Come and get swallowed up by sound – but beware the earworms

When thinking about sound as an art form, music or sound effects might spring to mind; it tends not to be something we focus on in isolation. We also assume it’s all about the ear, when in fact sound can be experienced through the body – the reverberation of heavy bass at a gig is a prime example, or a sound that hits you in your gut.

Frances Barrett wants us to think about listening as a fully embodied experience. Her work Frances Barrett: Meatus is at ACCA.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Frances Barrett wants to change all that – her art practice explores how sound can be a bodily experience and her new show at ACCA, Frances Barrett: Meatus, puts it centre stage, with sound as performance.

In 2018, when Barrett was awarded the Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship, she took a deep dive into the physical process of hearing and looked at the anatomy of the ear. That’s when she discovered the acoustic meatus, an opening or a passage that leads into the interior of the body.

“We have them in our ear, in our nasal passages, in our urethra, so we have multiple meatus across our bodies, and each holds different sensations and functions,” she says. “The meatus made me think about [listening] not being singularly located in the ear. Listening is not necessarily just a function or practice of the ear – it can be diffused across our body.”

That thought inspired her to think about listening “as a nexus of senses”, something for the entire body, and decentralising the ear.

“You are not just hearing with your ears but responding with your gut,” says Barrett.Credit:Charles Dennington

ACCA commissioning curator Annika Kristensen says Barrett has taken quite a radical approach to dressing ACCA’s galleries. “It’s essentially sound, light and bodies in space,” she says, where often “the temptation is to fill it”.

Barrett knew the light and the sound would do the work of filling the galleries’ various spaces. It is unusual for ACCA as there are no objects to see, but sound becomes that object, says Kristensen.

The work in the main hall is the only one to features vocals. Barrett, together with Hayley Forward and Brian Fuata, made the work through a series of workshops. Fuata has a history of performance art, poetry and improvisation – the voice in the piece is his – while the sound design is mixed by Forward, whose background is in dramaturgy and sound design.

“[The three artists] describe this process as being akin to being worms: Frances was giving Brian and Hayley the raw compost, the raw ideas of what this work might be, with references including William Burroughs and Kathy Akker. She set the composty seeds for it. The idea was that Brian and Hayley, with their various skill sets, would ingest these references and spit them out however they came out,” Kristensen says. “It’s not necessarily a narrative, it’s more like an expulsion of some of this raw material.”

Presented via a surround sound system, the work in the main gallery has sound coming from different speakers at different times. “It’s not particularly loud, but it is quite bodily and physical. You feel like you are within the soundwork.”

Artists Nina Buchanan, Del Lumanta and Sione Teumohenga have created sound compositions for ACCA’s other galleries, while Debris Facility Pty Ltd has work for the gallery’s foyer. “Debris Facility Pty Ltd has a practice they describe as parasitical – it interrupts other people’s work, for want of a better word,” says Kristensen, conjuring the idea of earworms. “[It includes] decals on the windows and in the bathrooms and an alarm tone that goes off in the foyer; it complements and bleeds into the other works.”

It’s difficult to explain what Barrett does – even she says so. Earlier this year in Artlink magazine, she described her practice “as located in the conversational encounter”.

“These conversations are a cacophony. This cacophony sits outside of what can be readily articulated, and instead, sits in the realm of noise,” she wrote. “For me, this noise speaks to the feminist and queer potential of collaboration: ways of working together which are shared, entangled and committed, and processes that are embodied, affective and performative.”

Meatus was created as part of Suspended Moment: The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship, a suite of commissions, originally announced in 2018, to support Australian women artists working at the nexus of performance and installation.

Frances Barrett: Meatus is at ACCA until June 19.

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