Title:
Meatus, Frances Barrett
Author:
Tara Heffernan
Date:
27.07.22

“When desire is entirely on the side of demand, when it is operationalised without restriction, it loses its imaginary and, therefore, its reality; it appears everywhere, but in generalised simulation. It is the ghost of desire that haunts the defunct reality of sex”.1
Jean Baudrillard

“We live in highly religious, puritanical times, despite believing that, post 68, we rid our society of the worst of its so-called ‘sexual repressions’. We project the repressed parts of ourselves and our social order out onto others in orgasmic collective ecstasies .... In an era of apparent sexual liberation, we have never been so mired in command and regulation in the ways in which we relate to those that we desire”.2
Helen Rollins

On a cold morning in early April, curator Frances Barrett delivered an experimental talk on her exhibition Meatus (2 April 2022 – 19 June 2022), a sound-based, immersive project realised at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). As Barrett spoke, Sydney-based artist Brian Fuata stalked through a Covid-sparse treescape of poor posture inclined toward the centre of the gallery, punctuating the reading with shrill cries and feigned coprolalia. Barrett spoke of the meatus—a term that refers to the openings and passages of the body such as the urethra, the ear canal and the nostrils—as a wormhole and a site of “bleeding and leaking” between bodies.3 Barrett framed this conflation—of ears, wounds, cunts and anuses of the amorphous meatus—as a form of queer political imagining premised on poetic collapse.4 Embodying this boundaryless poetics, the curator’s talk “bled” into a performance by Fuata, which grew to a crescendo of guttural echoes and panting with the absence of coherent speech. While emitting vulgar noises resembling those one might make when faking sexual pleasure, or mocking the idea of it, Fuata’s movements were erratic and frenzied. However, he was careful not to step on the hands or feet of any of the patient, cross-legged audience members clad in designer denim overalls, wire rimmed glasses and Y2K apparel that looks as unflattering on average people today as it did the first time around.5

Frances Barrett featuring Brian Fuata, Curator’s Talk, 2022, performance documentation, part of Frances Barrett, Meatus, 2022, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photo by Keelan O’Hehir. Courtesy of the artists.

Brian Fuata, live performances, 2022, performance documentation, part of Frances Barrett, Meatus, 2022, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photo by Keelan O’Hehir. Courtesy of the artists.

This talk was part of a public program of live events scheduled for the duration of the exhibition. This iteration featured artists exhibited in Meatus, including Fuata, Hayley Forward, Nina Buchanan and Sione Teumohenga. Outside these programmed events, the gallery is virtually empty, only inhabited by audio speakers looping sound artworks. The entire exhibition is dedicated to “expanded performance art” (art that de-centers live performance).6 Barrett explained this privileging of the audial as a method of collapsing “all distinctions between the mouth, the ear—all those other holes and openings of the body” in order to “propose a notion of listening that de-centres the ear and uses the entire body”, making sound “a form of touch”.7 Rather than merely audial, these works aim to engage the undefined, multiplicitous “meatus” and therefore blur sensory experiences—a gesture Barrett describes as “queer relationality”.8

Detail of entrance to Frances Barrett, Meatus, 2022, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photo by Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artists.

While this evaporation of boundaries may offer a seductive premise, the bodily metaphor of Meatus is heavy handed. To enter, you must weave through a plastic strip-curtain, the kind you see at a butcher’s shop patinaed with fingerprints and oily residue. In the gallery, the curtain is pristine like stiff translucent silk. Passing through these sterile ribbons necessitates touch. The body is momentarily engulfed as it enters another space, an experience intended to emulate the penetration of a bodily cavity, or a meatus.

Installation view of Frances Barrett, Hayley Forward and Brian Fuata, worm divination (segmented realities), 2020, immersive sound environment, 32:30 mins, featured in Frances Barrett, Meatus, 2022, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photo by Andrew Curtis. Courtesy of the artists.

Technology

In the context of Performance Review, a publication dedicated to performance art, Meatus proposes a series of compelling conundrums. Firstly, it should be noted that the eschewal of the body, in an expanded definition of performance art that seeks to leave corporeality behind, mirrors broader tendencies in technocapitalism where bodily sensations are activated by and through technology in lieu of real physical contact, or, as an automated upgrade. The proliferation of ASMR, elaborate sex toys, VR porn, electric massagers, phallic revving gardening tools and haptic advertising demonstrates multisensory stimulation’s predominance in the consumer landscape where it satisfies sensuous appetites, sublimates sexual energies and contributes to an insidious dematerialisation of intimacy.

The Body

In line with these tendencies, we can read Meatus’s emphasis on the body as a telling example of how sexuality is processed in a hypersexualised and stiflingly regulated technoculture. We live in a pornified age. Sex is available on demand via apps and hardcore pornography and is indulged in unrestrained spectacles on mainstream and social media. Meanwhile, sex and sexuality are highly regulated and surveilled. Dating habits and gender relations are subject to dogmatic rules, while the language and ideas we can express regarding desire and the body face an untenable degree of scrutiny—a poor attempt at regulating the excesses of sexual freedom that goes hand in hand with the commodification of desire. These realities have a detrimental impact on intimacy and undermine a nuanced understanding of erotic life. The sexual repression suffered under this woke puritanism manifests in many socio-cultural forms. One prominent example is the creation of mythologies around desire that obfuscate its dangerous, abject reality while simultaneously posing a dubious emancipatory promise of transcendence. Meatus serves as a compelling embodiment of this phenomenon—a quasi-religious spectacle that conjures the body through technology and audial experience.

Installation view of Frances Barrett, Hayley Forward and Brian Fuata, worm divination (segmented realities), 2020, immersive sound environment, 32:30 mins, featured in Frances Barrett, Meatus, 2022, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photo by Andrew Curtis. Courtesy of the artists.

The impossibility of the clean ordering of desire reveals itself in the exhibition program. For instance, also featured on the opening weekend was a short noise piece by Sione Teumohenga. Producing a sequence of ominous growling reverberations from their guitar, Teumohenga inevitably evoked the phallic associations of rock and roll music, commonly considered (or decried) as a conduit for aggressive masculine energy. These guttural chords resemble the obnoxious revving of an engine, a gesture often attributed to loutish men eager to impose themselves and their aggressive masculinity onto others, entering surrounding bodies not only via a sonic violation, but also an intense pulsating—sometimes nauseating—full body reverberation generated by their phallic, machinic gnarl. One might interpret this as a queer embrace of aural phallic language—an appropriation of macho-coded cultural expression. However, we might ask, is the vulgar lad in the street really that different from the musician/artist producing a “haptic encounter” via a “queer methodology”? Though separated by the context of the art gallery and the buffer of queer theory, both are expressions of libidinal energy, even if one is framed as art and the other vulgarity.

Sound

In line with Meatus’s privileging of sound, music has long served as a channel for libidinal energy in both religious and secular cultures. Dan Graham expertly explored this in his video-essay Rock my Religion, 1984 where he traced the importance of music from the Puritan sect The Shakers to late twentieth century rock subcultures. The former worshipped through lively, ecstatic dance. Their jerking movements apparently evidenced the entry of the Holy Spirit into the body and provided a collective release in lieu of sex, which was prohibited.9 “Take off your dress, I’ll shake off your flesh”, Kim Gordon repeatedly wails as scenes of a mosh pit are intercut with images of Shakers and workhouses, a juxtaposition linking the Puritan’s dance with suburban teenagers’ Dionysian thrashing ritual. This frenzied energy—a sublimated sexual energy—echoes that which is cultivated by Barrett and her collaborators in the more stirring moments of Meatus.

Detail of Frances Barrett, Hayley Forward and Brian Fuata, worm divination (segmented realities), 2020, immersive sound environment, 32:30 mins, featured in Frances Barrett, Meatus, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2022. Photo by Andrew Curtis. Courtesy of the artists.

Desire

It should be noted that, perfectly in line with Meatus’s championing of a “queer political imagining”, the market system is already invested in assigning an emancipatory politics to desire that is, or has historically been, oppressed. This is not to liberate othered subjects, even if this benevolent motivation is claimed, but to create new markets based on identity categories. While the term phallus is not mentioned, it haunts the exhibition. Perhaps inadvertently, Barrett appears to pose the meatus as a queer, amorphous alternative to the phallus. And yet—despite the obfuscating rhetoric put forward in the curator’s talk—the obsessive discussion of holes, worm-hunger, penetration and the “sonic force” of the body all reflect a chaotic and aggressive sexual imaginary. This is the abject reality of desire, regardless of preference or identity. To quote filmmaker Helen Rollins, “There is no human desiring subject beyond antagonism, beyond the abject, beyond the chaotic. We are all queer ... desire operates on a logic of uncontainability”.10

What is uncontainable is messy: it spills and leaks and soils. Often overlooked when “special knowledge” is (mis)attributed to a particular group’s desire is the reality that blind indulgence is inherently dangerous. In the curator’s talk, Barrett references William S. Burroughs’ description of homoerotic desire as “blind worm hunger to enter the other’s body”.11 This sentiment resonates with Barrett’s evocation of the worm and the wormhole as models for thinking about uncharted desire and the worm’s compost as a product that dissolves “the integrity of the body”.12 Casting metaphor aside, nothing dissolves “the integrity of the body” quite like the bullet Burroughs shot through his wife Joan Vollmer’s skull during a “drunken mishap” in Mexico City in 1951. Particularly in a post-Epstein climate, Burroughs’ transgressions shouldn’t be underestimated. Like his friend Allen Ginsberg, a leading beat poet and member of the North American Man/Boy Love Association—a group that advocated for the legalisation of sexual relations between adults and children—Burroughs had a life-long predilection for teenage boys.13 14 Wormholes are made by worms. Worms are wormy. Seductive language sometimes advocates for a dangerous indulgence in the id.

  1. Jean Baudrillard, Seduction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979; reis.,1990), p.5.

  2. Helen Rollins, “The Devils and Repression”, 21 May 2021, The Lack (podcast),

  3. Frances Barrett, Curator’s Talk, (Melbourne: Monash University and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2022), p.5.

  4. Barrett, Curator’s Talk, p.5.

  5. In this scene, however, the effect recoups that coveted camp aesthetic which prises an acceptable degree of ugliness as an imagined revolt against apparently conventional (and therefore unsophisticated and problematic) heteronormative desirability.

  6. Expanded performance “moves beyond the body- or live-centered performance”, to include “objects, audio and video”, while “the performative is sometimes redirected towards the audience”. Stroom Den Haag, “Expanded Performance Art”, e-flux, published 12 September 2012,

  7. Frances Barrett, “Interview: Frances Barrett on connecting through art and her new show Meatus”, Art Guide Australia, published 31 March 2022,

  8. Barrett, “Interview: Frances Barrett on connecting.”

  9. Marcia B. Siegel, The Shapes of Change: Images of American Dance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp.59-60.

  10. Helen Rollins, “Atame and Desire”, 7 August, 2021, The Lack (podcast),

  11. William Burroughs quoted in Barrett, Curator’s Talk, p.23.

  12. Barrett, Curator's Talk, p.21.

  13. For a summary of Ginsberg’s advocacy and role within the NAMBLA, consult G. Cledwyn Jenkins, Banished: A comprehensive Look into the Mind and Soul of the Sex Offender (Irvine: Brown Walker Press, 2020), p.60; In “Letter C”, a letter written in 1955 addressed to Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Burroughs speaks about watching schoolboys: “I am getting sexy, come three times last night. The Italian school is just opposite, and I stand for hours watching the boys…”. He also boasts about paying young boys to have sex in front of him: “Did I ever tell you about the time Marv and I paid two Arab kids sixty cents to watch them screw each other … So I asked Marv: “Do you think they will do it?” and he says: “I think so. They are hungry”. They did it. Made me feel sorta like a dirty old man”. William S. Burroughs, “Letter C”, The American Reader,

  14. A former lover of Burroughs and Ginsberg details their affairs in Luke Malone, “The Teenage Boyfriend of the Beat Generation Tells All”, Vocativ, 2014,

This text responds to the Saturday 2 April 2022 opening performances by Frances Barrett, Brian Fuata and Sione Teumohenga associated with Frances Barrett, Meatus, 2022, The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne and was edited by Performance Review board member Diego Ramírez.

Tara Heffernan is a blind art historian currently completing a PhD (Art History) at the University of Melbourne on the work of post war Italian artist Piero Manzoni. Her academic work focuses on global modernism and the avant-gardes with an interest in their ongoing aesthetic and political relevance to contemporary debate. She is a regular contributor to Melbourne’s MeMO Review.

Performance Review acknowledges the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we operate. We pay our respects to their Elders; past, present and emerging and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.