Artist Brothers Icy & Sot Discuss their Global Perspective on Producing Socially Engaged Artwork
November 18, 2019
In November, our senior editor Laura Staugaitis met multidisciplinary artists Icy and Sot at their studio in Queens. The Iranian-born brothers use their platform to raise awareness about social issues.
NB The conversation was with both siblings; because the duo work and think very closely and collaboratively—often finishing each other’s sentences—the interview responses reflect their unified voice.
Laura: Have you been working collaboratively your whole lives, before you are who you are now? Or was there a point at which you decided, “let’s try working together and see how this goes”?
Icy + Sot: At the very beginning as artists, we worked separately, but our whole lives, because we have five years between us, I [Sot] kind of started everything younger because I was trying to keep up with my older brother. Getting started were were doing similar things like writing graffiti and making stickers. We used to have two separate Flickr pages, one for Icy and one for Sot. In 2010 we decided to make a website together, icyandsot.com. We had our own different tags, but we were always working together anyway, we decided to become Icy + Sot.
Laura: Did you grow up in a creative household?
I + S: No, we grew up in a normal middle-class household. Our dad worked in an office and our mom was a housewife. We had a normal, simple life. But we were the wild ones. We weren’t the good kids. We were always in the streets, never home.
Most of our cousins are educated and everything, but we weren’t the ones bragged about at family parties. And that affected our parents, telling people we weren’t going to University, and seeing us spending all our money on spray paint. We didn’t have a studio growing up, so we painted in our bedroom. But they supported us and saw that this was what we wanted to do. They supported us moving to the U.S. And now our parents like anything anyone posts of our work on social media. And they follow other artists, too, and keep up with the street art scene.
We had some support from high school teachers, as we had a good art program. But others were like, “You’re painting walls? No.” But then they started to see us showing in galleries and in the U.S. and so started to take us seriously.
Laura: Can you talk about your anonymity, and when and why you decided to not be sharing who you are personally?
I + S: We started in Iran and everything we were doing was illegal and underground, so we couldn’t use our real names, of course. We never used to show pictures of ourselves when we lived in Iran, but now that we live in the U.S. it’s not a problem. We’ve done video interviews… and we’ve thought about moving away from the pseudonym, but it’s hard! How do you have two names? Plus, our last name is difficult. When we meet people in person, we introduce ourselves with our given names. But in the art world, we go by Icy + Sot.
Laura: Do you work together on everything? Can you talk about how you work and think together?
I + S: Everything. We brainstorm together, talk together about ideas, we work together. Everything. All the processes are together. We start somewhere and work together to build it up.
It helps going back and forth with our ideas, and maybe something different comes from it. We do experiments. Sometimes they’re not good. You do work that’s not good, and from there you get somewhere else that’s better.— Icy + Sot
It helps going back and forth with our ideas, maybe find something different comes from it. We do experiments. Sometimes they’re not good. You do work that’s not good, and from there you get somewhere else that’s better. Physically working on some tasks is faster. We actually do have some tools that are so big that you need two people to operate it.
Laura: What’s the balance of gallery work vs. installation work that you’re doing these days?
I + S: We do both—we have two shows coming up and we usually don’t do two in a row, but we wanted to show the new things we’ve been doing. People are used to seeing completely different work in the gallery from us. But after these shows, we probably won’t do another one for a couple years, and focus more on outdoor installations and public works, and interventions in different cities. When we are active outdoors, we also come to the studio to experiment and do new things.
Doing legally public work is really hard. It takes a lot of time, with the permissions. We’ve done some temporary installations that are up for a month, or three months. We’ve been working on a permanent installation in Lisbon for 8 months, but they’re still getting the location pinned down.
Laura: I’m curious to know how the location or community you’re working in informs your work? Whether it does, or that you are global nomads and not working in a specific community.
I + S: Six years ago we started traveling. It was nice to meet new people, new artists, new conversations, and seeing the art scene in different cities gives you inspiration. That’s helped us to grow and change, to be open and explore more things. In Europe, artists do different kinds of interventions. Every time we’re traveling it helps with our work in the way we think about our work and our trajectory.
Laura: Do you find that people perceive your work differently in different places?
I + S: Yes, we feel like more people respond to our work in Europe than here in the U.S. With feedback from fans and followers, they are more connected with what’s going on in the world. They care more about what’s going on in the world, about the refugee crisis, about different things. The Americans, they live their lives and just want to be successful and not really think about others. There’s a lot of issues here but they’ve just become so normalized.
Laura: You work across a lot of different media and use a wide range of techniques. Do you approach concept or medium first?
I + S: The shovel portraits started because we saw some rusty shovels at an antique shop that we passed by every day. And with the painted portraits, we bought a spackler and cut it, and painted with it. We liked the effect, so we made an even bigger one that requires both of us to operate.
In our last studio space, somebody left out a scrap piece of a fence, and we saw it and brought it to our studio—we use found objects a lot. It was just sitting in the studio for a long time, and we came up with this idea. The first piece we did was the cut out refugee sign with the additional barbed wire. And we’ve continued to work with fences as it has continued to be relevant to what’s going on. We’ve made pieces about refugees and immigration, but also more conceptual ideas about mental escape.
The refugee crises are still insane. Now it’s winter and there are so many people without shelter. In Greece [where the brothers worked with the community this summer] it’s going to get really cold.
Laura: Have you kept in touch with them?
I + S: We are friends with some of the residents. We see their posts on Instagram and sometimes we talk and send messages. It’s been really bad the last few months, similar to 2015, around when the EU borders were closed. So many people were arriving every day and not having any tent or any place to sleep. People are donating yoga mats and tarps and tents and pallets. That’s how people will survive winter. And summer was really hot, too. People are living in a tent with family and kids. Some people have lived there for two years living in a tent.
When the borders closed, people stopped getting access to basic benefits. They are basically paying Greece and Turkey to keep them because they don’t want more. It’s not that they can everybody, but if they go equally, everywhere, to all 27 European countries, but there’s a lot of countries that never accept refugees. Iran used to get a lot of refugees from Afghanistan, people who lived there for more than a decade, but now they are leaving because the economy is really bad.
Laura: Where does your desire to be addressing social issues come from? Is that just part of your character personally? Or is that something that artists have an obligation to be addressing?
I + S: I think it started with growing up in Iran and making work—not even political work—and it would get painted over. So then we started to make work about censorship. And child labor: in Iran we used to see a lot of kids on the street selling stuff at ten years old. And we’ve continued to make this kind of work, to talk about it. The things we experienced or that were happening around us in that environment. We were being censored and they would paint over our pieces. So the next day we would come back and do it again. That didn’t stop us, we just wanted to continue.
We didn’t start as artists. This has just happened, and naturally continued and evolved. Living here, we’re making work about more international things or about the U.S. We don’t make so much work about Iran anymore, because we have family there, and also because it’s not our lived experience anymore. We live in this freedom now.
“As an artist, if you have the power, why not use it in a better way, to raise awareness? Rather than just being about money. Art can inspire people.”— Icy + Sot
As an artist, if you have the power, why not use it in a better way, to raise awareness? Rather than just being about money. Art can inspire people.
Laura: What’s been inspiring or motivating you lately?
I + S: [laughter] We’ve been working very hard on our gallery shows, so honestly we haven’t been super creative or experimental lately! We’re looking forward to getting back in the studio. We write all our ideas down, so we have a long list to work from.
We have a lot of ideas around climate change that we’ve been thinking about so much. Greta [Thunberg], with what she started, every time we see her speeches we are more inspired. Of course she is doing way more than we can ever think of, but she is really inspiring us. For next year, we are going to do some installations about climate change.
It’s important to make it happen. If you have an idea but you haven’t done it, then it doesn’t exist. Just make it.
You can follow the duo on Instagram.