With the help of funding from the SCG PhD Student Support Fund, I spent the past 6 months conducting a preliminary investigation into pop-up culture in London in order to identify case studies for my PhD research. This two part blog post gives an account of my findings and subsequent decisions
Cinemas, Supper Clubs and Shipping Container Spaces
In what follows I’ll give abridged and anonymised accounts from my field notes of some of the pop-ups I visited in order to demonstrate the rationale behind the selection of my three case study types. As I hope will be clear, each type is intended to draw out certain defining elements of pop-up, but those elements can also be considered in relation to the other types, and to pop-up more broadly.
Supper Clubs: Public/Private dichotomies and the role of the internet
Having found the supper club online, read some reviews on their website and had a look at the menu, I booked tickets to attend an event a couple of weeks later. On the night, I arrived on a residential, smart looking street in North London feeling slightly terrified. There was no sign of any event happening from outside so I went up and knocked on the door. I was greeted by a woman in her early thirties, and taken through to a living room full of confused looking strangers, all nervously clutching flutes of cava. After making fairly forced conversation we were taken into the main family room, shown pictures of the host and her brother’s graduation ceremonies, and introduced to their mother, who would be cooking our dinner. She said they were family recipes, and showed us a portrait of her mother, who had taught her to cook. The other guests said they’d found the event online too, most had come as part of groups, but some had come alone. By the end of the evening there was a good conversation going, punctuated by slightly strange interjections from the host’s father. The brother, apparently, was upstairs in his bedroom, as he doesn’t like to be involved in the supper clubs.
In their pure form, supper clubs happen in somebody’s house, raising questions about how the public and the private are refigured via this commercialisation of a domestic space (supper clubs usually cost around £30 to attend.) In this account, the eagerness of the host to show the family photos to the guests, and the fact that one member of the family was hiding upstairs both offer insights into the nature of this encounter between public and private. On the one hand, representations of the familial/personal are foregrounded as a selling point of the experience, but on the other, the deliberate absence of one family member demonstrates how the supper club could be an intrusion into the domestic realm. The supper club also brings into focus questions around the colliding temporalities of work and leisure in contemporary London, given that, like many pop-ups, the hosts normally run them in addition to their day jobs, as profitable hobbies.
Also of interest is the role of the internet in organising supper clubs, and indeed in organising most temporary places. Given that supper clubs happen in somebody’s home, the only way of knowing that the property is being transformed into a public place for the evening is via listed notifications (you can’t tell, as I found out, from the outside of the building) which almost always happens online. Supper clubs therefore bring into focus the intermediary role of the internet in the production and consumption of pop-up places. The internet is used to keep track of the transformation of city spaces into pop-up events, given that the pop-up landscape is too unsettled for cartographic representations, and requires something more akin to Paul Virilio’s ‘trajectography’. That is to say, pop-up requires ways of continuously finding out what’s happening, not a fixed way of knowing what is.
Pop-up Cinema: Temporality and Urban Imaginaries
I left, along with my friend, in day light, feeling pretty daft in the costume I’d been instructed to wear. But once we got closer to the site of the screening we started to see other people obviously going to the same place, and by the time we arrived we were part of an excited gang. We had to hand in our mobile phones before going into the building, which looked like it might have been an old fire station. The whole place had been decked out to look like a city, and my friend and I were sent to different districts and given different errands to do. Along my way I met various people, and sometimes couldn’t tell if they were actors or spectators like me. Most people never dropped character, and whenever asked I gave the name that I’d been allocated when I booked the tickets online. The set was pretty convincing and I quickly felt like I really was in an unknown city. Every now and then a short scene would be acted out, sometimes by characters I’d already interacted with. Eventually I found my friend out in the court yard and together we tried to piece together the story emerging from our encounters. The story was soon clarified when we were all called into a big hall to watch the film; we recognised the scenes we’d seen acted out and the characters we’d met and made sense of our experiences against the film’s narrative. During the film there were still some bits of acting taking place in the room, to compliment what was happening on screen. At the end there was a band and we danced with some other people, until we decided to pick up our phones, stumble out into the ‘real’ world, and get the last tube home.
Cinema has long been thought in relation to the city. Much attention has been paid both within Geography and Film Studies to how urban forms and temporalities have, across eras, been imagined via and shaped through film. Equally, places of cinematic spectatorship have been considered for their functions as spaces where alternative and politicized publics can be formed. Pop-up cinema can be seen as the latest chapter in this history. Pop-up screenings, as detailed above, have a lot in common with early models of spectatorship, where the film screening is just one part of an experience which includes music, performance, eating and drinking. Studying pop-up cinema as part of this history of urban spectatorship will allow insight into the ways in which pop-up cinema screenings re-imagine and construct the urban, and open avenues of exploration into the sociality and publicness of pop-up. Given the longstanding place of film in understandings of temporality, pop-up cinema will also be a good starting point for considering the nature of temporality within pop-up culture. Furthermore, as the account above shows, pop-up cinemas are carefully designed to create a site in which the fiction of a film is expanded into real space, and a study of their aesthetic form and its effects will provide an insight into elements of play, performance and immersion which are identifiable across pop-up culture.
Shipping Container Spaces: Place, Placelessness and the Economy of Pop-Up
One day I spent a few hours hanging around a ‘pop-up mall’ made of shipping containers. The containers had been painted and modified to create units which were being used for multiple shops, restaurants, cafes and bars to operate out of. There was also a further container a little way off from the main site where a sponsored busking event was taking place. Amateur but pretty decent songwriters and DJs were performing to a small, very hipster-ish, crowd and others looked on from the terrace of a bar operating out of one of the containers on the upper level of the structure. One of the corridors inside the container structure had been decorated with poems about east London, mostly celebrating the diversity of the area. The modular design of the containers gave a regularity to the shops and restaurants, but inside they had all been customized in different ways.
My final case study cluster, which will look at shipping container spaces, is an effective way to study the economy of pop-up. Shipping containers have historically been emblematic of globalisation and standardized production, but here, as my account shows, they are repurposed as customized objects with a new symbolic currency. Like most pop-ups, container spaces foreground the process of their construction, and take an aesthetic form which is performatively temporary and ad-hoc. The way in which shipping containers are repurposed for ‘make-shift’ structures, gives an insight into the shifts in logics of production and consumption which pop-up is part of, a shift towards the handmade, the one-off and the crafted. However, as well as economic shifts, container spaces also facilitate continuations of economic patterns. Like containers used for shipping, these containers are still tied up in maintaining trade and other circulations of capital in the city.
Shipping containers also provide an insight into tensions between place and placelessness in pop-up. Pop-up developments are often discussed by planners as creating a sense of place in areas, as is evidenced by the poems displayed on the walls in this account. But this sense of place is in tension with the destabilization of place for others, which pop-ups are arguably complicit in via gentrification. It’s also arguable that pop-up makes place a product, a selling point in itself which can be exported to many different spaces, and this too suggests that pop-ups might be thought in relation to ideas of non-place and placelessness.
Summary of Rationale
As I hope these accounts make clear, my three clusters of case studies have been selected on the basis that they provide particular insight into the main distributions and imaginaries of the pop-up landscape. So, while my research will be in no way a complete or conclusive study of pop-up, it will contribute to emerging understandings of pop-up’s spatiotemporal logic, and its functions within the contemporary city.
by Ella Harris