Patrick Miller ’02 of FAILE. All photos by Rita Kovtun or courtesy of Miller.
Patrick Miller ’02 of FAILE. All photos by Rita Kovtun or courtesy of Miller.
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FAILE is the world-renowned street art collaboration of Patrick Miller ’02 and Patrick McNeil.

In 2017, MCAD commissioned FAILE to create a mural to commemorate the successful completion of the NEXT/NOW Capital Campaign with funding in part by Karin Phillips ’95. The piece Fragments of You and Me… is the first-ever mural on an MCAD facade. NEXT chatted with Miller about the birth of street art, FAILE’s curious imagery, and his MCAD heydays.

 
Fragments of You and Me… on the south facade of MCAD’s Main Building


How did FAILE begin and what role did MCAD play in its creation?

I was born in Minnesota but grew up in Arizona. My aunt worked at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, so that’s how I heard about MCAD. I went to MCAD for a year in 1997 and then left. I wanted to pursue product design so I went out to LA and tried to get in at ArtCenter, but they would only take me for illustration, not industrial design. I took the rest of the year off and worked at a restaurant and made art in my garage. Patrick McNeil, my best friend since I was fourteen—and the other half of FAILE—said to me, “What are you doing? You should go back to MCAD and look at graphic design. You can always paint in your spare time, but at least with design you can get a job,” and that’s what I did.

Miller and McNeil used MCAD’s Printshop to make prints in the late nineties.


Every chance I could get, I was up in the screenprinting lab. Patrick would fly out and we would make big monoprints. We did our first series together, A LIFE, at MCAD in 1999, which ultimately became FAILE by rearranging those letters. Patrick went to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, so I was traveling there and we were putting up our work on the street. He had studied abroad so he had friends in Europe. He and his girlfriend Aiko, who was a collaborator at the time, would travel to London, Berlin, and Tokyo and put up work. He used a lot of his student loan money just to travel. But we would all work together at MCAD, as it offered us a lot of space and freedom. We could make big prints easily in the Printshop, and most ink was free, so I really made use of that. 24-hour access was such a luxury, and on breaks and weekends it was all but empty.

“It snowballed from there, from show, to show, and then, all of a sudden, it felt like a movement.”

The first show we got was at Dragon Bar in London in 2001. The owner said to us, “Hey, is that your stuff out in the alley? Would you guys ever want to do a show here?” It was a really great bar space in an area kind of like a Brooklyn or Northeast Minneapolis that a lot of young artists frequented. It snowballed from there, from show, to show, and then, all of a sudden, it felt like a movement. People were recognizing that there was something going on. It was an amazing journey really quickly.

FAILE’s early pieces appeared on walls around the world, including the streets of Brooklyn, London, Berlin, and Tokyo.


What was the street art scene like when you entered it?

The street art scene was very small in the late nineties. At the time, it was mostly based around graffiti. It was more localized; there were probably only five to ten people doing it internationally. We knew we wanted to get to that place where we were fine artists essentially making paintings and it was like, “How do I bypass this whole gallery system—gotta have a certain degree and gotta be at the right gallery. Let’s just put the work up in the street and get it out there.”

We knew we wanted to get to a place where we could focus full-time on making art. We had more of a fine art mentality of making paintings and the idea came as a way to bypass the constrictive, formal system of fine art and just put the work up in the street. But it quickly became about the culture of it and the act of doing it. It was something much more than just painting or printmaking—it was having a direct dialogue with the public. People would write on a poster, tear it, or go over it and you’d come back a week later and see it. It was either really awesome or it was torn in a way you would never think of. It was alive. It was living and breathing in a space that was a public forum and it was really exciting to see that.

It was also a lifestyle. It was fun to go out at night and do it illegally, but it sucked getting arrested. I never got the same rush like Patrick got from doing it. He was always the one pushing that front, getting out, and traveling to all these places. There were a handful of artists like Shepard Fairey, Bast, and Banksy who were our friends. It was what you did—you went out, had a few beers, and then you put up work.

“It was something much more than just painting or printmaking—it was having a direct dialogue with the public.”

Back then, there was no real way of sharing the work beyond photo albums. Around 2003, blogs started happening and then Flickr started in 2004—that was what propelled this movement. It went from whoever walked down the street seeing that image, to a few thousand people if you were lucky enough to being in a magazine, to millions with the growth of photo sharing on the internet. That was mind-blowing. The ability to share on that level has totally changed everything.

Tell us about FAILE’s process—how do you create a mural from start to finish?

Murals are a unique process as opposed to working on the street or in the studio. Unlike working on the street, you don’t have to worry about getting arrested and being as efficient with your time. You’re able to create a planned artwork. But you do have to deal with the elements and the logistical challenges of working that large.

 

You’re always aware of where a mural will be, so the first step is thinking of how the images are going to relate to the setting. In the course of our eighteen years of being a collaboration as FAILE, we’ve made a few hundred core images, so it’s thinking about what's going to make sense. Sometimes it requires making something new. Then it’s just diving in and making. From there, it becomes a matter of considering color and time and executing on a large scale, which can involve using a projection or a method called pouncing. A bit of the spontaneity can be lost on murals, but you really don’t ever see paintings as large as you do on buildings, so it’s just an incredible visual canvas to create on.

What inspires FAILE’s imagery? How did that translate to the mural at MCAD?

For the MCAD mural, since a lot of our earliest images were made there, it was important for me to look back at some of our most classic and well-known images. I’m sure people will look at it and have no clue what the hell’s going on, but to me they have a lot of meaning for the way they were made. It’s kind of like, “What’s that boy doing with the rabbit? Is it an Easter Bunny? Is he telling it a secret?” An artist is very rarely going to be there to explain their work. The viewer’s the one who’s going to put those pieces together, and if they want to investigate further, it’s always there for them, but it’s got to impact you on a visceral level. MCAD was a time of play and experimentation and putting things together—what you do at art school or college in general. It’s about trying things out and it was a nice opportunity to bring that back. A lot of our imagery was about taking bits and pieces of found images and collaging them together to make new things from old familiar things. There’s always been an interest in popular culture. Looking back at MCAD and some of the people who went here in the nineties, there’s very much a style of that from here—just trying to make meaning from all of these things that surround us.

“The viewer’s the one who’s going to put those pieces together, and if they want to investigate further, it’s always there for them, but it’s got to impact you on a visceral level.”

American folk art and quiltmaking are huge inspirations in our work, especially from the American South and Gee’s Bend. We’ve always played with borders and ideas that pull from old folk paintings. I was thinking about the Midwest and its craft relationship, so a lot of the main images are bordered out. It also relates to the old wheatpastes that we would do on the street. We used to put up a series of repeated posters on big walls, which then started making their own compositions.

I think when we started out, there were so many people who did very social or political work and we always kind of enjoyed the whimsical—we enjoyed the playfulness of imagery. I like images when, at their heart, they capture a moment of emotion that isn’t political. While I think it’s dramatically important, it’s easier to be political, to make a provocative image and rile people up. There’s so many other people who can do that in a way that’s powerful and strong and I don’t think you necessarily need another person to do that. There needs to be an element of beauty. I think great images make commentary that is very subtle but you can still approach it from a lot of different angles.

Talk about the collaborative aspect of FAILE.

Finding a partner is about having someone whose strengths are your weaknesses and whose weaknesses are your strengths. Other Patrick is much more hands-on and analog. He likes to get dirty and be in the studio whereas I’m a lot more on the digital side. If I’m going to work on a painting, I’m going to try it a dozen different color ways on the computer before I go do it whereas Patrick’s already done it and is pondering the result. It’s really helped us to be able to have both sides of that.

 

Because FAILE has always been a collaboration, we’ve always had to work together. It’s about a give and take, and you’re never able to truly have it as your own. Over the years we’ve had a lot of studio assistants with some going on ten years now. The time they give and what they bring—it’s like family. Our kids come to the studio and paint as well and we like that aspect of it.

“In many ways, I think FAILE is recreating my time at MCAD—a place where people are actively making something.”

In many ways, I think FAILE is recreating my time at MCAD—a place where people are actively making something. For us, it was always trying to create a system where we could collaborate with others, where people could come into our world and maybe affect it in some small way that pushed us to stay open to things.

How does your time at MCAD feel as you look back on it?

It’s romanticized for me, but not in the way that’s artificial. I was really fortunate to hit a group of students who were really motivated and wanted to be there because they were interested in making. MCAD is really alive to me because I still work with these people. Every book we’ve done was designed by a fellow MCAD alum and several MCAD peers have helped us with our Deluxx Fluxx project. Most importantly, I met my wife Erica at MCAD, so it’s a special place for both of us and our family history. 

Miller often hung FAILE’s early prints on the third floor of the Main Building while a student at MCAD.


Looking at it as a whole, it was never easy at MCAD. I often reminisce about times when I was really deep in the middle of a project, staying up late in the studios, getting everyone together to play a game of Bump Out, and then going back to work. Looking back, everything that I feel was so good about I had to work really hard for, but it’s very rewarding and I’m so grateful for my experience there.

 

This story originally appears in NEXT, the magazine of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Want to receive the next issue in your mailbox? Join the NEXT mailing list.