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Immersive art or ego trip? Instagram-optimized pop-ups come to Canada

Immersive attractions exploring everything from ice cream to M.C. Escher-inspired murals are increasingly turning up in major cities, including Toronto. Critics call them superficial diversions — heavy on the photo-op, light on depth — but are they also game-changing cultural experiences sending a message to traditional arts museums?

'People want to be a part of something. They want to maybe become part of the art,' says Happy Place creator

Lifestyle blogger Gracie Carroll captures herself inside the confetti dome at Happy Place in Toronto, the first international outpost of the popular attraction. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

You've likely seen them on your social feeds: picture-perfect snaps of your friends, family or Instagram favourites posing in stunning, eye-catching locales — perhaps laughing at the centre of a vibrant confetti storm, lounging in a pool of candy sprinkles or maybe floating in darkness magically illuminated by twinkly lights. 

Immersive, participatory exhibitions, experiences and attractions exploring everything from ice cream to mind-scrambling M.C. Escher-inspired murals are popping up more frequently in major cities. 

The Museum of Illusions is opening a Toronto location this month, with the Canadian debut joining more than a dozen locations worldwide. (Maaz Khan/Museum of Illusions Toronto)

As traditional art institutions struggle to attract patrons, these new funhouse-like cultural exhibits are easily drawing scores of visitors, who spread the word by blasting images of apparently joyful experiences out via social media. Timed viewing slots are often sold out weeks in advance, and tens of thousands of tickets are bought at upwards of $30 a pop. 

Critics call these newfangled pop-ups superficial diversions — heavy on the photo-op, light on depth. But are they also game-changing cultural experiences sending a message to traditional arts venues?

Two of these popular spaces are opening up in Canada this month: Happy Place is setting down for a two-month stay in Toronto's Harbourfront neighbourhood, and Museum of Illusions is opening a Toronto outpost with an eye toward further expansion to other Canadian cities.

Happy Place got started in L.A. last year before moving on to Chicago. Toronto is its first international location. Museum of Illusion is a little older, and got its start in Croatia — and has already opened up in cities like Kuala Lumpur and New York.

Some have likened the new experiential exhibits to headline-grabbing museum installations by major artists like Yayoi Kusama — whose boffo Infinity Mirrors show inspired massive queues online and in person (including in Toronto).

The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away is one of Yayoi Kusama's best known Infinity Mirror Room installations. Her works have drawn massive audiences to galleries and art museums around the globe. (Evan Mitsui/CBCNews)

Jared Paul, the creator of Happy Place, was inspired by the audience interactivity of Kusama's Infinity Mirrors exhibit but wanted to push it further. The result? A series of multi-sensory rooms and settings that, he hopes, will motivate visitors to set aside their worldly concerns for an hour or so and to simply dive in, perform and play.

"I wanted to lend my skills to something that is a little bit different, a show that we can actually experience and walk through," Paul said this week, ahead of Thursday's opening of Happy Place's Toronto location.

Jared Paul, creator of the hit immersive experience Happy Place and a live entertainment producer, says, 'We want people to have fun. I want them to play in confetti, have something fun. I want them to be entertained, maybe just put a smile on their face.' (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Paul said his experience with Happy Place has shown him that lots of people are hungry for a different kind of artistic experience.

"There is a large group of people that want to be a part of something. They want to maybe become part of the art," he said. "People want to touch. They want to feel." 

The notion of audiences interacting with art isn't lost on Jasmin Pannu, the Toronto-area muralist Paul's team enlisted to put local touches on the latest Happy Place.

Her work has evolved to include what she calls "interactive murals" — large-scale commissioned paintings that invite viewers to strike a pose as part of their experience. Pannu has adapted her artistic process and even chooses her colour palette with social media sharing in mind.

Toronto-area artist Jasmin Pannu, right, helped put Canadian touches on the new outpost of Happy Place, which opened in Toronto Thursday. (Jessica Wong/CBC)

"I know people are going to use Instagram. I know people love to take photos [with my murals]. I just want to optimize that," she said.

"Then, if you're gonna take a photo and you're looking at it later, maybe when you look up, you'll also start to notice the beauty around you."

Instant nostalgia vs. challenging art

But what's pleasurable on Instagram doesn't necessarily translate to something truly sustaining in real life, said Emily Dickson, a graduate student in OCAD University's criticism and curatorial practice program.

She, along with several classmates, characterized these pop-up exhibits as trendy but ultimately superficial and unchallenging exercises.

Adrienne Huard (from left), Emily Dickson and Valérie Frappier are graduate students studying for a master of arts degree in criticism and curatorial practice at Toronto's OCAD University. (CBC)

"If this is what happy is, I don't want to be happy. I don't want to think that going to my happy place is being surrounded by cookies," Dickson said, when asked for her view on this new wave of installations.

At more traditional galleries or art museums, "You see things that are different than you. That's a challenge and you have to grow. That's what art should be," she said. "It shouldn't be a perfect mirror. It shouldn't be a place to take selfies and just see yourself everywhere. How on earth do we hope to progress in a way that's useful if we'd rather just be surrounded with ice cream cones and lemonade?"

Two visitors pose inside the chocolate chip cookie room at Happy Place in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Visitors capture images at Happy Place in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Michael Prokopow, an OCAD University professor who is also an art historian and curator, said he sees this new wave as the latest incarnation of age-old entertainment, a successor to circuses, midways and amusement parks. 

Newfangled attractions will always be at the forefront of people's imaginations, Prokopow said, because there is the presumption that traditional museums will always be there.

"But I might miss Happy Place." 

A sense of community

That these exhibitions, which have adopted terminology and other elements from traditional art museums (such as enlisting curators and commissioning working artists), seems to indicate a shift in how art, creativity and even museum themselves are being perceived, said Sarah Thornton, sociologist of culture and author of 33 Artists in 3 Acts and Seven Days in the Art World.

Exhibits in the vein of Kusama's Infinity Mirrors or Carsten Holler's sky-high slides and light-tunnels create a powerful sense of community among those participating in them, she said.

Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirror rooms, like All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkin seen here, create a powerful sense of community among those participating in them, says author and sociologist Sarah Thornton. (Evan Mitsui/CBCNews)
Children play at the opening of artist Carsten Holler's installation Gartenkinder, created in the Gagosian Gallery's stand at the Frieze Art Fair, in London in 2014. (Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images for Gagosian Gallery)

"There is this idea that art doesn't involve people and it's something that you can't touch. I am basically all for art you can touch... art you can go inside, art that involves your whole body. Stuff inside a gold frame? Not necessary.

"What we need are experiences that bring us into the present physicality of our life."

Though she hasn't herself ventured into one of these immersive experiences, Thornton said she views them on a continuum, given that the projects are often commercial enterprises, many presented through corporate sponsorships.

"I'm sure some of these are tacky and exploitative... and others are generous and attempting to deepen or enrich our experience as human beings." 

Thornton warned against being "snooty about patrolling definitions of art." 

Traditional galleries and museums can learn something valuable from the pop-ups currently capturing our attention, she said: There's value in being appealing to a wider audience, presenting material and creators that are relatable, and answering a desire for tangible, multi-sensory cultural experiences. 

And what if people only stop in for the selfies?

Cameras capture blogger Gracie Carroll from all angles at the Happy Place exhibition in Toronto. (Jessica Wong/CBC)

Even if that first hook is superficial, it's not necessarily a bad thing, Thornton explained. A business mogul might start out buying art as an investment, but later become an informed, passionate collector. 

In the same vein, someone who was only interested in a wicked-looking snap from a Kusama Infinity Room might later recognize the Japanese artist while scrolling through Netflix queues and proceed to watch a doc about her life.

"Superficial things can get people there, but once they're there, there's an opportunity to go deeper." 

With files from Eli Glasner and Sharon Wu