What started a few years ago as an interactive way to celebrate women’s lifestyle website Refinery29’s 10th anniversary has morphed into a full-blown Instagram phenomenon, selling out shows across the country. 29Rooms, the website’s “festival of cause, culture, and creativity” according to Kat Tooley, Refinery29’s SVP of Experiential, is a photography-friendly experience akin to previous Atlanta events such as Santa’s Fantastical and Candytopia. There are plenty of Instagram-worthy backdrops to pose in front of and plenty of staffers to help you take the perfect photo. But Tooley hopes the experience goes further than that.
“We want people to touch the art, feel the art, talk about it. We want people to leave feeling like they were taught something that they didn’t know when they first came in. This is not just a space for pictures. Yes, everything is beautiful here, but it’s also a space to really do things that might be out of your comfort zone,” she said to a small crowd during a media preview Wednesday night at The Works on the Westside, where 29Rooms will run now through September 8.
So does the experience succeed in its mission to “expand your reality”? Not quite. Many of the installations are beautiful and engaging—and several will push you out of your comfort zone, as Tooley promised—but the many brand-sponsored exhibitions kind of knock out the magic. Watching people pose with oversized strawberries next to a glittery pink chair at the Panera Bread-sponsored tattoo parlor (where you can get an admittedly cool, very realistic temporary strawberry tattoo) seemed out of place when just around the corner was an ACLU-branded newsstand urging women to stand up for social justice and another installation celebrating the beauty and power of black women. The juxtaposition of art and advertising throws the entire experience off.
But even if 29Rooms doesn’t fully achieve its vision, that doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining night out. Here’s a few things to know before you go.
1. Bring a buddy—or three.
The first rule of an Instagram experience is to bring a friend. This is especially true at 29Rooms, where many of the installations require more than one person to participate. I made the mistake of going solo and missed out on trying a lot of the activities, including an interactive art area where guests are challenged to draw a portrait of the person sitting across from them without ever looking down at the paper, or play a crafty version of Pictionary where, using polymer clay, they have to sculpt a word printed on a card and have their partner guess what it is.
2. Be prepared to put your social anxiety to the test.
Remember when Tooley mentioned stepping outside of your comfort zone? There are a few rooms that put that to the test. One is 29 Questions, were guests are asked to sit across from someone they don’t know at a tiny plastic table with a crystal ball-esque light in the center. At this table, you’ll be led through breathing exercises, instructed to stare deeply into the eyes of the stranger sitting before you, and then, when you feel good and awkward, each pair will ask questions to each other from a stack of cards on the table. Thankfully the cards aren’t too revealing—What makes you feel beautiful? What’s a recurring dream you have? Where’s your happy place? are a few of the questions I got. But others, such as Who do you miss?, are meant to give people an opportunity to be open with someone who, hopefully, won’t judge. For a shy person like myself, it was adrenaline-inducing, but it was also one of the more enjoyable parts of the exhibition thanks to that shove outside the comfort zone.
Another shove is the palm-reading station, where guests are seated on either side of a wall and asked to slip their hand through a covered window. The person on the opposite side, guided by an audio recording and a chart on the wall, will read your palm and mark symbols on your wrist in magic marker. Then the sides switch, so both people have a turn at reading a stranger’s palm. It’s an odd and intimidating feeling to hold and draw on an unknown hand, knowing the person on the other side of the barrier is probably feeling as awkward as you, but again, these offbeat experiences are 29Rooms’s greatest strength.
3. But if you’re here for the photos, you’ll get them.
And the photo station you won’t want to miss is the ironically named “No Filter,” which uses flashing lights and changing colors to create some pretty snazzy “rainbow aura” portraits. if you don’t take your own photo, make sure you check your phone’s camera roll before you leave—due to the changing multicolor lights and angles of your face, some photos on my iPhone came out great, while others were a washed out mess. (A side note here—the photos I took on my phone looked better once I got home than they did in the dim lighting of the exhibition.)
4. Our local artists really shine.
There are two Atlanta-based artists participating in 29Rooms—Neka King, whose piece “Expansion” is part of the exhibition’s traveling art park, and Sarah Emerson, who created a billboard that is exclusive to the Atlanta tour stop. Emerson‘s piece is a colorful, neon explosion that is meant to explore the “psychological landscape” of Atlanta. It glows under a blacklight, as do the boxy towers standing in front it, which guests can color with neon paint. King’s work is a beautiful cosmic illustration that changes depending on which side you view it from. You can also interact with it by walking through the five panels. Both artworks are among the first things guests see when entering 29Rooms—and for good reason.
5. Don’t be afraid to have fun.
29Rooms, like Refinery29’s website, is clearly aimed at millennial women, and millennials are time and time again defined as the generation of anxiety. But the only way to get the most out of 29Rooms is to not be afraid of looking like an idiot. Grab a faux fur-covered controller and play Mario Kart 64 in the “Teenage Bedroom.” Stick a pink Post-It addressed to your younger self on the wall of the aptly named “A Conversation with Your Inner Child.” Get down in the dance break room. The exhibition is meant to be a place to explore, so just enjoy yourself.
If you go: 29Rooms will run through September 8 at the Works, 1235 Chattahoochee Avenue Northwest. Tickets start at $34 (there is a discount available for those who book a group of three or more) and grant you a two-and-a-half hour session to explore at your own pace. Purchase tickets here.