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When I Joined a Reading Group


by Gabrielle Bergman

Earlier this year I joined an art theory reading group. In between work commitments, navigating a pregnancy, completing a second university degree and managing an interstate relocation, I was determined to find time to meet with a group of students to learn and engage in art discourse for the pure purpose of pleasure. Programmed by the George Paton Gallery, this unique opportunity was hosted by writer Cameron Hurst and artist David Attwood. We came together over the course of a few months to discuss two books: Doing Feminism by Anne Marsh (2021) and Homework by Snack Syndicate (2021). The sessions were exploratory and informal and presented an occasion to analyse, critique, praise and question the writing of both texts, while considering their contribution to the broader dialogue surrounding contemporary art.

I thoroughly enjoyed Marsh’s comprehensive account of Australia’s feminist art history; however, it was the loose and poetic writing in Snack Syndicate’s book Homework that was particularly inspiring. The twenty-seven short texts housed within the publication offered concepts and impressions about art and contemporary culture that could be applied to exhibitions around Australia.

Two chapters in particular—‘For FD’ and ‘For FKB’—provide close parallels to some of the themes explored in Frances Barrett’s Meatus exhibition, which, at that time, was on at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). The show was an extension of Barrett’s PhD project, completed at Monash University at the end of 2021. Meatus was developed in collaboration with fellow artists Hayley Forward, Brian Fuata, Nina Buchanan, Del Lumanta, Sione Teumohenga, and Debris Facility Pty Ltd, and curated by ACCA’s former Senior Curator, Annika Kristensen. This collaborative body of work utilised sound and light to create an immersive and sensory response to the title ‘Meatus.’ The voluminous gallery was flooded with red lighting and speakers were arranged in each of the rooms as a kind of sculptural installation, looping through recorded sound works.

Pronounced mee-ay-tus, this term is defined as an opening passage or canal (think mouth, nose, ear canal, anal passage et cetera) leading to the internal environment of the body. Barrett describes the exhibition’s overarching form as replicating the segmented body of a worm.1 Audience members pass through a clear PVC curtain made up of plastic strips that would typically feature in an industrial factory setting, before moving through four sonic compositions separated within each of the gallery spaces. The first room contains worm divinations (segmented realities) 2020, by Barrett, Fuata and Forward. The three adjacent rooms feature Untitled 2020, produced by Lumanta; Untitled 2020, belonging to Teumohenga; and Body Scanner 2021, by Buchanan. Debris Facility’s multi-faceted contribution EarWorm—laser cut adornments, vinyl decals, digital and sound interventions—sits discreetly in architectural gaps across the entire gallery.

Chapters ‘For FD’ and ‘For FKB’ encounter similar themes expressed within the exhibition. ‘For FD’ considers the notion of ‘touch’ and draws upon writing of Lisa Robertson in Magenta Soul, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, and Gordon Hall in Reading Things , to introduce a more nuanced understanding of this sensory experience. Snack Syndicate propose that ‘touch’ is a multifaceted sensation that incorporates texture, encounters
and affect (the idea that while you are touching you are also being touched). Touch is a method of identifying and, as such,
it has the potential to allow us to overcome assumptions and
to see things differently. ‘For FKB’ looks at the significance
of the mouth and discusses its capacity for visceral and bodily functions with reference to Michel Serres’ book The Parasite, Silvia Federici’s text Caliban and the Witch and Divya Victor’s publication Things to Do with Your Mouth. The concept of queering senses, overcoming assumptions, expanding definitions, exploring corporeal and bodily attributes and functions, are themes that can also be identified within Meatus.

In the spirit of Snack Syndicate’s first chapter, ‘Endless Study’, I feel encouraged to accept their invitation to pursue continuous learning by annotating their own notes, footnotes and references; applying their ideas, and the ideas of their sources, to Barrett’s recent exhibition. This annotated bibliography allows me to find links and test concepts to inspire further opportunity for art discourse beyond my reading group.

Robertson, Lisa. Magenta Soul Whip.
Toronto: Coach House Books, 2005.

Utopia is so emotional.
I’m speaking of the pure sexual curves Of utopia, the rotation
Of its shadows against the blundering In civitas.

This passage has been lifted from the poem A Hotel (after
Oscar Niemeyer) and is used as the epigraph of chapter ‘For FD’. The poem forms part of a series of ‘verses, essays, confessions, reports, translations, drafts, treatises, laments and utopias’ that make up Lisa Robertson’s book Magenta Soul Whip.2

The poem studies the complexities of life and living. From the fringes of the city, the protagonist witnesses, experiences and desires a feeling of pleasure within the urban expanse—taking place amongst its roads, its buildings, its skin —where people laugh, listen to music and swim with friends. They acknowledge the shadows of this proposed utopia from the confines of the ‘hotel’, which is paradoxically characterised by suffering and careless errors.

Robertson’s verses are beautiful and contradictory. When I consider the inclusion of this epigraph in Snack Syndicate’s text, I determine that its significance lies in the poem’s ability to use language to obscure reality and create an encounter with not-knowing.

This encounter with uncertainty resonates with my experience of Barrett’s exhibition. To illustrate this point, I consider the artwork worm divinations (segmented realities) located in the main gallery. The sonic intervention includes language in a way that is also non-linear and abstracted. It functions as a worm that has ingested a text, sound and a score.3 The worm breaks down this raw material, spitting it from the body in partially digested chunks. Sounds ‘shush’, ‘hum’, ‘wah’, ‘hole’, ‘mouth’ reverberate from speakers into the expansive gallery space.

The work asks for close listening to gain a sense of its meaning. Ultimately what we hear are unrecognisable fragments of processed texts from authors William Burroughs and Kathy Acker, director Antonin Artaud and the band Throbbing Gristle. Here, coherent sentences transform into vulgar, corporeal sounds that mimic the presence of the human body. Barrett, Fuata and Forward embrace the notion of not- knowing, leaving the audience to speculate what exactly they are listening to. Was that a sentence or a wail, a sexual intonation or a bodily one? Decipherability becomes purposefully obscured.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.
Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity.
Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Regarded as one of the forbears of queer theory, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was an American academic and literary critic. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity is a whirlwind of words, heavy with complex ideas of ‘nondualistic thought and pedagogy’ expressed through poetic prose.4 I feel somewhat out of my depth trying to absorb the content of her writing; however, I was intrigued by Snack Syndicate’s reference to Sedgwick’s idea of touch as ‘the embeddedness of texture and affect’ and was encouraged to press on.5

Sedgwick breaks down binaries and deconstructs aspects of our quotidian. I like that she expands our understanding of the senses. She plays with the idea that touching is also feeling and vice versa. Touching and feeling involve the sensation of texture and incorporates both the visual and the haptic. She employs examples such as the ‘brush-brush of corduroy trousers’ and the ‘crunch of extra-crispy chicken’ to exemplify the way in which texture evokes this blurring of senses.6

I identify this sensorial blurring in Barrett’s exhibition too. The sonic compositions extend beyond the sense of sound and engage the sense of touch, feeling and the presence of a body. Interestingly, in a roundtable discussion with fellow artists, Barrett makes a point not to create an ‘eyesight version’ of the piece as a way of resisting the precedence that sight takes over all other senses.7

The red lighting of the room helps to dull the sense of sight, consequently allowing the viewer to focus on the sound of the intervention. The vibration of the speakers creates an experience that feels tactile and textured. In the exhibition I hear the anatomic hum of the recordings reverberate around me and I feel as though the sound has been made to bend and warp through the space. I try to trace the sound to see exactly which speakers they are coming from and doing so prompts me to move around the room with a sense of purpose. Listening becomes a practice ‘diffused across the body’.8 Sound, ultimately, becomes an exploration of queerness as it blurs the senses and proposes a definition that is multifarious.

Hall, Gordon. ‘Reading Things.’
Sightlines, 8 August 2016, walkerart.org/magazine/gordon- hall-transgender-hb2-bathroom-bill.

After reading Hall’s text, I want to delve deeper into his idea of ‘slow reading’, an expression first coined in his 2012 essay, Object Lessons: Thinking Gender Variance through Minimal Sculpture. Hall uses a small piece of furniture known as a ‘slant step’ as an example of an object that encourages the audience to engage slowly when viewing art, ‘pulling apart the instantaneous act of assigning meaning to what we see’.9 The ‘slant step’ that Hall refers to, is an object that is too low to serve as a seat and too impractical to serve as a step, due to the fact that the ledge is slanted with a steep 45-degree angle towards the floor. Envision
a kind of angled footstool that might sit beneath a library desk, made of plywood and lined with an emerald green linoleum. The artists William Wiley and Bruce Nauman purchased this puzzling piece of furniture in 1965 and were intrigued by its intended purpose. The ‘anti-functional’ object went on to inspire several group exhibitions throughout California.

When entering the gallery foyer of ACCA, I was encouraged to engage in a similar process of ‘slow reading’. Tucked into the architectural gaps and interstitial spaces of the gallery are Debris Facility’s parasitic interventions, EarWorm. The term ‘earworm’ refers to that catchy soundbite that manages to get stuck in your brain, only to repeat itself over and over again. Debris Facility has produced worm-like iconography in reference to this phenomenon, expressing itself in the form of a pink vinyl decal on the front doors, bathroom mirrors and laser-cut aluminium adornments fixed to ACCA’s iconic ruddied and rusted entryways.

What could easily be dismissed as part of the gallery’s infrastructure and wayfinding graphics, does in fact form part of the Meatus offering. The worm-like graphics on the front entry and bathroom glazing share an uncanny similarity to glass safety marking decals, while the aluminium sculptural piece feels as though it could be a permanent fixture on the metal cladding. The discreet positioning and multi-faceted contribution encourage me to view the exhibition with the kind of attention and curiosity outlined in Hall’s article. I was made to challenge the ‘instantaneous act of assigning meaning’ to what I saw and sit with the artworks a little while longer to decipher their significance.

Serres, Michel. The Parasite.
Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

One day, at the table, at the very
Moment she put a morsel in her
Mouth, I yell that I see a hair:
She spits out the food on her plate;
I grab it and hungrily swallow it.

Michel Serres’ poem is the epigraph of chapter ‘For FKB’, which discusses the visceral qualities of the mouth. Serres’ quote contributes to the carnal language used within Snack Syndicate’s text and describes the mouth as a wet threshold for kissing, consuming and speaking. This mucous lined cavity is characterised by its social and biological function, as well as its sexual offering.
Serres’ quote is from the 2007 publication The Parasite, which compares human relationships to parasites subsisting on a host. In the chapter, ‘Confessed Meals’, Serres writes on consummation and appetite. Eating becomes a metaphor for our parasitic tendencies: stealing to eat, eating hungrily, eating with and without greed, eating sensually. The process of eating places emphasis on the mouth, an example of a meatus.

Much like The Parasite, Meatus is textured with a fleshy tactility: to consume, to digest, to decay and to decompose. The exhibition unfolds through the (metaphorical) internal passage of the body: the audience enters through the mouth and exits through to the anus. The red glow of the light suggests that we are standing in a vessel filled with warm blood. The sound recordings place emphasis on the internal processing of the human body; chewing, breathing, the movement of tissue and bone.

The Parasite contributes to a bodily dialogue that can be recognised within the exhibition. I believe that there is also an opportunity to unpack some of the relationship dynamics proposed in the text—such as the ‘parasite’ and the ‘host’—and apply this theoretical framework to the exhibition. Much like the other texts referenced within Homework, Serres introduces concepts that can be applied to the exhibition reading as a method of identifying new ideas, alternative perspectives and fostering an engaging art discourse.

Gabrielle Bergman is an emerging writer, curator and arts worker, with experience working in the commercial, not-for- profit and public gallery sector. With a background in Art History and Interior Architecture, Gabrielle is interested in contemporary art and multidisciplinary creative practices.

1. ‘Frances Barrett: Meatus Exhibition Kit,’ ACCA, accessed 24 August 2022, https://acca. melbourne/education/resources/ frances-barrett-meatus/.

2. ‘ROBERTSON, Lisa: Magenta Soul Whip,’ After 8 Books, accessed 27 August 2022, after8books.com/ magenta-soul-whip.html.

3. ‘Frances Barrett: Meatus Exhibition Kit,’ ACCA.

4. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Duke University Press, Durham, 2003, p. 1.

5. Snack Syndicate, Homework, Discipline, Melbourne, 2021,
p. 216.

6. Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, p. 15.

7. ‘Roundtable Conversation: Frances Barrett with Felix Abrahams, Nina Buchanan, Hayley Forward, Brian Fuata, Del Lumanta, Claudia Nicholson and Sione Teumohenga,’ ACCA, accessed 23 August 2022, https://acca. melbourne/roundtable-conversation/.

8. ACCA, Artist Frances Barrett speaks about her exhibition ‘Frances Barrett: Meatus (video), 19 May 2022, YouTube, https:// youtu.be/rBa6eT9ufZk.

9. Gordon Hall, ‘Reading Things,’ Sightlines, 8 August 2016, walkerart.org/magazine/gordon-hall-transgender-hb2-bathroom-bill.

BYLINE: Eating becomes a metaphor for our parasitic tendencies: stealing to eat, eating hungrily, eating with and without greed, eating sensually. The process of eating places emphasis on the mouth, an example of a meatus.