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In the House of a Thousand Likes

Infiltrating New York City's Instagram set

Those in the global city are living under the sign of thought-provoking events and aesthetic services, of Soho Houses and NeueHouses, of “creatives,” of weird and semi-corporate performance art. If you don’t live in such a place—even if you care about art—this is not your problem, until you realize that the pending elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts will mean a serious reduction in funding for art outside of the larger American cities.

If you do find yourself a struggling artist in one of these cities, it is already your problem: the stirrings of the new creative class amount to violent stabs of gentrification in which the labors of working residents and legitimate artists are gutted of their unseemly entrails by moneyed trendsetters, who then repurpose this labor into sterile spectacles to be sold downwind to the upwardly mobile—in their undiscovered speakeasies and up-and-coming alleyways.

Of course, the creative class’s cultural hegemony over the city is well-documented—from a bird’s-eye view. Rarely do we take it to the streets. If we did, we would find—as Iain Sinclair recently showed of London—that our cities are disappearing more and more into a regime where art and capital merge with social media. All of this is overlaid, Pokémon Go-style, onto the city itself, which strips it of physical existence and allows real-estate capital to flow as freely as an online stream. Everything solid melts into augmented reality.

The Spring Street Social Society has broadcast its tidy feedback loop of gentrification, in one way or another, since the fall of 2012.

In New York City, a strange membership club sits at the vanguard of this augmented world. The Spring Street Social Society is, in a word, an “Experience,” one to be purchased and then regurgitated by way of social media, in the acquisition of la via bohème. More to the point: in the language of its founders, the Society is a group “that brings people together in unexpected places” for “coursed dinners, immersive theatre, cultural salons, or anything else we dream up.” A blatant promotional outlet for luxury real estate and luxury goods, it charges for access to the taxidermied (and depoliticized) remains of theatre, drag queens, disco—of the dregs of the city’s art community, old and new.

The Spring Street Social Society has broadcast its tidy feedback loop of gentrification, in one way or another, since the fall of 2012, when Patrick “Man About Town” Janelle (or @aguynamedpatrick to his nearly 460K Instagram followers) and Amy Virginia Buchanan began coordinating a series of variety shows in Mr. Janelle’s Soho backyard. In those DIY days, “clip lights from Home Depot” and “two-dollar PBR” sufficed for performances by “singers, drag queens, puppeteers, storytellers, and jugglers.” This was, in a bold claim to originality, a “blueprint for a new type of communal gathering,” an “experience that happens for only a moment in time and then disappears forever.” That is, unless you’re recording it all for Instagram.

Over the next few years, the Society broadened its horizons from mere PBR and vaudeville to include artisanal spirit sponsorships, coursed meals, and whitewashed disco. (This past summer, the Society even realized the great, singular ambition of generations of artists: they opened a boutique hawking $150 salt mills, $120 millennial pink French presses, $55 incense—you know, just the essentials.)

Arriving, as directed, uptown at 109th and 5th at seven on the dot, and walking away from the park along the northern side of the street, I came to a door marked with the head of a goat. Only then did I know I had arrived at the location of one of the Society’s latest batshit ventures, Secret Supper: The Musical, a “Play in Five Courses” where I was promised union “with the performers in an extraordinary, entertaining—and perhaps a bit emotional—show about what it means to be creative in New York City.” My ticket to this bohemian hellscape cost $200.

There was no password, only an iPad guest list. I was lead to wait with twenty or so other folks in a cramped space of exposed plaster and concrete, a construction site given over for the night to the pageantry of New York’s influencers, creatives, curious, and hangers-on. In one corner and under a spotlight, a vibrant arrangement: a spray of flowers and branches rising out of a metal trashcan surrounded by a disarray of dead autumn leaves. It consumed a great deal of the floor space, and I ended up pushed up against the mutually agreed upon border of this eminently Instagrammable objet d’art. Upon closer inspection, most of the flowers were fake.

Eventually, we were herded into a cavernous hall of windows for cocktails. A few intrepid pioneers whipped out their phones to begin capturing the tableau, but a cursory glance of the evening’s unofficial official hashtag, #secretsupperthemusical, on Instagram produces the work of amateurs. There’s much to learn from the Society, which sports more than twenty-five thousand Instagram followers.

Spotted: Mr. Janelle and Ms. Buchanan, Instagramatically dressed. They collected the guests’ attention for an introductory toast.

Mr. Janelle’s résumé dazzles. While living in Los Angeles, Janelle “moonlighted performing Shakespeare on canyon-side stages and taking on bit parts in Hollywood blockbusters”; in New York he worked as a freelance graphic designer for Bon Appétit. But now, alongside his Society duties, he’s a professional Instagrammer, generating income by way of guiding his flock to the Good Life: American Express, Maserati, Prada. He’s so damn good at this ballyhoo that he won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s first Instagrammer of the Year honor and now generates, on average, north of 4,500 likes per post.

For her part, Ms. Buchanan, foremost an avant-garde theatre artist with several plays under her belt, bills herself as an aficionado of “emotional architecture” and “cultural curation” with classical training as a clown.

Together, the two are specialists in conjuring an aspirational life—one that, were it to be achieved by a follower, would be akin to the continuous coordination and production of a commercial.

Their toast that night, however, was surprisingly light on autobiography.

Mr. Janelle indicated that the space in which all of us almost exclusively white people commingled is to be the future home of the Africa Center, a scale model of which rested behind the bar, terminating at the sixth or so floor with no indication that there is, in fact, already an A.M. Stern-designed luxury condo perched right on top. The condos were finished years ago—and tout one-bedroom options that rent for over $3,500/month in a neighborhood where the median income hovers around $30,000—but the Center’s completion remains deferred. So kind, very kind, though, of the Center to host us for an evening in such a beautiful “raw, unfinished space,” a void onto which we might map our pleasure.

And then this: a glass raised to us, the guests. Out of the crowd, five rose onto chairs and, as bohemians do, they broke into song. Thus we were introduced to our surrogates, the Guests. These actors would experience the Secret Supper for us.

Scene one began at the conclusion of the first course (passed hunks of sourdough bread), after us guests had initiated meager introductions to our tablemates comprised of what we all do: law, time-share management, private equity. A hush then fell over the room as the Guests, dispersed around the perimeter of the room at elevated place settings, launched into icebreakers: when was the last time you cried? During sex, during La La Land, this morning, every morning.

So, how did you hear about the Society? For me, it was through the grapevine. I had heard that last summer the Society hosted a soirée in a model unit of the Zaha Hadid-designed condominium in Chelsea (which touts a $50 million triplex penthouse—shop the look!) on their self-consciously and oft-deployed theme of “creativity” in New York, specifically what the “artists” of New York today owe the artists of New York’s past. To give it the aura of a cultural salon, they invited a writer to come speak.

Turns out her husband—an artist of some renown himself—must not have taken too kindly to the Society’s obvious hollowing out of the preconditions necessary for a thriving artistic culture by celebrating the metastasizing gentrification of physical and aesthetic space in a multi-millionaire’s future pied-à-terre, the pushing out of artists to make room for higher prices and influencers. Or he just had a few too many drinks. Either way, he allegedly hollered some obscenities to the room full of phonies and then, in a minor act of retaliation, the eighty-two-year-old painter clocked Mr. Janelle in the face.

As for my Secret Supper tablemates, the Society came to their attention through more mundane avenues: word of the show spread—as part of the Society’s pivot to a wider demographic—beyond the usual circle of Members and e-mail list subscribers, appearing on, in Playbill, and elsewhere. Those were the streams by which my table partners paddled, looking for a taste of Art or what we once just called dinner theater.

To make short work of it: the non-action of the show, constrained to droll bourgeois chatter, concluded with a passable tarte tatin, the whole shebang nothing but a vast reflecting pond for the audience, confirming rather than confronting their sensibilities and offering a heightened, consumable vision of life they might aspire to: to be immersed without engaging in depoliticized horseshit. Which is to say it betrayed the show’s stated intention to depict “what it means to be creative in New York City.” I am less and less convinced, though, that being “creative” in New York today means anything but buying access to ogle the feeble fantasies dreamed up by the likes of the Society’s dilettantes.

The Society thus achieved at least one of its supposed pillars: bringing atomized consumers together in a frothy and meaningless spectacle.

Still, small details from the night really did seem to possess the touch of Mr. Janelle and Ms. Buchanan’s deft artistry—like the elite portable potty parked outside and outfitted with a Diptyque candle ($34 for 2.4 ounces—shop the look!). Or the fact that the waitstaff performed—both the normal, undercompensated labor of the service industry and a few low-key dance numbers. The communal dishes of the second course (fall squash and mushrooms with black garlic) were waltzed in to an instrumental version of “Toxic” by Britney Spears.

Not long after, Ms. Buchanan entered with a ukulele and invited us to chortle along with her: “everyone in New York knows a man who sings ‘Under the Boardwalk’ at night on the subway.” (She indicated that said man, if he existed at all, was not there with us—presumably because of the prohibitively expensive entry fee.) The band then barreled into a heartfelt song about the subway system, ostensibly the great class equalizer of the city. It succeeded in really whipping everyone into a momentary and superficial sense of communion, with each other, with New York. The Society thus achieved at least one of its supposed pillars: bringing atomized consumers together in their solitude to experience a frothy and meaningless spectacle.

Then came the applause: a well-deserved round of applause for the Guests for having done a fine job with the terrible hand they’d been dealt. Ms. Buchannan and Mr. Janelle then reappeared to applaud us, the guests, for having been immersed and to let us know that everything seen that night (and more) could become a regular fixture in our life, for a price. Applications to become a Member of the Society open for a brief window every January.

And just as those applications started pouring in last month, an avalanche of likes greeted the Society’s latest triumph: an abiding synthesis of art, social media, and real estate in the form of a white-walled corner office in Chinatown—nay but a short jaunt from that fabled Soho backyard where the whole nightmare began. From this raw, as-of-yet unfurnished perch, the Society can now redouble its efforts to disappear the surrounding city in a homogenizing cocktail of cortados and spectacle, to destroy art by flattening it into a mirror image of Mr. “Man about Town” and his gang: hygienic, whimsical, and oblivious.