How this project created itself…(1)

By request, and before I open the pages of The Book of Debts to the people of Birmingham this week, the next 4 posts are an edited reposting from my original BTB R+D blog begun in January of this year, hosted by A-N that tells my personal backstory of debt and how it influenced the hatching and forming of the idea for this project.( Full texts can be read here by clicking on page 3 and scrolling down).

(From # 1 [2 January 2013])

Where to begin?

There is a massive backstory to this project, which reflects both the rapidly changing and extraordinary  socio-economic climate we are living in, the historical threads that underpin it and within that my own personal and at times intensely painful experience of the impact of financial and associated emotional debt on mine and my family’s life over the last few years.

It was never my intention to make a work about debt, my/our last taboo. I have tackled birth, death, cultural displacement and loss in many forms, through a number of projects over the last decade.

I went through a period of intense questioning (in 2011) – intensified by cuts in public funding – as to whether a complete change of direction was approaching, perhaps a complete move away from ‘making work’ at all. All I can say is that, to some extent, this project was gifted to me in unexpected ways, which will be narrated through the course of this blog.

On November 12th 2011,  I was one of 6 artists out in Liverpool city centre making live work under the auspices of Present in Public, (PIP), a programme of gift-based interventions curated by Tim Jeeves through  Giving into Gift, supported by the Bluecoat /Arts Council England and now in its third year. It is defined as ‘. a meeting point between artists, their peers and the public… the beginning of a conversation around ideas of generosity and reciprocation and how these themes manifest’.

Drawing Emma Gregory, courtesy Giving into Gift

Drawing Emma Gregory, courtesy Giving into Gift

(From # 2 [3 January 2013]

…One of our first tasks when we arrived for session one was to take to the streets and indoor spaces of Liverpool on a busy Saturday afternoon with a set of optional research exercises, such as ‘make someone an offer they can’t refuse’, ‘offer something to someone that would be appropriate in a different space but isn’t appropriate where you are’ or ‘be still in the space until something is given to you’. I’ve worked with gift and exchange exercises to create work before, but never ‘naked’, i.e., with no build-up /assistance/materials/reflection time, as in The Gifts (2010), It’s what draws me to live art practice – the light-footed, in-the-moment nature of it.

With a time limit of 3 hours, I decided to go out onto the streets, with the intention to literally be led by my feet and these research exercises foremost in my head… feeling immediately out of my comfort zone and at that time still a smoker, I took out my tobacco and realized I had run out of papers. I went into the local supermarket to get some and at the counter I noticed the lottery ticket stand staring up at me, as if inviting me to action. I never play the lottery, I’m kind of against it in principle (gambling problem in my ancestry, more on that later).

I looked up at the cashier, bought some rizlas, asked for a lottery ticket and found myself offering her the ticket as a gift. She looked at me with a mixture of alarm and bemusement, politely but playfully refusing. ‘But what if it’s a winner?’ I insisted. Her line manager hovered behind her, curtly informing me that employees were not allowed to accept gifts. Of course. The cashier winked at me and joked that if it was a winning ticket, she’d gladly meet me after her shift to split the proceeds and spend them. It became clear that  I had to keep the gift moving though and that was what shaped my encounters over the following hours

(from # 3 [3 January 2013])

..Off I went onto the streets, with a single lottery ticket to give away, a totally out of character behavior which made me smile. I decided that I would walk into the centre of the main precinct – Liverpool One – sit myself down and give it to the first person whose gaze I met. I sat on one of the central seating areas and looked up into the eyes of a young woman selling the Big Issue. I promptly offered her the ticket as a gift. She explained that she had recently arrived from Rumania with 2 children and we had a chat about how it was to land in Liverpool. Even after assuring her I didn’t want anything in return, she refused to accept the ticket but thanked me warmly for offering it to her. I then offered to buy the Big Issue in exchange for her accepting the ticket. She immediately accepted, provided that we split the proceeds if she won any money, scratched off the numbers and giggled when there wasn’t a match, shrugging her shoulders and wandering off. The story that would have unfolded if it had been a match would have been an interesting one…

I sat and rolled up a cigarette. Now I had a Big Issue to give away and wondered what the next exchange might be. I looked up to see a huge procession of people moving towards me. It was the Jesus Army, with purple flags, beaming faces, singing Jesus versions of Beatles and football (‘We love you Jesus, we do…” )songs . I knew I was in Liverpool. Someone from the procession was giving out flyers and handed me two. Instinctively I offered my Big Issue  to them in return. We began a conversation and I decided to join the Jesus Army for half an hour and see where it took me, flyer-gift in hand. The disarming thing was there were people on both sides flanking the procession and joining in with the songs, like they were old time musical hits. It was a totally feel-good experience at that moment and I launched wholeheartedly into the centre of the procession, enjoying my disguise.

A woman with 3 children started speaking to me, asking me how I had found Jesus. I explained I was just a guest and was technically a Muslim, but my spiritual practice stood outside of mainstream religion. She looked puzzled then lit up and explained how she had converted from Islam to Christianity and now lived in the Jesus Army community full time. Although it was interesting to hear about what she felt was missing from one faith that the other provided for her, after a while it became slightly uncomfortable as I realized it was a preliminary conversion conversation and I felt the urge to run away. I said politely said goodbye and sat down on a bench, folding one of my fliers into a paper aeroplane and lighting another cigarette.What next?

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