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.


Update: I’m very happy to announce that we have received support from ACE to tour Burning the Books nationally…starting in Birmingham this month, with final event on November 2nd in partnership with Fierce Festival. See details on or the facebook page:

And here as mentioned before is the video of the Portslade residency that I was writing about on this blog :

Also, since I want to develop the next stage of the project blog to be multi-author and searchable etc, it will sit on the website at but I have really valued writing in the context of AN and so will be reposting back and forth as appropriate. I hope AN members will continue to follow the project..

Thanks to everyone for support and contributions and I will be starting a new blog next week on a recent experience of showing internationally for the first time in China.


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 )


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 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.


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 …


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.