In conversation: Frances Barrett and Annika Kristensen

Monday 28 June 2021

Annika Kristensen (AK): The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship was designed as an opportunity for a female artist working – as Katthy did – at the intersection of performance and installation. Very early on, after being awarded the Fellowship, you chose to expand the solo-focus of the opportunity by both collaborating with other artists in the making of your own work, as well as curating three artists – Del Lumanta, Nina Buchanan and Sione Teumohenga – to make new sonic work for the exhibition. You’ve described this dual role as ‘artist-cum-curator’, or akin to speaking with two mouths. Can you begin by talking about your approach to the Fellowship opportunity – and why for you, collaboration is so important?

Frances Barrett (FB): When I applied for the Fellowship, I applied with an idea for a work that was a sound installation premised on a vocal composition. I really just had this image in my head of an empty space with voices coming out of speakers. After early conversations with yourself and Max [Delany, ACCA’s Artistic Director and CEO], I realised that I had more than just one room attributed to my proposed installation, and so needed to consider the entirety of ACCA’s four gallery spaces. The new scale and scope of the project expanded my thinking beyond the one proposed installation to thinking about my practice at large. I reflected on the progression of my practice and began to focus on the role of collaboration in my work.

So for Meatus I thought, well, why not keep that trajectory of my work and work collaboratively with others. I was also excited by how working collaboratively made the idea of a solo commission more complex. I don’t see my practice as necessarily sitting outside or beyond a community of practitioners, it has always be imbricated with others. So I wanted this to be reflected in the way that I approached Meatus and the commissioning process.

Many of my performances, such as My Safeword is Performance [with Ivan Crozier] and The Wrestle [with Toby Chapman], are dependent on collaborating with others to realise the work. In performing with or alongside others, I’m interested in the relational dynamics held in our encounter. So for me, I guess the potential for collaborations is in revealing the potent dynamics at stake that exist between people. And if you can change those dynamics, or shift them, or complicate them somehow, then that holds the potential of queering. And my practice is about forging a queer praxis.

AK: Extending on that, you’ve just mentioned that the artists that you’ve invited to contribute to Meatus are peers, friends, colleagues, or part of a community or network. Is there a particular kind of politics informing who you invite to collaborate with you?

FB: The artists that I have selected to present alongside and those who I have collaborated with on the commissioned work, are artists who have taught me about sound, listening and performance. These are artists whose thinking creates both tensions and affinities with my own. I guess I’m also interested in artists who may make more complex and question the umbrella term of ‘queer.’ Artists who don’t necessarily foreground that interest visually or sonically in their work, or talk about their practice in those terms. The conversation as part of the Roundtable [published elsewhere in this catalogue] considers that idea further.

AK: Let’s talk about Meatus as a concept. What is Meatus to you, and how has it guided your thinking curatorially for the exhibition?

FB: Meatus is a metaphor for a listening practice that de-centres the ear, that relies on a nexus of our senses, and that attunes us to both our conscious responses and unconscious intensities. Through my PhD research – a lot of which informs this project – I have proposed Meatus as a methodology for both listening and curatorial practice. Informed by Simon Soon’s argument [in his article ‘Rethinking Curatorial Colonialism’] that a curatorial methodology requires a ‘willingness to listen’ I was really interested in how I could apply that to my role as a curator.

Meatus is a form of listening that shifts or challenges the definitional boundaries of the body. This became a way of thinking about a whole embodied deep listening practice, and equally, as a way to shift the definitional boundaries of a curator. Through the process of developing Meatus I started to articulate my role as an artist-cum-curator. I see this as a compromised and noisy figure, one who lies in the holes of a project, one in a constant process of unfolding or becoming. As artist-cum-curator I have attempted to centralise listening, collaboration and embodied modes in my process.

AK: When I was reading the Roundtable conversation, I was intrigued by something that Hayley said about the working relationship between herself, yourself and Brian during the making of the work as being akin to a meatus, as if you were merging into one another, and feeding off each other. I’m interested to hear from your experience how you might describe the process of making your sound composition, worm divination, that is experienced in ACCA’s main commissioning hall as part of the exhibition Meatus.

FB: The title, worm divination [(segmented realities)], derives from the mode of collaborating that we developed between us, which we called a ‘worm’. The worm is our process of consumption, digestion and casting of material. The worm was a way to compost language, the body and performance, decomposing, recomposing, into sonic force.

To develop the work, Brian and I undertook a series of residencies at Vitalstatistix, Performance Space and Chunky Move to forge the spine of the work – the script, the energy, the drive. Hayley then joined the process once we got into the studio to record. The three of us would be in the studio churning through this material. Brian would be performing, Hayley would modulate his voice, and I would be listening in a dramaturgical role. We would then pass the developing material between us in this improvised and messy way. So I guess the collaboration was about developing a practice of listening to each other, attuning to each other in a very acute and embodied way.

AK: We’ve discussed the meatus as being an opening to the body, connecting the interior and exterior. The mouth, of course, is one, out of which comes a voice, and your own work is predominantly vocal. Why was choosing to use the voice important, and what do you see as the potential when communicating with the human voice?

FB: Through Meatus I was interested in experimenting with performance, to see how a performance can exist without an actual body present. I wanted to explore how I could convey the corporeal intensity of a body without one being there. Meatus is about [following David Getsy] ‘invoking but not imaging’ the body through sound. I do this to explore queerness. To foment – like the worm churning and turning and composting – the inherited regimes (of binarism, heteronormativity etc etc) that impose themselves on our bodies and in the relations that exist between us. So sound becomes an exploration of queerness not presented visually, or as some optic, but as force, intensity and duration.

The voice carries the weight of the body. I perceive it as an acute form of embodiment that exists beyond the viscera. The voice is a form of touch, it is a haptic encounter. Listening, then, becomes a way to reciprocate this touch. So the voice is tied in to my ideas around meatus as a way of listening that collapses the distinctions between the senses, tied to my ideas around queer relationality, tied to my ideas around queer embodiment.

AK: So you’re thinking about vocalising as a way of reaching out, caring for, and touching one another in a way that is akin to a queer groping… Let’s then consider William Burroughs’ brilliantly visceral term ‘schlupping’ from his novel Queer, which is a term that you’ve co-opted, interpreted, and expanded upon in this project. What is ‘schlupping’ and how is it applied within Meatus?

FB: Yes! Groping and grasping as a mode of comprehension, an idea that I drew from the film theorist Eliza Steinbock and have (hopefully) applied it to sound installation.

‘Schlupping’ is a term that Brian and I plucked from Burroughs’ text Queer. Douglas Kahn talks about it in Noise Water Meat. It is a neologism that Burroughs developed to speak to homoerotic desire. This homoerotic desire is a consuming, haunted yearning – ‘a blind worm hunger’ as he puts it. But Burroughs also uses the term to describe the sound when a character is eviscerated, when all of their organs are torn out through their arsehole. So ‘schlupping’ speaks to homo desire, but also to a negation, to death, to a body without organs. I think ‘schlupping’ harnesses both the relational and anti-relational dimensions of queerness.‘Schlupping’ blurs the distinctions between the mouth and the arsehole, which I see as a blurring of hope and anger, utopianism and refusal, labour and flight. We also can’t ignore that Burroughs himself is a complex figure to engage with now, but this ethical and political complexity was something that informed Brian and my process.

AK: It’s interesting thinking about all these various references that relate to the conceptual ideas inherent in the work, and we’ve also had many conversations along the way about art and other historical references relating to the exhibition design of Meatus specifically. You’ve designed a uniform state across all galleries, so that the audience experiences each of the four sound works in a similar environment in a non-hierarchical way. But obviously the design is very distinct with the plush carpet, the red lighting, almost emulating the interior of a body. Can you talk a little bit about some of these references that informed your thinking behind this exhibition design or thinking?

FB: I wanted Meatus to swallow an audience member, to enter into this installation as almost like entering into a body. I have conceived of the galleries of ACCA as enacting meatus: as ear canals, oral cavities, vaginal canals, and anal spaces that passage through and into each other. At the two entrances to the galleries, there are PVC strip curtains. The PVC material reminds me of a butcher’s threshold, kink costuming and entrances into industrial work sites. Bodies, sex, meat and machinery are invoked at the touch. I had hoped these curtains would initiate a tactility on entrance to the galleries, signaling the imbrication of listening and touch. Also, importantly, none of the spaces are visually delineated from the other. I didn’t want to silo the works but rather create a passaging between the compositions, between artists, between spaces. The installation is representative of my conception of meatus as a porous passaging and opened body, and of listening as a practice dispersed across the entire body. This installation – which is my first installation! – is informed by theatrical set design. The exhibition design aims to heighten the movement of bodies as they cruise the space.

AK: We’ve thought a lot about the acoustic challenges of ACCA, which, is also discussed in the Roundtable. But I also wonder how the context of ACCA – architecturally, but also institutionally – has informed your thinking about the project?

FB: I thought about how the architecture of many galleries were not designed to accommodate sound but, rather, designed to hierarchise our sense of vision. They are built to sustain ocularcentrism — the primacy of the eye. Ocularcentrism compartmentalises the body, conditioning a particular kind of being and knowing in the world. ACCA’s walls, ceilings and floors muddy sound. Both Felix Abrahams – the Audio Engineer to this project – and I thought of this as a great challenge. Felix from an engineering perspective and me as artist-cum-curator perspective. I thought about the muddy sounds as composted bodies, leaking and bleeding, bouncing off the hard surfaces of the institution. In ‘An Affinity of Hammers,’ Sara Ahmed writes: ‘We learn about worlds when they do not accommodate us.’⁠ Sounds are not accommodated in the architecture of ACCA. So I approached these muddied sounds as the errant modalities and collective waves of queer bodies. Curator Jennifer Tyburczy describes the conventions of an arts institution as subjugating bodies and perpetuating a ‘patriarchal perspectivalism’ that imposes a heteronormative regime. Tyburzcy calls for a revision of visuality as part of a curatorial methodology. So it is through sound and listening that I was hoping to explore that.

AK: I’m struck by how genuinely collaborative the making of this project has been, and how you’ve really created a community through the process. That community includes the artists that you’re working with, but also the thinkers that you’ve referenced through your own research, and also the listeners who will eventually engage with the work. How do you see Meatus as situated within your broader practice – both independently and in relation to your work with Barbara Cleveland – and what do you think that you’ve learnt from this process that you might take forward into future projects?

FB: Meatus ties the many loose threads of my practice together – my roles as collective member, artist-run-initiative director, performance curator, performance artist, radio host, lecturer all seem to have informed how I have approached the process. I can hear the echoes of Barbara Cleveland, Serial Space, Canvas, All Ears, My Safeword is Performance, Touching, Handle, The Wrestle, Curator in this work. I can hear the echoes of Performance Space, PACT, Vitalstatistix, Firstdraft in this work. My practice emerges from the imbrication of many people and organisations and modes of working, I hope Meatus reflects that. This Fellowship is the first time that I’ve really been able to create an installation, an environment. And in some ways, it has heightened the theatrical dimension of my practice. I can see the influence of Sun & Sea (Marina) at Venice Biennale in 2019, Anne Imhof, and Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz. When developing the design, I kept looking to Kofsky and Castellucci for inspiration: endurance performance art meets operatic scale! Meatus has extended my thinking around performance. Prior to this I was performing live actions in front of an audience or camera, but now I have shed my own body and started conceptualising it spatially, temporally. I guess it means I am working more dramaturgically.

I also tried to learn, working with you and with ACCA, what it is like how to work on a scale and how to lead a project. That’s been a real learning process for me.

AK: Thinking about performance is possibly a good way to also acknowledge Katthy Cavaliere, whose legacy and life continues in your work, as it does through the work of Giselle Stanborough and Sally Rees who were also recipients of the Fellowship. How has the work and spirit of Katthy informed your thinking as an artist? Was she someone that you looked to when you were more emerging in your career, or is her practice – especially connected to this opportunity – something that you’ve thought about actively? Has it shaped your thinking in any way?

FB: Katthy has been a big presence in my life for over two years now. I see that there are many differences between our practices, but she led me to new understandings of my own work. It was a huge privilege for The Katthy Cavaliere Foundation to give me this opportunity. To go deep with a project was unlike anything else I have experienced. It was life changing, life affirming.

In my research I read Katthy’s diaries which are held in the Art Gallery of New South Wales archives. This profoundly affected me. The diaries were her practice. Their emotional force and their immediacy collapsed public and private, intimate and exposed, internal and external. These diaries initiated a type of porosity between Katthy and I. Prior to Meatus I didn’t think about any emotional narratives running through my work. But after experiencing how Katthy harnessed emotion in her work, I can see her impact on worm divinations. I consider there is a lot of emotional force behind this work – I was in a dark chapter of my life and the joy of working with Brian and Hayley pulled me through it. It is raw, a bit exposing, but perhaps that is ok.

AK: Meatus is an opening in more ways than one.

FK: Like I’m eviscerated. Schlupp! People often don’t know how to talk to my practice. But my work is simply about embodied practices, performance. Perhaps there is a murkiness in the outcome, in that it sits somewhere between performance, sound and video. But that murkiness is, I think, also a chance to corrupt, antagonize, or complicate how we might conceptualise a solo artist’s work and their ‘product.’

AK: Perhaps that murkiness also reflects how institutions engage with your mode of practice. How, for example, can institutions like ACCA engage with performance for an extended period of time?

I really loved that Jean Genet BBC clip that Brian references in the Roundtable – in which Genet refutes the idea of having to answer questions about himself succinctly. I think there is power sometimes in remaining ‘murky’.

FB: That’s what the performance Curator’s Talk is all about! It is this wormhole of a script. It collapses all my ideas, associations, influences, all of which have built this world of meatus. There is a refusal to answer. There is a refusal to succinctly explain myself. There is a refusal to cohere. It is a compost. And you are the worm. You need to do the work of eating, digesting and shitting it out. I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m offering you my meat compost. As the audience, or as the institution, you’ve got to be your own worm.

AK: Here is some fertile ground. Burrow in it.

FB: Exactly.

The above interview appears amongst a number of texts in the forthcoming publication, Frances Barrett: Meatus, as part of Suspended Moment: The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship series. For advance orders, please contact