Roundtable Conversation: Frances Barrett with Felix Abrahams, Nina Buchanan, Hayley Forward, Brian Fuata, Del Lumanta, Claudia Nicholson and Sione Teumohenga

This conversation took place in Stanmore, on Gadigal land, Sydney, on Thursday 27 February 2020. Hayley Forward contributed to the conversation on Friday 20 March 2020.

Frances Barrett (FB): To set the scene – we are sitting around a tiny kitchen table in Stanmore at my place. So a starting point for this conversation, as well as for the broader project, is simply the idea of listening. What is listening to each of you?

Brian Fuata (BF): I suppose in the context of contemporary art, which in my kind of work, as well as in recent art history, has been visual or eye-based, listening for me is about a decentering of senses, which then becomes a metaphor for an expansive practice of listening to voices that are minor or considered minor. Voices also meaning practices, or discourses, or communities.

Del Lumanta (DL): My practice intersects with both a DIY music and art world where there is a real tension between creativity and professionalism, so it can be quite fraught. I guess listening for me is a gateway to show how one positions themselves in the world; how one hears determines how you act towards others.

BF: It’s almost like listening to other apparatus and considering how that could then also become the way to institute other forms of structures and systems. Furthermore, I just wanted to add that another form of listening or another perception of listening for me is that I suppose it’s an antagonistic force in terms of how to rub against the primacy of, not so much sight per se, but the hegemonic force in which one thing is upheld over another. So, in terms of the sensorial case, it’s like sight has been given precedence over every other sense. All of the other senses or concepts are then considered minor. In that sense I metaphorise the idea of the sight, as a hegemonic kind of sense, to also include the way that institutions, whether academic or cultural, tend to flatten the other senses to legitimise themselves with the hegemonic sense. So how do we then make sound palatable for a context or a society that is so eye-focused? Do you know what I mean? And it’s a constant wrestle in terms of how not to then create an ‘eyesight version’ of a sound piece.

DL: Yeah, within that context, and now working on this project, I have recognised that there are also other hierarchies. Is your access to technology and being able to pan a sound around the room more ‘sound art’ than someone who doesn’t have the same access?

BF: Totally.

Hayley Forward (HF): Listening is an active process that you undertake and a way of being open and letting information filter into your mind and body. You can listen in two ways: you can listen and then – with what is hitting you, and entering you, and how you are deciphering that information – it can either be a way of understanding and empathising with another person’s experience, or it can be a means of feeling your own experience of that sound, or your own physical and emotional response to the audio waves… whether that sound is music, or someone shouting, or the wind. Sometimes I feel like you can sit back and let it come onto you and have a reaction through your body, and other times it is a way of reaching across and connecting to someone else’s experience.

Nina Buchanan (NB): I often think about listening as like a process of change. It does definitely indicate a hierarchy. Listening is always an implied dynamic and hierarchy of who is listening to who. With this project, I think it became a lot about how – by actually listening – it’s like opening yourself up also. Opening yourself to taking in information of some kind and absorbing it. I’ve actually found it quite weird working with installation, because I’ve never actually done that. It is really different to live performance, where there is an immediacy when I perform. Thinking of it as being installed at ACCA, in this structure for a month, it’s been freaking me out. It’s like oh, it’s going to be there, and it’s going to be continuous. It’s really removed from performance in a way… I don’t have a super embodied mode of performance, but you are still there, having a direct relationship with the people that are listening.

BF: It’s like a live physic exchange.

NB: Yeah.

BF: I think what I hear you talking about is the challenges of fixity, and how the fixity of the installation and the museum itself needs to hold the object of our mediation.

NB: Yeah, and it’s funny, because I do recordings. But that’s still more personal because it’s like you can imagine people listening on headphones or in their homes… There is something different about being fixed to the site.

FB: Have you been considering the audience differently as well?

NB: Yeah. I don’t know what they’re going to do. And it feels weird to not witness how they’re going to interact, unless I am there all the time which of course I am not going to be.

FB: Maybe that leads into how people have approached ACCA both as a site and as an arts institution. Has that idea shifted your approach to making work?

NB: Initially, before I started freaking about it being a fixed installation, I was really interested in the scale of ACCA, which I guess is the most obvious thing because it is really different to most places where you might perform or listen to music. Obviously, there are big halls and things, but it’s the height of ACCA particularly; a small room with huge height is quite unusual. With my installation I wanted to play with that, as well as the idea of left and right, which suggests the positioning of our ears on either side of our head. I like the way that different shapes within the ACCA galleries might suggest different ways of listening to sound moving in a space.

BF: That’s so fascinating because for this work, in particular, the installation and the whole economy and conceptual nature of the institution is kind of making an object of out of our ‘liveness’, right? We’ve now actually taken on the space of the institution. The way that you described the room just then was like describing your body, and it becomes a really interesting nexus of how our liveness would normally be perceived as the raw version of this fancy ACCA version. Do you know what I mean? I’m normally just a 40-year-old man with a white sheet over me. Now I’m in 39 speakers. I guess in terms of the question regarding what our role is within the institution and how have we perceived the institution, I think the punk in all of us are probably like: “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.” But then, at the same time, it’s amazing how insidiously entwined and enmeshed we then become, because I suppose that is just the nature of performance to have its liveness, it’s ephemerality, bleed into whatever context we find ourselves in.

FB: Sione, you’ve been quiet. Do you want to reflect on listening or how you’ve approached the space?

Sione Teumohenga. (ST): My first response to the question of what is listening, is that to me it’s a form of spatial awareness, it’s about understanding space. For me, intuitively, that’s a very physical thing but I think it can also be a metaphorical question of how we respond to and understand each other. The way I’ve thought about sound and music for a long time, and especially for this project, has been to approach it from almost putting space first and considering that before I create anything. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, to make a composition completely based around a space, and I feel with this project that I’ve been able to take that idea all the way.

FB: Could you talk about how your work particularly works with the body and how that imprints onto the sound itself. Could you talk about what that imprint is a little?

ST: When we hear a sound, we don’t just hear the sound itself. We hear the space the sound happens in. And naturally if we are hearing that sound, we are physically a part of that space. So we’re hearing our relationship with the sound, and with the space, and with our body in the space, all at once. I wanted to provoke that awareness through my composition if I could, and make people feel with their body, and feel the space. So that was my attitude in approaching this work.

FB: Felix, I was wondering could you talk to the actual set up and also what makes ACCA a difficult sound, or rather difficult space, sonically?

Felix Abrahams (FA): I think your accidental word in there of what makes ACCA a difficult sound is an interesting one. Because in some sense, that’s the fundamental issue of any space: do you describe it as difficult or do you describe as useful? Going back to Sione’s questions ‘what is the space doing, what am I doing in the space, and what’s my relationship with that space?’, I see sounds in two sections personally. One is a philosophical manner more in the vein of what everyone else has been talking about: that it’s another dimension of the world we live in that is generally ignored but which enhances our appreciation of what we experience on a daily basis. Even just the mechanics of how we hear and how sound waves work is information that we just don’t get through other senses. I think that it is really important not to discard the things that are more subtle and beyond our reach, and to try and hold onto them even if we don’t understand them, to give ourselves the chance to try to understand. So in a philosophical sense, that’s what I think about. Then in the more, I guess, engineering sense, I see sound as a form of communication. I think, as a matter of respect, that whatever the message is, the medium should, as much as able, facilitate that message, hold it, and translate it as cleanly as possible. Obviously, it can’t not have an effect on what the message is purely by the fact of holding it, but for me, trying to understand what that message is and creating a communication pathway that respects it, is what I try to do. That will change from project to project, or work to work, or space to space, because the message will be different every time. Even if it’s the same set, or the same musician, or the same band from one space to the next space, it’s not the same communication system. It might be a very similar message but it’s a different communication system required to faithfully hold that. And so coming back to ACCA and your question – is it a difficult space? It’s a space, and we’ve chosen to put some communication in there, some messages that represent certain ideas, so I have to consider how to work with the space, and how to create a system that holds that message in that space. Part of it is understanding what space is, and ACCA is made up of different spaces, all of which have a sense of hugeness about them on varying scales. None of them are symmetrical spaces. It’s not a perfect space for a perfect solution, and I think that’s also in the vein of the projects overall: it’s not about perfection, it’s about exploration, at least insofar as I hear it. From the outset, I’ve really thought about ACCA as a blank slate that allows works to be positioned within it, whilst also acknowledging the space for what it is, which is quite reverberant, with some hard surfaces in it. You’re not, without a lot of money and effort, going to overcome that stuff. And that’s not really on the table, and it hasn’t been for the duration of the project. We’re going to have work with what’s in the space and I’ve really tried to think about how sonically and then also electrically, I guess, the actual componentry needs to come together in order to be in the space effectively. I need to consider how to transmit sound effectively in a highly reverberant big space, and also how to allow for process to happen for the work as it develops. Instead of developing a system in that space, and trying shoehorn all the work into it, I want to allow the system to be an open-ended thing, to accept anything that is incoming, and then be guided into the space sonically through the speaker layout.

BF: Amazing. I loved everything you said just then. It’s so improvisational, and I love the fact that you choose not to pathologize the building. You go, yeah, no, ACCA isn’t difficult, it’s just like every building. Every person has a different facility of sound. So how do we then negotiate a system where the medium is the message? Then ensure that we’re not colonising the space with our thing but working with the natural qualities. It’s so cool, so queer.

FB: In terms of improvisational, I was thinking maybe Del, that’s a very specific mode of your install. Could you talk to that idea?

DL: I just see it as a way of allowing myself to follow my intuition. I try to come into different spaces and really work through any interests or hang-ups that I might have, and those might not even be with the space itself. Generally, they aren’t the main focus, it becomes more about the people experiencing the work and how generous they might be. So when performing in institutional contexts, I often improvise, because I’m like, ‘I don’t know who’s going to walk in the door…’ It can depend on the kind of the effort that I want to put in too. I question if I want to make sounds where I have to perform something fantastical to feel understood by an audience, or do I just want to do what I want? In those moments, it’s about having freedom and acknowledging what the space is and who is in it. There have been times where I’ve been quite surprised by who shows up and that causes the performance to change. I might get somewhere and be quite nervous and think, ‘I’m just going to play the bare minimum’, but then it changes when I interact with people. Whether they are sound techs or artists, other staff, or the first people you meet when entering a space. So I think it’s just really intuitive, and I feel that I take in more lessons when I do that.

NB: Improvising is a form of listening.

BF: Totally.

NB: It’s like if you turn up to gig with a perfectly prepared set, you’re always going to be just putting your stuff onto a space. But when you’re improvising, you are actually interacting with who and what is happening there.

BF: It’s energy management.

DL: Yeah. I think that also speaks to certain projects where I just make stuff up if I don’t feel like anything that I’m currently working on is relevant. When considering my practice, people often know me through my community work, so I don’t know what to do when I’m taken out of that context. Then I think, ‘I can do whatever’, and I’ll just make a new project. So it’s a form of play…

FB: Can I ask you what you mean by community-based work as opposed to your other practices?

DL: Well, I guess we’re talking about community art, so that’s like the skill-sharing workshops that I do. Also my involvement with community radio and organising within a DIY context. Generally I don’t think that people are truly interested in those practices. I’ve never come across an organiser that I didn’t know who hasn’t been motivated by super transactional interests, and that’s because community is like a buzzword at the moment, you know? When I think about community, I’m just thinking about me and my group of friends who have really genuine and nice exchanges with one other. We challenge each other, and we grow, or grow apart. But then community, in the way that institutions understand it when approaching me, is as ‘outreach’. I don’t think that is correct. There is a real disconnect in how I find that institutions understand community, and there is a lot of work to do around it. There is also a lot of forced inclusivity as this community word is being centred. It’s as though institutions think, ‘well, we’ve got to get all the brown people, all the queers, all the disabled people’, but the forced inclusivity doesn’t really do anything if those people can’t be empowered.

NB: It’s like they still have to be invited.

DL: Yeah, and what’s wrong with what folks are already doing things outside of institutions? Like it’s this invitation for you to come in and refine, and get paid but then go away… It’s still this transactional thing and I don’t think I care about that.

BF: Everything that you’ve raised regarding the market forces that shape ideas, including catch terms such as community, also describes the practice of improvisation as a continuous and perpetual disavowal of the fixity of the gallery or institution. I love this idea of how you define community as a group of friends, who grow together or grow apart. Which is the very nature of improvisation in that you assume harmony but also quite often [not]. I did a ghost performance quite recently that Frances came to check out. Then, halfway, Frances wondered, ‘does he want to be here?’. There was a moment when I flipped, and then I chose to be there. But within the umbrella of improvisation, what the audience might be reading psychically and energetically is this moment of discord, then connection, which then becomes a really interesting metaphor to describe queered centering of other sensorial practices and also other community engagements.

FB: Can I do a slight pivot in the conversation in terms of a lot of your work, Nina, which is around the collective listening experience and often how that relates to the queer community. Your work is very much grounded in emotion, sensation and intimacy. Could you talk about why intimacy and why emotion is a recurring thinking in your practice? But then also how that maybe relates to community and collectivity?

NB: Making music, for me, has always been like therapy. It’s always been a way of processing feelings, processing thoughts, and stuff that I’m not properly able to put into words. I might never be able to, or maybe it’s a way of trying to be able to. But often that’s not necessarily a goal. It’s not like I’m trying to…

BF: Find myself?

NB: Yeah. That’s been my attraction to music always. It has always just felt really mysterious. I have some theoretical understanding of music, but that has never really interested me. Often when I’m making music, even if it ends up being very fixed and composed, pretty much all my processes start with improvising. I’ll often improvise and then construct something from an improvisation. I think, similar to Del, a lot about intuition, about being in that state of letting it all out. Also just playing with sound in a really free way, and ending up with stuff that maybe doesn’t make sense, musically or sonically. What I love about electronic music as well, is that you can play around with things, and then be like: ‘I have no idea how I got this, and I could never do it again’. I think the other thing I really like about making music is its relationship to emotion. Music and sound, I think, can really hold a lot of complexity. It’s just felt, it doesn’t have to be explained. Then with performing, or having music in social situations, or with a public event, I think I really like that this can happen in a room full of people. And it’s as though everyone is experiencing something. When you go to a really great gig, you feel connected to people. You can go on your own, and you still feel connected, I guess I’m really interested in music as a way of bringing really disparate people together and forming community in a way that is without language. It is also, I feel, a way of avoiding this idea of including certain people, inviting certain people and groups, and like naming what it is. Even though of course music has language attached to it, I think that in its essence, it allows for a more open-ended and inclusive experience.

FB: Del, the other day you were speaking about the process and how listening was part of the process in which we all undertook. I was wondering if you could elaborate on what this process has been.

DL: Ahead of the residency, my approach was just to go in and to listen to everyone else.[1] So the piece that I have done is, less of a reaction or not something I prepared earlier, but an active response to the way that my peers have moulded how I have approached this space. My engagement and process with institutions is different to you, and you, and you, and everyone else in the room, when I listen to my peers talk about their approaches and experiences, it becomes a tool to make in that space. I’m not just on my own, making a work as a solitary individual. I feel that responds to the practice of listening, and specifically listening to someone complete their thought which is something that was nice to experience within the residency. A collective testing out their ideas. Being able to complete a thought is what I’m trying to get across in the piece. It meanders through variations of the same thing, the same three or four notes is really all I’m using. Hopefully, it allows others to be in that space and to be let into that space. For me that kind of experience in creating feels rare; being granted space to listen to someone finish their thought completely.

BF: Yeah, wow. For some reason I was thinking, as you were talking just then, of us – in terms of our relationship as artists to the institution – as squatters or something. You were just then making the work based on your fellow comrade squatters. Which is really interesting because if for that brief moment of squatting we become part of the institution, you are still technically making an institutionalised work but the actors of that institution are only there temporarily. Such a beautiful idea.

FB: Expanding on squatting – but maybe thinking of it more as parasites – Brian, I wondered if you could talk to the idea of the worm in our shared work and how that leads to improvisation, representation, collaboration.

BF: The worm has been an amazingly productive metaphor for improvisation as a practice of ingestion… it’s like waste being productive waste. It also queers the whole idea of shitting, right, being shitty, and instead the shitting becomes the work, it is the work. We were talking earlier about the play between the words composting and composition. It was like cool, I like this vibe, and the worm then becomes a conductor of this entire ecosystem, or whatever system, of generation and regeneration. And that regeneration is the place that this work comes out of. The worm is a really amazing improvisation tool. In the car the other day, Hayley, Frances and I we were talking about how there is a worm in all of us. Also the specific roles that we each play: Frances being the hand that feeds me, the worm, and Hayley being the sphincter that shapes the worm casting. Over the last few months, it’s become quite apparent that the three roles have actually switched and been more ambiguous. Not to say that there weren’t some private confusions in the early months when I thought: ‘I’m just the worm? Am I just being fed this stuff that my practice is then shaping?’ But I’ve now come to the realisation that there has been such a kind of elliptical shifting of the roles that truly feel as though they have been animated or energised by the improvisation or worminess of the project. That has infected everyone, I think. It’s probably important to also mention the heady stuff of the work’s thesis, and its academic-ness. But there is also the reality that underscoring that process has been these real spaces of us as feeling, emotional beings. That really is present in the work that we’ve produced. Not only has there been a formal laboratory of improvisation being used to degenerate contemporary art, it’s also been a way to ingest and compost intense emotional and psychological feelings at the time. It’s clearly apparent in the work.

FB: What was listening in our process, Hayley?

HF: Initially it was a sharing of information between us and then, when we got into the room together, it was a sharing of what you and Brian were talking about verbally, which then moved into another mode of communication that was a sort of feedback loop. Once Brian started making noises I really just tried to be in my body as much as possible and feel listening, closing my eyes and feeling whatever was being put at or on me, whatever Brian created, and push into that, try to respond, and extend it. Whatever he was creating I’d try to extend, elongate or amplify, and I don’t just mean in a special effects sense, I mean in terms of the actual experience of that sound. So I would push something back at him and, straight away, like a feedback loop, he would begin responding and pushing further into that sound by making it ring out more, or changing his rhythm to fit it, which then again came back at me. So it was this constant feedback cycle between myself and Brian. When we were doing that it wasn’t intellectual. Because we had done the intellectual prep beforehand we knew where we were trying to head. I tried stepping away from intellectualising the process to make it more about the sharing of sound, and the disintegration and manipulation of sound, through layers and layers of feeding things back to each other – back and forth, back and forth. You were in the room too, so of course I would look across at you and get a gauge as to whether you were going there with us or not. When we listened back at the end of that process, knowing what it was like to have been in the studio in that immediate sense, listening back became a critical chance to question ‘what has translated, or has it translated?

FB: How do you anticipate audiences will experience Meatus as a whole?

HF: What I think the work does, what I hope it does, what we’ve aimed to do through this whole process, is allow for both parts of listening at once: conceptually and intellectually, or viscerally and physically. I hope the audience can listen to it in multiple ways.

FB: So how have you interpreted Meatus? For me, I was trying to work out what Meatus was through the process, and I think that everyone involved has their own idea of what Meatus is and have either worked with or against their understandings. What are you left thinking about Meatus?

HF: I feel like there are meatus that lie between you and I, Brian and I, and you and Brian. When we are in the meatus, our whole process has been a messy meeting of open wounds, not in a sad way, but as a sharing back and forth between separate vessels. I have consumed a lot of the reading that you have sent, and it immediately echoes so much of what I already have thought about, or conceptualised or philosophised over the years about what originally drew me to sound. There was that article we all read where it discusses the ear as an open wound, and I don’t see an open wound as a negative thing, but it is an opening that cannot be closed. I love the idea of extending the experience of listening, like reaching with your ear or listening with your limb. I was always thinking of Meatus as something that we consume; as a feeling, emotional or sexual desire. I was thinking of it in a philosophical sense and then I thought about how that comes back to listening… Then I was like oh my god, I got it!

FB: Even though I don’t want to phrase this project as queer art, or queer listening, that has been a previous focus, and Brian, Nina, Hayley, Felix and I have all worked on projects which have had that as a framework. Is it productive to think about queer art, or queer practices, or queer spaces, or do we need to start employing other languages around that kind of thing? Is queer a necessary or vital framework now, or is it not?

DL: Watching queerness become mainstream has often induced these really chafing moments where I’m just like: ‘urrggghhh!’ As a younger person, I would hold on to that stuff, but now I’m just like, ‘nah, queer problems are universal problems.’

BF: I think so too. Granted there have been the bright lights of queer art, but I think it might actually be more queer not to mention its queerness.

Claudia Nicholson (CN): Also it is easier not to be tokenised by the institution when you don’t lead with it. Then you resist them leading with it.

BF: Yeah, exactly, because otherwise they become the mouthpieces and you’re like: ‘No. What? We’ve just made you a queer trinket for your Christmas tree?’ No thanks!

NB: It feels more powerful at this stage, I think, to just to be innate and for it to not be explicit.

DL: I think being invisible where you can be is very powerful.

BF: Jean Genet demonstrated in a 1985 BBC interview, where he turned the cameras onto the crew operating them, that placing himself on the margins is where he preferred to be. [Centering queerness or marginality] just throws us on the cultural branding Lazy Susan… perhaps then the concept of digestion in all its bodily processes and processing is applied to how we come to understand a given subject.

[1] In 2019 the artists undertook a 1-week residency at Artspace, Sydney, to develop the commissioned works.

The above roundtable 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