Can Art School’s Cool Kids Grow Up to Be Anti-Bullying Activists?

Photo: Dina Litovsky/New York Magazine

Life seems on the whole to be going pretty well for Tara Subkoff and her husband of nearly three years, Urs Fischer — if what they’re after is a kind of tenured-hipster second act. Fischer, the Swiss artist who has lived in New York for just over a decade, is best known for playful sculptures that often seem to embody a heroic futility. (He made that 23-foot-tall, 17-ton bronze figure of a teddy bear impaled by a desk lamp that stood in front of the Seagram Building a few years back.) Subkoff, the long-durational “It” girl, who not so long ago survived a brain tumor, has her directorial debut, #Horror, opening this month. She grew up in Connecticut — her father owned an antiques shop on Broadway and 13th Street she says Andy Warhol used to frequent — and went to prep school in Massachusetts. For many years, she ran a deliriously conceptual fashion house called Imitation of Christ (at first it recycled clothing from thrift shops like the Salvation Army, sometimes adding punkish slogans; for a time Chloë Sevigny was closely involved) while doing things like collaborating with Easy Spirit on the side, all the while kind of knowing everyone who might be at whatever the then-equivalent of the Beatrice Inn was on any given night. Tonight they’ve joined me for dinner at a tatty neighborhood place called Bistro Les Amis near their Soho apartment, which they share with Fischer’s 6-year-old daughter (when she’s not with her mother) and a rescue poodle named Franzi. “There’s no real scene,” notes Fischer, before ordering the branzino. “If you want Raoul’s, it’s down the street,” says Subkoff, who goes for the steak-frites, medium rare. 

#Horror stars Sevigny, Subkoff’s friend since they were both young actors in Whit Stillman’s chatty preppy dirge The Last Days of Disco. Early on in the new film, we see Sevigny in the woods of snowy, affluent Bedford, New York, and stalking around a modernist house populated by recognizable works of contemporary art — a Rob Pruitt, a Dan Colen. She is realistically distraught, questioning her husband (played by Balthazar Getty), who is cheating on her with their art adviser (“Are you thinking of a lie?”). But the heart of the film is elsewhere in the house, where their 12-year-old daughter — in her way as spoiled, needy, and self-involved as her mother — has invited friends over to hang out. The kids talk, gossip, gang up on one another, try on Mom’s clothes and jewelry, and play what seems to be a kind of terrifyingly antisocial social-media app that combines elements of Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope, and Candy Crush but is basically a cyberbullying game. This being a horror film, as the action gets going, images from the game — which Subkoff created with the artist Tabor Robak — flash over the screen, showing the score going up with each death. (Think of it as Carrie with smartphones.)

“One of the things I love about the movie is its harshness — the harshness of the girls against the other girls, the harshness and brutality, which is not a male brutality,” Fischer says. “The movie reminds me a little of Stand by Me — as a romanticized girl version. Basically, I see your movie as the contemporary-girl version of Stand by Me.

“It’s the opposite! It’s the opposite!” Subkoff says. “I mean, the best line of that film was ‘I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?’ Your friends were everything then.”

Both Subkoff and Fischer are 42, with not as much to prove anymore, it seems. Subkoff had arrived looking a bit like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, with a French net veil over her face, but in general, she says, “I try to dress as plainly as possible these days so it becomes less about that.” And Fischer? The two are hardly a twee matched set: Unlike, say, Subkoff’s ex Wes Anderson, Fischer has tattoos on his neck and wrists and once worked as a bouncer (in Zurich, but still). He’s in his usual uniform of well-worn Stan Smiths and a white T-shirt (“Some of them are more spotted than others,” he admits; the one tonight is pretty stained). “I just don’t want to think about getting dressed in the morning.”

“Maybe once in a while I get him in something nice,” Subkoff says, studying him affectionately. “He is my husband, after all.”

#Horror is definitely Subkoff’s movie, though Fischer was supportive in a number of ways, including helping to gather the artwork. “It’s like they are characters,” she says. “I grew up around a lot of antiques, and I always feel like objects have a strength to them. I thought it would be interesting to be in this house with it being so cold outside, and all of the art that we curated to go into this film had a violence to it and was sort of inappropriate to have around children.”

“I disagree,” says Fischer. “I was thinking about the obsession of the parents with art, which I obviously —”

“Understand,” says Subkoff.

“The collection is an obsession with the power of possessions, and how the children feel this sense of isolation as the parents go into this world of art, which has nothing to do with them. And as the parents escape into it, the children have no relation to it. And so how they talk about it is, like, yuck.

“Or jealousy maybe. Of the attention.”

Was Subkoff bullied as a kid? “I had a really rough time from 10 through 13,” she says. “There is something that goes on at that age: trying to figure out who you are, who your friends are; separating from your parents, and seeing them as people separately from being just your parents, and being horrified by them in some way.”

“It may be the moment when you realize that something shifted,” says Fischer.

“Innocence lost.”

“It’s not lost; your brain is just developing into a different thing. But I, for example, think that Damien Hirst is an innocent artist.”

“Oh my God. That is totally going to shut off anything else in this article. Let’s talk more about the movie,” Subkoff says. “I was interested in cyberbullying — the real-life horror of it. Some of my friends’ children at that age were badly cyberbullied. Especially the idea that you can’t shake it. It follows you. It’s a different landscape from when we were growing up. You can’t just change schools. At that age, it’s unbearable.” She mentions an anti-bullying program she’s been working with called Bridg-It.

Fischer notices someone they know on the sidewalk outside. “Oh, there’s Terry!” Their friend Terry Richardson comes in, in droopy sweats, and they chat for a few minutes, planning to see each other at a charity event honoring Fischer the next night. When Richardson gets up and Subkoff goes to the restroom, Fischer turns to me: “Didn’t New York Magazine bully him?”

When Subkoff returns, she talks about how hard it is to get the dialogue right, to make the people sound like the people they are supposed to be. “But that’s what a movie is: They sound like they’re in a movie,” says Fischer, who grew up loving Jim Jarmusch movies. “The beauty about Jarmusch was that they have this artificial conversation, which sets the tone,” he says. “It was the one main source of information on what a cooler way of seeing life could be when you are in Switzerland.”

Subkoff agrees. “The Coen brothers is poetry. Or Wes Anderson. But they all have a talent for dialogue.”

Even if it’s not something you would say, I suggest.

“It’s something you’d want to say,” says Subkoff.

His Girl Friday,” Fischer replies. “Come on. Nobody has that well-edited a conversation.”

“I bet in that day and age they did talk that way.”

“I bet they didn’t.”

“There was more of a repartee.”

“Only as it was recorded in the movies and in novels.”

“But they did read more in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. They weren’t talking and then looking at their emails.” She holds up her iPhone.

“There is something sentimental about the past,” says Fischer. “The innocence that is lost is always being lost.”

*This article appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.