Artist in Focus: SJ Finch

Words by: Freya Hall

I recently sat down with SJ Finch, the producer of the most exciting addition to Fringeworld 2016, Grr Nights.

As I walked through Northbridge to meet Steven I noticed Fringe posters plastered around and came to the belated realisation that it was, in fact, the day before Fringe opened. As I ascended the stairs to Paper Mountain I felt that realisation even more acutely: a large group of chattering artists was congregated in the common room, others were darting around anxiously, and there was a sign on the floor being painted by four people on their hands and knees.

I spotted Steven amongst the throng and introduced myself. Despite the excitement in the room, he came across as calm, inviting, and softly spoken. We walked into the Paper Mountain exhibition space to seek some quiet. The room was empty except for a lone sofa, and a man repeatedly pulling pieces of masking tape taut, undoubtedly preparing the room for its imminent Fringe transformation.

As we sat, Steven enthused about the 12 Grr Nights’ performers. He spoke proudly of Loren Kronemyer’s work exploring humanity’s fascination with the apocalypse; David Maney’s performance as Potbelly, a love-sick clown who becomes infatuated with an audience member; the Choo Choo Troupe’s comical eco-cabaret; Josipa Draisma’s one woman comedy show where she transforms in and out of characters (one of whom is Batman); Emma Fishwick and Emma Bowman’s interactive performance that involves projections and lighting in a haptic way; Rachael Woodward’s clown puppetry; the members of the Menagerie Indie Pop Choir whose voices hypnotise and reverberate around the audience; Magnolia’s Late Night Live community debates; Only the Human’s Sad Girls Club lectures (don’t worry, you don’t need to be sad or a girl to attend); Chloe Flockart’s coded postcards that reveal constellations, and the musical and literary collaborations hosted by Ships in the Grr.

The 12th performer is Steven himself, who will be hosting a series of open kitchen dinners, in continuation of Janet Carter’s openkitchen project. Steven continued this project during his residency at the Fremantle Arts Centre. The premise for openkitchen is that a small group of people get invited to dinner and each guest brings one ingredient to be used at the next – in a sort of ‘pay it forward’ system. This ongoing project seeks to come to terms with the capitalocene; raise awareness of the geological age in which we live; and elucidate the importance of sharing resources. All of these concepts feed into the overarching theme of ecological awareness that permeates all of Steven’s work and collaborations.

Oh, and all of these varied performances will be taking place in a yurt. Unbeknown to many, myself included, a yurt is actually a Kazakh word that refers to the place that you erect a structure and not the structure itself. Although yurts are often associated with Mongolia, the yurts that herald from that nation are known as ‘gers’. This name is, in part, why Steven named his yurt ‘Grr’.

Steven explained that he wanted to give the structure a name that referred to Mongolia, without being culturally appropriative, and that also referred to his frustration in building it. He elaborated:

‘it is also about my frustrations with how I can exist as a creative now in a climate that seems inhospitable to that, and how I can exist as a human in a way that isn’t shitty’.

He joked,

‘But it isn’t a huge frustration, just a small frustration, that’s why there are only two Rs in Grr’.

Steven has been living in the yurt he constructed (with the help and power tools of friends) since June last year. During this time the yurt has travelled extensively, making a home in friends’ backyards and acting as host to an array of artistic endeavours. Living and creating in the yurt has been a holistic experience for Steven, who spoke with me about his yurt-induced epiphanies, his regrets, his triumphs, and the many testing moments.

With regards to epiphanies Steven emphasised how he has become aware of the inherent distinction between ‘poverty’ and ‘being broke’:

‘My only income was the food and stuff that I got from doing dinners. But it’s not actually poverty because poverty is something that you can’t shake off, when you can’t get back on your feet. I’ve just been broke’.

‘I had cancer last year that I recovered from but the whole time I was thinking ‘the stress from this cancer isn’t as bad as the stress from being broke’’.

Being broke and living what many would consider a ‘sustainable life’ made Steven realise where the poverty and ecological burden should lie:

‘There is this idea of people living sustainably – living plastic free or recycling. I feel like the discussion around doing those things distracts from the actual problem and the actual problem is economic inequality and the way that factories, business and industry work. That’s where I feel the discussion should be and that’s where I feel the burden should lie. It is through those industries that we have the power to change things.’

‘A movement becomes effective when you have a community of people. Where there is some real, deep human spirit or connection… establishing that connection is where I want to head after, that has been the big epiphany for me’.

What I took away from my conversation with Steven is that his art and his activism are truly immersive – they saturate all aspects of his life with beautiful consequences and, of course, unavoidable tribulations. Steven acknowledged the difficulty in moving into the yurt the week after he was diagnosed with cancer, feelings of sadness and isolation, and juggling studying a PhD at the same time as living in the yurt. He was frank in his admission that the endeavour has ‘taken so much emotionally’.

Although testing, these moments were intrinsically linked to the epiphanies he described and the triumphs that have made the yurt project a fulfilling experience. Grr Nights is set to be one of those triumphs; it is a culmination of Steven’s experience to date, a collaboration with like-minded artists, a celebration of the small and grassroots, an opportunity to educate himself and others, and an epicentre for intimate, community engagement.

Looking to the future, Steven hopes to continue supporting the Refugee Rights Action Network building yurts for Goyurts – an initiative that aims to empower refugees, cut down on living costs, and create a sense of support within the community. You might also catch Steven floating on a homemade raft out at sea during Cottesloe’s Sculpture By The Sea later this year – a project aimed at highlighting Australia’s refugee crisis and interrogating the notion of ‘Australian identity.’

In the meantime you can catch him at all of the Grr Nights performances. Steven will be at all of them because, after all, the performance space is also his home – look out for the person wearing the Totoro onesie.