If you have never seen or heard of Testing Grounds, it is not really your fault. The well concealed but not-so-secret space is more likely to be appreciated when accidentally stumbled upon anyway.
Neighbouring The Ballet Centre and The Arts Centre, Testing Grounds is a hidden gem within Melbourne’s Arts Precinct offering a space to the Southbank community and budding artists who are looking to showcase their work.
Surrounded by a prestigious series of galleries, performing arts venues and spaces from the precinct that tend to feature works by accomplished artists, Communications and Operations Manager Trent Griffiths thinks that by being able to offer opportunities to emerging artists and experimental art enhances the space.
“The logic of why we exist is because in the arts precinct in Melbourne, there’s alot of spaces for exhibition for really accomplished artists,” he said. “Testing Grounds is a place for someone who has an established practice who is trying something new, or who’s kind of pushing their practice in a direction they’ve never gone before – taking some risks, literally testing things out.”
The plot’s raw and tangible exhibition guidelines has attracted a slew of student artists hoping to showcase their first exhibition.
Just recently for Melbourne Design Week, 140 of RMIT’s Interior Design students contributed a pyramid structure in the grounds carefully assembled with 4317 bricks. Inspiration behind the installation applies back to the roots of utilising Testing Ground’s purpose as an embedded studio or a case study.
Essentially, Trent described Testing Grounds as an idea of a structural version of a blank canvas with the team trying to eliminate most limitations to a project setup.
“Of course even a blank canvas has its edges. So we’re not naïve in saying ‘Oh you can do anything!’ like of course that’s not true but as far as possible we’ve tried to strip away the limitations,” he said. “I guess conceptually and also aesthetically it’s kind of unusual, the design of the space is very much the response to having the maximum utility so you can do the most stuff with the minimum amount of direction.”
Artists are offered an open expression of interest but are often encouraged to facilitate their exhibition based on redesigning or restructuring Testing Grounds.
“I mean people can just log up and use the site but they can also kind of talk to us and we will kind of help facilitate a project based on ‘How would you redesign or add to Testing Grounds?’,” Trent expressed. “‘Would you knock it all down or build something else?’, kind of designing within the infrastructure that’s already here or imagining something else entirely.”
As the space evolved in terms of infrastructure and facilities, the concept and spirit of the site still remains the same when Millie Cattlin and Joseph Norster first started Testing Grounds. The initial proposition was a very modest exercise by just opening up a fenced off public vacant site with a couple of shipping containers and basic utilities.
“What a lot of artists want, more than anything else is space to work and time to work there,” Trent expressed. “We could offer that but as we hit capacity the modest facilities we offered weren’t enough so Millie and Joe put in an application to Creative Victoria for funding.”
Trent pointed out that the present version of the space down to every detail serves as a response to the cultivated years of embodied experience. You would also notice remnants of past projects lurking in the space.
“Having the barn doors open into the middle of the site again was a response to that,” said Trent. “Having all the power points up so that you run cables across and drop them down when you need them rather than running them along the ground was because for two and a half years they kept tripping over extension cords.”
Additionally, Testing Grounds started “inviting” the public over for coffee during mornings in response to welcoming and informing the public of its open space.
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Time to introduce some of our team! Bek and Trent (along with baby Louie) are one half of the team who own and run Community Precinct. Trent comes from fine coffee pedigree at @marketlane and Bek will be managing the cafe and serving you up some tasty coffee on Mondays and Tuesdays. Photo courtesy of @eileenpk.
Community Precinct serving coffee in Testing Grounds
“People have always been welcomed to come and sit but they’ve all not always known they were allowed to and something about having the coffee cart signals people ‘Hey, this is totally your space as much as it’s a space for others,” Trent explained. “Everyone understands coffee like it’s kind of the universal language as far as Melbourne’s concerned, and it’s worked really well even when the coffee’s closed.”
The long-term residency of Testing Grounds still lies undetermined as it was initially only allowed to occupy the site because of a temporary proposition.
“It’s been earmarked for an extension of the arts centre,” said Trent. “It’s kind of miraculous that this project ever existed cause what this real estate is worth in a city context to have this kind of relatively low-fi intervention is pretty remarkable.”
In terms of it being a research project, Trent thinks that it has successfully produced profound opportunities and an example to the creative community despite its unknown future.
“It’s not the kind of project that needs a continuum if that makes sense,” explained Trent. “We’re all trying not to be too attached to this site or even to the identity of this particular project but in terms of legacy we would be really bummed if nobody learnt from us and nothing like this ever happened again anywhere else in the world.”
The visibility of the project has expanded to international audiences with delegations from London, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan reaching out to visit the space as a model for their potential redevelopment.
Setting their expiry dateline aside, the team behind Testing Grounds is still accepting applications and busy gearing up for the upcoming Fringe Festival happening in September. Collaborating with Brunswick Mechanics Institute, they would be running a programme called “Critical Mass” running between three different sites.
“We will have performances, installations and workshops,” said Trent. “The site will be open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. It’s a really vibrant, alive kinda time.”
Testing Grounds is located on 1 City Road, Southbank, VIC 3006 Australia and open 10am to 6pm every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Check the upcoming calendar for special hours here.