Burning the Books is a live, touring project led by Alinah Azadeh exploring the power that debt holds over contemporary society by encouraging people to log their debts in a communal Book of Debts.
The Book of Debts (volume IX) is currently open online, and will be launched at Brixton’s 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning on March 12th 6.30pm – 9pm, where it will be for a week, then tour around Brixton until the finale on 29th March. Arts co-editor Ruth Waters asked Alinah about the project’s journey so far and how it came to be in Brixton.
Why have you brought Burning the Books to Brixton and how did you come to be working with 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning?
I have known Barby Asante – fellow artist, associate curator of 198 and producer of the Brixton events as well as long-time local resident – for over a decade and she has become a good friend, not to mention an inspiration all along in exploring what it means to develop arts practice in social contexts and as a means of dialogue and connection.
We have been talking about bringing The Book of Debts to Brixton for 2 years now, when it was at the early research and development stage and before we got our ACE touring grant. I am aware that there a lot of changes going on in Brixton at the moment which touch on many of the wider concerns of this project, so we are trying to include as many voices within the community as possible.
What have been some of the most interesting entries into the book (any volume) to date? Are are they largely about money or do people write of other types of debt too?
Because I ask for people to consider debt in all its forms, they put in all kinds of things owed or owing – from the financial to the emotional , social , political, ecological and metaphysical. It’s hard to choose from the 1000 entries, they are so diverse.
Sometimes they are simple one liners that hide a wider story, like My Father – he just owes me a lot’ , sometimes they are poems, commentary or longer pieces of amazing prose – like the tale of a man who cannot shake the shadow of the time he worked on Wall Street as a young man mis-selling dodgy financial products to people who gave him their life savings, just before being closed down by the feds, or the person who owed ‘The last 15 years of my life … to a stranger who donated a bag of their bone marrow to me’
On a personal note, what one piece of advice or wisdom do you wish you’d had when your family first realised you were in debt?
In terms of personal financial debt, I wish we had known to question the harassment and demands for unreasonable payment much earlier and that Debt Management Charities, with non-judgemental and practical advice actually existed. We would have known that it was our legal right to meet our basic costs like housing, energy, food before our debt payments, and that it is possible to negociate, because it felt so set in stone and intimidating and some lenders play on this to intimidate you.
How do you think perceptions of debt have changed in the time you’ve been touring Burning the Books. Do you think the associated shame is improving at all? What do you think local authorities should do to lessen the anxiety around debt and help people?
Unscrupulous lenders use the underlying psychology that if you can shame someone into feeling indebted to you (whether for money or anything else) you have power over them. So questioning the stigma, shame and isolation around being a debtor is crucial. As is facing up to one’s own situation and seeing things as clearly as possible.
There is a massive link between debt and mental health and so, apart from the debt advice services which I know are keeping councils very busy right now, there could perhaps be more of a direct, fruitful collaboration with the mental health sector? I am personally as interested in debt as a mental and emotional state of being. I think we need ways in which we can be honest with ourselves when we are part of the debtor – creditor relationship, most especially when it comes to immeasurable, emotional ‘debts’ that we carry for years, and on the practice forgiveness as a pragmatic approach to making society and our relationships work better.
One reason I like to think perceptions are changing is that , when I started it was just me, reading a book of anonymous stories – and now I am accompanied by contributors – people who join from each place [I tour to]- who co-recite with me their own stories, in a very moving and engaging spirit.
I never thought that was possible.So I think perceptions are changing slowly, the tools for people to be more empowered are growing, but it takes time to shift the consciousness around such a deeply taboo concept.
Everyone is welcome to come to the launch of The Book of Debts in Brixton, at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, Thursday 12 March, 6.30-9pm.
To contribute to The Book of Debts, IX, contribute online here or write in The Book in Brixton until the afternoon, Sunday 29th March, when it will be recited and burned in Central Brixton,
I know, lets burn a book. That’s get attention. Makes a mockery of re-cycling.
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