Panic and Annihilation (or, Of No Relation)

Panic and Annihilation (or, Of No Relation)

  • 15 September 2021, 1–2pm
  • Virginia Barratt (they/them) is a trans-media artist, researcher, writer and performer living on Kaurna Yarta land, Adelaide. They are currently writing a PhD at Western Sydney University in the Writing and Society Centre, and their doctoral research focuses on panic, affect and deterritorialization, explored through performance, experimental poetics and vocalities. Over three decades, Barratt has been instrumental in developing critiques around gender politics and the digital realm, gaining recognition as a pioneer of the cyberfeminist movement in the early 1990s as founding member of the collective VNS Matrix. They subscribe to the DIWO (Doing it With Others) approach to art making and privileges co-creation as a productive and resistant modality. Among other accomplices, Barratt collaborates in an ongoing capacity with Linda Dement and Jessie Boylan as boneDirt, with Francesca da Rimini as In Her Interior, and as Swamp Writing with Ashley Haywood and Nick Taylor.

    Frances Barrett is an artist who lives and works on Kaurna Yarta land, Adelaide. Her recent projects pivot around the modalities of listening and touch, taking the form of immersive sound installation, live performances and performances with Museum collections. In 2019 she was one of the recipients of Suspended Moment: The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship that will culminate in the upcoming project, Meatus, at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). She is one member of the collective Barbara Cleveland (with Diana Baker Smith, Kate Blackmore and Kelly Doley) who in 2020 presented their first survey exhibition, Thinking Business, at Goulburn Regional Art Gallery. In 2021 Frances completed a PhD at Monash Art Design and Architecture and was appointed Lecturer of Contemporary Art at University of South Australia.

  • Online
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Artists Virginia Barratt and Frances Barrett in conversation.

Virginia Barratt is a trans-media artist, researcher, writer and performer living and working on Kaurna land, Adelaide. In conversation with artist Frances Barrett, they draw focus on Virginia's extensive practice, PhD research and their upcoming project with Em König, EXOSMOSIS. Their conversation also addresses processes of collaboration, transgenerational exchange, the phenomenology of panic, and subjective annihilation.

Form x Content is a mix of live and pre-recorded events featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian and international artists, designers, architects, curators and academics. The program is delivered every Wednesday lunchtime during Monash University teaching semesters, with a mix of live and online sessions broadcast on the big screen at Monash Caulfield and Clayton campus.

Form x Content engages with the ideas, histories, sites and critical questions of our time. The Semester 1 program focused on sustainability, collaboration and the ways in which First Nations artists centre Country in their practices. Semester 2 will explore ideas of disruption and resilience, together with queer perspectives on artistic practice and urban space.

Form x Content is free and accessible to all. Join us Wednesday lunchtimes at 1pm—live or online and on the big screens, Caulfield and Clayton campuses.

Presented by Monash Art, Design and Architecture, programmed by Monash University Museum of Art | MUMA.


Hannah Mathews: Hello, and welcome to today's session of Monash's Form x Content. My name is Hannah Mathews. I'm Senior Curator at Monash University Museum of Art | MUMA, here in Melbourne. For our low-sighted audiences, a brief, visual description of myself. I'm in my lockdown room, my home. I have long hair tied up, some light lipstick on, and a pale complexion. As we begin, I'd also like to acknowledge the people of the Kulin Nations on whose Country the campuses of Monash University are located and from where we are variously Zooming today. I'd like to pay my respects to traditional owners and Elders past, present, and emerging, and acknowledge Aboriginal connection to material and creative practice on these lands and waterways for more than 60,000 years.

Form x Content is a mix of live and prerecorded events featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian and international artists, designers, architects, curators, and academics. The series engages with critical questions of our time, with our semester two program focusing on ideas of disruption and resilience, together with queer perspectives on artistic practice and urban space. Today's Form x Content is a conversation between two artists both living and working on Kaurna land in Adelaide, Virginia Barratt and Frances Barrett. I should note that Frances is also a recent graduate of Monash's Curatorial Practice PhD program. Titled 'Panic and Annihilation, (or Of No Relation),' their conversation promises to be a charged and wonderful exploration of practice, collaboration, research, and transgenerational exchange. Thank you for joining us and thank you to our guests.

Frances Barrett: To begin, I would like to acknowledge that both Virginia and I are holding this conversation on the lands of the Kaurna people, the custodians of the Adelaide plains, and we would like to pay our respects to their Elders past, present, and emerging. Sovereignty was never ceded. I'd like to thank Monash University Museum of Art, and Senior Curator, Hannah Mathews, for inviting us to contribute to Form x Content. My name is Frances Barrett. I'm an artist whose practice takes the form of performance, video, and sound, and I've recently taken up a position here in Adelaide at the University of South Australia as a lecturer of contemporary art. I am a 38-year-old cis woman with a pale complexion, dark hair, I'm wearing a blue jersey Haus of Hellmutti shirt, and I'm sitting here with Virginia in their home against a concrete wall with paintings and hats hung behind us.

Virginia Barratt: Yes. Thank you to MUMA for the opportunity to have this conversation with Frances. It's really great. It's an enjoyable opportunity. Yes, I'm Virginia, obviously, and I am a person in their 60s. I am wearing an orange jumper, red lipstick, I have a pale complexion and very, very short, grey hair. Yes. Thank you for the introduction.

Frances Barrett: Thank you. Today's talk we've titled 'Panic and Annihilation (or Of No Relation)', which will focus on Virginia's extensive practice. When approached by Hannah to hold this conversation for Form x Content, I turned to Virginia, because I feel like our conversation has spread like fungal mycelium throughout the years covering feminism and collaboration, roasting chickens, bodies without organs, hyperstition, yoga, and recycling. Our conversations have been porous exchanges of art and life, depression and pleasure, small resistances and big concepts. These exchanges have supported me greatly both artistically and personally.

I first knew of Virginia from their significant role in the history of cyber feminism, but it's through this conversation I'd like to give space for and to pull focus on their current practice and the accumulative force of their three-decade practice. Today, the conversation will give an introduction to Virginia's practice, address their recent works, 'EXOSMOSIS' and 'Rupture', unpack several thematics that sort of run through their practice, and conclude with a reading by Virginia. We intend this conversation to sort of build slowly towards the reading, laying the groundwork for a deeper access to their practice. To begin, maybe Virginia could you introduce yourself and introduce your practice and perhaps the use of your term, trans-media artist.

Virginia Barratt: Yes. I guess I used to consider myself to be an artist with a practice that had a primary focus, and over time, that has changed. Potentially in that way, in the mists of time, it used to be performance artist, and that would be my primary. I would think of that as my primary discipline, and everything else was somehow supporting that or to the side of that. Through to ideas that maybe I was a writer. I guess trans-media to me is the best descriptor for a practice which doesn't have a primary focus, that is non-binary and where everything works together feeding into one another. Some things sometimes recede and become sense-making activities, which do in fact support a textual outcome or a performance outcome or a sound outcome, but in general, none of these things take primacy, and they all function alongside one another in this very, kind of, space of what I like to call sympoiesis, which is a Mary-Beth Dempster term around the idea of open systems of production.

So yeah, I would say, and actually, we were talking about this last night about how we, Frances and I, both have things that we do, which we might call hobbies. There is this great pleasure in doing things which are somehow... They don't end up in the work at the end, but they just bring you joy and pleasure. Crafting, if you like.

Frances Barrett: The trans-media, and craft artist. I'm really interested in how you described your practice as sort of focused on achieving a flow state. Could you explain what this flow state might be?

Virginia Barratt: Yeah. Well, I guess this is a good point to start talking about mental health. The area of my research, I'm in the fifth year of my PhD, hopefully, the final year of my PhD, and my research area is 'panic'. Panic is something I have been living with since I was a child, and it really is a hold-all term to describe a bunch of affects and experiences, moods and emotions, if you like, states of being, which might include things like dissociation, hypersensitivity, social anxiety, agoraphobia, among many, many other things. I do list thousands of symptoms in my PhD.

The flow state is this kind of, I think it's achievable, but it's hard work. It's this state that I'm constantly trying to get to, and it's a state where I am both deeply embodied, but also in excess of myself in that I am not self aware and I'm not self-reflective, and I'm not doing the narrative about what I'm doing now in this moment, in this nanosecond, in this unit of time. This constant narrating my life to myself, and "how am I feeling?" That hypervigilance. So I can exit that state of hypervigilance and become part of a flow where I'm deeply diving into... it's like contentment. I think we were saying this too, it's like contentment, it's all I could ever wish for really. I access this flow state through certain kinds of activities, and some of my creative practice lends itself to that.

But it's also like I don't make a huge differentiation between things which some people would just call quotidian domestic practices or something, where maybe I'm making sourdough starter or I'm fermenting something or I'm gardening. Those things assist me to access this state of flow in the same way that learning a new piece of software will help me to access a flow state, or making 3D animation, or editing video, something where I can just really deeply, deeply dive into this. I suppose some people might call that something like a meditation in action. So yeah, so just this state of contentment where I'm out of hypervigilance, deeply embodied, but also in excess of myself.

Frances Barrett: That might lead nicely to thinking about... from flow to connectivity. I think your practice often will collapse the distinctions between organic forms such as fungus and technology. I was wondering if you could talk about the connectivities between, I guess, the internet and also how you've described the mycelial companion to the internet, the undernet. And so, yeah, could you talk about the connectivities between organic materials and the internet or data?

Virginia Barratt: Obviously, I'm going to refer now to a time around the early '90s when I first came into contact with machines of computation, number crunching machines and the internet. I was actually introduced to computers before I was introduced to the internet, and I had no idea why my life would have any truck with computers. I was hanging naked from church spires upside down proclaiming various things in performance at that point in time, and Francesca da Rimini, one of the founders of VNS Matrix and a dear friend, someone who I still collaborate with to this day was the director of the Australian Network for Art and Technology. The Australian Network for Art and Technology was running these summer schools for artists here in Adelaide down at Technology Park. They were on these... It was in a plastic injection moulding facility, and the artists would get to play with these machines.

It was the whole grain on black screen and very much just X Y Z locations in no space, building these things potentially like impossible objects that were never going to be plastic injection moulded. But somehow, we all dove very deeply into this space, and that was my first collision with these kinds of number crunching machines. I was like, "Oh. Oh, right. I don't know why, but I have a real affinity with this." And then came to live in Adelaide, worked with the Australian Network for Art and Technology. VNS Matrix came into being, and at around the same time, the internet was happening pre world wide web.

Again, bringing in my neurodivergence here, I discovered a way through the internet, the early internet, usenet, and so on, mailing lists, bulletin boards systems, other kinds of virtual spaces and communities where I could connect with people when I couldn't leave the house, which was often. So I again found this way to be in excess of myself and to reach out without having to leave my home, and this idea of extending out into this huge space through my fingertips is very... I mean, people used to talk about, especially around VNS Matrix, one of the critiques was that we really valorised disembodiment, which to me was the exact opposite of what was happening to me. This space of connectivity through the computer was deeply embodied in a very affective way, so I bring that into today's work.

But this sense of connecting through my fingertips, there was this idea of these kind of tendrils reaching out through the fingertips, through the keyboard, in this very vibrant way to connect with the vibrancy of others. When those tendrils connected, there was this very bodily shock, this feedback into the body. So you're this circuitous feedback loop of affects going between people in this space, which I don't experience now using social media. These days, I find very deadening, very dulling, very doom-scrolly. It's a completely different situation. But there's also for me a point at which I can go too far into that space and I do need to pull out, or dissociation can really take over.

One of the things that I really like to do, I love gardening. I live in a housing co-op. I spent a lot of time building a garden here. For me, I think of the dirt as my other keyboard. I have this really strong sense that, I want it to be true, when I put my fingers in the dirt, that vibrant tendrils reach out and vibrant tendrils are reaching back, so the mycelial network knows I'm there, and that there's this alert or these messages that are passing between it and I, in the same way that it assists the trees to communicate with one another, and it assists the rocks to let go of their nutrients to feed the trees, and that these messages are also feeding me in a deep way that I simply can't get that psychic and deeply embodied nutrition in any other space.

Frances Barrett: So it's a nutritious connectivity through the fingertips.

Virginia Barratt: It's nutritious, through the fingertips. Yes.

Frances Barrett: Beautiful. And maybe the question that I wanted to sort of come back to is that you hold a significant role in the histories of cyber feminism. So I'm wondering since the '90s what has been your line of flight from feminism for you, I guess thinking about from the '90s until now, what has that been that journey?

Virginia Barratt: Yeah, it's been really interesting, in terms of the way feminisms have evolved and the way I have been evolving with that or making political decisions alongside of that. So I think in terms of cyber feminism obviously we were... four, white, middle-class people, not all cis but certainly privileged and had access to machines, the internet. I had a fairly technophilic approach to these new media spaces at that time, but I think... And so there's a lot of insufficiencies around early... some feminism 1.0, if you like.

That is not to say that it's not been extremely useful. And even today, I know that young people are still discovering the cyber feminist manifesto for the first time in their 20s. And to me, that's very humbling and beautiful and heartening. And I love that people still find something useful in it. And I feel like it will always be like that. But we were doing something very fast. We wanted to smash something very fast. And that was the patriarchal techno industrial complex.

And in that way, we did not address everything. And you can't always address everything. And another thing we were talking about is this idea of public learning and you know how humiliating that can be when you reflect upon your past politics or your past practices. And you are so deeply and shamefully aware of their insufficiencies and certainly a lot of things around cyber feminism 1.0 were not addressed, particularly race. We were not saying that computing and networks were ubiquitous, but we were acting as if there was a ubiquity around those things. And truth be told, and still today, of course, it's not a globally accessible or universally accessible space.

So those were conversations that needed to be had, and those were conversations that have been had. And people like Maria Fernandez and Lisa Nakamura, Faith Wilding, Sadie Plant. So many people have... And we have personally engaged in conversations with those people. And whenever we are doing public talks, which we don't do very often these days, but Francesca and I sometimes talk about VNS Matrix in the course of talking about history of our collaboration together. And we address these kinds of insufficiencies. And I think it's super important to do that in that really public way and have that public learning.

Obviously now I don't I think that... Much as I love the speculative aspects of cyber feminism and this idea that it can be anything at any time and maybe it hasn't even happened yet but it's this kind of hyperstitional space, I also know that it's not the most important point on my agenda. So obviously these days my feminism is much more focused on intersectionality, anti-racism, and the addressing inequities. And I guess I just try to do that on the daily, and that is the work. It's a daily work. It's decolonising my life, decolonising my mind, decolonising my life on the daily, and whatever that means, whether it's how I consume late capitalism or I am a yoga teacher and I work with a yoga studio and I try to bring programs into white wellness spaces, which are paying the rent and addressing cultural appropriation. And so again, I don't see a distinction necessarily between all of the different things that I do. They're all part of my practice.

Frances Barrett: And thinking about your practice coming up, your upcoming project of 'Exosmosis' will be presented by Samstag Museum of Art in December. And this is a new durational performance developed with Em König that centres on annihilation and transformation. So I'm wondering what is 'Exosmosis' and also what is annihilation in this context?

Virginia Barratt: Yes. So I'm very happy to be doing this work at Samstag and really excited to be working in that space and to be working with Em König, who I've been ... It's a reasonably new collaboration. We started working together a bit during COVID in online spaces. And I guess this is a culmination of a lot of things I've been working on for the last couple of years around creating electronic sound, collaborating with people to do that, working in the field of what we'll probably talk about a little bit later, but ictic vocalities and unlanguaging, falling out of the house of language if you like.

And this is really connected to my research into panic and my ideas or my experiences of annihilation, dissolution of subjectivity, something I mentioned before, which was being in excess of the self, and an idea of subjective evacuation. So something which happens when I experience a panic attack and sometimes in extreme times. This might happen many tens of times a day, a very rapid cycling, extreme panic to a kind of high anxiety, extreme panic, hope to hopelessness, these kinds of things.

And when you reached that point in a panic attack where there is this subjective evacuation... And one of the theorists I'm reading speaks about how in states of extreme affect like fear, terror, panic, there is this subjective evacuation or this wild line of flight from the embodied self in this subject of evacuation. And it's not a mind-body split. It's something else which is more spectral.

So I guess I am going off on a couple of wild lines of flight here, but it is around this annihilation itself. But there's a political aspect of this as well, because I feel like there is something about this which enables you to really see the world as it is. And I know this is probably a contested kind of concept, but the idea that there is the world as it is and the world as it seems. But there's something agentic about this evacuation of subjectivity which allows you to see the world as it is. So I can see the machines of production. I can really see the machinations of late capitalism. I am it.

But I want to acknowledge around 'Exosmosis' the work of someone who I'm really interested in. And this is Elæ Moss who lives in Lenapehoking, is at the Pratt Institute, and works with something called the Liminal Lab. And they're a queer non-binary person. And they were talking one day in a video I was watching about imaginal discs. And imaginal discs are these things or these special cells which live inside a caterpillar. And these are the special cells which eventually become a butterfly. So this could sound like a really hokey concept. Like hm, the butterfly, the swan, or whatever.

But it's really just this idea of becoming soup, becoming none, complete annihilation in order to become this new future which we're speculating on, or this completely new systemic structure which bears no relation to what came before, and the necessity to completely annihilate, especially as a white person, completely annihilate privilege, completely annihilate white fragility and all the teirs, completely annihilate all the resistance to coming to terms with the terrible things we've visited upon peoples and other beings on the earth, the necessity to completely annihilate all of that in order for a new structure, which I can't even name, to emerge.

So exosmosis, the term scientifically, medically, is about fluid exiting a cell and that cell becoming flaccid as opposed to osmosis. So exosmosis is that exiting. So the performance is about becoming soup really, becoming goo, becoming slime, and what is the agency in that, and what is the affective capacity of performing this annihilation. So this happens in the performance through light, visuals, sound vocals that Em and I are working on together. There's an intravaginal microphone involved. There's lots of slime. And there's me attempting to exit a language, which, yeah, the performance of panic, the performance of subjective annihilation is complicated, because if you're in panic then it's impossible to speak panic. But if you're not in panic, it's also impossible to speak panic. But to communicate through an affective language is a whole other situation.

So I guess this is what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to employ affective noise, affective vocalities or "ictic" vocalities in order to affectively communicate these ideas about annihilation.

Frances Barrett: And we will get to ictic, what ictic is soon. But maybe I'll also ask about another project called 'Rupture', which you are developing with Jessie Boylan and Linda Dement, because I think that these two-

Virginia Barratt: Yes.

Frances Barrett: ... sort of projects sit side by side-

Virginia Barratt: Yes, they do.

Frances Barrett: Could you talk about what, I guess, 'Rupture'... the central questions or the central proposition of 'Rupture'?

Virginia Barratt: So first of all, I want to say that I'm really, really blessed to be working with so many amazing people. And to have so many amazing people are willing to work with me is... I don't know. It's very beautiful. And that being Em, another one of those people is Lauren Abineri, a beautiful sound artist from Narrm, and Jessie Boylan who lives in Dja Dja Wurrung Country and Linda who's in Gadigal lands. And Linda, interestingly, has been in my life since the early days of cyber feminism and made this project called 'Cyber Flesh Girl Monster' where they were scanning different parts of people's bodies. And in that event, me and Sandy Stone became pixel siblings forever.

Virginia Barratt: So that's just upfront there. But both Linda and Jessie have been working together doing fantastic work around Maralinga and other events in the Marshall Islands and so on. And Jessie was working on this project called 'Rupture' beginning in 2018. And both Linda and Jessie decided that they needed an embodied presence in the work. And Linda suggested me, knowing my work around panic. And so I met with Jessie and we have formed an unbreakable bond in this beautiful sympoetic swamp across those years, since 2018.

So 'Rupture' is very much based in the idea of slow emergencies and geo-trauma, and again, this deep connection between the body and the earth and this resonance of slow emergencies manifesting as geo-trauma in the body so the body floods with affect as the earth arm floods. There are ruptures in the earth as there are ruptures in the body. So I guess we're just trying to bring together this the deep embodiment, this idea of affective states in the world and in the body.

So this happens through... Again, these spaces are all very based on affective resonance. Jessie has done most of the sound and it's beautiful, it's deep, there are infrasonic and subsonic resonances that if you are sitting in the space... So the first of the iterations of this was just sound and video installation at Bendigo Art Gallery on a 13-minute loop with a number of screens and surround sound. But if you were sitting in that space, you could feel the infrasonic resonances through your body. So you become earth, you become geo, and you experience very bodily the traumas of the earth. It was around bushfire time... Well, it was actually pre-2019, but we did actually do an iteration of it in bushfire times. And you were around for that.

So yes, it's about as a body experiencing being earth and experiencing geo-trauma. And this is an ongoing project, which also bleeds into another project called 'BoneDirt' which is about listening to rock in a non-extractivist modality.

Frances Barrett: We can actually hear a lot of crows in the background as we speak.

Virginia Barratt: Yes.

Frances Barrett: So I guess leading with 'Rupture' and then also drawing in your current PhD research, both of those seem to sort of focus on this phenomenology of panic, and what your PhD is proposing is this concept of the shimmer body. Could you talk about what the shimmer body is?

Virginia Barratt: Yeah. So I'll just go back to something I said before, which was subjective evacuation. So the shimmer body is a very spectral entity. And this spectral entity is birthed through subjective evacuation. You'll find the shimmer to be utilised quite a little bit in various... It has a lot of theoretical and cultural applications, not a lot but enough that I feel a connection to it.

So some people use the shimmer when they're talking about bodies in cinema. There's also... Shimmer is used in affect theory a bit. Also, it is used in Yolgnu painting practices to speak about bir’yun or brilliance, which is this kind of shimmer between, say in a crosshatch of paintings, between the background and the foreground. So there's the field, and then there's the crosshatching on top, and there's this space between. And the crosshatching births this bir’yun or brilliance. And it's this very fast kind movement between the foreground and the background, this kind of oscillation.

And this is a embodied experience I have in panic, which is a visible, invisible... a switching, like a digital switching, an on-off, a crossing of a liminal space and then potentially coming back into the body and then evacuating again. So this oscillation, this shimmer, this perpetual movement births this shimmer body. The shimmer is like my problematic companion that I've lived with all my life. The shimmer body is always with me. I sometimes say, it's like the creep living in your crawl space that you never really come to terms with, but you build this uneasy relationship with because you know that you have to live together. So yes, it's like I can't see it. It's just at the periphery of my vision. It's very ghostly. And it's like it has its own life, if you like. Yeah.

Frances Barrett: And then so you merge or you become shimmer-

Virginia Barratt: Yeah, I feel like I birth the shimmer. And the shimmer body can also be birthed on the breath in this state of falling out of the house of language. So again, as with everything in my work and life, there's this idea of this in excess of myself, in excess of my body. And again, I think there is a contestation around this idea of any split between spirit and body or, mind and body or whatever. But for me, this is actually how I experience it. This is how I perceive it.

Frances Barrett: And coming back to the breath, the ictic voice, what is ictic? What is the ictic voice?

Virginia Barratt: I've kind of extrapolated on this term, ictis, which is used in medical parlance, I suppose, to speak about a blow or to be seized. So it could be like a seizure or like a rhythm. And so I've applied it. I've extrapolated on this idea of ictis and it's become ictic. Also, it's a very kind of... So there's lots of plosives in that word to say... So I feel like it's very onomatopoeic for want of a better term, if you like. And when I'm writing it, I often put interrobangs on either side of it to give it a fright, a feeling of fright. So I was like, you know the 'k' and the 't', it's ictic and it's very-

Frances Barrett: Ictic.

Virginia Barratt: Yeah, it's very... And so I apply that to the idea of prosody. So the prosody of panic. It's like it has a certain rhythm and it's often... Because you can be seized by panic. And when you're in a panic state, you might be glottally stopped a bit. So you're choking a little bit. So there's lots of 'g' and 'k', and maybe some 'sh-sh', some soft plosive and some dentoalveola kind of stuff or gritting of teeth. So there's lots of this closing and opening and this plosive, which is not any language that we know. I'm not using order words.

There's also the opposite of that, which is the disenvowelment or where you're just 'ah'-ing or 'ooh'-ing or 'ee' or 'oh'-ing. So all the air is being evacuated in a moan or a groan or a howl. So there's these different prosidies and different things that happen in your mouth and your throat. So there's this massive transformation of the whole body. And you don't really feel like anybody that you know anymore. And that really applies to the throat and the mouth, the breath.

Frances Barrett: So it's all of the sounds that sit outside of language.

Virginia Barratt: Yes, the remainder, in a Jean-Jacques Lecercle sense. I like to kind of play in the space of the remainder. Yeah.

Frances Barrett: And I sort of want to talk about affect as well, particularly around your writing, which you describe as affective writing practice, which we'll also hear a little bit later in the reading. What is affective writing?

Virginia Barratt: So just prefacing this by saying I am no affect scholar. But it's something that... and same with phenomenology actually. It's like these two things that keep coming back to... It's yep, phenomenology and affect. So various people speak about affect in various ways. And I'm in the camp of affect theorists who... And I suppose it would be a Massumi camp, there's this idea that affect is something which first hits the body and then cognition. So in that way, it's pre-discursive.

Virginia Barratt: So in panic I cannot say I am in panic. Or if I say I'm in panic I'm not in panic. I can't speak panic. So my cognitive, my everyday cognitive faculties and my capacity to speak and communicate in an ordinary way, those things are offline. And then some people interconnect affect, feeling, and emotion. So Sara Ahmed talks about feeling an affect in a similar way.

But there's something I think, which runs through affect theory, which like all affect theory no matter where you are on that spectrum, and that is the idea of contagion, resonance, Sara Ahmed would call it stickiness, and intensities, these intensities which run through and between bodies, sometimes sticking, sometimes moving on. My writing, I'm trying to reach a point where I can write in a way which is a vehicle for intensity. And that again is problematic because I'm starting to talk about triggers here. I'm starting to talk about triggering. And my supervisor, the other day was reading one of my chapters and said, "Actually, it was really triggering and I nearly had to stop reading. But it was good." And I'm like, "Oh." It's difficult to operate in that space.

Frances Barrett: And a question is how you do you want to impact the audience? What do you want the reader to experience?

Virginia Barratt: Yeah, I guess I want the reader or the audience to experience what I am experiencing. And again, that's problematic. And I often have these conversations with self and others about whether there needs to be trigger warnings and content warnings and stuff like that before potentially you come into a space where I'm performing, or before you open something that I've written, a book that I've written. I've never written a book, but yeah, texts that I've written. I hope I write a book before I die.

Frances Barrett: Yeah.

Virginia Barratt: Yes. So yeah, it's like the text is a vehicle for these affective states. And I want it to hit the body before the cognition and to have that run through the fingertips and out through the fingertips like those vibrant tendrils and into the bodies around. This is also trying to communicate the experience of marginalised bodies. So obviously, you know Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, you know a queer theorist, used affect theory, a lot to speak about the experiences of queer people that fall outside of your everyday, put-on-your-human-suit-and-go-and-face-the-machine kind of way. Yeah. So I want to communicate the experience of neurodivergent people. I'm also a queer non-binary person and that, there's absolutely no doubt that that is also an inflection and potentially one of the reasons why I am who I am.

Frances Barrett: And how you write the way you write.

Virginia Barratt: Yeah.

Frances Barrett: As a final question, because I think that this is a very important part of your practice is the idea of collaboration. And you have described collaboration as your discipline as a form of sympoiesis and also a process of wounding and crisis. Could you talk about what you mean by this and why collaboration?

Virginia Barratt: I think firstly that collaboration is potentially the only ethical mode of creative production in late capitalism. It's really hard for a lot of people to produce under the conditions that they're forced to live in. As a person who is often, doesn't have a lot of capacity, for reasons, I know how I rely on and learn from those who work with me. So to me, it's a mode of mutual aid, if you like, creative production and mutual aid within creative production. It lifts people up. It supports people with ideas. I think this drive to always produce the new, the new new, the new new new is... it just kills you. And it is part of the arts industry, the system of the arts industry, which is based a lot on this idea of grants. So you have to come up with a new idea for the grant, acquit it quick, better generate another new idea, acquit it, generate another new idea, acquit it, rather than this idea of working slowly and over a long period of time, potentially, just with one very simple idea.

And for me, I am trying to just be simple and say less, even though I'm a really big talker. But I find support and political purpose in collaboration. Also, the idea of, we are always working in collaboration. We are working with the quality of light. We're working during a bushfire. We're working while people are having somebody kneeling on their neck and being unable to breathe. We are working in collaboration with the social, cultural, and political conditions and ecological conditions of our times. We are never working alone. And anyone who thinks they're working alone, it's just not true.

So it's this constant process of letting go, letting go, letting go. When I'm working with the beautiful Ashley Haywood and Nick Taylor, who we had a Deleuze reading group for many years and we stayed on one chapter for four years. And we wrote this very swampy, and it's not finished, piece of writing that we wrote, also for years, on Google Docs simultaneously. So you're in this space where people are constantly writing into your writing and creating this rupture and this... It is a kind of a wounding. So it's always like in crisis. Something is always coming in and creating a rupture within your words. And then you assimilate that and homeostasis returns. And then another kind of rupture enters.

So to me, that's this space of collaborative and synchronous writing which I do with Francesca da Ramini as well. We do a lot of writing that's based on rules and constraints, and we give each other rules and we must write to them. And we've also done that with Amy Ireland. So just these kind of spaces which you have to abandon any notion of ownership, any notion of authorial kind of control, any notion of the singular genius. And they're extremely generative. You cannot know what's happening next. They're fecund. We're composting, to use a kind of a Haraway-an idea. It's hot. It's fettered. It's messy, and it's like a generative. So as I said to me, it's the only ethical production.

Frances Barrett: What a great way to end our conversation on the ethics of production. So maybe we'll give time for a reading of your work. What did you decide to read for us today?

Virginia Barratt: Well, I thought I would read from the script of 'Rupture'. It's a ruptured narrative. So. "Blair Athol. Now I remember. Standing outside at Blair Athol station west of nowhere... with my head flung back to fix my eye on a star, keeping both the horizon and the star in my field of vision, watching the earth turn. Standing there on the earth that seemed to me flat and like a plate about to break. So precarious was its spin. I disappeared into the eye of the infinity storm, a midpoint between nothing and everything, suspended between the two gulfs of the infinite and the void.

I may be 12 years old, shivering, feeling vertiginous, sensing the shadows just beyond the curtain of dark. Why was I out in the dark alone? Maybe I was walking back with my dad from the genny and I dawdled or maybe dark fell when I wasn't watching dreaming in the gidyea. I felt alone in all the world. Family beyond reach, flying up, out into the void without a name. I was pure sensation, a flood of icy terror, a head coming off, a planet falling through space on fire.

Every which way there were lines passing through me. Inside-out I turn, as above so below. As the cosmos, so the interior universe. I am becoming the everything, vibrating in never-ending expansion and collapse. I am the star and the star is me. I am a million million points of light above and below. I hold the cosmos in my terrified heart. And it explodes all over my body. How many nerve endings do I have? How many stars are in the cosmos? There is nothing between me and the Milky Way. No, beyond that. Oh, but what is beyond the stars? I am falling flying up into the neverwhere, the elsewhen, and it is blowing my mind.

Panic. You wish this upon yourself. All this contemplation of the world as it is, or the world as it seems, the structures, we co-create. I am a building. I am a system. I am labour. I am value. I am space and time becoming. I am already exhaling for the last time. No more space taken up. I am an empty bed. I am no longer I. Suddenly, you don't know the world at all. You call your friend. They struggle to help. There's no way to help. You leave as if to run, but there is nowhere to run because the world is all one thing. And it is ultimately unknowable. And you are sitting in the undifferentiated expanse, curled up, crying, crying for a body to return. You no longer know whether you were dead or alive, or you are simultaneously dead and alive living every moment at once. You knew this time would come, was already here, was with you always.

Multiplicity. Suddenly the proposition of 'I' seems implausible or just unthinkable, unsayable. We have reached the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says 'I'. We are no longer ourselves. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied. And yet, for those of us plagued by unrelenting panic, it feels necessary to drive this machine towards unity if there is to be any semblance of control, any capacity to function in the empirical world, the quotidian knowable world.

This drive to unify is ambivalent and feels also like a betrayal since there is a gift in the dissolution that is clear, the gift that keeps on giving but is hard to take because the reach is far and frightening. The gift is one of expansion and extension of seeing further than you could see before. It is a painful scene beyond the visual. It feels like the end of all things. Indeed, it is the end of all things as we know them. The gift is one of seeing as a river sees, or as the sky sees, or as a star or the forest floor, a seeing as all-eye like the brittle star or with no eyes like mud.

This seeing expands and collapses, is breathtakingly vast or close, claustrophobic, inescapable. You see yourself ragged, falling, flying, fucked, and fallible, rotting and machinic. You see suddenly all the machines at once and the infinite regression, proliferation of connection that is the realm of machines and assemblages. You see all of these things simultaneously. Synthesis is not possible. Seeing becomes structural in its capacity to read the generative formations that underlie appearance. You see things as they are rather than as they seem. This seeing beyond the ocular is a direct knowing."

Frances Barrett: Thank you, Virginia.

Virginia Barratt: Thank you.

Frances Barrett: Thank you for the reading, but also for the great conversation.

Virginia Barratt: Thank you for the great conversation.

Frances Barrett: So that I think will conclude our conversation of 'Panic and Annihilation (or, Of No Relation)'.

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