A collage of images of six different immersive experiences.

Weird Culture

Help! We’re Drowning In ‘Immersive Experiences’!

Pop-Ups are used to promote everything from art to weed in colorful, elaborate impermanence. Could this be our new normal?

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Fleeting, ephemeral moments have always had cultural cache, but the iPhone age has given us the burden of proof. Were you tripping acid on Yasgur’s Farm in the summer of 1969? Your Woodstock ticket stub and residual interest in mescaline are our only evidence. Were you falling backwards into a ball pit at Color Factory, or swimming through a tub of plastic sprinkles at the Museum of Ice Cream? Surely you have the likes to confirm it, a Boomerang of premeditated cheekiness to prove that you were there. “I exist,” promises an Instagram grid, and “My existence is rarefied,” promises a pop-up.

In an age when minimalism reigns supreme and experiences trump objects, authenticity takes a back seat to aesthetics—and we live in a time of beautifully curated, “you had to be there” events—Woodstock put through a bokeh filter. While traditional retail struggles, brands have embraced a low-stakes commitment that reached its apex in 2019. We’ve become a culture of the pop-up, an intentionally short-term engagement, proliferated like algae, and just as stubborn. In 2020 and beyond, we’ll continue to see inboxes full of short-term engagements, high-contrast murals, and shopping “experiences” under the veil of exclusivity. It could be a chance to shop, a chance to dine, a chance to take Tinder pics in a ball pit cordoned off from the rest of the general public. There was the Friends-themed “immersive experience” in Santa Monica, a suitcase-manufacturer’s attempt to soothe away recent controversy in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and a multitude of photo-ops and publicity engines designed for a mapped walk-through like the floor plan of Ikea. I have not paid admission to Rosé Mansion, where ticket-holders stood all summer down the street near my office, nor have I waited in line for limited-edition Taylor Swift merch, but I’m not immune to the allure—a holiday Hello Kitty market proves that consumerism comes for us all.

Valentine’s Day, like any time-pegged opportunity to sell makeup, greeting cards, pets, etc., isn’t immune to the pop-up phenomenon. A new supermall in East Rutherford, NJ is erecting an ice-skating rink, an animal adoption center, and a date night soundtracked by DJ Prince Hakim; White Castle is treating the city of San Antonio to romance and sliders.

“Surely,” I thought as I sifted through an avalanche of Google results, “this idea was the invention of some sociopathic marketing prodigy,” and I was disappointingly correct. Pop-up retail is mostly credited to Patrick Courrielche’s Ritual Expo, a 1997 event at downtown Los Angeles’s Park Plaza Hotel that featured live music and DJs alongside indie designers’ clubwear. Flea market met cocktail bar met limited-run event; soon, AT&T and Motorola were clamoring for their own version. As of 2019, Courrielche has pivoted to co-hosting the podcast Red Pilled America and boasts endorsement from his more recent former employer, Breitbart News.

This dubious origin hasn’t stopped companies and institutions of all stripes from co-opting the pop-up. Photo traps that segue seamlessly into a gift shop are the primary driver of these “interactive experiences,” but if pop-ups are defined as exclusive events with an expiration date (and an eye towards digital reach), they extend to political fundraising, exclusive RSVP performances (as one of the first few respondents to an Instagram story, I was also in attendance at this in-store), and fine dining. The lines between an event series, which necessarily has start and end dates, and a pop-up, where time and opportunity are made purposely scarce, feels like the difference between a pair of sturdy work boots and limited-edition Balenciaga sneakers—some suit’s business acumen heightens a perfectly functional thing into a rare commodity, and like the ruse of free shipping, it lures us back over and over again. An optimist would say that pop-ups raise the stakes of a normal event from commonplace to special occasion; a pessimist—me—would argue that they’re one big scam, scrubbing any magic or spontaneity out of community- and artist-generated gatherings.

Liz Pelly’s recent piece for The Baffler, “Sofar, So Bad,” best captured the latter. In chronicling Sofar Sounds’ attempt to engineer pop-up “house shows,” primarily in swanky NYC locations with advance-purchase tickets, she exposes the remove between an organic idea and a product polished by executives, spit-shined until it’s as anesthetized as the “co-working spaces and Ray-Ban stores and white-walled coffee shops” in which the shows take place. “Like other companies in the platform era,” Pelly writes, “[Sofar Sounds] banks on user obsession with products that are ultra-convenient and the idea that users will gladly become grist for a branding machine in exchange for frictionlessness.”

You might feel the friction more acutely walking down, say, Telegraph Avenue in Oakland’s Temescal, where I returned several months ago, baffled at the confluence of soaring residential rents and rows of empty storefronts. Pelly’s community suffered the loss of 285 Kent, a once-iconic DIY venue, and newspapers across the country are reporting dire forecasts for retail, which might sound like Sears’ death knell but can also mean bookstores, pool halls, or Jazzercise studios—all “third places,” a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to categorize community spaces outside work or home, “promoting social equity by leveling the status of guests, providing a setting for grassroots politics, creating habits of public association, and offering psychological support to individuals and communities.”

Pop-ups are so transient and exclusive that it’s hard to imagine them fostering a community any less fleeting than their month-long lease. By their very nature, they avoid the sort of word of mouth that would reach anyone off social apps or VIP guest lists—the elderly, the “juggling three jobs,” the folks on night shift. It’s easy to idealize the past, to fetishize the way things used to be without having been around to witness the trial and error firsthand. But it’s hard not to read a certain vitality in, say, a punk show at a Denny’s, or an irreverent museum exhibition unhindered by its Instagram potential. These things happened because a community asked for them; a team of creatives were not sitting in a glass-walled conference room, optimizing punk. These things might be ticketed, but often they’re not. They often don’t photograph well. What’s popular isn’t always what’s good; the first few hundred people to respond to a social media post aren’t necessarily the taste-makers, the dream-chasers, or the people best poised to experience something in real-time. They’re just on their phones, ready to help sell it.

In looking back at this recent surge of pop-ups, which seems to have reached its peak in 2019 (let’s hope?), I found myself toggling between the same two Capricornian poles—condemnation and curiosity. Who are the primary audiences for these events, and are they the same from “museum” to “museum”? Are the same people who go to, say, Mastercard’s Taste of Priceless going to see Marilyn Minter’s work exhibited at a less Instagrammable gallery? And if they aren’t, is that bad?

Pop-ups straddle inclusivity and exclusivity, selling the idea of an inimitable occasion that’s really mass-produced. Their pool of attendees is limited in certain ways—Swifties, Blue Bottle coffee addicts, movie-and-diamond lovers. In certain other ways, it’s vast—pop-ups get weirder and weirder, and their novelty courts anyone who’s curious enough to spare $20 or a few hours of a Saturday. The best “events” or “happenings” I’ve encountered sometimes required a ticket, and sometimes they didn’t—a band I loved announcing a last-minute set in my college town, a chance reunion of artists I admired, a room too dark and sweaty to accommodate an iPhone photo. I sound all of my 30 years, and yet I’m proud of the few occasions where my interests, friendships, or work have put me in a certain space in a certain time—a VIP experience that no marketer would bother selling because it wasn’t monetizable enough. The list was so exclusive it was non-existent, and you couldn’t buy your way in even if you tried. There wasn’t a price.

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