Exhibition Text

Ecstatic Voice at the Threshold

When all is said and done, I have more than one face. I don't know which is laughing at which … In the end the face is dispersed. – Georges Bataille1

There is a moment in Archie Barry’s Scaffolding (Preface) (2021) when the voice breaks into long, distorted and sighing laughter. Laughter, for Bataille, is an eruption that can overwhelm any distinction between interiority and exteriority and takes us beyond knowledge to un-knowing, to an exhaustion of signification, where subjectivity is shattered. He writes, ‘“Communication” cannot proceed from one full and intact individual to another. It requires individuals whose separate existence in themselves is risked … It is a being suspended in the beyond of oneself, at the limit of nothingness.’2 The humming vocals of Barry’s work reverberate with the quivering of the single-celled organisms, the movement of air in shredded plastic, the pulsing of street lights. These utterances beyond language commune not only with another ear, but with vibrational currents that circulate through all matter in ecstatic immanence.

We currently think much about the ‘essential’: fundamental to continuation, serving the purpose of reproducing life, fulfilling a need, supplying a demand. In this economy of use value, words participate in the contract of productive and administrative functions by being exchanged, according to the collective lexicon, to facilitate the reproduction of societal structures. That exchange also creates relational expression and reception, but the limitations of semiotics renders this space narrow in its range and restricted to the human. And outside of this value system of functional language? Outside of the essential is excess. Outside of essentialism is multiplicity as writer Jean Fisher imagined it: ‘This field of multiple possibilities, infused with “sense” but absent of meaning.’3 The utterances of Scaffolding (Preface) refuse to produce (meaning); they do not make sense, instead they sense.

Barry looks into both the past and the future to escape transactional language and its insistence on the individual subject as an actor in a surveilled and relationally deficient landscape. Sketching a future generation who has discarded speech and writing in favour of song, Scaffolding (Preface) reflects the fact that we have possessed our full vocal range for 530,000 years and language for around 200,000 years. Which is to say, we have been vocal for twice as long as we have been speaking. This non-linguistic vocalisation is a shared communication and Barry’s vocal resonances add waves to the existing ocean of sound created by the vibrant materiality of the earth.

‘Oceanic feeling’ is described by writer Romain Rolland in his correspondence with Sigmund Freud as the ‘feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.’4 Rolland experienced this sense of immanence with the world as spiritual, but Freud theorised this state of limitlessness as the pre-oedipal stage, whereby the infant cannot distinguish itself as a subject. This state shifts when language and individuation are gained. In Black Sun, writer and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva feminises the oceanic as a great, silent and lethal void in which the melancholic is unable to access language – to signify – and undergoes a kind of submersion. The path out of melancholy, Kristeva proposes, is the grasp of symbolic order so as to give expression to psychic pain through language.5

In this third decade of the twenty-first century, in the interior silence of isolation, of individual and planetary death, we perhaps experience a communal Kristevan oceanic melancholia. In response to this collective depression, Barry proposes not relief through language but through a vibrational communication that generates an affective timbre, a release from our unitary body, our solitary psychosomatic state. As the work utters, ‘I am not the captive mind, I have sung my way out of amnesia’. Outside of this unitary body we find ourselves vibrating along with single-celled organisms in a watery ocean. These microbes, lapping in the waters of Victoria’s Jawbone National Park on Yalukit-willam Country, are algae that evolved trillions of years ago through the cooperation of a photosynthesising cell and an animal cell. They pulsate with plant-animal characteristics in testament to the constantly mutating nature of matter in its symbiogenesis.

The ‘eyespot’ visible on the cells is a photosensitive organelle, an eye-prototype that senses light. The eyespots of the CGI human head that spins ecstatically in Scaffolding (Preface) are the internal eyes of the frontal coronal plane. This plane is identified through medical techniques of imaging the brain and organs of the face, which Barry co-opts to resist the invasion and systematisation of the body that makes it visible, territorialised and discrete. The ‘face within the face’ defies recognition both as an individuated social and economic subject and as a surveillable data set. Rather than detecting and being detected as a set of distinguishing features, the eyespot senses. The brain without a prefrontal cortex does not respond with reason but with mammalian reaction. Beyond recognition along ocular lines, facial nodal points, and cognitive brains, Barry proposes a space of affect created by sensation. Neurologist Erwin Staus writes, ‘In sensory experience, there unfolds both the becoming of the subject and the happening of the world … The Now of sensing belongs neither to objectivity nor to subjectivity alone, but necessarily to both together. In sensing, both self and world unfold simultaneously for the sensing subject’.6 This sphere of sensation, in which we create and are created by sound waves, belongs neither to the individual nor the object, neither to me nor the other, but in a coagulation of us and the world.

Barry uses the horizontal microscope plane, under which the microbes in this video are seen, and the vertical frontal coronal plane to cut through enclosed ontological systems including medicine and the hermetic body, thereby ‘traversing territory in order to retouch chaos, enabling something mad, asystematic, something of the chaotic outside to reassert and restore itself in and through the body’.7 Philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, in her study of chaos, territory and art via the writings of Gilles Deleuze, identifies rhythm (in visual art or music) as the means by which the body is able to access a relationship to chaos: meaning that art is the raft that carries the body on and over chaos. It is for this very reason that Bataille dismisses poetry, since it appears to overthrow and yet always returns to meaning; it does not launch us into the chaos that he seeks. Barry finds for us a space beyond language but inside what Deleuze and Félix Guattari call the ‘sonorous house’: in which art – this rhythm – is framed or delineated from the chaos of the Real but always remains open to that chaos, much like the open frame of the semi-built or semi-destroyed house, or the open weave of the chain-link fence in the work.

The fence and the walls are forms that facilitate togetherness and separation. Like skin, or the walls of a cell, they produce both homogeneity and heterogeneity since they contain, yet are simultaneously the surface of encounter. It is the casing of the body that Barry discards, thereby bringing interiority – our most intimate space, that of the conscious and unconscious mind, where we construct our self – to the exterior, deterritorialising the body. In Inner Experience, Bataille brings the inner outward – thought moves from the brain, from knowledge, to the unbearably unfamiliar, beyond conscious thought. Language might be the life raft in the oceanic, but Bataille and Barry are not interested in this raft. Rather, they chart a radical reorientation away from the whole subject to expanded vibration – the embrace of chaos in the case of Bataille, and for Barry perhaps extimacy. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan uses extimacy to describe the subject as outside of itself; the other is ‘something strange to me, although it is at the heart of me’.8 Therefore, the subject, too, is not only internal but intersubjective. The subject is equally outside the self: ex-centric and indeed ‘out of body’ in very material and commonplace ways, for instance at birth when bodies cross unitary boundaries. Sensitivity is sometimes described as thin-skinned, but what if we were skinned and in communion with others and with matter beyond our single self? This external intimacy is Barry’s invitation to a possible future of greater emotional intelligence through material empathy among beings.

It is art that is able to communicate interiority as an infinite exteriority. It creates sensations but not in the body since, as Deleuze and Guattari write, ‘sensation is not the flesh but the compound of nonhuman forces of the cosmos’, of ‘nonhuman becomings, and of the ambiguous house that exchanges and adjusts them, makes them whirl around like winds.’9 In the ambiguous house of Barry’s work, we experience cellular matter and the forces of sound waves, light waves, gravity and motion as this whirling wind that scrambles the contained subject, scrambles ocular primacy and attendant surveillance, and scrambles semiotic fixity in favour of rhythm. We experience, through the vibrations that Barry generates, our resonances and dissonances with matter, time, and chaos.

Pip Wallis is Senior Curator at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Melbourne.


  1. Georges Bataille, ‘Inner Experience,’ in The Bataille Reader, eds. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 1997), 94.
  2. Ibid, 93.
  3. Jean Fisher, ‘The Echoes of Enchantment,’ in The Sublime, ed. Simon Morley (London and Caimbridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2010), 89.
  4. Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilization and its Discontents’, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1962), 11–12.
  5. Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).
  6. Erwin Straus, The Primary World of the Senses, trans. Jacob Needleman (Glencoe, NY: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 351.
  7. Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 46.
  8. Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959–1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, trans. Dennis Potter (London: Routledge, 1992), 71.
  9. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 83.