All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.
– William Shakespeare
As You Like It Act II, Scene VII
About a year ago, I went with my family to see the wildly successful Yayoi Kusama exhibition, Infinity Rooms, at the Art Gallery on Ontario (AGO). We joined thousands in the gallery that day. The pulse of visitors through each installation was carefully choreographed by the staff. 20 to 30 minutes snaking around each installation, followed by 30 seconds inside each box. Half a dozen installations added up to a two-and-a-half-hour overall experience. The family found every installation terrific, the Infinity Rooms the most amazing.
And like everyone else at the AGO that day, we were ruthless in using our allotted 30 seconds to capture the best possible selfies. We got good at it – phones at the ready, we ducked in, posed and clicked.
Given how perfectly Yayoi Kusama installations work as backdrops to these so-called ‘Instagrammable moments’, it’s easy to forget that the work had not been conceived in this way. Kusama has been creating infinity rooms for a long, long time, well before the digital age. From before we landed on the moon, actually. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine what experiencing Yayoi Kusama would be like without a phone in hand.
The pull to get that perfect selfie and post was tangible that day, even insurmountable – which was a big win for the AGO. All that posting and sharing on social media, day in and day out, drives attendance to exhibitions in a way that no traditional marketing campaign ever could.
So, a win-win, right?
About six months after Yayoi Kusama, my family and I went to Happy Place in Toronto – a travelling exhibition where absolutely every colour, texture, sightline and set-up had been planned for Instagram. Again, the queues, the phones, the selfies. Rather than infinity rooms, we sat in a yellow bathtub surrounded by hundreds of yellow ducks. But unlike Yayoi Kusama, two hours in Happy Place left the family feeling a lot emptier, and less happy.
Recently The Art Newspaper asked a not unreasonable question: As social media sharing is increasingly critical to exhibition attendance, then shouldn’t curators start to conceive of themes, select artwork, and design exhibitions specifically to maximize social media shares?
That feels a bit to me like letting the Trojan Horse right in. Twenty years ago, I went to the Louvre and found myself standing three rows back peering over shoulders at the Mona Lisa. Not a great visitor experience. Today you would find an even larger crowd, but standing with backs to the Mona Lisa, arms outstretched.
But for-profit ‘museums’ are there already. Happy Place, Museum of Ice Cream, Museum of Illusions, HideSeek – the content is different at each, but the model is the same. All are based on creating paper-thin entertainment spaces as a backdrop to our online lives.
And it’s not only museums grappling with these disruptions. Theme parks too are ambivalent about visitors with phones. I’ve experienced it myself. Sure, that two-hour wait for a ride at Disney went faster the day I had my phone as a companion. However, for that two hours on my phone – reading news, checking Facebook, making dinner reservations – I was totally pulled out of the Disney magic. Which had been constructed with great care and cost to surround me, precisely to keep me immersed in Disney.
So why? Why does Happy Place fail when Yayoi Kusama pleases? And why do I feel nostalgic for a time when I visited Disney without my phone as a distraction?
What a great museum and a great theme park share is the power to pull us out of ourselves, away from our daily concerns, and to transport us to other places. That’s the great USP of a theme park or museum. We go to encounter stories, ideas and experiences we ourselves could not imagine. Where our personal stories fundamentally don’t matter.
I think what we are witnessing is a collision of two paradigms – our self-centredness represented by social media against our desire for ‘other-worldliness’ on offer at museums and theme parks. My hope is that museums and theme parks will take this as a call to action. To redouble their efforts at what they excel at – providing experiences so good that they make us look up from our phones.
Where will it go from here?
It could be that we are at the very first steps of a new era, and what we are experiencing now as the shallowness of the Instagrammable moment will evolve into something much more. I’m thinking of the (probably apocryphal) story of the founding of the movie industry in the 1890s, in which audiences supposedly panicked when viewing an onrushing locomotive on screen. Movies at that point were pure spectacle. From there movies evolved past that first, undeveloped, spectacle phase, into the rich, narrative art form we know. Maybe twenty years from now we too will look back on the Instagrammable moment as just that – a moment in time, representing the first, undeveloped, spectacle phase that grew into something much more wonderful.