There's Not Much Left to Like About Instagram-Friendly 'Experiences'

COVID-19 is threatening the future of adult playgrounds like the Color Factory and The Museum of Ice Cream—but some are attempting to reopen.
06 August 2020, 12:18am
Photo by Kelly Sullivan via Getty Images

“Remember places?” was a common refrain during the early days of quarantine, especially among those of us lucky enough to be working from home. The question conjures visions of bustling restaurants, deliciously sweaty bars, icy movie theaters—all things that cities have been able to recreate outdoors, to some extent. 

But: Remember "experiences"? What about all of the made-to-be-Instagrammed and location-tagged places that started bubbling up around 2016 (think food "museums," like the Museum of Ice Cream; Wynwood-esque "art installations" that house bouncy castles and brightly-colored backdrops, escape rooms, axe-throwing venues, and rage rooms)? These largely indoor venues tend to revolve around people waiting in long lines, touching shared props, diving into ball pits, and lingering in one place in order to get the perfect shot. Given everything we now know about COVID-19 and indoor transmission, now seems like a good time to check in and see how the various influencer magnets are doing.

Well, today the “experiential art exhibit” Color Factory moved forward with its very vibrant reopening in Houston, Texas, despite the city’s numerous COVID-19 struggles and high number of cases. The space offers “participatory installations of colors” (aka, cool rooms) from artists, designers, and, uh, NASA.

A representative from Color Factory told VICE the opening involved “extreme social distancing and an overabundance of new safety measures.” According to its website, this includes mandatory masks for employees and guests over age six; the installation of UV lights in the facility’s HVAC system; new floor decals and plexiglass barriers to promote social distancing; and “maintaining a one-directional exhibit experience,” meaning guests can no longer wander around and film Boomerangs at their whims. Instead, they’ll move forward in an orderly fashion, with no opportunities to circle back for just… one… more… shot. 

The venue appears to be the first of its pop-up museum brethren to attempt a return to normalcy, but more are soon to follow. The Museum of Ice Cream, which has locations in New York City and San Francisco, has tickets available for August 29 and 30 at its NYC home base and October 1 in San Francisco, and its own list of safety precautions to match. (Weathering a pandemic and a recent “we treat our employees like shit” scandal—employees described terrible work conditions, complete with an abusive #Girlboss and a ban on bathroom breaks—sounds like a lot for that particular "experience" to manage!)

Not to knock safety standards, which are obviously key in the reopening of any indoor space, but a distanced, tightly directed, hygiene-oriented experience sounds fundamentally opposed to what makes places like the Color Factory and the Museum of Ice Cream so appealing to those who visit. If a would-be influencer can’t make a friend snap a picture (or five) of her frolicking waist-deep in a ball pit or splayed self-consciously across a couch that looks like a slice of watermelon, then what’s the point? 

According to an Atlantic report about “hygiene theater,” heightened cleaning measures may not have the profound effect on banishing COVID-19 that the companies taking them may advertise: “COVID-19 has reawakened America’s spirit of misdirected anxiety, inspiring businesses and families to obsess over risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk—even as more dangerous activities are still allowed.”

The Atlantic piece goes on to argue that this potential ineffectiveness is due to relative rarity of surface transmission. Basically, you’re less likely to get COVID-19 from touching the same flower wall or sprinkle vat as a bunch of other people, and more likely to contract it from inhaling the same air. 

A Washington Post story focused specifically on ball pits echoed this sentiment: “Antibacterial is not anti­viral. And reassurances and frequent cleanings may not be enough.” A public health professor even told the Post that he believed “it would be pretty embarrassing for someone who contracts the corona­virus to have to admit to a contact tracer that they had been playing in a ball pit during a pandemic.” I personally would not want to confess to getting COVID because I was doing something for the ‘gram, but maybe that’s why I still haven’t been sent free Parade underwear or tagged in anyone’s #challengeaccepted post. 

According to a July 24 Washington Post story, some venues are doing their best to adapt and take things online. Writer Tanya Ward Goodman, who describes herself as an escape room enthusiast, recounted her experience in a virtual escape room for the article. “In person, we would have had the autonomy to work on different puzzles at the same time, but online, we were forced to move as a single entity,” she wrote of the experience. 

While a virtual escape room sounds… um… like an activity for a very specific audience, the owners of this room deserve credit for attempting to make it work online, given that all signs indicate that canceling indoor in-person experiences for the foreseeable future is the safest move. 

It's understandable that businesses are desperate to stay afloat and keep paying their employees, and people who’ve been stuck at home (especially with kids!) are desperate for a little bit of entertainment to break up the monotony. But in a pandemic, when the appeal of visiting—and posting about—Instagram-obsessed "experiences" rings hollow (and the attractions themselves are lacking), it's more difficult than ever to even look like you're having fun.

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