Art as a Way Forward Through Structural Change with Metro Tunnel Creative Program

What marks the difference between “site” and “place”? This is the defining work of Melbourne, Australia’s Metro Tunnel Creative Program, curating art and events to enhance city life in areas disrupted by the expansion of the local rail system. This multi-year program fosters temporary creative works, encouraging community interaction and engagement in the areas of construction. To offset major alterations in traffic flow, parking, and accessibility, Cross Yarra Partnership – a major contractor for this Victorian
Government project – created a small team to nimbly handle a series of programs that change every few months.

To date, over 100 local creatives have activated more than 4 kilometers of streets and parkways, from murals and sculpture, to fashion shows and drag performance. Artists from regional Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne are directly commissioned or respond to opportunities from an open Artist Pool to showcase their talents. The program supports diverse perspectives, with an intentional focus on historically marginalized communities, First Nations artists, and their essential relationship to place. Alongside the legacy art program which commissions permanent art to be installed at each of the project’s 5 new train stations, MTCP supports areas affected by the construction of twin rail tunnels running through the heart of the city.

Integrated in the program’s curatorial vision, artwork is cultivated in close relationship to tunnels and the material that has been excavated in order to build them. For example, in “Unearthed,” presented by Craft Victoria in collaboration with MTCP, 10 artists reimagined discarded fragments from the Metro Tunnel’s archaeological digs, crafting them into contemporary objects. The results range from carved stone sculpture, to jewelry and lighting, to the glass fragments ground down into pigments for ceramics. These works are tied to the biggest archeological dig in Victoria, embodying the site, the layered personal history of each fragment, and the renewed object’s story in the modern world as it comes to find home in disparate places.

The Metro Tunnel Creative Program often partners thematically with existing events and festivals, supporting the mission and amplifying their reach and impact. In a site-specific performance called “Momentum” by Women’s Circus, the tunnel embodies patterns of time and change, connectivity and disconnection. This piece was made in partnership with Arts Centre Melbourne as part of Alter State, a major disability arts festival celebrating contemporary art and live performance from Australia and Aotearoa (NZ). The work connects physical and psychological terrain, demonstrating how “site,” a place of potential, can become known, become “place,” by the strength of experience and relationships forged within it.

Launched in July 2018, the Metro Tunnel Creative Program continues to evolve alongside the needs of the community, extending to its completion in 2025. To help shape the program and serve the needs of local residents and businesses affected, each precinct has a stakeholder group that meets every 6-8 weeks, acting as conduits of information, bringing needs and concerns of the community to the program. The program itself took root with the help of the Gehl “Public Life, Public Space” survey, which methodizes observational data, tracking how people move through and engage with space. Data from surveying the construction sites and nearby affected areas combines with community dialogue to ensure a responsive and well-informed approach that can evolve to meet new needs.

An example of a project created directly out of community request, the highly successful Albert Road Reserve pop-up park has become an award-winning asset, receiving gold at the 2022 Melbourne Design Awards. Informed by community consultation, a previously neglected space became a bubbling gathering spot for locals, featuring timber decking, generous seating, TV, and new plants to improve the aesthetic and green amenity in the area. The MTCP, with the support of The Place Agency, has activated the park throughout its life, from commemorative days and charity fundraisers, to chamber music and seedling giveaways. Not far from here in the area of Anzac Station, MTCP also provides the Domain Road pop-up park, which initially converted several parking spaces into outdoor seating for restaurants. Informed again by community voices, the temporary design has been extended due to its success in bringing businesses and visitors together to eat, relax, and enjoy these enhanced social spaces.

The high-visibility public space of the MTCP projects are prime opportunities for local artists to be seen for their work. Successful artworks are often bright, colorful, and bold, serving as beautification, wayfinding, and visual respite from the fatigue that comes with ongoing construction. Opposite sides of the new tunnel system are tied thematically, representing old and new, south and north, the city’s founding and its newer residents. Hot pinks and yellows, electric blues, complemented by neon lighting, suggest a contemporary Asian feel, reflecting the international students who come to Melbourne for education as near neighbors. To the south, there is a 1900’s feel, celebrating the birth of the metropolis, connecting past to present and future trajectories.

With continued research and dialogue, the Metro Tunnel Creative Program is a responsive ally to local residents, businesses, and the needs of the city as they undertake a massive upgrade in infrastructure. The program’s temporary nature complements the shifting needs of a community as it strives to make change for the better, weathering the accommodation that demands. Capitalizing on the artist’s ability to transform their environment with consideration, nuance, and poetic meaning, the MTCP works boldly in public space, presenting the arts as a way forward through practical and concrete restructuring and change.