Ali Barter: 'I just wanted to write about what I felt and be honest'

Words by Anthony Nocera
Photos by Jye Talbot

In the years 1974-1982, Hannah Wilke created the Starification Object Series (S.O.S) where she posed seductively and nude, but covered her naked body in chewed up bubble gum that was moulded into the shapes of female genitalia. Her body is there for you to view, but she’s consciously manipulating the gaze. She’s interacting with the rhetoric of how women pose and are posed for us. Where we expect the female image to be a canvas for male desire, Hannah Wilke made the female body, specifically female genitalia, abject. When criticised about using her beautiful (‘beautiful’) body in her art, she said “what difference does it make? Gorgeous people die as do the stereotypically ugly. Everybody dies.”

And, yeah sure, everybody dies and everybody shits and it’s the great equaliser and we all rot in the ground in the end, unless you get cremated or frozen or you’re Lenin, but if we’re talking about artists, and Ali Barter definitely was/is, then the way in which people die and are understood in the public consciousness is undeniably gendered. In Issue 1 of Krass Journal, Sanja Grozdanic wrote that the male artist is not buried with their corporeal, physical body, but a mythical one. One that is remembered and understood through the lens of their work, their genius. It’s a luxury, she says, that is rarely afforded to their female counterparts:

    "We revel in her torture as much as her talent. Her genius is a gift. She did not cultivate it, and ambition is not becoming. She did not seek her gifts, she stumbled upon them like a glamorous victim. Her recklessness is remembered more clearly. Celebrity awarded to the female artist, though fame lacking in respect becomes parasitic in nature. Her male counterpart is reincarnated as a myth, while she, as a commodity."

Female art and female artists, therefore, occupy a liminal space where their value to the art world lays not within her ability but within her body. Ali Barter calls bullshit on that. A recent article for Junkee detailed the systematic erasure of women from the music industry saw Barter join the likes of Camp Cope in fearlessly advocating for women in the Australian music scene. We spoke to her about the industry and what we can expect from her debut album.

What has the response to your article been like?

It’s been amazing. I’ve had very little negativity. A lot of shock and anger because people get wound up about these things… but a lot of people telling me that they hadn’t even thought about these things, which is great. I guess I wanted to point out that this sort of stuff happens all the time, and not only in music, you know? The history that we’re given is mostly about men and, of course, men did incredible things but women were there and they were doing incredible things too… It’s been a really good response and I’m happy people are challenging their ideas about these things.

Throughout the article, you really gave a lot of examples of how women have been erased, or their work has been erased, from music throughout history. But what’s it like working in the Australian music industry today? What are the difficulties of working and performing as a female musician?

I think there’s just this general attitude… like, Camp Cope were recently given an award for ‘Best Girl Band’ which is annoying. They’re a band. A good one. I have friends who curate music festivals and the ratio of female to male acts and bands is unbalanced and someone was telling me that they were programming the events, and someone was like ‘oh no, we can’t have two girl bands play next to each other,’ which just wouldn’t be a thing if they were bands with men in them.

It’s just this attitude that’s difficult … it’s subtle and really hard to change because people just don’t think it’s that bad. It’s just that low level imbalance that’s difficult to work with.

The article places you within a firmly established culture of online feminist writing. How do you feel about the current state of feminism and what does it mean to you?

I think for me, feminism… I’m obviously a female musician. And I’m a female in the world and I’m finding my place and how I interact with everything. I didn’t think too much about feminism before the thing at my school happened. Sometimes it’s not until things become relevant to you that you go, ‘hey that’s really fucked up’. So when I’m writing, I don’t really think about feminism I’m just thinking about how I feel and how I’m reacting. So with a song like 'Girlie Bits', it was me on a day feeling the injustice of it. I was laying on a beach on a holiday and I was feeling really fat and I was scrolling through Instagram and then I was looking at this shit I look at every day. I kept seeing these images of our perfect ideas of a woman and it made me really upset, like… no wonder I’m not satisfied, and no wonder I can’t feel content in myself when we’re given all these fucking weird and unattainable goals. And women aren’t one thing, you know? There’s so many different ways to be a woman.

So I guess when someone asks me about feminism all I can really talk about is me and my feelings as I learn to be a woman in the world.

Let’s talk about the video for Girlie Bits. How did that come about?

I worked with some beautiful people in Berlin. We just thought that the synchronised swimming team is such a strong and skilful thing. I really wanted to display women being bloody good at what they do and it was a beautiful, graceful but strong… like they’ve got these beautiful bodies and powerful, they’re not glamourised and it all just kind of went from there.

This isn’t the first time you’ve placed yourself as a woman in a male dominated space. In the video for 'Hypercolour', we see you performing the song in a Chinese restaurant surrounded by middle-aged businessman while they eat lunch. So is the experience of being female/being a woman in music something you’ve consciously been interrogating throughout your career or has it just been happening?

I think that it’s just been happening. With 'Hypercolour' I didn’t go into it with that intention but I think the more I create and the more music I write and make, my ideas become more fully formed. I didn’t know when I was doing 'Hypercolour' that I was making statement about women in the industry, or being put in a box… so I guess it’s been forming for a while and been in the background and then 'Girlie Bits' is a bit more on the nose.

What can we expect from your album?

The album is like this power grunge pop extravaganza. It’s all big guitars, big drums and big hooks. I just wanted to write about what I felt and be honest, it’s more universal that way. I didn’t want to dress things up in metaphor or hide behind production too much. It’s almost finished and I’m really excited about it. I want it to be this thing where you jump in the car with all your mates and drive down to the beach and sing every word really loudly. I’m just really excited.

And what can we expect from an Ali Barter live set?

Well, we have a lot of fun. We’re a good-time party band. Lots of big guitar solos and jam-outs. The way we’ve recorded the album is the way we want to play it live, but maybe with a bit more distortion and a bit more craziness. I can’t wait to come to Adelaide and play Gold Fusion

Catch Ali Barter and her band at Gold Fusion Festival on Jan 6 at Published Arthouse, Adelaide. Tickets available here.