Secrets, spectacles, suspicions

I’ve been thinking about Secret Cinema a lot this week. I used their short video of the Back to the Future screening in two lectures: First, in relation to Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy’s work on the performative and gaming-inflected practices of SC audiences (and their pitfalls); and second, as part of a discussion about the way ‘pop-up’ cinema is so strongly associated with particular London happenings. In both cases, as the students watched the pyrotechnics and synchronised stunts in awe, I was once again transfixed by the spectacle (ok, also by the brief glimpse of a bearded Jarvis Cocker). The amount of preparation and precision, the commitment of the participants to dress codes and choreographed behaviours, the sheer scale of the thing are hugely impressive, especially when cut in the style of a music video to great tunes and presumably blending together the best bits over several runs of the event.
The massive, spectacular nature of Secret Cinema, its steep ticket prices, and its move from underground-ish to premium release window for films like Prometheus and The Grand Budapest Hotel have made it an obvious flashpoint for discussions of gentrification, pointing to an entitled relationship to urban space as a playground that obscures very real conflicts. Similar critiques have been directed at many other temporary uses of urban space conforming to a familiar pattern: white, young, relatively privileged entrepreneurs setting up a ‘pop-up’ shop/café/gallery/etc in a bit of the city seen as in need of regeneration, where that ‘regeneration’ implies the displacement of existing communities – either priced out of the area or straight-up evicted when housing states are condemned. (Lots of people have written about this; see for instance the work of Jen Harvie and Ella Harris) Most of these entrepreneurs have good intentions, but the playfulness of the ‘pop-up’ is often bound up with privilege, and always at risk of being co-opted. This year’s Turner Prize winners, the London collective Assemble, are arguably much more committed to grassroots, community engagement (not just the dressing-up-and-dancing-along variety); and yet, their very influential pop-up projects have encountered similar distrust.
Of course people will be suspicious when the posterboys and girls of the ‘creative economy’, whatever that is, suddenly turn up to places they had ignored before. Urban space is rife with tension, as the public becomes privatised and the state curtails its functions to focus on upholding the interests of a corporate elite. Glasgow City Council’s aborted idea of blowing up the Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games showed us just how blatant this spectacularisation of working-class erasure could be. So I was not surprised when I read this morning that a group of Tower Hamlet residents had posted an ‘open letter’ to Secret Cinema, with regards to their forthcoming season of immersive screenings of the zombie film, 28 Days Later. Promotional images had emerged of Ernö Goldfinger’s brutalist masterpiece, the Balfron Tower, which seemed to imply that the Secret Cinema event would take place there or nearby. The Balfron Social Club called this ‘distasteful and inappropriate’, and furthering ‘an aggressive social cleansing agenda that is destroying our communities’.
The blog post was widely retweeted – with increasing levels of outrage, as tends to be the case in recent social media debates.

Only a couple of hours later, the Balfron Social Club reported that they had received a reply from Secret Cinema, which was posted under the original blog entry. This was a brief and informal email explaining that Secret Cinema did not plan to use that location, and that ‘we’ve used images of the tower because it’s a prominent part of the original film, not because it’s the location for our event.’ This seemed to calm things down, and yet what had surfaced was a long-held suspicion that this is the kind of thing they would do.

In short, most people were prepared to believe that ‘Secret Cinema are dickheads (again)‘, and even when the confusion was cleared up, the perception persists. This is partly explained by the very real sense of exclusion produced by £65 tickets. On the other hand, there is growing weariness with and suspicion of pop-up everything. The rather uninformed idealism that propelled the start of the pop-up trend is being replaced with cynicism. A critical eye on all and any appropriations of public and community spaces is healthy, no doubt. But it is also dangerous to reject anything that looks like spectacle, or like fun, because it won’t address structural injustice: If I can’t dance, etc. Amongst all the scripting and rules and fireworks, there is a playfulness in lots of pop-up stuff that shouldn’t be ignored. We can have the playfulness without the sense of entitlement, can’t we?

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