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By: Alinah Azadeh
My current research process for transforming Burning the Books - a live intervention project interconnecting debt, sin, absolution and payback – into a touring work, after a recent successful GFA for R+D from the Arts Council.
One artistic approach to narrating the financial crisis at a human level.
# 27 [23 May 2013]
The final moment came! On May 18th 2013, The Book of Debts, Vol II, which I have been collecting with for almost a month on the streets, online and in communities around Portslade, went to its fiery grave, with its 68 stories containing £100,134,274 of unpaid debt and a diverse spectrum of immeasurable debts from the financial and practical to the deeply emotional, psychic and social. Some of these still sit on the site as examples for new contributors to draw on.
We are editing footage into a clip and also eventually putting out the full reading of Volume II as an episodic archive, to bridge the last and the next Volume, which is open online and will be burned in Birmingham on October 20th.
Saturday was a powerful evening, a real collective process, both with Gertu and Johanna at Blank, those documenting it and those who filled the book and came to the event (around 45 people.) I enjoyed inhabiting my role and still feel somewhat emptied out and also excited at what is to come, as we try to piece together the narrative of a national tour.
Here are some images.
Here, also, by request, is the text I wrote which was scribed into the walls around the gallery and recited at the start of the evening:
Burning the Books, Recital Part 1
Debt: A sum of money owed. The state of owing money. A feeling of gratitude for a favour or service. An incomplete transaction. A broken agreement. A social interaction. A moral obligation?
Debt as the shadow side of wealth, debt as sin, debt as power, debt as dependence, debt as plot, as promise, as social stigma, debt as dysfunction, as disruption, as secrecy, debt as a Pandora's Box. Debt as the poison gift, as virus, as pleasure, as freedom, as obscenity, as excess. Debt as a form of slavery, a form of violence, a dead end. Debt as taboo, debt as absurdity,debt as confession of guilt, as a sign of poverty, debt as a sign of wealth, debt as criminality.Debt as progress, and as exchange, debt as interdependence and as the basis for community.
Debt as the basis for revolution: Burn the records, kill the creditors, drown the debtors, redistribute the land. Fear, confession, lament, guilt, purgatory, hell.
Communal reckonings, Biblical Jubilee, mercy, redemption, justice, sacrifice, payback, absolution, forgiveness, reconciliation, relief, gratitude, kindness, understanding, compassion, cleansing, connection, transformation.
Heal the pain, speak the debts, burn the books...
(Alinah Azadeh, 2013 )
# 26 [14 May 2013]
Last Saturday was the pre-liminary event - the talk/discussion, soup and Book of Debts session. After accidentally setting fire to the toaster in the Blank kitchen just beforehand (It's burning the books Alinah, not burning the bread!) I was somewhat in shock - as was Johanna (though the alarm system stood up to the test as did her response to the situation). We had prepared the Gallery with Gertu, with the red line and a text I wrote last week sitting above it... felt good and somehow safe to be surrounded by that text when I gave the talk, like we have landed in the project and are in it now, on site. There were around 15 people by the end - a small crowd but everyone engaged and full of pertinent and thought provoking comments, questions and feedback. Some had already given debts and a few did so afterwards.
There are so many levels of preparation to this project in the lead-up to this Saturday. From face to face encounters in the local area - via a wonderfully supportive community worker, Lorette Mackie, who took me around Emmaus with my book and sent me to several other places including a Freedom Club where I sat with a group of elders, reading them stories of debt from The Book and scribing debts - mainly social - into the project. I'm aware of not sharing stories here, even though I have the impulse to - because they belong in The Book itself, their dedicated space. But they can all be browsed online at www.burningthebooks.co.uk. They have been coming in slowly but steadily - currently there are 45 entries - and I am aware of how low profile this cycle of gathering is in Portslade, compared to what it might be in a city/festival context with a marketing/PR campaign around it, but it is handleable and also showing me a lot about which contexts might work best for the work - which remains a diverse mix. I am also aware that it is a confronting subject that a number of people are very wary about engaging with. Yesterday I noticed that what makes the difference between a bemused but suspicious attitude of reticence to engage and a much more open and forthcoming one was I being able to sit and read aloud form the book, and also the (general and not too specific) referencing of myself as a debtor.
Friend and fellow artist Jared Louche, who has been giving me some very helpful coaching around the development of the performance of The Book and the choosing/editing of the gallery wall texts, told me: 'That it elicits...negative responses reassures me deeply that you're on the right track'. I am in new territory here in some ways. I am used to making work that asks important questions about confronting subjects - around death, for example in The Gifts (2010). But in a soft way, mediated through objects, gallery spaces and installations (some of them involving books, its true). This work is a but more head on and has less lying between audience, and me and so feels more high risk! Today I had my last mentoring session with Ju. Giving feedback about the process of adding an emotional debt via the website., she put her finger on what it is that people find confronting about it;
' I found that being really honest with myself was quite upsetting actually ..But that's a good thing. That's the power of the work really ... that it cuts across a number of levels - whether its financial or emotional or psychic - I think it cuts through to people asking themselves really important questions.'
I am fortunate to have these human mirrors around me, it would be easy to feel like it isn't catching on quick enough, or getting an immediate enough, full enough response. But this feels like a young shoot of a project, and so much is being learnt which I am noting down for the next phase.
The Book of Debts is open to entries until Saturday 4pm. Anything submitted after this will go into Volume III, open from Sunday.
O, and a nice news story from Pippa at AN on the project.
# 25 [3 May 2013]
As I left Blank to roam the streets with my Book of Debts today, I asked my feet to guide me in the right direction. It's quite a confronting process but this frontline work needs to be done, so see what works in terms of using this work in non-sanctioned contexts, i.e. outside of Festival / art/performance spaces or even busy urban spaces, as with Liverpool, where there is an umbrella programme - like Giving In to Gift - which acts as an anchor point. It may fail.
People are interested in being asked the question and considering what they might add, but the subject of this work requires time to reflect and then choose to respond, rather than an instant response (although this wasn't the case in Liverpool, but the context was a busy Saturday shopping centre and time to stop on benches and chat). Thank God for the website, as this offers a totally private alternative, to be used in one's own time. And yet I am having some fascinating dialogues with people, which would not occur if this were only a digital project.
We are working towards developing a model that crosses borders - that can operate from within the more expected contexts - like Fierce, with whom we will be working in October after some development time up there last month - but that also takes the Book to places where there is no visible reference point. Some artists would run thousands of kilometers from this idea, but for me it is an essential element of the work, and part of also crossing those borders in terms of medium and context and modes of operation both as an artist and as a social being.
I went into one of the pawnbrokers in Portslade today, 'Money-go-round' - friendly and kind of bemused at my proposition. They told me they have hundreds of stories, mainly involving other people's debts, and showed me their list of 'most used excuses' for when debts are not repaid and items then pass into the ownership of the shop (see image). There has been a lot in the news recently on the rise of Pawnbrokers (at all socio-economic levels - see this article in The Independent) now that bad credit excludes so many from access to ready cash. It's interesting how localized an operation this feels, even though it is probably a chain. People bringing in real objects for real cash, an increasing move away from what was becoming so familiar - i.e., access to imaginary money using plastic from people you never meet. They told me they have 'regulars', people they are on first name terms with, sometimes bringing in items for absolute essentials, like, literally the fare to work to food for the family. They say they have always had customers with needs like this but that this is of course increasing in frequency.
I know a bit about how pawnbrokers work - like other high-interest creditors, who are accessible to the uncredit-worthy, there is a co-dependency there, and the signing of a contract that you do not know you can keep, but there seems to be no other option available. It is one of my rules when roaming to suspend moral judgment, there is a lot I - or anyone - could get upset about, but for this project to work, when I am in my role, I need to suspend judgment and approach people 'naked' -in whatever context they are operating and regardless of political persuasion or their response to me. The Book has blank pages and they need to be open to as broad a spectrum of experiences and perspectives on those experiences as possible. This is how it feels to me. And that in itself is an act of will. Yet something about putting on my coat and carrying my Book, gives me permission to do so - the occupying of a role, as servant, as naïf, as confessor or as whatever is projected into me ...
# 24 [29 April 2013]
Notes from a day in Portslade with The Book. Began to work my way along Boundary rd, the main shopping area, in a long black coat, armed with my big red Book of Debts and flyers.
'No-one owes me anything and I don't owe anyone anything - that's one advantage of being alone I guess. There you go.'
Note to self: The absence of debt as the absence of relationship to society? Do we need it? Though debt is often seen as something that binds one person to another /an institution in a negative way, it does perform the function of creating relationship. In earlier times this was seen as a positive way of guaranteeing interdependence and interconnectedness in ancient societies (See David Graeber's 'Debt: the first 5000 years' for examples and brilliant thinking around this).
'I'll ask the boss'
I'll put it on the bosses desk'
"I'll hand it around and people might be interested'
'I'll take it home and have a look. This needs time to think about'
Note to self: Taking the mountain to Moses wasn't always going to be easy.
One person looked so perplexed at what I was proposing (Does it cost anything?), their mouth literally dropped and they edged sideward to attract the attention of their co -worker, as if to point out the Crazy Person in the shop. But eventually they warmed and at least agreed to accept the flyer. I
Eventually, on about the 7th pit stop, I came across someone who immediately and gleefully took to the project and put £100million in The Book - go to the bookmarks page on the website to read it! From this came an exchange on the difference between gratitude and indebtedness - because it was contributed as a debt of gratitude, and I wonder, is this a contradiction in terms?
A couple of people with access to computers or tablets in their shops went straight online and were intrigued... and I will be returning to the hair dressers who was very open and interested. I have to remember it's early days and a lot can happen in three weeks.
I returned to Grate Fireplaces, who are very friendly and around the corner from Blank and whose front courtyard is the perfect place for the burning. Talk about sent from heaven theme-wise. Will know next Tuesday if this is confirmed. Patience.
Then returned to Blank and had in depth conversations around specific aspects of debt with a couple of members there, as situations had arisen that day which were on-subject and we compared notes. Can't say much more.
Finally got access to the back end of the site and found a few debts waiting - very moving and so beautifully expressed. I remembered how it takes time and space and connection to contribute to something like this, and I have to allow for that and watch for which contexts work and which don't, which is why I am in R+D. So far feedback on the site is positive... with a few changes to make and notes for future development already.
The Gertu turned up, who is an intern at Blank and on a Leonardo scholarship from Estonia and SO the perfect person to help support during these next few weeks. Very into exploring the subject, got the concept and seems very organized and tuned in, tapped on etc. Flyers start to go out properly at end of week, social media slowly starting, they have been working on de-bugging the site and so have been waiting til it's in as fully functioning form as possible before sending it out widely.
This is the most exciting part of the work, when it starts to line up with the outside world, and you sense it creating its own relationship and opening up conversations in the everyday which wouldn't have happened otherwise and go in unexpected directions.
# 23 [28 April 2013]
ONLINE AND ON THE STREETS...
The Book of Debts is finally online! www.burningthebooks.co.uk . It felt like it would never happen...it's still rough round the edges but this is an R+D period so that's ok, we tell ourselves. I am looking forward to seeing whether it draws people in to contribute to the project, and what they make of it.
The physical Book of Debts is ready for action, with initial stories scribed in and a covering of in-the-red velvet to catch the eye on the streets of Portslade..
The Blank gallery is totally BLANK, and ready for minimal transformation . We have been discussing how to run the events planned on !!th and 18th May and on friday Lex, who will be the fire-tenderer and assist me, came and we scoped out the possibilities of how to use the space.
We will hopefully get confirmation tomorrow of the outdoor site we found for the burning, which is a perfect match, more on that later. We will hopefully get confirmation tomorrow of the outdoor site we found on Friday for the burning, which is a perfect match, more on that later.
All event updates are on facebook.com/burningthebooks but I will also detail them here. I have even started a twitter account for the project
So, off we go then. Three weeks to fill the book and create a presence in a specific location as well as see how it lands online with people who know nothing of the project...
# 22 [17 April 2013]
I got very excited to discover the other week that the seminal book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth - written by and based on a lecture by writer Margaret Atwood - which was my initial reading companion when I was developing the original Burning the Books intervention in 2011 through Giving into Gift, has been made into a documentary film by director Jennifer Bachwal, which came out last year.
Here is the trailer, it was released in the US and Canada, (it's available through the NFB) I am not sure when it comes out here. It's poetic and powerful and features Atwood herself, intertwined with story strands around different aspects of debt in its many forms. Atwood was the one who opened up my thinking around debt as a metaphor and I am very grateful to her (or am I indebted?).
The stories - which are beautifully shot and the encounters sensitively and non-judgmentally handled - range from modern slavery in the tomato fields of Florida, criminal debt both within institutions (a state penitentiary in Pennsylvania) and within communities (blood debts in Northern Albania) to ecological debt on the oilfields of the Gulf coast and even an interview with Conrad Black, everyone's favourite financial villain. It's true to Atwood's consideration of debt as a mental construct, and an opportunity for philosophical consideration of one's own relationship to society, self and other, as mediated through debt in the form of 'a social interaction - between two parties'.
I am aware the synchronicity of material like this coming out at this time, alongside all the other material mentioned before on this blog (Eisenstein,Graeber etc.). I don't feel alone in trying to explore this mountain of a subject - in the minds of so many at the moment - with my humble teaspoon! Many people here are still not aware of extraordinary collective social actions like Strike Debt or the Rolling Jubilee initiative,. Most of this is coming out of the U.S (or Canada), I think they are ahead of us on the timeline because of the earlier impact of the financial crisis and elements like medical debt and student debt (which will begin to hit in the same way here soon). Also, I wonder is there something in the American psyche which is more at ease with public self disclosure /the confessional, or just angry/ desperate enough to have the courage to breaking the taboo of revealing personal financial and social fragility within the context of political action?
This project - rooted in the framework of a live art /work - references these, (though it was devised the year before they happened) but is different in a number of ways and tones. One of the main differences is that it is anonymous to participate in and this is vital to its hoped -for success. We are in the UK, exploring a subject that almost everyone finds it hard to go public about, so confidentiality is crucial. However I hope that there can still be a public dialogue around it that does open up notions of debt beyond the realm of the collective financial panic that a lot of us are in.
From my initial dialogues with some of the people who have contributed the first entries, it seems that just being asked the question around what they might owe or be owed - and what this might mean beyond the recounting of a figure, a number - and then having to articulate this and commit it to paper, created something new, a fresh consideration on what is perceived to be a deadening subject.
I'm aware that we are about to go live online with this project later this week and I will be setting up at Blank. I have no idea what the take -up of contributions to The Book of Debt will be, I must remember this is a period of Research and Development, from which there is going to be much to learn.
# 21 [12 April 2013]
Dialogues with Maria Pattison (4)
On servant leadership (Part 2)
A: So how does that work within the business model, the capitalist model...?
M: Well, there is another interesting area of ethics around leadership, which is called leadership and self -deception. And there is training and thinking around how people interact with another person, for example, in business you know there was a lot of talk about how do you motivate people? But now, people talk about how you can't motivate another person but you can demotivate them, so instead of trying to think about these carrot and stick ways of getting people to do things that you want them to do, or even deceiving them by saying its one thing and then its not, you know... I think that's why people think that ' we are all in it together' is a deceptive kind of slogan because we are not all in it together, equally So leadership and self-deception asks the question, always brings it back to the individual leader that says 'What am I not seeing?' and of course the way to find out what you're not seeing or hearing is to ask.
A: Like 'What's my blind spot?
M: Yes, the spirit of enquiry, asking people and therefore respecting another. And I think that's where the financial impact comes in because if people feel more valued and therefore more respected they will perform better. That's why you can demotivate people by not doing this. I mean a lot of business models, although the talk is around human resources, I mean I actually think the term 'human resources' is vile. I mean a human is not a resource, a human is a human being, you know! So it's how we change that that view of the value of a human being, and I think that's where, everybody has blind spots about other people, their attitudes and judgments, their preconceptions about how another human being will behave, so moving away from that particular position into one of empowering other people by asking questions as opposed to telling them what to do, so the servant leader is placing themselves and their skills at the service of not just the org to make money but the people who are part of that organization to make money but also the people who are part of that organisation, whose lives and families depend on it..
A: Who's an example?
M, Mandela and Gandhi
There is a really nice saying about Gandhi which I love which is that, he had a practice of meditating an hour everyday before he did anything as a leader and then he was asked what he did about his meditation if conflict broke out, could he afford the time to meditate? And he said 'No, no what I do is, I meditate two hours a day...'
A: Yeah that totally makes sense, because you have to go deeper to know how to deal with it.
M: And so wisdom is a quality of servant leaders...
A: So...can you train people to be servant leaders, or is it something that is coming innately as a gift...you have to be quite self aware don't you?
M: You do have to be quite self-aware yes, so you can train them to be much more self-aware. Jim Collins talks about level 5 leaders, says that there is always a seed in that person and you can't train a level 4 leader, an executive to be a level 5 leader but you can awaken he seed of level 5 leadership. I think its probably seeded quite young in life, where values of generosity and compassion are ones that are part of somebody's background.
# 20 [12 April 2013]
Dialogues with Maria Pattison (3)
As i have been considering my role in relation the the Book of Debts (going live online and on the streets towards the end of next week) as servant, I was interested to hear Maria talking about servant leadership - perhaps the anti-thesis of the approach taken by the Thatcher, whose image I cannot seem to escape this week..(more on her later).
On Servant Leadership (Part 1)
M: So, servant leadership!it was a term that was coined by a guy in the 1970's ...Greenleaf. If you google his name you will come up with an Institute for Servant Leadership. He wrote that people who are servant leaders have the impulse to serve first and to lead second, whereas there are quite a lot of leaders who do use service as part of their leadership but the impulse would be the other way round, i.e. 'first I want to lead and then serve'. So it's about the impulse being first of all to serve others, and some of the qualities of servant leadership would be things like, humility; so if you speak to someone who is a genuine servant leader, probably if you say to them 'How come you have become so successful?' it's likely that they would attribute their success to other people and to the times and just say 'Well, I'm very lucky'. So those sorts of qualities come out.
The main thing also is that the service is for all human beings, so it's not service just for a particular cause, the tendency is towards a much broader vision of humanity. But also, one of the ways of looking at leadership is that leaders are defined by characteristics and traits - so if you look down those kind of analyses, that's only one way to look at leadership and its not necessarily the best one - but a lot of the traits that would be applied to a servant leader are also features of what's called 'Level 5 leadership', which is a purely business piece of research done by this guy called Jim Collins in America. And he did some research into what makes a good company great, and the qualities of a company that can move from good to great usually have a leader at their helm who usually has great humility and who is not interested in their own ego and who can see the picture for a broader humanitarian cause, really, than just their own business as well. So it's kind of interesting that those ways of leading have been shown to have a kind of economic success as well as a human impact.
A: And you said that model of leadership is faith based, so how. The guy who defined that models what was his belief system?
M: I don't know how Greenleaf evolved it but if you look towards say the Christian model of leadership, it would be, you can see that a lot of the language in the New Testament is around putting oneself at the service of humanity, giving things up not piling things up .. and that has common thread swith Islam and certainly a sense to be inspiring of others, to work towards common goals. You know it's quite interesting because a lot of Cameron's Big Society, a lot of talk now around people all being in it together, that's kind of the catchword
A: Yeah, apart from the people at the top.
M: Yeah exactly! So there is a lot of people seeing that these forms of leadership that aren't just about charismatic men, leading from the front are ones that are actually really important in our world now, but how people really do it, the practice of it, that's the issue.
# 19 [8 April 2013]
Dialogue with Maria Pattison (part 2)
On possibility and failure..
M: So The Art of Possibility is by Benjamin Zander who has ten practices, for those who want to work within the realm of possibility..one was from the position of always having an 'A", you are already an A star pupil, all you have to work out is how you got there.
A: Hm, but what happens if you don't get there? How does failure figure, within these things, I love all that stuff, really.... but when everything crashed around us, I thought, afterwards, I wasn't so well equipped to deal with massive failure and loss! And allowing for that being all right and part of the journey so I am really interested in how that figures. You are talking about aspirations aren't you I guess...
M:Yes, I mean I used to have this inner mantra, which was 'failure is not an option'
A: That's quite testosterone isn't it? And lacking in compassion maybe? I have been a lot like that in my life... and now I think the real learning has happened when things didn't work out in the way I had expected..
M: Yes, I mean I didn't expect my marriage to not last.
A: Yes..it's a bit like how we don't talk about death when we are young, we are not given the option to consider and confront it, which is being addressed now, it's that shadow side, you know, which has its place. I don't want it to dominate but it has its place, trying to look at it without too much fear or judgement, I mean the Tibetan Buddhists are mindful of it every day, as just part of life ..
M: And we all have our shadow personalities and we have to accept them otherwise they will get really strong, the more society says or the more we tell ourselves 'that's not me, I don't want that bit' , the more power we give it. And we have to just know we are flawed, not perfect and that's ok. That's what working with these kids (The Pantry) does as well, that you can see that despite some of the behaviours ...that they are really lovely. And if we can see that in other people, we can move a bit better towards seeing it in ourselves (...)
A: I think that's one thing around roles and the value of interdisciplinarity now , is that, if you think about the old definition of artists... it's like when I send my email I have on my signature, 'artist, mother human being', and that's really significant for me, people have commented on that because actually It's really important to be...in your human, primarily when you are making, well any kind of work...and breaking down that preconception of how you feel that you- should- be -acting -in this- situation (as an artist) and what people expect you to do. I think I told you that when I did that Liverpool intervention, I didn't say, I was an artist, I learnt from this one man, who said 'you're doing a wonderful public service', so I the started saying 'I'm performing a public service for one day only' and I think people were more receptive. I mean some people enquired further and got what it was, but it wasn't necessarily helpful to have that label (of artist) and I wasn't that attached to it either, at that stage in the project.
M: Yes I guess the label of artist can often separate and segregate whereas public servant opens up an interest and an enquiry.
# 18 [5 April 2013]
Extracts over the next week from a dialogue with Maria Pattison, theatre practitioner and director, co-director of The Pantry, currently completing an MA in Ethical Leadership at Kings College London. I was curious to ask her about a number of themes relevant to the project; forgiveness, failure, generosity, service and servant leadership. All dialogues were recorded on a car journey back from a Pantry residency weekend we ran together in Suffolk.
On generosity and hormones
Maria:'So, The Moral Molecule by Paul Zak, is research into how our levels of oxytocin - which is considered mainly a female hormone - rise or lower in relationship to our ability to be generous. And the feel-good factor is related to generosity, so there are lots of contexts in which scientists measure this....so what research shows is that high levels of testosterone counteract oxytocin, so when peoples oxytocin levels are low, they lose touch with being able to think in another persons shoes or being able to act generously or with compassion.
So oxytocin could be considered to be saying the main drive of a spiritual experience as well. So high levels of oxytocin mean we will be more generous in our attitudes towards people, we will give them more, we will donate more money to charity etc., and when we other hormones come into play, stress or anxiety that takes down oxytocin, so that's what we were saying - you can't be generous when you are really stressed because it creates a kind of conflict.
When human beings come together and they form little communities, it raises oxytocin, so that's why places like the market, literally a marketplace, where people are coming together, they are not just coming together to buy their bread, they are actually coming together to have human interaction. So when there are societies that have these places of interaction you get a more generous and more open hearted communal society, and that's where market forces and compassion come together, So you know we are getting to a stage in society where we are buying online and not doing that and we are not having these conversations. So what I have been thinking about is, that this research in Africa where tribal warfare is still really high, showed that if you put something into the community like an Internet café where people have to come together, then you start to bring more oxytocin into the society. So you start to create a sense of communal well-being through a tangential force. And I was thinking about this with bread, because you know one of the ways people are investing in economic growth in Africa is by setting up bread co-operatives and that's all very well, but you will still get mainly women clustering in those places and what is needed is - because it's the testosterone that's the problem - communal ways of bringing people with high levels of testosterone together.
In terms of artist interventions and my own, the mere fact that people come together creates the right environment and that's all that is necessary so what you do when you are there is almost immaterial. So that takes away for me in terms of creating workshops a whole level of anxiety because the underlying needs are being addressed in the way we are coming together (in The Pantry) the way we have the conversations...whether its cooking, art, filmmaking, drama, actually its the quality of the conversations
A: And also conversation is a practice...dialogue is a practice
M: Yes dialogue is a practice.