Firing the Generator brings to life Loughborough’s upcoming cultural creative and entrepreneurial initiative: “The Generator”. The project tests its future form and function through a “live” enactment as it advances to become a reality.

It is Friday September 30th, 2016. At Packe Street in Loughborough (UK), two blue doors swing open towards the majestic, meters tall hall. Flakes of white paint come from the walls of the disused space, and through the glass roof occasionally enters the early autumn sun. It is hard to imagine that decades ago, a massive diesel engine salvaged from the German World War One submarine U-135 would be generating power for Loughborough College in this space. Now, instead of machinery, the 250 square meters site is taken by a large spatial set made out of hundreds of cardboard boxes. Above it, a suspended roof – made of sandwiched cardboard boxes – levitates from meters long ratchet straps, suspended from the roof trusses.

photo: Kevin Ryan, Charnwood Arts

photo: Kevin Ryan, Charnwood Arts

A coming together – for a new impulse to town

Over the next weekend, this is the site where a group of people is to explore, open-up and dissect plans to turn this hall, and the much larger adjacent building, into the “Generator Loughborough”, a 2158 m2 place for the cultural and creative community. In Summer 2015, a number of devoted individuals and institutions have formed a Community Interest Company (CIC) to make a common plan to give a new life to the (currently abandoned) former School of Art and Design. It seems that the interaction between the community driven approach taken by Charnwood Arts and the rather business minded, creative industries oriented Studio of Loughborough University, could give an insight into the productive and engaging contrasts that is to take place here. While, in recent years, much of Loughborough’s inner city has seen a decline in business and social activity, the redevelopment of this building into a vibrant focal point for community arts and creative enterprise could provide a breakthrough in the regeneration of town.

The Generator has still some way to go before permanently opening at this venue, as projected for 2018. But for the next two days spreadsheets and funding requests are not the main focus here. Instead, a gentle euphoria is in the air, as the group has set foot into the space – finally.

An outside trigger for a temporary takeover

In 2015, we got introduced to Loughborough, on invitation of Radar – the arts programme of Loughborough University. Although we spotted the building already back then, it would take some time before it surfaced again at the focus of our contribution to the Market Town program, developed by Radar. Soon after entering conversation with the CIC we realized that for STEALTH, our involvement here is to provoke the shaping of the Generators’ emergent community. For this, the mind-set and approach that we have been developing in parallel within City in the Making in Rotterdam has been of a great influence.

Workshop with Borut Šeparović, photo: Kevin Ryan

The ground for the work with the CIC, and the wider group of people gathered around The Generator, started with the three-day workshop at Fearon Hall in Loughborough in November 2015, made in collaboration with Borut Šeparović (performance director of MONTAЖ$TROJ, Zagreb). Following a visit to Rotterdam thereafter, a plan for temporary occupation of the building started getting more real.

A transformative setup

To provide for a temporary occupation of the building, we have created a semi-mobile spatial setting. By using set of simple boxes, a system of walls, benches, seats, tables and stage have been devised, that hardly needs any tools to be assembled and disassembled. Boxes have been tight together with blue plastic straps and sandwiched between sheets of wood on top and the bottom, sometimes set on wheels. In this way it has been easy to adapt the space for the changing parts of the program (talks, discussions, performances). Cardboard wall segments have been driven around, the stage suddenly has doubled, and the improvised field kitchen has found a new place.

Drawing by Paul Gent

Drawing by Paul Gent

Dreaming for real

Most of us, during the weekend, have sensed that this is a remarkable and unusual occasion. Crucially, it is the first instance in which the discussion about the future of this building, and the needs of Loughborough’s artistic, cultural and creative community, are actually taking place in (part of) the building itself. With that it is a live test, “dreaming for real”, of what this emerging group can become, what they potentially can achieve, but also what nightmares might be still luring on the way ahead. Firing the Generator is also a reality check: an exercise to explore how even a run-down, abandoned building can be activated with minimal means. This experience alone might trigger a valuable shift of mind, when it comes to the demands put on spaces, and the often vast budgets involved (figures from 2,8 or up to 4 million Pounds have been in the game) that could ultimately make it a prohibitive reality for those aspiring to use them.

Leaving that building (for a moment) behind

On October 2nd, in less than two hours, the last remaining participants of the event have dismantled the entire spatial setup. Part of the cardboard boxes have been brought out onto Loughborough’s market square; part of the other materials has been reclaimed to find a new use elsewhere.

After all the talks and the physical work on site, one thing stands out: the understanding that for an endeavour like The Generator, the financial plan has to emerge from the ambitions and limitations of its community, rather than from what the building tries to lure us into. The building is the tool – not the goal. It is such a basic conclusion that one would almost overlook it.

Photo gallery by Kevin Ryan, Charnwood Arts.

  • [concept and spatial design ] STEALTH.unlimited (Ana Džokić and Marc Neelen)
  • [construction ] Erik Jutten, Ana Džokić and Marc Neelen, with generous help of Pamela Clarkson, Atta Kwami, Mike Kroll, Kevin Ryan, Natalie Chabaud, Ashok Mistry, James Chantry, Kole Redmile, Mike Millward, Bill Brookman, Madeleine Coburn, Frances Ryan, Faizan Qureshi and others. Part of the market structure by Something & Son for the Market Town program has been used in the spatial set-up.
  • [workshop November 2015 with ] Borut Šeparović
  • [creative workshops October 1, 2016] Jemma Bagley, Sarah Green, Dan Fiddis, Emma J Lannie and Kevin Ryan
  • [performances] Circus Hub Nottingham, Mark Elliott, Chris Conway, Beth Morris and Anna my Charlotte
  • [Dreaming for Real workshop participants October 2, 2016] Led by Kevin Ryan with Jill Vincent, Deana Wildgoose, Ana Džokić , Atta Kwami, Pamela Clarkson, Chris Traill, Jackie Edwards, Nick Slater, Marc Neelen, James Chantry, Faizan Qureshi, Upesh Mistry, Bill Brookman, David Pagett-Wright
  • [drawings] Paul Gent
  • [special thanks to ] Kevin Ryan and Frances Ryan for their hospitality, as well as Pamela Clarkson and Atta Kwami for their care
  • [background ] Firing the Generator is STEALTH.unlimited contribution to Market Town, a program initiated by Nick Slater, director of Radar – the arts programme of Loughborough University, in close collaboration with Charnwood Arts and the BID Love Loughborough. Supported by Arts Council England, and Creative Leicestershire, Contemporary Visual Arts Network – East Midlands, Charnwood Arts.
  • [timeline ] January 2015 – October 2016; workshop session 25-27 November, 2015, live run 30 September – 2 October, 2016