Speaking to Erin McCuskey about her exhibitions at the 2019 Ballarat International Foto Biennale, there is a moment where the past and the present suddenly meet.
We are looking at her entry in the Open Program of the BIFB. It's called City of Muses, seven large format images of creative and inspirational women who work and live in Ballarat. Or rather, six women who create here, and one who once did.
There's an image of the late Karolina Artist, who lived in Clunes and was responsible for writing children's books, making astonishingly beautiful woolstitch puppets to tell her stories, was a singer and a performer, a painter and sculptor.
Karolina died last year, and her loss informs strongly the sense of time passing in this series, which McCuskey says is about opening a conversation with and about the city of Ballarat and how it deals with a ranges of issues: from respecting and truly valuing artists to coping with historical change; of what it means to be a valued, creative being and still make an existence - and a living - in Ballarat.
At a time where young footballers are regularly paid high sums to turn out, where 'influencers' earn money to spruik products and tourism is regarded as an 'industry' and has vast amounts of cash thrown at it, do we value the work that artists do at all?
Erin McCuskey is well-known as a filmmaker and director of Yum Studio. She is also a gifted photographer, and has two exhibitions in the 2019 BIFB.
She says the format of street photography is unfamiliar to her, but she was inspired to leap into the process by her subjects, both in City of Muses and her show at McKenzie Street, Wendouree, Hello Photo.
McCuskey is a strong supporter of artists in general and of women as independent creative workers.
She spoke about City of Muses to Caleb Cluff at the Regent Cinema where it is showing.
"Some of these women are at the peak of their power in terms of their artistry, and also in terms of connection to their city in some way.
"They are challenging the city, and it really feels as though the city is not listening in terms of answering the questions they are asking.
"By 'city' I mean us as a people, I mean the citizens.
"As a city there are a whole lot of questions to ask, not just around heritage or tourism or transport or parking. We have questions around who we are as people. Artists pose those questions; no-one else really asks them. Artists ask them.
"I have a favourite quote at the moment by (author, journalist and critic) Rebecca West: "Art is not a luxury, but a necessity."
"Art is the ability to put life in cup and drink from it. That kind of engagement is only possible through art and culture, to ask questions about who were are, who we want to be, where we've been: all of those questions are posed by artists."
This is a difficulty in a town like Ballarat, a town that's inherently conservative and non-discursive. We don't like to talk about things.
It's better to go along nicely and make sure all the right people are happy and the wrong questions don't get asked.
"Yes. It's a level of discomfort. People are frightened because art challenges them. So what's the problem with a challenge? It might change people, and people are afraid to change. So they don't enter willingly into art galleries and into performance. They like to know everything about it before they will go in the door.
"But if they know everything about it before they walk in the door, if they've seen it before or a friend told them - how can they expand their brains or hearts to accept those challenges?
"What I'm saying with this exhibition is: beneath this city artists work and toil away, trying to challenge the city to be better. Why don't we turn around and listen to that?
"It's things like the Foto Biennale where people come out and they are exposed to art almost without knowing it."
It's good to see the amazing women here, in these photographs, and people coming to see them and acknowledge them. Let's talk about them. Joanne Davis?
"Yes. Joanne Davis is an actor and performer. She does butoh, and she is extraordinary. Her composure on stage; you cannot take your eyes of her. She makes frocks from pattern tissue paper which are destroyed in the act of her performance, whether they are ripped or... she performed at Abbotsford Convent outside in the rain, and her costume melted from her.
"It's about the impermanence of things. If we ask that question of the city, it's why are we so fixated on fixity? If you look at some of the purist heritage groups who say, 'No, things should be kept exactly as they were,' well that doesn't allow for time and change. So she is posing the question of the fleeting nature of beauty.
"Melinda Muscat is another extraordinary artist. She has nurals up arounds town, but this photograph was taken inside her house. I consider her a walking work of art; when you see her in town she is always dressed beautifully, always has something gorgeous to say, and is constantly challenging the status quo.
"Amy Tsilemanis is a curator, writer, researcher; also a performer. A woman who creates the most stunning and intricate pieces of work which allow us to deep-dive. I know she has been frustrated around the lack of engagement with some of her pieces, because it takes effort. As an audience and a community we need to make the effort to challenge ourselves.
It's about the impermanence of things. If we ask that question of the city, it's why are we so fixated on fixity? If you look at some of the purist heritage groups who say, 'No, things should be kept exactly as they were,' well that doesn't allow for time and change.- Erin McCuskey
"Karolina Artist: here this picture shows her pulling down on the set of Castanets. The image is a little dark, unfortunately, but she has sweat on her brow. Her whole ethos was 'don't show the effort'; it was about perfection.
"She died last year, at the peak of her powers, and she was still trying to earn a buck. She was all about heart, but she was also straight down the line; anything superfluous she would push to the side and go right for what mattered. She was confronting, and people found that confrontation difficult.
"Sophia Livitsanis - she's incredible, a force of nature. And she still has to work in hospitality to get by. Why can't this city support professional artists? She does brilliant shows, with packed houses, but she has to scratch to do the work she loves, to get by, to survive.
"Linda Franklin is amazing. She wanders the city, making public collages, commenting on lost stories of suffragettes and the guys who brought jiu jitsu to Ballarat. This photograph of her was taken at the Civic Hall on the night of its reopening, where she took up residence on the red carpet and forced everyone to walk around her.
As a city there are a whole lot of questions to ask, not just around heritage or tourism or transport or parking. We have questions around who we are as people. Artists pose those questions; no-one else really asks them. Artists ask them.- Erin McCuskey
"It was beautiful, so beautiful, with her Civic Hall hat on, asking the question, 'Have we been civic enough? Have we been civil to each other in that whole drama?' That same week they were pulling down the Lower Hall, at the same time they were entertaining.
"And then Marita Murphy of Loud Fence, a force to be reckoned with. During the taking of this photograph, the (Catholic) Bishop (of Ballarat) drove past in his car, and she was standing at the side of the road shaking her ribbons, saying 'NO MORE SILENCE, NO MORE SILENCE' and he refused, point blank, to look at her.
"That was all she wanted, was for someone to look, and he couldn't do that. So at what point does a story like that, embedded in the very nature of who we are, become heard when we still have people pulling ribbons off the fence.
"All these themes are linked by the idea of respecting place, of respecting home."
CITY OF MUSES (part of the BIFB Open program sponsored by Regent)
What happens to a city when its citizens forget their muse? It becomes a facade, beautiful to look at, but expectations remain unfulfilled. The artists continue to work under this city's streets, invisible to office and economy. City of Muses looks to share the questions posed by artists about their city.
Artist Talk: Sunday Oct 13th 5pm at the Regent Cinema Marble Room.