Frances Barrett’s Meatus at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art is a visceral experiment in exhibiting sound. By Tiarney Miekus.
The body’s wordless vocalisations – the labour of breathing, the sound of gurgles, gasps of desire or fear – have a power that can be dangerous, erotic and disturbingly intimate. They escape the limits of language and permit something else to pour out.
For the exhibition Meatus, Frances Barrett has transformed the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) into a large-scale sound installation, collaborating with six artists to centre the act of listening. Across four rooms, each lit in full-blooded red, are carefully arranged black Yamaha speakers and cords. In the wider field of sound art this isn’t unusual, but it certainly isn’t standard in Australian galleries, where sound is often accompanied by or sublimated to a visual. While art history privileges the eye, Meatus becomes an experiment in exhibiting aurality.
The gallery is entered by parting thick, plastic curtains, reminiscent of a butcher’s shop or industrial freezer. Combined with the red lighting, there is an atmosphere of kink: of warning and desire, wanting and danger. It’s like entering the inside of a body – the first evocation of the exhibition’s title, Meatus.
“Meatus” is a medical term for body entrances that cannot be naturally closed: ears, nasal passages, the urethra. Barrett has abstracted this to imagine sound as being dispersed across the body, throughout passages that have no barrier between the internal and external worlds. In one sense, Barrett is imagining the whole body as a site for listening, but it’s also spatial: ACCA itself becomes a meatus.
In a monolithic 30-metre-long space, 39 speakers play worm divination (segmented realities), a 30-minute recording by Barrett and her collaborators, poet and performance artist Brian Fuata and sound designer Hayley Forward. Fuata’s vocals have been modulated, layered and distorted by Forward. Wherever you stand, sit or lie, the speakers deliver the same gasps followed by blazing layers of voice, heaving exhalations and chanted vocal ecstasy and agony. It pushes to a climax where Fuata utters words such as “mouth”, “cum” and “wormhole”. You feel it in your chest, on your skin.
In this sensory world, there’s a purposeful overlap between intense sound, the body and its organs, and desire, sexuality and industrialism. Barrett makes these unconscious realms explicit and connective through the act of listening with others in a shared space.
The piece is partly inspired by the concepts of “worms” and “wormholes” that the artists use to describe their fluid process of collaboration, alongside William Burroughs’ voicing of homoerotic desire and Barrett’s interest in queer ways of curating and creating. Broadly speaking, these seem less about identity than about crafting a heterogenous force or intensity within a gallery space in order to realise bodily freedom.
Barrett centres collaboration and listening. Three rooms of variously positioned speakers each feature a composition by Nina Buchanan, Del Lumanta and Sione Teumohenga, who Barrett asked to respond to the concept of meatus. About 15 minutes long each, the three compositions are sequenced one after the other, as if every room is a performance that must be awaited. It’s also a pragmatic decision, since sound naturally bleeds beyond its own space.
With Fuata’s voice hovering nearby, Lumanta’s room has multiple speakers in a circle, each playing a different composition layer, from silence to metallic crashing. Like the show at large, it is compelling and generates anxiety. At one point when I was alone in the gallery, a certain frequency rang to a point where I felt fear.
Teumohenga’s composition – filled with modulated bells, processed guitar lines and vocals – also plays with silence and sound, while Buchanan’s work deals with reverberant, polyphonic noises and melodies that are constantly renegotiated. The energy they conjure is no minor feat in small rooms with high ceilings and without the propulsion of a live performer.
This show requires patience, and it is mostly rewarded. Engaging with sound and space for more than an hour reinforces how sound generates thoughts and feelings that are equally sentimental, subversive and bodily. As someone who often feels disconnected from their body, I feel the necessity of these experiences, which usually occur in performance and live music, rather than in galleries. In a world defined by the atomisation caused by Covid-19 and personal devices, it’s a relief to share listening with others, in all its awkwardness and connectedness.
For me, what underlies Barrett’s practice is extremity: the sense that something is on the line. Over a decade of working in performance, among other adventures, she’s wrestled with a curator – and lost – and been blindfolded with her mouth taped shut while being cared for by another curator. She’s also part of the four-piece art collective Barbara Cleveland, which brings to life a fictional ’70s artist of the same name – a stand-in for every forgotten female artist.
One common thread is that Barrett puts her body in states of extremis and in doing so claims a bodily freedom that she lends to her viewers. Meatus is her first installation and this time Barrett is activating the audiences’ bodies.
This exhibition was funded when Barrett won the Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship in 2018, which granted three female-identifying artists $100,000 for new work. It’s reasonable to suspect that without such investment, a sonic takeover of this scale would be difficult. But it’s also important to consider that Barrett, with her curatorial background, has designed Meatus as much as she has created it: she calls herself the “artist-cum-curator”. The process of creating relationships – rather than artworks – is interestingly complicated, but there is something special and persistent about Barrett’s presence in her work. It’s clear that Meatus has benefited from Barrett most as an artist.
There is a dogma in contemporary sound art that stresses listening to both sounds and to their political and material implications. Listening is cast as ethical by hearing what is marginalised or isn’t usually heard, which in turn creates a more empathic relationship to the world. But is it possible, I wonder, to listen to the “wrong” thing? Listening is at risk of being a command rather than a persuasion, which belies its claim of openness. Barrett mostly avoids this by seducing her audience from the outset.
While Meatus has set a small benchmark for exhibiting sound, Barrett is capable of taking this further. Considering the current social and political minefields of divisive polemics, filled by people who don’t even attempt to hear one another, the interrogation of listening feels significant. We need shows such as Meatus to sound out what connects us.
Frances Barrett: Meatus is on at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, until June 19.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Sounding the body".
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