Envisioned as a free open-air art space, Testing Grounds is a place for experimentation and for the testing of ideas, for public gatherings and educational opportunities in the heart of Melbourne’s arts and cultural precinct.
Testing Grounds is a place for new works of art and creative ideas to be developed and shared. Testing Grounds is also an exploration into ways to use vacant or under-utilised civic space in order to provide the general public with greater amenity.
We speak to Millie Cattlin and Joseph Norster.
“We believe in the importance of non-commercial civic space, freely and equally available to all citizens. This project is a small experiment, driven by these ideas.” Millie Cattlin
How did the Testing Grounds concept come about…and who is involved?
Arts Victoria approached us in mid-2012 interested in ways to temporarily occupy 1-23 City Road, Southbank. Through careful and considered conversations and a series of proposals, we have developed this project and use for the site.
Testing Grounds occupies a large vacant block of land in the arts precinct, at a critical junction between Sturt Street and City Road. The land has been vacant for around 30 years, after the demolition of the YMCA National Headquarters, which stood on this site from 1925. The site is Crown Land and managed by Creative Victoria.
Testing Grounds is one of a series of projects temporarily occupying the site and within Southbank more broadly. This project specifically, has been set up with funds allocated to this site for general maintenance. It has been very interesting to learn that vacant sites cost money to be kept vacant.
We operate and maintain the site – including the art studio, workshop, garden, bar, website and mailing list. We make the space freely available and we gently curate activities on site, encouraging creative and diverse uses and occupations of the site. We encourage people to test ideas and projects here.
The other agenda for the site is to provide open and accessible art space within the arts precinct, currently made up of a series of large-scale dedicated arts buildings. This site is testing a different model.
What projects have been completed on the Testing Grounds site so far?
We are early days yet, but currently have over 50 different proposals for the site that have come to us via the Expressions of Interest page on the Testing Grounds website.
So far, in these first two months, we have had Landscape architecture studios from RMIT and Melbourne University teach from here and as a final outcome, propose radical landscapes for the site and the surrounding area. There is currently an artist-in-residence program on site, and Scott Mitchell and Saskia Schutt are producing work as part of the first residency. We have had several workshops taught out of the studio space and in addition we have musicians play here on Friday evenings as well as short films playing here Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Could you tell us about some of the creatives who have been involved in the project?
These are The Projects we do together (The Projects) is a design and architecture practice committed to working in, and thinking about public environments. We are interested in public space and how people occupy public space. We believe in the importance of non-commercial civic space, freely and equally available to all citizens. This project is a small experiment, driven by these ideas.
What was required to secure the space?
The space was secured for an initial 12 months through Creative Victoria. In order to secure the space we developed a proposal and a budget that was achievable and suitable to the objectives of the site within the arts precinct.
What were the costs?
The site is 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.
We run a bar from site that is open daily, which contributes to daily running costs and subsidises the artist-in-residence program.
What were the resources available to you?
Because we are a large vacant site, the most valuable resources available to us are quite simple – power, water and sewerage. These have been connected to the site via the adjacent building. We are essentially parasitically attached to our neighbour – an obliging and generous host.
Everything else, we have built from the ground up. The site is very exposed and physically demanding. We have roads on three sides of the site – the major and most prominent is City Road. The fourth side is a six-storey concrete wall.
What were/are the obstacles?
The obstacles are in the daily running of the site. Making sure that the site is well taken care of. It is a large outdoor site with lots of garden and open space so maintaining the area with the allocated budget is the biggest and most rewarding obstacle.
What were/are the risks?
The risk is small. We are invested in the project and love having the opportunity to run and manage such a large outdoor arts-focused venue. For us the risk was in deciding to set it up. Now we are in for the ride and keen to make it work. And to be honest, it is an experiment, so if it doesn’t work, that is a valuable experience in itself.
Could you tell us about any upcoming projects?
We are currently closed for winter, and doing an upgrade to the site infrastructure to allow for an increase in the range of activities accommodated on the site and to allow for year-round accessibility. We hope to reopen to the general public once upgraded, dependent on construction time frames.
How do you foresee the space evolving over time and what are your future plans?
Due to the nature of our engagement, we see our involvement with the site hopefully extending well into the future. It is important to us that this project is given time to evolve, along with local residents and the arts community. Beyond that time it will be up to the community and Creative Victoria to determine the best use for the site.
View the testing grounds website