Inside The Apartment Of A #Selfie-Made Celebrity

JiaJia Fei is sitting on the edge of her tattered pink sofa; her cat, Coco, is perched on her lap, plucking pieces of seaweed out of her hand. "What are you going to ask me?" she says with a laugh. If Fei's name doesn't ring a bell, it may be because you know the Guggenheim's associate director of digital marketing by her punny Instagram handle, @VaJiaJia, instead. Her crazy-sexy-cool brand of art-world gallivanting has garnered Fei high-profile coverage across the web, from Vogue to W. We dropped in on Fei at her vibrant home in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn ("I was going for Yves Klein blue," she says), to talk about art's new social currency and the power of a personal brand.
Photographed by Nicholas Calcott.
Fei's home features found art and objects collected from the street.
What did you go to school for?
"I studied art history, and separately, I was really interested in technology, so I taught myself web design and graphic design. That’s what led me to my job, which is a fusion of museology, art history, and tech. I graduated in 2008, when social media started becoming more mainstream. That’s when Facebook started; I joined Twitter right after college. My career evolved in tandem with social media becoming a marketing strategy, so that became more formalized into my job description. Our objective is to use technical tools to carry out the mission of the museum, which is broadly to educate people and help them learn about art."

Our most Instagrammed exhibit ever didn’t allow photography. But you couldn’t not pull out your phone when you walked into the room.

What does your day-to-day routine look like? Are you behind a desk tweeting?
"I’m in a lot of interdepartmental meetings, connecting with people and trying to represent what we do online. We think of ourselves as the internal digital agency that supports every department and every function of the museum. It’s a lot of strategy and a lot of interpretation, just thinking about content that’s coming up and how we disseminate it across multiple channels and integrate it [into our broader programming]. It’s kind of a two-way translation process, trying to speak both art and technology; interpreting often dense and highly academic material to make it accessible to a much broader audience on the one hand, and on the other trying to explain how people digitally consume content to the staff."
Photographed by Nicholas Calcott
The mannequins were found on the street.
How does your personal brand interface with all of this? How does your role as VaJiaJia relate to what you do professionally?
"My mission as [an individual] is to make high culture relevant again. I think there’s so much potential for visual literacy and education with platforms like Instagram; there is such an opportunity to reach a global audience. I don’t think people have taken advantage of those tools yet for education or culture. So much great, intelligent thinking hasn’t seen the light of day because it hasn’t been translated into a format that works for online media."

What do you think of #MuseumSelfies?
"I take them, obviously, and I think that’s maybe one way that people engage with art. [But] we can’t define a 'museum selfie' as reaching our goals. How do you get people to engage beyond just a photograph? There’s been incredible incentive to be somewhere because of Instagram, and there’ve been all of these cultural events [where] people want to selfie because they saw all of their friends attending and they want to get that image. But often, it doesn’t go beyond that; they don’t ask what the artist is saying about the world."
The challenge for art in the 21st century seems to be how to take advantage of the fact that you can reach the world, and use it to create a moment that can’t be reduced. A site-specific piece becomes sensationalized almost immediately, because you can consume and compartmentalize the message in a very surface way.
"When you think of the history of art, what we’re doing isn’t new. Walter Benjamin wrote about it 100 years ago, and then performance art became mainstream and again challenged the commercial aspect of a work... Often, a work takes on a life of its own. When Marina [Abramović] did her performance at MoMa, there were all of these memes that showed up — Marina Abramović made me cry, or Marina Abramović made me high; people with bloodshot eyes sitting in front of her — and that’s just art. You have no control over how people respond to it and duplicate it and make these iterative responses to it. That’s part of art impacts the world."

When people see their friends engaging with [art], they feel like they can, too.

If you have an exhibit or show that doesn’t get Instagrammed, did it even happen?
"I think if the audience you’re talking about is the public, Instagram is their first interaction with that show. You might think that some people would say, 'Oh, I’ve seen it on my phone, I don’t need to see it in person,' but what we’re seeing is that the opposite is true. It sort of motivates you to have that interaction in person, especially if it’s site-specific, immersive, or a multi-channel experience. Our most Instagrammed exhibit ever at the Guggenheim, James Turrell's Aten Reign, didn’t allow photography. But, you couldn’t not pull out your phone when you walked into the room."
Photographed by Nicholas Calcott
Fei's cat, Coco, reclines on the sofa, an eBay score.
How do you feel about the reproduction — the Instagram, or the Tweetpic, or the Snapchat — taking precedence in the viewer’s mind over the actual work? It seems to encourage a viewer to place value on their interpretation of a work, maybe over its inherent value or in spite of the artist's intent.
"A lot of our curators would agree, it’s a very reductive way of looking at art. But, at the end of the day, it comes down to the person managing the message. You can be very surface, or you can find a way to help people learn what you’re talking about, and have them become more curious. For me, it’s exciting to know that anyone with a phone, anyone on Instagram, can access art. It lowers the barrier for anyone to engage with the museum. And, I think when people see their friends engaging with content, they feel like they can, too. It makes it a much more accessible space."
So, everyone is going to be sharing exhibits and shows on social media — what's the one thing a person could do right now to be a better art Instagrammer?
"My advice would be to edit, and think very deliberately about your message and image in the context of where you are — something I still struggle with! [Otherwise], sharing so many images to such a vast audience has the potential to create lots of noise."

Food, sunsets, and selfies are not a far cry from the still life, landscape, and self-portraiture work...[in] museums.

Why do you think a young person should care about art?
"The definition and dimensions of art are changing [in the digital age], but we are all still examining some of the same problems in life, only faster and at an unprecedented volume. People are still sharing the same archetypical themes in visual culture: Food, sunsets, and selfies are not a far cry from the still life, landscape, and self-portraiture work that is preserved and studied by museums."
How do you engage with your space, having a very distinct aesthetic and being very aware of how that aesthetic is disseminated online? What is the Instagram filter of your home?
"The filter is just lots of trees. Before computers, I used to like to draw and have always been very much a visual person. But, I love the ease of doing things on computers — [I wish I could] move things in life with Photoshop. I’ve always considered my identity through technology and have been attracted to how quickly you can accomplish things and problem solve. Aesthetically, it’s just been a way that I work efficiently."

Why don’t you have any art on the walls? Are we supposed to Photoshop it in?

"I do have some things that are rolled up, but I think it’s because this apartment is already too busy to me. If I were to make a conscious effort to collect and present works in this space, I would probably do it all at once. [The frames] I just found on the street, or in the garbage. I don’t know why, maybe they found me! Like everything else, I sort of added to the collection over the years." What would you say is your favorite thing about your neighborhood?
"It’s a nice separation between home and city. I feel like I can disconnect. Also, Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s favorite pizza place, Lucali, is right around the corner." And, last but not least: What artists should we be following on Instagram?
"Andrew Kuo (@earlboykins), Parker Ito (@creamydreamy), and Alex Da Corte (@alexdacorte)."
Photographed by Nicholas Calcott.
The painted blocks are repurposed seating from an off-site Guggenheim project.