better way to transmit than over the airwaves to the receptive minds of children? But that’s not to say to get the show picked up by even a progressive streaming service like Netflix, FriendsWithYou didn’t face challenges. “[Children’s TV] has very spelled out rules,” says Sandoval. “We were swimming against the current. Our curriculum was is more emotional and esoteric. All the networks didn’t get it. All their consultants were telling what was ‘in the norm,’ but what we wanted to do was not ‘the norm.’ Netflix were a lot more open-minded to our curriculum. You have to play within the rules, but it doesn’t mean you cannot bring a new take on entertainment for kids that’s not restricted to just ABCs.”

FriendsWithYou, Light Cave (2015). Photo: via FriendsWithYou website

FriendsWithYou, Light Cave (2015).
Photo: Markus Marty via FriendsWithYou website

That said, television might be the final frontier for art. There are historical instances, like Chris Burden buying airtime on local network stations in L.A. and New York for absurdist commercials in the 1970s. And, of course, there’s tons of public access like Michael Smith’s talk show Interstitial in the 1980s. And we’ll always have Bob Ross’s happy trees.

Still, it’s rare. Executives and businesspeople working in television have been slow to come around, though that is beginning to change—Modern Family creator Steven Levitan boasts a growing art collection; there are several dramas about the art world in development; James Franco invaded General Hospital to play a caricature of an artist a few years ago; and artists Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst have made waves as consultants on Amazon’s hit series Transparent.

It’s even less common that an artist is given free reign over the programming in the way FriendsWithYou have. And they’re playing to an awfully big audience. According to numbers acquired from Luth Research, published in Variety, it’s estimated that more than 4 million people viewed the Netflix Originals superhero show Daredevil during it’s first week.

“We see it as an art piece—it’s cultural engineering,” says Borkson. “We’re playing with culture through this major voice box that is Netflix. Artists should be consulted with these things, so we’re happy to play in this space maybe not many fine artists have been in or thought was interesting.”

Borkson adds: “It’s amazing that we’re giving life to this world. We feel it’s a mixture of Disney-meets-Warhol-meets-Jay-Z.”


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