Existential / by Karie Luidens


Travel is a beautiful thing. Experiencing a place in person captivates us in a way screens and text never can. It can fill a deep craving within each of us: for connection, immersion, wonder, and awe.

In an age of (sub)urban isolation and digital identities and super-convenient fast food, that craving is deeper and thirstier than ever. It’s so powerful that entrepreneurs are trying to capitalize on it by charging admission to pop-up experiences in trendy cities:

I’ve spent the past few months going to as many temporary “experiences” as I could find in New York, to explore every broadly themed “mansion” and “factory” and “museum” possible before they all shutter and reconvert into the empty storefronts of high-rent blight. […]

By classifying these places as experiences, their creators seem to imply that something happens there. But what? Most human experiences don’t have to announce themselves as such. They just do what they do. A film tells a story. A museum facilitates meaning between the viewer and a work of art. Even a basic carnival ride produces pleasing physical sensations.

The central experience delivered at all these places is one of waiting. […] What are we waiting for? Places that are themselves reminiscent of lines. At 29Rooms, a pop-up from the women’s site Refinery29, I waited outside big white tents to get into makeshift rooms like “Star Matter,” a space curated in collaboration with Nicole Richie, which features big fake rocks, little fake stars and a hanging red orb. The aesthetic recalls the line for Disneyland’s Splash Mountain, except in here, Fleetwood Mac was playing. One of the features of the Rosé Mansion is a fake gold throne that you can sit on while wearing a fake gold crown, an event akin to hanging out in the lobby of the New Jersey Medieval Times. Each of these experiences culminates in a ball pit — filled with “marshmallows” at Candytopia, “champagne bubbles” at the Rosé Mansion, and blue-colored balls at Color Factory — a feature pioneered by the McDonald’s PlayPlace.

Yet these line-adjacent experiences are pitched as somehow transformative. In a plaque outside the “Star Matter” room, the experience was teased as “a cosmic pilgrimage of love, music, and connectedness into the California night sky and back in time to the 1970s, a decade defined by progressive group thinking.” The Color Factory says it’s designed to “invite curiosity, discovery and play.” The Museum of Ice Cream’s Pint Shop is said to “inspire and empower audiences to be their most creative selves.” Mostly, we’re expected to have the time of our lives. A Candytopia employee announced: “The first rule is to be happy and always smile! Frowns make other people sad!”

Compare the significance of traveling for hours out into the wilderness to touch and smell an authentic place in the world, like a fragrant forest or ancient cliff dwellings, versus the “existential void” conjured by attempts to quickly construct semi-nonsensical themed experiences in a rented space. One is a pilgrimage into others’ slowly-woven stories that expands our sense of the many interconnected ways that human communities have lived over the centuries. The other is a commercialized series of surfaces against which to pose briefly for a photo. One strengthens our connection to each other and our sense of self within a species. The other encourages us to flash fake smiles while diving more deeply into our own lonely narcissism.