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The Rise of Photo-Friendly Pop-Ups

Art for the Instagram age.

Scroll through any Instagram feed these days and there is a good chance you may come across a photo of someone grinning while engulfed in a brightly coloured ball pit or laughing through a cascade of rainbow sparkles shimmering mid-air. Welcome to the age of the Instagram-friendly pop-up. These immersive, photogenic exhibitions have taken art out of its hallowed halls and into temporary spaces specifically designed to be shared via the rectangular window of your cell phone.

Should the art world reel in horror at the instantly consumable pop-up exhibition? No. It may be easy to cast a critical eye upon these pop-ups as being narcissistic or vacuous, but they also provide opportunities to capture and share a moment of unbridled joy. Technology has given us the ability to easily scan images when waiting for the bus or procrastinating at work, but it’s not boredom that compels us to look. We’re curious creatures: we want to see what’s going on with people we know and care about. For friends, family, and followers, the photos are a fleeting gift, a quick escape to give our brains a dose of the pretty, the fabulous, and often irreverent. Is it so bad to want to see something that makes us smile?



Photo: The Happy Place.


Like any creative endeavour, these interactive exhibits also have a raison d’etre. The recently opened Museum of Selfies in Los Angeles offers a history of the self-portrait alongside endless opportunities to selfie, while at the Rosé Mansion, guests can learn about the pink drink in addition to sipping it (and snapping photos, of course). Like any art gallery, the pop-up art exhibit is about learning, but instead of traditional academia, it’s an interactive event made for the fast-paced online world.

Why, then, would one visit a temporary exhibit over an established contemporary art gallery? The fixation comes from the high-level of interactivity—these pop-ups allow us to become part of the art, not just view it. They build on concepts employed by artists like Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman who feature depictions of themselves in their self-portraits, or Marina Abramović who has performed pieces that called for audience participation. Although the selfie generation may be working in within a new digital medium, they are still contributing to a cultural trend that has proven to be more than a fleeting fad and still has artistic merit.

Take, for example the Color Factory, which debuted in San Francisco last August. This collaborative exhibit enlisted the creativity of artists and designers who dreamed up 15 original works of vibrant art including a sunshine-yellow, monochromatic ball pit room and a display with 10,000 ribbons of all colours hanging from the ceiling. While the exhibit was intended to only be a month-long operation, it was so popular that the run was extended to eight months—and was completely sold out.



Photo: The Happy Place.


The latest iteration to land on Canadian soil is the Happy Place in Toronto. Created by Jared Paul (his day job is the manager to New Kids On The Block and Il Divo), this exhibit is a reaction to the endless stream of negative news. Made in collaboration with Butch Allen of Blame Funnel Creative, Happy Place is as simple as it sounds: a place to be happy.

First opened in Los Angeles and recently in Chicago, the 20,000-square-foot pop-up debuted on Toronto’s Harbourfront on November 1 with a series of 10 rooms, each celebrating a theme of happiness. Hallmarks of the Happy Place include the Cookie Room, with a six-foot-tall chocolate chip cookie and cookie-patterned wallpaper, the X’s and O’s room complete with a lip-shaped couch, and the Happy Hallway, with a Toronto-exclusive custom maple leaf design by local artist Jasmin Pannu. There’s also a lemonade stand with proceeds going to York Region Arts Council, alongside a selection of equally sunshine-y snacks, including smiley face cookies, rainbow grilled cheese, and hot chocolate with whipped cream and sprinkles.

With an increasing list of those who want to pose, post, and be a part of this pop-up phenomenon, Paul’s goal is to encourage happiness. “If you’re old to enough to smile, you belong inside,” he says, perhaps perfectly encapsulating what is at the core of this new wave of pop-up experiences: an inclusive, shareable experience, not meant to be scrutinized, but to simply be enjoyed.

Happy Place is in Toronto from November 1, 2018 to January 1, 2019.


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