Popping-up everywhere

Choreographing local creativity

A colleague recently helped set up a creative collaboration between two friends: an architect and a visual artist. It took a couple of years to plot, and a few months to choreograph. It involved getting local permissions — mainly from land and building owners, rather than the local council. And there was plenty of other planning and logistics to ensure that the event — a sound-and-light show between buildings and across a couple of streets in North East London — was safe and fun for whoever bothered to turn up.

2000 people turned up! There was no marketing or promotion — just a flurry of emails and facebook posts a couple of weeks before. But some of these got picked up by local networking sites and a major on-line listing magazine — and suddenly they were inundated.

It’s no co-incidence of course that this was a fantastically creative and original collaboration, which excited and engaged people who came along, and which received rave reviews on the social media sites which helped get people there in the first place.

But there’s something phenomenal about what happened.

The pop-up phenomenon

Pop-up arts and cultural activities like the one described seem to be all the rage. (For a more considered review of the pop-up phenomenon in cities, have a look at this article by Dan Hill.)

Impromptu street theatre, dance performances on building roofs, drama under the arches, arts happenings and installations, pop up shops and restaurants. It’s been done before of course, and there are one or two companies who specialise in temporary projects which seek to animate apparently unused urban spaces. But there’s a sense that this type of cultural activity is taking place more often than before.

Organising last-minute public events in unused spaces is of course not new. There’s an obvious comparison with the ‘rave’ culture of the 1990s, which made use of empty spaces to organise huge, apparently, impromptu parties, advertised by last minute fliers and posters, and highly-effective word-of-mouth grapevines. But recent research conducted by BOP Consulting seems to suggest that pop-up activities of this kind are becoming more popular and possibly more mainstream, with a range of exciting new projects and initiatives taking place in cities throughout the UK.

Thrift and authenticity

In certain respects, the phenomenon feels like a reaction to the economic slow-down of 2007/8, with people making use of shops and properties which had been thriving in the earlier years of the decade; creating new initiatives which are innately more temporary and fragile, probably cheaper and certainly less risky than setting up a whole new business venture.

The pop-up events also feel like an antidote to an increasingly de-humanised, data-driven, digital world — where we do our shopping on our laptops, pay our bills on our phones, and where our post is delivered by drones. Fleeting happenings on street corners, where locals we sometimes see in the streets or on the way to the tube are gathering round to participate in something authentic, something ‘real’. Like the raves of the 1990s, these initiatives are often very informal, last-minute and boot-strapped — displaying a similar non-formality — a surreptitious desire to challenge or mock the day-to-day boredom and banality of city lives.


Having spent a bit of time talking to the people involved in organising various pop-up activities — and participating in a few directly — I’ve made a check-list of some of the key characteristics of the types of activity being described:

  • Found space: making use of under-used, ideally derelict, spaces
  • Clandestine: transient or fleeting activity in a hitherto-unused space creates a sense of permissiveness — that they/we might be transgressing in some way
  • Transient: whether the events are scheduled or not, there’s always a sense that this is something on the move. Catch it here, or miss it altogether
  • Immersive: events tend to be engaging and immersive rather than spectacular; often free but always open and ‘democratic’ in approach — drawing the audience into the action
  • Familiar: never something helicoptered-in, these are events run by local people who know the space
  • Self-organised: almost always there will have been a considerable amount of planning and managing of red-tape, planning, health-and-safety; but the events provide a feel of something organised by a small group of enterprising local people.

This last point is particularly important for the city councils and other partners who might be sponsoring or supporting the events in some way. Comments from interviewees for the BOP report suggests that this pop-up activity is perceived as a response to financial pressures, with the projects cited being examples of a more entrepreneurial culture among smaller cultural organisations. It’s almost as if, unlike the raves, these events are encouraged and supported, enabling a benign council to promote and take the credit for what they would see as high-profile, public and (for them at least) inexpensive cultural activities.

As far as the creatives are concerned, the risk is of course that the more support is provided by a council or other sponsor the more some of the other features identified — the sense of being clandestine, the concept of ‘self-help’ etc. — might be cancelled out. The trick of ‘pop-up’ is to be just that: transient and on the edge, never in the mainstream, never part of the banal urban landscape.

Understanding and enabling

This does not mean that there is no role for local councils or other sponsors.

It’s naïve to think that these happenings and installations rely on a little bit of local effort from well-meaning artists trying to do things on the cheap. Though low-key and impromptu, as the example used at the beginning of this post shows, a huge amount of time, effort and creative endeavour is expended to make them a success.

Pop-up culture, or whatever we opt to call it, is continuing to animate our towns and cities around the UK. Councils need to better understand how they can help.

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