Urban Dialogues, London

Burning the Books (Urban Dialogues). Photo: Sogand Bahram

Burning the Books (Urban Dialogues). Photo: Sogand Bahram

 

 

 

The Book of Debts Vol VII launched at Red Gallery, London on September 3rd, 7pm as part of Navigations  a group show examining belief, part of the Urban Dialogues  arts programme, organised by the Three Faiths Forum and curated by artist Barby Asante.

It ran for two weeks and burnt on Sunday September 21st as part of the closing Festival , in collaboration with contributors from 3FF’s choir, the Mixed Up Chorus

The Book of Debts (VI), Lewes burns..

The Book of Debts VI, was recited and burned on Sunday June 8th 2014 at the back of the Foundry Gallery, Phoenix Estate, Lewes, East Sussex, on the site of the former Lewes Phoenix Theatre, including the studios of many local artists, which was recently completely destroyed by fire. The event closed the group show ‘Future Dreaming, at the Foundry, initiated by artist Guyan Porter and exploring systems for imagining the future.

I was joined  for the first time by 10 co-reciters, 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.

Book of Debts (V), Brighton and Hove recited and burned: images

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..

Yours,

Alinah Azadeh

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…

Letter to the People of Brighton and Hove

Invitation to contribute to The Book of Debts (V), from now until 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.  Before that, visit me for a free cup of tea and listen to me read you The Book at Hove Museum 2-4pm on Thursday May 8th. 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 weeks.

Yours indebtedly,

Alinah Azadeh

Life Before Debt and the ripped cloak

Reposted from my Interhuman blog: www.interhumanblog.wordpress.com

Last weekend I attended and presented The Book of Debts at Life Before Debt, a conference organized by the Jubilee Debt Campaign and hosted at SOAS.

I have spent days now trying to get my head around how to communicate the density and complexity of what I learnt there, through a line up of inspiring speakers and delegates alike.

I felt at the start of the project that debt was like a mountain and I had a teaspoon. Now it feels like a mountain range! And the highest mountain in view at the weekend, and percolating since then, has been the issues raised around unjust debts, both sovereign (nation-based, institution-led) and household.

Alinah and The Book@LifeBeforeDebt, SOAS, March 201
Alinah and The Book@LifeBeforeDebt, SOAS, March 2013

I have spent a few years now wondering how to get past and shift the perception of debt as merely a financial issue, which can be a barrier to engaging with the project on first sight (I don’t owe money, or if I do I’m not telling you about it – I’m not guilty!arg!). Now, finally I was in the company of 400 other people who not only take the broader social, moral, political, psychological context of debt deeply seriously, but also have a lot of specialist knowledge of it. The emphasis was of course on economic justice and ways to work towards this, so this post focuses on what came up and struck me most on that front, and uses the language of that sector, which is dramatic, and provocative (and rightly so). Yes, there was plenty to be depressed about. Debt peril, debt slavery, financial colonization, mounting household debt and mental health statistics.

But also it was an amazing space for gathering intelligence, feeling others commitment globally to work on a collective change and there were a number of solutions which came up too. At the closing, the incredible Njoki Njehu, grassroots organizer, ecological activist and women’s advocate of Jubillee South, gifted us with the story of the hummingbird gathering raindrops to help put out the forest fire, (see clip here), which was a really good tale to take away for mitigating what could feel like an insurmountable task ahead for those engaged in challenging the fundamentals of the system, such as the way money is created – like the extraordinary Ann Pettifor who just published ‘Just Money’, another for my list to read..) . Or just for facing and dealing with what is happening right now in society and how to approach and be gentler with one’s own self-expectations. As the keeper of a Book of Debts, at this time in history, I need to hear more poetic nuggets like this, to avoid overwhelm and to remind myself in my own small but focused role in opening up dialogues with those I meet through the project and who engage with it on whatever level.

There will be a film edited from the day, which I will link to when it’s up and will do a far better job than I can of capturing the day..

I want to mention a few people though, like New York social and cultural analyst /activist/writer/lecturer Andrew Ross, focused on household debt, of Strike Debt and the inspirational Rolling Jubilee as well as the Strike Student Debt movement in the US, who has just written a book called Creditocracy, presented here , so eloquently coining phrases and raising questions that I could not scribble fast enough, like :

The struggle over debt is the primary conflict of our times.

Money comes into being as interest bearing debt, it does not exist hitherto. (Something the Bank of England only recently admitted to)

Wall street predatory lending is an extreme form of usury.

What the system wants from us is to perform a lifetime of debt service …

Debt is the battle line for consent. We need to customise strategies, and reverse the morality of debt to hold creditors to account…

The debt trap has migrated from the global south to the global north…

How does democracy survive when you are on the road to debt serfdom?

At the opening he picked up on the questioning by Rowan Williams (former Arch bishop of Canterbury and author of some excellent speeches and articles on economy and morality) of the ‘we should always pay our debts’ morality (or psychological patterning) around debt which enables irresponsible lending to take place, lenders to remain silent and our entire system to now be built apon debt, with – as his students put it ‘ Our futures foreclosed’ . Nyoki Nyehu, questioned the concept of forgiveness – and charity – in relation to socio- economic, unjust or odious debts.

They said it should be a no-no in this context as this implies there is something to forgive, a negative value, setting up a hierarchy, as then if your debt is forgiven, you owe the person who forgives you It is not empowering and it adds a layer of indebtedness and the idea of payback. We could explore this is other areas of human behaviour and relationship too. 

They suggested the same could be said of charity (my Caritas ears pricked up!) ‘Charity suggests a judgement about the moral worth of the individual – that they need to be in need to be helped’ i.e. those humans don’t have automatic right to the basics of life. I want it look at this more.

Rowan Williams cited the principles of Leviticus –which he noted have been totally and utterly ignored and subverted in real terms in our society – such as:

‘Do not seek profit from another’s misery’ i.e. don’t manage lending to someone in such a way as to deprive the debtor his or her essential survival.

Don’t lend aggressively – i.e. making money make money

‘The land does not belong to anyone. The land is on loan to you by God – you are already indebted to it. You trade its use not the land itself (cf irresponsible development of land based on monetisation not needs of local communities)

Ownership is never absolute in a world where you are dependent on what you haven’t made

He talked about the spiral of asymmetry re debt and credit and that all we can do are ‘limit the spiral’. He also mentioned the prohibitions of unlimited collateral, i.e. ‘Don’t take as security for a debt something that someone else needs, that is, don’t take the cloak that covers the back’ So then I thought of course of St Martin.. That will come later too, as I draw on this for my Isle Perdu Amiens commission.

He said we have to ask what are the ethics of lending? And question the blindness of creditors to the social and moral effects of debt. He was very succinct, with great gravity and dignity, I like him. I was a bit gutted to learn though that the Church of England pension fund still holds £80k investment in Wonga

My head is spinning simply writing these words. So time to gather some raindrops and check The Book of Debts, which just launched  at Fabrica, Brighton until May 22.

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…)