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22nd November 2011

Popping up near you

Just how long does a trend take to burn out? A fly-by look at the rise and rise of pop-ups, a trend which seems in no danger of fading away. Plus a Q&A with pop-up enthusiasts NOISE charity.
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Pop-up. A phrase that until recently was used only in relevance to children’s books, jacks that come in boxes, toasters/tarts (the popping kind), and laps. But we can now reveal that ‘pop-up’ has a new meaning that is shoring the tides of the urban experience. This can mean only one thing: a trend has crested that perilous wave of mode and is riding high at the break, spouting frothy cool magic. Urban dictionary, landmark of all things ‘on’ trend, helpfully points us to one of the many meanings of ‘pop-up’ (but thanks for the lap mention): ‘A place for hipsters to eat that doesn’t stay in one place long enough to meet health code’. Unexpected, quick-fire, one-stop, one-purpose, possible health hazard – it’s all there for the discerning hipster.

Pop-ups have burned through the leisure industry: from pop-up shops, brow bars, vajazzle stations (I kid you not), cupcake stands – that’s trend piled upon trend and all for the low, low price of parting with your dollar. And finally, inevitably, the trend has trickled on down into the art world: galleries and exhibitions in unexpected or sudden locations, with no health and safety, popping like corn all over the place.

In 2009, ‘insiders’ decreed pop-ups to be the ‘buzz word’ on the London art scene. Precisely what these words mean is irrelevant, the facts are clear: a trend is born. And now, Manchester has squared up its shoulders and let loose a couple of poppers itself. In very recent weeks vacant urban spaces have been hijacked by hungry young art caterpillars to be transformed into sparkling art-filled butterflies.

Firstly, Free for Arts festival fulfilled its free brief, and filled its boots with promised spaces. It brought art to unnatural habitat such as Urban Outfitters and the unsold office space Piccadilly Place. The requirements were fulfilled; there was no air of gallery formality to the Place, just the chill of naked concrete. It’s empty, ripe for the creative picker, and best of all it’s free. This is guerrilla art squatting in its highest form.

Grabbing empty city space allows complete freedom of curation, and it creates opportunities for those outside the institution, without funding or contacts. Child’s Play, an exhibition in Piccadilly Place, was a pop-up about pop-ups – further proof that a trend has reached fruition when the fruit borne is irony. The survivalist instinct common to starving artist and nomad alike kicked in and every corner of the bare concrete bone of the building was used as part of the exhibition. But for curator, Ryan Higgins, the most significant element in creating a pop-up as forum was that it allowed the exhibition, in content, to comment on the trend of pop-ups from inside. In the same way that pop-ups may function within the contemporary art institution (as Higgins understands them) but change the landscape of that world, Child’s Play operates within both these concentric circles. Yet it is also concerned with maintaining aesthetic standards that Higgins feels are sometimes devalued by the temporality of the pop-up. The lines between institution and insurgent are clearly blurred for the viewer, and I wonder, how keenly the imbedded comments are felt for the audience.

Secondly, NOISE arts charity put its own spin on the pop-up with a two week installation in Stephenson Square at the end of October, ‘The Art of Protest’, which featured ‘masters’ such as Banksy and Gillian Wearing. A pop-up was the perfect package for the under-25s charity to present its anti-violent protest protest. Also conducive to the young, a pop-up burns just short enough to keep the attention of the short consumer-fused span of youth today.

The exhibition was in part a reaction to the violent riots earlier in the year, but uniquely it promotes protest. That is protest through non-violent channels, and specifically through art. Dissent that fuels creativity you say? Surely it’s been done. Except like the trend within a trend, The Art of Protest tackled issues that affected young people, as presented by young people, yet it was also about how these issues are articulated; and all this through a medium of exhibit that is particular to youth and how the youth are to articulate themselves in these economic and socially closed times.

Joshua Blackburn, of, spoke in relevance to The Art of Protest that although many say that we’ve ‘lost the art of protest’ through the constant transactions that are sought and performed by us and our immediate world, there are ever-inventive ways that people are articulating their dissent. He has kernelled the pop-up, in my eyes. Something that began as a way to surround us with more and more diverse ways that we can shop has now, irony of ironies, squeezed out of the shadows an inventive tactic that facilitates unfunded, unsanctioned projects: charities, free festivals.

The vajazzles continue. The North has caught on to the trend, like a small European country where the music is a decade old and the suits are shiny. Does this mean the wave has broken, the microwave has pinged and the corn has popped, that it’s downhill and downmarket pound pop-ups from here on in? Anything can now be turned into a selling opportunity, especially something new. But like the Art of Protest’s idealistic exuberance, if pop-ups empower some creative side-stepping, allowing those with something to say somewhere to say it, then I say get noise-y.

Read on for pop-up dab-hands, NOISE’s, experiences of the ‘catch it will you can’ phenomenon:
Why did decide to run the Art of Protest exhibition in the form of a pop-up?
The ‘Art of Protest’ exhibition was an extension of the, the biggest pop-up project in the country, that we ran throughout 2010 (Nov 2009 – Nov 2010) as a ‘Free Arts Enterprise university’ in a store, on Manchester’s Market Street. The location was one of the busiest shopping miles in Europe, so it gave young people a really accessible way to network with their creative idols such as Jon Burgerman, Virus Syndicate, Pete Fowler, and Pure Evil, who shared their expert advice and experience of how to carve out a successful career in the creative industries.
The economic climate is making life very challenging for young people. With cuts to much needed initiatives to help them get employment, continue education or provide short-term paid work placements. By offering space to young people, the NOISE Charity is providing a positive response and space to have their say.
Following on from the success of NOISELAB, we thought that the best way to get maximum impact and exposure for the Art of Protest exhibition was for us to stage it as a pop-up showcase in a high street shop window. The exhibition’s location in Stevenson Square, in the city’s Northern Quarter was actually where a lot of the riot activity took place in August this year. We wanted to show how creative protests can have lasting impact and gain media attention, without resorting to violence.

Do you think the popularity of the trend stems from economic reasons?
At the time when the recession was having a devastating impact on the UK high-street, we wanted to re-animate the high street. Each month the NOISELAB windows were re-worked to display the work of young creatives.

Does it appeal to a younger audience? Or perhaps allow for a more creative approach to an exhibition, from the organisational point of view?
Because our pop-up projects have all been in high street locations, it’s helped us to attract audiences from all ages from a range of diverse backgrounds.
Pop Up projects give organisers and public more flexibility, and more importantly the possibility of doing creative things where usually there is little of that sort of stuff going on.
In addition, because of [the pop-up’s] high street location we had to think about getting people in the shop without intimidating those who were not our target audience, but I think we struck a good balance, attracting over 42,000 visitors in over 6 months.

And finally, was the use of pop-up a success from your perspective?
NOISELAB was a resounding success, as the flexibility of the space made it adaptable and multifunctional space, often programmed by young people themselves. The temporary nature gave the space a, ‘catch it while you can’ exclusivity, making those involved feel like they were part of something really unique and worthwhile. When we announced that the space was closing, we were really pleased that the Lab’s regulars started an online petition to keep the space open. It received over 750 signatures in one week. We were pretty overwhelmed with the response.
With the Art of Protest exhibition, the charity was showing young people the best protest art that had gone before and setting the challenge for young people to do something equal or better.

We are now launching the ‘Re-Masters – Art of Protest’ project nationally, for emerging creatives from across the country can produce their own protest-art, taking inspiration from iconic protest art from the last 50 years (Stella Vine, Gillian Wearing, imagery from John and Yoko’s Bed-in..etc).
More information and the brief can be found on our NOISE Art of Protest page here

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