Is London losing its cultural diversity to a rising tide of built-for-Instagram aesthetics?

Image courtesy of David Curran via flickr.

Image courtesy of David Curran via Flickr.

Whether it’s an art exhibition, a new restaurant, or an inner-city festival, it appears that London’s cultural institutions must now cater to the like-seeking social media space first and foremost.

In a city with more than enough foodies to fill seats, if your new restaurant lacks Instagram appeal — be that the food or the décor — it’s unlikely to get much in the way of footfall. It’s often seen by businesses as a platform for free promotion, but is the price of success a sacrifice at the Instagram altar?

To some, it’s not seen as a sacrifice, especially if it boosts business and tourism. But are we conceding some of the uniqueness of London by applying the same cookie cutter social media aesthetics as other global cities to our art and public spaces?

In the restaurant business, how a dish photographs has become just as important as how it tastes — meaning some existing restaurants have had to up their Instagram appeal. As of writing this, 195,000+ people follow Élan Café’s Instagram page, which features a carefully curated purple and pink colour palette complete with neon signage, floral décor, and intricately laid out snacks and drinks.

Frequently topping lists of “London’s most Instagrammable restaurants”, Élan has managed to create an aspiration around its business — the “London life” is about sitting in front of Élan’s flower wall holding a carefully crafted croissant, and if you didn’t document the experience online? More fool you.

No restaurant in London better illustrates the importance of ‘Instagram chic’ better than sketch. As much a zany art gallery as it is a spot for afternoon tea, sketch has built its brand on Instagram-worthy art. The Mayfair location is a smorgasbord of elements that can turn a restaurant into social media royalty: an intricate and eye-catching interior, art (including the Instagram aesthetic pièce de résistance: neon signs), and, obviously, an aesthetically pleasing menu.

Whether new restaurants can achieve Instagram appeal without compromising the chef’s ideals or the dining experience is a tough question. There’s a fine line between gastronomic ingenuity and creating a gimmicky meal or cocktail for Instagram likes — and it’s a line that’s increasingly difficult to toe when Instagram is often the primary driver of business towards new restaurants.

So important is the promotion of restaurants on Instagram, that in 2017, newly opened Soho restaurant Dirty Bones began providing guests with “Instagram kits.” These kits include a tripod selfie stick, a portable phone charger, a clip on wide-angle lens, and small lighting equipment.

“People love to share what they’re eating on social media, so we wanted to put together something that made it easier to get that perfect shot regardless of the lighting or time of day,” a spokesperson for Dirty Bones explained to Mashable. “More and more people are also using Instagram to help them decide where to eat, so as a restaurant group it’s key for us to make sure that people are getting the best possible shots of all our dishes and drinks.”

Instagram and other social media platforms offer free and effective marketing for restaurant owners who, just ten years ago, may have had to base their entire branding on a decent review from Giles Coren.

Christian Piu is the operation manager for a number of restaurants across London including SOYO and Pizaza. He explains that social media platforms are hugely important in attracting customers to SOYO. Speaking to Voice of London, he explains that a lot of time is spent perfecting the Instagram feed for each restaurant, “because the first bite, you take with your eyes”.

Piu also says that platforms like Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest are great tools for understanding more about the customer – and allow restaurants to see what’s popular and capitalise on trends.

Instagram has also changed this city’s approach to public space. Earlier this year, St. Pancras station unveiled its new art installation. A 20-metre long pink neon sign that reads “I want my time with you” now welcomes commuters and tourists into London. A compelling and romantic pro-Europe statement from renowned artist Tracey Emin only ends up feeling clichéd when dangled from the ceiling of a train station — but it’s a hit on Instagram.

November saw the UK’s first “Selfie Factory” launch as a pop-up in Shoreditch. Born from the minds of three digital natives, the Selfie Factory featured backdrops that allowed guests to up their ‘Instagram game,’ including giant ball pits, confetti rooms, and doughnut-lined walls. It’s Instagram aesthetic as defined by algorithm, as if “colourful, unconventional, weird” is all a person needs to be deemed interesting.

Not too dissimilar is permanent Shoreditch staple Ballie Ballerson. This “adult ball-pit” and cocktail bar is likewise replete with neon light, colourful décor and faux-funny, Instagrammable platitudes plastered to the walls such as ‘get balls deep’ and ‘nobody likes a ballend.’ Eloise Morris visited the renowned nightspot after moving to London for university and was left dissatisfied: “The place is fun, but it’s cheesy. It’s more like a fake fun, a thing you’d do because you feel like you’re supposed to. You’re supposed to go to this neon ball-pit and jump around like a kid, because it’s trendy and everyone on Instagram is doing it.”

The most easily-observable example of Instagram’s effect on the art world comes by way of Yayoi Kusama’s ongoing exhibition at the Victoria Miro, THE MOVING MOMENT WHEN I WENT TO THE UNIVERSE. At this point, there’s little more that can be said about her polka-dot pumpkins and infinity rooms shtick that hasn’t been said by other, smarter critics. If you like it, you like it. If you hate it, you hate it. If you think it’s like walking through an Ikea on an acid trip, it is.

In every city her work appears in, be it Atlanta, Toronto, or London, tickets get snatched up immediately. The centrepiece of her exhibitions are her infinity mirrors series: a sequence of rooms, different in each exhibit, that feature lights and objects reflected endlessly into the ether. The rooms make for great selfies, and smartphone-wielding visitors are usually permitted less than a minute inside each room. You go in, take a photo, and get out. Ruminating on the art itself comes later, if at all.

You can read more of our thoughts on THE MOVING MOMENT WHEN I WENT TO THE UNIVERSE here.

Outside of galleries and in the real world, public art is pulling millennials in with offers of easy online likes, with Carnaby Street being among London’s most well-known Instagram hotspots. Long known for its aesthetically pleasing overhead lights, the popular shopping destination recently unveiled a Queen-inspired redesign to tie into the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Much like the Tracey Emin piece in St. Pancras, or the wall decoration in Ballie Ballerson, Carnaby Street is now adorned with neon-lit, pseudo-meaningful Queen lyrics carefully segmented into highly Instagrammable chunks.

Of course, we want people to engage in London’s culture. We want people eating at our restaurants, visiting as tourists, and supporting this country’s underfunded art scene. But how unique can London be, when it applies the same built-for-Instagram design principles in the form of like-catering neon signs, colourful décor, and food that looks better than it tastes?



Featured image: Courtesy of David Curran via Flickr.

Words: Matthew Hall | Subbing: Taylor Paatalo

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