Chicago Tribune: 29Rooms pop-up ‘sensory’ exhibit in Chicago features local artists, interactive rooms

By Darcel Rockett for Chicago Tribune 

For four days in July, Chicagoans can become part of an art installation, full of vivid colors that zig and zag. They can enter a room full of shredded paper, write down their thoughts, then shred said thoughts by hand via pasta-maker.

Next door to that is a room replete, floor-to-ceiling, with political posters from around the world — in the corner rests a box where visitors can deposit letters and cards to their elected officials. Enter another room, and someone will sing a song based on your topic suggestion. Near the Planned Parenthood installation, free condoms are available and on the other side of the room, visitors will enter a womb. Definitely don’t skip the womb.

Installations were designed by the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Janelle Monae and artist Benjamin Shine, whose exhibit features the dual visage of Chloe x Halle (singers and actresses of “grown-ish” fame).

Refinery29’s 29Rooms is Chicago’s latest “sensory” event — The Happy Place pop-up on the North Side is also filled with large installations and multisensory immersive rooms curated to “capture your happy.” Happy is but one emotion that artists at 29Rooms aim to evoke. The space is interactive, visual, audiovisual, introspective, retrospective — each room offering a range of emotions.

Artist Jen Mussari
Artist Jen Mussari talks about her room, called “The Future Is Female.” (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

“This is an embodiment of the things that we stand for. … We stand for inclusivity and elevating underrepresented voices, individuality, celebrating self-expression and recognizing difference, imagination, so going beyond the expected and creating a space of wonder and impact, creating positive change,” said Piera Gelardi, executive creative director and co-founder of Refinery29. “Every room has a narrative; it has an artist attached to it. We collaborate with so many different people to really make this a thought-provoking experience, that is also full of wonder and imagination and play because we think really both are so necessary.”

So why the recent uptick in sensory exhibits, particularly ones aimed at adults? Art director Jordan Phelps, of VAM, thinks spaces like these re-boost the imagination of adults. VAM provides promotion for the city’s underground artists via parties, videos and curated events.

“I think people are more interested in experiencing that … tactile environment or some sort of sensory element,” he said. “It’s not just something you want to look at; it’s something you want to feel — something that you want to play in, something that you completely want to distract yourself with, not just look at something for a few minutes and walk away.”

Maribeth O’Conner, a registered and licensed occupational therapist in the Palos Heights area, works with children with sensory issues and thinks there are benefits to this type of event.

“All of us have sensory preferences — things that we like and things that irritate us, but typically, as an adult, we’ve kind of figured out how to meet those sensory needs in a more socially acceptable, more appropriate way that’s not necessarily drawing attention. And people don’t realize that it’s meeting a sensory need, necessarily. It’s just what they do,” she said. “I don’t know if it (the event) was created for that, but they might have really touched on something that may be helpful to a lot of people and really enjoyable it sounds like,” she said.

The concept of 29Rooms was born in 2015 when Refinery29, a digital media and entertainment company for young women, was celebrating its anniversary. The goal was to bring to life what its website stands for in a physical space and celebratory way. The 29Rooms tour began in 2017 and has stopped in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, each destination featuring local artists. The theme for the current tour, of which Chicago is the last stop, is “Turn It Into Art,” stemming from the late Carrie Fisher’s quote: “Take that broken heart and turn it into art.”

One exhibit — a collaboration between Jill Soloway’s production company and artist Xavier Schipani — features a gender-neutral room, a sort of reimagined high school bathroom. That’s “a space where a lot of people go to escape or where they feel their identity is threatened” Gelardi said. The space celebrates the spectrum of gender identity, playing audio recordings of personal gender journey stories. The room was featured throughout the tour and will be in Chicago.

Artist Benjamin Shine with his piece called "Harmony."
Artist Benjamin Shine with his piece called “Harmony.” (Eric Swain)

“We want to create a space of joy and healing and where people can channel all their different emotions into an artistic and creative experience,” Gelardi added. “We’re trying to create a space that is really transformative, that is inclusive and that brings people into these conversations that maybe they might be scared to engage.”

A stop in Jen Mussari’s room, “The Future Is Female,” lets participants turn their anger into art by hitting and kicking punching bags that make music when struck.