Arts head: Emma Underhill, founding director, Up Projects

Emma Underhil, founding director of Up Projects
Emma Underhill is founding director of Up Projects Photograph: Up Projects


Hi Emma, can you tell us a bit more about Up Projects and your role there?

I am the founding director of Up Projects, which began in 2002, and I'm responsible for the creative programme as well as the organisation's direction and development. Up Projects is a non-profit public art commissioning organisation based in Shoreditch – we aim to provide opportunities for artists to develop high quality work for new, public contexts, ranging from parks and green spaces, urban public areas, and more recently the canal network.

What's the motivation behind your most recent project, the Floating Cinema?

The Floating Cinema is the most recent iteration of our Portavilion programme, which sees artists and/or architects create temporary architectural structures for public spaces – the aim is that these spaces become a platform for a variety of cultural events and activities that engage a broad audience.

The Floating Cinema began as a pilot project in 2011 when architects Studio Weave converted a traditional narrow boat into a temporary cinema space. The cinema was programmed by our artists-in-residence Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie, and functioned as an intimate on-board screening and event space for 12 passengers – but also as a floating projection house to project film on to a bankside screen to much larger audiences.

The project was initially commissioned by the Olympic Delivery Authority, with the aim of engaging communities that lived around the new Olympic Park. It was so successful that The Legacy List, together with their corporate partner Bloomberg, provided funding for us to commission a permanent Floating Cinema for 2013. We worked with Duggan Morris Architects to design the new structure, and the programme is still created by Pope and Guthrie.

Why do you think al fresco cinema and cinema in non-traditional places is so popular right now?

I think that Londoners in the summer time want to be outdoors as much as possible. Our parks and public spaces are always busy, and I think if there is an option to go and see a screening in a beautiful outdoor location, next to the canal, it's preferable to sitting in a dark multiplex.

I think there is a big appetite for new experiences, and something like the Floating Cinema offers a range of them. It's not just about watching a film or performance; our events also offer a social experience and encourage people to discover new parts of London and the canal and river network. I can't imagine that traditional cinema will ever lose its appeal, but there is space for other, more multidisciplinary events too.

What are the big challenges you've had with the Floating Cinema?

There are many challenges associated with a project like this! The biggest was building the structure – ensuring the architects' vision was protected, while also achieving a practical, functional boat that can easily navigate the urban waterways. We had a fantastic team of boat builders and marine engineers to work with the architects to achieve this.

The other big challenge is the mobile nature of the project. Every event takes place in a different location, which throws up different challenges each time: permissions need to be sought; the event infrastructure and the comfort and safety of visitors needs to be thought through; and the logistics of both getting the boat and the audiences to that location is not always simple.

We have a great partnership with the Canal and River Trust, which helps with the practicalities of navigating the waterways; it's also important to develop strong partnerships at each location.

Up Projects often works in partnership to deliver projects – what makes for a good, working relationship between you and the other parties involved?

Partnership working is vital to us – we couldn't do what we do without productive partnerships, whether that is with funding partners, creative partners, venue partners or event delivery partners. I think for partnerships to be successful there needs to be a mutually beneficial outcome and also clearly defined roles. It's important to set out who has ownership or authorship of the project, what each partner is contributing and what they will also receive back from the project in terms of accreditation, profile and so on.

Clear communication is also vital, with regular update meetings or telephone catch-ups to ensure that each partner is fully invested and takes ownership of the project.

Do you find working with big bankable names like V&A or the Royal Opera House easier or harder than working with smaller, more local organisations?

I think there are pros and cons to working with the bigger, higher profile ones. Obviously your project becomes more visible and gains profile through association – it becomes easier to gain publicity, advocacy and support and as a smaller organisation yourself, you can also learn a great deal from working at this level.

However, there can be a danger of becoming eclipsed by the big name partner and so you have to work hard to make sure that your own profile and role is recognised and has a voice.

What are the lessons you've learned along the way when it comes to working without walls?

I think one of the trickiest things to get right is the balance between protecting the creative vision and integrity of the project and ensuring that it doesn't get diluted or compromised, while also being open to partner input and having the ability to be flexible.

It's never possible to predict the unknown quantities that are inherent to working in public spaces. This might be as simple as the weather, or public reaction and response, but also includes negotiating the complexities of gaining permission from the various stakeholders who are responsible for the space in which you're working (getting planning permission and so on). I think the biggest lesson is to never underestimate the amount of time and energy needed to pull these kinds of projects off.

Perhaps a bit like choosing between your children, but what's your favourite Up Projects project and why?

I will always have a soft spot for my first born – Shine at St Pancras Chambers, which took place in the autumn of 2002. It was such an honour to have access to the incredible interior of the former Midland Grand Hotel prior to its refurbishment, and the excitement and sense of achievement of pulling off such an ambitious project with a miniscule budget is something that I'll never forget.

But the Floating Cinema is also a great favourite. There is something really magical about the concept that seems to truly capture audience imaginations and it's wonderful to see how the different artists, filmmakers and performers that we work with are responding to both the structure of the boat and the context of London's canals.

Emma Underhill is founding director of Up Projects – follow the organisation on Twitter @upprojects