Tout n’est pas Perdu – installed!

Both installations are in place, there was no storm, only smooth sailing and a few spiders .. There are going to be some good photos taken of these, but here are my images for now, am looking forward to the opening celebrations tomorow and the arrival of my family tonight.

All is not Lost/Tout n'est pas Perdu - Isle Perdu(e)

All is not Lost/Tout n’est pas Perdu – Isle Perdu(e)


Amiens – final installing period

We finally finished the materials for the second installation earlier this evening, and  a mini project to design the ripped blue strips of fabric to act as a street intervention between the museum and the Hortillionages ran as a concurrent mini-project by Gaelle and Cecilia.  The installation at the Museum is up and awaits lighting tomorow, the booklets are printing and the boxes are ready to go for our 9am boat trip out to the island, together with Laurence and Tom the camera person from Fabrica who are making a short film on the Waide Woad project.

I am ready to drop but have been somewhat obsessively checking both the weather forecast ( possible storms tomorow!?) and the progress of my family’s passport arrivals, which will decide whether they join me tomorow or not..


Amiens : the first two days



Have had a packed 48 hours. Getting here was somewhat long and circuitous (I got almost nostalgic – as opposed to indignant – when i found out there was a train strike and I might be stuck at the french end of the eurotunnel for 12 wouldn’t be France without a strike somewhere along the line, and I am in sympathy with workers here, if its anything as bad as it is at home).

My perfectly selected team of 6 intern artist assistants at the Ecole Superieure Des Arts et Design, who have just or are just finishing exams, sprang into action with me in our massive, light and quiet atelier in the Faculty, with Sophie on the case, sourcing and dropping off the many boxes and rolls of material and making sure i get my bearings and get settled in. It was a frenzy of measuring, cutting, ripping and organising cloth, thread and binding and wrapping paper scrolls ending in a long line of elements ready for composing the scrolls for the first part of the installation.

I spent lunch and the afternoon with Museum staff, a group of french journalists / critics and the artist Christian Jaccard, whose work I did not know of before, and who has been using knotting as an art form and also using fire to create ephemeral works for decades. Check him out online, (the photos here show the installation) it is extraordinary work. It was really inspiring – and moving – to see the installation “Signa Mentis’, a total collection of the boxes of all his knotted works, with which I felt great resonances of course due to my own practice of wrapping and transforming objects with thread and fabric. And then, en route to the Hortillionages to visit the islands – to listen to him talk about how he uses fire in his work (for which he is apparently better known), and the gestural nature of what he does, made me realise why Sabine had picked up on what I am doing, the connections again with Chohreh Feyzjou and understood how it could really work within the context of the Museum.
It is somehow reassuring when you meet other artists -especially older ones – who use similar mediums and metaphors to express concepts in subtle ways, as if you are part of a continuum, whether or not there is a philosophical resonance.

There is a LOT of work to do, and it is already friday… ( the FAC is closed on the weekend so i will bring some work home to my hostel room, and i have a pile of writing to do too). I’m here on my own, the family will join me for the opening weekend, so I am enjoying the silent mornings to think and write and plan, and the evenings before bed to just slow down.

It’s warm and beautiful here, good working conditions, enjoying speaking and swearing in French … and I know it will go faster than I can possibly imagine..


Amiens, on arrive!

So, tomorow, I’m off to Amiens, to complete the production of All Is Not Lost, a new dual- site installation for Musee Picardie and Les Hortillionages .  It has come from the encounters and site visits I made at the start of my artist residency at Fabrica Gallery, its a fruit of the cross-border programme, Out of the Blue Woad Waide programme. .

I have 18th – 27th June to complete the production work, with the help of 6 intern artists assistants from the Faculty of Arts, and organised by Sophie, who is the very efficient and supportive Woad Waide project director, and we install the first part of the work at the Museum next Monday and the second part the following friday, just before it opens on Saturday 28th.

It’s a doppelganger work, which I will talk more about next time, a textile sculpture that will sit in the Museum entrance area (see photo above) and its twin will sit in a cabin on the magical Isle Perdue (the lost island, owned by Monsieur and Madame Perdu /Lost, — yes really!). The island is one of many in an area called Les Hortillionages and opens as part of a massive Festival of Arts, Cities and Landscape. , alongside many other works commissioned and live events organised by the Maison de la Culture, (which I plan to visit as was so busy on my first visit that I did not get the chance..)

I am particularly excited as someone who used to live in France 20 years ago (Paris in my twenties) and has always wanted to return and make work there – and get to speak French again whilst doing it!

There is a lot to prepare, and I will write as often as I can…will use twitter too (@burningthebooks) and update my artist facebook page. when I get the chance.

Does burning a Book of Debts matter? The question of artist as agent of social change

Please note: The Book of Debts, Volume V, Brighton and Hove will be recited and burned this Thursday 22nd May. Meet at Fabrica, Duke Street, Brighton at 6.30pm to be led to the burning site. Last rites over and a small wake until 7.45 /8pm. It is free. To add to this Volume of the Book, click here or visit Fabrica before Thursday afternoon.

The Book of Debts, Vol VI, Lewes, will open the following day online. It will open its physical pages at the Foundry Gallery, Lewes, as part of a touring group show Future Dreaming, on Friday May 30th, 7-9pm and the recital and burning will take place on Sunday June 8th, 4.30pm details here.

I took part in an in-conversation event with French artist Samuel Rousseau at Fabrica the other week entitled ‘Can artists be agents of social change?’ The question of art and social change is one I had raised at the start of my residency, mainly in response to peoples diverse readings of my Burning the Books project, Volume V of which culminates this week in Brighton as my residency at Fabrica draws to a close: is it activism, a political statement, a protest? Is it a shamanic ritual, a spiritual thing? Is it a secular confessional? What is it? Is it really art?

My own answer is (since I keep being asked and this week it feels apt to put it in writing): it is a public intervention, a poetic framework, for whatever the person ’reading‘ it chooses it to be. It is a gift I am giving away, an empty space, with specific parameters. It has been seen/used as a provocation, a creative form of resistance (for example when featured at the Life Before Debt conference recently at SOAS). It has also been related to as a source of comfort and healing for past hurts, bordering on the therapeutic – or simply a way of opening up a deeply personal and poetic reconsideration of what this poorly understood but powerful construct of debt means or can mean, when seen in a broader way (i.e. looking at it beyond the financial) and therefore how its impact on the individual and society can change with this shift in perception. For some it is just a playful but rather intrusive way of asking people to ask themselves some searching questions about what their own responsibilities towards themselves and others are, at a personal and societal level. And on how they relate to the past and how this affects their view of themselves, others and their future. I list these as readings that have been given to me over the last two years.

To me Burning the Books was an idea for an intervention that I felt compelled to make, and never thought to repeat. It arose from personal experiences, many of which have been recounted on my project blog. A play on how as humans we look for ways to end things, before – or long after – they are over, and on rituals which can bring us to a place through which we can re – imagine our place in the world, in the face of experiences that are hard to accept or own. The idea came as a gift, an image, after a period of action-  research through the artists development programme Giving into Gift/Present in Public in Liverpool in 2011. And that is my primary task with this and all my other work – to materialize an idea, in this case in a a series of different volumes and contexts, to bring it to its fullness – until it ends in May/June next year.

Samuel and I exchanged our experiences of working and talked about the relationship between art and social change as a very old question; in some sense, there has always been this inter-feed, at the level of culture and society being interdependent and of new ways of seeing self /society being made visible through culture activity (cubism, situationism etc.). As artists respond to what is been happening in the world around them, in turn this response has a societal influence. We share this desire to have our work cross interhuman borders, being accessible to those who might never venture into a gallery or museum, but this is true for many artists now, nothing unusual (or am I just surrounded by certain kinds of artists?).

And surely artists, unless vacuum-sealed into studios with no notion or interest in what is going on beyond the walls, are always responding to what is happening in society, which may affect them only at a personal level. You can’t ignore life. Currently, given socio-economic major shifts and human crises at all levels affecting everyone, to NOT respond in some way to the inequality, suffering and conflict in the world, is to miss the point of being human. This may be through traditional or non-traditional means, it doesn’t’ matter. (The response may be to make work that is an escape from that, which is still a response)

My own belief that everything we do affects everything else, that one simple action affects the world means that a small ritual act like burning a (proxy) book of debt, imaginary though it is, has an effect, Whether that is on the contributors themselves or on the wider creative commons of the reconsideration of how debt operates, it makes a difference. Maybe if I were truly brave and solely concerned with the socio-political dimensions of those debts that are unjust, I would have done what the Francisco Tapia just did in Chile, burning $500m of real, student debt. (RESPECT!).  But my role is to cast a broader net than that, (though I have spoken on, collected and burnt plenty of unjust debt, symbolically in the last 2 years) and to invite in as broad and possibly contradictory responses to the subject as possible.

To hear this extraordinarily wide range of takes on what debt is and the kind of stories it compels people to share, read them here or come and listen to the recital and watch the burning of Volume VI in Brighton this Thursday. And decide for yourself.

I will write more on this, my cross border experiences and also on my upcoming gift-based installation in Amiens for Musee Picardie, from next week.

Debt: a creature of reciprocity

The very fact that we don’t know what debt is, the very flexibility of the concept, is the basis of its power’ David Graeber -‘ Debt, The first 5000 Years’

This week I updated the online version of The Book of Debts, from the physical version in the gallery.(Read or add to it here). There were around 30 new entries from the last time I was in, and it was moving to read and transcribe a whole batch in one go like that, quite a rollercoaster!
From ‘I owe everything to everyone‘ to ‘I expect nothing and I promise nothing’ shows me once again that our relationship to debt is perceptual. There are debts of labour, love, time, lives lost and saved, relationships broken and redeemed. Debts to unions, banks, thinkers, do-ers, teachers, lovers, rock stars, mothers, the earth .. and the contributors themselves. With the odd heckle in between. Brighton is of course surfacing a beautiful eclectism which I am familiar with as a former resident, and now the Festival has begun I’m wondering what else will cover its pages up to May 22nd, when we recite and burn it (meet at Fabrica, 6.30pm if you want to hear /watch it)

I asked once again the leading question ‘What do you think about when you think about debt?’ at a talk/writing session I gave to gallery volunteers (who are at the frontline of the project at the moment at Fabrica, as the interface between it and the public) and a whole spectrum of responses came up – many of which, as I note-take at each such encounter, are being absorbed into the Ode to Debt / provocation that acts as my intro at live events. I am collecting definitions, responses, metaphors, like so many brushstrokes of a painting that I cannot yet clearly see from frame to frame. From fear, guilt and powerlessness to generosity and gratitude, there is always a growing sense when bringing the subject to the table that debt is something that is elusive and hard to understand, a threat, a stalking beast, or at the very least a subject requiring a degree of self-honesty or transparency that can be threatening to even contemplate.
Except when talking of debts of gratitude. Gratitude and indebtedness seem to often eclipse each other or even wear each other’s clothes. My understanding is that gratitude, like gift, does not come at a price, but indebtedness can easily follow in its wake, depending on the relationship of the recipient to the giver or even to the act of being given something – which may be culturally dependent. Within indebtedness lies the idea that there is something the recipient wants to repay to the other party, hence the word debt in its midst. At the heart of this is exchange, equality and power – and most of the entries in the The Book so far speak of this, if they don’t speak of gratitude/indebtedness.

David Graeber writes in his ‘Debt, The first 5000 Years’  (the first ever history of debt) that debt ‘is strictly a creature of reciprocity‘ but that ‘All human interactions are not forms of exchange, Only some are. Exchange encourages a particular way of conceiving human relations. This is because exchange implies equality, but it also implies separation. It’s precisely when the money changes hands, when the debt is cancelled, that equality is restored and both parties can walk away and have nothing further to do with each other.
Debt is what happens in between; when the two parties cannot yet walk away from each other, because they are not yet equal. But it is carried out in the shadow of eventual equality. Because achieving that equality , however, destroys the very reason for having a relationship , just about everything human happens in between – even if this means that all such human relations bear with them at least a tiny element of criminality, guilt or shame.’

Hence, the presence of debt in almost every great literary drama, the depiction of that ‘space in between’ where everything human – read interesting – happens! For a brilliant ride through that, read “Payback:Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth’ by Margaret Atwood, which also inspired an excellent recent documentary featuring the writer herself – and ‘arch villain’ Conrad Black – made by Jennifer Bachwal.
So, debt is inherently relational and so in shifting ones relationship to it, the debt itself can change shape. I found this with our financial situation of debt, which I have disclosed on the earlier pages of this blog, and which prompted my interest in the subject. It used to be a symbol of literal terror, shaking the very foundations of my being, until I got clear on my rights, the outer limits of own my moral compass, opened up to support and got clear on what I was and was not responsible for. With clarity and information, the terror turned to curiosity, and an ongoing project was born…

I’m next out with The Book of Debts (which is filling steadily, check some of the entries online here) at Hove Museum on Thurs May 8th 2-4pm. If you come and see me, I will offer you a free cup of tea, in return for your attention to the subject of debt, the shadow side of gift, in all its dark glory and transformative potential.

I’ll also be in conversation with French artist Samuel Rousseau 7-8pm on the same day, May 8th,  at Fabrica, on the subject of artist as agent of social change (question mark) details here.. Please come and join in the conversation. It’s free, nothing will be left owing…

Random Acts of Generosity : after-notes

‘ Give as much as you take, all shall be very well’   Maori proverb

RAOGgiftsontableIs anything really random? Is a gift ever free? What does it really mean to be generous? Isn’t there a return encoded into most gift in some form, and isn’t this the natural way of things, to enable human beings to exchange and reciprocate?

These are the questions arising, some of which have been on my agenda for a while and some, which have yet to be fully explored. They were the starting point for my ‘Random Acts of Generosity’, a  gentle intervention happening in the corner of the gallery on Saturday 12th, which may turn into something more.

I tried to make the exchange (the participant’s time and attention in exchange for a gift, and my own attention to the subject) as equivocal and containing elements of the ‘random’ a possible. But, as always, there were so many synchronous elements – both in the questions raised, the stories shared and the nature of the precise object received, that it took on its own life.

That’ s the thing about dialogical work, you never quite know who will turn up and what they have going on, and how what you have to offer will land. Also, although ultimately I was the one holding the unwrapped gifts in hand and the questions, I hold some control, it is only in the receptivity and presence of the other that the work can actually exist. It has to be reciprocal, and born of the moment.

I had a list of question, quotes, thoughts and personal stories on the above themes, listed A-Q, and asked them to pick a number at random, this became the starting point for a short exchange.

Some were my favourite quotes, like:

‘The Gift is to the Giver, and comes back most to him – it cannot fail’  (Walt Whitman)

Or ‘The Gift that is not used is lost, while one that is passed along remains abundant’ (Lewis Hyde, The Gift)

As the subject of gifts often being harder to receive that give came up a lot, this quote helped unpick the vulnerability of gift exchange. ‘ Because it creates gratitude or obligation, to willingly receive a gift is itself a form of generosity, it says: ‘I am willing to owe you one. Or in a more sophisticated gift culture, it says: ‘I am willing to be in the debt of the community’ (Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein)

A gift is defined as something that enriches, ‘given without expectation of return. A thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present. A natural ability or talent’. Unpicking what a gift actually is with people, always brings up what it isn’t. i.e., are many so-called gifts simply unspoken obligations in disguise?

In our society, much giving has become associated with losing or profiting and the measuring of what is given or received, an unspoken tallying system, and so debt has become so dominant on all levels – which always brings me full circle to The Book of Debts when this comes up. So some of the stories entered that day into The Book were a result of a conversation about gift, and as debt seems to be presenting itself as the darker sibling to gift, this completes an invisible circle in my head and makes me realise how interconnected everything I have been working on since I created my earlier gift- based works.

I’m not going to reveal in detail what I gave people, or even what happened between us, as that seems to be giving too much away for now but let’s just say it was a mixture of objects with suggested instructions, all of which were versions of gifts – whether intentionally given to me or experienced as a gift in my life – which I had received at some point.

Most people felt the need to reciprocate in some way, despite me saying that I was giving them the gift without this expectation. In one beautiful moment, I was sung a sea hymn by a ‘giftee’ so overcome with the synchronicity of what she opened in front of my eyes! Also, there were some very surreal responses to some of the questions posed such as ‘What’s the most shocking gift you have ever been given?’ (alligators featured in more than one response, strangely enough)

Have you ever received something that felt like it had no strings attached? (hard o answer..) Who is the most generous person you know? (easier, and normally not related to money but generosity of the emotional kind)

I have to say, although there were only 14 slots, I could have given away a great deal more, as once people notice there is something being given away, wrapped in a brown paper package with a label attached, curiosity is piqued.

It made me realise how much easier it is to talk about gift, with one in hand, than to ask people to think and talk about debt. And yet how they are absolutely two sides of the same coin. Still, it was an almost relieving counterpoint to The Book of Debts – which offers an invisible gift in the end experience it entails – and I already have thoughts brewing about how I might develop these Random Acts of Generosity in the future …

There are a number of excellent artist centred blogs /projects to be highlighted around gift, generosity, reciprocity etc., the main two I have had some input /connections with and inspiration from are:

Wur Blog  a collective blog on gift, exchange and reciprocity initiated and hosted by fellow AN blogger and artist gifted in the art of generosity as a practice Jean McEwan.

And Giving into Gift   by Tim Jeeves, birthplace of Burning The Books (look under Present in Public, 2011). It is ongoing and Tim is pioneering in his approach to engaging artists and public in gift in a whole spectrum of ways. It is ‘ a meeting point between artists, their peers and the public, Giving in to Gift is an ongoing conversation around ideas of generosity and reciprocation and how these themes manifest. 
It’s an examination of the contradictions present in the giving of gifts, an enquiry into how they interact with the changing economic landscape, and an opportunity for differing modes of collaboration to be explored.


I’m next out with The Book of Debts (which is filling steadily, check some of the entries online here) at Hove Museum on Thurs May 8th 2-4pm. If you come and see me, I will offer you a free cup of tea, in return for your attention to the subject of debt, the shadow side of gift, in all its dark glory and transformative potential.

I’ll also be in conversation with French artist Samuel Rousseau 7-8pm on the same day, May 8th,  at Fabrica, on the subject of art and social change – details here.

Letter to the people of Brighton and Hove

Invitation to contribute to The Book of Debts (V), from now until May 22, 2014

 Dear Strangers,

We may meet, or we may never meet. I am an artist, debtor and keeper of The Book of Debts, which – one Volume per location – is being filled with stories of debt, recited aloud and burned, as it travels the UK. We are now being hosted by Fabrica Gallery in Brighton, until May 22nd as part of my artist residency there.

What do you think about when you think about debt?  Money, time, love, attention? Shame, denial, regret, anger, injustice? Family, obligation, gratitude? Who owes what to whom? Do all debts have to be repaid? When is it ok not to pay?  How responsible are we for what we, our family, community or nation owe? I invite you read, reflect and add to the pages of this current Book of Debts, which now sits in Fabrica and is open to anyone who finds it – whether borrower or lender, past or present. The debt entered can be owed by you – or to you. Or it may be owed to or by a third party. It may be financial, social, emotional, political, ecological or spiritual – or a combination of the above. All contributions are anonymous,  – unless you choose to identify yourself –  and you can enter  as many debts as you like.

The project offers you a conversation about debt you might not expect to have. Here is a moment to reflect on a subject which has a huge power over individuals and society and yet is only a construct, an idea, an agreement, subject to change and circumstance. Read and add to the shared stories of those who inhabit the same city as you, online via or in the gallery.  All contributions will form part of the final recital. To witness the recital and burning of this volume of The Book of Debts, meet at Fabrica Gallery at 6.30pm on Thursday May 22nd and be led to an outdoor site.  Before that, visit me for a free cup of tea and listen to me read you The Book at Hove Museum 2-4pm on Thursday May 8th. I will also be on the streets of central Brighton with it and my firekeeper on the afternoon of Sunday 18th May , as well as unannounced in other parts of the city through the month. Watch me talking about my Fabrica activity in their gallery film here (8 mins in)

The content of The Book is dependent on those who fill its pages, and is unique to the place in which it resides. As a previous resident of this City, I am curious to see what else will cover its pages over the coming weeks.

Yours indebtedly,

Alinah Azadeh