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.
‘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 .’
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’…
We may meet, or we may never meet. I am an artist, mother, southerner, human being and… debtor. I’m also the keeper and scribe of The Book of Debts which, one Volume per location, will be filled, read from and burned as it travels the UK, starting in the Library of Birmingham this Thursday 17th(UN Poverty Eradication Day ), Friday 18th and Saturday 19th October,meeting its fiery end on Saturday 2 November at Minerva Works, Digbeth hosted by Fierce Festival. (see details below).
We can meet to talk in person. Or you can contribute to The Book of Debts online and I will only know you through your words.
With the Book in hand, pen ready and ears open, I offer you a conversation about debt you might not expect to have. We are all debtors on some level. Here is a moment to listen to the experiences of others, be heard, and speak about or describe the lived experiences, issues and hopes of those who inhabit the same city as you – and further afield too. The Book of Debts is open to anyone who finds it and wishes to contribute, 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 contributions are anonymous and you can add as many debts as you like, one by one.
So, what do you think about when you think about debt ? Money, time, love, attention?
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 we, our family, community or nation owe? So far I have collected, recited and burned around £3.6 billion of unpaid financial debt, spanning unpaid corporate taxes, student loans, credit card bills and defaulted mortgages. But debt is a broader than finance.And there is no debt without story. Some of the immeasurable debts I have collected are tales of unrequited love, political repression, ecological damage, family feuds and missed opportunities. Sometimes they are a single word, name or figure of money. I have put many of my own debts into the book and if you want to know why and how I am doing this project, you can read my blog and find out.
Burning the Books II. Photo: Sogand Bahram.
I’llbe on the streets, in communities (some slots still open to invitation so do contact us if interested) and in the Library of Birmingham, beginning this Thursday October 17th 3-6pm in the ground-level foyer somewhere. I’ll also be there Friday 18th October (3-6pm) and Saturday 19th October (11-1pm) and Thursday 24th October (3-6pm). Come sit with me for 15 minutes – you can listen to existing debts and their stories from The Book of Debts (including my own) and – if you wish – you can tell me your own – or call another to account – and I will scribe it to the book.
Or you can browse existing contributions and add your own to reach The Bookin absolute anonymity via www.burningthebooks.co.uk/contributenow or at anytime before Saturday 2 November, 3pm. The Book of Debts will then be recited in public and burned in a symbolic act of ritual destruction, at 5.30 – 7.00pm Minerva Works, Digbeth.
Please share with anyone who might find this interesting. All events are free.
#burningthebooks to follow me around the city or follow on facebook.
Supported by Arts Council England, Fierce Festival and the Library of Birmingham
Burning the Books, in the words of one of the first contributors – is ‘a free public service’ for anyone who wishes to use it. It is an imaginary form of debt relief which all are welcome to be part of. It aims to challenge the social stigma around debt and also consider the alternative economies that communities are turning to as the mainstream economy is drying up for so many of us.