The Ginger Group

This paper will examine three realized projects in Leeds and York, England, to question the legacy and ‘value’ of temporal use within the city and the connections between affect and place. 

The three case studies are; an established annual light based festival, a single night pop up cinema, and an art installation sited on a disused viaduct. Each project questions the future use of our heritage buildings, their sites and context. The case studies form destinations which are not part of an established cultural heritage ‘trail’ or route. The action of ‘making and doing’ reverses our analysis of art and film from a tool we were using to help understand a place, to a medium that helped to define a place as a meanwhile use. Simon Baker is a protagonist who worked to re-appropriate the underutilized spaces and Sarah Mills is a lecturer of Architecture and uses film and Situationist techniques to analyse the subversion of the everyday.

Challenging the normative modes of architectural practice engenders collaboration and questions existing policies, guidelines, buildings and the current purpose of place.

1. The Ginger Group

Today it is frequently believed that democratic structures allow the participation of everyone; however upon examination we can see that this is not achieved without some cost. This cost is frequently evidenced in procedures that are too long, bureaucracy and ultimately loss of interest and ambition. In an age of technological speed and the demands of everyday life our urban environment changes so slowly that a whole generation is needed to re-visualise small parts of it. Now small groups worldwide are starting to make a difference. They are making things happen and re-activating public spaces by methods of direct action which challenge the ‘democratic structure’. These groups have decided to just do it.

This is the caption for this image. Photo: Simon Baker

The Ginger Group is one such group, which is currently based in Leeds and London, England. A ginger group is a formal or informal group within, for example, a political party seeking to influence the direction and activity of the organisation as a whole. Ginger groups work to alter the party's policies or practices, while still supporting some of its general goals.  "To ginger up," the term comes from the use of ginger root to make a horse seem more lively, or to add flavour or spice to food and beverages. In this way the adopted collective title of our activities indicates the overarching intention; to highlight the possible and to draw attention to situations in a positive, opportunistic and celebratory manner.

This paper examines three projects related to a ‘just do it mentality’ largely pursued by a frustration with current bureaucracy. During 2012/2013 the slashing of the Arts budget in England is twinned with the re-imagination of abandoned spaces as opportunities for new public experiences as sub –Victorian ‘parkland’ or small oasis’s within the city. The projects challenge the normative modes of architectural practice, promoting collaboration and question existing policies, guidelines, buildings and the current definitions of place.  A new institution launched via a planning application for a installation on a disused viaduct, an established annual light based festival and walk in/drive in cinema in an existing car park. Through an exploration of a narrative structure the projects discuss the action of ‘making and doing’ reversing our analysis of art and film from a tool we were using to help understand a place, to a medium that helped to define a place, through meanwhile use.

The research methods can often be remote from the systems and structures to be examined. This is especially true when related to urbanism. Research is derived from the Frenchrecherchémeaning to ‘search’ or ‘go out and seek’. The Ginger Group’s practise based research promotes spaces becoming public and therefore becoming relevant for others by rendering these spaces visible, to show that they matter. The Ginger Group believes that the value of space relies on its potential to provide collective or individual experiences. The projects discussed in this paper, are temporal in nature and their sites become redefined through memory, traces and myths.

2. The Monk Gate Viaduct as an Institution.

This section looks at a site-specific installation and institution in relation to de Certeau’s notion of ‘space as a practiced place’ and argues that in ‘practicing’ specific places certain works produce critical spaces. At a given moment, each of the individual projects discussed in sections two to four can be understood as an isolated spot,  however when viewed over time, places in the city are positioned in relation to one another, temporally as well as spatially. (de Certeau, 29).

In July 2003, an open ideas competition for the highline in New York’s reuse solicited 720 different proposals.  New York architectural practice Diller + Scofidio’s winning entry approached the High Line as a found object, rather than one which needed to be made picturesque. Viaducts by their very nature are always going to provide unexpected perspectives onto the city. The High Line project was not cheap £112 million was spent to complete the project. The idea of surprise, found in the unexpected views provided by the High Line has been enhanced. The High Line is dotted with pleasant ways to experience urban juxtapositions. It’s peppered with new vistas, entranceways, sun decks and lawns, but the effect is generally to prompt gentle appreciation rather than shock. (David, Hammond)

While the High Line was imagined as an exceptional piece of urbanism the Promenade Plantée in Paris was part of a wider urban strategy. In 1987, the Council of Paris approved the general building principles of the planted promenade and decided to acquire the disused SNCF buildings. The promenade, designed by landscape architect Jacques Vergely and architect Philippe Mathieux, effectively became a huge spine of regeneration. In landscaping terms, the Promenade Plantée is very traditional. The Bastille end of the path passes through planted boarders, symmetrical sculptural interventions and archways. The borders often grow so high that the adjacent buildings are obscured. This means that when later sections intersect with modern developments, such as near the Allée Vivaldi, they feel incongruous.

The brilliance and the curse of projects like the High Line and the Promenade Plantée is that they at once present a perfect solution for City authorities to seize upon, using redundant infrastructure to create new physical links that reconnect parts of the city originally segregated by industry, however they often have little idea of how to initiate and bring about their desired end game.

The idea of the found object as a surprise is investigated more modestly in the proposal for Monk Bridge viaduct in Leeds. The viaduct was built in 1846 and designed by the engineer Robert Gainger for the Leeds and Thirsk Railway Company and the Leeds, Dewsbury and Huddersfield Railway. Of grit stone ashlar and rock faced rustication, the overall length of the viaduct is 300m carrying the two first generation railway lines to the Wellington Street Terminal, Leeds. (R, Fitzgerald 1-10)

Outline planning approval was achieved in 2007 by Lend Lease for four residential towers to the north of the listed Monks Bridge railway viaduct. The planning application proposed the viaduct would become a piece of ‘public’ realm with ‘access for all’ connecting the proposed  residential towers and creating a new pedestrian link from the more deprived edge of centre communities via a new residential and commercial area to the city centre and mainline station.  Commercial space would be developed underneath and within the arches and through ease of access and frequent use this would become a self-policing amenity with landscaping which kept views the length of the viaduct. 

The economic climate in the Yorkshire region has prevented any current development. The status quo for these ‘static sites’ is do nothing, add to the developers land bank or gain planning for a temporary car park to generate short term revenue. However these stalled sites have become points of opportunity with the potential for intervention.  The currency isn’t monetary but an alternative economy of enthusiasm mixed with a determined belligerence to not take no as an acceptable answer.  The Ginger Group became aware of the long-term aspiration for Monk Bridge and began to advocate an interim solution more immediately deliverable.  The intention is to raise the city’s commuter’s, residents, and worker’s awareness of the forgotten landscape and in so doing secure the longer term public benefit that the viaduct could offer.

The Viaduct is now a self-seeded, inaccessible wilderness but also for some an oasis from the city. A renewed natural habitat now exists with trees and wild flowers including wild orchids. The first installation along the viaduct increases awareness of this piece of wildness within the city the robustness of its infrastructure allows it to thrive unaffected by the demands of the city below.  The Viaduct presents a sanctuary, a protected wild landscape retreat for group of indigenous red hinds with calves and a lone red stag.  The deer are an overt expression of the natural phenomena which has reclaimed a piece of redundant industrial heritage. The deer acknowledge the renewed importance and value of green spaces and the recognition of seasonal changes in our cities to nurture wellbeing. They are not about words, statements or promises but ‘being’.  Placing the group on the viaduct engages the public, changing their everyday experience and ambivalence with their redundant industrial heritage and asks them to consider why they are there. In claiming this territory the Deer establish a new place for art in the city.

The Ginger Group secured funding from The Royal Institute of British Architects and planning consent for a change of use from redundant heritage structure to a structure for a new cultural platform in February 2013.  Organisations such as the Leeds City Council, the Leeds City Art Gallery and Leeds Architecture Centre have all supported the proposals and the private owners of the viaduct have agreed to the installation for the first piece for work.

The City Art Gallery holds works depicting the Viaduct and the connecting Wellington Street Station,

The first installation secures statutory approvals and through existence certifies the establishment of a new institution. Further events are planned and The Ginger Group will submit an application for Arts Council England funding to pursue further events and installations for three years in line with the Planning Application time frame. These future happenings will reach out to engage with wider audiences, artists and practitioners including the City Art Gallery’s online archive and to a collection of art works depicting the viaducts active past, to the second train station, Wellington Street Station, which no longer exists and to the city’s historic narrative relevant to that specific place in the city.

De Certeau’s understanding of the difference between space and place is closely related to his notions of practice, tactic and strategy. Practices move across divisions between place, time and types of action, allowing connections to be made between places and their activities and their variants located elsewhere.  (de Certeau, 29).

3.  Illuminating York.

Within this section the public interaction with a light festival is paralleled with Victorian use of nonsense writing to question the social ‘rules’ of the western use of public space today.

The way humans interact with the environment is filtered through socially determined ideologies that characterise their identities.  In Lewis Carols books Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass he envisaged a built environment that is determined by constantly negotiated interactions between human body and place. Carol uses Linguistic games, logic games and the books dream premise to launch indirect attacks on the status quo. By linking Alice’s identity to her perception of space Carol sets up the conditions for a built environment that challenges her cultural assumptions. The primary dimensional interaction that expresses the architecture of Wonderland occurs across scales. Alice and the Mad Hatter both argue over the same question; how do abstract dimensions such as time and language influence identity through the way they map measurement on the body? (Wolfrey’s, 30)

Illuminating York is one of York’s biggest annual events, last year attracting more than 60,000 visitors. Over the past six years the festival has presented specially commissioned digital artworks on several of the city’s historic buildings (including York Minster, the Yorkshire Museum and the Bar Walls), celebrating York’s unique architecture and bringing internationally renowned artists to the city centre for thousands to enjoy. Illuminating York is organised by a steering committee which comprises of representatives from Visit York, City of York Council, York Museums Trust, Science City York, University of York and local York businesses. 

The aims and objectives of Illuminating York, as promoted on the York Council website are:  to promote York as a creative city, boosting the prospects for and employment in York’s creative industries whilst attracting more overnight visitors to York, increase employment in tourism and hospitality, to showcase / assist in the promotion of York as an overnight destination rich in contemporary culture and enhance both residents’ and visitors’ experience of York city centre in the evening. Illuminating York is an on-going project, which aims to use light and innovation to breathe new life into York’s historic built urban environment after dark, championing the development and progression of permanent lighting projects.

The Ginger group won the commission for illuminating York 2012, with Arup Associates. The proposed theme was ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Unusually proposing to limit the installation for the light festival to the York Minster Gardens only, to create a territory, a found space as a surprise, instead of reducing the spectacle to a two dimensional interface.

The entrance into Wonderland in York was to challenge the ideologies of dimension, time and language whilst detaching the visitor from the comfortable medieval architecture of York. The projections, objects and spaces created challenged preconceived ideas of space and scale as all notions architecture became a silhouetted back drop and space became reimaged. The visitor negotiated the dream space; including flying bicycles, giant mushrooms, also interactive spaces enabling one to ‘draw or dance on the city wall using projections’. The disengagement with everyday life, by literally walking through a threshold and changing ‘signage’, pathways and established conventions enabled a new way of looking at public space.

The intention of wonderland was to provide a new means of experiencing the cities heritage but in its occurrence make suggestions of legacy.   Museum gardens closes to the public after dark, wonderland illuminated the gardens and allowed visitors to experience a different landscape, we had hoped and still hope that some of the garden illuminations might become a permanent fixture during the winter solstice and that the gardens, which act as a pedestrian link across the city would remain open in line with the political policies to encourage the night time economy through the desirability and attractiveness of the city centre. Throughout the design The Ginger Group tried to open up new routes by taking down gates and fences, highlight previously un-seen areas of the city walls.  Our interest was in using the temporary event to establish long term changes in habitual behaviour.

The event established a step change for the festival moving it on from a cinematic experience to an exaggeration, an amplification of a spatial domain.  It is difficult for the festival to move back from this position and the forthcoming briefs for artists seek to exploit this aspect which was previously not explored.

Alice now belongs to a text that has become the status of Myth, ask anyone in the street and they will have their own version of this Victorian nonsense text. In the Philosophy of nonsense Jean-Jacques Lecercle proposes that nonsense in the Victorian context as a genre is a by-product of the development of the institution of the school and that the text provides an imaginary solution to the real contradiction for wanting to capture a wider population for elementary schooling and a resistance that a cultural upheaval inevitably arouses. In the context of the installation in York, the school is the perceived democratic institution (the students have long since been captured) where good behaviour and grammar are learnt and we are told how to behave in public places. The children in Carroll’s text do not go to school; the child has not been captured by the institution. Our wonderland reflects and challenges current behaviour and the authorities’ control of public and social space.

4.  The Marshalls Mills Cinema.

In Lefebvre’s Production of Space; Abstract space is produced by Capitalism, and is described where history is experienced as nostalgia, nature as regret and the user alarmingly silent and manipulated in ways that are damaging to their social spaces and daily life. Lebrevre proposed that social space has been usurped in part by the media which is ‘reductionist of the lived experience’. The possible new solution to neocapitalism’s abstract space is ‘Differential Space’ (Lefebvre, 49). He suggests, that a new differential space will emerge that embraces and enhances difference. In Spaces of Hope, David Harvey notes that Lefebvre leaves few clues as to how this space might be realized—except that it will rise from the contradictions in abstract space (Harvey, 183). Building upon a Marxist idea of ‘production’ Lefebvre explains the dynamic relationships of capitalist commoditization and acknowledges that space itself is an “active moment” that needs to be “actively produced” and not just left to its own devices.

The third ‘oasis’ to be explored in discussing possibilities of ‘differential space’ is a large car park behind an old flax mill in Holbeck, Leeds. This was another site with outline planning consent for further office buildings unlikely to materialize in the near future.  The site is an ugly underused and under-populated area outside the mill, listless and lazy and against the determination of inhabitants inside. This external area had once been a thriving and noisy point of activity, meeting, trade and gossip outside the thriving but suffocating mill but now the ghostly silence was deafening. In 1803 Marshalls Mill was the largest flax mill in the country employing over 1000 people. Its developer and owner, John Marshall was a Victorian entrepreneur who was interested in the well-being of his work force. In 1822 he persuaded other local business men to establish a school in Holbeck teaching younger children during the day and the older children in the evening after their shift at the mill. He was also involved in founding the Mechanics Institute and the Literary and Philosophical Society and in 1826 began a campaign to establish the University of Leeds. The mill is now Grade II* listed and was converted into offices in 1997.

In considering this large semi-public space, rather than starting with abstract ideas about urban space, The Ginger Group started with the study of everyday lives of the inhabitants of the mill and surrounding ‘Holbeck Urban Village’ to think about situationist techniques and working in a non-hierarchical manner, addressing concerns as they were  identified rather than assigning priorities to issues.

In order to engage with the heritage of the mill and its changing landscape The Ginger Group promoted ideas related to wellbeing; exercise, planting, places to socialise and a programme of events to evolve the car park from a commodity to an asset for the people working in and around the mill.

From 2011-2012, Simon Baker oversaw the refurbishment (for igloo regeneration fund) of the mill, including 70,000 square feet of commercial space for new office suites, reception and entrance areas, and the forecourt landscape and courtyard, which stood on the site of an old mill building. A cinema event in the car park space marked this renewal, as well as anniversaries of firms involved in the mill’s redevelopment, Igloo regeneration fund (10 years), and Quarmby Construction (40 years).  The event was a celebration for the completion of the works and for the people who had worked to bring it back to life but deliberately located in the car park, the only space not touched during the redevelopment.

The one night screening was part of the Green Film Festival a nationwide festival, and was generously sponsored by Igloo Regeneration, Quarnby Construction and Leeds Metropolitan University. The Ginger Group were also supported by local cafés and a local brewery who served beer from their old ice cream van. We were interested in the transformation of an underutilized space and the opportunity to see and sense the mill, outside the usual office hours, at one off cinema event. People were invited to drive, walk or cycle in to the film screening. 40 cars could be accommodated and 100 deck chairs were hired for pedestrians and cyclists. Although one off events interrupt the everyday it is precisely their ability to do so that is important in highlighting spaces that might be easily-overlooked and otherwise mundane places of daily life.

Perhaps few would use the term ‘happy’ to describe sitting in a Leeds car park at night. However, in symmetry with the film we were able to screen, Happy (2011 Dir. Roko Belic) we were able question the connections between affect and place. This exploration reversed our analysis of pop-up from a tool we were using to help understand a place, to a medium that helped us think further about ways of progressing ‘differential space’. The conīŦguration of urban spaces must adapt to meet the changing needs of dynamic populations and recognize that design is an integral part of the processes of habitation that should involve all human urban dwellers.  

We are in dialogue with Igloo and the pension trust that owns the mill and surrounding landscape about this year’s screenings but also a more ambitious event and legacy.  During 2014 we are planning a bike race in the car park, painting the final 400m laps of the race over the existing parking delineation on the tar mac surface. Simultaneously we are making an application to have the 400m circuit identified as an addition to the Sustrans national cycle network, leading to a new secure bike store and workshop.  The track will be used by the adjoining Gym, formalising their informal use of the car park after hours as a running track.  They will be able to boast that they are the only gym in Leeds to have a flood lit 400m running track! The overlay of temporary activities, which leave indelible marks and myths, against the markings of the car space establishes a multi-layered context, the space can no longer be reduced to merely a space in which to park.

5.  Conclusion.

In this paper we have discussed three realized projects to question; does the act of performing an activity in a displaced location or repeating an event have the potential to be transformative?  We believe that by performing spatial practices events can focus attention on the critical potential of a place, and turn reactionary actions into De Certeau’s ‘tactics’ or what we might call critical spatial practices. The works described above elaborate de Certeau’s understanding of space as a practised place through social explorations of the particular sites in which they are located, but also by intentionally positioning one site next to another. Through actions and occupations, these artworks practice places and explore the spaces between these places. They demonstrate that site-specific work is not necessarily a condition of one place after another, but that by considering the particularity of one place in relation to another they together pose much larger questions about space in a democracy. In this work the Ginger Group wishes to provide a glimpse of what might happen if the contradictions of ‘abstract space’ as defined by Lefebvre were acknowledged and addressed in the design of human environments.

To enable the projects discussed to be delivered they had to address the role that time plays in the process of spatial production. One of the main aims of the Ginger Group is the uncovering and making visible hidden structure political, social or economic. The making things visible on-line however is not enough the uncovering needs to be physical and ‘actively produced’.

Like Alice we perceive space consciously through ideal measurements and unconsciously through relative measurements the recognition of direct experience is vital, an experience that can usefully be alluded to consistently and carefully applying a small number of metaphors. The Ginger Group is also interested in pursuing the ghost elements of the city or the archaeology of lost histories. The projects discussed in this paper also link and address the imaginative entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian, the architecture of which under-pin these themes.

The projects collectively deliver a psychic survey of the climate in which the Ginger Groups is constructed; a survey more accurate than counting the empty shops or the car parks sitting as empty sites. Often the value of art lies in the author’s identity this is not the case here. The value actually lies in; just do it.