Letter to the People of Lewes: Invitation to contribute to The Book of Debts (VI)


We may meet, we may have met, or .. we may never meet. I am an artist, debtor and keeper of The Book of Debts, which – one Volume per location – is being filled with stories, recited aloud and burned in symbolic acts of imaginary debt relief, as it travels the UK (supported by Arts Council, England). From 7pm May 30th until 4.30pm, June 8th 2014, The Book of Debts, Volume VI, will be hosted in our town. It will be part of Future Dreaming, a new touring group exhibition exploring systems for imagining and creating the future, at the Foundry Gallery, 32 North St, Phoenix Estate. Lewes.

What do you think about when you think about debt? I invite you to read, reflect on and add to Volume VI of the Book, anonymously, which is open to anyone who finds it – whether borrower or lender, past or present.  What is in your/our collective book of human accounts?  Money, rights, time, love, attention ?  Shame, denial, regret, anger, injustice, inequality, gratitude? Who owes what to whom? Do all debts have to be repaid?  When is it ok not to pay?  What is our responsibility to the land we use and how it is shaped, for future generations?  What would you have written off, call to account or want to draw attention to?  The debt entered may be financial, social, emotional, historical, political, ecological or spiritual – or a combination. Take a moment to reflect on a subject that has a huge power over society and yet is hard to grasp – and is always about more than money.

The Lewes Book has begun its life in the hands of the Living Well Dying Well Foundation and the writers group Bourne to Write before its pages open at Future Dreaming. 

You can take part in the following ways:  

  • In person at the gallery, at the preview, 30th May, 7 – 9pm, then open every day 12 5.30pm (except Monday). I’m there 12 -2pm for tea, one-to-one recitals/ writing sessions.
  • At the Lewes Pound Stall, Farmers Market on Saturday June 7th  and on the streets until 1pm.
  • Via: www.burningthebooks.co.uk

 All contributions will form part of the final recital and burning, at Foundry Gallery at 4.30pm on Sunday June 8th, 2014, followed by a celebratory wake, ending by 5.30/6pm. Free. The content of The Book is dependent on those who fill its pages, and is unique to the place in which it resides. Lewes is a unique place so expect a Book like no other so far…

Does burning a Book of Debts matter? The question of artist as agent of social change

Please note: The Book of Debts, Vol VI, Lewes, is now open online. It will open its physical pages at the Foundry Gallery, Lewes, as part of a touring group show Future Dreaming, on Friday May 30th, 7-9pm and the recital and burning will take place on Sunday June 8th, 4.30pm details here.

I took part in an in-conversation event with French artist Samuel Rousseau the other week at Fabrica gallery, where I have been a resident artist since February,  entitled ‘Can artists be agents of social change?’ The question of art and social change is one I had raised at the start of my residency, mainly in response to peoples diverse readings of my Burning the Books project, Volume V of which culminates this week in Brighton as my residency at Fabrica draws to a close: is it activism, a political statement, a protest? Is it a shamanic ritual, a spiritual thing? Is it a secular confessional? What is it? Is it really art?

My own answer is (since I keep being asked and this week it feels apt to put it in writing): it is a public intervention, a poetic framework, for whatever the person ’reading‘ it chooses it to be. It is a gift I am giving away, an empty space, with specific parameters. It has been seen/used as a provocation, a creative form of resistance (for example when featured at the Life Before Debt conference recently at SOAS). It has also been related to as a source of comfort and healing for past hurts, bordering on the therapeutic – or simply a way of opening up a deeply personal and poetic reconsideration of what this poorly understood but powerful construct of debt means or can mean, when seen in a broader way (i.e. looking at it beyond the financial) and therefore how its impact on the individual and society can change with this shift in perception. For some it is just a playful but rather intrusive way of asking people to ask themselves some searching questions about their own responsibilities towards themselves and others are, at a personal and societal level. And on how they relate to the past and how this affects their view of themselves, others and their future. I list these as readings that have been given to me over the last two years.

To me Burning the Books was an idea for an intervention that I felt compelled to make, and never thought to repeat. It arose from personal experiences, many of which have been recounted on my project blog. A play on how as humans we look for ways to end things, before they are over, and on rituals which can bring us to a place in which we can re- imagine our place in the world, in the face of experiences that are hard to accept or own. The idea came as a gift, an image, after a period of action-  research through the artists development programme Giving into Gift/Present in Public in Liverpool in 2011. And that is my primary task with this and all my other work – to materialize an idea, in this case in a a series of different volumes and contexts, to bring it to its fullness – until it ends in May/June next year.

Samuel and I exchanged our experiences of working and talked about the relationship between art and social change as a very old question; in some sense, there has always been this inter-feed, at the level of culture and society being interdependent and of new ways of seeing self /society being made visible through culture activity (cubism, situationism etc.). As artists respond to what is been happening in the world around them, in turn this response has a societal influence. We share this desire to have our work cross interhuman borders, being accessible to those who might never venture into a gallery or museum, but this is true for many artists now, nothing unusual (or am I just surrounded by certain kinds of artists?).

And surely artists, unless vacuum-sealed into studios with no notion or interest in what is going on beyond the walls, are always responding to what is happening in society, which may affect them only at a personal level. You can’t ignore life. Currently, given socio-economic major shifts and human crises at all levels affecting everyone, to NOT respond in some way to the inequality, suffering and conflict in the world, is to miss the point of being human. This may be through traditional or non-traditional means, it doesn’t’ matter. (The response may be to make work that is an escape from that, which is still a response)

My own belief that everything we do affects everything else, that one simple action affects the world means that a small ritual act like burning a (proxy) book of debt, imaginary though it is, has an effect, Whether that is on the contributors themselves or on the wider creative commons of the reconsideration of how debt operates, it makes a difference. Maybe if I were truly brave and solely concerned with the socio-political dimensions of those debts that are unjust, I would have done what the Francisco Tapia just did in Chile, burning $500m of real, student debt.  But my role is to cast a broader net than that, (though I have spoken on, collected and burnt plenty of unjust debt, symbolically in the last 2 years) and to invite in as broad and possibly contradictory responses to the subject as possible. It has increasingly become a space for people to express heartfelt ‘debts of gratitude’, the other side of the coin of debt, and for these to be made public through The Book. Thus gift and debt eclipse each other in the same space.

To hear this extraordinarily wide range of takes on what debt is and the kind of stories it compels people to share, read them here or come and listen to my intro at the Foundry next Friday (or watch  a recent intro here, ) and join us  the recital  of Volume VI on Sunday June 8th. And decide for yourself.

All contributions remain in a digital archive and many may be edited into a future publication at the end of the tour.


Letter To The People of Brighton and Hove – final days of The Book of Debts

Invitation to contribute to The Book of Debts (V), from now until Thursday, May 22, 2014

 Dear Strangers,

We may meet, or we may never meet. I am an artist, debtor and keeper of The Book of Debts, which – one Volume per location – is being filled with stories of debt, recited aloud and burned, as it travels the UK. We are now being hosted by Fabrica Gallery in Brighton, until May 22nd as part of my artist residency there.

What do you think about when you think about debt?  Money, time, love, attention? Shame, denial, regret, anger, injustice? Family, obligation, gratitude? Who owes what to whom? Do all debts have to be repaid? When is it ok not to pay?  How responsible are we for what we, our family, community or nation owe? I invite you read, reflect and add to the pages of this current Book of Debts, which now sits in Fabrica and is open to anyone who finds it – whether borrower or lender, past or present. The debt entered can be owed by you – or to you. Or it may be owed to or by a third party. It may be financial, social, emotional, political, ecological or spiritual – or a combination of the above. All contributions are anonymous,  – unless you choose to identify yourself –  and you can enter  as many debts as you like.

The project offers you a conversation about debt you might not expect to have. Here is a moment to reflect on a subject which has a huge power over individuals and society and yet is only a construct, an idea, an agreement, subject to change and circumstance. Read and add to the shared stories of those who inhabit the same city as you, online or in the gallery.  All contributions will form part of the final recital. To witness the recital and burning of this volume of The Book of Debts, meet at Fabrica Gallery at 6.30pm on Thursday May 22nd and be led to an outdoor site.  I will also be on the streets of central Brighton with it and my firekeeper on the afternoon of Sunday 18th May , as well as unannounced in other parts of the city through the month. Watch me talking about my Fabrica activity in their gallery film here (8 mins in)

The content of The Book is dependent on those who fill its pages, and is unique to the place in which it resides. As a previous resident of this City, I am curious to see what else will cover its pages over the coming days – there are already almost 200 entries to date..


Alinah Azadeh

Lewes, East Sussex

The Book of Debts VI (Lewes – the artists hometown)

On Friday May 30th, at 7.30pm, Alinah  introduced and opened The Book itself at the preview (7-9pm) of Future Dreaming,  at the Foundry Gallery, Phoenix Estate, Lewes. A touring group exhibition initiated by artist Guyan Porter, it explores systems for imagining and creating the future. The project features work by Guyan, Hollington and Kyprianou, Mark C Hewitt and Xelis de Toro.

Contributions came in thick and fast, and The Book began its life  at a Death Cafe run  by Living Well, Dying Well and three writers groups run by Bourne to Write 

The Book of Debts VI, was recited and burned on Sunday June 8th 2014 at the back of the Foundry Gallery on the site of the former Lewes Phoenix Theatre, including the studios of many local artists, which was recently completely destroyed by fire.

I was joined  for the first time by 10 co-reciters from the community, whose powerful and moving entries to The Book brought a whole new dimension to the project. Around 120 people stood on the land to listen to the 92 stories contained in The Book, which is at the centre of a conflicted vision for its future, between corporate and sanitised development plans and the preservation of its existing cultural capital , built up over 7 years by cultural, educational and community workers and groups of all kinds.

Debt: a creature of reciprocity

Reposted from my Interhuman blog, as part of my residency at Fabrica Gallery, Brighton, where the The Book of Debts V currently resides.

The very fact that we don’t know what debt is, the very flexibility of the concept, is the basis of its power’ David Graeber -‘ Debt, The first 5000 Years’

This week I updated the online version of The Book of Debts, from the physical version in the gallery.(Read or add to it here). There were around 30 new entries from the last time I was in, and it was moving to read and transcribe a whole batch in one go like that, quite a rollercoaster!
From ‘I owe everything to everyone‘ to ‘I expect nothing and I promise nothing’ shows me once again that our relationship to debt is perceptual. There are debts of labour, love, time, lives lost and saved, relationships broken and redeemed. Debts to unions, banks, thinkers, do-ers, teachers, lovers, rock stars, mothers, the earth .. and the contributors themselves. With the odd heckle in between. Brighton is of course surfacing a beautiful eclectism which I am familiar with as a former resident, and now the Festival has begun I’m wondering what else will cover its pages up to May 22nd, when we recite and burn it (meet at Fabrica, 6.30pm if you want to hear /watch it)

I asked once again the leading question ‘What do you think about when you think about debt?’ at a talk/writing session I gave to gallery volunteers (who are at the frontline of the project at the moment at Fabrica, as the interface between it and the public) and a whole spectrum of responses came up – many of which, as I note-take at each such encounter, are being absorbed into the Ode to Debt / provocation that acts as my intro at live events. I am collecting definitions, responses, metaphors, like so many brushstrokes of a painting that I cannot yet clearly see from frame to frame. From fear, guilt and powerlessness to generosity and gratitude, there is always a growing sense when bringing the subject to the table that debt is something that is elusive and hard to understand, a threat, a stalking beast, or at the very least a subject requiring a degree of self-honesty or transparency that can be threatening to even contemplate.
Except when talking of debts of gratitude. Gratitude and indebtedness seem to often eclipse each other or even wear each other’s clothes. My understanding is that gratitude, like gift, does not come at a price, but indebtedness can easily follow in its wake, depending on the relationship of the recipient to the giver or even to the act of being given something – which may be culturally dependent. Within indebtedness lies the idea that there is something the recipient wants to repay to the other party, hence the word debt in its midst. At the heart of this is exchange, equality and power – and most of the entries in the The Book so far speak of this, if they don’t speak of gratitude/indebtedness.

David Graeber writes in his ‘Debt, The first 5000 Years’  (the first ever history of debt) that debt ‘is strictly a creature of reciprocity‘ but that ‘All human interactions are not forms of exchange, Only some are. Exchange encourages a particular way of conceiving human relations. This is because exchange implies equality, but it also implies separation. It’s precisely when the money changes hands, when the debt is cancelled, that equality is restored and both parties can walk away and have nothing further to do with each other.
Debt is what happens in between; when the two parties cannot yet walk away from each other, because they are not yet equal. But it is carried out in the shadow of eventual equality. Because achieving that equality , however, destroys the very reason for having a relationship , just about everything human happens in between – even if this means that all such human relations bear with them at least a tiny element of criminality, guilt or shame.’

Hence, the presence of debt in almost every great literary drama, the depiction of that ‘space in between’ where everything human – read interesting – happens! For a brilliant ride through that, read “Payback:Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth’ by Margaret Atwood, which also inspired an excellent recent documentary featuring the writer herself – and ‘arch villain’ Conrad Black – made by Jennifer Bachwal.
So, debt is inherently relational and so in shifting ones relationship to it, the debt itself can change shape. I found this with our financial situation of debt, which I have disclosed on the earlier pages of this blog, and which prompted my interest in the subject. It used to be a symbol of literal terror, shaking the very foundations of my being, until I got clear on my rights, the outer limits of own my moral compass, opened up to support and got clear on what I was and was not responsible for. With clarity and information, the terror turned to curiosity, and an ongoing project was born…

I’m next out with The Book of Debts (which is filling steadily, check some of the entries online here) at Hove Museum on Thurs May 8th 2-4pm. If you come and see me, I will offer you a free cup of tea, in return for your attention to the subject of debt, the shadow side of gift, in all its dark glory and transformative potential.

I’ll also be in conversation with French artist Samuel Rousseau 7-8pm on the same day, May 8th,  at Fabrica, on the subject of artist as agent of social change (question mark) details here.. Please come and join in the conversation. It’s free, nothing will be left owing…