It was late spring, and hot as all hell, when Marina Fini and I first worked together. We were working on a music video in the desert outside of Palm Springs, California, and the 26-year-old Los Angeles-based photographer was wrapping the exterior of an ice cream truck in strips of holographic adhesive vinyl.
Much of Fini's work is like this—a collision of light and color that feels almost like a portal to the future. Last year, she organized Motelscape, an art show that reimagined hotels as neon-splattered wonderlands. And in February, she lent her futuristic, alien-like aesthetic to "Clitopia," a musical ode to the female sex organ.
VICE sat down with Fini to talk about her most recent project, The Ronalds––a bizarre, provocative photo series of America's most famous mascot, Ronald McDonald—at the Clown Motel, in Tonopah, Nevada. The project is a collaboration with artists Dorian Electra, Weston Getto Allen, and Michael Zarowny, cast as a trio of Ronalds who are rambunctious, perverted, and love the Clown Motel.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: How were the Ronalds born?
Dorian Electra: Michael, Weston, and I have been friends and worked together for a long time. One year, it was Halloween, and we all wanted to dress as three of something. Originally, we wanted to go as three John Lennons. The fact that him, and the Beatles, have become so iconic and representative of peace, and love, and psychedelia in mainstream culture is almost a parody of itself. But we were worried people would just think we were the Beatles––or three of them––and it would be awkward, or too hard to communicate. Then someone mentioned Ronald McDonald. Like, what if we were three Ronald McDonalds? And we all just started laughing.
What inspired you to shoot these new characters at the Clown Motel?
Marina Fini: I'm very interested in public interaction with performance. Setting your work in—or even just visiting—bizarre, middle-of-nowhere places can be very inspiring. People who visit museums are already expecting something when they go, but exposing people to art who may not necessarily desire to be a part of it, at least at first, can really start a conversation. To be immediately immersed in an experience, without choice, is challenging, and can be an adrenaline rush. Pursuing characters such as the Ronalds feels more risky, or exciting, as a photographer. I enjoy the on-the-spot, improvisational aspects of projects like this.
Did any of your own experiences feed the Ronalds's personalities?
Electra: We met this guy on a train between Chicago and DC. He said his name was Michael Scott Campbell, and he said he was the heir to the Campbell's Soup fortune. He also believed he was Jesus Christ, God, and King Arthur––I'm definitely missing a few. But he was very nice. We ended up speaking to him for a good portion of this 17-hour train ride. Of course, he was totally insane, but also the most creatively inspiring person who I've ever met. He's actually the only stranger I've ever accepted candy from. Weston likes to think the Ronalds are failed experiments, grown in test tubes, or rejects that escaped from the dumpster behind the laboratory.
And you designed the Ronalds' wardrobe?
Electra: We couldn't afford to order costumes, or anything online, so yeah, I just started making them myself. We found the tights and the wigs at a dollar store, and then just cut them to make them fit. We used red duct tape to cover our shoes. Michael wore a raincoat that was really long, so it looked like a dress. Weston had on scrubs, and I'm pretty sure mine was just a yellow T-shirt, with like, a treble clef on the back.
Fini: I like the rawness and jankiness of the costumes.
Electra: Once we shot it, we realized that definitely worked better. It was very janky, and fucked up, but also kind of perfect. Very DIY. The Ronalds are essentially impersonators, but they also feel entitled to free McDonald's food and McDonald's wealth.
Was it difficult tapping into that mentality?
Electra: The Ronalds were the most liberating characters that the three of us have ever done. There was just no filter on anything. We've all done other characters before, but these felt the most natural. What does that say about us? It gave us an opportunity to play these really nasty, wretched people, but also bring some levity to it in a way that is kind of cute.
The photos vary in color and lighting style from shot to shot. What was the reason for this stylistic decision?
Fini: Fast-food restaurants use orange and yellow and red to make people hungry. It's very purposeful psychology. Carl's Jr. and Burger King both do it as well. But the McDonald's golden arches are almost god-like. You can spot them from miles away. When Dorian asked if I would be interested in collaborating on a shoot with these characters, I was immediately down. I thought the location was very fitting to show the creepy darkness that is usually associated with clowns. Because [the Ronalds] video is so raw, I wanted to explore a more stylized, staged, hyper-reality––that felt like it was part of a fine art, horror movie. I'm very attracted to insanity, mixed with colors. I mostly wanted to document "a wild night with the Ronalds," with the hotel being the Ronalds' go-to spot. Essentially, to have a seance and honor their clown gods.
Electra: I like Taco Bell's purple and turquoise. Purple makes me hungry. Or maybe I just really like Taco Bell. But Marina is right, the glowing golden arches are very recognizable. It's like a cross in the distance.
Ben Parker Karris is a writer and photographer in Los Angeles. Follow him on Instagram.