Written by Zachary Vigna
Cassette Boy’s head is a giant boom box that, playing similarly outsize mixtapes, conjures environments, audiences, and musicians with whom, as the tapes cycle, Cassette Boy collaborates in an evolving musical production. He is an artist, and his artistic practice proliferates itself, generating its own space and community. He is the titular character of the first project completed by Studio MAKY, a pair of artists who, through their practice, enact and stimulate collaboration, erasing boundaries between artist and audience, and producing spaces that engender community and creativity.
Animator Man-Yee Mok and illustrator Kwannie Tang, both graduates of the Willem de Kooning Academy, met at the Rotterdam-based Chinese art collective Studio Zi and quickly found themselves collaborating on the project. It was a stop-motion film for a teenage audience, and while working on it they learned a number of lessons that would become central for them. The first was that complex work can benefit from and sometimes requires the application of distinct skills acquired from distinct backgrounds. Kwannie and Man-Yee recounted to me that Cassette Boy is “a very good example of our collaboration providing different skills, such as illustration and animation, and creating new, different work and learning experiences—filming, editing, using new materials, building a whole colorful setting.” They also learned that, as able as they were, they sometimes needed outside assistance, so “we asked many of our friends to help us with things like acting in the stop-motion animation and making the props, and we learned that our work is very fun for others to participate in.”
Another lesson they learned is that your perception of yourself doesn’t necessarily correlate with the way others see you. Man-Yee and Kwannie assert, “We don't consider ourselves children's artists.” Cassette Boy was produced for a young audience, though, and it capitalized on their shared preference for the energetic and bold. The project was a success, Kwannie and Man-Yee decided to continue working together as Studio MAKY, and they quickly realized that, children’s artists or not, they produced textures, images, and experiences that children responded to. “Maybe it's part of the Dutch/Western culture—or is it universal?—that something colorful, funny, fluffy, and playful is more associated with the childlike.” In any case, they chose to embrace the youth of their primary audience, and in doing so they discovered that they’d granted themselves a high degree of “creative freedom to design and build installations that also seem to surprise older audiences.”
Since Cassette Boy, completed in 2011, Man-Yee and Kwannie have evolved an approach defined by collaboration as interaction. Most of their works are big, vibrant public art installations that invite direct interaction. Their most recently unveiled project, for instance, was meant to be manipulated by its audience. On view at the Sencity Festival in Rotterdam on April 8, 2017, Festival Heart was an iconographic heart measuring 8.5 by 8.5 feet and comprising wooden blocks of different sizes, shapes, and colors. The heart was a tangram, and could be reconfigured into a rocket, a cocktail, an arrow—hanging sculptures provided instructions for achieving these shapes—or any other form a viewer might conceive. There was no need for Festival Heart to remain a heart, or to remain a cohesive whole at all, there being nothing to prevent viewers from separating its pieces. This heightened degree of interaction allowed audiences freedom to redefine the work.
With Badkonijn, Studio MAKY goes even further, inviting the piece’s audiences directly into its creation. The enormous sculpture resembles a pool toy in the shape of a rabbit (badkonijn is Dutch for bathbunny), and calls to mind Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog. Like Balloon Dog, Badkonijn playfully belies its materiality, incorporating an inflation valve that will never be used. In contrast with Koons’s sculpture, however, Studio MAKY’s does perform a version of the function it appears to be meant to perform: it floats. Every year since 2012, Badkonijn has floated in Rotterdam’s Vroesenpark from April to October, signaling the summer season and encouraging play.
Although the bunny form has existed since 2012, the artwork is created anew every year by being repainted. Badkonijn 2017 cannot be considered the same piece as Badkonijn 2016, not just because it looks different, but because a different artist conceived it. Every year Studio MAKY hosts a contest at a different Rotterdam children’s organization, soliciting redesigns. The winner gets to realize his or her idea, with help from the other entrants and supervision from Kwannie and Man-Yee. In this way, an entire community of artists has arisen around Badkonijn, which has become a truly collaborative piece. Man-Yee and Kwannie explain, “Before the projects we have no idea what the design is going to be at the end, and even after we decide which kid's design we are going to use, we still need to work all the way to the final result [before we know exactly what it will look like]. We both hope the project will be wonderful and an adventurous progress for the young winner, all the other kids, and the neighborhood.”
Improving neighborhoods and stimulating feelings of pride and ownership among audiences are primary goals in Studio MAKY’s artistic approach, and pushing the boundaries of collaboration has proven an effective way of achieving these goals. It is not the only way, however. Some of Kwannie and Man-Yee’s greatest successes have been collaborations between only the two of them, such as WC Wonderland, unveiled in October 2016. For this project, they were invited to redesign one of the restrooms at the Cambridge Innovation Center in Rotterdam. Restrooms are normally austere, functional spaces, and Man-Yee and Kwannie were eager to give this one a sense of personality. Their bold, whimsical aesthetic is on full display, as well as a touch of screwball humor. Subtitled Happy Drips and Stains, the work comprises colorful but scatological dripping forms that playfully remind viewers of the function of the room that contains the work.
Whether collaborating with many others or with only each other, Kwannie and Man-Yee hope they can demonstrate to their audiences, especially children, “that art doesn't have to be vague or serious, but can be very accessible for everybody, fun and personal to their own story.” Any experience is an opportunity to connect personally to the world, and Studio MAKY, through collaborative, interactive art, is dedicated to making that connection easier.