POPPOSITIONS off-fair during Art Brussels
18 - 21 April 2013
By George Major (co-founder & director Squid & Tabernacle, London)
Conceived as an experiment with the art fair format, POPPOSITIONS is a pop-up fair changing location for each edition and featuring artists proposed by galleries and organisations working with site-specific exhibitions. Ahead of the second edition on 18-21 April in Brussels, George Major from Squid & Tabernacle, a London-based pop-up gallery, explains how the pop-up gallery has become such an ubiquitous exhibition format in the past decade: what localised economic and social forces have driven their growth and how have practitioners across the world developed pop-up strategies together’
Throughout London’s financial district and beyond, vast square-footages of new office space are under construction while there is little evidence of demand matching the supply of new workspace. Meanwhile, owners of vacant buildings are able to claim relief on the business rates paid on commercial premises in return for lending their buildings for free to artists as studio and exhibition space, a situation that effectively amounts to public funding by the back-door during a time of swingeing cuts to government spending for the arts. This combination of circumstances - which many new organisations have sprung up to take advantage of - accounts for the increasing ubiquity of the pop-up gallery in the UK.
The invention of the pop-up is often attributed to the Japanese retail industry during the 1990s recession. Since then pop-up has been adopted as a strategy in many industries; its proponents attracted, in part, by the subversive air and aura of bohemian freedom surrounding this mode of practice. But artists, in their never-ending quest for cheap workspace, have explored pop-up to the greatest lengths.
Open Plan is a project occupying a vast office space, metres from institutions such as the Bank of England and Tower of London. Artists are being allowed to use the building for meeting, working and exhibiting. Open Plan’s exhibitions draw a more diverse audience than that seen in many commercial galleries. Alongside friends and colleagues of the many artists involved, city workers from adjacent offices have begun to wander in to find out about the strange goings-on seen through the building’s glass façade. Also, participants have started to forge alliances with artists and curators working in similar projects among the City of London’s tangle of narrow streets. A network of artists is emerging, quietly infiltrating The City, cheek by jowl with the office workers more commonly seen in these environs.
Pop-up curatorial projects are just the visible tip of a much larger iceberg. The economic and social conditions that have encouraged pop-up galleries to thrive enable a whole pop-up art world; an art world that exists in parallel to the commercial art market, much as a grey market operates alongside the mainstream economy.
Open Plan, for instance, initially involved students from London’s Royal College of Art and members of AltMFA. AltMFA is an itinerant free Masters programme; it is London’s pop-up art world university. Everyone involved gives their time for free, meeting in artist’s studios or infiltrating public institutions. In part AltMFA represents a reaction against the increasing cost and commercialisation of education; AltMFA’s relationship to conventional teaching institutions is analogous to the relationship between pop-up curatorial projects and the mainstream commercial art world. The pop-up practitioner, the nomad or itinerant is a cultural grey-marketeer; she seeks out unexploited niches in the established order, making use of the facilities provided by mainstream cultural institutions while subverting them to her own ends.
In order to carry out this work, these practitioners are often more accustomed to swapping, sharing and appropriating resources and knowledge than following officially sanctioned and prescribed routes in the execution of their ideas; it is an inherently sociable and collaborative way of working. This is not to say that pop-up practice is confined to artistic cliques. Historically, the pop-up practitioner has inclined towards working in otherwise neglected (cheaper) neighbourhoods; and each project I have carried out has been reliant upon the hospitality and enthusiasm of the communities I have inhabited.
In reconfiguring the art fair format as a platform for pop-ups, nomads and itinerants, POPPOSITIONS promises to provide a survey of the strategies taken by such practitioners; strategies which are influenced by each practitioner’s environment. Factors that drive the strategies taken by pop-up, nomadic or itinerant projects vary between different locales; the unique geography, history and demographics of each location producing myriad different niches to be discovered and exploited. For instance, while the economic forces which have led to the surplus of empty office space described earlier are replicated across the UK, London’s particular culture - its status as a destination for aspiring artists - means that projects like Open Plan and AltMFA have a different character to projects with similar aims based in other UK cities.
POPPOSITIONS, being a dedicated international survey of such work, promises to explore the broad implications of the ongoing trend for pop-up galleries, site-specific and temporary art projects in a way that could not be achieved by looking at what is going on in a single city or in one country. POPPOSITIONS will illustrate the prevailing mood of collaboration and mutual support that artists working in this way rely on, regardless of the cultural and geographical differences between them.