Pop-Ups All Over

[uds-billboard name=”popup”]In St. Louis, big name exhibition spaces like the Contemporary Art Museum or White Flag Projects rarely open their doors to local artists, let alone novice ones. Young artists benefit from the caliber of these institutions, which in turn depends upon their selectivity, but in a smaller city like St. Louis there are few stepping stones from the bottom to the top. With the increasing popularity of site specificity and installation, inexperienced artists interested in making contemporary work need some kind of venue. Work based on its context requires a habitat; the absence of venue eliminates the relevance of a studio.

Consequently, pop-up shows are on the rise in St. Louis. Pop-ups can be defined as exhibitions appearing in unexpected places only to rapidly disappear again. They are difficult to define because they are based on their opposition to existing venues. They are places of promise and opportunity, unaffected by fame, fortune, and tradition. Often built from the bottom up by the artists in the show, pop-ups mimic the creative process. Other common characteristics are byproducts of those principles. The shows tend to be in non-art spaces because art spaces come with rules and baggage, and they tend to happen in one night because the artists don’t have the resources for a durational exhibition.

St. Louis has seen a surge in such exhibitions in the last year, with several groups of local artists setting up frameworks for creating series of pop-ups. Open House Projects by Kathleen Perniciaro links exhibitions with open houses, presumably expanding the audience at both the open house and the opening, and showing the property off to its fullest potential. The Transients, a group consisting mostly of MFA students, have only had one show so far in the apartment of two of the organizers. Ostensibly, they create pop-up shows in vacant residential spaces. Children of the End of the World, a group I am a part of, uses any means available to procure spaces for one-night exhibitions someplace outside of our University. Several informal pop-ups this year have taken place in the homes of their makers. In the last few months, three installations took place in Washington University in St. Louis student Lauren Banka’s basement, and a one-day performance and exhibition called Rock Breaks Glass was organized at Pig Slop, an artist cooperative on Cherokee Street.

For viewers, these shows can provide access to art that is (in the best case) courageous in ways that make it unattractive to established institutions, and might inspire the viewers to make a pop-up of their own. The pop-up proclaims that anyone can have a show, and it can be anywhere (just clean out your bedroom). By making it easier to imagine oneself in the artist’s shoes, pop-ups may break a barrier of pretension that contemporary work often struggles to overcome.

I call the construction of a pop-up transparent. If the space isn’t residential, it has probably been procured by calling realtors’ numbers on empty storefronts until someone agrees to host a show. It follows that organizing a pop-up requires connections with the community. At the very least, communication with the realtor or landlord secures the spaces, and working within the functional limitations of the spaces teaches participating artists about a local building they would otherwise not interact with. At best, the event itself can inform the surrounding community both of the building’s existence and potential, and of the blossoming local art scene. Compared to the perpetual effort by galleries and museums to reinvigorate the community through contrived events, pop-ups can look comparatively altruistic.

I spoke to local artist and former Boots Contemporary Art Space owner Juan Chavez, who, in a shining example of forged community connections, helped organize a show in 2010 called Sweet Jesus at the Lemp Brewery, along with Lauren Adams, William Gass, Jake Peterson, and Kiersten Torrez. In the process of creating that show, Chavez spoke extensively with the owners of the Lemp space, and was able to give them an opportunity to speak to the public about their passion for the building and its history.

The advantages of pop-ups have pushed them beyond the territory of novices and students. St. Louis has seen relatively experienced artists like Mel Trad, Jake Cruzen, and B.J. Vogt, who have shown their work in more established local institutions, participate in or organize pop-ups where the artists’ notoriety neither helped nor hurt their inclusion. Venues like 6612 Art Place, which markets itself as an “alternative, temporary art space,” have begun to mimic the pop-up aesthetic. Fort Gondo and Los Caminos on Cherokee both host exhibitions that can only be viewed by appointment after the opening and, thus, are effectively one-night shows. Juan Chavez’s new project, the Northside Workshop, will exclusively host one-night exhibitions.

But at what cost comes the brief duration of these exhibitions? Anyone who has been to an opening knows how time gets allocated. Artists might start to feel hopeless watching their work take second priority to cheese, wine, friends and strangers, particularly because the work may never be shown publicly again. The work will probably disappear quietly; many of these shows never see any press because few reviewers go to the opening. Even the highly populated opening of Sweet Jesus received no press (save the artists’ own online documentation).

The art itself changes, too. The absence of a durational show necessarily occludes work that takes a span of days or longer to operate (ruling out things like Marina Abramovic’s performances or Dieter Roth’s cheese race). Other omissions are more subtle. Having people around you chatting and eating and drinking makes it nearly impossible to feel alone with the work. All conditions are set against an admission to vulnerability. The impossibility of being alone with a piece at an opening means pop-up style shows privilege work that manages to battle for attention, to mimic a film or play’s ability to disintegrate and captivate the audience. Video work can undermine socialization through low lighting and changing stimuli. Sound work or performance contends insofar as it cannot be observed without sustained attention, and work that utilizes interaction like relational aesthetics may also benefit from the conditions at an opening. Quieter or more easily ignorable work will either be unsuccessful or greatly dampened by the setting.

Pop-ups are like the mix tape of art exhibition: democratically accessible and surging in popularity. Both the work exhibited and the pop-up format influence art in and out of the institution. By limiting art viewing to the manic energy of openings, pop-ups invite an array of disadvantages. Yet whatever the one-day show detracts, at least in St. Louis, durational shows experience the same losses. That virtually no one comes to exhibitions after the opening leads people like Juan Chavez to abandon durational shows altogether when opening a new art space. Rather than solicit a meditative relationship with the work, durational exhibitions functionally excuse people from attending the opening in exchange for a false promise to come later. Time will tell whether the rise of pop-up brings the marginalization of passive, pensive art. Insofar as it is defined in opposition, the form retains its privileged position for eliciting change. Perhaps the next generation of pop-ups will respond to this one by finding a route to resourceful duration.

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