A place to live. Owed to my grand mother, by me – her granddaughter.

20 years old, single, living in an B+B, my maternal grandmother offered me her spare bedroom for me to live in.

I was pregnant. I gave birth in the local hospital. Her house was my sons first home. We stayed until we were ready to move on. I will make sure I make my gratitude explicitly clear before it’s too late.

I now have a grandchild of my own. 5 generations.

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.

 

Letter to the People of Birmingham

Dear Strangers

We may meet, or we may never meet. I am an artist, debtor and the keeper of The Book of Debts,  which is currently touring the UK.  One Volume per location, it is filling with human stories of debt – past and present, online and in public places. Its stories then form a public performance unique to that place. They are recited aloud before being burned – in an act of symbolic debt relief – followed by a celebratory ‘wake’.

 The Book of Debts is now in Birmingham until March 15th and I invite you to get involved in any of the free events coming up, or you can read or contribute to The Book of Debts online and I will only know you through your words. The book is only as powerful as the contributions it contains…

 

So, what do you think about when you think about debt?  Money, time, love, attention, gratitude? Shame, denial, regret, anger, injustice? Love, community, compassion, forgiveness? Who owes what to whom?  Do all debts have to be repaid?  How responsible are we for what family, our community, nation or we owe?  Is there a story you would like to see an end to?  From priests to market traders, activists to office workers, students to bankers, The Book of Debts is open to anyone who finds it, whether debtor or creditor – past or present. The debt can be owed by you or to you. Or it may be owed to or by a third party – individual or institution.  It may be financial, social, emotional, ecological or spiritual – or all of the above. All entries are anonymous and you can add as many as you like.

I was at the Library of Birmingham, gathering stories this winter – take a look.  Here are the next opportunities:

  • March 4, 5.30-7.30pm, I will be at the Old Joint Stock theatre, introducing the project as part of a free, informal creative writing session, hosted with writer and storyteller Gavin Young and open to all.
  •  March 5, (Ash Wednesday) I’ll be visiting the End Hunger Fast campaign in the grounds of Birmingham Cathedral in the morning, followed by further workshops for young writers at University of Birmingham, hosted by Writers Bloc.
  • Friday March 14, promenade in the afternoon – around Colmore Row, in search of further contributions.
  • Saturday March 15, 2.30 – 4.30pm Final Event, hosted in and around Birmingham Cathedral. Details here.

Please share –facebook event here or @burningthebooks. All events are free. To contact us mail: books@burningthebooks.co.uk, call Elizabeth on 0787 353232 – or just welcome me with an open mind when you see me with my Book..

­

Yours truly

Alinah Azadeh

 

Birmingham

The Book of Debts, Birmingham was recited and burned on Saturday March 15, 2014, outside Birmingham Cathedral.

14.3 trillion, 35.8 billion, 307 thousand, and 50 pence of unpaid financial debt and a whole spectrum of over 70 stories of other kinds of debt were sent to their fiery grave.

Alinah visited the Colmore District /Square with The Book of Debts on Friday 14th and Saturday 15th in the morning with her Firekeeper, talking to strangers, reading them existing stories and gathering final contributions to the Birmingham book.

The Book of Debts, Birmingham opened its pages on 17th October 2013, when Alinah began collecting at The Library of Birmingham and on the surrounding streets. Creative writing sessions with the artist took place prior to the event at Old Joint Stock Theatre and Writers Bloc, Birmingham University.

On the day, events unfolded as follows, involving both existing participants in the project as well as  members of the public using or passing through the Square who took an interest in joining the afternoons events .

2.30 Alinah, Catherine Ogle (the Dean of Birmingham Cathedral ) and John Nightingale (Jubilee Debt Campaign) in discussion in the North Aisle.Opening up the subject of debt with a small audience. 

3.15 An open session outside as the fire was started,  people read and contributed to The Book of Debts.

4.15 Final recital of The Book of Debts, before it was burned, followed by a celebratory ‘wake’.

Follow on twitter (#burningthebooks. ) or facebook for detailed updates of the next event. 

Book of Debts, Library of Birmingham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dying Language of the Loan Shark.. ?

Last weekend was the International Day for the Remembrance of Lost Species, a ritual-based, creative initiative which encourages people to hold in their hearts and minds a species which no longer walks, swims,flies or breathes on this planet. It’s a beautiful process and also rather devastating reminder of loss on such a mass scale. The extinct passenger pigeon was put into Volume II of The Book of Debts. On a lateral note,  I have been thinking of another species whose existence I would definitely be happy to see the back of: the loan shark, aka paylenders and other kinds of semi-illegal vulture-like outfits who are profiting from those most vulnerable and desperate in what are increasingly constrained times financially.

Last week, after constant pressure – including from the Church of England within the Lords – the government was at last been forced to cap the cost of payday loans. That took a long time and it doesn’t go far enough. Let’s hope it’s the start of a deep –rooted reform of that rotten and so far unregulated industry. However it does not solve the problem of what people do who have no credit rating or access to support or community and do not have money to feed or clothe their children. We were on the edge of this up to a year ago and it was only responsive members of our community of friends who made the difference. Poverty is a real issue and this has been highlighted today in the news, via Jack Munroes petition and is becoming more and more visible as each day passes, with foodbanks at an absolute and rapidly rising high.  I will be focusing on what alternatives and the new story around this might look like, but it’s hard for anyone to consider changing anything when their belly is empty and they can’t heat their house. When I was on the streets of Portslade in May, I went into a couple of pawnbrokers (sorry ‘Buy and Sell shop’s as they are now called..). It became clear that they had a steady stream of customers who brought in , often the smallest of items, just to raise the money to get to work or buy groceries. How can this be?!

So – finally! I find the right point in time to publish the following, which I have kept on my computer for three years and are a barometer of my recovery from my debt traumas of the past. What I am about to share are the email subject lines of communications sent me in the Winter of 2010 by a company called FLM Loans (it would be too long to share the entire emails) . They were one of the ‘small’ loans company with whom my brother took out – in this case a £3000 loan – for which I was guarantor, and therefore legally responsible for payback if he defaulted – I own this. I should never have signed, but I felt I owed him for past help, and so the cycle continued. And this company were only ones who pursued me to court, ignoring my debt management plan arrangements , which all other creditors accepted.

What fascinates me about this correspondence is that it is like a mini-opera, a tragi-comic series of communications for a loan which appeared on paper to be a loan at around 45% per cent and turned out to be, in fact, on closer inspection, for around 4000%. That fact and my lack of experience in discerning the true nature of the agreement was a gutting lesson in itself.

So, those who are involved with payday lenders or unhandleable loans of any kind will relate to this and possibly to the type of language being used.

The fact that I can put this into the public domain without reliving it in my body as a searing stomach-ache is a triumph over the past.Things have changed – for us. I remember how much power I gave these people to make me feel like a total loser at the time, despite this being the smallest of the loans on our credit file. Part of the pathology of the debtor that is fuelled by guilt and shame, on which such companies play. It was the straw that broke our back at the time, what made me give up trying to hold onto our house, our credibility, and our concept of a financial future. The psychological web they drew me into and the system they are part of is not something I think should be legal in any way shape or form. And I didn’t know any better than to follow the trail into the fire.

Winter 2010

 This correspondence came despite my initial responses to regular phone calls, often happening very late into the evening and intimidating in tone (‘We’ re going to take your house away, Alinah..’).It always started with me explaining calmly (as advised by Stepchange) that I was on a debt management plan and could honestly not afford an unfairly high single payment to them. Nothing I said changed their script and their tone became more aggressive – until I then got to know my rights (i.e that I could inform them by email that I did not want to be called on my mobile or landline but could only be contacted in writing). They then reverted to the following daily emails.

From ‘Ben’, ‘Tom’ or ‘James’ at FLM (first names to make me feel like they were somehow a bit friendlier (?!).

 

29/10/10: Thought you might like to know…

30/10/10: Me Again…

31/10/10: Let’s get this sorted together

1/11/10: Do you remember when you signed up as guarantor?

2/11/10: Can you give a helping hand?

3/11/10: Alinah, have you changed your number?

4/11/10: Alinah, there’s an easier way

5/11/10: Alinah, I’ve had a look

7/11/10: No luck yet

10/11/10: Alinah, there’s still time

12/11/10: Alinah look..

13/11/10: Alinah prove me wrong

14/11/10: Simon still needs you

15/11/10: Did you get my letter?

16/11/10: More than ever

17/11/10: Alinah I need to know

19/11/10: I don’t want to get to that stage

22/11/10: It’s never too late

23/11/10: I want to share something

25/11/10: Did you get my letter?

26/11/10: My manager’s advice (bailiffs, court action)

27/11/10: There’s not much I can do

29/11/10: Before it’s too late

1/12/2010: Should be your highest Priority

3/12/10: First step towards

(Default on account issued)

5/12/10: Before midnight tomorrow

9/12/10: One of two ways

11/12/10: Interested in the facts

13/12/10: Re: Breach of contract

15/12/10: Alinah look at the figures

17/12/10: Look at your case

19/12/10: A real option

21/12/10: County Court Judgment

23/12/10: Enforcing a County Court Judgment

16/1/2011: Do you want this to happen to you and Simon?

20/1/11:  Impact of an’ Attachment of Earnings’ on you, Alinah

24/1/1: Resigned to the fact?

28/1/11: Adjust to this kind of living.

5/2/11: Extreme measures we’ve had to take.

17/2/11: Pending court

21/2/11: Running out of time….

I was happy see that little progress on this via C of E pressure on George Osborne, let’s see how that unfolds. This is, after all, a moral and social well – being issue and NOT purely an economic one. Usury was, after all, illegal for centuries. (I will write more on that later).

However, dealing with debt is way more than just an issue of legislation, it is a collective mindset and a social, moral and philosophical question and it is that which I will begin to talk about more over this winter.

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…