Their work erupts from the Visitor’s Center in the lobby of 1515 Broadway, an eclectic assortment of hand-painted books and records and potted plants stacked atop densely decorated shelves and staircases that soar nearly to the ceiling. A cartoon world of peeping foxes and palm trees and crescent moons and walking suns explodes along an adjacent wall. Turn the corner, and visitors encounter a florid dreamworld that resembles a cartoon movie set heaved into reality, an orange settee arranged opposite a hard-bound teepee, back-dropped by a mountain-scape gated by twin fortune wheels. A fox larger than the mountains themselves settles over this domain, the forceful centerpiece of a grand, living piece of artwork.
This is the world of Dabs Myla, an Australian-born married duo whose whimsical, large-scale immersive installations have appeared inside and outside of buildings all over the planet. After the pair wrapped up work on an astonishing set for the 2015 MTV Movie Awards – an effort that also included logo and statuette design – Viacom invited them to bring their work into our offices as part of our ongoing Art at Viacom series. The rotating series of immersive art experiences has previously featured the work of HOTTEA, interdisciplinary artist Crystal Wagner, and floral artist Rebecca Louise Law. You can see more of what Art at Viacom is doing on its tumblr and Instagram pages.
Between setting up the display and sitting down for a conversation that was live-streamed to all of our employees, Dabs and Myla took a few minutes to explain a few of the details in their installation and to talk about what it was like collaborating with Viacom. Excerpts from our conversation are below.
Stuart Winchester: Were you trying to create a mood when someone walked in here on their way to work?
Dabs: We always put a lot of details into the things we do, like the records and tapes and interactive things we have here. We knew this lobby was a waiting room essentially. So we like the idea that maybe someone can sit back here while they wait and put on a song and listen.
SW: When I look at all this stuff, it kind of evokes home for me, a comfy, cozy place. Is that something you were trying to create?
Dabs: There is a home environment in all the things we create, and a positive vibe in them, and that’s just based on the fact how our relationship is and how we work. We’re married. We live together and we’re creating things all day and all night together and so I feel like that’s part of what gives the homey feeling to a lot of the things we do.
SW: As far as the objects themselves, they’re really interesting. You see something different every time you look at it. What role do the colors play in evoking a mood? Because they’re very bright, but they’re subdued. It’s just a very interesting, very evocative palette.
Myla: Definitely color plays a huge role in our artwork. We studied together, so one of the main things we learned when we were studying is color theory. It was amazing that we both learned that from a great teacher and we feel like it’s very important. The color in our work was something that really pulled everything together. We have a particular color palette now that we’ve formed over time.
SW: There’s a lot to see here. Some of the books don’t have a title, some are only one word, and then I noticed you had On the Road in there a bunch of times. What was behind the book title selection?
Myla: Some of the books, like Saddafah and On the Road, we were listening to as we were making this project as audio books. I read On the Road when I was young, and when we started dating, I told Dabs about it and he read it. I love it, because to me it’s about the beginning of when people started to live outside the boundaries of how you’re supposed to live your life. As a teenager, I was very inspired by that and it gave me inspiration to travel. When we started dating, travel became a very big part of our lives together, and we are fortunate enough that our career takes us places. There’s such a direct connection to how I felt when I was reading that book as a teenager to how our lives are now.
SW: There are just so many little details in here. Besides the books, all of these records and things are hand-painted as well.
Dabs: They are all hand-painted. Our original idea was to just paint them one color or just put a little symbol on each one, but this is the way we are always – when it started, we grabbed the first record, and maybe it’s this Pink Floyd one and say, ‘I’ll just do something simple,’ but we didn’t want to do something too simple, and before you know it, you spend a day painting one record, where we originally planned to make them all very quickly.
SW: How do you manage that process? Because it seems like you could just go on forever.
Dabs: If I didn’t have anything else to do and we just had a month, I could have spent them painting records. I would hand-paint 70 records and they would be in here. The cabinet would be piled with books. There would be thousands of books. But we’re pretty good with time management and we know there are a lot of big parts of this installation that still need to be done and still need to be finished. So we know we have this much time, let’s paint as many records as we can
SW: How did this project with Viacom come about?
Dabs: Last year, we designed a life-scale installation set for the MTV Movie Awards, and we did the trophy and animations and award and broadcast packages and all these things. Afterward, Art at Viacom told us about this program and showed us the work that had been done so far, and we were interested.
SW: So what was the creative process like with Viacom?
Dabs: Viacom was so good, really. And they were super flexible with us. We had all these different ideas. The only kind of feedback we were getting was really logistical kinds of things, like telling us we couldn’t bolt into a certain wall or whatever. As far as our vision, they were 100 percent behind us in every way.
SW: In the interview you did with Viacom afterward, you said you’d been MTV fans for a long time. Are there other Viacom properties you’re fans of?
Dabs: We’re Australian, so we grew up disconnected from the rest of the world to some degree. We lived very far from America, but our culture was very much based on, especially in the 80s and 90s when we were growing up, on American pop culture, and most of that – television and music – is what we grew up watching, and at the end it would say “Viacom” at the bottom. Obviously, as artists, being visual, we took so much influence from the things around us: television and popular culture and MTV and Nickelodeon and Ren & Stimpy. To be in Australia watching all these shows and then to jump forward into the future and we’re sitting in this building where all of these ideas and all these things have influenced so much, it’s a real trip.
SW: Did you take anything that you learned from working on the MTV Movie Awards project and apply it to this?
Dabs: We learned how to scale things up, because that one was so big. It’s so hard to say, but maybe if we never worked on the MTV Movie Awards, maybe this would be smaller. We never would have thought to build something that almost hit the ceiling.
Myla: This was by far our biggest project, and we started learning more how to outsource and delegate different things to create a vision without it all having to be made by us, which makes the scope of things larger.
SW: So what did the folks at Viacom help you with on this installation?
Myla: So many things. Right from the start, how big the project should be. They inspired us to think even bigger than what we were, which was a huge thing for us, because sometimes when you work with people, we think as big as we can and they try to pull it down, but Viacom was making it even bigger than what it was. To be honest, we couldn’t be more thrilled. It was inspirational for us.
Check out a bit more of what Dabs and Myla had to say about collaborating with Viacom: