The Art Show Designed With Instagram in Mind, ’29Rooms’ Returns With a Surprising Dose of Activism
Refinery29's love letter to art and creativity.
Perhaps nothing embodies the growing phenomena of art-as-social-media-photo-opp as “29Rooms,” online women’s magazine Refinery29’s fashion-forward take on an art fair/fun house. Now in its third year, the interactive project takes place—as the title suggests—in 29 different “rooms.” Some feature audio components or require audience participation, such as reading or painting. In others, visitors are invited to jump into a massive ball pit or share their dreams with singer Katrina Cunningham so she can transform them into a song.
Taking over an empty Williamsburg warehouse for the weekend, the pop-up event promises to fill your Instagram feed with colorful art subtly blended with corporate branding. But in addition to entertaining, Refinery29 also aims to engage with political, social, and environmental causes.
“We wanted to present more thought-provoking issues this year,” said Albie Alexander Hueston, the company’s creative director of experiential, during a preview of the exhibition. (Hueston organized the event with Refinery29 co-founder and executive creative director Piera Gelardi.)
To that end, this iteration of “29Rooms” features a neon light display from Planned Parenthood. The nonprofit organization hopes it will “help to educate people about the services we provide and inspire them to act to protect their access to sexual reproductive healthcare and rights,” Caren Spruch, Planned Parenthood’s director of arts and entertainment, told artnet News.
“Refinery29 makes content for women every day, and our alignment with Planned Parenthood is very important to us,” explained Hueston.
On a similar note, the Women’s March also has a room, featuring many of the protest signs and artworks carried around the world during the January 21 protests, including Shepard Fairey’s posters. “We wanted to turn activism into art,” said Hueston, noting that guests will have the chance to mail postcards expressing their opinions to their government representatives.
Environmental concerns come to the fore in the work of Jee Young Lee, who collected 9,800 bottles, 1,500 wine corks, and other assorted trash from the streets of New York to create her seascape installation, with a boat that guests are invited to sit in. “We waste so many things,” the artist said, noting that she was inspired by pollution.
Transparent creator Jill Soloway has teamed up with artist Xavier Schipani to explore the topic of gender identity. The stalls in a recreation of a school bathroom—decorated by Schipani with illustrations about gender—become listening pods to hear recordings from various people recalling the first time they became aware of their gender identity.
For those frustrated by the current administration’s approach to these issues, we suggest taking a swing at the punching bags in “The Future Is Female” room, decorated with feminist slogans by illustrator Jen Mussari. With each contact, percussive sounds from electronic musician Madame Ghandi ring out, creating a punch-driven cacophony.
With contributions from Dunkin’ Donuts and the Casper mattress company displayed alongside such thoughtful contributions, striking a balance between artistry and corporate branding is no easy task. Thankfully, most of the rooms have no connection to commercial interests, allowing the art and interactivity to shine.
In addition to featuring contributions from celebrities like Jake Gyllenhaal and Emma Roberts—a cathartic shredding of your secrets inspired by Gyllenhaal’s upcoming film Stronger, and a celebration of female authors from Roberts and book community Bellatrist founder Karah Priess—Refinery29 has enlisted plenty of artists to take part.
Near the entrance, there’s sure to be long lines to take a photo with the optically jarring work of Alexa Meade, who paints entire sets, including the people in them, to create the illusion of an 2-D painting. “People are being able to physically immersed in the work,” Meade said, taking a break from outfitting visitors in her hand-painted jackets and sunglasses so they could pose in the brightly colored space.
Jonathan Rosen, one of the hits of this year’s SPRING/BREAK Art Show, has again created a selfie-ready mirror artwork, with each photograph capturing one of a constant stream of adjectives. Here, the words are taken from a poem by Ashlee Haze about “how we see our body and acceptance of our body,” according to the artist.
Benjamin Shine, known for his stunning fashion displays crafted from expertly manipulated tulle, has created a stunning double portrait of twin sisters and singers Chloe x Halle, proteges of Beyoncé, in a thin wire mesh. Suspended from the ceiling and rotating, the ethereal work is paired with headphones playing a song recorded by the duo for the occasion in celebration of sisterhood. “It kind of looks like smoke, but you can’t really see what it is until you’re fully in front of it,” noted Hueston.
You can make the art yourself with the Art of Elysium, which enlists artists to work with the sick, the homeless, veterans, and other communities in need. Their room is giant stack of Japanese lanterns, on which visitors are invited to paint messages of hope. “It’s a therapeutic moment to experience the creative process,” vice president of development Allison Beck said.
Although the back area still takes the “rooms” concept fairly literally, there’s a different feel at the exhibition entrance. “When we walked into the space, the first thing that we thought was ‘sculpture garden,'” said Hueston. Freestanding works like a giant red womb enclosure featuring spoken poetry from Cleo Wade, fashion designer Jason Wu’s mobile-inspired collaboration with Cadillac, and Maisie Cousin’s “Erotica in Bloom,” a giant floral chandelier, make for a dramatic entryway.
After two years of out-of-control lines, Refinery29 has wisely opted to sell $19 tickets to the formerly free event, meaning there’s no longer any need to camp out on the streets of Brooklyn for hours in order to get that perfect Instagram moment—tickets have sold out, naturally. (A portion of the profits will go to the exhibition’s non-profit partners, Refinery29 promises.)
In many ways, “29Rooms” feels like art for social media’s sake, and it certainly stands apart from the museums and galleries of the world. But there’s no denying that it’s fun.
“It’s like a melting pot for creativity,” said Hueston. “We want to create something joyful.”
“29Rooms” is on view at 106 Wythe Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, September 8–11, 2017.
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