True or false: Experiential art has nothing to do with event planning.

We hope you’ve been hanging out with us long enough to answer “false.”

But if you answered true, we still have hope. Because, sure, on the surface, there might appear to be few similarities with the rule-breakers of the experiential art world and more traditional event planning. But no matter what you’re dreaming up, you have more in common with the experiential art world than you may think.

Here are the four lessons from the world of experiential art that you should incorporate into your next event.

Subvert your guests’ expectations.

You’re walking through a house and everything is normal, albeit a bit dated. By the time you get to the laundry room, you see all the usual suspects: detergent, dirty laundry, blue swirling inter-dimensional portal in the dryer.

 

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No folding required 👕🌀 . . 📸: @lindsekennedy

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Wait.

And this is where experiential art shines: the thwarting of expectations. Like Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, things may look normal at first, but on second glance is where you get the surprise factor. And this isn’t just a one-off surprise; experiential exhibits commit to the persistent art of thwarting expectations.

“Events are increasingly more about creating wow factors,” Event Manager Blog’s editor Julius Solaris said in an interview with Eventbrite. It’s your job to “challenge attendees to break traditions and evaluate the event on the basis of what they see, rather than on their expectations.”

So instead of picking one unexpected option out of food, venue, swag or a keynote: why not shake up all of them?

Show attendees that it’s okay to play.

It can be a tricky proposition to invite grownups to let down their guard and “play.” But if Refinery29’s experiential installation 29Rooms has taught us anything, it is that adults WANT to play, but only if they feel safe enough to cut loose.

From 2019’s Experiential Design Summit, Johanna Koljonen said that most adults need an “alibi for interaction.” For instance, an adult attendee might feel self-conscious at a Children’s Science Museum. But if they’re there with kids, they’re given “permission” to join the fun. If someone is embarrassed to sing normally, odds are that karaoke permits them to belt their heart out.

Giving your attendees this permission is where you come in.

You have the power to turn your next networking event into a Murder Mystery party, make the obligatory banquet photo booth Game of Thrones themed, or inspire people to express themselves on a pop-up graffiti wall. As long as you show them that everyone’s doing it and that they have an alibi to join in, they will.

Get your audience excited to discover the details.

We’re detail-oriented people, so we put a lot of time and effort into the little, finer things. Things that may be missed on first glance.

But one thing that we love about the world of experiential art is that those tiny details don’t go missed. Those tiny details are perhaps some of the most coveted aspects of any given experience. So much so that Meow Wolf has an app that allows people to scour their highly detailed environments for clues and Easter eggs that unfold more of the story for them. Even more aesthetically driven environments, like the Museum of Ice Cream, are all about the tiny details.

 

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Sprinkle Angels. Could this be heaven? #museumoficecream

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Encourage guests to share with each other.

The best in experiential art build tiny communities of people who come through it. And once they’ve discovered the details, they’re more likely to turn and make a new friend by asking them to check it out.

“That is one of my favorite things to watch at a Factory Obscura experience or a Meow Wolf or any of these immersive art experiences,” Factory Obscura’s Director of Logistical Creativity Kelsey Karper said.

“There are always little things to discover that isn’t immediately obvious and when people discover them, you can watch it happen. It’s like they discovered something, and then they look up. And they’re like, ‘Who can I tell? Who can I tell about this?’”

“There are always little things to discover that isn’t immediately obvious and when people discover them, you can watch it happen. It’s like they discovered something, and then they look up. And they’re like, ‘Who can I tell? Who can I tell about this?’”

Kelsey KarperCo-Founder and Director of Logistical Creativity at Factory Obscura

Forging new, authentic relationships is one key component to making an experience worthwhile and memorable (and, no, this isn’t networking). Frame it by encouraging your guests to break out of their friend or co-worker posse by giving them an additional reason to do so that isn’t motivated by a business card exchange.

If you build your event with community building as one of its goals, your attendees will leave thinking positively of the entire shebang.

The movers and shakers of the experiential art world have excelled at their field for years. Taking a page out of their book can help your next event shine.

Header image ©Brandon Seekins for Factory Obscura, second image ©Getty, third image ©Justice Smithers for Factory Obscura.

Abygail Thompson

Author Abygail Thompson

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