29Rooms: Expand Your Reality is headed to D.C. in October. What is 29Rooms? It is a traveling immersive art installation by Refinery29. We had a chance to interview Olivia Fagon, the creative director of 29Rooms, to get a sneak peek into the makings of 29Rooms.
Can you explain the concept of pop-up art installments like 29Rooms?
When 29Rooms launched in 2015 it was a first of its kind experience; our hope then was to create an event that didn’t make our audience just spectators but actually invited them to feel, see and touch our very digital brand. That idea of centering your audience in a space that is immersive and visually-inspiring but not hands-off is at the heart of how we approach the event. That obviously dovetailed with the how our audience is using social media, making spaces and experiences that give them a stage to capture and make their own content.
So, we all know it’s called 29Rooms, based off of Refinery29, but are there really 29Rooms?
Yes, within 29Rooms, there are 29 unique experiences. We’ve pushed past defining a room as just a literal four-walled space. Here a room can mean an installation, stand-alone artworks, workshops, performances – that together act as a tasting menu of the conversations and culture our audience cares about across art, entertainment, activism, style and technology — all housed under one roof.
Which room has been your favorite over the years?
I’ve loved so many of the rooms we’ve brought to life. There are a few that have stood out because they’ve changed the way we thought about what 29Rooms is and what it could be. “Inner Beauty Ball” a recreated phoneless nightclub we popped up in the middle of our venue with New York’s House of Yes confirmed how much our guests were looking to get off their phones and self-release. A lot of my favorite rooms have been collaborations with underrepresented voices or rooms that have give our audience artful and accessible ways-in to difficult but real pro-social conversations. For example, creating our own LGBTQIA+ Pride float in collaboration with artist Marina Fini at 29Rooms San Francisco and collaborating on a commemorative alter to Chicago gun violence with artist Shani Crowe at 29Rooms Chicago.
And then I’m always excited by our celebrity collaborations that have real insight or cultural commentary at their center. A 360 video installation we created with Lena Waith last year documenting the black experience in the United States is a great example.
What has been your biggest challenge putting together 29Rooms?
The main challenge is making space for the very unique and very different visions of so many artists and creatives while keeping one cohesive theme and the Refinery29 POV across the entire event. It’s a balancing act. We have to be flexible in our process of developing each artist’s experience, working around very different skill sets and often working with artists who maybe haven’t brought their work to life three-dimensionally or in a physical space before. And secondly, the challenge of continuing to reinvent and evolve the experience. We pioneered a new event concept when we launched 5 years ago, bringing our audience a snapshot of our brand and culture in a totally unique way, and we want to continue to innovate while still keeping what our audience and fans have loved about 29Rooms.
How do you choose the room themes?
The 29Rooms team is made up of a wide range of very talented creatives, designers and producers who develop the overarching tour for almost a year. We start by looking outward, working with our team of editors and creatives who speak to our audience daily, to capture the most relevant and forward thinking conversations across fashion, art, beauty, politics, etc. in one cohesive vision for the event, our theme. We also consider ways we want to evolve the event based on the event landscape (How can we innovate experiential?), our audience’s feedback (What did our guests love from last year’s 29Rooms?) and our own internal ambitions for the event (What’s next for 29Roomst?). We then start assembling our individual room experiences through our collaborator search, reaching out to a diverse list of always incredible talent with a specific vision or topic for a room that we want to create with them. It’s a lot of moving pieces but those key components of research, inspiration, feedback and collaborators always sets the foundation.
How do you choose room sponsors, and do they work with Refinery29 to come up with a room theme, or do they design them themselves?
We look for partners who see real value in having a more direct, one-on-one conversation with our audience. Whether it’s a product launch with Reebok or a new campaign with Bare Minerals, we want our branded rooms to enhance the design, atmosphere and narrative of the event, so our creative approach is to build their experiences FOR the audience versus marketing to them.
We collaborate directly with our partners to bring their own dedicated rooms to life, which our in-house creative, design and production team co-creates with them. 29Rooms is not an event where guests will see big logos plastered everywhere. Instead, we give our brands a heartbeat and apply the same creative and design principles to their spaces that we do across the event to ensure that they show up in a way that’s artful, authentic and meaningful.
How do you go about finding the local artists for the different tour stops?
It’s important to us that we make space for the amazing creative communities that are in each city so we continue to collaborate with local artists on rooms and experiences at each tour stop. For example, we’re working with Trap Bob and Jamea Richmond-Edwards for the Washington DC stop of the Expand Your Reality tour.
Once we confirmed our tour schedule the team did a month-long search for emerging artists at each city, tapping our own networks, talent teams, Instagram and wider online research into the cultural spaces of those cities to find a long list of artists who reflect their city and share the forward-thinking Refinery29 spirit. Our creative partnership with those artists is then always a two-way dialogue; we bring a very clear vision of what we want the final experience to be (whether it’s the interaction, the visuals or the final takeaway for our guests) and then work with them collaboratively, across creative, design and production, till it’s live at 29Rooms.
Are you concerned people are too focused on getting that perfect shot for social media that they end up missing the messages behind the rooms?
We’ve seen so much of the event’s impact come through our guests being able to use 29Rooms as a stage to comment, express a POV or share a personal story through the content they capture inside. Because the messages behind our rooms, whether we’re talking about spirituality or body image or voting rights, are directly inspired by what matters to the R29 audience, we’ve always seen a lot of harmony between what they take away on-site and what they end up posting.
For Expand Your Reality tour though we’ve pushed a lot of experiences to be exclusively interactive and hands-on. With experiences that invite introspection like writing a letter to your inner child or hands-on art making, live dance performances and phone-free experiences we’re also challenging our guests to open up and engage with themselves and strangers in new ways in real time at the event.