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.
Impressions of London’s Pop-up Scene
Time Out’s ‘pop-up event generator’ gives a good indication of the current ubiquity of pop-up places and of how they are publicly perceived. Clicking on the generator throws out a parody of potential pop-ups: “An enchanted garden….at a secret location”, “A close-up magic show…in the midst of an empty housing estate”, “A greasy spoon with a ‘molecular gastronomy’ twist….in a disused brewery”.
The generator plays on pop-up’s pervasiveness, and picks up on some defining qualities of its imaginary: an absurdist incongruity of location and event, a fixation on transience and secrecy, and a fascination with the spectacular or surreal.
In terms of the tasks this imaginary is put to, pop-up has been heralded by some as an opportunity for small enterprises to get off the ground and a way to rejuvenate post-recession high streets. The endorsement of temporary occupancy of commercial premises by the UK government, who have taken practical measures to facilitate short-term leases, has been instrumental in the growing popularity of pop-up as an urban form over the past decade. However, pop-up is regarded more critically by others, who explore its role in the gentrification of areas of London, often arguing that pop-up is merely a distraction from economic crisis, and/or a precursor to regeneration strategies which often result in the displacement of poorer populations.
The intention of my PhD is to study the ways in which time-space is imagined and performed by the producers of the pop-up landscape. However, given the breadth and prevalence of pop-up events, an ethnography of the entirety of pop-up culture in London would be near impossible, and I’ve needed to determine a selection of case studies and a methodological framework which will allow me to explore the logic of pop-up via concrete and manageable empirics.
Thanks to funding from the SCG PhD Student Support Fund, I was able to conduct a preliminary investigation into London’s pop-up scene to inform my case study selection. Between January and July I visited 27 pop-up places in order to get a sense of the kinds of pop-up which exist and think about which ones would be the best basis for my fieldwork.
Brief Summary of Findings
The lists below give a sense of what I discovered about the pop-up landscape of London during my preliminary research.
The main forms of pop-up spatiality can be loosely categorised within the following list of ‘types’ (although distinctions between types aren’t always clear cut, and many pop-ups fit into more than one category.)
- Pop-up Cinemas
- Pop-up Theatres (Including pop-up opera)
- Pop-up Restaurants
- Immersive/themed pop-up dining and drinking events
- Supper Clubs
- Event Spaces – which can be split into two groups:
- Existing venues designated for temporary use by multiple temporary tenants
- Shipping container structures designed as multi-function pop-up consumption and event spaces
- Pop-up Bars
- Pop-up Shops
- Educational pop-ups
- Residencies (a pop-up food or drink event taking temporary or cyclical ‘residence’ within an existing establishment, usually a pub or bar)
- Public Space pop-ups (Including a pop-up forest and pop-up ping pong)
Pop-ups can also be divided into two camps according to their temporal organisation: Pop-ups which occur as one-off events (be it for a night, a week or several months), and pop-ups which occur cyclically or seasonally.
Geographical distribution within London
With regards to area – although there tend to be higher densities of pop-ups in ‘trendy’ areas of the city, for example around Hackney, there is actually a fairly wide spread of pop-ups in London, and during the six month period I was aware of pop-ups occurring in areas as disparate as Catford, Turnham Green and Tottenham.
As well as thinking about the kinds of categories pop-ups fit into, I also kept track of recurring themes notable across the pop-up landscape, with regards to their spatial, temporal and aesthetic form. I found the following commonalities:
- The use of ‘alternative’ or unusual spaces including: private spaces (for example homes), ‘very urban’ spaces (for example car parks, roundabouts, warehouses) and vacant spaces (for example disused offices or retail premises)
- The use of other premises after hours (for example a hairdresser used for evening film screenings or cafes used for pop-up dinners in the evenings)
- An emphasis on craft, process and the handmade, in terms of the products sold but also in terms of the design of the spaces, via the use of make-shift materials, or via (lack of) interior design (i.e. exposed concrete and wiring.)
- A tendency to theme pop-up events, often around fictional worlds from books or films, around nations and national events or sometimes around historical periods or famous people.
- A focus on ‘immersive’ experiences (often via the use of themes as detailed above)
- An emphasis on interactivity and sociability, including an encouragement to interact with strangers
- A playful approach to the site’s former use and/or to place and locality – often achieved via the incorporation of a site’s former use into the naming or design of a pop-up (although not a pop-up, a bar using a similar naming convention in Deptford has been criticised for insensitivity, raising questions of relevance for pop-up too)
- An emphasis on temporality (specifically on ephemerality and spontaneity) within marketing and publicity
I found that pop-ups are organisationally dependent on the internet. There are certain key websites which list pop-ups (for example ‘london pop-ups’, ‘edible experiences’ and ‘grub club’) and pop-ups tend to have a strong social media presence, using twitter and instagram for publicity (there was even a ‘pay by Instagram’ pop-up).
Pop-ups are also embedded in various economic, legal, governmental and charitable structures. There are multiple organisations who match poppers-uppers with spaces for them to pop-up into and pop-ups are often encouraged as part of national or local government supported regeneration schemes, or as part of business improvement districts. The ‘meanwhile lease template’ is designed to facilitate temporary uses of vacant buildings, and recent changes surrounding business rates and planning permission are intended to make pop-ups quicker and easier to organise.
Plan of Action
I wanted to narrow down my empirical focus in a way which enabled me to produce in depth knowledge of certain types of pop-up, while still allowing me to explore the commonalities and organisational structures of the pop-up landscape listed above. For this reason I decided to focus on the types of pop-up which I thought gave the clearest insight into the qualities of pop-up as a culture. The three types I selected are:
- Pop-up cinemas
- Supper clubs
- Shipping container spaces.
Within this framework, I plan to conduct three levels of research.
- An in depth ethnography of two case studies from each ‘type’ selected
- A briefer study of around six other case studies from each type, using interviews and short periods of ethnography.
- A series of short visits and participant observations at up to 40 pop-up places from, or of direct relevance to, the three types, as well as interviews with key players in pop-up’s organisation.
These levels will allow me to produce detailed knowledge about particular pop-up places, but without losing the sense of pop-up culture’s plurality, diversity and prominence within the city.
The next section of this blog will explain the rationale behind each of the types of pop-ups I’ve decided to focus on, demonstrating how they draw out the common themes and structures identified.
By Ella Harris