When the Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts (ACCA) began developing Who’s Afraid of Public Space?, a major exhibition and research project exploring the role of public culture, the contested nature of public space, and the character and composition of public life itself, lockdown was not yet a common term. But as it quickly altered the fundamental realities of everyday life in Melbourne, the concept of “public space” was thrust to the fore.

It was in this wake that the work Six Walks was developed. A series of podcasts by Melbourne artists about public spaces in the city, it examines what the restrictions on freedom of movement in the past few months has meant to them in fresh context.

For Timmah Ball, a nonfiction writer, researcher and creative practitioner of Ballardong Noongar heritage, being asked to take part was a chance to both engage with a space newly restricted, as well as continue practicing her art.

“It was a great idea to think about place and space while we were, ironically enough, confined to our house,” says Ball. “Even in this current crisis [when we’re] feeling like it was almost like the end of the arts as we know it, it was this opportunity to get people excited about thinking about the places in the city we love. And that remain important to us, even if we're not venturing out to them as much.”

Ball is one six artists invited to participate in the project. Alongside her are writers Idil Ali, Tony Birch, Sophie Cunningham, Eleanor Jackson and Christos Tsiolkas. Each were given the brief to develop a narrative response to a part of the city that held a particular interest or meaning to them.

The resulting subjects range from Birrarung to Royal Park, regal cinemas to the Carlton housing estate, with each fostering topics including motherhood, colonisation, gentrification, restoration, leisure and pleasure.

Ball’s location of choice is a 128-hectare, former Defence Force site on the Maribyrnong River. The huge space is currently fenced off and forbidden, as government planners and private developers tussle over its future use.

Living (just) within the then-five kilometre travel limit, Ball found herself exercising along the river as the city’s other options shut down.

“Not having the usual things to do this year, I started riding further along the Maribyrnong and came across the defence site,” she says. “It felt like a really interesting space, in a sense of seeing our city in a different way. The site itself is a part of history that many people don't know about, and that’s also obviously layered on top of the history of the Kulin nation.”

As lockdown progressed, Ball said the site’s military past seemed to become urgent. “Seeing ADF soldiers casually walk around the Maribyrnong made it more relevant as our relationship to the military and being watched became unnerving,” she says. “I really gravitated towards wanting to reveal these tensions..”

Ball’s podcast episode, which like all in the Six Walks series is designed to be listened to while exploring the space it speaks of, is broken into three sections.

The first interrogates public and private space. “It’s about the strange way this site has been privatized by the ADF, and knowing our city has changed under a pandemic.”

The second is more explicitly about the site as an Aboriginal place, pre-colonisation. “It’s a look at first contact with settlers – and their crude interpretations – of what the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung and Bunurong peoples of the Kulin Nation people were doing.”

The third speculates on what might happen here in future, especially if real estate developers got their hands on it.

“You can imagine something really important [being built] here that centres on Aboriginal culture, which was acutally proposed in early planning reports from the late ‘90s” says Ball. “But it seems like it might be one of those things that takes a huge political shift to actually get something happening.”

The pandemic – and the governments’ lacklustre response to arts workers affected by it – continues to be a serious blow to the arts community. But Ball does see an opportunity in its wake to shift art from traditional locations.

“It’s awesome conceptionally to actually create something explicitly linked to a physical place that has nothing to do with the traditional art venues we've gotten so used to,” she says.

Ball says she hopes her podcast will help locals understand Melbourne as an Aboriginal place. There’s also the sense that the pandemic’s disruption to daily life has shown how important public space is to the fabric of the city’s culture.

“We created new lives for ourselves in parks and public spaces,” says Ball. “Now we need to open up the city even more - we really need more inclusive and safe spaces.”

Listen to the Six Walks series of audio walking tours at ACCA.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of ACCA.