A vision in smiles and stripes greets visitors at the entrance to the second phase of the High Line, on West 30th Street and 10th Avenue. Presented by AOL as part of the company's recent investment in the arts, Rainbow City by FriendsWithYou is a fairground of rotund red, blue, yellow and white balloon creatures designed to delight children and adults (with a little help from Colicchio & Sons' temporary bar, the Tap, conveniently located next door.)
Rainbow City is a traveling installation by the Miami-based conglomerate—an operative term here—that combines Sam Borkson and Arturo "Tury" Sandoval's training and interest in industrial design, engineering and sculpture. Fabricators of cutesy generic figures, FriendsWithYou draw inspiration (and a business model) from product-driven companies, and like to think of themselves as a hybrid thinktank/art collective. Their work includes children's wear, product design and interactive art, and always uses slightly retro childhood imagery, wirth sleek production.
Rainbow City's balloons—some with faces, others abstract like giant oblong beach balls—are big, soft, squishy structures that bob contentedly, encouraging viewers to touch them and play with them. They draw most obviously from Japanese anime, particularly the Sanrio all-stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. FriendsWithYou also cites the iconography of video games as a source.
Sandoval says the differentiation of art from a marketed, designed product is outmoded. "We're like a hybrid," Sandoval explains of their multivalent projects. "A beautiful amoeba that has powerful arms." If there is any irony in their desire to be friends with you, the collective's twenty-something founders aren't letting on.
Borkson and Sandoval say it's easier to get funding for innovative public art as an artist pitching a project, rather than, say, as a designer. But what does the group's commercial division, FWYstudios—with its professional relationships with MTV and Target, its work in marketing and branding and collaboration with AOL—do for FriendsWithYou's artistic credibility? It depends what you want from your art. As a serious study of the implications of branding on art, FriendsWithYou and its Rainbow City fall short. As a novel, popular experience in an increasingly experience-driven economy, it thrives.
One of the biggest structures, an enclosed "bouncy castle" of the sort found at fairgrounds and children's birthday parties, hints at the collaborators' next project, a series of amusement park rides.
"FRIENDWITHYOU," an installation by FriendsWithYou, is on view at The Hole through August 6. Photo by Erika Velazquez.