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Can Real Life Compete With an Instagram Playground?

Spaces like the Museum of Ice Cream and the Paul Smith Pink Wall offer a perfect setting for a highly shareable image—and that’s it. What happens to art, or travel, or the outside world in general when taking a photograph becomes an experience itself?

Illustrations of Instagram posts where people are posed against a pink wall Tara O'Connor illustration

About three months ago, Beyoncé dumped a batch of Mother’s Day posts into her Instagram feed. They featured the then-pregnant singer and her daughter voguing for the camera in matching $5,395 floral Dolce & Gabbana dresses and included cameos by her mother, Tina Knowles Lawson, and Jay-Z. On those merits alone, the photographs would’ve been fine gossip bait, capable of launching hundreds of adoring blog posts across the internet. But the setting of the celebration was just as compelling. The images showed the Knowles-Carter family tossing around beach balls in a pool of plastic rainbow sprinkles, swinging on swings amid shimmery banana-dotted wallpaper, and posing next to walls decorated with giant melting popsicles. Without the context of a geotag, casual scrollers imagined this brightly lit millennial-pink backdrop as a natural habitat for the world’s most iconic family. “So beautiful,” one user commented on a Boomerang of them in the sprinkle pit. “I literally bet this is in their house,” wrote another.

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Beyoncé wasn’t on some magical photoshoot or in her otherworldly Bel-Air mansion. She celebrated Mother’s Day at the Museum of Ice Cream—a pop-up installation that has welcomed enough celebrity patrons over the past four months to put TMZ on watch (Katy Perry and the Gwyneth Paltrow-Martins visited on the very same day). The space, which serves ice cream samples and features a handful of chic dessert-themed rooms, has reportedly sold $6 million in tickets since its debut last year. The Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC) was invented by 25-year-old creative strategist Maryellis Bunn, a Laguna Beach native who says she came up with the idea after growing bored of Manhattan. “I was having all these conversations about how to connect with millennial audiences in an experiential space,” she told Forbes in May. “I thought, there’s nothing new to do in New York City.”

Bunn invented something new to do. And mostly, that something involved eating stylish mini-cups of ice cream while posing for Instagram photos alongside Koons-esque gummy bear sculptures. Though the space’s name contains the word “museum,” it doesn’t offer any of the things we’ve come to expect under that title: no history, art, science experiments, and very little information beyond a few stray factoids about ice cream ingredients. “Did you know that 70 percent of the world’s spearmint and peppermint is produced here in the United States?” asks a MOIC employee in one of the many YouTube tours posted online. “I learned that two days ago when I read the script!”

The MOIC launched last summer in New York across the street from the Whitney Museum of American Art and is now on its final run in Los Angeles’s Arts District, where its $29 tickets are sold out. (Private parties were able rent the space for a whopping $180,000 a day.) At the original New York location, Tinder sponsored a room with a seesaw in the shape of an ice cream scoop that encouraged participants to meet new people and answer a series of questions to create “ice cream profiles.” In Los Angeles, every visitor receives a complementary Dove chocolate. The institution’s website describes itself as “a place where flavors are mysteries, toppings are toys, and sprinkles make the world a better place.” But more accurately, it’s a brand-supported set for celebrities, YouTube personalities, Instagram socialites, the recently viral, and regular folk to collect new material for their social media feeds.

This place is one big photo op

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Bunn, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has acknowledged as much since the MOIC took off. “We’re all looking to create content and kind of build our own personal brands, if you will, on social media and have places that are conducive to kind of elevate and show who we are as individuals,” she told NPR in May. “And the museum serves, I think, to do that quite well.”

Julien Reiman, a 21-year-old Columbia University student who worked the New York location’s reception desk last summer and watched people spill into the space to take rapid-fire photos, has another way of saying it.

“Every wall, every surface was designed to be friendly to Instagram,” he told me. “From the colors to the ground to the walls to the lights.”

Humans have always sought out beauty in their surroundings, whether they were poets reaching for the divine or French painters scouting their next countryside tableau. But lately the omnipresence of Instagram, and social networks like it, has accelerated and transformed that quest. As our smartphone cameras have become more capable, we have pushed past the novelty of a disposable selfie into professionalized aesthetics that grab attention on a rectangular screen. As photo-driven social networks continue to grow more powerful, they are both transforming boutique economies and exercising visual influence over our modern day cuisine, travel destinations, clothing labels, and makeup trends. This has been particularly true of destinations. Magazines now suggest vacation spots based on whether they contain millennial pink hotels. Restaurateurs are purposefully opening eateries with plenty of sunlight and kitschy accent walls. Prestigious museums have both relaxed their “no photography” rules and featured interactive art like Random International’s Rain Room or Yayoi Kusama’s twinkling Infinity Mirrored Room—the latter of which was dutifully Instagrammed by Katy Perry.

In response to the ever frantic demand for trendy environments, digital strategists and brands have joined forces to sidestep museums, restaurants, or businesses that double as nice backdrops—and skip straight to the backdrop itself. The result is a new category of photographic monuments that exist somewhere between a magazine-level photo shoot and a billboard ad—we’ll call them Instagram playgrounds. These spaces take many forms, from the Museum of Ice Cream, to a stray lavender wall at Disney World, to the deliberately fabricated rooms Refinery29 decorates for its Fashion Week funhouse. They are frequently designed to accommodate and complement the smartphone-wielding masses who don’t just want to photograph art or fashion—they want to prove they were part of it themselves. And even as these spaces often charge museum-like sums for admission, they have also welcomed advertisers as their benefactors, creating experiences that are as thoroughly branded as they are photogenic.

But the appeal of a curated Instagram feed has done more than fuel hashtag campaigns for Fortune 500 companies and give millennials “something to do” in the city of New York. More generally, photography-based social media feeds have redefined the basic purpose of mass photography. Before the advent of acai bowls and flat lays, photographs were directly tethered to a human experience—whether that was a family trip to the Statue of Liberty or a cramped photobooth at a wedding reception. Now, the proliferation of Instagram playgrounds has shifted mass photography toward images that are largely devoid of experience, beyond the taking of the image itself. In other words: It’s pictures of pictures, all the way down.

Late one Wednesday morning in July, a crowd of tourists began to form on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Their location of interest was the Paul Smith store, but not what was in it. The large modernist building, with its sunny corner location, single rectangular window, and striking bubblegum-pink painted wall, happens to make an excellent portrait backdrop. And over the past two years, it has become a mecca for the social media inclined, drawing a cabal of lifestyle bloggers and racking up mentions on listicles about L.A.’s “most Instagrammed” spots. A 2016 article in Atlas Obscura summed up its appeal succinctly: “arty, but not exactly art; unbranded but instantly recognizable; off-the-beaten-path but hugely popular.”

Smith, a menswear designer known for his colorful approach to traditional British tailoring, conceptualized the store in the mid-aughts, years before Instagram existed. His inspiration for its shape and color was drawn from the modernist work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán. “As I design the interiors of all my new stores, I imagine how their volume will fit within the city, how people will move around inside the space,” Smith said in Paul Smith A to Z. “Imagine a huge California-pink shoebox, right on Melrose Avenue.”

Though the menswear designer has never commented on the phenomenon, it’s safe to say that he did not imagine his California-pink shoebox would one day function as the site for thousands of amateur photo shoots. (Especially since it does not appear to have improved sales at his store.) Nevertheless, the Paul Smith brand appears to have recognized its power as a free marketing opportunity. For this year’s Pride celebration, it partnered with Instagram to temporarily transform the wall into a giant rainbow pattern, immediately drawing a fresh batch of Instagrammers to the scene.

Within the last year, the business hired a security guard to deal with the crowds. On the recent Wednesday in question, he emerged from the store around 11 a.m., just as the horde was thickening, to place a sign next to the wall. It displayed rules (“no professional photography”) and a modest list of geotags, hashtags, and handles that Paul Smith kindly requests visitors adhere to. The wall itself was soiled with footmarks, collateral damage from the standard foot-as-kickstand pose that many visitors opt for. Most everyone The Ringer surveyed that day found the store via online searches relating to Instagram, some traveling from as far as Japan or Europe. Many came prepared with outfits to complement the color of the backdrop and a vague idea of art direction. Across the street, a girl spritzed her head with hairspray. Another—a 25-year-old named Veronica who was visiting from Germany—had matched her lipstick to the wall, which she described as “very famous.” A 30-year-old Canadian woman named Angela said she’d come because she was simply drawn to the shade of pink and the “good light.” “I don't even know what Paul Smith is,” she said. “What is Paul Smith?”

Sam Crichton, a 21-year-old who’d moved to the city three days prior from Connecticut, was there with her twin sister, Maddie, midway through a tour of murals around the city. Both were bemused that a social media landmark could cause such fervor, but also resigned to the reality that standing in front of colorful walls now counted as a pastime.

“It’s sort of a thing to just take a picture with any popular street art now,” Maddie, said. “It’s interesting that one of the most boring ones is the most popular.”

“I think it just, like, looks good on Instagram,” Sam offered.

“Yeah, easy to filter,” Maddie replied.

“I feel like this is classic millennial social media,” Sam continued. “I have to be like, ‘I’m having fun in L.A.! I’m not sad I don’t have a job! Look at me with the pink wall! Everything’s great! I’m so cool! Envy my life! I’m not sad!’”

Whether an Instagram playground occurs accidentally in the world or is a deliberate influencer honeypot, it must adhere to a visual rulebook. A successful installation prioritizes individuals over their surroundings. Louisa Wells, a 24-year-old photographer who has been working as an Instagram consultant for the past year, says that even if a space looks nice, its real social network power often boils down to whether it offers the illusion of exclusivity. Wells cites While We Were Young, a restaurant with pink couches, brass tables, and white walls that recently opened in the West Village, as an example. It was billed as “the stuff of Instagram dreams” by InStyle and promptly inspired long, winding lines outside its restaurant. But Wells says that, in practice, the eatery is too cramped for more casual Instagrammers to take advantage of the meticulous decor. “It would have been so perfect if it was twice the space,” she said. “There was a long line; the first three groups took up all the space on the couches. So I saw people get frustrated.” Though the spot is still heavily photographed, the subject of photos tends to be of appetizing avocado toasts and bright pink cocktails rather than the people enjoying them.

The need for space is partially due to what’s visually appealing on a format as confining as Instagram. But as Wells often tells her clients, it’s also about inserting whatever sliver of individually you can into a location that may already feel saturated in people’s feeds.

“It has to be a space that is able to adjust to whoever's aesthetic,” she told me. “A lot of people like the far-away image, and so if someone is going to stand back and take an image of someone in front of the wall, that requires an expansiveness. But it also needs to be a backdrop where, in a close-up, someone could still get the idea of like: ‘This is a really cool spot.’”

In the case of outdoor attractions like the Paul Smith store or Miami’s frequently Instagrammed Wynwood Walls mural park, the main draw is the sheer size of the surface. Wells recalls visiting the former and observing at least six simultaneous photo shoots, all set up to appear as if the subject of the photo was alone. In more confined pop-up spaces, like Refinery29’s “29Rooms” or the Museum of Ice Cream, ensuring uninterrupted shots requires siphoning small groups of people in and out of a space. To replicate the same freedom offered by a blank wall, additional props are also designed to help visitors imagine themselves as the centerpiece of each room—a technique reminiscent of the feather boas that are sometimes still included with the event photobooths of yore. At the MOIC’s L.A. location, a millennial pink wall is decorated with vintage phones of the same color for visitors (like Kim Kardashian West) to pretend to speak into. Wells cites the pop-up’s famed sprinkle pool as an example of an effective backdrop that changes for nearly anyone who comes through the space.

“The sprinkle pool really worked because it acted as a good unifier,” she said. “The space in general was filled with practical things, it acted as a space that you could use as moveable set—you'd drop down a little, make it look seamless, and then suddenly it’s your thing.”

What Wells is describing—demand for scenery that is at once accessible to the masses but malleable in an Instagram feed—has essentially spurred a thriving boutique industry over the past five years. And as features like Instagram and Snapchat Stories have become more popular, firms that specialize in this so-called “experiential design” are pushing even harder to make their installations as visually dynamic as possible.

The creative advertising firm We’re Magnetic is one such company; two years ago, it partnered with Hulu to announce that Seinfeld was newly available on the streaming service. To spread the word, its designers meticulously studied each season of the series, and constructed a full replica of Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment in New York’s Meatpacking District. The team sought to ensure they’d get pick-up on social media by also included a series of photo opportunities: a functioning door for mimicking Kramer’s spazzy entrances, a couch that harkened back to George’s “Art of Seduction” photo, and a microphone stand with which to impersonate Jerry’s stand-up.

According to Gary Johnson, the firm’s director of strategy, the campaign was a hit—generating thousands of photos and videos on Instagram and press from just about every media outlet imaginable. But now he says that the firm is striving to move beyond experiences that are simply designed as photo ops. Part of that is due to the fact that social media’s features have evolved to include video- and photo-based “stories” that demand a more complete and immersive environment. To address this evolution, Johnson says that his studio has begun attending to “transition moments” among sets, where additional music, lighting, or mood decor would help to keep people engaged with their surroundings as they traveled to the next centerpiece. We’re Magnetic has also started to incorporate more participatory elements into its fixtures. At a booth commissioned by Crayola for a kids’ convention last year, visitors were invited to draw on the same patterned wall they were meant to pose in front of.

“Something we’re definitely trying to do significantly more of today is make sure that the space has a holistic thread so that all of the Instagram photos or stories being shared on social are not just of [something like] the Museum of Ice Cream sprinkle tub,” he said. “The things that you see on your feed should be a little bit different from what I see on my feed.”

Though he says We’re Magnetic will always cater to a social-media-centric crowd, Johnson is convinced that the people are looking for more than a good photo from an event.

“We live our lives mostly on screens, and I think all of the generations of people are looking to connect in the real world,” he said. “From our perspective, all we’re trying to do is just be in a place that people, as a natural part of their life, are willing to stop by and have an experience.” What’s left unsaid in that logic is that for many people wired into the Instagram circuit, taking a photo is the experience itself.

Before people began to seek out professionalized studio settings for their photos, Instagram was often mocked for hosting a near-uniform stream of humdrum sunsets and manicures. In 2012, CollegeHumor made a faux music video to the tune of Nickelback’s “Photograph,” parodying the monotony of a typical feed and the silliness of considering it creative: “Look at this Instagram / Eggs benedict, side of ham / Started out as a lemon tart / Then my phone went and made it art.” It was a time of experimentation, where people had no problem masking blurry, typical sunset photos with oversaturated Hefe filters, and posting was far less strategic. An Instagram feed was essentially an amateur photo diary that featured everyday objects and people.

According to Lev Manovich, a professor at City University of New York who analyzed 16 million Instagram photos for his book Instagram and Contemporary Image, the social network began to become more professionalized around 2014, as smartphone cameras improved. “It became an elite medium,” he told me. “You were not suppose to post any bad pictures. The majority of people still used it in this very casual mode, but anyone who thought about followers or wanted to promote products cared. Basically, Instagram became an art gallery. The way I curate an art gallery is to spend days figuring out which paintings I will feature from this artist and lighting. And that’s how people feel about their Instagrams.”

This professionalized tier of Instagram has created its own industry complete with with models, beauty experts, designers, trendsetters, interior designers, and “it” humans that all traffic in similar aesthetics. And as the masses have become more discerning about their photos and where to take them, a specific “Instagram look” has developed. Critics have expressed concern over society’s navel-gazing, and the utter sameness that results in fashion, architecture, or art when it’s designed to be captured on someone’s Instagram feed. Social media “absolutely perpetuates one aesthetic,” a longtime makeup artist told The New York Times last year in an article titled “‘Instagram Face’: Is It the End of Good Makeup?” “It’s like looking at a bunch of clones. They’re Botoxed, filled and surgeried to look like Kim.”

Earlier this year, I heard a similar sentiment from a vintage clothing shop owner who does most of her advertising on Instagram: “Across the board, people want their lives to look like a fucking Pinterest board, and that’s the most gross thing to me ever,” she said. Similarly, art circles have taken issue with the repetitive aesthetics of the social network and its use of flashy museum exhibits as the original, unwitting Instagram playgrounds.

“Increasingly, shows feature big, bold, spectacular works that translate into showy Instagram pictures or Snap stories, allowing art to wow people who might otherwise rarely set foot inside museums,” Katharine Schwab wrote in The Atlantic last year, referencing the Renwick Gallery’s exhibition, Wonder and the aforementioned Rain Room. “But the trend toward accessibility has its critics who wonder whether the sensationalist works being exhibited are worthy of all the attention, not to mention whether the smartphone photography is getting in the way of people looking and thinking about the art in front of them.”

Schwab proved her point by chronicling several elite art critics’ brow-furrowing at such displays. The New York Times’ Ken Johnson wrote in 2013 that Rain Room seemed “little more than a gimmicky diversion.” An article that same year in Art Forum suggested the exhibit was only popular because it could “harness and reflect contemporary desire for seemingly direct ‘participation’ and spectacular forms of exposure”—a sure Instagram subtweet.

The art world’s rich history of philosophical hand-wringing has left no shortage of conversations questioning the value of mass-produced or sensational work. But these critics’ concerns get to the heart of larger questions that arise when a network of 700 million monthly active users congeals into one vaguely unified, often-sponsored aesthetic. “Instagram is one of many arenas where professionalization, or the democratization of professionalization, is playing itself out in a very very visible way,” Manovich said. His most recent project analyzes the brightness, saturation, and hue of Instagram photos from 81 separate cities, and he has found they’re becoming more similar. “We have this suggestion that visual variability is decreasing.” The whole world is starting to look like an Instagram ad, and we are all willing participants.

Of all the places that young people gather to photograph themselves, the summer music festival is the most frenzied. The outfits, the artists, and the open-air environment all make for excellent, “like”-inducing content. Over the past couple years, major music festivals like Coachella and Moogfest have sought to give attendees even more to brag about, adding high-tech art installations to their lineups for heady and photogenic side experiences that are often sponsored by major tech companies. One of the more recent newcomers in this category is “The Lab”—a sprawling air-conditioned tent tucked in by the port-a-potties at the two-year-old Panorama music festival in New York. When I visited in late July, the space appeared to have none of the Instagram playground requisites I’d come to expect. It was dark and replete with glowing lights, full of installations that were focused on arousing senses, like smell and movement. Prior to visiting, I’d spoken to Elliot Blanchard, a Brooklyn-based motionographer who had contributed a piece called “Future Portrait.” It was intended to encourage a collaborative dance party that captures the motion of people’s bodies and translates it into abstract animations—an artsier version of those iconic iPod commercials. Observers could use the HP tablets nearby to throw digital shapes into the spectacle as well. “Other than people having a good time, I hope that this helps people realize that you create something awesome with your body,” he told me. I didn’t quite understand what any of that meant, but it seemed the experience would be impossible to Instagram.

Coincidentally, Blanchard’s piece was the first I encountered when I slipped past the long and winding line of concertgoers waiting to get into the tent. As music blared, a woman—who appeared to be a professional dancer connected to the exhibit—swiveled and dipped on a mini-stage. One guy attempted to join, but his embarrassed friends promptly scurried him away to a nearby line for what appeared to be a glowing selfie chamber. Many others moved on to another, adjacent room, their smartphones in their hands and ready for action.

I followed them to discover a cube of full-length LED-lined mirrors titled Volume. People around me began to fire up their Snapchat and Instagram stories instinctively. As they circled the installation, sensors above the mirrors took stock of the audience, and angled them toward whoever was closest. A girl with a long ponytail and long fringe earrings began dancing toward her reflection, catching their attention briefly as she filmed herself on Snapchat. Another concertgoer in a shiny silver leotard whipped out her GoPro, blocking the view of someone right behind her. A few feet away, a couple had already given up on finding their reflection in the piece, and were using the LEDs as lighting for a selfie.

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I recalled what Michael Szivos, the owner of the studio behind the Volume installation, had told me about his piece. “A lot of people will be taking photos of themselves in the project,” he said. “It’s a commentary on that in a way: If you’re too close to it you can’t escape your own reflection. Some people will love it, because people love taking selfies, for others it might be outside of their comfort zones.”

Not one person in the crowd seemed to fit that second category. In fact, most everyone who stumbled into the room had the innate instinct to lift their smartphone in front of their face and experience every object they encountered through the perspective of their screen. If anything, they had proved an entirely separate truth: If you try hard and believe in your selfies, any surface can be the backdrop for the Instagram feed that is your life. The whole world is an Instagram playground, and all of us merely users.

Additional reporting by Haley O'Shaughnessy.

This piece has been updated to reflect that the advertising firm Magnetic has changed its name to We’re Magnetic.