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Brooklyn-based art duo FAILE are never ones to shy away from an ambitious project. After more than a decade of filling streets and galleries with their work, FAILE headed to Mongolia to unveil their latest feat, a permanent five meter-high sculpture titled ‘Wolf Within’. A part of the Tiger Translate initiative, the impressive sculpture serves as a reminder of what can be lost in the pursuit of greater wealth, with Mongolia being one of the world’s fastest-growing countries. We spoke with Patrick Miller and Patrick McNeil, best friends since they were fourteen years old about their collective artistic vision for FAILE.

So I’ve heard that you originally called yourselves ALIFE but transformed it into FAILE to avoid association with the clothing store. Is there a deeper meaning behind the name FAILE?

Yeah I suppose there is. I feel that the word ‘FAILE’ is still connected to the original word ‘ALIFE’, which is kind of a philosophy that we embraced with the initial street art we did. The idea that one day it was there, the next it was not. It had a life to it. When we took on the name FAILE, it kind of embraced that same idea. It was the idea of looking past your failures and finding a life. FAILE kind of took on an idea of everything – person, place, or thing – and became this idea of fail to succeed. Like you have to look past your failures to succeed. That’s something we always embraced with the name. Obviously, with the name FAILE, people wouldn’t really expect that.

I think it’s also very much about a process and trying things, taking risks. Growing from the projects we do, even our process in making is a little bit of a journey and there’s some serendipity put into the way we make prints and paintings. You kind of push it so far and pull it back, it’s about pushing that line a little bit. Destroying to create.

How did you two meet? What made you decide to begin collaborating together?

We met when we were fourteen years old, in high school, and just kind of shared a common interest in art all through high school and shared art classes together. When we went off to college together we both went to the same university and lived together for the first year and studied fine art together. As we kind of moved apart and went to different schools, we stayed in touch through sketchbooks.

When I first moved to New York I was really taken by street art and I invited Miller out to come visit and we explored it and documented it and we were like “this is a really fascinating form of art and a way of getting art out there”. It just came together very organically. We were like, “Let’s do something together. Lets be a part of this action on the street”. We were starting to do printmaking and these things anyway, so working with silkscreen and some of those things to make prints easily translated into the work we wanted to do on the street, and also the work we wanted to do in the studio, so to speak. We were in school at the time, but we were playing with both the high and low art.

How has growing up and having children changed the way that you work?

Our hours would be the first major change. We used to work very late into the night. We’d start the day later and work late into the night, obviously venture out on the street a lot in the evenings and this type of stuff. So having kids and wives dictates a little bit more what kind of hours we work, you know, trying to be part of the family, be with them in the morning and be with them in the evening. So that kind of put a structure to the framework of the hours that we keep.

Also, as the business side of it grew and the studio side of the practice grew with employees, and responsibilities like rent and health care, it added a different element to when we used to go out at night and all we had to really worry about was our apartment rent. You weren’t worried about your staff or your studio, or any of these types of responsibilities that come with a studio practice as it grows.

Also, we’ve been doing this for quite some time so I think we’ve grown in that sense. But it also makes me think a lot more about some of the images we make and the work we make, about how our children will see that twenty years from now. Just thinking a little bit of the legacy of our work, and what we’re saying with it. Not to say that we were ever not thoughtful about those things, but it just made me think about it in a much more long-term way. Through new eyes, having a daughter and having a son, it gives a new perspective to the way I think about it.

By putting your work in public, you let go of control over the audience’s experience of it, and you expose people to it who may not know anything about art. What kinds of feedback do you get?  Do people ever have reactions that surprise you?

Yes. On this trip to Mongolia people’s reactions have surprised me. Putting stencils up here has been interesting, just to see how people have reacted to it, come up to it, inquired about it, asked to have it put on their house, that type of stuff has been pretty fascinating. We were looking at putting some stencils up in this one area and a lot of it was a residential area. All the yards are partitioned off with tin and steel and wood and there’s a lot of really nice worn surfaces to work on. It’s really broken down and all dirt roads and the surfaces look good, but then you start thinking, “this is somebody’s house”, and even though that door looks kind of broken down and rusted out, it’s still somebody’s front door to their house. I was nervous about putting work up there and disrespecting their homes or how they might interpret the work. So instead, rather than doing it illegally this time, we decided to ask permission from a couple of shopkeepers to do it. They embraced it and really liked it and we’d get people walking up while we were doing it and being like, “Hey I really like that, can you do one of those on my door?” I was just really surprised.

We were doing another spot out here and this old man, probably 75 years old, walks up and was like, “This is really interesting, what is this? What form of art is this? I really like it”. That type of interaction is fascinating when you’re a little bit more used to Western standards where it’s more like, “Get out of here” or “Don’t put that shit on my house”.

We don’t do as much of that as we used to, the stencilling and that type of stuff. A lot of the more contemporary stuff that we’ve been executing on the street has become a little bit more ambitious in a sense, with the arcades and the Temple, and seeing people’s reactions to that type of work is always really fascinating. Just watching how people interact with it, because a lot of the work is very interactive in the sense that you can touch it and walk into it.

For you guys, how important is interaction with the viewer? Do you try to pull a certain reaction from your audience?

We try to pull shock and awe. Just kidding!

It really depends on the piece and what we’re trying to do. It’s different with everything, from the arcade, to the temple, to the stencil art. I think each one has a different directive. It’s not always so literal. We’re not always looking for a direct, expected response. I think part of what’s exciting is just watching how people respond to it unexpectedly, how they take it, and what they walk away from it with.

Do your separate artistic visions ever collide? What happens when you disagree on something?

Yeah sometimes we have differences of opinion on things but usually we end up working it out through arm wrestling, Indian leg wrestling, and a variety of other cultural wrestling techniques. Nah usually we just talk it out. We push and push and one person ends up coming out on top with the idea and we go with it. We come to some kind of consensus on it and just push ahead.

I think you kind of know when somebody’s really passionate about it versus ‘you might just kinda think that’, and in those cases, if someone feels that strongly about it, it’s like “okay, we’ll go that route”. There’s really no right or wrong answer in a lot of our creative decisions. We’ve known each other around 25 years now so there’s a pretty solid foundation of understanding between us, on discussing things, when to concede, and when to push.

You travel extensively for your work. How does the culture and landscape of the country that you’re in affect the work that you put out?

A lot of times we research where something’s going and try and get an idea of what each local environment has, what the culture is, what the history is, even what the religion is. Coming to Mongolia has been really fascinating as we talked about some of the images in our work and how it would be interpreted here. For example, we use a lot of animals in our work and the way those things play here is completely different. Things like the ‘Surfer Horse’, which we were really interested in doing over here at one point, we were told that it’s seen very much as a chimera here, this weird mythological beast composed of all these different parts. It comes across in a completely different way. Things like the wolf here really speak volumes to people and that’s kind of a strong character in a lot of our work, so it’s been great to use images like that.

You two have been involved in some pretty large-scale art projects, most notably your Temple project a couple of years ago, the 104 North 7th Project, your work with arcade memorabilia for Deluxx Fluxx, and of course now this latest project in Mongolia. What kind of preparation goes into putting something like this together?

Lisbon was different. We went up to Lisbon first and explored it and took in a lot of the heritage sites of the city, then came up with an idea based on the trip that we took there. Then we spent about two years developing the idea and building it right up to the last minute. With this trip, it was a lot of just submitting ideas and getting the reaction from the Mongolian arts council on which ideas translated and made sense, and which ones didn’t, and then just moving ahead. A lot of this is crazy just because it really works on such an international scale. With the Lisbon project we were working with people in Europe and in China, from New York. There was this really crazy communication process that took place just online and whatnot. The process was very similar here. Working with local Mongolian artists online, trying to get pictures and do corrections, and these types of things. It’s very interesting. It’s a new way of collaborating and building art that I don’t think existed maybe ten years ago, not at this speed.

For the ‘Wolf Within’ sculpture you’ve been working alongside Mongolian sculptor Bat Munkh. How much input did he have into the appearance of the final product?

Well quite a bit, because he’s sculpting it. In this case, there was already a sculpture that we’d developed prior to the final sculpture. So we sent over the photographs of the sculpture that we’d already made, and then worked with him in reinterpreting it. It’s pretty close to the original one but there are definitely some stylistic changes that he made, just in some of the line work, some of the surface work, the way it was painted. And the base was all his idea. The sculpture on our end was pretty much established. He had a little bit of room to flex, but not a lot.

We knew what we wanted from it, and given that we’d already sculpted it, I think it helped give him some reference points to work from and I think ultimately it was much more successful in the end. I think it really helped make for a better collaboration just because there was some framework there for him to wrap his head around. Also, with the timelines we were dealing with, this project was done in an incredibly short timespan. I was amazed just to see how they were able to pull it together on such a large scale in such a short amount of time.

How long has it taken altogether?

I think about 3 months. I mean, when you’re considering they had to sculpt a miniature version, then a larger version, then cast it, piece it back together, build a base for it, and bring it out to the location, all in three months. The Temple, in comparison, took us two years.

The event, Tiger Translate, is all about bringing East and West together. What’s the story behind the sculpture and its meaning, and how does your sculpture apply to both of these audiences?

Well I think the ‘Wolf Within’ sculpture is really about not forgetting your roots in the pursuit of greater wealth. It’s that idea of getting lost and overtaken by greed and materialism. In ‘Wolf Within’, it’s about this businessman having this enlightened moment where he’s tearing away at the suit and he’s wearing this wolf pelt, which is sort of symbolic of that traditional side. Being in Mongolia, and especially Ulan Bator, it’s one of the world’s fastest growing economies. If there are 500 buildings in Ulan Bator today, there are another 300 that are being constructed right now. It’s shocking to be here and see the amount of buildings going up and all the cranes and everything’s happening so fast. It’s one of those things where if you don’t remember your heritage, things can get really lost with capitalism and greed and business, and all these sorts of things.

So I think it’s a really timely sculpture. I think one of the best things about the sculpture is its setting in the National Park. If you’re looking straight on at the sculpture, it’s all mountains behind it and just this expansive land. And then if you turn around and look at the sculpture from behind, it’s facing a whole set of new construction, buildings as far as you can see being built. There’s a really insane contrast of landscape from front to back and it’s really fitting with what the sculpture is all about.

Is there a particular place or country that’s really been a standout location for you so far?

Portugal! The city is a tapestry in itself. It’s really rich. All the surfaces, the tile work, the graphic nature of all the different tiles, the colours, the sun, it’s just an amazing place as far as surface, architecture, and visual experience is concerned.

Do you collect any work from other artists? (Who?)

Yeah we do. We collect art from mostly friends and colleagues. Swoon, Bast, Bore, Anthony Lister, Blu. Really enjoying Swamp Donkey’s stuff lately. It’s mostly from our friends, and that’s a lot of different people.

Thinking about your earlier work, perhaps your first 5 years, what are the key differences in terms of what you were doing then, and the way you are going about things now?

I think it’s very different. I think in the beginning it was very loose. There was much more of a transient lifestyle to the way we lived and did the work and travelled and put things up. I think the biggest difference is just having families. I feel like the work is still in the same vein, the process is still very similar, but the works have become more ambitious than they used to be. There’s just not as much energy I’d say on the street art/wheat-pasting/stencil side of the practice. We don’t travel as much as we used to probably. It’s different. The studio aspect of the practice has just become a lot bigger and there’s just been a lot more energy put into that side of it than the travel and putting up street art side of it that we started with.

Can we Aussies look forward to seeing some FAILE work on this side of the world any time soon?

It’s actually quite high on our list! I don’t know when, but doing a show over in Australia is definitely something that we look forward to. I think that if we do something over there we wanna do something that really makes a mark. We’ll see, hopefully in the next couple of years we’ll make it over.

We’ll keep our hopes up then! Any last words to share with our readers?

Don’t be afraid to fail, follow your passion.

See more of FAILE’s work on their website.

Tiger Translate is a cross-cultural initiative aimed at encouraging collaboration between Eastern and Western artists. Learn more here.