Electric Coffin is a four-person design studio that has taken the Pacific Northwest by storm. Their highly conceptual installation art is featured in the halls of giants such as Facebook, Amazon and REI, as well as numerous local businesses and restaurants. The studio has also partnered with local companies to produce impactful community-based art for social awareness (most notably a campaign with Value Village about fast fashion and clothing consumerism). Known mostly for their commercial work, earlier this year, they took a step out of their comfort zone and partnered with Bellevue Arts Museum. For the first time, they had a blank space to fill with whatever they wanted. Patrick “Duffy” De Armas, one of the founders, sat down with Reflections to talk about Future Machine, the exhibition that is available for viewing through September 10.
Reflections magazine: Why installation art?
Patrick “Duffy” De Armas: Electric Coffin lives at the intersection of art and commerce. We all have art backgrounds, whether it’s design, sculpture or painting, we all have our own skill. The idea was to do things collectively, things larger than ourselves. We found this interesting niche where we were addressing this void in the commercial world, which was coming at things from a different angle.
RM: Where did the name Electric Coffin come from?
PD: A lot of our work is salvaging or recontextualization existing materials. So the idea was the studio was this Frankenstein-type space where it’s electrifying the dead, bringing things back to life. In a sense, the studio was the electric coffin. One of the main ethos has always been recontextualization, not just in the physical sense—it could be design, it could be process. It could be trying to rethink how things have been done. Of course it does show itself in objects, too. We’re always picking up and hunting and searching for objects that we think are interesting.
RM: Yes, your work is very object-heavy. Can you talk a little more about why?
PD: One of the things that really interests us is time and how we exist and how objects exist and the interaction between the two. There’s an inherent beauty not only physically for us, but you know these objects have stories. They’ve been interacted with and engaged with. No matter how hard we try in a studio and whatever techniques we have, we’ll never be able to replicate time. So to be able to embrace it and show the beauty of it, it’s an acknowledgement that it’s less about being battle-worn and more about survival. They’re not scars. They’re marks of pride. We’re just putting our spin on that.
RM: And how does this relate to your current exhibition at Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM), Future Machine?
PD: Celebrating an object for more than just its commodifiable value is something we’re interested in. For example, the second phase of Future Machine was all about the value of an object, specifically the stuffed animals. At one point they were manufactured out of raw materials, sold for a price, then used most likely by a child. They were interacted with, engaged with, taken on adventures, hugged, slept with. Intrinsically, they became more valuable through time and through that interaction. But, as people grow older their value became less to the point they were just given away to Value Village. If you think about it, they are embedded with years and years of true emotion—pure love and joy. And so, is that not worth something? What’s the value of that versus our monetary system? Those are a lot of the conversations we have when we’re recontextualizing an object.
RM: you’ve recently worked a lot with Amazon, the king of consumerism? Do they understand your themes?
PD: I think they do, that’s why they work with us. Even though our installations might be in a restaurant or in Amazon, there tends to be these underlying themes our clients relate to and want to participate in. Also, how can you affect change if you’re not willing to have a dialogue with people you might not agree with?
RM: Do you disagree with some of the philosophies at Amazon?
PD: No, don’t get me wrong, I have a newborn child and I love Amazon. They have a bunch of great systems put into place. And I embrace the fact that things are changing, evolving. One of the things we’ve talked a lot about is that in a sense they are pushing out mediocrity. If you’re going to have a store, if you’re going to sell something, you have to do it really well or be very efficient, because the bar of expectation from consumers has been raised. They are forcing people to better themselves. So I don’t personally have any angst towards them, but again it goes back to if you’re not willing to engage and participate in dialogue, how can you affect change?
RM: What’s the biggest difference in working with BAM versus your corporate clients?
PD: Working with BAM has been great. Typically, we’re in more of the commercial world and we’re bringing all the tools from the art world into that space. It’s been interesting to flip flop that. Now, we’re at an art institution creating art that doesn’t
have to have compromise and client parameters. We’re allowed to explore and be creative without the inhibitions of client work.
RM: Has a blank canvas been more intimidating?
PD: Yes, there’s always a bit more pressure when you can do whatever you want. It’s been a great opportunity to really develop an idea from the beginning and nurture it to fruition. This is a little different than when we get a design prompt from a client. The show has been nine months, which is a long
time, but something that is an opportunity for us. We wanted to do something that wasn’t just a static installation that we delivered to the museum and stays the same over the course of the exhibition. The process is indicative of how we work and our process.
RM: We briefly touched on it, but can you explain a little more about the purpose of Future Machine?
PD: When we were approached by Jennifer, the curator at BAM, the stipulations were two-fold. It had to be semi-autobiographical and portray the story of the studio. And she wanted it to be craft-based.
RM: And what did that produce?
PD: Future Machine is a metaphor. It’s a machine, which is a set of systems that creates an outcome. Within a system are parameters. And there are three guidelines, or parameters, we wanted to express, three ideas from our studio: unconventional collaboration, an art filter, and non-linear thinking. The questions we posed through the process, through this machine, were: What will we create? How will it affect humanity? And we’re really talking about technology.
RM: What’s in store for the future of Electric Coffin?
PD: The last phase of the Future Machine is all digital technology. We’re working with Microsoft and a digital studio outside of Vancouver called Tangible Interaction. The whole show is culminating with a video, and we have plans for a whole aftermath once it leaves the museum. We’re also working with a developer and the The Seattle Times landmark building. We’d love to do more in a public space. We’re meeting with the city about some stuff downtown and want to get more into the public sector. Just things for the community.