By Julian Oquendo
This article was first published in The DC Line here.
Whether it’s a social scene to get to know a stranger, or a space for internal reflection, 29Rooms: Expand Your Realityoffers just the right backdrop. This inspired, eclectic and culturally conscious festival — featuring interactive workshops, installations, performances and more — invites guests to engage with the work of approximately a dozen female artists from DC and across the nation.
The DC Armory in Southeast is hosting the touring festival — which opened Friday and features multiple art stations, or “rooms” of Instagram-worthy installations — through Sunday, Oct. 27. With some minor variation to the art installations, the tour highlights local artists for some of its pieces.
Refinery29, the digital media company behind this event, has an audience of young women in mind, but the event offers a celebratory environment likely to appeal to anyone who enjoys a curated selfie.
This is the first year the festival is making a stop in the District, having made its previous appearances in Los Angeles and New York. Since the event’s launch in 2015, reviews have focused on the social messages behind the art, and, of course, its photogenic appeal. Organizers encourage guests to pull out their phones and share pictures of themselves engaging with the art on social media. Each room’s introductory placard provides a brief description of the installation, along with a number of suggested Instagram hashtags to promote the work.
And each room offers a slightly different message or theme.
“Some of our rooms have very simple prompts … asking for [the] audience to engage [in order] to power the room and bring them to life,” says Olivia-Jene Fagon, who oversees 29Rooms as creative director of events and experiential at Refinery29.
In one of the rooms — centered around A Conversation With Your Inner Child byBarcelona-based movement artist Carlota Guerrero — attendees are asked to write out messages to their inner child on pink Post-It notes that line the walls. In the middle of the room is Guerrero’s statue of an adult reaching out to a child.
Another set of rooms forces strangers to interact. A Blind Date With Destiny requires exhibitgoers to sit across from one another with a wall between them, leaving only the other person’s hands visible; after receiving a quick tutorial, the participants are asked to perform amateur palm readings. On the opposite side of the Armory, the room 29 Questions features prompt cards that help guests get to know each other.
Most rooms try to share a powerful social message. A Long Line of Queendom is a monument and tribute to the experience of black women, both as individuals and as a group. Messages such as “Say her name” and “My hair ain’t up for debate” are written on the walls of the room. A golden carpet leads up to an altar.
Of course, the biggest draw for some attendees is the “Instagram-able” feel of the festival. A room called No Filter plays with light to enable you to “experience creative lighting methods … to see yourself,” making it an excellent and easily transformed space for taking a selfie.
Other rooms, such as those set up by 29Rooms corporate partners, are really just promoting a brand. Prudential Financial, for example, put together an “escape room” activity that prompts a group to complete challenges and build toward financial wellness. The ACLU, the event’s nonprofit partner, has a “Values Stand” that resembles a New York City bodega and promotes the American values and rights the organization protects.
The rooms that were curated by individual artists will likely be the biggest draw for local patrons, and deservedly so. Trap Bob — a DC-based visual artist, illustrator and animator as well as creative director for the women-centric collective GIRLAAA — designed the images for a staircase installation, one of a number of contributed pieces for The Art Park in this year’s festival.
Installation-based artist Yvette Mayorga, another contributor to The Art Park, presents a playful work with a subversive, solemn message that highlights issues of immigration. Using a cake frosting-like material, child-like coloring, industrial materials and the American board game Candy Land, Mayorga has created a conceptual framework that juxtaposes the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico. This piece travels along with the rest of the tour.
“It was a great opportunity to think about my paintings in a 3D form across the country,” Chicago-based Mayorga says. “That’s super exciting to me — to have elements that have become synonymous in my work come to life and travel across the country.”
The chance to reach audiences across the country is also part of the excitement for Trap Bob.
“[Refinery29] really allowed me to experiment,” she said. “I was able to brand the staircase with my designs and have this message that would go to all these different places and resonate with so many people.”
Trap Bob also notes that she has seen how social media has contributed to her installation’s value. “It’s amazing that people are not only taking pictures but [also] relating to the theme. I’ve had people with these captions and tagging me and stuff. … I feel like I just got to know hundreds of thousands of people over the past couple of months.”