An inner-city haven hugs the heavily trafficked junction at number one City Road – a free, open-air art space for the likes of anyone to play. Millie Cattlin and Joseph Norster saw to the transformation, envisioning a place for artistic experimentation, education and public gatherings in the heart of Melbourne’s arts and cultural precinct – their Testing Grounds.
Arts Victoria approached the design duo in mid-2012, interested in ways to temporarily occupy the then derelict dive. Formerly the home of YMCA National Headquarters, it lay dormant for 30 years, looking less than inviting. “The road is so present and the scale of it is so large,” says Millie, recalling the early months of their access to the site. “Jo and I would sit on a milk crate in the middle of it, amongst a field of weeds, and feel tiny.” Fast-track to present day and we walk and talk, exploring the now vastly different terrain while a couple of dancers obliviously flit around us – a small sample of the hundreds of artists to have utilised the site. If you build it, they will come, Millie assures.
With combined trades in lighting, installation interiors and architecture, Millie and Jo slogged for nearly a month, installing shipping containers (serving as a studio, office, bar and performance stage) and the swankiest portaloos I’ve ever encountered. “Everything had to be of a temporary nature for building permits,” explains Millie. “Shipping containers were a really quick and easy solution.”
These structures adorn a grass and gravel field, peppered with stacked timber palate islands – “Like little rooms in a way,” says Jo, “they allow you to inhabit.” Each one is equipped with a little garden, overhead lamp and sound system. “They can accommodate one or two people, and they’re not going to feel engulfed in this ginormous site.”
It’s the architecture of a pop-up project, Millie concedes.But the thing of most interest to us is the site specific nature of it.” The relative longevity of their proposal appealed to Arts Victoria. “Things have settled into the ground,” she continues. “There’s less of a ‘dumped, left for a week and then gone’ feeling.” They have very much moved in, parasitically attached to the neighbouring arts building that takes care of their power, water and sewerage.
The site is run on a maintenance budget – funds that would otherwise be used to remove graffiti and clear out rubbish from the vacant block. The bar is open daily, with its stock of local drops drawing a revenue that also contributes to running costs, and subsidises the site’s artist-in-residence program.
“We’ve had musicians, sculpturers, dancers, painters… ” says Jo. A project called A General Assembly of Interested Parties recently took place, with 30 different performers partaking in a nine-hour durational piece. “We didn’t organise that, that was self initiated,” he continues, but they did put on some mulled wine for the occasion. “We came in with a very light touch on the kind of activities that can be programmed – without too much force. That was really important for us.”
Everyone in their small collective of hired staff is “a slash” laughs Millie, be they marketer-slash-photographer or bar tender-slash-grounds keeper. “Just like the site,” she says of the multipurpose patch. “It’s a public space, it’s an arts program, a bar, a garden… The people that work well with the site have multiple facets to their interests and expertise.”
Many loving hands make light work. “We all do our part,” says Millie, and I note a pair casually collecting the odd piece of litter as we patrol. There’s a calming, slow but steady air to their demeanour. “On sites of this scale you need systems that allow for small action over time,” says Jo. Always moving, never running is how Millie describes it – the key to spreading a relatively modest budget. “It’s helped this place sustain itself and evolve slowly and gently.”
An abundance of activities play out on the grounds, where you can share your craft, a local brew or enjoy the weekly film screenings and workshops. Nearby universities have quite literally helped shape the grounds by running architecture, urban planning and interior design classes from the site.
There’s even evidence of the resident dog (by way of bowl and ball) adding to the homely, settled ambience. So how much longer do they plan to play house? “We’re looking at another year,” says Jo, as Millie points out, “if the funding model works and it can sustain itself, then why wouldn’t it remain open?” Easy breezy as ever, the pair have enjoyed watching their grounds take on a life of its own. “We’ve been quite free with the use of the site,” says Jo. “Millie and I wanted to remain quite anonymous, which has allowed us to learn a great deal. It’s also given people a real sense of ownership – they don’t feel like they’re performing for someone, they feel like they own the place.