Exploring the effects of social media on art and culture, one selfie at a time

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CNN  — 

Art imitates life, life imitates art – as social media becomes more ubiquitous than ever, we’re beginning to see how the power of the virtual lens shapes the way we experience culture. A study by Kelton Global goes as far as saying the definition of culture is changing and broadening so rapidly it might hold little significance in the future.

“For today’s audiences, the definition of culture has democratized, nearly to the point of extinction. It’s no longer about high versus low or culture versus entertainment; it’s about relevance or irrelevance,” reported the same market research.

Consider Maurizio Cattelan’s “America” (2016), a fully functioning, 14-karat gold toilet; Doug Aitken’s “Mirage” (2017), a site-specific sculpture of a suburban ranch house, entirely clad in mirrors, in the desert; Studio Swine’s “New Spring” (2017), an architectural fountain emitting misty, scented bubbles; Es Devlin’s Room 2022 (2017), an immersive installation involving a maze of mirrors. If you didn’t travel to New York, the Palm Desert, Milan, or Miami to see these works in person, there’s a good chance you caught them on social media, as viral cultural moments have become a postmodern reality for a generation of armchair art viewers.

The Kusama effect

At Zwirner Gallery, in New York (the world’s most Instagrammed city of 2017), crowds wait patiently upwards of three hours for a viewing of Yayoi Kusama’s “Festival of Life,” an exhibition of sculptures, paintings, and two of her highly immersive, kaleidoscopic “Infinity Mirror Room” environments. While Kusama’s obsessive, intricate works have been celebrated for decades, at age 88, she has received unprecedented international acclaim in the third act of her career.

Visitors enjoy "Kusamatrix", which incorporates polka-dot paintings, balloons and mirrors, by Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo (2004).

“Kusama’s work has always had a strong presence on social media, which has introduced a new demographic to her work,” said Hanna Schouwink, senior partner at Zwirner Gallery. “We’ve always been an artist-centric gallery, and we want to encourage as many people as possible to see work by the artists and estates we represent.”

Since opening “Festival of Life,” the gallery averaged 1,800 visitors a day, and estimated a total of 60,000 by the end of its run. The Kusama effect has persisted for several years in growing fervor, with museums worldwide selling out tickets for exhibitions months in advance.

Like Kusama’s, the works of many Instagram-famous artists tend to share a few traits: they are highly immersive, a bit fantastical and escapist, and make for good selfie (bonus points if there is added interactivity). Positioning the viewer as both a willing subject and voyeur, the socially-optimized space resonates as a surreal form of 21st-century pop art, tapped into the currency of images and the onlooker’s desire to be culturally relevant.

A woman photographs inside the Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity room during a preview of the Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrors exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum (2017) in Washington, DC.

The museum experience

Embracing the undeniable pull of the social-media experience, New York art institutions have made notable shifts in the past decade.

The Museum of Arts and Design, traditionally known for its object-based approach to craft, coined an Olfactory Arts department in 2010; an interactive show on perfume design shortly followed.

Three years ago, the New Museum founded the first museum-led technology incubator, NEW INC, as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum tapped a computer programmer-turned-architect, Troy Conrad Therrien, as its first curator of architecture and digital initiatives. Among Therrien’s first projects was a digital-first online exhibition framed as a speculative stock market of cryptocurrencies; next year, he’ll open a show called “Architecture Effects” at the Guggenheim Bilbao – fittingly the namesake of the “Bilbao Effect.”

Therrien shared a somewhat dystopian reading of the effect of social media on art in popular culture: “The Kusama chamber selfie is the aesthetic of the tragic ecstasy of a broken world order running on fumes,” he said. “It’s what you do to escape the 24-hour news cycle that has removed all doubt that reality today for most of us is, in fact, no more than reality TV.”

Fifteen seconds of fame

As recurring blockbuster art shows continue to reignite the debate on the appeal and pitfalls of the pervasive art selfie, the fashion industry has already taken a few lessons and has changed its approach.

One of the spaces at Refinery 29's 29 Rooms installation, December 2017.

“Today, Instagram is the new channel, the new role. It’s the biggest media outlet in the fashion world,” said Alexandre de Betak of Bureau Betak, the leading production studio behind some of today’s most innovative runway sets, in a previous interview with CNN Style. “When 15-second Instagram videos first launched, we adapted to them, and tried to create filmable moments that lasted 15 seconds at a time.”

With the immediacy of online news and social media, in recent years the CFDA has begun to reconsider ways to increase its “in-season relevancy” with a revised runway cycle that can support immediate sales. Entrepreneurs and lifestyle brands are following suit, with pop-up events catered to a connected digital audience.

At these often-called “selfie factories,” taking a photo isn’t just a souvenir of the experience, but the raison d’être.

The digital media brand Refinery29 has been leading the charge with its pop-up event 29 Rooms, launched on its 10th anniversary, in 2015, as a free and inclusive alternative to New York Fashion Week’s exclusive fetes. With an exponential growth in demand, the brand began to charge for ticketed admission this year in order to manage crowds.

One of the spaces at Refinery 29's 29 Rooms installation, December 2017.

“As a digital brand, we were thinking about how to take a lot of the different topics that we cover, as well as the creative voices we elevate on our platform, in a physical space,” said Refinery 29’s co-founder Piera Gelardi. While that mix ranges from body-positivity to environmental activism, many of the installations are also branded or primed for a fun selfie. “We like to have a portion of it feel really playful, because we think that opens people up, and it’s joyful,” she added. “I think everyone could use a little joy right now.”

Optimized for social engagement, with immersive and interactive vignettes by different artists and brand sponsors, the event has been widely successful in its digital reach. In 2016, 29 Rooms hosted 20,000 visitors and generated 310 million social interactions of content from a single three-day run in New York; last year, that number exceeded 520 million, as they wrapped up the first Los Angeles edition under the theme, “Turn it into Art.”

Culture clone wars

Last year’s 10th most-posted museum on Instagram, the Museum of Ice Cream (a similarly conceived pop-up exhibition of various Instagram-friendly rooms) was the only non-museum on the list. Unlike Refinery29’s more nuanced, content-driven 29 Rooms, however, the theme was simply ice cream. Founded and creatively directed by 25-year-old entrepreneur Maryellis Bunn, the mall of novelties has been pure social-media catnip, selling tens of thousands of tickets for limited runs in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Several competitors with similar offerings have followed, including the Color Factory, Candytopia, and Happy Place. Next month, an upstart billed as the Museum of Selfies, co-founded by a screenwriter and an escape-room designer, will open in Glendale, California. Whether earnest or tongue-in-cheek, the focal point of its premise is enough for anyone to wonder how long the trend may last.

One of the spaces at Refinery 29's 29 Rooms installation, December 2017.

“We’re seeing a lot of repetition and similar types of events cloning themselves,” said Gelardi. “That trend might reach a saturation point, because some of them aren’t so differentiated from each other. For us, what we’re trying to do is create an amalgamation of types of experience, from having theatrical elements to playful elements and reflective elements.”

“As much as we love that people come to our event and share it socially,” she added, “we’re also beginning to think about how to also create experiences that make you really present in the moment.”