Orange Is the New Black star Dascha Polanco at Refinery 29's 29Rooms Credit: Jeff Shear/Getty Images

Look closely and you could see exhaustion etched on the smiling faces of those frolicking inside a bubblelike room advertised as the World’s Largest Indoor Confetti Dome.

It was a sweltering July afternoon, and there was no hint of air-conditioning in this warehouse along a quiet stretch of Elston that was temporarily housing the pop-up exhibition Happy Place. That didn’t stop a college-age couple from taking turns tossing bucketfuls of colorful shreds of paper in the air. A nearby attendant hit a button and hot oxygen blew out of holes in the floor, swirling the confetti all around them.

The visual effect was striking: it was as if they were figures encased in a real-life human snow globe. That’s probably why the pair were so eager to snap photos of each other. The tall, thin blond boy didn’t even hesitate to put his iPhone back into his pocket during confetti gathering, using it instead as a makeshift scoop so he could keep recording every conceivable moment. And then suddenly the air stopped flowing, the confetti fell to the floor, and the pair walked wordlessly to the next room.

The couple surely curated their dozens of pictures, chose the best filter (Lark or Ludwig, perhaps?), and posted the one where they appeared to be having the time of their lives on social media. What an amazing advertisement, though! One that concealed Happy Place’s dark secret—happiness isn’t so much experienced as it is pantomimed for the benefit of an unseen audience.  

For a $30 admission—higher than the cost of a ticket to the Art Institute, the MCA, or the Field Museum—you can walk through a pair of bright yellow doors the same color as McDonald’s arches through a hall with a massive sign on the ceiling that reads like a commandment: “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Over the course of about an hour, you can explore 13 different rooms, each with its own zany and childish theme: giant mirrored hearts, bubble-gum machines stacked 15 feet high, a bathtub brimming with hundreds of toy rubber ducks.

But beyond the Confetti Dome and a rainbow-adorned ball pit to leap into, there are precious few things to actually do unless you’re thrilled by the prospect of getting a sample of yellow M&M’s stamped with happy faces or stuffing your face with bland $12 rainbow-colored grilled cheese sandwiches. The emptiness of it all becomes crystal clear the moment you enter a room decorated with glittery streamers lining the walls while an upbeat techno track thumps from speakers overhead. Imagine a nightclub in Boystown—except you’re alone, completely sober, and it’s two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. The longer you linger, the more you feel like you’re in a purgatory dreamed up by David Lynch.

Welcome to the big top of a new kind of circus. Unlike the old Barnum & Bailey variety, the spectacle you pay good money to see doesn’t involve death-defying stunts, much less clowns; center ring is the screen of your smartphone, and you are the main event. Can we go ahead and call them selfie circuses? Good. Because no one else has come up with a great term to describe them. Happy Place has been labeled an art installation, a museum exhibit, a playground for adults, and more derisively—an Instagram trap. Some media outlets are chalking it up as “an experience,” which is kind of like describing Cherry Coke as “a liquid.”

Founder Jared Paul, a sort of auteur of synthetic joy (he’s the manager of New Kids on the Block and producer of Dancing With the Stars and Glee! Live tours), romanticizes it as a utopian escape from All the Scary News Out There. “With the amount of unfortunate events happening recently, I believe that our world as a whole can use more happiness,” he says in Happy Place’s press release. Paul promises that Happy Place visitors get “a special place filled with smiles and laughter for all.” Also, a gift shop. P.T. Barnum would be proud.

The Clinique-branded "Happy Skin" room at 29Rooms
The Clinique-branded “Happy Skin” room at 29RoomsCredit: Jeff Schear/Getty Images

Happy Place—in Chicago until August 6—is a harbinger of selfie circuses to come to Chicago. This past week, the traveling show 29Rooms moved into a spacious West Loop building, made a splashy debut on Wednesday night with a celebrity-filled VIP party, and then split town on Sunday after a sold-out weekend run. Next up is the Wndr Museum, a mysterious art-and-science-themed pop-up that opens in the West Loop in mid-August. The vowel-challenged museum is hyping itself as “a new genre of immersive experience.” Judging by the website, which features a picture of a young woman sitting in a room of mirrored spheres while holding a phone with her own picture on it—those experiences heavily involve capturing your own image.

To its credit, 29Rooms has slightly more ambitious and artful intentions than Happy Place. Whereas the latter is like being trapped in a manic commercial for an imaginary sugary kids cereal, the experience of the former is akin to hanging out with a well-connected female friend whose wokeness is performed on social media; the kind of person who posts thirst traps on Instagram accompanied with self-serious slogans like “The Future Is Female.” Which makes sense considering the exhibit was produced by Refinery 29, a popular New York City-based media site aimed at luxury-minded millennial women.

Model-actress Emily Ratajkowski at the VIP premiere party for 29Rooms
Model-actress Emily Ratajkowski at the VIP premiere party for 29RoomsCredit: Robin Marchant/Getty Images

The 29 areas (only about half could technically be called rooms) were an odd grab bag of participatory installations created by professional artists, celebrities, and corporate brands—it was difficult to tell who did what unless you stopped to read the placards. The room overflowing with mounds of scraps of paper where visitors were asked to write down “whatever is weighing you down” and shred it themselves to achieve catharsis? That was conceived by actor Jake Gyllenhaal. The black-and-white faux tattoo parlor? Singer/actress Demi Lovato. That SUV-size typewriter where you stood on the keys to get a picture in front of what probably qualifies as history’s largest Joan Didion quote in print? A social media-based book club started by yet another famous actress.

Ultimately, the most compelling experiences were the spaces in which you personally remained in the sidelines, like the tiny nightclub in which a lounge singer improvised lyrics about audience members’ dreams or watching the kinetic dancing of the Era footwork crew. Cosmoramarama was an especially welcome relief from the relentless navel gazing—there selfhood disappeared entirely via a virtual-reality head set that blocked everything from view except beautiful graphical landscapes created by VR artist Wesley Allsbrook.

Some stations weren’t much more than elaborate commercials for bicycles, cellphones, or shows on Netflix. For instance, the sign outside of BareMinerals’ “Clean Beauty” room asked visitors to channel “The Power of Good” as they took selfies in full-length mirrors placed in the middle of a faux desert dreamland, but what it really wanted you to do was channel the power of your wallet to get you to purchase skin-care products. Or perhaps more accurately, to seduce your friends who would be seeing this free ad for BareMinerals on Instagram.

The blatant commercialism of 29Rooms is totally fine, says Piera Gelardi, a cofounder of Refinery 29. “Our visitors are happy to engage with brands when what the brands are putting forth is relevant to them,” she told me. Also, hadn’t I noticed all the “values-based” rooms?

Everyone's a star at 29Rooms.
Everyone’s a star at 29Rooms.Credit: Ryan Smith

Yes, I had. And it’s certainly admirable that some installations addressed worthy causes such as gun violence and gender-neutral bathrooms. Still, political activism was an imperfect fit with an event that still ultimately revolved around self-expression and quickly snapping the kind of pictures that put the i in “iPhone.” It’s no coincidence that the least popular room seemed to be the one created by the organizers of the Women’s March. Who wants to write an earnest letter to Dick Durbin about campaign finance reform when you can crawl through a giant vagina next door and lay in a life-size womb or get a picture on a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy-themed throne?

So whom do we blame exactly for the selfie circus craze? Surprisingly, the poster child isn’t some self-obsessed millennial—it’s 89-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Her name has been hashtagged in at least a half a million Instagram posts, and people routinely wait in line for hours in museums around the world for the opportunity to step into one of her six “Infinity Mirror” rooms for a brief minute—sometimes only for 30 seconds—to snap a wondrous picture that gives off the illusion of never-ending space, with you, and you alone, in the center of the frame. You are everything in Kusama’s dreamworlds.

One of them will be the centerpiece at Wndr Museum—the first time an Infinity Mirror Room will appear in Chicago. If you don’t want to or can’t pay $32 to go, chances are you’ll see it later this summer all over Instagram, Snapchat, or as the profile picture of that attractive person you swiped right for on Tinder. Just as you’ve surely seen Happy Place pictures plastered all over lately and, as of last weekend, those of 29Rooms.

But it would be a mistake to make an elderly artist the culprit for the rise of selfie circuses when the real problem is all of us, especially those of us who are Extremely Online.

In Notes From the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes that “man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn’t calculate his happiness.” That was 1864. In 2018, happiness is perfectly quantifiable; it’s measured online in likes and retweets. The downside, of course, is that pleasure is muted while in the moment. The act of climbing a mountain, dancing at a party, or drinking a fancy cocktail is increasingly filtered through a smartphone’s glowing screen. But in return, social media addicts hook themselves up to the IV of the steady drip of notifications that pop up, getting a tiny burst of dopamine with each ding and buzz.

Emergent selfie culture has mutated our relationships to museums, public art—even the natural world. Tourism is an activity primarily mediated through smartphones, which means we’re primed to flock to a kind of visual spectacle that makes for the best and most memeable photo ops, like say, Sue the T.Rex, the Bean, and those goddamned angel wing murals that keep popping up everywhere. We bask in their reflected glory and share them like trophies on Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook.

Seen at the 29Rooms painting area.
Seen at the 29Rooms painting area.Credit: Ryan Smith

This age of social-media-fueled capitalism has prompted museums and galleries to attract visitors by engineering immersive environments and interactions, which in turn have spawned copycats designed almost exclusively for the iPhone eye. These circuses may not do away with art completely, but at the very least, they diminish challenging art in favor of spectacle meant to assure, to flatter, and to put visitors at the center of everything.

“We wanted to create a space where our audience can feel like they’re center stage where they feel like they’re the star of the show and where they can create content too,” says Gelardi. “I think that’s actually a real service to people now, it’s like if they can create great content that’s of value and makes them feel good.”

That we spend too much of our free time producing free content for corporations is something we’ve suspected for a while, but now selfie circuses have laid it bare in its unadulterated, soul-crushing form.

That’s likely why someone at the glitzy 29Rooms VIP party took liberties with giant Chinese lanterns in which we were supposed to paint “messages of hope” on. Above a smiling face, the words “The Era of the Narcissist” had been scrawled in red and purple paint.

Most people, however, seemed too busy posing for pictures to notice.