Located in a shallow pool at the former Tropicana open-air swimming baths, once home to artist Banksy’s Dismaland, See Monster is one of ten major commissions that comprise Unboxed: Creativity in the UK. A £120m year-long programme of free events and activities, Unboxed was conceived and funded by the UK government as a post-Brexit celebration with a mission to inspire conversations and future careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
See Monster is a huge, ambitious project. It is one of the UK’s biggest public artworks and the first to reuse a structure synonymous with fossil fuels to raise awareness of the climate emergency, renewable energy and sustainability.
But questions have been asked about the project’s impact and legacy. Particularly, critics have mentioned how the decision to tear it down after only a few weeks of operation (on 20 November) appears wasteful and counter to the environmental message – although this is necessary to avoid any impact on the wading birds that migrate to the area in winter.
The See Monster has also been caught up in criticism of the Unboxed festival itself, which has been branded “an irresponsible use of public money” at a time of great economic uncertainty and hardship.
Like London’s controversial Marble Arch Mound, an artificial hill designed to attract shoppers to Oxford Street that came in over-budget and which was widely panned, the See Monster calls into question the value of “pop-up” attractions in revitalising our towns and cities, and of culture-led urban regeneration in general.
At 35m tall and weighing 450t, the See Monster is split over four levels with a 10m waterfall cascading from the lowest level. It features small trees, plants and grasses. There is a playground slide and animated sculptures, including some 6,000 “scales” attached to the exterior that move in the wind. There are also water atomisers to generate clouds and numerous vantage points offering unrivalled views of the resort and surrounding countryside. It attracts a range of visitors, from curious tourists to organised visits by school groups.
These “here today, gone tomorrow” visitor attractions are the extension of a trend that began in the 1990s with pop-up shops in empty units along high streets and in shopping centres and precincts. The “experience industries”, including tourism, have long been used as a tool of urban regeneration, with former factories, warehouses, harboursides and deep mines rebuilt into museums, bars and restaurants, hotels and shopping malls.
Structures like the See Monster take this one step further. Instead of a permanent change of use, they temporarily occupy, reuse and adapt existing structures and infrastructure in towns and cities left redundant or in danger of redundancy by economic and financial crises and other triggers of change, such as the pandemic. These temporary installations are made for the Instagram age, generating countless selfies, positive comments and “likes” on social media.
Examples of what we might call “pop-up tourism” include urban beaches such as Paris Plage, Bavarian-style Christmas markets, linear parks on abandoned rail routes and character arts trails like Gromit Unleashed in Bristol.
Research has shown that pop-ups can attract significant footfall, spending and publicity for the host town or city. They can also help reimagine a run-down or underutilised site, as with the Tropicana, with a view to attracting private investment and a permanent change of use (such as Castlefield Viaduct park in Manchester). More altruistic possibilities include creating open space for communities for recreation, promoting behaviour change (for example taking up exercise or sustainable living) or raising money for good causes.
The ‘cult of the temporary’
Despite the reported benefits, geographers Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki question whether the pop-up phenomenon is good for cities. Temporary urbanism, they argue, promotes short-term fixes to complex and enduring urban problems. It can also create precarity (think zero-hours jobs and short-notice evictions).
These pop-ups are a distraction from the deeper problems of capitalism and the pathologies of urban life, such as air pollution and grinding poverty. In this, they tend to perpetuate inequalities rather than tackle their root causes.
A lot depends on the pop-up. Ambitious, expensive projects like the See Monster can struggle to live up to the hype and are vulnerable to the criticism that the money would be better spent on schools and hospitals. Smaller, community-led schemes with modest ambitions, or serendipitous events like Dismaland that seem to come out of nowhere, are likely to be better received and to leave a positive legacy.
While pop-ups are themselves transitory in nature, the trend towards ephemera, simulation and event-based tourism in urban areas is here to stay. That means the debate on whether they are good or bad for our towns and cities will carry on, long after the See Monster has retreated from public view.