How this project created itself…(1)

By request, and before I open the pages of The Book of Debts to the people of Birmingham this week, the next 4 posts are an edited reposting from my original BTB R+D blog begun in January of this year, hosted by A-N that tells my personal backstory of debt and how it influenced the hatching and forming of the idea for this project.( Full texts can be read here by clicking on page 3 and scrolling down).

(From # 1 [2 January 2013])

Where to begin?

There is a massive backstory to this project, which reflects both the rapidly changing and extraordinary  socio-economic climate we are living in, the historical threads that underpin it and within that my own personal and at times intensely painful experience of the impact of financial and associated emotional debt on mine and my family’s life over the last few years.

It was never my intention to make a work about debt, my/our last taboo. I have tackled birth, death, cultural displacement and loss in many forms, through a number of projects over the last decade.

I went through a period of intense questioning (in 2011) – intensified by cuts in public funding – as to whether a complete change of direction was approaching, perhaps a complete move away from ‘making work’ at all. All I can say is that, to some extent, this project was gifted to me in unexpected ways, which will be narrated through the course of this blog.

On November 12th 2011,  I was one of 6 artists out in Liverpool city centre making live work under the auspices of Present in Public, (PIP), a programme of gift-based interventions curated by Tim Jeeves through  Giving into Gift, supported by the Bluecoat /Arts Council England and now in its third year. It is defined as ‘. a meeting point between artists, their peers and the public… the beginning of a conversation around ideas of generosity and reciprocation and how these themes manifest’.

Drawing Emma Gregory, courtesy Giving into Gift

Drawing Emma Gregory, courtesy Giving into Gift

(From # 2 [3 January 2013]

…One of our first tasks when we arrived for session one was to take to the streets and indoor spaces of Liverpool on a busy Saturday afternoon with a set of optional research exercises, such as ‘make someone an offer they can’t refuse’, ‘offer something to someone that would be appropriate in a different space but isn’t appropriate where you are’ or ‘be still in the space until something is given to you’. I’ve worked with gift and exchange exercises to create work before, but never ‘naked’, i.e., with no build-up /assistance/materials/reflection time, as in The Gifts (2010), It’s what draws me to live art practice – the light-footed, in-the-moment nature of it.

With a time limit of 3 hours, I decided to go out onto the streets, with the intention to literally be led by my feet and these research exercises foremost in my head… feeling immediately out of my comfort zone and at that time still a smoker, I took out my tobacco and realized I had run out of papers. I went into the local supermarket to get some and at the counter I noticed the lottery ticket stand staring up at me, as if inviting me to action. I never play the lottery, I’m kind of against it in principle (gambling problem in my ancestry, more on that later).

I looked up at the cashier, bought some rizlas, asked for a lottery ticket and found myself offering her the ticket as a gift. She looked at me with a mixture of alarm and bemusement, politely but playfully refusing. ‘But what if it’s a winner?’ I insisted. Her line manager hovered behind her, curtly informing me that employees were not allowed to accept gifts. Of course. The cashier winked at me and joked that if it was a winning ticket, she’d gladly meet me after her shift to split the proceeds and spend them. It became clear that  I had to keep the gift moving though and that was what shaped my encounters over the following hours

(from # 3 [3 January 2013])

..Off I went onto the streets, with a single lottery ticket to give away, a totally out of character behavior which made me smile. I decided that I would walk into the centre of the main precinct – Liverpool One – sit myself down and give it to the first person whose gaze I met. I sat on one of the central seating areas and looked up into the eyes of a young woman selling the Big Issue. I promptly offered her the ticket as a gift. She explained that she had recently arrived from Rumania with 2 children and we had a chat about how it was to land in Liverpool. Even after assuring her I didn’t want anything in return, she refused to accept the ticket but thanked me warmly for offering it to her. I then offered to buy the Big Issue in exchange for her accepting the ticket. She immediately accepted, provided that we split the proceeds if she won any money, scratched off the numbers and giggled when there wasn’t a match, shrugging her shoulders and wandering off. The story that would have unfolded if it had been a match would have been an interesting one…

I sat and rolled up a cigarette. Now I had a Big Issue to give away and wondered what the next exchange might be. I looked up to see a huge procession of people moving towards me. It was the Jesus Army, with purple flags, beaming faces, singing Jesus versions of Beatles and football (‘We love you Jesus, we do…” )songs . I knew I was in Liverpool. Someone from the procession was giving out flyers and handed me two. Instinctively I offered my Big Issue  to them in return. We began a conversation and I decided to join the Jesus Army for half an hour and see where it took me, flyer-gift in hand. The disarming thing was there were people on both sides flanking the procession and joining in with the songs, like they were old time musical hits. It was a totally feel-good experience at that moment and I launched wholeheartedly into the centre of the procession, enjoying my disguise.

A woman with 3 children started speaking to me, asking me how I had found Jesus. I explained I was just a guest and was technically a Muslim, but my spiritual practice stood outside of mainstream religion. She looked puzzled then lit up and explained how she had converted from Islam to Christianity and now lived in the Jesus Army community full time. Although it was interesting to hear about what she felt was missing from one faith that the other provided for her, after a while it became slightly uncomfortable as I realized it was a preliminary conversion conversation and I felt the urge to run away. I said politely said goodbye and sat down on a bench, folding one of my fliers into a paper aeroplane and lighting another cigarette.What next?

Talking with Heretics

On friday I was up in Birmingham for a ‘Live arts Futures’ gathering as part of Fierce Festival, our project partner in Birmingham. I was asked, along with Brett Scott, author of ‘The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance’  (which I will be referring to as this blog and its pages unfold…) to contribute to a discussion on Alternative Economies. It was very deftly moderated by Lynn Goh of In Between Time Festival (if you don’t know about their work, you should…very inspired programming).

Such a complex and broad subject, it’s often after these events, when the question has been asked and you have responded, that you only start to understand the importance of the question. Along the timeline of the books I have referenced here and on my previous BTB blog, Brett’s book is the next, timely step in opening up an understanding of the esoteric world of finance in a humanly accessible way.

He speaks from personal experience, both as someone of sometime shaky economic means and from his previous persona as a derivatives broker in the city. I can very much relate to his sense of wanting to go beyond the strictly oppositional, right /wrong dichotomy that has (understandably) evolved out of current economic activism, i.e. within the Occupy movement. And yet at the same time highlighting social justice issues and in his case offering pragmatic ways to subvert or engage in alternatives to the mainstream economy that seems to be literally devouring people’s livelihoods, identities and sense of self worth on an accelerating basis.

Looking at links between us, as I am offering up a live, public service rooted in the arts but seeking to cut across sectors and social contexts, I liked what he had to say about alternative currencies (roughly quoted):  ‘I currently partially think of experiments in alternative economies as quasi-artistic; they tend to be before their time, they exist within a society that does not support them. They are quite performative and an ‘acting out’ – using them (whether the Lewes/Brixton/Bristol pound, the bit coin or localized gift economy systems for example) takes you out of your current societal context and of course there is a big question as to whether alternative currencies or exchange systems are sustainable within the current economic system.’

This idea of a symbolic ‘acting out’ of alternative economies very much connects to the idea of The Book of Debts and how it can be instrumentalised by the public. One collective way of highlighting a contrast to the mainstream system. What might the uses of this acting out in this project  (reciting, recounting, scribing, reciting and burning debts) actually be? How useful can such a seemingly futile series of acts be?  A few responses to this came out of the Portslade burning:

I still feel burdened by a financial debt, but having had it included in the book gave it more air somehow. It exists, it is there and I will need to repay it. While I’m not able to do that now, I am not sinking into hopelessness around it, but it is as if there is a ‘placeholder’ – this acknowledgement also acknowledges my responsibility for the debt “ and ‘It was useful to have a structure within which to reflect on my debt. It is interesting to have a more positive and restorative conversation around debt, rather than the same old cyclical story’.

Brett also talked about technology driving change in this area and how money has been acting as an intermediary technology designed to ‘resolve trust problems between strangers in transactions, but in so doing it atomises human relationships. It has psychological feedback built into it, so perhaps it might achieve the aim of facilitating exchange but in so doing it breaks down societal cohesion. With internet –enabled monetary systems, they can become a new way of sharing both information and new  ‘trust-metrics’ can start to develop alternative forms of exchange – eg gift platforms, time banking, peer-to-peer systems, open source economic systems etc.’.

The example of time banks came up at this point, and the tension in the idea that they take a lot of time  (!) to administrate once scaled up. I gave the example of the closed system of childcare swaps I have set up with three other families at my children’s school. An example of a gift economy, instead of each paying for childcare we found enough of an affinity  (children’s ages and existing friendships) for it to work on a weekly basis. With this, as well as time enabling us to work and work away more easily, have come other ‘relational resources’ that would not come with paid childcare, which arise out of putting oneself in a trust system to co-support each other – deepening friendship bonds, conflict resolution sharing if issues arise, last minute help more likely available since there is on-going communication etc.

There was a question at this point –in seeking to look at this as ‘system’ that could be used more widely – at the lack of diversity that this ‘system’ entails – i.e. It relies on an affinity with parents with perhaps similar values in order to work and is not open to all, it is exclusive (I think the word ‘pluto-facist was even mooted at one point. Well yes, it is an individually-initiated gift system within a small-scale community where affinity is an essential component to making it work. And children are humans with relational sensitivities not commodities..)  Brett pointed out that there is a trade-off in any gift –based system like this where there can be an inherent conservatism and it raises the question of how to balance the two – i. e not wanting to get into a system where there you could be stuck in an oppressive set of relationships where you are bound to your community (more relevant I think to what happens within families over time, Brett gave the example of communities in the poorest areas of South Africa, where most systems of exchange are non-monetary) . But at the same time the other end of the scale is a situation of extreme alienation and no network of relationships at all.

‘The Gift that is not used is lost, while one that is passed along remains abundant’ (Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and The Artist in the Modern World).

One thing I omitted to say at this point about gift based systems – and which applies to the childcare swaps I am part of – is that it is not restricted to exchanges between two individuals, it is the needs of the group –which change over time (i.e. sometimes I or someone else are away working more often than someone else in the group and so need more support, but that might change the following month) which are the determining factor for how often a particular swap will occur. It is the idea of a transferable gift, on a more esoteric level this related to the idea of karma, that when we give it comes back to us, but not always from the same source to which we gave.

This is an inherent quality of the gift and also of debt, and the perversion of this in the current economic context is that financial debts can be sold on to companies with whom we did not choose to enter into a financial relationship, and who then are invested with a moral power to pursue and hound until a result is secured, regardless of changing circumstance. More on that next time, as I drill down into the focus of this current Volume of The Book of Debts, coming to the streets of Birmingham from next week –details to follow soon….

Burning the Books Portslade - on the streets

Touring The Book of Debts

The very fact that we don’t know what debt is, the very flexibilty of the concept, is the basis of its power…  David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years.

Here begins a new chapter for Burning the Books, making and unmaking new public work, alongside exploring what debt, as a construct, is, how we relate to it and what its social, emotional and spiritual impact might be … mediated through the platform of The Book of Debts itself and my rollercoaster of a journey with it, both on an artistic and personal, human level (inseparable as they are, in my opinion).

Brilliant  news is that we received support through Arts Council England to tour this work over the next 18 months and this blog will be a continuation and development of the R+D project blog hosted by Artists Talking.

The irony of being publicly funded to make a touring work centering on the notion of debt during a time of recession is not lost on me, but seems very appropriate. I see it both as a live, symbolic ritual work with a range of cultural and socio-economic resonances and also as a free public service of a practically futile yet potentially transformative kind (if feedback from past contributors is anything to go by).

At the suggestion of a number of people, I will be re-posting some of the R+D blog, which gives the personal, narrative background to the project (my financial demise and the impact that being a debtor had on my practice and ideas) and what then happened in Liverpool in 2011 with Burning the Books I through Giving into Gift  and Volume II in Portslade earlier this year through Blank Gallery, supported by an R+D from Arts Council. Here is a really clear and succinct article from AN on my work there, to give you a flavour. Oh, and the video documentation of the final recital and burning of the Book of Debts II in Portslade to fill out the picture a little more.

We will be taking the current Volume(III) of The Book of Debts, to fill in Birmingham through October with a burning on November 2nd (details to come ) and as of now, anyone can browse existing contributions to The Book of Debts and add their own online to be recited and burned on that day.

I’ll be in Birmingham later this week for the launch of Fierce Festival, our partners there, and will be contributing to sessions on Alternative Economies as part of a Live Arts Futures gathering. I have just been looking at the brilliant writing on alternative currencies of one of the other contributors to those sessions, Brett Scott, check out his blog and also recent book, a Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance, which I have sent to my kindle and will be reading on the train up…


The recital and burning of The Book of Debts in Portslade, Sussex, was the finale to a 4 month period of research and development for the project, funded by Arts Council England and hosted by Blank Gallery, where Azadeh was in residence.

On- street  debt – collecting  included encounters with pawnbrokers, shopkeepers, charity workers and other unsuspecting strangers and Azadeh paid visits to homeless residential charity Emmaus and an older peoples freedom club where she sat and recited stories from the Book and scribed down new ones given to her by the groups.

Burning the Books online  was developed and launched with The Swarm and a large proportion of contributions to The Book of Debts then came in online..

Azadeh also devised a text on the multiple meanings of debt  which ran around the gallery walls and acted as an intro to the final recital and burning on May 18th and is documented on video here.

Her R+D project blog gives a reflective account of the whole process.