For better or worse, 29Rooms raises important questions about art in the age of Instagram

Do corporate partnerships offer invaluable opportunities for emerging artists — or just "selfie bait"?

Do corporate partnerships offer invaluable opportunities for emerging artists — or just 'selfie bait'?

Wildthing Vintage owner Erica Peck poses in front of an exhibit at 29Rooms. (Photo by Graham Isador)

For their annual travelling pop museum 29Rooms, culture website Refinery 29 and their curatorial team collaborate with visual creators, musicians and local artists to fill a warehouse with 29 unique installations. The Toronto stop features a range of thought-provoking participatory performances, colourful collage walls and mesmerizing light shows — but it also features a number of branded booths hoping to use the proximity to authentic art to borrow some version of clout, and the result leaves the museum feeling disoriented.

Just a few steps from A LONG LINE OF QUEENDOM — a piece dedicated to the celebration of Black female excellence — is Shop Class. Shop Class is sponsored by major Canadian retailer Shoppers Drug Mart and encourages onlookers to put together their best beauty tool kit by playing with fake power tools. The throughline behind 29Rooms' installations pushes a positive and necessary message of female empowerment, but the constant bombardment of sponsors seems to suggest that striving for equality also involves buying a lot of stuff.

While the synergistic corporate strategizing can feel alienating for some, 29Rooms does succeed in making space for creators and highlighting their work for a new audience. Featured in the Toronto rendition of the museum is self described neo-folk artist Hannah Epstein, otherwise known by the stage name hanski. Epstein is a local to Toronto whose work uses fabric and other textiles to reimagine the iconography of popular culture. Her piece Heads or Tails is a playful take on everyday materials presented with a sense of mischief and interactivity. It appears as a part of 29Rooms' Art Park. While she was grateful to be included in the show, she does have reservations.

Hannah Epstein. (Photo by Graham Isador)

"The whole event falls under what I call selfie bait, which seems to be a trend in art," Epstein tells CBC Arts. "From institutions like the AGO bringing in Kusama's Infinity Mirrors to your average pop-up space boasting a cheap, novelty photo-op for you and your friends. Being featured in this kind of an art-adjacent spectacle — like 29Rooms — is in some respects a bad career move as it presents work in a context that seems concerned only with exploiting mass audiences. At the same time, I value the mainstream dialogue and want to be a part of it. Having to enter that kind of broader conversation seems to require participation in these more commercial spaces, so it's something I feel has been necessary but am not sure if I would do it again...I feel that 29Rooms benefits more from being associated with cool artists than the artists really benefit from being associated with a big corporate brand."

I feel that 29Rooms benefits more from being associated with cool artists than the artists really benefit from being associated with a big corporate brand.- Hannah Epstein, artist

Another local artist featured in the exhibit is Maria Qamar, best known by her online alias HATECOPY. Qamar was born in Pakistan and moved to Mississauga at age nine. She rose to fame on Instagram with satirical pop art panels that explore the differences and similarities between South Asian and North American culture, and to date she has gathered an impressive 193,000 followers on the platform. In 2017 she released Trust No Aunty, a guidebook for girls that combines her unique drawings with musings and anecdotes from her day-to-day life, DIY beauty hacks and even a few recipes. For her collaboration with 29Rooms, HATECOPY was tasked with putting together a billboard showcasing her art. Witnessing Qamar's pieces on such a large scale — as opposed to looking at her art on a phone or computer screen — brought a new perspective on the work.

HATECOPY. (Photo by Graham Isador)

The fact that HATECOPY has a huge social media following plays into another theme of 29Rooms, where the experience of the pop museum is as much about the documentation of the art on social media as witnessing the art itself. Instead of reckoning with the themes and motifs of the pieces in the present space, audiences are encouraged to snap photos and share the pictures to their online followings. The way audiences interact with the 29Rooms asks bigger questions about trends in the art world. Are we creating work specifically to be shared on the internet? Is there a way to authentically engage with visual art if the art is consumed through your phone camera? What does authentically engaging with art even look like, anyway?

If the purpose of art is to engage viewers in conversations about the pieces, then 29Rooms is undeniably a success — but the conversations may not have been what they intended.

29Rooms. To October 6. Toronto.

About the Author

Graham Isador is a writer and theatre creator based out of Toronto. He trained as a part of the playwright unit at Soulpepper Theatre. Isador's work has appeared at VICE, The Risk Podcast, and the punk rock satire site The Hard Times, among other places.