On a lazy Sunday earlier this month, I visited a selfie space. Snark Park, a project of Daniel Arsham, Alex Mustonen, and Ben Porto’s design group, Snarkitecture, opened last month inside the new mall at Hudson Yards. Featuring a temporary installation of Instagram-friendly backdrops, New York City’s latest tourist destination designed for taking photos of yourself largely follows the model of the Museum of Ice Cream and Refinery29’s “interactive funhouse,” 29Rooms. Except that, in this latest iteration, critically-acclaimed artists are steering the ship.
The first thing you notice upon exiting the subway at Hudson Yards is that everyone has their phones out. This is a place to take photos. There’s the Vessel, a $200 million-dollar copper Stairmaster (because who would ever expect public art to prioritize accessibility). There’s the Shed, the potentially-radical art space designed with a condom-like cover to protect anything dangerous from infesting the rest of Hudson Yards. There’s the Mall (seriously, I saw multiple groups posing for photos in front of stores inside the mall).
The next thing you notice is that Hudson Yards is a place for waiting in lines. There’s a line for the Vessel. There’s a line for the bathrooms. There’s even a line to use the escalators.
The seven-story mall itself, officially called the Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yards, feels like it’s been exported from Dubai. There’s Cartier, Rolex, Dior, Fendi … and those are just the shops you see when you first walk in the door. Unlike the Shed or the Vessel, Snark Park does not even pretend to be a gift to the people of New York. It’s housed inside the mall, nestled above Cartier and below Lululemon, and tickets are $28 for adults ($22 for children) for a 45-minute visit. Despite being a Snarkitecture project, it’s not described as art. A sign at the entrance describes it as “a New Age retail experience.” Selfies can be so much more than reflections of simple narcissism, so redefining my generation’s preferred form of personal expression as a retail experience may tell you everything you need to know about Hudson Yards.
If you can brave one last line, you can visit Lost and Found, the 3,000 square foot selfie space currently exhibited at Snark Park. (The installation will change every few months, but Lost and Found runs through at least May.) Staff in uniform jumpsuits take you to a space behind Snark Park’s Kith Treats ice cream shop, a darkened hallway where a recording of Daniel Arsham’s voice plays. To set the mood, Arsham asks visitors to close their eyes before he recites a rhyme about “the architecture of play” that we’re about to encounter. A wonderful thought, but as soon as the moment is over and guests enter the bright white “maze” of Lost and Found, the phones come out.
It’s immediately clear: nobody is here for play. They are here for photos that look like play. I immediately realize that I am under-dressed. The other guests are wearing pristine sneakers and doing their makeup in one of Lost and Found’s many mirrors. I’m wearing a flannel shirt that I fell asleep wearing the night before.
Lost and Found is described as a maze, but that’s vastly overstating things. The main room is full of white columns, white chairs, white beaded curtains, white faux-fur, and mirrors. It’s a series of photo backdrops separated by white strips of fabric hanging from the ceiling. Maybe the fabric is supposed to suggest a maze? Really it’s just making more efficient use of the space by allowing Snarkitecture to squeeze in more self-contained photo opportunities. I counted about 20 fabric strip backdrops in all.
With almost every backdrop, the idea is simple: Sit or stand in front of an interesting white textured surface, many of them in hollowed-out white columns. There’s the “disco throne” (a chair with a back covered in disco-ball glass), the “ping pong shot” (a column filled with white styrofoam balls), and the “mirror vortex” (Snarkitecture’s lazy take on a Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirror box). I enjoyed the chance to test out the Portrait Mode on my new phone, but I definitely did not need to test it out across 20 different variations on a theme.
I wondered, if I didn’t have my phone with me, what would I be doing? Paying nearly $30 to sit in a chair? If you go to Snark Park for any reason other than to take posed photos, you will be bored within five minutes. Play is valuable, but it does not happen here.
One exception and saving grace: the kids. While us adults all struggled to strike the perfect poses, a group of kids looked to be having the time of their lives discovering little nooks and crannies, hiding among the hanging swaths of fabric, or catching their breath on super-comfy bean bags.
Experiential spaces can be amazing. I moved to New York to work at Creative Time, pioneers of experiential (and usually free) art, and it’s disappointing to see how Creative Time projects like Mike Nelson’s A Psychic Vacuum, Tom Sachs’ Space Mission: Mars, and especially Kara Walker’s A Subtlety paved the way for spaces like The Museum of Ice Cream. Despite MoMA’s Rain Room, Santa Fe’s Meow Wolf, and the fervor for most things Kusama, I still have faith that artists can still create environments that function as more than photo backdrops. One idea: discourage phones at these sorts of art experiences, like at Sleep No More or Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy. It was the kids, sans phones, who actually embraced Arsham’s alleged goals for Lost and Found.
Snarkitecture has done better. Playhouse messed with space and scale, and, yes, also made for good photos. Dig highlighted the extremely physical realities of architecture that are easily overlooked in this era of starchitecture and big glass buildings. Snarkitecture’s work has always been beautiful and photo-friendly, but this time they fell hard for the selfie experience trap. Unfortunately, Snark Park plays into the genre’s worst tropes, and it still feels like you’re not getting your money’s worth (a family of four — two kids and two adults — can expect to pay $100 for 45 minutes). Instead of using design to transform space and creating an experience that opens up minds, Snarkitecture has made overpriced photo backdrops. Why? Was it laziness, or maybe the allure of Hudson Yards combined with the necessity to turn a profit in a luxury venue?
Snark Park is in no way a park. If we can call it an art installation, Daniel Arsham just figured out a way to charge people $28 to look at his art. If you actually want to experience an architecture of play or take some beautiful selfies, I suggest a visit to Storm King or Central Park instead. Still, I hope you like my photos. Otherwise, what did I pay for?