Pop-up politics.

Recently I visited Occupy’s amazing camp at St Paul’s. I could not help but be impressed by its combination of suddenness and resilience. It (and others like it all over the world – think the use of public space in the Arab Spring) is an instance of a general pop-up spatiality. The term “pop-up” came to my attention perhaps two years ago when “pop-up” restaurants, bars, clubs, art galleries and boutiques started to pop up in Time Out magazine. It was obviously a “thing”.** No doubt I am way behind the times but it seemed quite new. One aspect of these kinds of pop-up spaces is the use of otherwise moribund spaces in the interstices of urban life – under railway arches, in neglected buildings, in the bits left over by proper planning. In the case of a pop-up restaurant by a celebrity chef it gives the opportunity to squeeze some profit (and fun) out of a bit of space neglected by capital. No doubt there are also elements of the virtual world of social networking making themselves visible and tangible.

Clearly these instances of pop-up space mimic any number of political moments in the history of insurgence. Think of the barricades and bricolage of the Paris Commune for instance – narrow streets turned into what Hakim Bey would later call “Temporary Autonomous Zones”. Think of squatting and any number of peace camps from the 1980s. Pop-up space has also been integral to the world of public art recently. Older versions of public art as solid, monumental statues resistant to weathering have been questioned by forms of art which are deliberately limited in duration. Sudden moments of encounter and wonder. Nowhereisland will ‘pop-up’ all over the south east coast next summer and then it will disappear over the horizon.

I wonder how these ideas move between the world of politics and the world of commerce? The pop-up spaces of restaurants and clubs, like the unexpected spaces of ‘secret cinema’ appeal to a sense of play with the landscape. There is something at least a little subversive about their spatiality and temporality.

Returning to Occupy, though, there is also a sense of resilience. It did “pop-up” (helped by the technology of instant tents familiar to festival goers) but now it is very much there.  Part of its point is the fact that it is not going away. It hovers between temporary and permanent. Many unsympathetic commentators have suggested that the occupiers have made their point and now is the time to tidy up.  Perhaps the forthcoming monumental pop-up event called the Olympics is on their mind. Visiting the site also gave me a sense of organizational effort. Such political statements often work on the juxtaposition of the apparently ramshackle and carnivalesque and the monumentality and completeness of a place such as St Paul’s. There is some of that here. But there are also all the committees (more meetings than my workplace by the looks of it), the risk assessments, the formidable politeness, the cinema and bookshop (Starbooks!) and the Tent University where surely you can get the best free education in Britain given the starry line up of visiting speakers. All of this makes it hard to easily dismiss.

** The more general idea of “pop-up places” arose in conversation with Ella Harris – a Masters student on the MA Cultural Geography course at Royal Holloway. She is seeking to explore this phenomenon in both her Masters thesis and, in a wider way, in a proposed PhD thesis. She has recently explored some of these ideas in relation to “Secret Cinema” in an intriguing course paper. I owe some of the ideas expressed in this entry directly to her. Faults, of course, remain my own!