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.
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.
Invitation to contribute to The Book of Debts (V), from now until May 22, 2014
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.
The Book of Debts (V), launched at Fabrica Gallery in Brighton on Sunday April 6th 2014. The Book already contained a number of entries from Alinah’s recent participation in Life Before Debt at SOAS, London and is filling steadily with contributions from Brighton and Hove – read them here, and contribute anytime before May 22nd to be part of the final recital either via this site (and your entry will be transcribed by Alinah into The Book) or by visiting Fabrica.
On Sunday May 18th, Alinah and her firekeeper will do a promenade around central Brighton with The Book of Debts, reading and gathering stories from anyone who wishes to contribute. Follow on facebook or twitter (@burningthebooks) to find out their location and the timings.
The Book of Debts, Brighton and Hove will be recited and burned on Thursday May 22nd. Meet at 6.30pm at Fabrica to be led to the burning site. Followed by a celebratory wake, ends approx 7.45pm.
‘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 6, 5-6pm (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…)
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 .
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.
Last week on my trip to Birmingham – which happened to fall on Ash Wednesday – I met some extraordinary people. Among them was Matthew, who had just set up a Hunger Hut with some in the grounds of the Cathedral, as part of the End Hunger Fast campaign. I used to do the fast of Ramadan years ago and know the power of it as both a personal and political act. They are doing a fasting relay to protest against food poverty in the UK caused by political policy and one of the initiators, the inspiring and radical Rev Keith Hebden, is doing a 40 day total fast, you may have seen this in the news. There is a lot around on this subject at the moment in the news and on the street, as every single safety net is being slashed in the guise of necessary austerity (in contrast to the uncollected corporate taxes which could render this totally unnecessary) and I think it’s difficult to make one’s voice heard amidst all of it, this panic, this moral crisis, where economy and ethics seem to have been set to different rooms and told not to speak to each other by those feverishly dismantling the welfare state.
But ancient rituals and disciplines, that double up as both spiritual and political acts – whether fasting or burning debts – can capture the imagination in a more oblique way.
I asked Matthew to enter a debt into The Book of Debts (read all Birmingham contributions here, they are powerful – and remember you can add yours before 3.15 Saturday to have it be read and burned as part of the finale ) and also to talk a bit about fasting as a public act. Here is what he said.
End Hunger Fast @ BHam Cathedral
‘ A debt of socio-economic equality owed by the government to the poorest in society
End Hunger Fast is a national campaign to protest against recent policies by our government which are putting the rich before the poor . The government is saying that it’s ok for the richer to keep getting richer and the victims of that – the poorest people in our society – to be left at the bottom. We have got to a stage now in our society where we actually have – in the 21st century in Britain – people who are going hungry and can’t afford to eat – or who are reliant on charity. What we are saying is, we don’t think that’s right and we don’t think that is a just situation for our country. Already we have been here since 8.30 this morning and we have had a stream of people giving their own personal testimonies, their own stories of how they have been affected by the bedroom tax, by the benefit cuts, penalties to benefits.
There was one man who was here earlier talking about how he had gone to other countries in Europe and found short-term work and when he came back he was barred from the benefits system because he had been out of the country!
So even people who are making an effort to go and get a job, to find work are being penalised by the system. And really this is a way of us speaking up; using our voice to say that we are not happy with this situation and we want our government to take account of that and to think about the poorest people in society when they are making those decisions.
The act of fasting
Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline and I highly recommend it to anyone – so I would recommend it to David Cameron and it’s a very complex discipline. So it has the spiritual benefits but also something that has been used through history as a political tool, as a campaigning tool. Famously by Mahatma Gandhi. So, fasting in this context really is about our own spiritual experience of putting ourselves in the shoes of people who don’t have food. So we are not saying ‘o we have got plenty of food but we are going to campaign for people who haven’t got food, aren’t we good? We are saying, actually, part of this I understanding their experience. And it could be argued that there is an element of naivety about that as well, in that choosing to not have food is very different from being forced not to have food. But it’s about grounding the experience in something real, something physical – and something spiritual. And it’s about communicating how important this is to us. We are talking about realities that are difficult to articulate, difficult to explain in full, but there is a power to fasting, which can change things. And we do want to testify that we believe in that .’
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, itis 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.
I have been thinking a lot about indebtedness – the immeasurable step-sister of debt.
Many people, I am finding, if they have a clean credit record, think debt is something that does not apply to them, is to be feared and is all about finance. To some extent , on a socio-politcal level this is an accurate perception. However, broadening things out (as I like to do), although we may not always be personally in debt – in the external sense of the word, i.e. through finance or favour – there is always someone to whom we are indebted too.
And this is the week when it is said, depending on your cultural / belief system – whether all Souls Day, Day of the Dead or Samhain that we are closest to those who have come before us, to that darkly poetic veil between the worlds… And there is the opportunity to reflect on and, where appropriate, symbolically honour, lay to rest or break bonds with, the actions of our ancestors and how they have or still do affect us, in the present. At least that is what I am proposing and have been looking at myself.
Debt or indebtedness? I intend for The Book of Debts to cover both of these and to look at the distinctions and connections between them. And the story I will tell here is personal and covers both concepts in one tale.
I am in debt to a number of external agencies – mortgage, credit card and loan companies etc. The expected payback is measured in a certain way and the circumstances of that payback shift over time, depending on both my capacity to pay, how I manage my finances and the revealing of information about how some of those agreements were sold or signed for (PPI, bank loans sold as student loans when in fact they were high interest bank loans after all, fraudulent information supplied on guarantor loans by a family member, hidden interest rates poorly explained in esoteric language). Yet, beyond the emotional stress that was caused when I went from defaulting to a debt management plan, there is no sense of a personal relationship that I need to repair or an emotional residue hanging over them. They are figures on a page, to be managed. (Not true of outstanding debts to friends but more of that in another post).
I am indebted to those who helped to save my family and I from going under in the chaotic wave of financial devastation, as we lost our home, credit rating and temporary self-esteem, not to mention the rocks which almost lured my marriage apon them in the fallout.
To some I am both in debt and indebted. I am indebted to those who did not judge us harshly for having screwed up, who were there to offer emotional support, straight talking or a compassionate ear. As well as offers of practical support to make sure we were not on the streets or unable to feed our children.
In thinking of these people – mainly close friends – some of them responded to my gratitude with an example of previous counter-indebtedness to me, which balanced the scales for them, for others there was/ is still a sense of something to pay for –whether in money or attention. But there is clearly a deeper bond with these people than there was before. They witnessed my often-uncomfortable vulnerability (I was so often before the one to treat, host or give generous gifts, in true Iranian tradition.). And now, as they see life and work starting to flow for me once again, they know what caused the suffering apon which it is drawn. They know me more.
My mother, Parvin, before she came to the UK, pre 1965
I am also constantly drawn back to those I may be indebted to who came before us/me. My Iranian mother, Parvin Azadeh Rieu, who passed away in 2004 and was an example of extraordinary generosity and compassion, to whom I acknowledge the qualities of creativity and self-belief, social conscience and a love of poetry and interactions with the public…. this is an emotional debt owed via her biology and commitment.
And yet at times I see how this generosity of hers turned into over-protectiveness and financial co-dependency, bordering on control (confused with a passionate motherly love). Especially true in the case of my long lost brother, who was the catalyst for our family’s descent into a tidal wave of uncontrollable debt. (Strange I wrote that, she died in a tidal wave, more threateningly renamed a Tsunami at the time in 2004) This backstory of my fall from financial grace is told earlier on in this blog, reposted from my R+D blog .
It is a story about learning to draw a line with those you love and managing one’s ability to help another (whether financially or emotionally) on one hand and managing the risk to ones own financial, emotional and mental well being involved in doing this on the other.
Looking back, beyond my mother, to my ancestral line on the Iranian side, to North West Iran, I had always been aware of the story she told me of our charismatic, gambling, great, great grandfather who took the proceeds of the sale of my family’s land back to the state around 1900 (?) – in a beautiful metal box with a secret lock – which she gave me and I still possess. It had been filled with gold coins, I was told, and in the possession of my great, great grandmother, who was by her account the matriarch and in control of the land and the finances. One night, her husband took this chest with him over the border to Russia (where I imagine gambling was not illegal?) and sat up all night playing cards. He returned home the next morning with the chest completely empty, and my great, great grandmother banished him to Russia, never to be seen again.
Last weekend, in a rare reunion with my Iranian aunt, cousins, sister and nieces in London, I asked my aunt about this story, which I had become attached to as ‘true’ and part of a personal archaeology which explained why I seemed to always fall on hard times when I entered into financial relationships with men close to me, whether related or not…
She said that it there had been a chest of coins (silver, not gold) and it was indeed the chest in my possession. But that it was the dowry payment from my grandmother’s family to my grandfather’s family – so one generation closer. And that her father – my grandfather – was the gambler. He did indeed gamble the whole lot away, along with several properties in the village, and they – a family of 11 children (two wives) were then forced to rent a house, and later moved to the south of Iran, living out a much more modest lifestyle than could have unfolded, due to his habit. I know this grandfather was loved by my mother and her siblings, he was a handsome, charming, free-thinking man (a resistor of religious and social dogma, according to my mum) and he was the one, when the census was introduced and the family had to give itself a surname – to introduce ‘Azadeh (the free one) into the mix.
My Iranian grandfather, left, my mother next to him.
So where was the Russian connection? My aunt then told me that her fathers father HAD indeed vanished to Russia, but this was because his wife, her grandmother – was so dictatorial he could not bear to stay. It sounded like he also had a gambling streak but absconded before being held to account. So somewhere we do have Russian relatives…
This still ‘explains’ to me, in terms of the patterns following a family timeline, some of the behaviours of both my brother and other male members on that side of our family. Something in that story gives me the ‘proof ‘ that what has happened did so in a wider context, stretching back over time. But it is still a story. But I want to put it in The Book of Debts, to symbolically have it stop with me. A phrase from a book I am reading jumped out at me the other day: ‘The past is over, it can touch me not’. Yet sometimes the consequences of my actions have felt like they are part of a much longer backstory that I can ever know, and, I have fallen into fetishing them and giving them more power than may be helpful to determine . I want to play with the idea of writing them off..
There is a conversation around forgiveness here, which I have had with a few contributors in Birmingham at the Library where I have been with The Book of Debts recently. It is the difference between forgiveness and accountability. I can forgive my brother, and myself, and those errant male ancestors of mine, but I can still hold him/ myself to account for what needs to be cleared up, written off, paid up. This will be an on-going theme, and for now I invite you to think back and draw out any ancestral stories – whether personal or national – to add to The Book of Debt Volume III.
A lot happened when I was with my Book of Debts at The Library of Birmingham last week. You can get the picture quite quickly from the contributions that are now in the book by clicking here , on ‘explore debts’. And please, do contribute as The Book is open to anyone to add to, at any time, whether in Birmingham or not. But first things first.
My very first encounter in the foyer area of the lovely Library, (so welcoming! Thankyou. esp to Cathy wade in the Carousel) was with John Nightingale, Birmingham –based campaigner for the Jubilee Debt Campaign (JDC) – a natural ally to this project from the perspective of financial and social debt.
Interestingly, last Thursday Oct 17th was officially UN Poverty Eradication Day – and I timed the start of my encounters to this as it seemed apt – but this event went totally unnoticed or marked in the media – or anywhere – poverty fatigue??, National Day marking fatigue? or , as one journalist friend told me she had heard her editor remark , ‘poverty is so…boring’. Let’s cover the prices of luxury branded art commodities at Frieze art fair instead then… Enough said. Or rather, too much to say.
But back to JDC, whose work I have been aware of over the years and is a very practical way that anyone can get involved with that affects poverty in a very real way, by campaigning for the cancellation of unjust debts globally. So, John began by explaining their aims in very accessible way, covering a lot of the moral questions which I have looked at over the last 18 months, which might be useful to hear here. He also put £58bn of unjust unpaid debt into The Book (!)– the foreign debt burden of Pakistan, more on that in the next post.
Since this project – and The Book of Debts itself – operates as a framework for a multiplicity of perspectives, whether spiritual, activist, utterly personal or totally pragmatic, I try to deliver what people bring to me in a simple way. The final recital is influenced by what i am given and how much impact those givings have on my own growing understanding of this often confusing phenomenom of debt as a human construct. So here is the transcript of what was said and brings the international perspective to this particular Volume, it was a long conversation so it will come in two parts:
Still from BTB trailer, produced by The Swarm
‘ Jubilee Debt Campaign calls for the unjust and unpayable debts of poor countries and also a changing of the system so that sort of thing does not happen again. Not all debts are unjust – there can be some debts that are for good purposes, I mean you can lend some people some money, they buy some tools, they do some work, they repay you – that’s’ a good thing that could not have been done before.
With debt there is always a risk – it shouldn’t be just one party that bears the risk…. Risk should really be shared, that’s only fair and just. But anyway some debts can become unpayable, something can go wrong, there can be an accident like that and once you get 10% or more of your income going into debts, there is no way you can get round it. It is in everybody’s interest that something is done. As you will know from David Graeber’s book, this goes back to time immemorial. Primitive societies didn’t necessarily need to have money, all they needed was some way of reckoning obligations to one another, that at certain times becomes intolerable and either you get a new ruler or a revolution or something like that – and when you do, the first place they go to is the place where the record of the debt is kept and they destroy it.
So, in one sense there is a right sort of debt – because we are part of the human community you see and we are not isolated individuals, and we owe something to one another. That’s good – you know families don’t necessarily like one another but you do help one another, owe something to one another- we ought to be more like a family. But on the other hand you have got to keep up the relationships and when things become intolerable, things have to change.
A good thing did happen around the time of the millennium there was, with Jesus’s birthday, a question around how do you celebrate it ? etc., and one of the things that Jesus historically at this time said (which went back to the ancient Hebrew scriptures) was in terms of the cancellation of the debts and the idea of the ‘ jubilee’ every 7th year and returning to a level playing field again. So that was necessary because in his time there was the most terrible debt, I mean people were paying debts to the Romans several times over and to the temple several times over and they had to sell their land because they didn’t have enough money etc. they were becoming debt slaves. Jesus speaks about this (I’m a Christian myself but not all those involved in JDR campaign are Christians). Jesus speaks far more about money and debts than he ever speaks about sex or anything like that because it’s an absolutely crucial theme. And when you look at the followers of Jesus, when they got going on their own one of the things they were very concerned about was to help one another, and not to get into debts, into trouble.
So Jubilee Debt Campaign brings together those of all beliefs, faiths or none – and the great event which was here in Birmingham in 1998 was the human chain, when the leaders of G8 were surrounded by 60,000 people holding hands and as a result of that there were promises that something would be done about the unjust and unpayable debts. And since that time about $130bn of debt has been cancelled .It was done very carefully, so that the money that was released did not go into someone’s back pocket but would go towards health or education and we have many examples eg Tanzania and Zambia of the mortality rates of mothers and children going down as a result and the rates of people being educated going up. But if course things don’t stand still and you have to come up to a crisis and that in many ways, just as it’s worse for the poorer countries that it hits hard something has to be done again’…