Frances Barrett was researching the structure of the human ear when she came across “meatus”, a term referring to any passageway into the body. For an artist and curator whose work has often focused on performance, sound and listening, that single word sparked a thought process that would inspire – and name – her next exhibition.

“It made me think about listening,” says Barrett. “Not just centred in the ear, but diffused across the body. The meatus became a metaphor for me to think about listening as a nexus of senses, responses and intensities.”

Those ideas are laced throughout her experiential new show, also called Meatus, at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). The Adelaide-based artist curated a venue-wide sound installation that conceives of the gallery’s spaces as a meatus, with separate compositions all designed to blend into one another. In a what’s becoming a tradition of transforming the space for an exhibition, ACCA will be fully given over to Barrett’s immersive concept, drawing attention away from visual stimulus and toward the act of listening.

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After what Barrett describes as “alarm-like incursions into the sound environment”, courtesy of artist collective Debris Facility in the foyer, Gallery 1 features experimental and vocal compositions developed by Barrett with Brian Fuata and Hayley Forward. The other galleries present compositions from sound artists Del Lumanta, Sione Teumohenga (aka Lonelyspeck) and Nina Buchanan, all playing on a loop. There will be live performances from some of those artists on April 2, the exhibition’s opening night, and leading local sound art organisation Liquid Architecture will contribute additional programming later in the run.

At the exhibition, visitors can choose their own adventure, deciding how long they’ll spend with each element. “For me, an important aspect is that people feel free to traverse the space,” says Barrett. “[And] the idea of the listener experiencing different sounds at the same time and trying to decipher them. That bleed and leak also speaks to the collaborative process of working on the project.”

As the former co-director of Sydney’s Serial Space, an initiative focused on experimental sounds and performance art, Barrett developed a lasting interest in sonic practices. She has since completed a PhD at Monash University and is now a lecturer in contemporary art at the University of South Australia. “I’m thinking about sound and listening as part of a queer and feminist methodology of art-making and curating,” she says. “For me, listening is a way to consider embodied and relational practises.”

Meatus was made possible through Suspended Moment: The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship, which Barrett received in 2019, allowing her to work on a larger scale than ever before. (Honouring the legacy of the late Italian-Australian multi-disciplinary artist Katthy Cavaliere, the $100,000 prize has also funded works in other cities by Sally Rees and Giselle Stanborough.) Barrett has since completed a vocal and performance-centred video work called A Song for Katthy that will be presented as part of a planned Suspended Moment tour.

Of course, between 2019 and now, Covid-19 arrived to scuttle the opening of Meatus for two years. The exhibition was all ready to go, having been developed over 18 months through collaborative residencies at Sydney’s Carriageworks, Melbourne dance company Chunky Move, Adelaide gallery Vitalstatistics and Sydney’s Artspace. While the work hasn’t changed in form since the pandemic, Barrett is now thinking in new ways about how people react to other peoples’ bodies, and their own, in a shared space.

“For me it’s about spending time with this work and focusing on the experience of listening,” she says. “The texture of the space is really important: you’ll be able to sit down on the carpet and spend time in there. The idea of being able to sit and touch and feel the work is all-important.”

Meatus runs from Saturday April 2 through Sunday June 19, 2022. Entry to the exhibition is free and accessible to all.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of ACCA.