In the spring of 2018 I started working at a former Co-Op bank on Hoe Street in Walthamstow, not far from where I live in east London. In all my years as an artist I’d worked all over the world in all kinds of communities, apart from my own.
The work was part of Hilary Powell and Dan Edelstyn’s Bank Job, which aims to raise awareness of poverty and debt while actually doing something substantive about them.
As an insecurely employed debtor – a toxic word I’ve discussed elsewhere – the project interested me as an art and film-making project but also as a subject I unavoidably live with.
A team of local artists, designers, students and other people at the sharp end of austerity collaborated to make limited edition prints mimicking bank notes but showing people from Waltham Forest: the head teacher of a primary school, the man who started a food bank, the family who set up a kitchen for vulnerable people, the leader of a youth group.
A feature film is still in progress with the support of the BFI, awaiting its climactic, symbolic ‘Big Bang 2’ explosion of debt, to be staged later this month.
A year on from my time at the bank, the space is known as HSCB (Hoe Street Central Bank) and continues to be a hub for making, education and talks. With grants from Waltham Forest Council among others, everyone who works for HSCB has been paid the London Living Wage.
Last October HSCB won the Artquest Workweek prize for artist-led projects. The project also went viral, leading to the rare spectacle of people queueing out of the door to buy art. “Although ironically,” says Powell, “whilst printing money we were losing money, as none of the proceeds from our bank notes came to us.”
She adds: “Behind the scenes there is unending production, funding bids, planning and everyday risks and failures.”
Most importantly of all, over £40,000 was raised from those art sales, half of which went to the community projects depicted on the bank notes. The remainder bought and abolished about £1.2 million of local people’s predatory payday loan debt.
This is possible because debts deemed not cost effective to collect by one lender are sold on at ever-decreasing prices via secretive private marketplaces.
Edelstyn explains that the write-off was through “a shell company formed in Saint Vincent, registered in Switzerland. There’s no transparency, they have absolutely no moral fibre”. Because of this deliberate opacity, making contact with the beneficiaries in the borough has so far proved difficult.
Even if they never meet anyone whose debt has been written off by Bank Job, Edelstyn and Powell feel an urgent need to elucidate, as the latter puts it, “how the story around debt and economics is controlled and how strong the prevailing, highly moralising and hypocritical narratives perpetuated in mainstream discourse are.
“There is one rule for people struggling with debts and another for the elites. The banking crisis of 2008 was one massive debt bailout, but the idea of a debt bailout for the poorest is dismissed.”
Most debtors are not frivolous borrowers, despite the news media persistently equating actual bankruptcy with its moral equivalent, at least for ordinary people. Governments could (and sometimes do, such as after the 2008 crash) call new money into existence or conversely dismiss debts with the click of a mouse.
“Banks create cash just by typing numbers on a screen and we thought, if they can do that why can’t we?” says Edelstyn.
After the bank notes sold out, the project moved on to equally hand-crafted gilt bonds – which are still on sale – to fund the continuation of the project.
Later this month, Big Bang 2 – a sequel to Margaret Thatcher’s radical relaxation of laws and regulation for banks and stock markets in 1986 – follows through the heist imagery with an exploding money van at a symbolic, secret location in London; an art work in its own right and a symbolic catharsis for the film and the project as whole.
The wreckage will be collected up and displayed at HSCB. Coins or fragments recycled from the blown-up vehicle will be distributed to bond holders.
Unlike a real bank, and equally unlike some of the arts initiatives that could justifiably be criticised as superficial, exploitative or ‘artwashing’, Bank Job has continued to reside in and nourish the area it comes from. Edelstyn describes some of the less successful ‘community’ art projects as “vampiric… sponsored by companies that do a great deal of harm”.
Powell puts the project’s success in part down to the fact that “time was on our side in terms of how long it takes to build trust and develop relationships. This is our home… we are really living this non-stop, with our children’s school involved and local people getting behind us.
“Often artists are parachuted into communities and only have access to limited time and resources to make things happen so almost inevitably it’s harder to engage.”
She adds: “I think a lot of people underestimate the sheer scale of this when they say, ‘What are you working on now? Oh you’re still on that’, as if it should have been a pop-up that was over in a flash. This is long haul stuff.”
To purchase Bond art works and find out more about Bank Job, HSCB and the film vist bankjob.pictures
1. Artists (including Alistair Gentry, far left, standing up) working on the Bank Job project at HSCB, with Dan Edelstyn (front, right) and Hilary Powell (middle with green apron and visor). Photo: Peter Searle
2. Printing money at HSCB. Photo: Peter Searle
3. HSCB exterior. Courtesy: HSCB
4. Dan Edelstyn and Hilary Powell at HSCB. Photo: Peter Searle