The Wild Blue Yonder
Over the past few months I have had the pleasure of getting to know The Wild Blue Yonder; a top to bottom creative collective that uses new media and an extensive background in film and video production to render new ideas and refresh old ones across all platforms. TWBY is a small yet well-rounded creative team of installation artists and experimental filmmakers, Benton Africano, video editor and colorist, and Mason Thorne, writer, director and musician. Together their collaboration has brought new and inventive work to Chicago.
The constant desire to create resonates between these two. TWBY's work stands out from the average amateur, twenty something filmmaker. They produce short films, music videos, commercial video and installation art. While their work spans across a variety of mediums, all of their work is an experiment. They approach each project as a goal achieved and a lesson learned. I ventured down south to Pilsen to visit their apartment and studio with one question on my mind…What don’t you do?
Benton and Mason live next to an array of different artists. The Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago is quite an inspiring area, flourishing with creativity and raw talent. I think I made it very clear that I was in awe of their place after walking in and immediately gasping. The live-in studio space has creativity and inspiration oozing through its hand crafted walls. I quickly demanded a tour. After “ooing” and “ahhing” over the green vines growing from the kitchen's slanted ceiling, I headed upstairs. At this point I was overwhelmed with a sort of “Alice in Wonderland” nostalgia. Quirky light fixtures, hand crafted furniture and very low ceilings--at one point ducking to enter Benton's bedroom. I couldn't help but remember the first time I saw “Being John Malkovich.”
After the tour, the boys poured me a glass of wine and we got to talking about their company. It became clear to me that TWBY really lucked out when they met. Not only do they share the same taste in home décor, they share a passion when it comes to creativity and development in their work–constantly finding mutual inspiration in each other.
Caroline Aylward: So how did you guys meet?
Mason Thorne: We were on the boxing team together.
No. Not really.
Benton Africano: We met at Columbia College here in Chicago. The school was trying out a new model for one-year intro to film core class and we were both chosen to be in it. It covered all of your bases so you could feel what aspects of film you enjoyed the most. It was like being in an incubator for a year. Mason had written a script. I read it and really loved his vision so I approached him about editing the film. So I guess we have been making movies from the very beginning. It worked out well so we just kept at it.
Their first film was homage to the Chan-Work Park film “Old Boy." Park’s work has been a big inspiration for Benton and Mason. Their 8-minute murder thriller film stood out so they decided that they worked well together and the rest is basically history.
Benton and Mason have been living together for a solid five years now with no plans of separating their live-in studio lifestyle. These two see and create in collaboration. To them, each work is a step in the right direction…even back when they thought their work was shit. Each project is another way for them to expand their horizons, whether it be a lengthier film, using a completely new medium or even designing a new studio space.
CA: How did you discover this loft space? It seems to be a perfect fit.
BA: One of our good friends rented a loft down here so we looked into the company that owns these. They showed us about four different lofts. This one just happened out of luck, kind of random.
MT: All of our apartments we have made our own space. Painted them in their entirety, making partitions and makeshift doors. We want to be comfortable in our space and liven it up to get through the Chicago winters. We've never left an apartment on our terms. Hopefully we can leave this place on our own terms (knocks on wood).
CA: Did you guys get kicked out of your last apartment?
BA: No, it actually caught fire. It was totally random. No one was hurt but a lot of our stuff was damaged and we had to move out, obviously. But that is how we discovered this place and it became inspiration for our “Perfect Home” music video for the artist Foreign Fields.
CA: What do you enjoy most about your new surroundings here?
MT: We've established a little community. We live here for the collaboration. Everyone here is entrepreneurial and passionate. Also, if I were to get locked out I could just go knock on someone’s door and be okay.
BA: Yeah, exactly. There are so many artists on this block. It’s also really quiet down here but close to the city.
As the night went on, more and more detail of the surroundings stuck out to me. I noticed a retro photograph hanging in the kitchen with their logo painted in white over the original work. Once that caught my eye, I began to realize their logo on a few other paintings around the space.
CA: Do you paint your logo on other work often?
MT: I actually found that photo in a dumpster. I decided to paint “the monster” over it on a whim and since then it has developed into our logo. At the time I was reading Norse mythology and was all jazzed up about big, weird forest creatures. This painting was a big inspiration when we were brainstorming for the name of our company. “The monster” brings about a feeling of wild possibility.
BA: Putting our logo on other work became a way to get our logo out there. It became our signature. We like to keep our hands in so many different mediums, telling stories in any way possible.
CA: How did you come up with the name for the company?
BA: We have a lot of brainstorming sessions. We wanted the name of the company to reflect what our work would represent. We just started spitting out words. Youth. Impact. Forward-thinking. Basically how the future is unknown and once your work is out there, there is no looking back.
“No one knows what the moon is thinking when it hugs the earth and shifts the sea.”
I read this on the cover of a handmade lookbook for a short film called “Gigantomachia”, TWBY’s first venture. “Gigantomachia” was an ambitious three-part miniseries that displays how surreal life can become. The series finale of the web series screened at LVL3 Gallery in Chicago.
The subdued narrative is about a Mexican family who ratted out a drug cartel and moved to the states illegally for safety. Their plan backfires when they are discovered and then deported. This story stems from Mason’s experiences growing up with a mother as an immigration lawyer and an advocate for immigrant rights.
MT: Growing up, the people who lived next door lived in a very different world. I remember terrifying moments when families were swept up and out of my life in an instant, based on these cold, bureaucratic decisions. In retrospect the fairy tale elements were created at a point when I was very much transitioning to true adulthood as some sort of Freudian, or I guess more accurately Jungian dream. I was excited about these characters and the type of magic they possessed. I fished for a character I most connected with while watching it recently and as wimpy as it sounds, I think it's the Creature: a distant, lost boy who's unsure of his own scale.
The clever and observant cinematography in the film allows you to get inside the minds of the wide range of characters. Images of the futuristic yet graceful “Matka” character stand out from the films other main characters. By the end of the film, Matka's robotic nature becomes familiar and almost relatable, really pinpointing the sometimes alienating feelings of urban life.
Video glitches and synthesizers combined with poetic and metaphorical narratives-- all frequent and purposeful in the experimental nature of their work. “Gigantomachia” expresses the “weight of the world” in variety of different ways. As you are watching the film, the character “Matka” has very sharp and abrupt movements, accompanied by snapping sounds whenever her body moves. When Benton and Mason were working with their sound designer they wanted to express the literal weight of the world crushing her spine.
CA: Why did you decide to release Gigantomachia in three parts/as a web series?
MT: I liked the idea of an episodic narrative. We wanted to play around with narrative structure. We could shoot all at once and edit piece by piece, slowly working through the material. It happened more organically. But, we did bite off more than we could chew with this one.
BA: Yeah, but it's what really kicked us off and gave us the confidence to keep going. Once we tackled that obstacle, every idea we came up with seemed worthwhile. Now we give everything a shot.
Their most recent project, [a]lone[ly], is a 6-screen audio-visual installation in the Chicago Arts District. The window-front display and exterior kiosk immerses viewers into the strange and ironic world of urban loneliness and it’s counterpart, aloneness. Getting this installation up and running was an obstacle and an extreme learning experience for Benton and Mason. After a few weeks of brainstorming, concepting and designing they landed on a plan for a functional and affordable installation that aimed at pulling the pedestrian off of the street and into the lives of the lonely and alone.
This installation is located just downstairs from their apartment and sits behind a glass window. There are six headphone jacks, each corresponding to a different screen that tells a different story. The installation started running in January 2014 with plans to curate the unique venue for other work and artists. Despite the fact that someone threw a giant piece of concrete through the installation window at one point. They quickly patched it up and were back in business.
CA: What a bummer. I'm sure you weren't happy to find your installation window in pieces...
BA: No not at all. It actually happened a second time. We realized that the maintenance of the installation would be more involved that we anticipated.
CA: What sparked the idea for [a]lone[ly]?
MT: There are so many ways to deliver stories to people. This was a way of playing with that a bit. There isn't an established industry for just exploring. That is exciting. We try to approach each project as a goal achieved and a lesson learned. Adding a visual, aural, or graphic element that we've never seen or approached before into each project gives us a little archive of 'tricks' to pull later and better develop a style.
In addition to short films and series, the duo has started to cut their teeth in the music video world, with three music videos under their belt. It’s a market they are anxious to break into further as it houses so much room for experimentation. Most recently they produced and directed a video for the song “Perfect Home” by the band Foreign Fields. The lyrics of this song were a reflection on band member Eric Hillman's young marriage. The video takes you on a ride through the good and bad times that are the reality of a relationship. The video for “Perfect Home” ironically ends with the couple's apartment setting fire, directly reflecting what TWBY had recently experienced.
To sum them up, TWBY is a company and an environment that eats art all day. Creating and storytelling play a part in everything they do. Benton and Mason are a refreshing couple of guys who thrive on experimenting with the art side of filmmaking rather than the entertainment side. They live and breathe their art and are a solid of example of turning your passion into your livelihood.
Next up for TWBY is the launch of a fundraising website. The site will sell art to support art and serve as an incubator for Chicago's flourishing [art] scene. Initially, the store will offer a variety of original artwork and restored Mid-Century furniture. As the fundraiser grows, items for sale will include curated art, furniture, clothing, and tickets to dance and music performances around Chicago. All funds raised will go straight into funding TWBY's next creative endeavors and to help maintain their current installation work. The first collection for sale will help fund 'The Organs of Speech' shooting this August. Check out twby.tv for more information.