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Art

Instagram Pop-Ups Are Super Popular, But Are They Art?

Rooms solely designed to create the perfect selfie probably aren’t making us think that hard.

by Graham Isador
May 31 2019, 3:22pm

Photos by Graham Isador 

Last year the Art Gallery of Ontario hosted Yayoi Kusama's immersive installation Infinity Mirrors. The exhibit was a runaway hit for the AGO, selling out months in advance and creating the kind of round-the-block lineups usually reserved for arena shows. Kusama's pieces are a participatory take on the concept of endlessness, putting the spectator in the center of beautiful multi-reflective rooms and offering the opportunity for rumination on notions of endless expanse. At the same time the Infinity Mirrors doubled as an excellent photo for the ‘gram. While Kusama's pieces have been respected in the art world for decades, the success of the installation is in large part due to the shareability of the work. For months cool looking selfies at the Infinity Mirrors were all over Toronto social media, which further encouraged others to check out the art.

Recently Toronto has seen a variety of pop-up installations looking to capitalize on the same kind of shareability as the Infinity Mirrors. The format of half a dozen locations across the city is to create several interesting rooms—e.g a cotton candy-inspired space, a ball pit, or classroom setting—where patrons snap pictures and post stories. People are engaging with the installations in a similar fashion to how they engaged with Kusama's work, but while they are comparable on a surface level the pop-ups lack the same kind of creative intention. They seem to exist solely for customers social media clout and cash for the owners. A sort of empty-calorie creative experience.

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When I shit on the installations to friends, something unexpected happened. Because we so rarely get the chance to use our liberal arts degrees my friends and I ended up arguing about intentional fallacy and whether or not it mattered what the creator’s intentions were. My friends asked why shouldn’t the pop-ups be considered art? Isn’t pop art supposed to be accessible? What’s more accessible than doing it for the ‘gram? While I felt like I was being trolled by my pals, I couldn’t figure out a convincing reason for why the pop-ups weren’t art. They just didn’t feel that way. I decided to ask an expert about it.

Below you can read my conversation with Kristin Campbell—who has a doctorate in art history and has taught at Ontario College of Art and Design University—about the Infinity Mirrors, the pop-up Installations, and the accessibility of art.

VICE: In the last few years we’ve seen art galleries house exhibits that gained huge traction on social media. Whenever I’m at a museum most people are engaging with the art through their phones. Do you think galleries and museums are aware of this?
Kristin Campbell: Museums are definitely aware—it’s been going on for a long time—and it definitely affects how—and arguably if—people interact with the work. I think what we’re seeing now is, rather than grapple with or oppose it, some institutions are just embracing the trend. I remember being at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in the late 1990s, and being elbowed by people using camcorders to film the galleries instead of actually looking at the works on the walls. Photos might buy us time to feel more confident in our responses to art. But I also think it’s a trick we play on ourselves—once the vacation videos are made, once the Instagram posts have been made, does anyone really ever revisit them? Nope.

So I think there’s the illusion of participation in these kinds of installations: the idea of documenting experiences, and the idea of deferring those experience. It’s easier to document something than it is to respond to it.

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Externally, Instagram pop-ups share some similarities to gallery spaces. What do you think about the relationship between Instagram rooms and actual galleries?
I think they’re less about art than they are about experiences. And by virtue of the culture of photographing them/instagramming them—they don’t even require the viewer to be present or engaged in a meaningful way. Is there a relationship to Pop Art? Perhaps—Instagram rooms may address mass culture in a similar way and that can, in part, explain their appeal and perhaps even make them seem accessible to wider audiences. They seem to lack the critical bite that Pop Art could have, though.

The number of people attending the Instagram rooms means that more patrons are engaging with the work than the art at smaller galleries. How do you feel about this? Should artists make things with social media in mind?
I think there are lots of artists who use social media as part of a larger platform to engage, and hopefully retain a public, but there’s also a lot of stuff that, more easily than ever, can now masquerade as art on those same platforms. I think bigger questions arise, though, from the length of time people are willing to wait compared the time they actually spend in the installation. It arguably becomes more important to document your visit to these sites than to meaningfully engage with them. It’s so much easier to document something than it is to respond or react to it in real time; it’s easier to put a camera lens up between yourself and what’s happening around you. If you’re snapping selfies of these spaces and posting them to social media you’re participating in a kind of community with others who are doing the same thing, and maybe that’s the point? Maybe the empty spectacle of these spaces ultimately doesn’t matter.

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Is there anything you think galleries could learn from the Instagram rooms?
I think some galleries and museums are trying to learn from Instagram rooms, but it’s a tricky balance for many of them to strike. On the one hand, galleries and museums have to get bodies through the door and helping to create atmosphere that ensures return visits—they have to capitalize on trends to do this. Also, some institutions feel like they’re competing for visitor support against entirely different kinds of (tourist) attractions.

Personally, I’m not sure that many of these Instagram rooms and experiential installations live up to the hype, but in a way, it doesn’t matter. They do get people in the door. Galleries and museums shifting to include more of these types of experiential installations might also addresses a larger shift in society away from the things those spaces used to be wholly about—investment in the privileging of object/ form. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself, but what we replace it with remains to be seen. Are people increasingly less willing to engage with stuff that is difficult or complicated? Would they really rather consume it easily, passively, share it on social media, and move on? It does make me wonder if we’re losing our ability to read, to look, and, sure, to consume things in meaningful ways. And I wonder seriously if we’ve now shifted away from seeing things and sorting out what they mean to us, and towards the obsessive documentation of stuff we can’t even make time to care about.

Graham Isador is a writer and photographer in Toronto. @presgang
Photo location HideSeek .
Erica Peck is an actress and model. @wildthingvintage