Pop-Life: Temporary L.A. Arts and Culture, Unveiled

L.A.undry 2.jpg
Sam Frost.

In Partnership with USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism's Engine30 Project, an outgrowth of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism's Master's program in arts journalism that experiments with digital media practices, systems and tools, using L.A. as a living laboratory.

In a city built on the backbone of celebrity, exclusivity is intrinsically woven into the fabric of Los Angeles culture. An invitation to what is rare and limited conjures up the notion of special selection and the golden privilege of access - crowd attracting buzzwords that marketers clamor over.

Local artisans have recently incorporated this "limited time only" adage into their presentation process, citing both creative and fiscal influences. Given the uncertain marketplace, most claim that now is the opportune time to, in the words of the famed children's books author Dr. Seuss - "Hop on Pop." Art based pop-up exhibits, events and performances in L.A. are garnering success due to a simplistic business model that rests at the core of the movement. The two-step process involves-

1. Open and present rare pieces for patrons to ogle, drool and fawn over today.
2. The opportunity to seize these exclusive pieces are gone and packed up, disappearing tomorrow.

The ephemeral nature of fine arts based pop-ups; define both the artist's method and the experience of the collective community. Ilan Dei, a Venice based designer who has lived in the area for over twenty years, has fallen in love with what he describes as an energizing, non-committal experience. In October he launched "Moving L.A.: People Powered Design," a pop-up within a pop-up. The collaborative short-term showcase is exhibited on the grounds of his pop-up furniture store located on Abbott Kinney. "It's a very liberating concept when you think about it. You can [be] more fluid than if you're committed to a lease for a year or two. I think it's answering a need culturally for exploration. If the commitment is not really large, you're more likely to take a larger risk. I think LA is a city that thrives on exploration from architecture to food to culture."

Not only feeding the hunger of the creative spirit, the surge of arts based pop-ups has electrified a new consumer base. "Given the events in the economy over the last few years, everyone, consumers, companies, brands are spending less. Consumers are smarter. The traditional retail model is changing. Companies [can] target specific consumers with pop-up stores for less investment than a long-term lease and actually make a return on their investment. This trend is likely to continue well into the future," says Russell Miller of Vacant, a Los Angeles based strategy group credited with bringing pop-up retail to the states in 2000.

With the tastes of consumers shifting and purse strings buckling, Angeleno based artists and curators are becoming increasingly more calculated and futuristic in the selection of their pop-up venues and the harvesting of their work. Hassan Nicholas, creator of L.A.undry, a guerilla styled takeover that involves transforming downtown laundromats into exhibit spaces during their peak business hours, explains that art pop-ups provoke people to think differently about the use of public space. "It's a green concept. I'm not constructing anything physically, I'm reusing, recycling already existing materials...something like that can change the dynamics of a neighborhood. Seeing an art event at your local laundromat helps you change your perspective on things...Why here? Is the neighborhood changing?" When sourcing his venues, Nicholas targets laundromats located on main streets of low-income neighborhoods. He craves audiences in social hubs that often lack arts resources. He explains, laundromats "are just these kinds of community hubs that anchor a neighborhood where everyone is under one roof. I think it's a unique opportunity to display something, spread a message."

Photo: Sam Frost.
Photo: Sam Frost.

Ronnie Brosterman, the chair of the Dance Department at Scripps College, recently attended Catch Your Breath- an interactive 4-day experience produced the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in collaboration with Barlow Respiratory Hospital. The fusion of limber dancers balancing on hospital gurneys amongst the wooded backdrop of a 110-year old respiratory care facility in Silver Lake, she bubbles was more than thrilling. "It gets people to see the space in a totally new way and appreciate what's around them in a different way. I lived in Silver Lake in this same zip code for ten years and I never knew this space was here. Tonight I drove out from Claremont to be here."

Both newbies like Nicholas and public art veterans like Heidi Duckler agree that engaging new spectators in pre-existing spaces can transform the branding of a community. "Our performances are made to engage more than just buildings, architecture, and sites. We create pieces that are about individuals' relationships to community spaces. Each production enhances the surrounding neighborhood by bringing the performing arts into sites within daily life," Duckler explains.

The growing prominence of pop-up culture in Los Angeles is challenging artists and patrons to both view their neighborhoods and select spaces through a different lens, while also unearthing a new definition of community. "It's not this jet set art world, of people who are going around to art fairs. It's a lot of people who are working on a very small scale, doing really experimental work. The amazing thing about the internet is that you can find your own community. You can reach out to people across the world and create your own tribe, with people who love the things that you love. And one of the things that is so amazing about pop ups [is that they're] taking an online community and manifesting it in real life," reveals curator and arts blogger, Su Wu.

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The increasing impact of online activity within both niche and mainstream design communities demonstrates that pop-ups may become a more permanent fixture amongst arts based commerce. With online sales trumping brick and mortar purchases, artists and brands often rely on pop-ups as a solution. Miller explains, long-term "showrooming has become an issue for brick and mortar stores. It will not be long until brands use pop-up windows to display items for sale by simply tapping your NFC enabled phone on the product to purchase it." The increasing need for pop-ups to occur more frequently may quell the concerns of artists patiently waiting to bank on their endeavors. While retail rooted pop-ups provide temporary economic boosts in a locale, financial gains for independent artists are more challenging to measure. Miller acknowledges that "...pop-ups are not necessarily viable economic streams. There is a lot of preparation and planning involved in assessing the viability of a pop-up store in order to make it successful." Nicholas, who self-funds the quarterly L.A.undry exhibits through his income working in the non-profit industry, claims that his objective was not to create an additional income stream. "I do see opportunities for sponsorships. I would like to collaborate with social enterprises and businesses that on a philosophical level align with my beliefs. Instead of trying to get my artwork into LACMA, I created my own path. Ideally I would love for L.A.undry to be a place where curators or people in the art world come looking for new talent."

Arts, craft and movement-based pop-ups are carving out a dynamic niche within the SoCal marketplace, with the potential to alter the social, cultural and economic landscape of its inhabitants. This undertaking calls for further investigation. The presentation and reception of pop-ups are an endeavor laced with entrepreneurial idealism, cultural criticism and creative dilemmas. Artists are revving up a new engine, with the destination unknown. Join us as we seek to bring insight into the territory of arts based pop-ups through Pop-Life, a new blog series of multimedia musings featured on KCET.org.


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