Refinery 29’s Brooklyn based 29Rooms took the show on the road and set up shop in Chicago for the very first time on my birthday, which made party planning a breeze this year. Held during Fashion Week, this pop up was created partly as an alternative to designers’ exclusive afterparties, and as a canny exercise in brand-building and marketing. But in addition to marketing and entertaining, 29Rooms also aims to engage with political, social, and environmental causes on a global scale by tapping into the ways that art and social issues are intertwined, and—if the crowds are anything to go by—people are interested in engaging with this conversation. Below, I highlight some of the 29 rooms that explored feminism, self-acceptance, and other culturally relevant issues head-on.
To that end, the women responsible for organizing the January 21 Women’s March on Washington (and worldwide) have created a bustling activist headquarters, engaging passersby while bridging the gap between art and political activism. The point here is clear: Art can be a catalyst for change. Colorfully illustrated postcards carry hard-hitting slogans such as “Hope Over Fear” and “We Can. We Have. We Will.” These messages encourage everyone to get involved. Pens, senators’ addresses, and an in-house mailbox (and postage) create an immediate call to action to their elected officials in a fun and creative setting.
On a similar note, this iteration of “29Rooms” features a neon light display from Planned Parenthood. The nonprofit organization hopes it will “help to educate people about the services we provide and inspire them to act to protect their access to sexual reproductive healthcare and rights.
For those frustrated by the current administration’s approach to these issues, we suggest taking a swing at the punching bags in “The Future Is Female” room, decorated with feminist slogans by illustrator Jen Mussari. With each contact, percussive sounds from electronic musician Madame Ghandi ring out, creating a punch-driven cacophony.
“Erotica in Bloom” hangs in picturesque floral decadence. Upon closer inspection, this swirling world of oversized blooms reveals these flowers as symbols of female fertility. In collaboration with Maisie Cousins, a photographer known for her provocative use of nature as expressions of sensuality, this modern garden of (She)-den invites you in with playful giggles and whispers coming from behind the petals. Short videos are hidden deeper inside the buds, with beautiful imagery celebrating the female body, sexuality, and nature. A sweet clean fragrance, like fresh-picked wildflowers, lingers in the air, subtly persuading your senses to drift into this dreamscape.
Chicago artist Shani Crowe and muralist Max Sansing are featured as well. Crowe, a resident of the Greater Grand Crossing area, said her work “Rest in Power, Rest in Peace” is a “humanitarian, cathartic shrine experience for a city who needs it; a shrine for the dead and the living on the astral plane, the ‘in between’ or in another dimension.” The exhibit is made up of two rooms: one has a chair and many cowrie shells; the other one, below, has a shrine with a golden glow — Chicago violence is the idea behind the piece. Visitors can write a note to someone whom they’ve lost or a hope for the future.
Walking into room 17 is like a time warp, bringing you back to your first day of middle school, hiding in the bathroom stall at lunch—but this time, all of the graffiti on the walls are kind and compassionate words of encouragement. Transparent creator Jill Soloway teamed up with artist Xavier Schipani to explore the topic of gender identity. The stalls in a recreation of a school bathroom—decorated by Schipani with illustrations about gender—become a reimagined a space like those old-school restrooms but in a trans-safe environment.
A Guide To 29Rooms
A few things you should know before you go:
Don’t bring a purse. You’ll want to feel “free” so try a fanny pack instead.
Wear slide on shoes. A few installations require bare feet.
Bring a friend to photograph you or ask a stranger.
Once you’re in, you’re in! There is no re-entry after you exit 29Rooms. It’s a three-hour event! Water is welcomed but there is no food or drink served at 29Rooms. So eat before you go!
- No coat check. So don’t bring it. A hands-free experience is key.
- There is no way you can hit all 29 rooms in one session, so make a plan to see the rooms you’re most interested in or buy tickets for two sessions.
- If you’re a Mastercard holder you can still get your hands on the soldout ticket.
- It’s hot and loud so thank God my friend had a portable fan to keep me cool in the long lines.
In true Leo style, I ended the day perched on the Queer Eye throne with my better half, my favorite person, my wife, Michaela. 29Rooms proved to be a multi-sensory, thought-provoking, and cathartic experience which shared a message of hope, love, acceptance, inclusivity, and empowerment. It encouraged visitors to not only take time to enjoy art but to also stay aware of what is happening in the world. 29Rooms inspired creativity, active engagement, and forward-thinking, living up to its motto to “Be The Spark. Live With Heart. Turn It Into Art.”