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The existential void of the pop-up 'experience'

Immersive photo opportunities have become a defining fad of a generation.

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Rosé Mansion is a pop-up "experience" that is themed around pink wine but promises much more.

New York

ONE evening this summer, I left work around 6 pm, ducked into a storefront in midtown Manhattan and stood at the back of a line, waiting to become myself. I was at the threshold of the Rosé Mansion, a pop-up "experience" that is themed around pink wine but promises much more. I had been beckoned there by an Instagram ad featuring a woman with heart-shaped glasses on her face and a plastic cup in her hand. "Be fiercely and uniquely yourself at Rosé Mansion," it said.

What I am at the Rosé Mansion is, mostly, standing around. Though a friend and I had US$45 tickets to enter the manse at 6.30 pm, we were moored in its sweaty lobby for another half an hour, left to stare at the "ROOFTOPS AND ROSÉ" pink tanks on display in the gift shop until a Rosé Mansion "ambassador" unhooked the velvet rope to unleash us and dozens of other patrons into the space.

This was a familiar feeling. I 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.

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They included Color Factory, stocked with "participatory installations of colours"; Candytopia, an "outrageously interactive candy wonderland"; 29Rooms, a "groundbreaking art experience" dedicated to "expanding your reality"; and the Museum of Ice Cream's spin-off space, featuring a "Pint Shop" and "tasting room" created in collaboration with Target that "re-envisions the grocery store, enabling a hyper-sensory experience".

I realise that I have a "fun" job that is annoying to complain about: Oh no, I have to drink free wine and eat ice cream. But as my summer of pop-ups dragged on, I began to dread my evenings. What began as a kicky story idea became a masochistic march through voids of meaning. I found myself sleepwalking through them, fantasising about going to a real museum. Or watching television. Or being on Twitter.

And yet, the "experience" has emerged as one of the defining fads of my generation, the millennials. There have been New York experiences centred on tea, dreams, eggs, illusions and cereal. Soon the Museum of Pizza, "the world's first and only immersive art experience celebrating pizza", will open. There is one for dogs now, too: Human's Best Friend, which offers 20 "photo moments" for your pet to endure.

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 an artwork. Even a basic carnival ride produces pleasing physical sensations.

The central experience delivered at all these places is one of waiting. At the Color Factory, I first waited for a half-hour past my ticket time, outside in the 32 deg C heat. Then I waited inside the lobby, just outside a roped-off area. After being allowed inside the roped-off area, I was offered mochi ice cream while I waited. Then I was shown an orientation video and ushered into a rainbow-painted hallway, which turned out to be another line in disguise.

What are we waiting for? Places that are themselves reminiscent of lines. At 29Rooms, a pop-up from the women's website 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 feature of the Rosé Mansion is a fake gold throne that you can sit on while wearing a fake gold crown, which can make you feel as if you are hanging out in the lobby of Medieval Times in New Jersey. Each of these experiences culminates in a ball pit - filled with "marshmallows" at Candytopia, "champagne bubbles" at the Rosé Mansion and blue-coloured 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!"

The most that these spaces can offer is the facsimile of traditional pleasures. They take nature and art and knowledge-seeking, flatten them into sight gags and stick them to every stray surface. At a preview party for the Museum of Pizza - held inside a real museum, the New Museum - items such as as a guitar shaped like a pizza slice (donated by musician Andrew WK) were displayed in glass boxes, as if to conjure an air of significance.

The Museum of Ice Cream's Pint Shop offshoot (now closed) was only "creative" insofar as taking photographs inside a store creates a kind of content. And the "discovery" offered by the Color Factory mainly involves following directions: Trace a flow chart on the floor to find your "secret colour" which corresponds with a random dance move - "air guitar like you've never air guitared before" - you're instructed to complete on the light-up floor in the next room.

Inside the Rosé Mansion, I was ushered into a space called "the patio", handed a sheet of round purple stickers representing various wine grapes and instructed to affix them to the patio's all-white walls and deck chairs and fake plants. It is a blatant rip-off of Yayoi Kusama's signature piece, her Obliteration Room. That piece was designed to evoke the dot hallucinations the artist has experienced her whole life. The Rosé Mansion version instead evokes the idea that we like to get tipsy and put stickers on things.

The Rosé Mansion doesn't even manage to take wine seriously. Its walls are papered with "facts" like "sweet wines have been the most famous and sought after wines in the world for the past 5,000 years". At a "blend your own rosé" station, you can tick off your preferred levels of acidity and fruitiness on a piece of paper, then hand it to an employee wearing lab glasses who pumps a bunch of different wines into one cup. As she put it: "I'm like Dr Frankenstein, but with wine."

There is one way that these experiences are better than real life. While standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, taking in the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or witnessing a seal pup shimmy onto a rock, we might pull out our phone to take a picture, only to find that what we experienced as grand feels dinky through the lens. But these experiences often look cheap and grimy in person. They're made to pop on camera.

These places are often described as "Instagram museums", and the real experience plays out only after we post photographic evidence on social media. The Internet is an increasingly visual space, and these experiences, with their enormous pools of candy and gargantuan emoji props, are designed to fit the shrunken-down Instagram grid. What's the point of anything else?

Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" suggested that the technology to endlessly replicate images had compromised the aura of art, the unique presence of an original piece. These spaces offer a canny, if cynical, response: The guests supply the aura. That logic has so permeated the culture that these "experiences" need to offer little to activate that impulse. The Museum of Ice Cream's Pint Shop, now closed, was essentially a store stocked with racks of US$25 Vanillionaire hats and US$10 churro clothes patches. And yet on an afternoon in July, it was filled with people taking their photos in front of the shelves.

The central disappointment of these spaces is not that they are so narcissistic but rather that their designers seem to have such a low view of the people who visit them. Observing an artwork or climbing a mountain actually invites us to create meaning in our lives. But in these spaces, the idea of interacting with the world is made so slickly transactional that our role is hugely diminished.

Stalking through the colourful hallways of New York's "experiences", I felt like a shell of a person. It was as if I was witnessing the total erosion of meaning itself.

And when I posted a selfie from the Rosé Mansion saying as much, all of my friends liked it. NYTIMES