During the summer of 2017 Testing Grounds hosts a series of free art parties. 75 artists, galleries and creative organisations participate, bringing together diverse creative practices. Projects, artworks, performances and creative activities are curated with the distinct purpose of producing a party atmosphere. Parties are scheduled to coincide with exhibition openings already planned. Intensity is added at key points in the existing calendar of events. An invitation to artists-in-residence to throw open the doors of their studios brings another dynamic to these nights. The parties are privileging process and non-outcome-based residencies; the artists are encouraged to do whatever they want and they only participate if they think it will be fun.
The parties set a tone for 2 more years of programming, where it is necessary to give up curatorial control and let our creative community take over the site.
The art parties were curated by Arie Rain Glorie
Learning to give up control
For the first party, Kat Henry launched her Timepod project (that she would soon live inside of for 10 days), Mathew Feder built an outdoor installation using hi-vis materials, Benja Woods opened his studio to show material tests and Kenny Suico opened an exhibition involving scrolling LED signs and Benjamin Portas had a video art exhibition opening. We extended Michael Warnock’s exhibition of public artworks to be included in the party and hired Bec Rigby to DJ the event, opened the bar and got a food truck on site. Normally reserved for our high school education program, we set up our popular process art class Smashing Things With Hammers (which is exactly what it sounds like) allowing adults to take sledgehammers to tv’s, photocopiers and other outdated technology sourced from the tip. The party turned out great, with hundreds of people attending and noise complaints from the neighbours.
I had scheduled the parties to be on the first Friday of each month and by the time I got to work the following Monday the next one was already only three weeks away. The success of the first event put pressure on the team to make the next one just as good so we started scrambling for ideas.
For the next party, we already had Nicole Breedon presenting her impressive projection and waterfall installation Monotone Rainbow and musician Elliot Hughes in residence as well as artists Lichen Kelp and Odessa Mahony-de Vries and Karl Shoebridge making new work. We launched our new banner project, a collaboration between Trent Griffiths and Andrew Clapham, that night and I asked Ellen Davies and Megan Payne to do an encore performance of a great dance project that explores the mating rituals of cranes. It was forecast to be a cold night, so I borrowed some blankets with hand-sewn dystopian slogans like “there’s nowhere else” from Mark Pritchard, which people put on their laps as they watched Callan deliver a series of really powerful songs. During the set, Callan delivered poetry, threw fake dollar bills at the audience, pretended to shoot us and got naked. They were recommended by music organisation Listen Listen Listen at the last moment so I didn’t really know what to expect but I was really blown away. Lichen had also invited artists Nathan Gray, Honey Fingers and Forum Of Sensory Motion to also joined the party and they did some performances and facilitated discussions and showed some videos. Public Assembly (Lynda Roberts and Ceri Hann) came down in their converted ice cream van. All night people walked up the window to order an ice cream but were instead coerced into an experimental audio experience. We did Smashing Things With Hammers again.
This party was also really great and people congratulated me for curating the night. But I already knew that my curation had little to do with it. It was a great success because people were inviting other people to participate through their own volition and building a type of momentum. It was a great night because there were projects overlapping and rubbing up against each other causing unique creative friction. It was a great night because I was strapped for time and said yes to projects without overthinking it or dowsing it in unnecessary conceptual rigour. I couldn’t afford to have too much control. And that’s when I realised that I needed to continue to give up control in order to keep building momentum and allow something more unique to grow on site.
At the next party, we had Alisha Abate live making some concert sculptures, setting off sparks and turning messy construction into a thing of beauty. We had Mathew De Mosier create a motion censored light installation, music duo Zlatna performed and Multi-cultural arts Victoria presented their Mapping Melbourne festival projects involving artists En-En See, Bianca Gannon, Geoffrey Geoffrey Geoffrey, Olivia Sobejko,, Aniquah Stevenson, Yumi Umiumare and S-Jon. Exploring new ways to make a festival atmosphere I decorated some space with hundreds of blown-up latex gloves and randomly left out piles of doughnuts for people to eat. There was a severe weather warning that night but lots of people still came. It bucketed down that night, in only the way Melbourne can, and trapped on-site we extended the party and sing karaoke, using projected youtube clips, until the very, very late.
I relinquished almost complete control for the fourth party. Double Bind collectives curators Georgia Banks and Nick Hertzog presented an impressive exhibition involving over 17 artists and there were big installations and performance all over the site. I booked Geryon to play music to keep the party vibe going and brought down a food truck. People who had attended the previous parties came down and Georgia and Nick brought a whole new crew of people to the site for the first time. I actually wasn’t at this party, as I had another project on, but the reports were very positive.
The last party was the biggest one with almost double the amount of people attending and we enjoyed a busy site with a symphony of projects all over the place. Louis Klee, Eitan Ritz and Jack Palmer put little video artworks on phone and hid them across the site, Lucy Foster opened a projection artwork, Trent Crawford & Finn Astle opened a video art exhibition and Shamrock had installations mourned the site. Jane Morely, Tim McPoland, Emma Langdon and Michelle Mantis held an experimental fashion show and there were performances on a truncated pyramid Testing Grounds built by Govind, Glitterfist, Pillow Pro and Jaala Jensen. We did Smashing Things with Hammers one last time. It was a warm night and I distinctly remember having trouble kicking people off the site that night, nobody was ready to leave.
It is fairly exhausting doing five big events over five months with a small team and large program, so we didn’t even up doing a full art party season the following summer. But it lingered in the way I continued to program the site. On the first Friday of each month, we continued to open the site for the night and invite artists to do as they wish. The artist’s who were already on the site were free to invite other people to join in, we would do regular call-outs for projects and say yes to anyone who wanted to do something. Certain people returned time again to join in. Creative organisations and companies put on their festival projects on the same night, learning to trust our methodology that more is more. And when the right moment presented itself I continued to commission little activations, tapping the atmosphere in a particular direction. Sometimes the nights were chilled and other times they swelled into nights bigger than the official art parties.
There are so many great nights I could talk about (16 other events in fact) that I can’t include for the sake of a more forgiving word count. We stopped doing the first Friday of the month events in mid-2019 when the site shifted into being predominately artist studios so we could begin to explore something new. The last event was a huge party called The Last First Friday and involved Science Gallery Melbourne, a whole year of photograph students from NCAT photography, a VR music clip launch from Louise Terry, sculptures by Janelle de Gabrielle and a centrepiece light show by House of VnHoly.
When I look back on the Art party summer of 2017, through to that last event in 2019, I can recognise energy we can never recreate again. We could try to set the conditions for it to happen again but it just wouldn’t be the same. This energy belongs to a particular community of people who used the events to build momentum and cultivated a can-do attitude. We can only take credit for opening the gates and allowing it to happen.
Words by Arie Rain Glorie