Tales of the Uneventful; A Day and a Night In Ballarat

A few months ago I landed myself a position as a reviewer for a small national art magazine. My first assignment was to review a Sonic Youth album, and they were so happy with my ramblings that I was asked to review the Ballarat International Foto Biennale. The promise of free overnight accommodation was enough for me, so I dragged my boyfriend on to a train and off we went to Ballarat for the weekend.

It was the first time I’d been to Ballarat during the day time- I went on a tiny road trip with two members of the Midnight Juggernauts one night last year to hang out while they did a DJ set there, but that was so boozy that I don’t remember anything other than stalking the locals with my camera and hoping I wasn’t going to die on the 3am drive back to Melbourne. The guys were convinced it was better to leave in a drunken haze than to stay overnight in the old gold mining city. While I can now see what they were getting at, it’s really not all THAT bad.

For one thing, the journey out there was fucking stunning. Once the train got past the outer suburban sprawl of Melbourne, the landscape evolved quite quickly into a beautiful 70/30 mix of farm land and native plant life, lit perfectly by the winter sun. While boyfriend fell asleep for a chunk of the hour and a half long train ride, my neck was steadfastly craned to see as much as I could through the window- the fucking sun was out for the first time in weeks and it made me happier than you can imagine to see very little man made anything casting their linear shadows; it was alllllll organic baby, and I loved every second of it, iphone-photo-ing the fuck out of it.

I was intrigued by the infrequent rural train stations along the way too. For example, Ballan confronted me with the timeless Australian stereotype that made me feel as if I was watcing a film: the kelpie in the back tray of a ute. Straight up couldn’t believe it. And I stared at all the passengers getting on or getting off and the people greeting or seeing off passengers with the same level of wonderment as the surrounding landscape, but with slightly darker thoughts. What are the lives of these people like? What are their relationships like? What is their diet like? Why do they choose to live out here if they’re not on a farm? What the hell is going on? I’ve never lived in a rural area, and to me the concept of an Australian rural community seems more culturally foreign than inner city Paris, despite our shared nationality. I suppose this explains the current political state of this country fairly well. But here I digress!

So we arrived in Ballarat with the sun still shining, greeted by giant historical buildings all painted heritage colours and the occasional grubby teenager milling around them. We had a few hours until we could check in at the motel, and the city/town was very much awake and open, so we wandered down to a café to fulfill our city slicker need for lattes (which were $3.90 EACH?!), and to attempt to make sense of the Biennale program/guide and plan our exhibit hop.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, please refer to the following website- http://www.ballaratfoto.org – in essence, it is a collection of exhibitions by national and international photographic artists spread out over a whole heap of venues around Ballarat within walking distance of each other.

Our unfamiliarity with the area left us a little lost, so we didn’t see nearly as many fringe exhibits as I would have liked- we attempted a fair hop on Saturday, and managed to get through most of the main exhibits and one fringe show, but a long, fruitless walk searching for a café named “Grind My Bean” combined with our sleepiness from the early morning saw us eager to get to the motel. We found the bus and traveled through to the outskirts of town, admiring the beautiful old houses along the way. The goldrush wealth of this area is on full display for about a kilometre, until the giant stone houses and beautiful trees, all old and graceful, make way for the depressing residential sprawl that I wasn’t really expecting. Teetering right on the edge of it all, across the road from the shells of more housing development, was our squat little motel, waiting for us with it’s tight bedsheets and ugly interior design.

However critical I may sound, after a life with very few travel opportunities, I actually LOVE travel accommodation. I totally get off on seeing evidence of bad taste, and I also enjoy not knowing where I am or what I’m doing (I would make a wonderful back packer). Exploration and all that. It didn’t take much exploration to find a bottle shop (next door), so Aden and I hunkered down for some beer, and possibly the worst meal I have ever had in my life (deep fried burger). A few hours later, with our bellies aching, we got back on the bus towards the city/town centre to attend the official opening of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale.

Held in the old gold exchange building, the opening speeches were fraught with microphone and amplifier problems, crowds talking over the speakers, and some cheech and chong references. While the curation of the different works within various nooks and crannies of the building left a little to be desired, the place was packed out and there was a veritable buzz going on, but it was a buzz that I was not in the least bit involved in. This stuff will be explained further in the review written for the art magazine, but I’ll leave it at vaguely uninspiring and a little confusing. I do have a tendency to be a little cynical, but in all honesty, I was really looking forward to engaging this crowd of photography enthusiasts. Seems it was not meant to be, I wasn’t feeling the vibe, and the hopes I held of handing out my business card to interested parties in the industry were dashed. Cut scene to the bar down the road.

“The Bended Elbow” is where Aden and I ended up, me with wine, him with vodka, passionately discussing our interpretation of the things we’d seen so far that day. It wasn’t until about 2 hours in that we realised that it was a Saturday night in the heart of Ballarat- the shouts and grunts of dopey males were beginning to match the increasingly frequent screeches of enthusiastic women. The giant pub was filling a little, the band was preparing to play (covers of Blink 182, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and MGMT by the way), and I was feeling a little threatened by the prospect of facing these normal young people who had probably never set foot in an art gallery, or downloaded an album by a band they’d never heard of for the sheer pleasure of enjoying something new and thought provoking. It wasn’t long after scantily clad plump girls with hair extensions starting rushing excitedly in droves through the venue that one of the bouncers decided he didn’t like the look of Aden and his beanie+hoodie combination as he walked to the bathroom, and we got kicked out, even though we’d been there for about 4 hours, sitting quietly in a corner outside, receiving free drinks from the bar manager.

That’s enough about Ballarat from me. The rest of the experience was just as uneventful, yet mostly enjoyable. I’m looking forward to having what I expect to be a rambling, unprofessional review of the photo stuff published. If you want to see some photos from my trip, have a look here: http://www.tahliaisabelpalmer.com/2011/08/balarrat-international-foto-biennale.html