Politics editor RD Wood caught up with Steven James Finch recently to discuss art and poetry. Here is their conversation.
You are a poet, and to my mind, a performance artist. Could you describe your practice and aesthetic approach and what your current projects are?
It’s tricky to describe my practice because it’s in a transitional state right now. I do write poetry but it is quite rudimentary, taking fractions of inspiration from very stereotypical influences like Wallace Stevens, and Frank O’Hara. I think of my poetry as a pile of wood that has not yet been set on fire. I have always tried to understand this quote from Kierkegaard: “One who cannot seduce people can neither save them.” My latest understanding is to live in a way that could be described as poetic, as an expression or performance of meaning, as a way of making. Begonya Tajafeurce describes the figure of seduction in Kierkegaard’s work as taking place within the border between ethics and aesthetics, where both the concept of life and its poetic shape simultaneously define each other – existing artfully and creating art are acts of good, and these acts of good ‘seduce’ an audience into the ethical. I have decided to construct and live in a nomadic yurt called Grr in response to ecological disaster, economic precarity and new forms of creative community. I am working on a program of performances in the grr for 2016. I am applying to live on a raft for sculpture by the sea. I am working on this novel for my PhD that explores the ethical implications of a world where time travel is possible.
For many years you ran a wonderfully successful publication Dot Dot Dash. Could you please let us know what the publication was, how it came to be started and why it ended?
dotdotdash was an independent creative arts and literary journal that ran from 2009-2013. We were young and fiery and naive students of Curtin University. Our degrees were ending and we were not sure what employment or publishing prospects we had, so we decided to start a literary magazine. We wanted to hold up and champion good literature, and to inspire other young people like us, to show that Perth did have a literary scene. Everything was ramshackle and independent. We did everything. At some point, it was decided to incorporate visual art as well, and so we did. This was a huge influence on my practice. I found visual art ideation to be direct and powerful. The people that I met during this time were incredible interesting, passionate and committed humans.
Toward the end of 2011, I decided to hand over my role as managing editor to continue work on my PhD. The person who took on the role after me, Kate-Anna Williams, unfortunately was diagnosed with cancer quite soon after, and I helped by again taking on the production duties for what became the final issue of dotdotdash, an experimental issue where each copy consisted of a paper bag filled with a unique combination of zines from a pool of around 50. It is kind of fitting, in a way, that the magazine was in pieces for its final issue, scattered to the wind. Kate-Anna Williams has since passed away, but was a great friend and a huge creative force.
It is just one of those things that happens, where a creative project collapses because of unfortunate circumstances. These things require so much unpaid work and money and constant unfailing love. Sometimes it’s a miracle to exist at all.
You were also instrumental in Aunty Mabel’s Zine Distro – what is the greatest thing about zines and what kind of artistic collaborations came out of this project?
The greatest thing about zines is their particularity. They are made without editors or a professional publishing process. They allow anything. They express the author’s ipseity, their uniqueness of self, at the same time as forming it. You can learn so much about life from zines. You can witness how someone survived, enjoy drawings of things they have loved, read a wobbly diamond-in-the-rough narrative, and laugh with joy at finding an author who is unlike any human you have ever met. You can just sit with the extraordinary process of someone becoming. Often zines are from identities that don’t get a lot of representation in mainstream media, and I think they are important spaces of tactical resistance. That is their grand simple beauty, their warm hug, their fire. I don’t know if many serious artistic collaborations came out of the Perth Zine Collective project for me individually. It was more about supporting the zines and creative self-publishing of others. I think I just posted on a forum asking to start a Perth Zine fair, and then met Anna Dunnill, Fergus, Rachael K. We pooled together some zines for a few weekend markets, and then we established Aunty Mabel’s Zine distro, adding Damian, Miko, and Liz to the lineup. The greatest thing was that three years after forming we were able to host the Let Them Eat Zines zine fair. We had zinemakers from all over the country, panel discussions, zine iron chef, zine pole dancing. We made some forever friendships.
From my time as a co-runner of Aunty Mabel Zine Distro, the artistic collaboration that I am the proudest of is that day. All of that day.
At the moment, you reside in Perth and seem to my mind have been very dedicated to creating a vibrant cultural community in the here and now. Are there any particular benefits or challenges of working in this place?
Perth is small. You feel this all the more keenly when you are an artist or a writer because it becomes very easy to know who everyone is. This is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because hardly anywhere else could you host the final launch of your sweet magazine in your own backyard and strike up a moment where someone reads a poem written for someone else in the audience, and they both cry with recognition. Nowhere else could you have such a free and easy interdisciplinary exchange. It’s easier to learn and grow with people in Perth. It’s a curse because there is a limited audience for your work, and most audiences are made of other creatives, which can in some cases create this echo chambers that are comforting and fun, but not very engaged with exploring the limits of creative endeavors.
I am trying to engage with these aspects of Perth in a different way, by becoming a nomadic creative, and moving between splintered artist groups, encouraging spaces of friendship outside of where they would normally occur.
Connected to this sense of place is a sense of identity – how do you self identify and how does this interact with your history, family, roots, experience?
I self-identify as Eurasian. In terms of privilege I feel white, but at the same time I want to have a stronger connection to the Cantonese-Hainanese parts of my history. I also spent the first 8 years of my life in Fiji, and that feels like a strong part of my cultural makeup. My siblings seem to gravitate more towards being white now. But they speak Cantonese better than I can. I used to be quite excited about exploring my Western heritage when I was younger, mostly because of the lure of Western literature. I had this desire to be connected to what was great, and what was great in literature is tied in with what is white and masculine. As a Eurasian, I pay attention to, and feel guilty for, the times when I am strategically attaching myself to cultures I am technically a part of.
I do feel connected to Perth. I am connected to the people here, and to the idea of having self-presence in the community that I am a part of.
Recently you have done a residency at Fremantle Arts Centre – what was it and what did you learn from this experience?
The residency at the Fremantle Arts Centre is part of the year-long grr project, which is still in this amoebic gestation stage. I was living on the arts centre grounds for six weeks, writing and planning out the rest of the residency. I didn’t learn so much as experience. I sat on the hill at night and watched the docks. I heard the ghostly sounds of the Fremantle goods train, and the magpies in the morning. I touched the limestone walls of the Arts Centre and noticed the many layers of slightly botched restoration work. I learned that there is an unmarked grave site just beyond the back walls of the grounds.
I observed my feelings towards sustainability and the poetics of existing. There is such a conflict between my desire to be sustainable, and my desire to have the power to be sustainable. For instance, I would like to own solar panels, but the work involved in constructing solar panels is itself an act that costs water and work and unrenewable resources. In attempting to take on the philosophy of living sustainably, you inevitably create waste. mo worth it unless you can safely take care of what you have. In fact, I have begun to see that the unsustainable systems supported by capitalism cannot be brought down by individual acts, but that companies and larger governments must be held account. Perhaps the rest of the Grr project will be me preparing for this larger project that is more well suited to my aim of creating a sustainable art and life practice.
In a week from writing this, I will be performing a poem while on pilgramage from Fremantle to Perth, pulling a large cart behind me that will hold my yurt and my belongings. It will be the longest walk of my life, and the longest poem too.