Prepare for a (benign) assault

Image of Peter Aspden

For decades, the architecture of a night out at a cultural event remained essentially unchanged. It was an evening – almost always an evening – to be marked on the calendar, eagerly anticipated and cherished. Tickets were bought or reserved well in advance, demanding diligence and patience. Come the day, plans were made for an early or late-night supper. Fine clothes were carefully picked out and worn for maximum impact. Intervals were a combination of fashion parade, gossip station and philosophical inquiry.

Such nights out were part of the social calendar, and of course had an influence on how we viewed the arts. If we were serious, we prepared scrupulously for evenings at the theatre or the opera. I remember that one of the objections to the introduction of surtitles at the Royal Opera House was that they made things, well, a little too easy. What was wrong with needing to study a libretto for weeks on end? The appreciation of the arts should involve effort. No gain without pain. It was like going to the gym. We had to give our brains a workout, so that we could properly work out what was going on.

Today that is an unfashionable view. Not so much because people can no longer be bothered to festoon themselves in velvet jackets and long frocks, but because the presentation of art is changing so radically. Of course, there are still the prestigious first nights, the must-see events. There is always Glyndebourne. But there is a tired feel to the idea of the Great Night Out. Instead of us needing to plan meticulously to engage with the best art, art has decided to stop being so passive and come to us, when we least expect it. Culture is moving into the pop-up era.

The London 2012 Festival, for one, has been full of surprises. Just a few days ago, diners in London’s Covent Garden were intrigued to find a ribald conversation about football between two men suddenly turning into “Full fathom five thy father lies”, the song sung by Ariel in The Tempest. It was the first appearance in town of Mark Rylance’s “What You Will” project, promising “moments of Shakespearean wonder in everyday London”, a project that concludes tomorrow.

Rylance describes the project as “a random act of senseless beauty and an artistic ambush”, actors suddenly accosting people in the street, slinging Shakespeare’s verse into the most prosaic parts of their lives: Tube journeys, drinks in the pub and all the rest. In July, riverside strollers were perplexed to find acrobatic dancers gently descending the sides of City Hall, and bungee-jumping off the Millennium Bridge, in daredevil performances devised by the US choreographer Elizabeth Streb. Their location had been kept top secret by organisers.

Word on the street is that another spectacular event is planned in central London for tomorrow. You cannot move in the streets of London, it seems, without encountering art. There is no booking, no preparation, no study for these affairs. They are spontaneous, benign assaults on the cityscape. They make urban life just a little bit more interesting. And they inevitably have us thinking about what art is supposed to do.

In the Great Night Out model of cultural consumption, little is left to chance. We know, more or less, what we are getting. And part of what we get is a feeling of exclusivity. Top-price tickets for Covent Garden or Glyndebourne are commodities. And to be lucky enough to afford them is to be part of an elite that enjoys the best of what culture can offer.

Pop-up culture caters to different elites. One is chosen purely by chance. If you are approached by Mark Rylance quoting from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Central line, I am guessing it will be a more dreamlike, unforgettable experience than any performance of the play you will have seen. You will dine out on the story for months, years. People will envy you. But all that happened was that you were in the right place at the right time.

But there is another elite that can make sure it can take advantage of these magical interjections: the social media community. If you know the right places to look, and keep looking, you will find your nearest slice of pop-up transcendence. You need to be savvy, vigilant, alert. You need to be prepared to drop everything. You need to have a lifestyle, as well as a mind, that is supple and fast-moving (there is a word that encapsulates all these qualities: young).

Pop-up culture is a very different experience from the Great Night Out. By definition, we have no expectations of it. It intrudes brusquely on our lives, rather than forcing us to plan our lives around it. It is the ultimate act of art’s democratisation, striking with randomness (“It could be you!”), and rewarding the free-spirited. There is no dressing up, or reading up, for these moments. Just be prepared. Be very prepared.

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