Exclusive: Gaming with FAILE, the Dynamic Duo of Street Art
The walls were lined with the work of two street art magicians; pop culture mélanges that saw characters and creatures of every color, shape, and size oozing and weaving between each other like a manifested hallucination. On the ground was an army of assistants sketching, painting, and hammering away not on canvases, but on fully functional arcade games, each one lovingly decorated and programmed with unique games and designs. Stepping into the sprawling Greenpoint studio of FAILE was, simply put, trippy. The machines were being prepped for a piece called The Deluxx Fluxx Arcade, the latest iteration of a monumental installation that has been featured in multiple cities around the world, this one in particular heading to the Brooklyn Museum. It is but one of many works to be featured in the upcoming retrospective of the artists’ fiercely imaginative work, a show titled Savage/Sacred Young Minds.
FAILE is the dynamic duo of two Patricks—McNeil and Miller respectively—who have been making art together their entire lives. Moving to New York in the heyday of the DIY street art movement of the 90’s, the artists are now in a line of work entirely their own. Their colossal installation work has been commissioned all over the planet, featured in places as unlikely as the New York City Ballet and the plains of Mongolia. For their first ever retrospective, the pair have reconfigured their landmark piece The Deluxx Fluxx Arcade, a collaboration with artist Bast, to bring the ultra-sensory, ultra-immersive exhibit to their hometown. Milk Made’s Jake Boyer stopped by the studio for a chat with Patrick Miller to discuss the artistic arcade, their adventurous past in the early days of street art, and what it’s like to work full time with his best friend from high school.
So…how did the arcade come to be?
It started in 2010. We were going to do a group show with Bast, and we were sitting around really thinking about what it could be. Somehow we stumbled on to pinball machines and we were just like…"Pinball machines are awesome." Essentially what we do is find old arcade cabinets, totally strip them down, repaint them, put in all of our own computers and create our own original video games and sounds. We look at them as a painted surface and a sculptural object from a fine art perspective, but also as a way of giving the viewer a way to interact with the art through the video games. The games originally were really simple; there was no objective, it was more about the play and the experience and letting the viewer manipulate the art. Now we have games that are making more of a commentary—we have one game that addresses gentrification where the gamer has to crush down brownstones to make way for luxury skyscrapers.
Why do you think you found arcades so special?
I think for us growing up it was just this exciting space where it was like going into a magical cave. You could be this hero or villain through the games, but you were still interacting with a huge rage of different people of mixed ages. It was like this sacred space in a way, when you were a teenager it was a bit transformative when you were in there. When you came back out you were back to your normal, boring, suburban teenage experience.
What do you think inspired you to move from street art to interactive installations?
Given that we started making work on the street, we felt that public interaction was always a part of it. The work we would put up on the street would live and die there, in the sense that we had no control of it once we put it there. People would rip it, it would tear, other people would go over it, it would get rained on, whatever. There was always this evolving nature to the work that we were interested in watching, we would go back and photograph it over time. We really liked that idea of ‘play’, where someone takes a photograph of it here and it ends up there and it can start to take on a life of its own. It felt much more living and breathing than a gallery space could ever be. But over time we started asking ourselves, ‘How can we take this further? How can we make public work that comes out of the blue and still functions in a way that engages the audience beyond print or painting?’ The arcade is really about having fun with these things, letting the viewer really engage in a full sensory experience. You start touching it and just like that—bam! People get so into it!
Street art is such an interesting medium, especially given that it’s widely still considered illegal. When you all started making street art, was it a secretive, dangerous process for you?
Yeah, definitely. When we first started we were so small, this would have been around the late 90’s. Patrick was going to college out here, and I would visit from my college in Minneapolis. We would just take a lot of photos, because we didn’t have much money so we would go out and just cruise around, like you do when you’re young. And we were always so enamored by the things that were happening on the walls—it definitely was not graffiti, this was something different, and we really responded to it. It was something that was already in line with the types of images that we grew up with, and we knew we wanted to do something of our own and have a place in that conversation, that dialogue between artists. But it’s hard, when you first start out you really don’t know anything, you’re going out you’re just putting things up in the wrong places. You don’t quite know the rules of the street, in terms of going over this or going over that, and then the constant worry of not getting caught.
Have you ever been caught?
Yeah, it sucks (laughs). Over time we evolved and you get a little smarter about how you do things, but the whole nature of street art really changed. In the late 90’s it was really small, there were very few people that were doing it on a global scale, you could probably count them on one hand. One of the most fascinating things about the urban art movement is that it grew parallel with the Internet and social media, and it’s probably the first true artistic movement to be attached to that. So all of a sudden you could be doing small things anywhere and people were seeing it. That also changed the culture of it, it became more commodified. People take things off the street really quickly, you can put something up and it’ll be gone in 24 hours and then you might see it being sold somewhere. That was the time when we started to slow down from what we were doing on the street, because it was just so defeating to see things get stolen and resold.
You all have such a really curated, refined sense of your pop culture iconography, have you always been such culture vultures? Do you spend a lot of time selecting your imagery or is it more instinctive?
Yeah we do, we work really hard at it. I think that’s something people probably don’t realize, how long that process takes. Growing up we were always very visual people, and we knew we loved art. And I collected so much stuff, like baseball cards, Garbage Pail Kids, comic books, zines, skateboard magazines, skating stickers, any part of skateboard culture, really. We always kept collecting and were always looking back. It was very much like we were working from a source material. It’s finding these bits and pieces from the past to make something new, and all of a sudden you have a tapestry of the past to speak to current events.
It’s really rare that to see such a true partnership of artists. You’ve always worked together, you have a collective name…what is your working dynamic like?
It’s very much a collaboration, we don’t really make work on our own. Patrick and I have known each other since we were 14. We grew up together, I know him so well, he knows me so well. One thing that makes it a really successful partnership is that we are very different people in the way we work. McNeil is much more hands on. He likes the physicality of it, he likes the process of working through things, so he often manages the studio side of things whereas I am a bit more digital by nature. I like to plan things out on the computer first and then go after it. That really works, it leaves room for serendipity in the process.
Did you ever find it weird that you all had the same name when you were growing up?
That’s how we met. It was the first day of high school. He had moved from Canada and we had 3 classes together. His last name was McNeil and mine was Miller so you’d hear it coming alphabetically. I’d always go to raise my hand but it was his that would come first. Finally we just happened to be sitting next to each other in P.E and he introduced himself as the Patrick who kept coming right after me. He came over that afternoon and bought some fireworks with me. We joke and say it all started with a bang.
‘Savage/Sacred Young Minds’ will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum from July 10th-October 4th, visit their website here
All imagery of the FAILE & BAST DELUXX FLUXX ARCADE courtesy of the artists