Providing a home in the heart of Melbourne’s arts precinct for experimental art, creative development, performance, design education, and public gathering, Testing Grounds is fundamentally about testing out ideas. The creative practice constantly happening on site is more often than not about pushing boundaries, taking calculated risks, and playing with ideas, but the project itself is also an experiment - in how to activate vacant or under-utilised civic space in fun and inventive ways.
“We believe in the importance of non-commercial civic space, freely available to anyone with a creative idea to explore. This project is an experiment driven by these ideas.” Millie Cattlin and Joseph Norster
How did the Testing Grounds concept come about…and who is involved?
Arts Victoria (now Creative Victoria) approached us in mid-2012 interested in ways to temporarily occupy 1-23 City Road, Southbank. The land is a two-thousand-meter-square block at the corner of City Road and Sturt Street that had been vacant for around 30 years, after the demolition of the YMCA National Headquarters, which stood on this site from 1925. It is Crown Land and dedicated to arts use, but no major plan for the site had gained traction, so we proposed to activate it in the short term.
We began by cleaning up the site, adding a few repurposed shipping containers - converted into a studio, a workshop, a bar, and washrooms - and opening the gates, then making an open invitation for artists to use the space.
We fairly quickly hit capacity both in terms of programming opportunities and facilities, and so approached Creative Victoria with a proposal to build the temporary infrastructure that currently stands on the site, opened in November 2016. This includes three ‘boxes’ or large atrium spaces attached to shipping containers, with big barn doors that open up onto a central space. There is a steel grid ‘superstructure’ overhead, which feeds power and data across the site and provides hanging anchor points - a direct response to the first phase of Testing Grounds where we were constantly battling extension cords running along the ground and lacking anchor points to hang things from. We also have a ‘kit of parts’ which are a set of movable steel structures like hanging frames, plinths, and benches that integrate with the superstructure. We still have the bar and workshop and washrooms, and added an office too.
In terms of programming, the site is free for artists and educators to use, but we now have an online expression of interest process to help us manage the number of projects going on.
The team consists of Millie as Design Director, Joe as General Manager, Arie Rain Glorie as Program Manager and Curator, Trent Griffiths as Operations and Communications Manager, and Molly Braddon as Arts Administration Assistant, as well as a rotation of wonderful casual bar and event staff. We program and maintain the site, and support everything that happens here, but we also try to not direct the action too much. We joke about being ‘a vessel for art to happen’, and encourage all site users to really drive their projects and take themselves on a learning curve.
The other agenda for the site is to provide open and accessible public space, and mind we recently opened a coffee bar that operates six mornings a week (an excellent spot for arty meetings). Whenever the gates are open, people are welcome to come and sit and think or read or just space-out in the sun, which is a rare thing in the middle of the city.
What projects have been completed on the Testing Grounds site so far?
Lots! Since the reopening in late 2016 we have had over 200 creative activities - everything from a one-night-only alternative circus show to a three-week exhibition involving artist run initiatives from all around the world. One of our proudest moments was winning the Best Venue award for Fringe Festival in 2017, where we hosted more than 20 installations, performances, and workshops. We’re already looking at a pretty packed slate of things for 2018 (but there are still spaces for lots more!).
Could you tell us about some of the creatives who have been involved in the project?
Testing grounds is operated by These are The Projects we do together (AKA The Projects), a design and architecture practice committed to working in, and thinking about, public environments. We are interested in creative practice in all it’s forms, how creative practice works in public space, and how public space can be creative. Of course alongside the small team programming and running it, Testing Grounds exists because of the amazing talents that make art or perform or design here. It is a collaboration with the creative community of Melbourne and beyond…
What was required to secure the space?
The space was secured for an initial 12 months through Creative Victoria. We developed a proposal and a budget that was achievable within the modest vision of opening the gates, giving the public access to the space, and starting to host creative projects. That 12 months grew into two and a half years, and by that time the facilities we started with had well and truly hit capacity so we submitted a proposal to Creative Victoria for the present infrastructure.
In exchange for providing space and support for artistic practice, we collect data on what kind of things happen here that we use to help refine our operations, and build a better model for how temporary infrastructure for creative practice is possible.
What were the costs?
The first phase of Testing Grounds was run using maintenance money that was going towards the site while it was vacant - money associated with rubbish and graffiti removal, fence maintenance and security - and revenue from the bar that contributed to daily running costs and subsidised the artist-in-residence program. The upgrade in facilities was funded through Creative Victoria, and we have a small operating budget that covers maintenance and pays the team programming and running the site. We are still able to fund creative programming like our summer Art Parties and one-off performance commissions through revenue from the bar and commercial hires.
What were the resources available to you?
Because we started as a large vacant site, the most valuable resources available to us were quite simple - power, water and sewerage. These are connected to the site via the adjacent building. We are essentially parasitically attached to our neighbour - a very generous and gracious host. Everything else we designed and built from the ground up. We’ve had wonderfully generous support from the start from Creative Victoria, but also have benefitted from things like donations of excess plants from the City of Melbourne, which started out as the straggly might-not-make-it stock, and now through a little care and goodwill are thriving. But of course, the biggest resource is the space - to be able to offer a site like this in the middle of the arts precinct for experimental work and interdisciplinary programming is a real gift.
What were/are the obstacles?
The most obvious obstacles are in the daily running of the site - making sure that the site is well taken care of - which is no small task for a large space that is fairly open to the elements. Maintaining the facilities within the allocated budget is a challenge, but also one of the most rewarding parts of the project.
We also often have some pretty unusual requests like, “can I dig here?” or “can I light this thing on fire?” and as long as it fits the creative vision of the person proposing it we make a point of saying yes, but obviously that requires some careful planning and out-of-the-box thinking. But those are the challenges we really thrive on!
What were/are the risks?
Given the project has been temporary from the start, the risks are small. Even if the project doesn’t work in some ways, we’re learning all the time about how to make future interventions in public space. And while we’re proud of how much we’ve been able to program and host so far, there are things we would do differently if we knew at the start what we know now.
The biggest risk was really deciding to set it up in the first place, and the time and energy that initial phase took, but we have always been so invested in the project and loved having the opportunity to run and manage such a large arts-focused venue.
Could you tell us about any upcoming projects?
The Next Wave program in May and Melbourne Fringe in September will definitely be highlights - Fringe in particular will be amazing, as we have developed a program along with Brunswick Mechanics Institute and Siteworks that will pack the site solid for three weeks of weird and wonderful activity. In between, we have an almost-full program of independent exhibitions, residencies, and performances happening. The Upcoming Calendar on our website always has a list of things coming up in the next month.
How do you foresee the space evolving over time and what are your future plans?
There’s a good chance we will be vacating this site in the next couple of years, but we hope to continue Testing Grounds in some form well into the future. We’ve always known that our time on this specific plot of Southbank was temporary, but we think there is real value not just in the space but in the programming philosophy: having projects from different disciplines interacting; combining creative and public space; having the operations team also be caretakers on the ground to help artists and host audiences; offering a place where design and art students can learn in situ; and giving opportunity to creative minds to test things out. We’d like to keep that alive for a long time to come…