Art Installations: Only designed for the perfect selfie?

Last week an event company came to our office to pitch a new idea they had designed: 20 brands would each create an art installation targeted at Millennials to be housed under one roof.  The giant art pieces would be an opportunity for the visitor to take the perfect selfie, which in turn, would generate huge social media for the brands.

As a newbie to Instagram, it opened my eyes to the reality of these art installations: are they all being designed for social media?  I’m sure true artists don’t create their masterpiece just for that purpose, because for them, it’s all about the “art”.  But platforms like Instagram are providing such huge awareness for these artists that their exhibits are becoming social media darlings.  Apparently, the art selfie – an exhibit designed for the purposes of Instagram – is the subject of huge debate in the upper echelons of the art world.  Writing for The Guardian, Janelle Zara states that these types of installations have given rise to the “development of the so-called “selfie factory,” a name given to museums of hyper-stylized backdrops that cater specifically to selfie seekers.”

One such museum is New York’s Museum of Ice Cream, opened by Maryellis Bunn and Manish Vora in the summer of 2016, which also has locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  In a Wired article by Arielle Pardes, Selfie factories: the rise of the made-for-Instagram museum, Bunn claims they did not design the museum with social media in mind.  “Yet, it’s hard to walk through the space and imagine it as anything but a series of Instagram backdrops” says Pardes.  It seems the museum has risen to “Instagram cult status” since it’s opening.

Another hugely popular installation is Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” exhibit, that has traveled to various cities across North American in the last two years.  Everyone who visits is obsessed with getting that perfect selfie.  Tim Loc of LAist actually provides Five tips on capturing glorious selfies at the ‘Infinity Mirrors’ exhibit.  Of course, part of the intent is to actually show you were there, but did Kusama design her art with the selfie in mind?  Kusama has been erecting art installations for decades but her work has now dominated the art scene in recent years with the advent of the selfie opp, and we are seeing more and more installations like hers.

At “Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field” (Photo by Tim Loc/LAist)

In 2015, when the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery opened Wonder “an immersive art experience”, it saw more visitors in six weeks than it had seen in one year!  Three years earlier, an installation called the Rain Room opened at London’s Barbican Center, and although closed now, it has lived on for eternity in online photos.  ’29Rooms’, a pop up installation created by the digital media brand Refinery29, is in its 4th year and has grown enormously.  Piera Gelardi, Executive Creative Director and co-founder, says they did design the rooms around how the viewer could be part of the experience and the star of the show (Pardes).

Art purists say art is supposed to invoke thought and create emotion.  It is supposed to be an intensely personal experience – a connection between the artist and the viewer.  Christopher Knight, an art critic for the Los Angeles Times says “manufactured entertainments aren’t significant art exhibitions any more than a Chuck E. Cheese arcade” (Pardes), while others, say the participant is integral to the experience.  The curator of the Infinity Mirrors tour Mika Yoshitake, stated, that while the exhibit should be experienced without smartphone in hand, the sharing aspect “triggers the infinite repetition of an image of oneself that has been so central to [Kusama’s] practice as an artist” (Loc).  So in some ways, the experience of the exhibit and sharing this experience to hundreds of followers is really like an extension of the art piece.

But it’s the commercial angle that critics point to as eroding the integrity of the installation.  Brands are always looking for innovative ways to connect with Millennials, and these exhibits are leveraging that selfie appetite.  In the 29 Rooms exhibit, seven are sponsored and the Museum of Ice Cream’s NYC location has 30 sponsors, some of which are integrated into the room, such as “Tinderland”, a space sponsored by the dating app Tinder.  Visitors sit on an ice cream see-saw and use an app to find their true flavour match.  Creative? Yes.  A great branding strategy? Absolutely.  An innovative way to garner social media with Millennials? Most definitely.  Art? Perhaps not. “The degree to which these brands impact the experience differs by location, but the existence of brand sponsorships at all changes the meaning of these spaces, and the reason they exist at all” (Pardes).  So will we see more of these branded art installations in Toronto next year?  If our visiting event company is successful in securing 20 sponsors, it certainly looks that way.

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Do you think these art exhibits are really art or just a way to foster commercialism?  Let me know.  I’d love to hear your perspective.

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