It can probably be dated with pinpoint accuracy. The death of the pop-up: 3rd December 2011 – the day that London saw the opening of Boxpark, that ghastly Shoreditch eyesore billing itself as “world's first pop-up mall”. Whilst the marketing spiel promised “a living, fertile community of brands packed with talent, innovation and attitude” and “no high street retailers”, the ugly reality is of heavily branded shipping containers flogging wares by the likes of Nike, Levi's and Calvin Klein. The discrepancy between the two would be amusing if it wasn't so offensive.
In truth, for many, the idea of the pop-up as something intrinsically alternative or counter-cultural had probably faded long before. Now it's something else. The heavily publicised marketing 'event' for the global megabrand, of which London has seen more than its fair share: in the past year Shoreditch alone has played semi-willing host to a British Airways cockpit (with food from Heston Blumenthal and 'art' by Tracey Emin); the Puma Yard – a sportswear-branded Olympics cash-in with live music and DJs; and BMW's surprisingly well-received art car extravaganza in, appropriately enough, a multistorey carpark on Great Eastern Street. Plus, of course, the leviathan Boxpark, savaged so eloquently by architecture critic Kieran Long as little more than “retail smash-and-grab”.
And yet, conversely, the capital is still a hive of transient, creative, pop-up activity in all sorts of strange and unusual places. The past year has seen a temporary podium for “outdoor exhibitionist eating” in Dalston's Ridley Road Market; a boat-shaped hotel designed by David Kohn and Fiona Banner on the roof of the Southbank Centre; and a communal bathhouse out east in Barking, courtesy of innovative young architects Something & Son. New supperclubs and street food outlets are launching seemingly every week, balanced of course by old favourites like Bold Tendencies and Frank's – the summer-time Campari bar on the roof of a Peckham carpark.
Celebrating both sides of the coin in open-minded fashion is Nicholas Russell, the CEO of WeArePopUp, a website that keeps readers up to date with a whole host of pop-up stores, exhibitions and supperclubs. He actually believes that pop-ups are more exciting than ever, which is why he launched the Pop Spot Festival, “a communal celebration of the pop-up movement” with a special app that helps people find all manner of popped-up goings-on across town.
“Utilitarian retail is dying,” Russell argues, demonstrating the kind of commercially-minded view of the pop-up landscape that you'd expect from somebody who's worked with the likes of Tesco, Virgin, Accenture and LVMH. “Banks are moving to mobile platforms and everything from books to groceries will be better delivered by online providers. That shift leaves an excess of retail spaces that can become experiences, the scope of which are limited only by entrepreneurial imagination.”
Interestingly, Russell dates the origins of the phenomenon to around 2003, and the activities of “large American retailers looking to inject innovation and excitement into stock retail experiences.” “For much of the past decade,” he continues, “they primarily remained synonymous with marketing stunts.” In direct contrast to the established view amongst artists in East London, Russell denies that the original spirit of the pop-up (if there was one) has been co-opted as a marketing strategy for big brands. Quite the opposite, in fact: “The original spirit of the pop-up,” he says, “was a marketing strategy for big brands, that has been co-opted by individuals and communities.”
This is not an opinion shared by many outside of the commercial/retail world. Independent curator Crystal Bennes (who also happens to be my wife) is certainly of a different view. Over the past three or four years as the Director of SALON (LONDON) Bennes has put on exhibitions and events in strange spaces across London (from a Georgian townhouse in Islington to an empty office block on Regent Street and a disused petrol station on the Clerkenwell Road). “I do think that the pop-up has now become an over-used tool of corporate, especially luxury, brands,” she explains. “My ultimate goals were always about bringing different people together, artistic experimentation in a non-commercial environment and intellectual rigour... but I'm finding myself less interested in the power of the pop-up as a model for artistic experimentation. Once the experiment becomes a formula, it's time to look elsewhere.”
One common argument is that the pop-up phenomenon has been a victim of its own success. Certainly this idea was reinforced by the recent opening of the new David Roberts Art Foundation in Camden, North London. This in itself is no bad thing – David Roberts has forged a reputation as a formidable champion of contemporary artists and curators, and the architects have done a wonderfully sensitive job – but there's something interesting about the exact location. As is the way with art galleries, there is a proud focus on the original history of the building (a furniture factory between 1870 and 1890) but a complete disregard of its immediate past. For the past few years 15 Camden High Street has actually played host to a broad range of avant-garde art events and cutting edge temporary exhibitions, with the premises let out for free under a scheme called Camden Town Unlimited. But no longer.
“The trouble is we were too successful,” I was told when I called Camden Town Unlimited to find out more. “The landlord no longer wanted to work with us.” Hardly surprising given that Roberts, a multi-millionaire property developer coughed up £4 million for the space.
This is the classic side-effect of the pop-up: undervalued space is let for free for exhibitions and events, which then alert both landlord and potential paying tenant to the property's full commercial potential. The scheme is then closed down, and the artists asked to move on, having inadvertently increased the value of the property in question.
To complicate matters a little though, Camden Town Unlimited was actually set up by local businesses to “improve the viability, visibility and commercial performance of Camden Town as a business location”. In some senses then the initiative achieved exactly what it set out to do, and arguably the artists were being exploited from the start. Which is why many may baulk when Russell talks of the “significant sustainability benefits” created by pop-ups. Benefits, sure, but for whom?
As Bennes points out: “now that councils and corporate executives have seen what a bit of feel-good press can do for their bank balance and public likeability, they're more eager than ever to let a group of artists or architects use their land for the three months before they demolish it to make way for a new 52-flat luxury apartment.” Whilst Bennes doesn't blame those young creatives going down the pop-up route – “often it's the only affordable option” – she does offer a warning: “you have to be careful where your financial support comes from, and what's happening to the space once you've made it sexy and community-friendly”.
But there are clear benefits. Most obvious is that the pop-up is by now an established stepping stone on the journey towards a permanent space. Trash food fetishists like Pitt Cue and MeatLiquor both started with temporary outlets, as did many contemporary art galleries – like Breese Little, who, after a couple of years putting on shows in venues as diverse as a converted chapel in St John's Wood and a Huguenot house on Fournier Street, now have a small space in Clerkenwell. As gallery director Josephine Breese comments: “pop-ups may require a huge amount of energy and effort to transform a space to a specific vision, but to begin with a permanent gallery would not only have been expensive but, we felt, restrictive to our vision at the time.”
Even after establishing a permanent home the lure of the pop-up remains, if the art is right. “We no longer seek pop-up initiatives per se,” Breese explains, “but they seem to be inescapable. We work with artists who have ambitious objectives, and we understand that these cannot always been contained to our current space. Pop-ups allow us to realise the gallery's full potential.”
The point then, if there is one, is that there is no single narrative arch. The pop-up is not a unified, counter-cultural concept that got co-opted and commercialised; nor is it a term that should, any longer, convey some fleeting sense of innovation or 'cool' onto some bloated global megabrand. The pop-up is both the perfect expression of postmodernity's privileging of the contingent and the tentative, and the ease with which this has been appropriated, repackaged and redeployed. A prime example perhaps of how self-awareness can slide swiftly into self-interest. But then it's also simply a thing that happens: a corpse of a concept that lives on regardless.
Image credit: Dr Crystal Bennes