WASHINGTON, DC — Recent Howard University architecture grads Tolu Rufai and Khai Grubbs, known collectively as “Toki,” are luring people to an abandoned warehouse in Northeast DC with nothing but yarn … and the promise of Instagram likes. The duo’s large-scale string installation, the second in their Synth Series, is meant to express music three-dimensionally, according to the artists. In person, the musical connection falls fairly flat. But, just like Coachella, you’re not really there for the music anyway — you’re there for the photo op to prove you were there.
In fact, the work seems to be best animated through digital, shareable photos. The installation first gained attention when the artists and others in the know began posting pictures captioned with #synthseries and the much-used local arts blog tag #acreativedc. Soon the bloggers were writing about Toki, which helped the Washingtonian, a lifestyle magazine, pick up the scent. They tweeted the exact location, and soon people from all over the city were northeast-bound in search of the string thing that would put their selfie game on point.
The images that made the initial rounds on social media were styled like concert photographs: high-contrast, close-up shots of active moments. But in person, the work sits in quietude, flooded by natural light and dwarfed by the size of the warehouse. The artists let the building’s rigid, gridded layout dictate the shape of the installation, which is tightly and squarely strung between four cement loadbearing columns, akin to an over-roped boxing ring. This closed-off construction doesn’t exactly welcome you in, but it does force you to choose between being a spectator by staying on the periphery or a participant by entering into the ‘arena.’ That’s largely where the participation ends, though, since the interwoven planes of yarn only allow for limited movement in a few directions.
Of course, there is an extensive precedent of large-scale, colorful string installations and, for many, the site or the medium itself provides meaning. For instance, Gabriel Dawe subverts the gender-coded Mexican tradition of weaving in his Plexus series. Janet Echelman’s Rose Kennedy Greenway installation in central Boston is meant to knit together the city’s “urban fabric.” Street artist Hot Tea created a yarn rainbow spanning a Santa Monica bridge, which he chose for precisely its architectural merits, just this summer.
Toki’s installation is meaningless as it exists within the warehouse. The artists seem to be interested in yarn solely for its prettiness and usefulness, rather than its heritage. Given its unmarked, out-of-the-way location, the work isn’t meant to be a unifying civic spectacle, nor does it have any connection to the structure in which it’s housed. Luckily, the duo isn’t too invested in meaning anyway — the Washingtonian quotes them as saying, “Ultimately, we just aim to create dope experiences.” In that sense, it succeeds more on a virtual level than a physical one; the hashtag seems to have more import than the string itself.
Toki’s “Synth Series 002” is located at 809 Channing Place NE, Washington, DC. According to the Washingtonian, it’s open daily, 7am–7pm, through August 18.