The Museum of Ice Cream is a pop-up installation currently occupying two respective, reclaimed, spaces: one in an early 20th century bank building in downtown San Francisco, the other in a Los Angeles industrial park. The interiors are an homage to everything related to ice cream, desserts, and candy. The Museum is described on its website as a “place where ideas are transformed into real life experiences. A place where flavors are mysteries, toppings are toys and sprinkles make the world a better place.” There is a sprinkle pool. A room dedicated to cherries. A garden littered with large gummy bears and oversized wrapped candy. The San Francisco one is sponsored by American Express, with ice cream and candy provided by local businesses. Its L.A. outlet was featured this summer on Jimmy Kimmel.
“It’s an opportunity to tap into your imagination, to harness your creativity, and to just have fun and let loose,” Madison Utendahl, head of content and social for the Museum, told Fortune. It is a place to rediscover child-like wonder, even. “People want to spend their money and their dollar towards something they can remember and physically interact with. There’s less of an inclination now to spend your $35 [tickets are $38] on a luxury item or a piece of clothing, versus $35 that can go to your experience with your family, with your friends, with your loved ones. It’s a memory that gets lodged into your brain.”
Whether or not it is the point of the exhibit, the Museum of Ice Cream — like countless other ice cream stores across North America, which thrive on the buzz they can create on social media — is a space designed for great Instagram photos, many of which are tagged with the museum’s preferred hashtag, #moic, and end up here. That goes the same for the Color Factory or the Rain Room or Refinery29’s ’29 Rooms’, installations that might have a genuine artistic point, but whose aesthetic also makes them highly shareable. Part of the experience of the art, therefore, is to be seen within it and tell others that you’ve done it, to be its consumer in a more strictly modern capitalist sense. To not merely obtain something, but to project its branded ethos outward online as a reflection of oneself and perfect the algorithms that surround us.
If the MoIC is a memory that gets lodged in your brain, as Utendahl put it, first it will get lodged in your feed.
Over the last few years, a particular kind of pornography has become popular in America: the images of its 21st century ruin. Photos of decrepit, empty buildings in central Detroit or the vast concrete expanses of permanently shuttered suburban shopping malls are fodder for coffee table books and melancholy video documentaries. Their appeal is obvious. The emotional pull of these abandoned spaces is visceral because of the questions they force us to ponder about how they got that way, and how or if they might one day be full again.
In the post-recession era, these voids in the landscape have presented the sobering reality of what happened to the shaky economic ground few realized they were built on, and have become dark monuments to the emptiness that more and more Americans are beginning to sense resides at the heart of the once-proud American capitalist system. They are part of what Donald Trump called the “American carnage” he vowed to end “here and now” on the steps of the Capitol back in January — an assessment for which Trump is hardly the solution, but that resonates nonetheless with a reality many Americans face every day that suggests that something has gone wrong with the plan.
Amidst the debates about Russian interference and the many mistakes he has made since becoming president, the thing we often forget about Trump, and the messaging that shot him straight from his gilded Manhattan sky rise into the White House just a year later, is that his campaign was built almost entirely on the promise of filling those empty spaces. What he guaranteed was not so much American greatness but American wholeness. Trump’s gross attacks on immigrants and dismissals of international trade ultimately served what was, at its bottom, a sales pitch by the country’s most famous real estate mogul about how to fill unused retail and office space.
The existential American question of the moment, politically and socially, is, in short: What do we make? What can we produce? Its national ethos so intertwined with an economic system — free market capitalism — America cannot help but be defined by its ability, and freedom, to trade. For decades, there was little question about this. American products, distributed around the world, were tangible stand-ins for the nation and its ideals. And, for a while, they were the best. Now, things look as though they have changed, and that shift in perception fuels the modern political landscape: America doesn’t make anything anymore.
Donald Trump’s promise was to fill America’s storefronts again. What few considered was what they might be filled with.
It makes sense that the Museum of Ice Cream has set up shop in underused or empty industrial and retail space. Both are available and big enough for this kind of project, after all. But it’s fitting, anyway, that it should have taken over what might have otherwise, in decades past, been stop-off points along some other physical supply chain, before commerce moved online. That’s because now, thanks to things like the Museum of Ice Cream, these spaces will be physical outposts along America’s newest, most valuable supply chain. They are storefronts for what Americans are really great at producing in the 21st century economy.
In the decade since the financial crash, as social media like Facebook and Instagram took hold and became more than just social networking sites, and instead mirror societies where relationships and commerce are formed and performed, the meaning of capital has shifted to include the invisible information about our lives that advertisers once had to extract with precision over time, but which is now available in abundance just below the surface of every app.
Every one of the photos uploaded to social media from these experiential artistic pop-ups fuel the algorithms that now dictate and influence our modern consumer preferences, affecting how we now choose the very items that once adorned the shopping mall shelves and whose production employed United States workers, but which are now more likely to be created elsewhere and shipped in at the command of one-click ordering. The kind of things that are now displayed not in windows, but in targeted ad posts that disrupt the flow of our social feeds.
This is what the Museum of Ice Cream produces in these mausoleums of the American marketplace — not merely consumer nostalgia, but consumer future. The experiences we are encouraged to have within their walls are for sale, even if the buyers are invisible until their messages arrive on Instagram, tucked in between photos of our friends’ weekend brunches. We are the products that America produces. We are what’s in the shop windows of the new economy.
Our data is constantly for sale. We might as well have stores in which to sell it.