Art We Heart: Frances Barrett

October 10th 2016


Frances Barrett, My Safe Word is Performance, 2014, 20min duration, live performance with Ivan Crozier as part of Restaging Restaging at Alaska Projects. Photo: Salote Tawale

Meet the Sydney artist who – after crawling in a circle for 12 hours – celebrates with a Nihari curry and beer. (It has to be Nihari, but she’s not picky with her drinks.)

Artists aren’t always known for their organisational skills, but Frances Barrett is killing it. She juggles solo performance ventures with her part in collective Barbara Cleveland Institute (fka Brown Council), as well as her role as Curator of Contemporary Performance at Campbelltown Arts Centre. She was also the host of FBi’s art and ideas show, Canvas, across 2014-15. In short, if you’re talking about the Sydney art scene, Barrett’s name will come up.

When describing her work, it’s easy to butcher the complexity of it. Why would a perfectly logical woman would watch the entirety of The Simpsons in one sitting? It’s not easy to explain. But that’s exactly what Barrett did in Box Set: a durational performance with friend and fellow BC Institute member, Kate Blackmore, as part of Verge Gallery’s 2013 Tele Visions exhibition.

Watching episode after episode, it took the artists eight full 24-hour days to complete the series. Not trying enough? They also took the binge one step further by fasting. Barrett’s works are often a means of testing her own limits, but it seems Indian food is her weakness – they’d treat themselves with a bit of Dahl at the end of each day.

But still the question remains: why?

Like much of Barrett’s work, Box Set was set in an ambiguous space between public and private spheres, forcing one to question personal behaviours like binge-watching TV as they enter an eye of scrutiny.

“A performance art piece should be an act which is as close to nothing as possible.” – Marina Abramovic

Abramovic’s words ring true in Barrett’s work, as she constantly considers how she can best reduce performance to the simplest of gestures and actions. Remaining glued to her chair during Box Set, Barrett presents totally mindless (albeit selective) consumption. She uses the body as her material to explore this – not just in terms of physical limits, but also the interactions between bodies and the concept of the body as a political object.


The 12-Hour Revolution2014, live performance, 12hr duration, live performance at Sydney Guild, Photo: Alex Wisser


In her 2014 work, The 12 Hour Revolution, Barrett again put her body to the test: repetitively crawling in a circle for 12 hours straight. At each revolution, she honked a black clown horn. The horn sound was recorded and looped, so over time, the layered sound became an unbearable, scratchy, screeching concoction, developed by sound artists Samuel Bruce and Tom Smith.

Barrett literally attempted to do ‘nothing’ through a seemingly trivial, repetitive act: crawling. However, she turned the concept on its head by transforming the crawl into a painful, self-inflicted chore, where the audience observed her like a zoo animal as they comfortably drank their free gallery wine.

Exhausted yet? One last durational piece for you to ponder: this one explores the similarities between BDSM practice and performance art. In My Safe Word is Performance, Barrett explored the dynamics and exchange of power. Over a 20 minute period for a performance at Alaska Projects, she relinquished her control over her own body to her ‘top’, Ivan Crozier. Barrett sat with a black fabric bag over her head, facing her ‘top’ as audiences spectated. At one point, one audience member called out, requesting they actually have a conversation. Barrett responded by asking, ‘If one ‘dominates’ but the other consents, who has the power?’

Barrett presents time as a concept similar to play-dough: it can be moulded to the constraints of its container. She begins with the triangulation of time – past, present and future – then challenges this with feats of endurance. Endurance stretches our concept of time; yearning for the future despite being rooted painstakingly in the present. Through her durational performances, Barrett calls into question the normative parameters through which we navigate the world.

barrett_the12hourrevolution_2013_photoalexwisser_002The 12-Hour Revolution2014, live performance, 12hr duration, live performance at Sydney Guild, Photo: Alex Wisser


Barrett’s work offers dark humour and a healthy dose of absurdity. While her repetitive actions can at times seem deceptively simple, they’re the result of hours of research and preparation. Her authenticity cannot be faulted.

If you get the chance to meet Barrett, I’d recommend you propose a Nihari curry in exchange for a snippet of insight into the workings of her mind. You won’t regret that curry, I promise.


WHO: Frances Barrett
WHAT: Telling Time, live performance with Amala Groom
WHERE: National Gallery of Australia
WHEN: 29 October

More upcoming works:

NSW Visual Arts Fellowship Emerging, Artspace – Opening 8 November 2016
Bodies in Time, Barbara Cleveland Institute, Art Gallery of NSW – Opening 27 November 2016
One Hour Laugh, Barbara Cleveland Institute, Museum of Contemporary Art




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