Letitia F. Ivins

This post is part of a series on emerging trends and notable lessons from the field, as reported by members of the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Council.

In the midst of the recession, the “pop-up” has emerged widespread among visual artists as a vehicle for aesthetic and social engagement.

From the intimate and homemade to the mobile and socially ambitious, we have come to love artwork that “pops–up” in unexpected places. Whether an endearing artist crafted paper box cottage from which bear cub-sized tarts are doled or an urban planning mobile that functions as community organizer, the pop-up’s inherent temporality is creatively freeing.

What else makes the contemporary pop-up, with its entrepreneurial yet modest, if any, commercial interest so enchanting?

I write this post on my return from my first Art Basel Miami Beach. While I relished the fair art experience (a pop-up in all its garish glory) one of the most memorable artworks was the offbeat public art pop-up Transformer: Display of Community Information And Activation led by LA-based artists Olga Kouramoros and Andrea Bowers.

Invited by Christine Kim, curator of Art Basel’s Art Public, the Koumoundouros and Bowers engaged three local social justice nonprofit organizations in dialogue with the Art Basel fair-goers and led political t-shirt printing and sales. Sure, I was thrilled by this single opportunity to take home some art ($5 for a used shirt adorned with a fresh print), but it was because this living artwork was aesthetic, civically minded, functional, and shielded from commoditization that I loved it so.

During these lean art market times, I’ve observed many artists direct their creative prowess toward the democratization of art. Many work in the realm of social practice, play the role of community catalyst and in doing so, “set up shop” and spend time in dialogue with a community so that they might create a work that responds to a need or simply speaks directly to the community’s beat.

I refer to these artists as “catalysts” because by inciting public participation, they form temporary micro-communities that nourish the broader community. A shared experience, if resonant, binds folks together and propagates that spirit.

Artist collective Fallen Fruit (David Burns, Mattias Viegner and Austin Young) organize nocturnal forages in which participants pluck and share public fruit.

Wandering the neighborhood with community members that they likely do not know, foragers map public fruit while discussing food access, agriculture, and recipes, as they test the tension between public and private space in Los Angeles.

This experience might culminate in a “jamming session” in which the fruit is converted to jam and given for free to participants. The artwork returns to its natural gift cycle in Lewis Hyde style. The artwork flourishes as it is passed along and consumed.

Fallen Fruit jams at Machine Project (http://machineproject.com/) Photo: ©Fallen Fruit

What better way to reach a community than when the artwork itself has legs?

The artist-driven Hester Street Project in New York City peddles their artist/architect designed Community Planning Cart throughout New York City.

The cart, converted from an old bicycle trailer, is equipped with a staff planner who guides members of disenfranchised communities in conversation about the future of their neighborhood from new infrastructure to promising temporary art installations.

This pop-up demonstrates a creative and nimble approach to community organizing. It not only adapts to the community by increasing the presence and flexibility of organizers and planners, but also makes the process playful.

Young people design their East River waterfront with Hester Street Collaborative(http://waterfrontonwheels.tumblr.com)

What makes these happenings, these spontaneous social spheres so sexy and so effective in reaching communities?

For one, they are accessible.

The pop-up converts the anonymous to friend through an informal, welcoming and, unpretentious setting.

The best of them open people up and breakdown socio-economic and cultural barriers. We are infinitely networked in cyberspace though often at the expense of a physical community connection. I believe that Americans are starved for opportunities to interact with their neighbor.

The pop-up can be vehicle or even a creative commons that, even if it does not last, nurtures an appreciation for shared space and place.

For two, pop-ups are ephemeral and mobile.

This not only allows for a broad reach, but also generates an aura of spontaneity that draws and excites audiences.

With tools like Twitter and Facebook, pop-ups can launch a viral marketing campaign within minutes.

The pop-up’s short life expectancy frees it for experimentation. While counter to the institutional psychology of sustainability, it sustains artists whose people-driven work will make an audience development director tingle.

For three, this is how many visual and other multi-disciplinary artists today work.

They want to engage in conversations and art-making with people. They want to perform, stumble, and thrive outside the museum and commercial realms and want to adapt their work with and for a community.

If the pop-up is the vehicle, art producers must nurture this mode and participate through sponsorship, commission, or by clearing the red tape.

Start small.

As civic art project manager with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, I am working with Fallen Fruit on our most engagement-centered public artwork to date. Their work at Del Aire Park is just as much about cooperation as it is about creation.

When experience is given equal weight to the end product, the artist the room to make art that is authentic, responsive, and truly distinctive.

As we continue our quest for vibrant communities, follow the pop-up…and the artist!

3 Responses to “Emerging Ideas: Pop-Ups for the Populi”

  1. [...] The Emerging Ideas series from the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Council continues with Letitia Ivins’s Pop-Ups for the Populi. [...]

  2. Kathie says:

    Hello there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok. I’m absolutely enjoying your blog
    and look forward to new updates.

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Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.