When was the last time you saw such a frenzy for bright colors? The ubiquitously buzzed-about Color Factory, a pop-up interactive art experience near San Francisco’s Union Square, recently released an additional 26 days of admission tickets for September -- an extension of the original (and completely sold out) August run. Lest you scramble to open that extra tab in your browser: you’re too late. And scalpers on Craigslist are selling tickets -- originally priced at $32 -- at around $80 a pop.
Even before Color Factory opened its doors to the public, headlines appeared across the internet making sweeping predictions. Condé Nast Traveler declared “San Francisco’s Color Factory Is About to Be All Over Your Instagram.” Architectural Digest called it “an Instagrammer’s dream come true.” Curbed declared Color Factory “San Francisco’s newest Instagram hotspot.”
Do you sense a pattern?
But before jumping to the conclusion that Color Factory is a sickly sweet honey trap for the shutter-happy selfie-posting folk who use #blessed completely unironically, consider the fact that it could be all of the above -- it is, it totally is -- and also something else.
Color Factory has levels, yo. Both literally (it spans two floors at 575 Sutter Street) and figuratively.
Conceived by Jordan Ferney of Oh Happy Day (a “craft and celebration” blog with an accompanying party supply shop), Color Factory came to life quickly. Ferney had the idea in January. In April, she brought on local artist and chromophile Leah Rosenberg as creative director; New York-based designer Erin Jang served as art director of the project. The team didn’t get access to the building until May.
Despite what sounds like an insane production schedule (between this and her recently opened Natoma Street public art installation, one wonders if Rosenberg ever actually sleeps), Color Factory is up and running smoothly.
I say “smoothly” because at the time of my visit, five days into the project’s run, everyone visiting Color Factory was smiling. That’s a pretty good metric for a certain kind of success. Another kind of success is determined by the “net” line on an Excel spreadsheet. Another is evaluated by ticket pages that read “SOLD OUT” ad infinitum. And yet another is determined by what my social media specialist coworker identifies as “engagement.”
In this respect, Color Factory is #winning. At press time, #colorfactory yields 3,573 public posts on Instagram, #colorfactoryco (the "official" hashtag) another 1,735. In an innovation I can easily see museums adopting in the next two years, Color Factory has selfie stations to expedite the documentation process: a unique card given to each visitor can be scanned at various photogenic points in the installations, triggering a countdown and sending the resulting images directly to your email. A clear favorite, for obvious reasons, is the ceiling-mounted camera snapping pics in the yellow ball pit.
I know, you say, I’ve seen the pictures. So isn't Color Factory just an Instagram factory?
Well, yes and no. I’ll start with what Color Factory is not. It’s not an Exploratorium exhibit; you won’t learn how the human eye perceives and processes color. It’s not an Olafur Eliasson-esque meditation on art history and the visible spectrum. It’s not a social history lesson on the various connotations of color.
It’s also, importantly, not an art exhibit — though artists did work on it, and parts of it are art.
In addition to a slew of "stations" dreamed up by the creative team, Rosenberg commissioned artists and designers she wanted to “work with, support and protect” to paint illustrations, organize spaces and create installations. Because so few outlets list the whole cast of collaborators, I’m putting them all here: Jacob Dahlgren, Tom Stayte, Geronimo Balloons, Tosha Stimage, Stanton Jones, Andrew Neyer and Andy J. Miller, Carissa Potter, Jessica Hische, Rebecca Wright and Randi Brookman Harris.
This means that in addition to areas set up to provide pure, unabashed pleasure (look no further than the confetti room), slyly critical installations enter the mix. Stimage’s Oranges: Various Matter with Perceptual Properties Between 590-620nm functions as an inventory of orange items -- pool noodles, goldfish crackers, basketball lanterns -- but also continues the artist’s investigation of orange (the fruit and color) as an analogy for black identity. Sure, her carefully arranged solo show at City Limits had more depth and breadth, but Stimage’s Color Factory installation is a rare occurrence in the world of emerging artists: a paid opportunity to explore one's practice and to have that work be seen by thousands of people.
The most self-aware installation of the bunch comes from London-based artist Tom Stayte. In a lavender room, a computer program culls through Instagram for images hashtagged #selfie, thermal printing one image every 12 seconds on a roll of lavender paper. The self-portraits litter the floor, leaving you no other option but to step on strangers’ faces. Visitors to Color Factory can jump to the front of the printing queue by tagging their photo #TomStayte -- feeding the artist’s social media presence with their own desire to get a printed souvenir.
Another thing Color Factory isn’t: purely visual stimulation. Instagram doesn’t quite capture the full range of sensory experiences here. There are things to taste: color-coordinated macaroons that arrive on a spinning tabletop, charcoal lemonade and banana-flavored soft-serve. Things to smell: hundreds of rubbery balloons and a wall of scratch-and-sniff stickers, their scents ranging from lovely to repulsive. Things to hear: silver-themed songs in the “disco room,” giggles emerging from Dahlgren’s dense cube of hanging ribbons. And things to feel: the weight of oversize green markers, submersion in a pit of plastic balls.
As much as I entered Color Factory filled with preconceived notions -- mostly cynical feelings towards self-documentation against variously colored backgrounds -- spending time in each of the rooms, surrounded by gleeful adults and children who already know how to have fun even without the help of colored stripes, won me over.
I can’t help but return to the smiles. How often do you see full-grown adults belly flopping without abandon in a sea of yellow orbs? Cheerfully tossing handfuls of confetti in the air? Drawing on the walls? Laughing wholeheartedly at punny bathroom humor? How can you argue with that?
Yes, you can do all of the above while taking a picture of yourself -- but by the end of my tour through Color Factory, I saw people just doing things for the sake of doing them. Unselfconsciously. They were, forgive the cliché, living in the moment.
There’s a conversation to be had about art and Instagram, Instagram and the museum, museum selfies and what it means to look at art through the screen of your phone instead of with your own eyeballs. But Color Factory isn’t the right scapegoat for any of this. And if this pop-up on Sutter Street is helping people loosen up a bit, take pleasure in bright colors, learn about artists they wouldn't otherwise know, and remember how to simply play... who cares how many photos they post in the process?