REVIEW: Pop Up Brighton - The Cells.

by Christopher Spring

The Devil is in the detail so the saying goes, and as much a fantastic idea it was, the exhibition was let down by the artists.

Ashleigh, creator of Pop Up Brighton, is well known by this blog and Brighton as a whole of putting on a huge amount of shows with a seemingly unending stream of ideas for exhibitions, shops and Pop Ups on varying scales. This was his most ambitious to date, taking over the old police cells below Brighton Town Hall and should have been a great success.

Imagine the possibilities the space represents to artists: a creepy, underused, relatively unknown space with a history of holding people captive in Brighton opening its doors to artists to take over and create. This is the perfect setting for a stunning show that has the potential to transcend the divide between the art world and “non-arty” people with its inevitable horror connotations.

When my partner and I turned up we were hopeful. Greeted with a bar, soundtracks taken from horror films including “It Follows” and an ominous staircase down to the cells setting the mood of just the right amount of theatre to make it interesting, but without being overtly camp. Climbing down the stairs was an exhilarating step into the unknown, preparing to be scared and impressed in equal measure. However, this was ruined almost instantly when I turned right into the first set of cells and saw a “cyborg” (from the cyborg life drawing cell) on her phone, complaining of a lack of signal and saying to one of her friends how: “Wicked it is to see you though, babe.”

I mean, come on.

The build-up was instantly undermined and removed any suspension of disbelief I wanted to hold for the rest of the cells on her “block”. This was coupled with volunteers and artists of the exhibition walking around taking photos, chatting and self-congratulating generally.

This sounds like a bitter rant, but if we, as the paying public, are promised an immersive exhibition, we want to believe that we are stepping into another world, and though viewers can be scared, unimpressed, excited, on their phones, whatever, it has got to be up to the artists and volunteers to make sure that the audience is not given a moment to question the professionalism of the exhibition and feel immersed. If it was only in this cell block then I might have been able to forgive it, but the volunteers were constantly circulating and shattering the atmosphere repeatedly. For a “one night only” event, it isn’t unreasonable to demand a performance from those manning the exhibition, even if it’s just to stand in the corner, watch and explain the artwork if someone asks.

To the artwork: the vast majority of it was deeply underwhelming. Apart from a few stunning pieces, there was a general sense of slapdash irreverence that stood at odds to the setting, and actually the stunning pieces only reinforced my belief that this is a great idea in the right hands.

Out of the three cell blocks, one and two were tarnished by the slapdash and mediocre pieces save for a poetry piece in cell block 1 and a brilliant immersive digital game based on American Psycho in 2. Stepping down a second set of stairs to cell block three was where the exhibition came alive.

Save a hugely disappointing piece by Claire Voyant and the Ghouls in the best room in the building most pieces worked well. ­Daniel Oppido’s scent created from sweat, marijuana, stale cigarettes, beer, wine and other disgusting ephemera intrigued me but only after being told what was in it (labels, please!).

Also in cell 3, Polly Blake’s piece really grabbed me, and with an awareness of the set up took the initiative by providing her own information about the piece. With a simple desk and a personality test the viewer is encouraged to answer the questions written down, an exact replica of the type of personality test that people in Job Centres across the country completed. Played over headphones was a positive reinforcement of good qualities that the person possesses. The current Tory government used these results to post to people regardless of their actual personality, a piece that sat perfectly at home in the Police Cells, drawing parallels with real life and Orwell’s 1984. Raising questions of the current state and its relationship with the people.

The highlight of the exhibition, and probably the best piece of artwork I have seen since creating Art In Brighton was Ithaca’s “Storm”. Materials wise it is a tremendously simple construction of wadding that has been wrapped around LED lights in the shape of a storm cloud. Each light has been individually programmed to be timed with a soundtrack of a storm. The result is one of the most visually striking installations I have ever experienced. It felt like the artists had genuinely created a storm in front of our eyes and this piece alone would made the entire exhibition worth it.

At this point in Pop Up Brighton’s incarnation, Ashleigh’s ideas have developed to a point where the exhibitions he is creating should be breath-taking, but there needs to be more time spent agonising over details, improving the experience of the viewer, and much more focus on the artwork. Uncovering artists like Ithaca is what this company is about, but it doesn’t happen enough and now is the time for this to be built on. To take a step forward the open calls have to start reaching artists whose work is their life, and not just a part of their student development. It does his own work a disservice to see artists who really don’t take care in their creations ruining the exhibition for the artists involved and more importantly, the viewers.

Pop Up Brighton needs to decide what it is, a general events company, or an art movement? The time has come to decide.