Burning The Book of Debt, Birmingham – photos.Leave a Comment
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:
‘ 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.
I’ll be 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 Book in absolute anonymity via www.burningthebooks.co.uk/contribute now 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
Touring producer, community and press contact: Elizabeth Lynch
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.
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’.
(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?
On friday I was up in Birmingham for a ‘Live arts Futures’ gathering as part of Fierce Festival, our project partner in Birmingham. I was asked, along with Brett Scott, author of ‘The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance’ (which I will be referring to as this blog and its pages unfold…) to contribute to a discussion on Alternative Economies. It was very deftly moderated by Lynn Goh of In Between Time Festival (if you don’t know about their work, you should…very inspired programming).
Such a complex and broad subject, it’s often after these events, when the question has been asked and you have responded, that you only start to understand the importance of the question. Along the timeline of the books I have referenced here and on my previous BTB blog, Brett’s book is the next, timely step in opening up an understanding of the esoteric world of finance in a humanly accessible way.
He speaks from personal experience, both as someone of sometime shaky economic means and from his previous persona as a derivatives broker in the city. I can very much relate to his sense of wanting to go beyond the strictly oppositional, right /wrong dichotomy that has (understandably) evolved out of current economic activism, i.e. within the Occupy movement. And yet at the same time highlighting social justice issues and in his case offering pragmatic ways to subvert or engage in alternatives to the mainstream economy that seems to be literally devouring people’s livelihoods, identities and sense of self worth on an accelerating basis.
Looking at links between us, as I am offering up a live, public service rooted in the arts but seeking to cut across sectors and social contexts, I liked what he had to say about alternative currencies (roughly quoted): ‘I currently partially think of experiments in alternative economies as quasi-artistic; they tend to be before their time, they exist within a society that does not support them. They are quite performative and an ‘acting out’ – using them (whether the Lewes/Brixton/Bristol pound, the bit coin or localized gift economy systems for example) takes you out of your current societal context and of course there is a big question as to whether alternative currencies or exchange systems are sustainable within the current economic system.’
This idea of a symbolic ‘acting out’ of alternative economies very much connects to the idea of The Book of Debts and how it can be instrumentalised by the public. One collective way of highlighting a contrast to the mainstream system. What might the uses of this acting out in this project (reciting, recounting, scribing, reciting and burning debts) actually be? How useful can such a seemingly futile series of acts be? A few responses to this came out of the Portslade burning:
“ I still feel burdened by a financial debt, but having had it included in the book gave it more air somehow. It exists, it is there and I will need to repay it. While I’m not able to do that now, I am not sinking into hopelessness around it, but it is as if there is a ‘placeholder’ – this acknowledgement also acknowledges my responsibility for the debt “ and ‘It was useful to have a structure within which to reflect on my debt. It is interesting to have a more positive and restorative conversation around debt, rather than the same old cyclical story’.
Brett also talked about technology driving change in this area and how money has been acting as an intermediary technology designed to ‘resolve trust problems between strangers in transactions, but in so doing it atomises human relationships. It has psychological feedback built into it, so perhaps it might achieve the aim of facilitating exchange but in so doing it breaks down societal cohesion. With internet –enabled monetary systems, they can become a new way of sharing both information and new ‘trust-metrics’ can start to develop alternative forms of exchange – eg gift platforms, time banking, peer-to-peer systems, open source economic systems etc.’.
The example of time banks came up at this point, and the tension in the idea that they take a lot of time (!) to administrate once scaled up. I gave the example of the closed system of childcare swaps I have set up with three other families at my children’s school. An example of a gift economy, instead of each paying for childcare we found enough of an affinity (children’s ages and existing friendships) for it to work on a weekly basis. With this, as well as time enabling us to work and work away more easily, have come other ‘relational resources’ that would not come with paid childcare, which arise out of putting oneself in a trust system to co-support each other – deepening friendship bonds, conflict resolution sharing if issues arise, last minute help more likely available since there is on-going communication etc.
There was a question at this point –in seeking to look at this as ‘system’ that could be used more widely – at the lack of diversity that this ‘system’ entails – i.e. It relies on an affinity with parents with perhaps similar values in order to work and is not open to all, it is exclusive (I think the word ‘pluto-facist was even mooted at one point. Well yes, it is an individually-initiated gift system within a small-scale community where affinity is an essential component to making it work. And children are humans with relational sensitivities not commodities..) Brett pointed out that there is a trade-off in any gift –based system like this where there can be an inherent conservatism and it raises the question of how to balance the two – i. e not wanting to get into a system where there you could be stuck in an oppressive set of relationships where you are bound to your community (more relevant I think to what happens within families over time, Brett gave the example of communities in the poorest areas of South Africa, where most systems of exchange are non-monetary) . But at the same time the other end of the scale is a situation of extreme alienation and no network of relationships at all.
‘The Gift that is not used is lost, while one that is passed along remains abundant’ (Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and The Artist in the Modern World).
One thing I omitted to say at this point about gift based systems – and which applies to the childcare swaps I am part of – is that it is not restricted to exchanges between two individuals, it is the needs of the group –which change over time (i.e. sometimes I or someone else are away working more often than someone else in the group and so need more support, but that might change the following month) which are the determining factor for how often a particular swap will occur. It is the idea of a transferable gift, on a more esoteric level this related to the idea of karma, that when we give it comes back to us, but not always from the same source to which we gave.
This is an inherent quality of the gift and also of debt, and the perversion of this in the current economic context is that financial debts can be sold on to companies with whom we did not choose to enter into a financial relationship, and who then are invested with a moral power to pursue and hound until a result is secured, regardless of changing circumstance. More on that next time, as I drill down into the focus of this current Volume of The Book of Debts, coming to the streets of Birmingham from next week –details to follow soon….