The Book of Debts (V) opens its pages – in prologue, at Life Before Debt..

 ‘It is not without reason that our financial elites have been called a priesthood. Donning ceremonial garb, speaking an arcane language, wielding mysterious inscriptions, they can with a mere word or a mere stroke of a pen, cause fortunes and nations to rise and fall’ Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein

So, it is impossible as an artist and human being, having experienced and recounted what I have around the subject of debt (in both financial, socio-political and psychological, interpersonal terms, for they are almost always related), and seeing the same happening all around me – to be neutral in the face of the growing imbalance and inequality, both in this country and globally.

The Book of Debts itself is a neutral space, a series of blank pages – open to debtors, creditors alike and to any form of debt – but I find it increasingly difficult, as an individual, not to make judgments or adopt a position re the system, this house of cards, we are all trying to exist within and how it is exacerbating this gap at high speed. I have spoken before about the dimension of illusion and absurdity that characterises debt creation , especially at the level of global capital and developing countries, but also here in the UK. David Graeber wrote an article this week ‘The truth is out: money is just an IOU, and the banks are rolling in it’ on how even the banks have admitted that they are making the whole thing up, ‘throwing out the window the theoretical case for austerity’, as well as the exemption of financial elites from cuts and proper taxes. I am excited that he will be one of the speakers at this Saturdays Life Before Debt conference at SOAS, where we were originally invited to do a full cycle of Burning the Books, but now – ironically, due to lack of permission re the fire – will open the Book of Debts (V), present at the opening session, gather entries and reflect briefly on the day at the closing plenary.

Although I do not consider myself a campaigner, social justice has become an inherent part of this project since there are so many stories that call apon the book to voice this. It is a holistic project but it is increasingly clear that there IS no debt without a story, and every sum of money owed carries a tale of some kind- whether this is an injustice, an act of generosity, a highlighting of inequality or a reminder of the capacity of human beings to work together to resist and /or to forgive. I am looking forward to what I will learn from activists, academics and other practitioners from around the world this weekend, and how it will feed into this project and my thinking on the residency.

I will share a few of the stories I will gather on Saturday here next week in the build up to the launch of the Brighton Book of Debts at Fabrica on Sunday April 65-6pm (please come along and be one of the early contributors to what will be an extremely diverse and enriching volume).

(Reposted from my Interhuman blog documenting my residency at Fabrica til May, where the next Book of Debts will be taking up residence from April 6th.. So there will be a cross-over between these two blogs for a while…)

 

Burning The Book of Debt, Birmingham – photos.

Life Before Debt, SOAS, London

The Book of Debts Vol V, took up a one day residency at the Life Before Debt conference, at The School for Oriental  and African Studies,  invited and hosted by the Jubilee Debt Campaign on Saturday 29th March 2014. 

This volume (V) of The Book was open  for delegates – and anyone – to add to online, and all entries made that day are now in The Brighton and Hove Book of Debts, to be burned on May 22nd.  

I offered up a short  provocation at the opening of the conference, containing an invitation to add to The Book of Debts throughout the day , which was due to be burnt in the grounds of SOAS at 1.40pm. However, permission to burn was refused by SOAS and so all debts were rolled over to the Brighton and Hove Volume of The Book, hosted by Fabrica Gallery and burning on May 22nd, the final week of the Brighton Festival . 

Alinah@Lifeb4debt

Life Before Debt, March 29th 2014. Photo by Emma Marshall

Although there may well be a strong emphasis on unjust and unpayable debt of a financial nature, The Book accepts debts of all kinds, containing and contrasting the financial,  the social, the emotional, the political, the ecological and the spiritual dimensions and narratives of  this powerful human construct. It is a holistic project and no debt is too small – or too big – to be included.

This event will be an unusual one, as we are used to audiences who may not be used to thinking about debt – at least not beyond the financial – in any great depth!. Here we will be facing 400 delegates, may of whom are experts in their fields, have written or are talking on the subject in great depth and detail. It brings together those across disciplines – academics, activists, anthropologists, faith practitioners, economists – all in the same room. Check out the extraordinary range of speakers exploring the moral, social, economic and political issues involved in a series of sessions throughout the day.

This invitation came about through encountering John Nightingale, the Birmingham head of the JDC, as I sat with The Book of Debts at  The Library of Birmingham in October – which then led to us being hosted by the Cathedral. To John I owe a debt of gratitude.

There will be a film about the conference and the full programme is here .

Here is the programme of what was a very enriching day.

 

What do you think about when you think about debt? (some responses from Birmingham)

I had two very different Burning the Books sessions last week, opening The Book of Debts to both groups, in preparation for this weekends performance. In October, we tried to access a number of groups to whom the issues of this project might be specifically relevant, but it wasn’t always easy, given the subject matter, and our lack of knowledge and forthcoming contacts in Birmingham at that time. I am very grateful for these two invitations, both were  thought and heart provoking  encounters and I am hoping that many of the contributors present will be there on Saturday – it gives the event a meaning and fullness
My first, very small but intimate group, organized by effervescent actor, writer and storyteller Gavin Young, was at the Old Joint Stock Theatre  (which used to be a bank, I like!) . They were full of curiosity, insightful and profound in their creative developing of the concept of debt and how it might influence their choice of story to add the project (still open for Birmingham contributions till this Saturday, 3.30pm).

WriterBloc BTB session

WriterBloc BTB session

My second, with around 30 young student writers, organized by Writers Bloc manager and creative producer Elisha Owen, took place in an art room at the top of Birmingham Uni. Just getting through the responses to the question:
What do you think about when you think about debt? Took most of the session, which was actually perfect as it (1). Always expands my own understanding of the subject (2). Felt like everyone had voiced themselves however briefly, and their written stories – of debts they were proud of/grateful for/frightened of/burdened by/ prepared to repay/may never repay/ share with others, went in written form, quietly, powerfully, into the book.
Although first thoughts go to money, it doesn’t take long for people to grasp, play around with and come up with what else debt can be about or bring up – and it quickly gets dramatic! Until someone points out that there is a solar side to debt too, then the debate gets interesting.

So here is the sweep of words and phrases that came up in response to
What do you think about when you think about debt?

Money, burden, loss, relationships, emotion, life – not speaking it, survival, pain, struggle, home, ancestry, duty, unreal, imbalance, power, chase and escape, suicide, responsibility, the diggers, immateriality, fear, born into slavery, feelings, powerlessness, actions, fluctuating, undead, a trap, cultural, anxiety, guilt, personal, community, a necessity, empowering, what we owe newton, Kentucky route zero ( a video game about debt!).

And the stories, well, they are in The Book of Debts and you are invited  to add your own,  come along to Cathedral Square to hear them being read aloud this Saturday . Event details on Facebook and here. We will be exploring the question of debt as part of an opening talk at 2.30 inside the Cathedral  with myself, the Dean and John Nightingale of Jubilee Debt Campaign before we open up The Book for final contributions, prior to the recital and burning.

As I am going to be wandering around with The Book of Debts (and my firekeeper) on Friday 3.30-5pm and Saturday 11-12.30 in the Colmore District, I think these simple questions I asked of these groups may be all I need to open the conversation with strangers I encounter and businesses I approach  (apart from assuring them I am not selling anything or trying to convert them to a cause). We will see!

End Hunger Fast – A Debt of equality

Last week on my trip to Birmingham –  which happened to fall on Ash Wednesday  –  I met some extraordinary people. Among them was Matthew,  who had just set up a Hunger Hut with some in the grounds of the Cathedral, as part of the End Hunger Fast campaign. I used to do the fast of Ramadan years ago and know the power of it as both a personal and political act. They are doing a fasting relay to protest against food poverty in the UK caused by political policy and one of the initiators, the inspiring and radical Rev Keith Hebden, is doing a 40 day total fast, you may have seen this in the news. There is a lot around on this subject at the moment in the news and on the street, as every single safety net is being slashed in the guise of necessary austerity (in contrast to the uncollected corporate taxes which could render this totally unnecessary) and I think it’s difficult to make one’s voice heard amidst all of it, this panic, this moral crisis, where economy and ethics seem to have been set to different rooms and told not to speak to each other by those feverishly dismantling the welfare state.

But ancient rituals and disciplines, that double up as both spiritual and political acts – whether fasting or burning debts – can capture the imagination in a more oblique way.  

I asked Matthew to enter a debt into The Book  of Debts (read all Birmingham contributions here, they are powerful – and remember you can add yours before 3.15  Saturday to have it be read and burned as part of the finale )  and also to  talk a bit about fasting as a public act. Here is what he said.

End Hunger Fast @ BHam Cathedral

End Hunger Fast @ BHam Cathedral

 

‘ A debt of socio-economic equality owed by the government to the poorest in society

End Hunger Fast is a national campaign to protest against recent policies by our government which are putting the rich before the poor . The government is saying that it’s ok for the richer to keep getting richer and the victims of that – the poorest people in our society – to be left at the bottom.  We have got to a stage now in our society where we actually have –  in the 21st century in Britain –  people who are going hungry and can’t afford to eat – or who are reliant on charity. What we  are saying is, we don’t think that’s right and we don’t think that is a just situation for our country. Already we have been here since 8.30  this morning and we have had a stream of people giving their own personal testimonies, their own stories of how they have been affected by the bedroom tax, by the benefit cuts, penalties to benefits.

There was one man who was here earlier talking about how he had gone to other countries in Europe and found short-term work and when he came back he was barred from the benefits system because he had been out of the country!

So even people who are making an effort to go and get a  job, to find work are being penalised by the system. And really this is a way of us speaking up; using our voice to say that we are not happy with this situation and we want our government to take account of that and to think about the poorest people in society when they are making those decisions.

 

The act of fasting

Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline and I highly recommend it to anyone – so I would recommend it to David Cameron and it’s a very complex discipline. So it has the spiritual benefits but also something that has been used through history as a political tool, as a campaigning tool. Famously by Mahatma Gandhi. So, fasting in this context really is about our own spiritual experience of putting ourselves in the shoes of people who don’t have food. So we are not saying ‘o we have got plenty of food but we are going to campaign for people who haven’t got food, aren’t we good?  We are saying, actually, part of this I understanding their experience. And it could be argued that there is an element of naivety about that as well, in that choosing to not have food is very different from being forced not to have food. But it’s about grounding the experience in something real, something physical  – and something spiritual. And it’s about communicating how important this is to us. We are talking about realities that are difficult to articulate, difficult to explain in full, but there is a power to fasting, which can change things.  And we do want to testify that we believe in that .’