Digital Dualism Enters the Museum
By BENJAMIN SCHNEIDER | Illustrations by MARTIN ANDER
What kind of impact do social media have on contemporary art? The San Francisco-based writer Benjamin Schneider experienced the two faces of an exhibition: one in the museum and the other on Instagram. What kind of new artistic potentialities could this development offer, and does it give art a greater role in everyday life?
© Martin Ander
I had already seen what felt like an infinite number of pictures of Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Rooms” before I had the chance to attend the exhibition. I had even read more than one account of a critic articulating that feeling; and the subsequent revelation that the real thing is, in fact, better than on Instagram. Still, I was unprepared for the experience of stepping into a little box, which becomes a universe of twinkling lights once the door is closed. Before I had a chance to even consider the exhibition’s quality or sophistication, I had no doubt that this was the most immersive, totalizing work of art I had ever seen, or rather, been within.
The difference between my expectations and my experience speaks to a critical dualism percolating in contemporary art. One might describe “Infinity Rooms” most accurately as two distinct exhibitions: the one in the museum and the one on social media. Being inside one of Kusama’s rooms feels like travelling briefly into the artist’s very own, phallus-filled mind, or to deep space, or to the gates of heaven with recently departed souls. On Instagram, those very same rooms seem like well-appointed photo studios, not unlike the brightly coloured installations of the Museum of Ice Cream (MoIC). Of course, the two faces of the exhibition were anything but distinct as I snapped selfies in each room, disrupting the work a million times over with the gloaming of my screen. “Infinity Rooms” is hardly alone in straining the limits of our critical understanding as fine art museums and other businesses and institutions look to capitalize on society’s social media addiction. While critics argue in grand terms about whether this trend signifies the decay or democratization of the art world, what’s certain is that museums, and art, demand a new vocabulary for the multiple, interconnected “platforms” through which we experience them.
The popularity of “Infinity Rooms” would seem to have a lot to do with timing. Kusama exhibited a version of one of her mirrored rooms as early as 1965; half a century later, her retrospective, which debuted in the spring of 2017 at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum, has catapulted her to her highest level of fame in her late 80s, and shattered museum attendance records. “Infinity Rooms” comes at a moment when the public is clamouring for photogenic, interactive art and art-like experiences.
Indeed, the exhibit’s popularity was all but assured by the emergence of what I call social factories – urban pleasure grounds ostensibly designed for the purposes of taking photographs destined for social media. The phenomenon appears to have originated not in the arts world, but in advertising. In 2015, two pop-up exhibitions, 29 Rooms and the Museum of Feelings, sprung up in New York City and immediately proved wildly popular. These social factories could also be described as “brand activations” – marketing speak for immersive, interactive advertisements – for the fashion website Refinery 29 and Glade cleaning products, respectively. The allure of snapping selfies in fun and unusual spaces appeared to outweigh whatever cynicism towards advertising young people tend to exhibit.
When the MoIC debuted in Manhattan, NYC, in the summer of 2016, journalists noted its similarities to the Museum of Feelings and 29 Rooms. Rather than promoting a brand like its predecessors, however, the MoIC is an “experience-fuelled brand” unto itself, according to its website. The pop-up museum, which so far has appeared in four American cities, contains a series of installations loosely connected to the organizing theme of ice cream. A cursory Instagram search (#museumoficecream has been tagged more than 170,000 times as of mid-2018) reveals some of the favourites: a miniature swimming pool filled with artificial sprinkles, a “life-sized” animal cracker, a bright yellow wall of bananas.
It has gone on to become the premier social factory and something of a cultural meme, lever- aging its popularity to raise its ticket prices from $18 to $38 since its debut. Meanwhile, 29 Rooms has become an annual institution every Autumn Fashion Week in New York, and has recently expanded to Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. In its 2017–18 season, tickets cost $39.
Such success inevitably inspires copycats. Right as the MoIC opened its San Francisco location, a very similar institution, known as the Color Factory also opened there, featuring a tub of yellow plastic balls and a florescent pink staircase leading to a neon smiley face. It was similarly successful, quickly selling out its run even with its $32 admission charge. Other social factories include the Mermaid Museum, the Museum of Candy, the wndr Museum and the almost self-parodying Museum of Selfies. Rabbit Town, in Bandung, Indonesia, has unapologetically plagiarized the MoIC, with its own banana walls and candy-shaped swing. Tellingly, Rabbit Town also has copies of “Infinity Rooms” and Chris Burden’s “Urban Light,” the grove of beaux-arts street lights outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The distinction between social factories and fine arts installations melts away when they are considered as a means to a photographic end.
© Martin Ander
Social Media and the Fine Arts
Social factories and their fine art peers appear to share a few aesthetic tropes: attention to lighting, bright colours – either aggressively multicoloured, or perfectly monochrome – mirrors that give the impression of an infinite expanse, and 3D installations that are designed to be touched or climbed upon.
Of course, there is no rule to say that social media-friendly art can’t be beautiful and thought-provoking. The New Museum’s “Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest” was an Instagram sensation with plenty of substance, for those willing to look for it. The exhibition’s marquee installation, a forest of jaggedy lights intermittently flickering with soft pinks, purples, blues and greens, imagines how it might feel to be among the pixels that make up a screen. For many museum-goers, it was simply a dazzling, unusual space; an experience worthy of social media documentation. For others (perhaps those willing to take some time with the work’s description) “Pixel Forest” was a space of romantic irony, contextualizing our desire to whip out our own personal screens to photograph the spectacle. Another gallery was full of billowing sheets with almost-recognizable shapes projected upon them, calling to mind the disorienting parade of images that exists on social media.
On the other hand, some fine art exhibits that have been particularly popular on social media, like “Urban Light” and the spectacularly popular “Rain Room,” don’t appear to have much meaning or intrigue beyond their outward appearance. At the Indianapolis Museum of Art, recently rebranded as Newfields, curators have been fired in favour of event planners and hospitality managers, reflecting an overall pivot from traditional art museum to something better suited for the social media-fuelled experience economy.
Even museums that are making no effort to install highly Instagrammable works of art must reckon with the social media age. “Photography Encouraged” signs have popped up worldwide, signifying that art doesn’t need to be a social media sensation to be social media friendly. And even if an artist or museum actively resists the contemporary photographic itch, there’s little they can do to prevent it. When the Guggenheim Museum in New York tried to ban photography at its 2015 James Turrell exhibition, at the request of the artist, the rule proved impossible to enforce. Instead, the paint-like, monochromatic lights that bathed the museum’s atrium became the Guggenheim’s most Instagrammed exhibition to date.
For “serious” museums seeking new relevance in the social media age, a looming existential question might be, does it matter why the masses come, as long as they come?
Yet, the rise of social media has a much broader impact than simply forcing museums to reconsider the expectations and desires of their audience. In fact, their very missions, their stature in society, are in flux in a world in which everyone has the potential to be a curator. Social media turns us all into “prosumers,” who produce and consume content simultaneously, shaping the physical world in the process. In a strange twist of fate, it would seem that the museum has become the studio, and Instagram the museum.
This can be a terrifying thought for artworld purists. The privileged positions of the artist, as creator, and the museum, as gatekeeper, are under threat. As prosumers, viewers now take in the art while simultaneously reproducing, manipulating and disseminating its image. Art can go viral – and if it is popular, it almost certainly will – which means the artist and the museum lose control of its meaning and its context. The appropriation of the cartoon character, Pepe the Frog, by neo-Nazis demonstrates how easily this dynamic can go awry. And while the stakes are surely lower, the millions of people who have been exposed to “Infinity Rooms” via selfies on Instagram have an utterly different conception of the work than the artist intended. Rather than being cause for alarm, this development could open up new artistic potentialities that transcend the museum and give art a greater role in everyday life. Artists and theorists like Artie Vierkant are beginning to articulate and explore this new paradigm. As Vierkant writes in her essay, “The Image Object Post-Internet”: “In the Post-Internet climate, it is assumed that the work of art lies equally in the version of the object one would encounter at a gallery or museum,” and “the images and other representations disseminated through the Internet.”
In the Post-Internet climate, it is assumed that the work of art lies equally in the version of the object one would encounter at a gallery or museum
This is a logical outcome of “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” an art-historical phase described by Walter Benjamin in 1930, in response to the growing ubiquity of photographic and filmic representations of art. In addition to changing how we view art and to whom it is accessible, Benjamin suggested that new technologies of perception would shift the actual production of works of art, and the cultural and philosophical context that surrounds them. Yet, even today, the predominant mode of perception – the Internet, by way of smartphones and social media – hardly registers as a factor in all facets of the artistic process, even as its impact becomes harder to ignore.
In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that contemporary technology will have a far greater impact on art than Benjamin could have imagined. An emerging philosophy of art attempts to correct for this, as Vierkant writes. “The strategy employed by myself and others towards this physical relationship has been to create projects which move seamlessly from physical representation to Internet representation, either changing for each context, built with an intention of universality, or created with a deliberate irreverence for either venue of transmission.”
Following this logic, future Kusamas must be aware of the fact that their work will inevitably exist both online and off. Of course, there are many ways for artists, curators and enterprising cultural creatives to make the post-Internet paradigm part of their practice – whether from a stance of resistance or em- brace, whether thematically or aesthetically.
While these works by definition exist both online and off, the question is how they inhabit the space between. “Pixel Forest,” like all the best works in the emerging category of post-Internet art, invites the viewer to expand her awareness of humanity’s relationship to technology, and our modes of perception. Yet other works, designed to exist both in the halls of the museum and on the feeds of Instagram, seem to present a narrow, transactional vision of this relationship. We perceive, even experience, in service of our social media personae, without stopping to think about why. The only “Infinity Room” where phones and photography are prohibited is in “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins,” one of the final rooms in the Cleveland Museum of Art, where I saw the exhibition. The reason, a guard explained to me, was that one visitor, so eager to take pictures, dropped his phone on one of the glowing glass pumpkins, shattering it to bits. Clearly, this visitor was impatient to get his “money shot,” but in his own way, he also injected a new critical dimension to the exhibition by forcing viewers to take in just one room without taking photographs. The result, for me, was that the frantic energy I had previously directed towards taking a good photo, I now directed towards producing a mental and emotional record of my experience. For the first time, I looked up at the mirrored ceiling of the room, which I had never thought to do with my phone in my hand.
I will never again see an upside-down pumpkin patch in the night sky, I thought to myself. I was okay with that.
is a San Francisco-based freelance writer covering urbanism, culture and technology, with a special interest in the relationship between social media and urban space. He is currently embarking on a new project that will explore and catalogue the distinctive spatial tropes that have come to define the cities of California. Contact Benjamin on Twitter as @urbenschneider.