Culture

In Conversation: ’29Rooms’ Creative Director Shares Insight

By Sasha Charlemagne, Staff Reporter

Photo Courtesy of Olivia-Jené Fagon

Olivia-Jené Fagon is the creative director behind one of an interactive art experience coming to DC on October 18th, Refinery29’s 29Rooms. 29Rooms was debuted in 2015 on Refinery29’s 10-Year Anniversary as a way to bring the popular brand to life for its audience in a tangible way. With 29Rooms citing its core values as impact, individuality, inclusivity and imagination, it is clear that the artwork selected for these spaces is intentional in its messaging and presentation. 29Rooms is far more than the name implies. While there are, of course, multiple rooms for visitors to explore and interact with, there is an innumerable amount of artwork and talent being put into the production of such an incredible exhibit. Refinery29 collaborates with artists in each city along the 29Rooms tour to bring uniquely tailored elements of the experience to each audience. I sat down with Fagon to discuss what it takes to bring 29Rooms to life. 

S: You have a background in art history and curation, how does that play into your work at Refinery29? 

O: Right before I worked at Refinery29, I was working more formally in the art world and that has absolutely informed my work and my understanding of the kind of experiential work that is popular now. I already had that familiarity and so my understanding and awareness of the arts community and having worked with artists before has absolutely informed a lot of the collaborations we see in the space. We want to use art to address topics with our audience.

S: Youʼre from DC! Is it particularly exciting to bring 29Rooms home? 

O: Yeah absolutely! It feels amazing. I used to play soccer right outside the armory. I’m really glad I get to bring something like this here. 

S: Can you tell me a little about the process of choosing artists to design rooms?

O: Every year itʼs a bit different, but every year we start off with our core creative team and align on a theme for 29Rooms that acts as a kind of North Star and guides what we choose. Once we have our theme we start our outreach to artists, technicians, musicians… Artists with a strong point of view on topics we address and who have a community behind them. And of course, we look at location. For DC we donʼt wanna bring the creative we had in other markets.

S: What are your favorite DC rooms? 

O: Iʼm really excited for all of our amazing local DC artists, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, Trap Bob… I really love the 29 questions room. A lot of people havenʼt spoken to a stranger in a while and many say itʼs an impactful experience. And of course the Black Girl Magic room. There are a lot of everyday objects [in the room] like Shea butter shaped into gold bricks. Taking those everyday Black girl experiences and honoring them. 

S: You bring up taking your audience seriously and not assuming that they donʼt already understand and hold these ideas, how do you center the audience in the work of R29? 

O: Itʼs in the DNA of R29 to lift up underrepresented voices. Yeah weʼre a digital brand but what does a digital brand look like when itʼs brought to life. I think for us people who know and love or brand, it feels like this unique opportunity when we take all of those conversations…and make them feel accessible. Art when itʼs experiential and you can walk into it, is really accessible. Creating moments for someone to have self-reflection is something that gets done really well through 29Rooms. 

S: How do you balance what artists want with the message or theme youʼve chosen for 29Rooms? 

O: Itʼs definitely specific to the artist and how we collaborate with them. Sometimes we say “This is a room we have. You can do the poetry/voiceover. Hereʼs a voiceover we like, you can design the artwork.” Oftentimes itʼs almost like we commission an artist and reach out to that specific artist because of who they are and their work and we say “Well hereʼs the space. What do you want to do?”  

Refinery29’s social media presence is undeniable, with their Instagram account boasting over 2.4 million followers. With their 29Rooms tours becoming major attractions for those looking to take the perfect picture for IG, I asked Fagon about what she felt was the role of social media in the exhibit. 

O: Itʼs something that we engage with all the time, weʼre mindful of where we sit in the traditional art world we donʼt call ourselves a museum for that reason. Weʼve seen the socialization of what we call big destination art. The scale of it makes it more accessible to people who feel scared of those more traditional art settings. Thatʼs what drove the creation of 29Rooms. It’s a way of viewing art that encourages sharing and this feels like an opportunity. We know our audience is interested in capturing moments they can share. This is a broadcasting moment for us but it is one for them too. The message is meaningful even if itʼs photo-driven.

October 10, 2019