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29 Rooms

Is it art? If it isn’t, what are they selling?

By Arts & Culture, Featured

Photo by Cat DeBacker

Refinery29 has already made quite the impact on the world since its inception in 2005. Younger than the internet, it has made its stamp on Snapchat as an early adapter to Snap Stories. A gentle blend of all things good—millennial pink, culture, arts, and fashion—Refinery29 has quickly climbed the ranks to stand beside the likes of Cosmopolitan and Buzzfeed as a top source for today’s culture and arts information flow. Refinery29’s scope is all-encompassing in terms of “women’s interests”, comparable to popular feminist resources such as Jezebel, Bust, or Vice News.

In its fourth year, 29Rooms is an exhibition that attempts to turn Refinery29’s virtual presence into a reality. It has made its way to Chicago, having already been established in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. According to Co-Founder Piera Gelardi, Refinery29 wanted 29Rooms to physically embody what the magazine represents: “the play of the funhouse combined with the reverence of a museum”.

Chicago’s 29Rooms is in collaboration with companies and organizations like Clinique, bareMinerals, Netflix, Planned Parenthood, Women’s March, and Samsung; and celebrities like Jake Gyllenhaal, JIll Soloway, Emma Roberts, Demi Lovato, and Janelle Monae. It was initially unclear whether this event was purely advertising, an artist’s exhibition, or something else entirely.

Corporation involvement in putting on this event undermines what could be honest artistry. Citizens of the United States have genuine cause to doubt the motivations behind monetary enterprises. In an unsurprising irony, the more self-professed feminist and innovative the byline, the greater the cause for doubt.

This year’s theme, “Turn It Into Art”, “celebrates the transformative power of creativity and explores how art influences emotion, shifts perspectives and encourages experimentation. The interactive experience is created in collaboration with cultural influencers, including artists and brands reflecting Refinery29’s commitment to supporting innovative talent and content that drives vital conversation, inspiration and positive change” according to Refinery29.

Aside from the slew of activist-artists involved, Refinery29 plans to make donations to its non-profit partners: Illinois Planned Parenthood, Erie Neighborhood House, and Art of Elysium. A portion of 29Rooms merchandise sales are going to Step Up, a non-profit for empowering young women in under-resourced communities. It would seem that aside from being one of the most aesthetically pleasing events of the year, Refinery29 is truly seeking to enact change.

But still the question remained: what are they selling?

The space was comprised of a series of rooms, each sponsored by a collaborator, broken up by what R29 calls activations, or smaller interactive pieces between rooms. There was no avoiding the Planned Parenthood room and activation. The first piece I encountered in the space was a giant neon light structure. One could walk through larger than life ovaries, birth control packs, clocks that were all suspended in the center of the warehouse. Their activation, the Plan-B Hotline, was a bank of three old-school telephone booths, complete with a chained phone book, stickers, and pens for “encouraging” graffiti. Hoping to normalize women’s health experiences, the booth allowed viewers to open a phone book, pick a person, dial their number, and hear their story.

Placing Planned Parenthood’s pieces centrally was a smart move and set the tone for the remaining installations. I kicked punching bags in the Women’s March “The Future is Female” Room, got an airbrushed lion like Demi Lovato’s in “The Power Parlor”, had a nice cry in Jill Soloway’s “Gender Neutral” bathRoom, and shredded negativity in Jake Gyllenhaal’s “Shred It” Room.

However, a hop, skip, and a jump away were more artistic works like “Erotica in Bloom”, by Maisie Cousins. A huge rose canopy dripped onto the floor and past the curtain of greenery, giant plastic flowers tipped upside down over grassy boxes. Stand on the box, and you could see a screen inside the flower showing films of women tonguing cherries, or exposed esophaguses; blurring the lines between sexuality and nature.

Next door was a giant throne made by Shani Crowe. She is an artist connected to SAIC as a collaborator in the school commissioned US Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale. Her work centers on beauty rituals, as they relate to the African diaspora, and how these practices function as tools to foster connectivity. Crowe’s Room, “Rest in Power, Rest in Peace” is a two-in-one, two-story tall installation focused on Chicago violence. A giant throne painted black, decorated with puka shells that radiate out like the sun is at the stair’s zenith.  Underneath is a candle-lit shrine to celebrate those who’ve passed and “reclaim a moment of peace”.

By the time I walked through each installation, bouncing around in Clinique’s Room, a white trampoline filled with “bubbles” and a neon rainbow “Happy Skin” sign, I had almost forgotten they were selling me on their new Dramatically Different Hydrating Jelly. While one could take umbrage with an arts and culture company capitalizing on the people, Refinery29’s plans to give back, the artists they involved; change seemed imminent. It can’t be wrong to be validated by seeing oneself reflected in popular culture.

I entered skeptical, but left convinced. I had to make peace with the rather blatant advertising and quasi-feminist propaganda. The Rooms were infused with thought, with hope, with loving attention to our current societal needs. 29Rooms was a gentle but bold push on the popular scale to solidify these social issues as real, as legitimate. I went home from 29Rooms breathless, with samples, some merch, and hundreds of instagram-worthy photos, full of self-confidence.


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