• The fallacy of a good art practice, the ideal researcher and how consuming and defining literature ‘incorrectly’ earns me my exclusive right to reimagine it  


    During the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in February, Aaron Gordon (who plays for Orlando Magic) jumped over the head of his team mascot ‘Stuff the Magic Dragon’. Aerodynamic and serene, the 20 year-old ascended off the floor in what can only be seen as a choreographed microflight. It was a journey that my brain couldn’t understand for almost three hours. He didn’t win the competition (because veteran judge Shaquille O’Neal was playing panel villain to the hilt) however the moment transcended poor appraisal and Gordon went viral. Appreciative millions stuttered with every replay.

    I hadn’t written poetry or prose for almost a year until I saw that dunk.

    And when I started writing again, I considered only telling a few trusted friends about the unlikely muse that had rebooted me. It dawned on me, maybe I was subconsciously confused by my source material, embarrassed even.  The amount of times I have been judged for my creative process was now getting into triple digits and I finally realised…. I might be over this eurocentric, elitist bullshit actually. I don’t have a twee bone in my body and I decided it was time to finally harness this sturdy marrow to take a stand.

    Would me being intellectually moved by a dunk have literary peers seeing me as any less cerebral and cultured than I was before? The answer in my experience, especially in New Zealand is an insidious yes (unless I had a ragtime basketball themed chapbook in the works, maybe coming out on an obscure American midwest press). What if I told you, I consider watching play-offs in the backstreets of Newtown Aotearoa some of the finest artistic research I’ve ever done? Don’t make me say something corny like “because I too dream of dunking on climate change with the same audacity and panache of Gordon’s resolve”. Not every cognitive spark can be commodified and aligned for the consumption of others (despite what socialised algorithms will have us believe).

    I found myself in what I call a ‘dubious academic situation’ a few years ago. I tried to partner an audio project with the written thesis I was undertaking. It was to be a noize rap sibling to the text I’d produced. My proposal was politely given the red light and to this day, I still regret not trusting my non-ivory instinct and doing it anyway. After this institutional fever-dream, I entered the stifled fray of local literary culture. I soon realised ‘literature’ (not to mention ‘progressive’) can mean very different things to different people. Different cultures and subcultures too. Like…. literally the word doesn’t translate to be the same thing to me. Maybe it’s a bit like the word ‘tino rangatiratanga’ in the Treaty of Waitangi and maybe it’s vulnerable to a similar imperial friction too.

    Once a week, I head out to the airport and volunteer at a charity shop on the suburban outskirts. I meet a lot of electric, bargain-hunting humans, from all pockets of life. I blast disco and sell people donated goods ranging from cat-scratching stands to Versace anklets. When I started my DIY Horoeka reading program, all I knew was that I was going to take some titles from the op-shop at random. Anyone who knows me, knows this lottery style is the name of my game, however not everyone gets it. Firstly, not everyone understands why I’d happily volunteer in a rugged thrift store for free in the first place. But I like to let reading and research choose me, shape me, prescribe for me my outcomes. This gives way to a healthier research methodology in my opinion and it doesn’t make me any less productive. I’ve known people who embark on research with a very precise subject and outcome in mind emerging with a theory honed to public-speaking or celebrated scribe perfection. And sometimes I find, those people don’t know what the fuck they are talking about.

    We’ve seen sinister examples of those who spend decades in a cathedral memorising incantations while not embodying a single sentence. And on the flip-side we’ve seen viral toddlers able to drum arrangements with the ease of a jaded beatnick. Regardless of the mental hours we invest or the resources we apply to a situation, embodiment is a mystery that plucks or discards. When I say I’m reading a preserved fruit cookbook and watching basketball because I’m hard at work, how would a ‘professional’ researcher or writer interpret my methodology? Embodying my work in my way? Or another quaint practitioner playing on the outskirts of the legitimate?  Those who expect all writers to be ever-steeped in modes of performative learning with a side of ‘key texts’ probably have something to say. But a prescriptive canon of classics and supposedly ‘universal’ truths to me is not always what I need… academia taught me it seldom is. It’s certainly not what gets donated at an obscure op-shop for that matter. I make time to absorb all I can but adhering to the ‘musts’ shoved down my throat by people who don’t look, think, act or experience things like I do, is something I no longer care for. The ‘classics’ can be culturally conditioned and most declarations of high taste are too often soft abuses of power. As is expecting someone to have a ‘proper’ art practice and be a disciplined researcher based on the mouse-hole lense of eurocentric creative standards. This is a blatant scam to keep certain practitioners out and in turn diffuse genuine acts of dismantling by those such scams effect.   

    The basketball games, the records I blast in my ears, the coat I lined with satin, the brisket recipe my mother texts me – this is all very real literature. Because every medium begs to be reimagined from the root and that includes all that quantifies writing… the literary infrastructure, it’s very definition. I already know that the details of the stories I tell are secondary when compared to the way I tell them (not to mention knowing what stories I am entitled to tell). So if a high-end sound artist can play with silence and still define it as noise (I’ve seen this by the way at a very quiet exhibition) why can’t I openly say watching basketball is a respectable form of research for me, why can I not call anything that requires my alchemising use of language, literature? It also pays to remember some of us come from oratory traditions casting back thousands of years, so forgive me if I think definitions of storytelling have gotten a bit reductive. I’ve also learnt the hard way that when it comes to words, no matter how many of them your mouth can lease, there are limits. So I get that me regarding a slam dunk as a poem (not to be confused with a poetry slam) might not wash with everyone.  

    This all lead me to look at the way I’ve been conditioned to ‘rightfully’ consume literature too, in addition to what that good literature infact was and how I processed it. I ended up with everything from romance novels (with no actual romance in them), young adult science-lab capers (with no science in them), to spiritual doctrines explaining everything ever (except romance or science). Everything I read gave me something meaningful, even if it only served to show me what I wouldn’t write even with a machete at my neck. That’s still a pretty priceless lesson to emerge with. But I always enjoy dexterity and variation in my consumption. I live for multiple worlds linking arms, informing and fermenting each other, laptop and stereo both crackling at the same time. (At the height of my multimedia ‘excess’ I have been known to live-tweet several books with mixed results).

    So here’s the gag: I can consume and reframe information as literature if I choose. Anywhere. Anything. And I can identify a dropped sandwich as any artform if it does what I, and only I define it to artfully do. As an artist reclaiming my sovereignty on several levels, I have a licence and sometimes an obligation to rebrand language in such ways. These days my art and activism intersect in that I do not need to feign enjoyment for cultural regulations that historically discard me. I don’t have to feign enjoyment for work or agents who uphold those regulations without scrutinizing their role or engaging with those their success erases. I don’t need these data capped ideologies to authenticate and justify my learning, my semantics or my interpretations. Maybe we could blame the internet for this experimental greed and I admit I am the product of multiple cultures, genders, orientations and binary codes. But my intuitive social-suicide bombing in these contexts springs both from hope eternal and organic matter.

    Somewhere, someone is lowering their blinds whenever the loaded word ‘researcher’ gets used. It’s rightfully fraught and I believe it all depends on who is wielding their right to it. In 1925 an earnest 23 year old woman called Margaret Mead spent nine months in Samoa, interviewing local subjects who were embellishing their answers through a translator because she couldn’t speak the language. She was heralded as one of the great anthropological intellects of the 20th century and her text was considered groundbreaking. But for many ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ distorted how the West saw Samoa irreversibly. Her texts were questioned and put in serious doubt in 1983 with the Derefo Freeman text ‘Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth’. I read some of Mead’s work at the op shop incidentally (bursting into Māori German Samoan laughter several times). I have loved shards of Mead’s output but let’s be real. Frankly some parts are a bit ‘Ayn Rand took an ecstasy and went to a fiafia night fundraiser’ if you actually know the culture she coldly appraises. Great comedy but some might say pretty troubled anthropology.

    During my serendipitous reading project a sweet elderly woman came into the shop. She donated tea-towels, some earrings and a copy of Treasure Island. All of a sudden I was able to compare the legacy of Mead to the legacy of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson who also took a great interest in Samoa. After moving to the islands due to illness and in need of a warmer climate Stevenson soon became braided into Samoan society. His museum is still maintained by the people of Samoa today. When Stevenson was buried he was lauded as an honorary Samoan, Tusitala, teller of tales. I guess what I’m getting at is: who would I ask about coming of age in Samoa today, the academic researcher who staked her identity on knowing about such or the person who lived up the road? (Full disclosure: the latter also lived in Villa Vailima, home to my favourite beer so I may be biased).

    If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I reckon the side-street is paved with questionable research and performative scholarship. Why are some modes of artistic research viewed more effective and respected than others anyway? I know for a fact some people would learn more about the human condition from a godly Aaron Gordon dunk then reading the old testament. But that forces me to ask, as a writer where does that leave me? Just kidding! “Where does that leave me” used to be the bassline of another brittle world I encounter often. Music. An industry that had to be violently reimagined from the moment I started making music over a decade ago (a volatile and formative template for my current literary dissatisfaction I now realise).

    “Where does that leave me?” millionaire musicians and industry rackets cried out, as people all over the world shrugged and continued to make music. They shrugged and they released it. They shrugged and played it to each other and planned their own tours, disowning the idea they were ‘cog-worthy at best’ and by doing so unknowingly built new variations of machine.  

    The answers to ‘where does the future leave me’ are still the same.

    “That’s up to you”.

    What qualifies as art to you exactly? Why do you make it? Who do you make it for?

    Who has the right to access your art and in what capacity?

    What is the best way for people to be consumers and supporters of your art?

    How do we give everyone access and the right to produce their own?

    Gatekeeping may vary but don’t these questions sound familiar? Across multiple art-forms and political planes?

    The industrial complex of how writers are heard, published and critiqued is now curdling under similar pressures. Issues with technology and access are now very real within the medium. How it’s consumed, how it’s produced – I come from the thankless but spirited rackets of punk and rap so I’ve actually been in this ‘quandary’ before, business-models no longer applying and being forced to evolve. However unlike music, I see a smug resistance to change within literature. There is a silent brawl in the surgery room, with a lot of people refusing to operate on an-already mutating patient. For what? Fucking nostalgia? The grand literary tradition? The next questionably diagnosed ‘voice of a generation’?

    After personally talking about literary shifts, diversification, institutions and change (ironically in the same tethered formats and environments) over and over again, I recently started feeling like it was all a diversion. A cunning way to keep things upheld and the same, to keep people like me feeling either rejected enough to fight for entry or engaged enough to want to stay. I am often tokenised to survive, sitting in hypercolonial situations (completely unaware that they are hypercolonial situations) being asked to publicly (performatively) reimagine how decolonisation in this domain is possible. I’ve finally cottoned on. For those whom artistic hierarchy and conditional access is still a vested interest, I don’t really have the answers they want because one of them is “I dunno man, torch it all”. But I think it’s time I just start saying exactly that.  Torch it all. Establish new paradigms and platforms where we aren’t drafted for our colouring or novel textures like M&M’s. In my opinion it is time to disassociate from these morbid infrastructures and played out gatherings while we still can. Imagine what we can build with that surplus energy.

    Coming into it late, I used to be disturbed with local literature not making the time for the cultural and pop-cultural reimaginings that are now blatantly required for it to survive in political style. But lately I realised I no longer have the time to pretend that I care. I know within my own definitions and inspirations of what literature is and can be, my own audiences and communities, that I have alternatives.

    Just the other day I saw a heartwarming call for writing submissions. It was  ‘Nets for Snaring the Sun: Speculative Work from Hawaiʻi and the Pacific’ and the byline gave me a hopeful shiver up my spine. Basketball commentary gurgling in the background I took in the words ‘We no longer talk back to empire, we imagine beyond it’. Do you think this is possible?

    If you find yourself at a loose end and wondering how a reimagining begins, may I suggest you Google that Aaron Gordon dunk some time. Just for fun. As he defies a lot of air and limb placement, feel free to fathom beyond these shady controlling art rackets many of us find ourselves in as creators and ‘other’. Because from here on in, I will grant myself full permission to think, mean and literally define that slam-dunk as pure poetry if I choose. That’s the cool part. No one, no matter how well read, can stop me.


    What Jessica Read

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