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March 04, 2018


A woman taking a selfie
A woman taking a selfie

Artechouse’s projection screen, tall and imposing, shimmers with paint. It bubbles and drips and swirls, like something you’d see on the Discovery Channel. Like a laser-light show, but also just like a very large lava lamp.

Artechouse — the name implies art. The 15,000-square-foot space is billed as a place for “immersive, sensory art experiences,” which, roughly translated, means that there are exhibits where you might clap at the screen and evoke lightning and thunder, or simply swipe your hand and cause swirls of colour on the floor to move and sway, like bubbles in the bathtub.

It also happens to be a highly photogenic place.

“Do you want to take a picture?” a bartender asks, reading our mind. He’s holding perfectly still at the long bar, prepared for the inevitable as he delivers a cocktail that changes from blue to purple. (Yes, there is a bar.)

Not everyone is posing artfully in front of the projection screen, primed for a photo shoot. But plenty of visitors are. (Go on; look at the 6,000-plus Instagram posts the place is tagged in.) As Artechouse co-founder Tati Pastukhova, 30, delicately puts it, “There are people who would like to come tell a story.”

The story is often just a photo. And she acknowledges that once posted on social media, it can ensure that others will also visit — 65,000 have visited since Artechouse opened in June in a vacant building in Washington, DC — and pay 15 US dollars for the privilege.

Pastukhova and her partner insist that Artechouse is an artistic endeavour, and besides, even museums allow cellphones these days.

It’s also 15 dollars to get into the Future of Sports — a 10,000-square-foot exhibit that opened a few miles away in October — with rooms painted every shade of the technicolour rainbow, most notably that pale, baby-powder-soft shade known as millennial pink.

In one room, sisters Samantha and Catherine Mucciolo bound off a box that seems to have been set up just for people to pose on, like at the portrait studio at Sears. It’s white, topped with black-and-white stripes. Behind it is a wall of orange-and-white stripes, angled appealingly in the opposite direction. They gaze at the photo they’ve just snapped. It is outstanding.

“Obviously, we live in a social-media era, where people love to take photos,” says Nicole Pinedo, who designed the Future of Sports. “I definitely put that thought behind designing every single room.”

And cameras play tricks. At the Future of Sports, they turn a room with a couple of spin bikes and a zag of neon into a theatrical backdrop. They make millennial pink blush, and turn a wall covered in highlighter-yellow tennis balls into a fever dream. Never mind the dusty corners and the dents in the drywall. On Instagram, everything — and everyone — here looks strangely perfect.

And there you have what’s driving this boom in Instagrammable temples. “People want experiences more than things,” the founder of a similar space, the Colour Factory said. And so “experiences” have sprung up simultaneously all across the country. Like the Future of Sports, many are just a series of colourful rooms (the current Artechouse display is called “Kingdom of Colours”). Most are temporary. They all require admission tickets, and they’re selling ungodly numbers of them.

The Colour Factory in San Francisco has filled 12,000 square feet with a disco ball room and scratch-and-sniff walls and quarters where confetti sprays down on you.

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, there’s the serious-sounding Museum of Ice Cream, a confection of a place that smells like sugar and looks something like pop art and is, of course, highly Instagrammable. For 38 dollars, you can swing in the Banana Split room, whose walls are plastered in pink foil printed with bright bananas; or you can wade into a pool of synthetic sprinkles, as Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Blue Ivy did this spring. The space sold out in both cities for its entire run but will appear again in the next winter in Miami, just in time for Art Basel. The 25-year-old founder isn’t aspiring to be Jeff Koons, however; she told New York Magazine that she’d like to be the next Disney.

New York had “29 Rooms” hosted by the website Refinery 29, which will open the display in Los Angeles next month. It boasted, as the title suggests, 29 rooms, many designed by celebrities, many filled with the neon signage. Another space, dubbed ‘Happy Place,’ has just opened.

If you stare long enough, though — really stare — you can begin to convince yourself that you see echoes of conceptual art and of the psychedelic ’60s. You could draw a line between the Museum of Ice Cream’s sprinkle pool and Ai Wei Wei’s pile of porcelain sunflower seeds, or see that the forest of colourful ribbons cascading down on guests at the Colour Factory smacks of the work of kinetic artist Jesús Rafael Soto.

Yayoi Kusama’s name also gets bandied about by the creators of these spaces. Her “Infinity Mirror” rooms — now touring the country — are an example of conceptual art (Kusama was an art-world darling in the ’60s and ’70s) that can, in our modern era, also be Instagram famous, they say.

As Miller points out, “These modern experiences are for profit. They don’t have the mission that museums have. I don’t think these are the kind of spaces that give birth to art movements.”

Pinedo sees it differently. “Art is subjective, you know?” she says. She hasn’t studied art since high school, but the 28-year-old describes herself as an artist, and her rooms alternately as minimalistic and conceptual.

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 4th, 2018