The word “museum” has saturated the marketing world, with museum-themed pop-ups dedicated to pretty much anything—from selfies, to feelings (hello happiness) and even to ice cream<. As the usage of the word evolves dramatically and as the immersive, colorful playful spaces take over our cities and social media feeds, the question arises: who are these museums for?
The rise of the made-for-Instagram museums has (unsurprisingly) raised stark criticism: they prioritize wow factor over scholarship, they are for-profit with steep ticket prices especially in the context of their more “cultured” counterparts and they’re literally popping up everywhere (the Chicago-based WNDR Museum is now the flagship of a national chain) triggering crowds who waive selfie sticks in the air breaking glass displays and damaging priceless artwork—all for the sake of a not-so-candid picture.
Sure, they might be providing the right backdrop, the right light or the right amount of cool but in reality, they’re more of a temporary curiosity than a rival to, say, the Art Institute of Chicago. Not that they’re trying to be. The lines between art and Instagram experience might have, in the eyes of some, indistinguishably blurred but are those “museums” really killing the way we experience art if we wish to look deeper? We’re unquestionably experiencing a shift but who says there isn’t space for everyone?
Opening in 2018 with a spectacle that drew crowds from day one with Chicago’s first-ever Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirror Room, WNDR Museum was designed to provide a multi-sensory interactive art and technology experience, or as multi-hyphenate founder (entrepreneur, investor, artist, author, philanthropist and professor) Brad Keywell puts it: “to reflect the joy of wonder itself.” Pushing the boundaries of what the museum space—as well as the word “museum”—mean, WNDR invites the viewer to interact with awe-inspiring digital worlds, walk on a light floor made of hundreds of motion-sensored LED panels, question their perception amid optical illusions, get lost into an ever-changing futurescape by means of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and rethink the possibilities of sculpture, video projection, fashion and music. The path from one exhibit to the other is dimly lit, allowing for the experience to sink in. And it’s equal parts entertainment, education and a challenge to snag the perfect museum selfie.
In an in-depth conversation, David Allen, the world-renowned tattoo artist who serves as the WNDR Museum’s chief creative officer, provides insights into the powerhouse Kusama’s recently debuted second exhibition, “Dots Obsession,” in the age of the selfie and shares his personal journey. The bottom line? He inspires a deeper understanding of ourselves and our collective existence.
Tell me about WNDR museum: a place for art or an Instagram-worthy photo op?
Art to me is a way to express emotions and ideas—that’s the beauty of it. And humanity is deeply involved in that. Creativity allows us to express a gamut of emotions, be they positive or negative. I’m saying all that because art has that power: it can make us feel emotional, be curious, let loose. I’ve witnessed incredible moments here at WNDR Museum. Like seeing a seventy-year-old couple dancing in front of a screen—that’s just so beautiful to me.
Initially, I struggled to grasp the concept of something being “Instagrammable.” As an artist, I had to curate my work and find ways to promote it, which sometimes felt like compromising a part of myself—it felt like I was selling my soul a little. But looking back now, I’m not sure if I have truly compromised my artistic integrity, you know? There was a time when I clung to a purist mentality, but gradually, I’ve let go of it. I grew up in a world where access to certain things was restricted and gatekeeping was prevalent. There seemed to be a prescribed path to artistic appreciation. However, my perspective has shifted. It’s not about adhering to rigid standards anymore. I think the idea here is that art can be fun, it can be lowbrow, it can be anything.
There are people who come with three changes of clothing just to take photos. That blows my mind. But on the same day I see someone crying while walking out of the Infinity Room because they did a thesis on Kusama. The demographics are diverse, and the reactions to art are scattered across the spectrum. And if that means more eyes and more hearts and more minds can be in front of the art, then I’m okay with that.
Kusama’s work tends to have a huge effect on people—whether seeking profound experiences or posting selfies.
When I listen to a David Zwirner podcast, for example, I hear a lot of debates around the subject. Some people hate the fact that we need social media so much or don’t get the obsession with things being “Instagrammable.” But if you think of an artist like Kusama, you realize that she didn’t make this shit for Instagram. She somehow found this weird space that’s purely her own. She uses these dots to cope. She feels like infinity is overwhelming. Her art consumes her body, whatever scares her she faces directly and she just draws millions of them. That’s beautiful. There’s substantial depth and meaning behind her work, but it also just looks fucking cool. It’s a balance between the two.
It definitely gets people through the door.
Right. We love that. And it’s an opportunity to shine a spotlight on other artists who are in different stages in their career and may not have reached that level of recognition yet. There’s money in marketing, you know? And in pushing Kusama right now, we’re also pushing different artists who wouldn’t necessarily have marketing behind them. So they also get a shot. That’s important and it feels good, too.
Tell me a little about what you do.
It’s quite interesting, really. I’m a trained oil painter. I’m an illustrator, tattooer and graphic designer. I’m an artist. Throughout my journey, I’ve explored various mediums, each with its own prescribed path to success. However, what I’m experiencing now is completely different. I’m forty-three, so based on my age, my perspective on this path and the respect it commands may differ.
There’s definitely a structured framework in place, but within that structure, there exists a remarkable degree of creative freedom—a lot of ideas bouncing around. Brad [Keywell, WNDR Museum founder], for instance, might have a thousand ideas, and ultimately, we execute only a few of them. However, it’s crucial to ensure that these ideas, rooted in a particular context or thought, seamlessly translate onto the floor. How do you make sure that that storyline and throughline continues during the creative process?
That’s what you’re here for.
As part of my role, I am responsible for translating our conceptual ideas into tangible final products. I’d say that roughly forty percent of our audience input influences this process. Essentially, we utilize our own technology to showcase the work, while also providing a platform to feature other artists. This allows us to rotate and display a variety of artworks within the space. And we are all part of this shared experience.
Which brings me back to humanity: At the core of my passion lies a deep connection to humanity as a whole—it truly resonates with me. The essence of my work lies in humanity, creativity and the exploration of what they both mean to each person. That’s what it’s all about.
The WNDR Museum’s motto is “We’re all artists.” Can you elaborate on that?
It’s co-opting the word for sure—I understand that completely.
In the museum setting, technology plays a significant role, particularly in relation to social media. After all, what is social media but a product of technology? Without technology, we wouldn’t be where we are. This includes aspects such as social media marketing and the like, despite some lack of awareness. So to me, it kind of feels like we have come full circle: we’re all artists in our own way—we are posting, engaging, expressing opinions, creating content—
—and sharing it with the world.
Yeah. I think a lot of people give the word “art” or “artists” a capital A. To me it’s more about the process: we’re all creating constantly. So when I first came here, I had to really wrap my mind and heart around it and if I agree with it or not—and I do. I’m not a millennial, but I need some sort of context that means something to me in order to be able to put my one-hundred percent or two-hundred percent into something. To be honest, I love that we are all artists. To me, it’s about curiosity and imagination, which I think are the basis for empathy, you know? So, sure, we’re all artists. I don’t want to have bias when I talk to you. I want to be curious.
How did you end up here?
My path has all been interesting. I’m just an artist right now, but my degree is in graphic design. So I had the opportunity to work with Atlantic Records, where I focused on creating designs for various bands. It involved understanding how people see—how they perceive visuals and recognizing patterns or how you can guide people’s eyes and attention through different techniques. I learned a lot there. So I did graphic design because I wanted to make a way for myself, but my heart has always been in illustration and drawing.
Later on, when my ex-wife was pregnant with my son, I changed careers. At twenty-seven, I got into tattooing. To me, tattooing is essentially a form of drawing, a way to figure things out artistically. I soon discovered that my background in graphic design and proficiency with technology made my career as a tattoo artist more efficient. Then I began tattooing individuals with scarring and scar tissue, and I realized that I could apply the principles of design to create optical illusions that tricked the eye. For example, when working on breasts, rather than tattooing straight lines that would draw attention to scars, I would use curves to seamlessly blend with the contours of the body. This way I can trick the eye, curve it around it and don’t even have to cover the scar anymore. I started using technology for that too, like I would scan bodies in 3D and use that as a reference. But while technology plays an important role, the true beauty lies in the craft itself.
Okay, back to the WNDR Museum: so they were looking for a fine artist who’s into new technology. By that time, I got to be one of the top tattooers in the world. I had reached a point where I could charge $6,000 for a day of tattooing and I got it down to eight or nine hours a week—it was a really efficient job. I loved that.
But you wouldn’t be here.
This was the most challenging thing for me. I love to learn and there were a lot of gaps and things I didn’t understand. I wanted to fill those gaps! Throughout my career as an artist, I have dedicated a significant amount of time to understanding how people perceive space and how they perceive themselves. But I realized that it was at the intersection of technology and art that It all comes together and makes perfect sense.
The knowledge and insights I have gained through my work in tattooing have greatly contributed to my understanding of people. Spending five or six hours with an individual, tattooing them, getting to know them and having conversations about their experiences—such as going through cancer—has deepened my understanding of humanity. It has been a transformative and profound experience that has grounded me. It really moved me. It shook me up. It made me at home. It shifted my focus from my own needs to those of the other person—it became more about them and what they want for their body.
Learning that in that context, as an artist, it removed my ego. This mindset extends to the work we do here at the museum: We want to remove our egos and we want to share what’s a common message that is accessible and inclusive, while still maintaining depth and significance. We want to communicate in a way that resonates with people from all walks of life. I know it’s hard, but I see the underlying thread that connects it all.
Art, technology, interactivity… It’s a delicate balance.
Exactly right. And that’s also why I don’t want to spell out what an artist has to say—it’s not my place. We can ask questions or we can give them more context if they want to learn.
How do you want them to feel? Like, when they walk out of the museum?
What we want is wonder. It’s all about curiosity, right? So what I want is curiosity, imagination and a spirit of playfulness. And I want people to be comfortable with themselves—if you can let down your guard for a moment, that is special to me.
So hard, though.
Yeah, but it’s cool, too! I’d love to explore this more. It’s about finding peace. And that gives me that balance too, and helps me triangulate what I do. I love to learn and read. So when I first got the job, I read about seven books about museum psychology within three weeks. If there are people that I want to learn more about, I try to reach out and spend time with them. Surrounding myself with creatives has been instrumental in my growth. I’ve had the opportunity to bounce ideas off of brilliant minds like Virgil Abloh—sometimes it blows my mind.
One approach I take to learning is through multiple resources. However, I also delve into subjects on a granular level, seeking out experts who have the know-how. I don’t necessarily aim to become an expert myself, but rather to understand the subject matter well enough to identify and collaborate with the right people who can do it right. And that’s to be able to delegate. And to find the people who care.
It has been a gift to have a team around me now, including fabricators, builders and even architects. We kind of fill those gaps pretty fast. And I’ve learned to catch up—I used to take architectural software classes, like learning Revit on the weekends. I feel like one of my strengths lies in my ability to visualize or at least describe what I envision in detail, allowing experts to bring those ideas to life.
What was the biggest challenge for you while navigating that process?
The speed! I opened up the museum in San Diego in less than eight months—I had never worked like that. It was insane. It was like, wake up, learn, go to work, go home, spend time with family. It was a lot. I have better balance now. But it’s been beautiful and just fun working with artists, getting to know them, uplifting them, educating them.
I know you want to keep things moving and keep things interesting. How do you decide what comes next?
That’s always a question. My mind and our owners’ minds don’t stop. We have so many ideas and we kind of just bounce off of each other and then we have a list of a lot of things. As far as finding artists, I’m always connecting to connectors, to other artists, to designers, to fashion designers… There’s a lot going on in Europe. I keep an eye out on the technology, projection mapping, lasers and holograms. I look at Instagram a lot. I’ll send a DM or an email. I have my finger on the pulse. I’m always hungry.
And you like to experiment.
Yeah, I find it very interesting to depart from traditional art making. And it doesn’t even have to be crazy technology. I like having sensors and lasers and that’s fun. But like, the Kusama exhibition is analog.
Have you seen any evolution in your work, particularly in relation to technology, since you started working at WNDR Museum?
That’s a great question. A little bit.
My whole career has been working for other people and for clients focusing mostly on problem-solving. So what I do now is more participatory. It isn’t necessarily conceptual art—it’s not like Fluxus or anything— but in the sense that my mind is hungry for ideas, thoughts and concepts.
Take Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ piece [“Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)] at the Art Institute, for example: the candy represents his partner’s body and the weight of the candy relates to his partner’s healthy weight before he died of AIDS. That’s fucking beautiful. Most art doesn’t have that profound effect. For many years, I thought that context didn’t matter, but that’s not true. The story is important. And it’s not even just about the candy. How do you even buy that piece when you buy it? Do you get it? Do you get the candy? No, you just get like a PDF that says the rules. What happens when you extend beyond the physical and even include digital elements? Provenance is important, right? I love this stuff.
All that is to say, I think the next iteration of my personal work will be less about craft. I feel like I’ve mastered the craft in terms of painting, for example. So the way I’ve been using technology to augment my craft, I now want to use my artistic skills to augment my ideas.
I want to question everything.
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