Puff Puff Pass: Rhizome Works Toward a Bold New Philosophy of E-Cigs

Most of my personal opinions toward e-cigarette culture tend toward the vaguely sympathetic (imagine the sadness of a whole “bar” dedicated to people huffing little nicotine-dispersing cylinders that light up when you suck on them!) But leave it to the creatively analytic souls at Rhizome to prove that this high-tech habit is actually worthy of serious (or semi-serious) scholarly study. On February 22 at the New Museum, the organization presents “This is the ENDD: The E-Cigarette in Context.” It’s a symposium that also includes an artist-produced mix-tape “to vape to,” naturally; that playlist will form the soundtrack to the event’s after party (at a bar where you can no longer smoke c-cigs, thanks to former Mayor Bloomberg).

Symposium participants, including Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, Mathew Dryhurst, and Brian Rogers, will cover all aspects of vape culture, from the e-cig’s technological-historical origins to its psychological, market-based, and human-health implications. Critic Orit Gat‘s lecture will focus on parallels she’s found between e-cig stores and more familiar branded environments. “I’m going to focus on the visual aspect of how the stores represent this technology,” Gat says. “This fall, I spent a month in a small town in the south of France, where there are 20,000 inhabitants. 19,999 of them smoke–real tobacco, because this is France and all. That town had two e-cig stores, both on the main street. And this being France, the stores were designed in a very minimalist fashion, which echoed in my mind immediately with the Apple Store. How do we sell technology? Much of what we learned from the Apple Store is how to sell an image of what it’s like to use their products. You don’t necessarily go to the Apple Store to buy a Mac or some other gadget, but rather to play, touch, look at those gadgets. What they’re selling is not the product, but the experience thereof.  But then I looked into the Brooklyn e-cig stores, which are extremely reminiscent of a Whole Foods or any other organic, artisanal food purveyor, because they want you to taste and try the different flavors. So the store mirrors a shift in our idea of what this technology is: from a novelty that needs to be explored to a product onto which we cast the same interests we have in food and other stuff: artisanal, organic, locally sourced e-juice is what the Brooklyn e-cig store stands for. I think that regardless of whether e-cigs become a staple in all our lives (as cigarettes are, or at least were) or if they disappear, a lot of the stores will close within a couple of years because there’ll no longer be a need for the performative aspect of the technology.”