Rotten Sun: An Interview With Belgian Musician and Artist Joris Van de Moortel

Joris Van de Moortel, 31, has intrusive bluish-gray eyes. They are unsettling; despite the subdued kindness that surrounds them. Looking in to them one realizes Moortel doesn’t see the same boundaries most of us do, the boundaries that most of us construct our lives around.

Moortel smashes, sometimes literally, the line between art and music. He is both musician and artist and the two feed off one another. Moortel makes mixed media pieces that often incorporate elements of his musical performances; a guitar he smashed on stage the night before, panels from a stage he played on. Sometimes the work comes after a performance; sometimes it’s made during.

The Belgian artist wriggled his way in to art school at 12 years old when he started following a friend’s father to night classes. Moortel graduated from the Higher Institute of Fine Art in Ghent Belgium in 2009. In his early 20’s Moortel sold his first piece through a gallery in Belgium. From that point on he devoted himself entirely to his work. Most everything in Moortel’s world is about simultaneity. At the same time that he was a child drawing nudes he taught himself to play the harmonica, guitar, bass and keys. At the same time that he began selling artwork he was performing in solo shows and with a variety of bands throughout Europe. At the same time that he became an artist he became a rocker.

Moortel stole the spotlight of the European art scene in 2012 when he had his first solo show at the Le Transpalette art center in Bourges, France. In 2014 he performed in an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris titled “Don’t Know You’re Gonna Mess Up the Carpet,’ in which he stood atop a tube with a drummer inside and conducted a mind-bending rock performance involving video screens and neon lights.  Moortel had his ‘coming out’ in the American art world this December at Art Basel Miami where he had his first solo exhibition in the US through the Denis Gardarin Gallery. Days before he had an exhibition open at the Contemporary Art Center of Wargem in Belgium. Next he is off to Madrid for a solo show at the Galerie Nathalie Obadia. In May he’ll come to New York for Frieze art fair. In between he sneaks back to Antwerp to spend time with his young children and maybe get around to cleaning his studio.

SCOUTMACEACHRON: Tell me about your Art Basel exhibition?

JORIS VAN DE MOORTEL: During the making of this exhibition I was also working on a big museum solo show in Belgium which opened the day before I left for Miami. There’s a lot of overlap between those two exhibitions. Like the installation here [gestures to house-like structure]; the one in Belgium is the size of this area [gestures to entire exhibition space]. It’s huge. The drawings in this exhibition are related to the one in Belgium; one is related to a CD recording I did and the other is related to a solo vinyl I did.

MACEACHRON: When you say related to, what do you mean by that?

MOORTEL: This part of the work is part of the exhibition in Belgium but it’s much bigger with real actual speakers that work. These [Gestures to artwork] are casted speakers in resin. All the works here are muted. Nothing makes any sound anymore. These pieces, the back of this piece [Gestures to artwork] also contains speakers but it’s muted. Most of my pieces come from performances. Like this one is part of a stage from a performance I did in Belgium, Singapore and Paris. It is just one part of twelve panels that made up the whole stage. I sprayed it white with an air press gun. And the last one I did was a collaboration with the designers A.F. Vandevorst for a fashion show in Paris. This piece contains elements of the performance; part of the coat I was wearing, speakers, the effects I’m using, neon which is running through the piece.

MACEACHRON: When and why did you start incorporating these objects that are a part of your life, a part of your performances, in to your work?

MOORTEL: I don’t think about it in that kind of sense. I mean it’s all part of the studio. My studio is on the one hand a music studio but sometimes it’s more. At times I’m busy with music and then it shifts. All my wood, all my materials are there; the welding machines, the steel, the aluminum, the cast materials. It’s all in one studio. The performances play a part also, it really depends. Sometimes [the performances] come first and the sculptures come after. Sometimes it’s a part of it from the beginning. Sometimes the work is made during the performance.

MACEACHRON: Tell me about your musical background?

MOORTEL: It goes from age ten or twelve. That was the first time I really hit music, not only listening to it but that was the moment it really becomes important. Then of course I immediately wanted to play it myself but I never wanted to or didn’t take the time or wasn’t patient enough to take classes. Friends of mine did. I started out with the mouth harp and guitar, bass guitar.

MACEACHRON : Did you teach yourself?

MOORTEL: Yeah and friends taught me things. It took quite a few years. Now I play in quite a few bands. For me it’s hard to say something like or hear, “oh you’re a good guitar player, you’re a good bass player.” I would never consider myself like that because I’m not an academic, I didn’t study it. I collaborate with a lot of other musicians. Now I play guitar, sometimes the keys and sometimes also bass guitar in one specific band.

MACEACHRON: Do you remember what music you listened to when you were ten or twelve years old?

MOORTEL: The Doors.

MACEACHRON: Any particular album?

MOORTEL: All of them on vinyl, all of them on CD. I had t-shirts. I had a vest with Jim Morrison on the back. Had I been allowed to get a tattoo at age of fourteen in Belgium I would have had Jim Morrison on my back. I was completely, completely in to that. Also a lot of sixties and seventies music from San Francisco and LA. Then Velvet Underground, the New York scene. Patti Smith, Ramones. All very sixties and seventies.

MACEACHRON: Wow, advanced for a ten-year-old.

MOORTEL: [Laughs] Yeah, I know.

MACEACHRON: Did you go to art school?

MOORTEL: Yeah, when I think about it that’s why I didn’t want to study music. I started when I was twelve. A friend of mine, her father was going to an art school during the evenings and weekends. He was studying sculpture and had a sculpture studio. I asked, “please, could I join you, could you teach me?” It wasn’t really allowed until you’re eighteen but I said, “I really want to.” So I started drawing nude models for years. It was a lot of clay and plaster. I started welding at that age. I kept doing that until I was fifteen and then I went to an art school. I kept going to the other school as well. So that was my only occupation, drawing a lot of nude models, clay studies and painting.

MACEACHRON: So you weren’t studying normal school subjects at all?

MOORTEL: In Belgium you can go to an art school from when you’re fourteen. You get regular classes like math and language and everything but reduced in a way. Your focus is on art. Then I kept on going to art school for high school. When I went to University it was also art school.

MACEACHRON: The type of work you make now, how did that evolve from drawing nudes?

MOORTEL: Well you have all those study years. The way of working is only a growing thing. When you grow up as a human being it’s the same kind of thing I think. A major shift was around twenty, twenty-two when I started building installations. The first exhibitions were mainly installations, not really focused on sculptures or wall pieces or paintings. And then this took over again, by making sculptures again in to what I’m doing now. But it depends on museum shows and institutions. It’s all part of the same thing but you show a different chapter of something.

MACEACHRON: What’s your process like when you’re creating? What’s your studio like?


MACEACHRON: [Laughs] Do you sit around and think about things or do they just come to you? [Joris walks away and returns with glasses of water for us both.] Do you know something is going to be in your work when you see it?

MOORTEL: Like certain elements or parts?

MACEACHRON : Yeah, how do you get from nothing to that [point to one of his artworks]?

MOORTEL: Most of the, for example the basis of this kind of piece they come from really big installations. So the frame is already there some how. Like this frame was apart of the stage. So the frame is there. And it wasn’t the intent, I mean those frames I didn’t use them for two years after the performance. Also with these [gestures to artwork] they traveled from my show in the Netherlands in a museum then to Berlin then to Paris and then back to studio. I almost wanted to throw them away but I kept them for some reason and then they were the first pieces for a gallery show I was working on at Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Brussels. They got really well received. From one thing comes another. A lot of pieces travel from show to show and don’t get sold and then eventually they end up in another piece. Mostly the moment it gets sold that’s where it leaves me so I can’t redo it or whatever. When pieces come back to the studio they don’t leave out the same way.

MACEACHRON: So everything is constantly evolving, including yourself, I suppose that’s the nature of art. Did you go through a starving artist phase or were you successful from a young age?

MOORTEL: I always had jobs and worked. I was self-employed quite often.

MACEACHRON: What kinds of jobs?

MOORTEL: Record stores, bars. That was only when I was in art school because I didn’t finish it. I did two residencies but I didn’t finish with any degree. At twenty or twenty-four I started working with my first gallery in Belgium. It worked out from the first moment. I did one really huge piece for the gallery show and it was sold. I could make a living off that for almost two years. So then I became self-employed.

MACEACHRON: It sounds like most of your work is much larger than what’s here at Basel.

MOORTEL: Yeah, there’s always a balance with these kinds of things. But this presentation is what the gallery shows look like.

MACEACHRON: Speaking of galleries, how did you connect with the Denis Gardarin gallery?

MOORTEL: It is the first time we’ve worked together but it’s been going very well. They’re really working hard. We’re almost sold out so it’s moving. Also in terms of audience they’re all American collectors. They didn’t know me before so they’re responsive and very… I’m really surprised in a way. I came here thinking, “oh this will go fine.” I wasn’t worried but I also didn’t expect anything. But American collectors are like, ‘oh this is great, I’ll get it.’ That doesn’t happen in Europe. People come back. Even collectors who have five pieces say ‘oh let me think about it, can you put it on hold for a week?’ This doesn’t happen in Europe.

MACEACHRON: Americans just go for it. So you’ve sold some pieces so far, everything?

MOORTEL: Basically everything yeah. I mean there are a few left but most have sold.

MACEACHRON: This is your first solo show in the US right?

MOORTEL: Yeah, I was in the Armory show before but that was five years ago so the work was kinda different. Something like this it’s the first time.

MACEACHRON: This is an incredibly vague question so answer however you like. What differences do you see in the art world in Belgium/Europe and the states?

MOORTEL: I think with all these fairs… it’s the same as shopping for clothes for instance. Ten years ago you didn’t have the shops in Belgium that you had in New York. But now you have H&M, whatever, Zara, that took away the exotic kind of thing. The art fairs took away some of the exotic things. You don’t have to discover in Europe European artists. You’ll have to go to Brussels, Antwerp to discover… well we’re talking about me, to discover me because I’m in a European art fair or gallery. So in a way that generalized and made it easier to go around, which in a way is a good thing because there’s so much going on. You need those art fairs to actually see something because you can’t go all over the world all of the time. A lot of things have changed through the years. The world population has multiplied by three or four. So also the art world is growing. In the sixties and seventies it was way different, there were less artists because there were less people on the planet.

MACEACHRON: This is another vague question but what inspires you? Other artists? A feeling?

MOORTEL:  It depends. It’s come from so many different angles. It’s music, the work itself—looking back at pieces you did years ago or even last year—things you read. I’m always reading multiple things at the same time. I’ve been absorbed by Albert Camus again, his essays on Kafka. George Bataille, his essay “Rotten Sun” is the title of the exhibition. It comes from many different angles. I don’t have a specific sort of… there’s a certain pattern or a wave of making things and then there are times that I go to the studio but don’t do much. I read, I play some music. And then there are times when you don’t have time to because you’re really making work. It’s always in that kind of wave. In times, for me it works to go to the same places over and over. Like next week I will hang out in one coffee bar where I get in to that rhythm of reading, writing, reading, writing, reading, writing. I don’t have time for that when I’m working in the studio. Then the next project is in Madrid so I have to work on that again. It will go in a wave of thinking about what I have to do then doing it.

MACEACHRON: What’s your process like in a physical sense? Are you regimented, do you get up very early, do you stay up all night, do you drink bourbon?

MOORTEL: I have two kids. I’m not really a… I used to drink a lot but I don’t like alcohol anymore.

MACEACHRON: Do you think it changed you at all as an artist?

MOORTEL: Um, you’re dealing differently with time. The concept of time is completely vague when you don’t have kids, when you don’t have a job because as an artist you don’t have a real job. You don’t have limits on time; you don’t have to wake up, you don’t have to go to sleep, you don’t have to do anything you just have to… you have you’re deadlines but it’s really vague. Of course you work a lot but it’s not, you don’t need an alarm clock or anything. With kids you also don’t need an alarm clock because they wake you. It makes you go to bed earlier, it makes you drink a lot more coffee, it makes you drink less alcohol, it makes you go out less—so all the good stuff.

MACEACHRON: What do your children think of their dad being an artist? I know they’re young.

MOORTEL: When I Skype with them they’re more interested in the food I’m getting here than what I’m actually doing out here. But no they really enjoy it when they come in the studio, it’s opposite the house. The six year-old likes to draw, she likes guitar and noisy stuff. Last time she was in the studio she said, “Daddy, there’s so much stuff out here I really need to help you to get some order in here. I really should help you make your stuff.”

MACEACHRON ; My goodness that’s pretty cute.

MOORTEL: Yeah it was really sweet. It was really honest. Like, “there’s so much stuff out here.”

MACEACHRON: That is sweet. Are there any installations or pieces that mean more to you than others, perhaps a defining moment in the process?

MOORTEL: In a way a piece like this comes from a specific installation, which really means a lot to me. The piece is like a proper extraction from that so it’s a direct storyline for a piece like this. There are many more angles and stories for a piece like this. When you start talking about it it’s like “this comes from there and this comes form there.” But I always work within the concept of an exhibition, like a solo show, even if it’s only a fair booth. They’re all connected somehow to each other. Ideally, when you talk in terms of collection they should get this and install it like this but I’m not thinking like that because it should be how it was conceived and how it’s made in a way.

MACEACHRON: You mean all the works here should be displayed together?

MOORTEL: Yeah, but it’s also a nice idea that everything goes. They come from a different angle, different sources, they come together at one point and then they leave each other. That’s also beautiful.

MACEACHRON: Where are you going next?

MOORTEL: Hoboken, it’s a part of Antwerp. Next up is Madrid. Then New York in May for Frieze. Then Paris, Vienna, Belgium.

MACEACHRON : How long do you get to be home and see your family?

MOORTEL: Oh as much as I can.

You can catch Joris Van de Moortel's solo exhibition "Ça vous intéresse l'architecture? Botanics of sound in which wires get crossed and play with the rythmic structure" on view now until January 31, 2016 at BE-PART in Waregem, Belgium. text, interview and photographs by Scout MacEachron. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE

Getting Afreaky: An Interview With Nikolai and Simon Haas of the Haas Brothers

The Haas brothers seem like mystical ambassadors from the future. However, they are not here to portend of doom and gloom, like the current headlines may lead you to predict. Indeed, the future looks pretty bright according to Nikolai and Simon Haas – fraternal twins who make high-end sculptural objects that only the very lucky can afford, but are almost talismanic in their complexity and humorous in their intentional simplicity. The materials the brothers use mimic natural and rare phenomena in nature. This gives their work a sexual energy that takes phallic and vaginal forms, replete with folds and shafts and rounded curves that could make the prudish contingent quite sensitive. Put the work together and it looks like a combination of Maurice Sendak's menagerie of Wild Things and Dr. Seuss on too many tabs of acid. 

If you visit the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, you can see some of their drawings on the walls of the Chapter Restaurant; next to the lobby. Portraits of Roman Polanski are juxtaposed next to chubby line-drawn creatures holding cocktail glasses – Nikolai’s work is more cartoonish, one dimensional and comical, while Simon’s work is more realistic, detailed and has more perspective. It’s a perfect way to experience their work on an individual scale. But it is when they bring their styles together that the real magic happens. Simon comes from a much more logical perspective, while Niki is much more laid back, creating an incredibly powerful dynamic. 

Over the last couple of years, the Haas brothers have been riding high on a wave of popularity – a collaboration with Donatella Versace took their works straight to the gilded living rooms of the fashion and design world. Solo exhibitions in New York have made them darlings in the art world. However, the proverbial wave crashed when they were on a private jet heading back to LA from an exhibition of their work in Miami.  

To fill their souls again, they have been working with a group of bead artists located in a township outside of Cape Town, in South Africa, who call themselves the "Haas Sisters." This week at Design Miami, the brothers will be premiering works from this collaboration, entitled Afreaks, which include colorful four legged creatures in varying sizes and large psychedelic mushrooms – more examples of the Haas Brothers, and now Sisters, goal to spread positive vibes. The work will also be on view this February at Cooper Hewitt's Design Triennial. 

In the following interview, we talk to the Haas Brothers about their craft, their collaborative relationship, the sexual overtones of their work and how a trip to Africa changed everything. 

AUTRE: When did you first start collaborating artistically together? Was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to make this happen together?

NIKOLAI: My first remembrance of doing stuff together was when we wanted to make these machines. There was a popular artist at the time who made these rolling ball sculptures. We saw that as kids, and we wanted to make this machine in the backyard. We were about 3 or 4.

SIMON: Our very first collaboration started in 2007. He was in a band with Vincent Gallo, and they were touring. I was in school, and they called me and asked me to tour with them. I dropped out and drove to LA to join them.

NIKOLAI: That was our first professional collaboration.

SIMON: Then a friend of ours offered Niki this construction job in 2010, and he asked me to do it with him. We rented a studio downtown. Basically, that’s when we knew that we were going to be working together always. We actually had a conversation about it. We rented that shop, and we didn’t know what to do.

NICKOLAI: In this conversation, we were asking ourselves, “What are we starting a business for?” We just want to work for ourselves and do our own thing. I don’t think we said it explicitly at the time, but we knew we were dedicated just to being happy people. That was the spirit of what was going on. I remember when we sat down and talked about what we were going to achieve, that was the number one thing—being happy, and trying to spread that in our community. Not just the people who we were working with in the studio, but also in the communities outside of the studio, the LA community.

AUTRE: And the rest of the world as well?

NIKI: Yeah, as much as possible. We have a community in Miami now because we go there all the time. We have a community in Europe because we go there all the time. The whole point is to be happy.

AUTRE: When you collaborate on a piece together, where does it start? Is there a brainstorming session?

NIKI: It’s different every time. I think our most explicitly collaborative moments are when we have to sit down and conceive new shows together. On single pieces, we’re collaborating all the time—asking each other questions as we go. Simon’s always working on the philosophy and the deeper meaning behind the work, and he’s always thinking about how the work can change. I’m kind of doing more brutish work, like sculpting or sketching cartoons.

SIMON: He’s the maker, and I’m just testing stuff all the time. I’m a fanatic; I’m a materials person. The way we collaborate is Niki gives life to these processes, and I give him materials to work with. And we always talk about all of it the entire time. Also, as twins, we’re on the same track.

NIKI: It’s not just the conception of the piece. The collaboration doesn’t stop. The African project is such a good example. The actual objects themselves are just a result of the real important part of the project, which is the philosophy of the book. Hopefully people read it. That’s the kind of project that people will put in history books if they read what Simon has written.

SIMON: It’s basically a feminist, white privilege project that’s wrapped up into something consumable and pretty. That’s the thing—our audience is the 1%. We’re delivering things to them to make them think. It’s not something they would necessarily pick up on the shelf. We get to put this stuff in there to kind of figure out later. We talk about ourselves as entering more into philosophy in that way.

AUTRE: That’s really interesting. My next question was about luxury and the definition of luxury.

NIKI: To be honest, most people who are living luxurious lives have pretty bad situations. There’s something about wealth where it gets to a certain level, and it starts to dehumanize the person. They perceive themselves as an odd commodity, even though they trust themselves more than anyone else. Luxury, honestly, is being as happy as you possibly can be. There’s a sweet spot where you have enough to support what you want to do. At the same time, you are loose enough that you can say, “Fuck this.” If you have to get work, if you have to write contracts—even if you’re making thousands of dollars, it’s not all that luxurious. You’re under your own thumb.

SIMON: Luxury as people understand it is almost like a prison. You go to basically the same hotels and the same restaurants in every country in the world. Someone who is living luxuriously is having the same experience everywhere. You’re getting the Vegas experience all over the world.

NIKI: The Hollywood hotel, the concierge that takes care of everything for you. If we had gone to Cape Town in the luxurious way, we would have been taking crazy advantage of black people. We would have been ignoring the entire context of the point of being there. We would have barred ourselves from doing this project. 

AUTRE: Luxury, in a sense, can also mean the freedom to be creative.

NIKI: We have the luxury to do whatever we want. That’s what I’m looking for. The luxury to allow ourselves to be happy. We want to be curious all the time, and we want to explore that curiosity. That’s the luxury we’re after.

AUTRE: You have the capability to work in this small format, and then you can explore all those ideas that were in your head.

NIKI: We talked about supporting our community. We were telling kids that the guy that hired us for this first time said, “Hey, I’m giving you the ability to start expressing yourself.” That’s how we started making our stuff. Later on, our gallery said, “Hey, make whatever you want.” That was a big moment for us. We weren’t making anything cool before that really. Money and space doesn’t make you very happy. I would actually say I was just as happy when I was 18 years old and broke.

AUTRE: I want to talk about sexuality, because that’s a major part of your work, especially in your drawings.

NIKI: The sexuality, to me, is just the reality of being a person. Everybody thinks about sex. Everybody has sexual organs. It does occur a lot in the sketches in particular. In the rest of our work, it appears about as often as it does in everyday life. You see yourself clothed, and then at the end of the day, you’re naked looking at your own dick. The way that I push sexuality in the cartoons and the way I use it in art work (like the sex room we made a couple of Basels ago), the point is to make it seem like less of a shock. It is simply an innocent expression if it’s done well. Obviously, if not, it can be oppressive. It’s all happiness. It’s an extension of being a person. The point of using it in our work is the idea of leveling the playing field. 

SIMON: It’s so positive. Tom of Finland was more centered on the erotic. The idea behind this is positivity. There’s a very positive message. Beyond that, we focus a lot on animals too. Animals and sex are really common themes throughout history, design, and art (which were the same things until recently). We feel like it’s a natural interest. It’s what’s around us. To exclude it from the work is almost weirder. I was in drawing classes at RISD, and there would be people doing life drawing classes who would leave out the penis. That creeps me out. Showing it is not creepy. Taking it out, showing me your thought process, is kind of creepy.

AUTRE: There’s so much shame attached to sexuality in our culture.

NIKI: We are vehemently anti-shame. That’s one of the pillars that Simon set up for our ethos very early on. Any time we sit down to do a piece of work or a show, we make sure to follow these guidelines we made for our studio.

SIMON: The first few sexual pieces, people would come up to us and say, “Oh my god, you can’t show that.” That’s shaming. We’re not going to listen to them. It’s because of their own discomfort. We made a piece for Basel about sex and shame. People would enter through this giant vagina. We like to get people to consider their own thought processes as they’re experiencing these things. I think it’s important.

AUTRE: It is important. There is a lot of censorship going on these days, like with Instagram.

SIMON: The fact that you can’t show nipples on Instagram pisses me off. The nipple can’t be free; that’s so stupid.

NIKI: We’re not trying to be shocking when we talk about sexuality. People think we’re sensationalist and shocking, but really we’re just expressing what we think.

AUTRE: Do you ever have creative disagreements? How do you resolve them?

SIMON: We have, though it’s kind of rare. We had a big fight in Cape Town, but that wasn’t creative.

NIKI: Talking to each other creatively, we take each other seriously. If Simon doesn’t like something I’m coming up with, or if I don’t like something he’s coming up with, we just try to explore it with each other. You probably have a point, let’s find what it is. Our creative fluidity is beyond good.

SIMON: In school, I had critiques by some teachers who had chips on their shoulders. It was so obvious. They will give shaming critiques of work. We don’t do that to each other. It stunts your creative growth so much. We understand that if one of us shits on the other one’s piece, he’ll stop exploring it and be afraid to do it. I know that his output is going to be incredible, so I have to trust it, and vice versa. The biggest fight we had was in Cape Town, and it came only because we were both going through so much. We’d been riding this crazy high from getting pretty successful pretty fast, and it kind of hit us. When we were in Cape Town and working with these women who had so little, it was like, “What am I doing?” Both of us were going through internal turmoil, which caused us to have a big fight.

NIKI: There were also a bunch of reasons why we had to flesh things out. After the fight, it ended up so much better. It was so worth it. That was the first time we ever had a fight. It’s crazy. Literally, if you talk about the moment before we went to Africa, we had our first solo show in New York. It was met with tremendous success; we sold everything.

AUTRE: Was that R & Company?

NIKI: Yeah. We were hanging out with collectors and all that bullshit. We were staying at a friend’s penthouse. We were taking ecstasy and listening to soul music, and it was so fun. I don’t feel bad for doing it at all; it was unbelievable. But then we go from this moment of complete pleasure and excess to being dumped in Kairicha. We set that up for ourselves, but it was a good reality check. Fuck. Who gives a shit about what we just did? I was proud that we did that, we worked really fucking hard. But we’re young white men. We grew up knowing A-list celebrities. Half of this, whether we like it or not, was handed to us. Suddenly we're working with black women in Kairicha where black people still don’t have the same rights, they are not being given any chances. When we came into the picture, we did a small fair in South Africa, it was the first time they had ever been to the town’s center. That was the first time they got to go to a fancy event.

SIMON: And the crowd that came in was shocked that they were all in there, and as the artists especially. It was really cool.

NIKI: People say it’s not racist in South Africa, but then you try to take them all out to a sushi restaurant, and you can’t do it.

AUTRE: It seems embedded.

SIMON: They’re like, how about going to KFC and going to the top of the hill instead? We actually wound up doing that, and there were people taking photos of us. It was so bizarre.

NIKI: You have to realize, though, that that’s how these people grew up. That’s what it’s like in South Africa, white or black. The whole black community has its own issues with intolerance too. They’re super intolerant with gay people. It’s all fucked up. What we have to understand is that everyone growing up there has grown up with a certain social structure. The idea of ignorance really comes into play. Culturally, people were brought up in an ignorant way. We want people to understand that you don’t want to isolate people you’re hoping to change. If you do that, nothing’s going to happen. And everybody, as evil as they may seem (and I don’t even believe in the idea of evil), nobody is actually evil. Everyone is a person deep down inside. Whatever it is that they’re reacting to, if they’re acting in a way that’s full of shit, like demeaning a person because of their skin color—I believe that they are fully capable of dropping that. It takes time. I think that the Internet is the biggest purge of that of all time. All of a sudden, nobody on the Internet community seems tolerant of homophobia or racism. As a mirror of society, you see society not willing to tolerate that anymore. The Internet touches about 80% of their lives. That’s great. They all have cell phones and listen to Beyoncé and One Direction. But the thing is, Beyoncé is not homophobic or racist. When you have idols that are being put in front of people like that, it’s only a matter of time before it melts away. In fact, anybody who is younger than us is not an issue. You just have to wait for the old people to die away. Although, I’m sure there are some people carrying the torch who are younger.

AUTRE: A lot of people don’t get that reality check. They go to the developing world, but there’s no reality check.

SIMON: You turn into a monster. I felt myself turning into a sharky monster before we went to Cape Town. I was noticing changes in my behavior. Like, I was totally okay with being an asshole to somebody. That’s not like me, and it started to bother me a lot. Thank god we went to Cape Town; it hit us so hard. I remember, right after Cape Town, we went to Miami. We wound up in a G7 flying back here, and I could not enjoy myself. It felt brutal.

NIKI: These pieces of art are selling for thousands of dollars. At some point, it’s too much money. Nothing is worth that much. I know some of our stuff is stupid expensive. But the point is that it’s feeding something much bigger. We’re trying to bring it back to the community.

AUTRE: With you guys, there’s craftsmanship.

SIMON: There are definitely reasons why our stuff is expensive.

NIKI: If there’s an art piece that has historical value, but all that’s happening with it is the piece being taken and used as a commodity. It’s dehumanizing. It’s been moved around in the market with a shitload of money on it. No one needs something that costs that much.

AUTRE: How did the project in Africa come about?

SIMON: Cape Town was named world design capital, and we went for a fair to show some of our pieces. When we got there, we were being tourists looking for art in South Africa, where everything is totally whitewashed. We went to this craft fair, and there was this booth with really cool beaded animals. The woman in the booth was so fascinating and cool and making these beautiful pieces. We just loved her and her story. The booth is called Monkey Biz. On each piece, they have a tag with the name of the woman who made it. We thought that was amazing, because that doesn’t happen very often. It’s a small thing, but it’s actually a really big thing. That’s what got us to want to start doing it. We had this whole penpal exchange with this woman—Montepelo—and her team for about a year, and she really wanted us to come. We showed up and started working with them. They were all afraid of working with us, actually. They’re used to being treated poorly. As soon as they realized we weren’t on that track, it became this really awesome community building experience.

AUTRE: When will those pieces be shown?

SIMON: In December. December 4th.

AUTRE: So that’s your next major project?

NIKI: Yes. And we have another show in February.

SIMON: The theme is beauty.

NIKI: We’re trying to transgress beauty. We’re trying to get rid of our exclusive authorship.

SIMON: Jeff Koons would never name all the fabricators that worked on his project. That’s what we’re trying to transgress. I think it’s kind of cool.

AUTRE: Design and fine art—where is that line?

SIMON: The line is the people who are going to make money off of it. It’s completely commercial. Also, the word “design” is completely Western and very modern. There was never a distinction between the two until recently in our culture. It’s so location and time based that we find it to be gross. We don’t really make that distinction.

NIKI: At the same time, we’re proud to be a part of what’s considered the design community. The truth is, we’re just doing what we do. No labels, man.

SIMON: We rose up through the design world, but we are contentious there. As our stuff is being thought of more as art, the design fair has tried to push us out. Art Basel and Design Miami are the same thing, but they don’t know what side our work should be on.

NIKI: Design Miami has been trying to push us out because we’re “art.”

SIMON: That actually happened with this Cape Town project. We had to appeal and fight for the right to get into it. They told our gallery that they couldn’t show it unless they had us in that booth.

NIKI: The design line exists only in the eyes of the people of commerce.

AUTRE: What do you think will change things?

NIKI: It’s already happening. The Internet, again, is leveling everything. Hashtags have become more important than library cardstock. The way that people think about design now is like library cardstock. The hashtag is going to take over. People in our generation don’t give a shit. People who are old have dedicated time to a certain way of life, and they’re really resistant to changing that way of life. But the truth is, they’re old, and they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

SIMON: The reason why it hasn’t already changed is literally money, government, etc. But that will go away, and it will all be much chiller. It’s clear from looking at the Internet what’s going to happen. Growing up gay in Texas, I saw very few people who were out in the public eye. The best I could get was Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on TV. Now, on the Internet, you can see whatever you want. Everything is going to change.

You can see the Haas Brothers' "Afreaks" this week at the R & Company booth at Design Miami opening on December 2nd. You will also be able to see the work at Cooper Hewitt's Design Triennial, which will open on February 12, 2016 and will run until August 21, 2016. Purchase the "Afreaks" book here. text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper and Summer Bowie. photographs by Sara Clarken