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.


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