A New Form of Therapy

Fellow G Douglas Barrett spoke with writer and artist Melody Nixon at Guernica about Complex Financial Instruments – the project he completed as part of his 2015-2017 Akademie Schloss Solitude residency. Below we’ve included an excerpt, courtesy of Guernica. Read the full interview here, and visit G Douglas Barrett’s latest project, What is the Sound of One Flag Burning?, a recording of a burning of the America flag, here.

G Douglas Barrett’s musical art touches upon subjects of psychotherapy, debt, finance, transgender identity, property, and ownership – all without dependence on the element we most associate with music: sound. Where sound enters, it does so in sporadic and nontraditional ways: spoken vocal recitation, the movement of a body through space, the repetitive bowing of an unconventionally tuned violin.

As part of his fellowship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, Barrett recently presented a new performance installation titled Complex Financial Instruments. This project, which he developed with economic and literary theorist Leigh Claire La Berge, invites participants to engage in ›financial therapy‹ sessions with an on-site therapist, while musicians interpret their sessions as a kind of vocal score. The work translates subjects’ real, stress-inducing financial concerns into musical tones. Ultimately, the »patient« becomes a kind of composer and, in the process, experiences the deeply rooted situation of the music. Space is opened for the potential reclamation of individual and collective economic insecurities. In this way, Barrett’s music is deeply invested in its broader social, political, and historical context.

An exhausting and humbling experience

This June, I performed in Complex Financial Instruments as a therapist – an exhausting and humbling experience – and had the opportunity to speak with Barrett over Skype and in person in Germany. We discussed addressing the psychological impacts of debt and unemployment through musical interpretation, music’s historical relationship to language, and finding gender in music. Melody Nixon for Guernica

Guernica: In some of your works, you do still use sound-making devices and even traditional instruments. Once you’ve defined a concern within music that you want to work with, where and how does sound come in? Do you leave this up to the performers, and if so, what are different ways that, say, a single score of yours has been sonically interpreted?

G Douglas Barrett: Some of my projects call for specific sounds to be made, yes, while others invite a range of sounds and approaches from various instruments or sound-making devices. In my latest project, Complex Financial Instruments, I recruited a variety of different instrumentalists who attempted to reproduce the speech sounds of a series of therapy sessions.

Guernica: As I experienced it, these therapy sessions were based on a combination of psychoanalysis and financial advice, and you trained therapist-performers through a series of research-based rehearsals. I have to admit, it was strange for me to perform individual therapy sessions about issues that are so systematic – like capitalist overconsumption; the exclusion of people of color and women from the tech world; and neoliberal emptiness, loneliness, and alienation, which are all topics that participants brought up. What was the impetus for addressing systemic harms at the individual level in this project? Can you talk about how it came about?

We decided to create a new form of therapy

G Douglas Barrett: The project began as a collaboration with theorist Leigh Claire La Berge, a friend I met through a reading group formed around finance, in the aftermath of the Occupy movement in New York City. One of the themes that arose in this context was the way the collective, while potentially politically efficacious, nevertheless often fails to deal with the individual at a psychic or emotional level. How does one address the psychological impact of debt, precariousness, uncertainty, and unemployment in our financialized neoliberal era? So we decided to create a new form of therapy that merged psychoanalysis and ›financial advice.‹

Guernica: I usually associate financial advice with recommending certain investments and debt accruals. Do you mean something different?

G Douglas Barrett: Yes, it’s more of a parody of ›financial advice.‹ The idea was closer to psychotherapy with a focus on economic issues.
I think participants/patients did leave with a sense of empowerment or at very least a deeper connection to their economic concerns. This was facilitated, in part, by the visceral nature of the musical interpretation and the way it brought the emotional element of financial hardship to the fore.

Guernica: Where do you see the project going from here? Are there other communities or groups you’d like to work with? What would you hope might grow from Complex Financial Instruments?

G Douglas Barrett: I think it’d be great to present the project in New York, especially near an area with heightened economic inequality like the Brooklyn neighborhood I live in. It’s important for us that the project reaches beyond the art and music world and out to different communities on the ground. Music has not only to engage with concepts and history, but also the politics of the here and now.