Random Acts of Generosity (1)

I am hosting my first ever Random Acts of Generosity this Saturday at Fabrica. It’s an experiment, part of the brief of being resident artist, and I am not sure how it will play out. Pre-booked participants will get 15 minutes of one-to-one with me, at the end of which I will give them a gift. And the rest is up to them. I won’t say much more, as that would constitute a spoiler! But am taking delight in the long list of potential ‘gifts’ I have and working out which ones to wrap, bring and label for the purpose. I think there are a few places left; you can book in via eventbrite or the Fabrica site.

So, am I just a generous person who loves giving things away – or I am using others to further the ideas in my work?

The Gifts (2010), Alinah Azadeh. Photo:Sogand Bahram

The Gifts (2010), Alinah Azadeh. Photo:Sogand Bahram

I was struck at the ‘There’s an ‘I’ in Altruism’ event I took part in at Fabrica in February – co-hosted by Science writer Marek Kohn, and alongside speakers from scientific, anthropological, tech and faith backgrounds – by one of the ideas that came up around the commodification of altruism, and how we have as a society turned altruism into a product like any other, for the profit and self aggrandizement of the ego and capital in general – subsuming our middle class guilt into direct debit payments to charities for example, who behave more like corporate institutions than representatives of the truly needy. The rotting effects of capitalism, exacerbating inequality and perverting the very idea of gift and charity into something meaningless and ineffective.

Although I don’t share this view completely – as it seemed to write off in disdain most of the people in the room and the way they probably live their lives (a personal response on my part) – it did get me reflecting once again on how giving has become more associated with loss and profit than it has with connection and collective well-being, its apparent original purpose. And also these two of self –interest and generosity are supposedly opposing notions, when they eclipse and become interdependent; it is only then that a system of reciprocal altruism can really function.

For example, although much of my own arts practice could be labeled as operating in the social, and encoded with the desire to connect and impact others in some way, I do projects like Burning the Books for dual reasons which are simultaneously about me and about impact on another/society.

The first is stemmed in self-interest – I had an extreme experience around debt which shook my life up, then got curious about the social, moral and philosophical questions it raised and found a ‘tool’ (the idea of the project) to explore this more. Secondly, Interaction with others was contingent on making that idea work. I felt instrumentalised by the idea and compelled to share it further, based on the powerful response from those who were part of the first Burning the Books through Giving into Gift and then at Blank Gallery last year for Volume II.

This is a form of creative interdependence and I think there are many arts practices which can be a model for what Charles Eisenstein calls ‘ the age of interbeing’ as opposed to ‘the age of separation’ which he believes we are moving through, discussed in his most recent book. (More on that later). In terms of making art that is dependent on an encounter or exchange with another, over which I only have a modicum of control, the main currency is attention and trust.

Will those who come on Saturday trust me enough to receive in full what I have to give them and will I resist the temptation to offer them something that really has no strings attached ?


Life Before Debt and the ripped cloak

Last weekend I attended and presented The Book of Debts at Life Before Debt, a conference organized by the Jubilee Debt Campaign and hosted at SOAS.

I have spent days now trying to get my head around how to communicate the density and complexity of what I learnt there, through a line up of inspiring speakers and delegates alike.

I felt at the start of the project that debt was like a mountain and I had a teaspoon. Now it feels like a mountain range! And the highest mountain in view at the weekend, and percolating since then, has been the issues raised around unjust debts both sovereign (nation-based, institution-led) and household.

Alinah and The Book@LifeBeforeDebt, SOAS, March 201

Alinah and The Book@LifeBeforeDebt, SOAS, March 2013

I have spent a few years now wondering how to get past and shift the perception of debt as merely a financial issue, which can be a barrier to engaging with the project on first sight (I don’t owe money, or if I do I’m not telling you about it – I’m not guilty! arg!). Now, finally I was in the company of 400 other people who not only take the broader social, moral, political, psychological context of debt deeply seriously, but also have a lot of specialist knowledge of it. The emphasis was of course on economic justice and ways to work towards this, so this post focuses on what came up and struck me most on that front, and uses the language of that sector, which is dramatic, and provocative (and rightly so). Yes, there was plenty to be depressed about. Debt peril, debt slavery, financial colonization, mounting household debt and mental health statistics.

But also it was an amazing space for gathering intelligence, feeling others commitment globally to work on a collective change and there were a number of solutions which came up too. At the closing, the incredible Njoki Njehu, grassroots organizer, ecological activist and women’s advocate of Jubilee South, gifted us with the story of the hummingbird gathering raindrops to help put out the forest fire, (see clip here). This was a really simple and helpful tale to take away for mitigating what could feel like an insurmountable task ahead for those engaged in challenging the fundamentals of the system, such as the way money is created – like the extraordinary Ann Pettifor who just published ‘Just Money’, another for my list to read..more on her later).  Or just for facing and dealing with what is happening right now in society and how to approach and be gentler with one’s own self-expectations As the keeper of a Book of Debts, at this time in history, I need to hear more poetic nuggets like this, to avoid overwhelm and to remind myself in my own small but focused role in opening up dialogues with those I meet through the project and who engage with it on whatever level.

There will be a film edited from the day, which I will link to when it’s up and will do a far better job than I can, of capturing the day..

I want to mention a few people though, like New York social and cultural analyst /writer/activist/lecturer Andrew Ross, focused on household debt, of Strike Debt and the inspirational Rolling Jubilee as well as the Strike Student Debt movement in the US, who has just written a book called Creditocracy, presented here , so eloquently coining phrases and provoking  fierce questions like steady bullets that I could not scribble fast enough, like :

The struggle over debt is the primary conflict of our times.

Money comes into being as interest bearing debt, it does not exist hitherto. (Something the Bank of England only recently admitted to)

Wall street predatory lending is an extreme form of usury.

What the system wants from us is to perform a lifetime of debt service

Debt is the battle line for consent. We need to customise strategies, and reverse the morality of debt to hold creditors to account…

The debt trap has migrated from the global south to the global north…

How does democracy survive when you are on the road to debt serfdom?

At the opening he picked up on the questioning by Rowan Williams (former Arch bishop of Canterbury and author of some excellent speeches and articles on economy and morality) of the ‘we should always pay our debts’ morality (or psychological patterning) around debt which enables irresponsible lending to take place, borrowers to remain silent and in fear,  and our entire system to now be built apon debt, with – as his students put it ‘ Our futures foreclosed’.

Both Andrew and Nyoki Nyehu, questioned the concept of forgiveness – and charity – in relation to socio-economic, unjust or odious debts. They said it should be a no-no as this implies there is something to forgive, a negative value, setting up a hierarchy, as then if your debt is forgiven, you owe the person who forgives you.  It is not empowering  and it adds a layer of indebtedness and the idea of payback. We could explore this in other areas of human behaviour and relationship too.

They suggested the same could be said of charity (my Caritas ears pricked up!) ‘Charity suggests a judgement about the moral worth of the individual – that they need to be in need,  to be helped’ i.e. that humans don’t have an automatic right to the basics of life. I want it look at this more.

Rowan Williams cited the principles of Leviticus –which he noted have been totally and utterly ignored and subverted in real terms in our society – such as:

‘Do not seek profit from another’s misery’ i.e. don’t manage lending to someone in such a way as to deprive the debtor his or her essential survival. Don’t lend aggressively – i.e. making money make money

‘The land does not belong to anyone. The land is on loan to you by God – you are already indebted to it. You trade its use not the land itself (cf irresponsible development of land based on monetisation not needs of local communities – an issue at the moment on the land where my studio is in Lewes)

‘Ownership is never absolute in a world where you are dependent on what you haven’t made’

He talked about ‘the spiral of asymmetry’ re debt and credit and that all we can do is ‘limit the spiral’. He also mentioned the prohibitions of unlimited collateral, i.e. ‘Don’t take as security for a debt something that someone else needs, that is, don’t take the cloak that covers the back’ So then I thought of course of St Martin and tale of the ripped cloak. That will come later too, as I draw on this for my Isle Perdu Amiens commission.

He said we have to ask what are the ethics of lending? And question the blindness of creditors to the social and moral effects of debt. He was very succinct, with great gravity and dignity, I like him. I was a bit gutted to learn though that the Church of England pension fund still holds £80k investment in Wonga

My head is spinning simply writing these words. So time to gather some raindrops and check The Book of Debts, which I am preparing for this Sundays Launch at Fabrica, Brighton 5 -6pm. Full schedule of Book of Debts in Brighton and Hove also here

The Book of Debts (V) opens its pages – in prologue, at Life Before Debt.

‘It is not without reason that our financial elites have been called a priesthood. Donning ceremonial garb, speaking an arcane language, wielding mysterious inscriptions, they can with a mere word or a mere stroke of a pen, cause fortunes and nations to rise and fall’ Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein

Book of Debts recital ,  Birmingham. Photo: Katja

Book of Debts recital, Birmingham. Photo: Katja Ogrin.


So, it is impossible as an artist and human being, having experienced and recounted what I have around the subject of debt (in both financial, socio-political and psychological, interpersonal terms, for they are almost always related), and seeing the same happening all around me – to be neutral in the face of the growing imbalance and inequality, both in this country and globally.

The Book of Debts itself is a neutral space, a series of blank pages – open to debtors, creditors alike and to any form of debt – but I find it increasingly difficult, as an individual, not to make judgments or adopt a position re the system, this house of cards, we are supposed to be trying to exist within and how it is exacerbating this gap at high speed.  I have spoken before about the dimension of illusion and absurdity that characterises debt creation , especially at the level of global capital and developing countries, but also here in the UK. David Graeber wrote an article this week ‘The truth is out: money is just an IOU, and the banks are rolling in it’ on how even the banks have admitted that they are making the whole thing up, ‘throwing out the window the theoretical case for austerity’, as well as the exemption of financial elites from cuts and proper taxes. I am excited that he will be one of the speakers at this Saturdays Life Before Debt conference at SOAS, where we were originally invited to do a full cycle of Burning the Books, but now – ironically, due to lack of permission re the fire – will open the Book of Debts (V), present at the opening session, gather entries and reflect briefly on the day at the closing plenary.

Although I do not consider myself a campaigner, social justice has become an inherent part of this project since there are so many stories that call apon the book to voice this. It is a holistic project but it is increasingly clear that there IS no debt without a story, and every sum of money owed carries a tale of some kind- whether this is an injustice, an act of generosity, a highlighting of inequality or a reminder of the capacity of human beings to work together to resist and /or to forgive. I am looking forward to what I will learn from activists, academics and other practitioners from around the world this weekend, and how it will feed into this project and my thinking on the residency.

I will share a few of the stories I will gather on Saturday here next week in the build up to the launch of the Brighton Book of Debts at Fabrica on Sunday April 6, 5-6pm .Please come along and be one of the early contributors to what will be an extremely diverse and enriching volume. Or just listen and reflect

Big world, small world.

So, I’m working on:

  1. Plans to make a work using ‘gift’ en masse on a Isle Perdu in France (for Musee Picardie) – totally made in blue. (More on that later)
  2.  Preparing a verbal provocation to address an audience of academics, activists and faith practitioners on the spectrum of meanings and readings debt can have/ be next week at SOAS and ask them to contribute my next Book of Debts.
  3.  Preparing a collection of top secret objects/experiences to ‘give’ away to random members of the public at Fabrica as a counterbalance to Burning the Books, which comes to the gallery soon.
  4. Working hard on balancing the childcare schedule between myself, my partner and other friends in need of childcare,  that makes all this possible.
  5. As well as …  preparing celebrating, in a quiet way, Nowruz, the Persian New Year, that begins today, the first day of Spring, in the absence of any other Iranians, apart from my partially Iranian children. And remembering my late, Iranian mother in the mix, who so loved this time of year.

The personal and social are always enmeshed with the wider socio-political and the philosophical, I feel (as a human being, hopefully this resonates) I am always operating simultaneously on a number of intersecting and interconnected levels of consideration and sometimes it is hard to remember to see life as simple, which is what it is really. A question of breathing  – and loving. And trying to focus on what is here, now – whilst keeping the bigger picture in view. A question of occupying the big world and the small world at the same time, local and global. Phew, there is a tension there. A balancing act.

It is an exciting time and – in keeping with the ideas of balance and equality that are part of my enquiry – my life is reflecting my art and vice versa. I have been very immersed in the first major tour stop for Burning the Books – which came to a fiery end in Birmingham Cathedral Square last weekend, to one of the most mixed audiences we have had so far.

Burning the Books - Birmingham. Photo: Katja

Burning the Books – Birmingham. Photo: Katja Ogrin.

When I first went out with The Book of Debts in November 2011 in Liverpool, I went out as a ‘blank page’ – carrying a book of blank pages – and open to whatever came my way.  The world has been changing rapidly since then, in particular the accelerating gap in socio-economic inequality, which gets reflected in the book and articulated by the stories coming my way and through the partnerships I have formed, such as the Jubilee Debt Campaign, who are hosting next weeks conference Life After Debt where we were supposed to burn the next volume of The Book. Due to red tape, we are now limited to presenting and gathering as UOL won’t permit burning on their grounds! And all stories will roll over to the Book of Debts, launching at Fabrica on April 6th (details here) which will really kick start that launch off with a series of globally and locally focused stories and issues, making it unique and already a provocative text for people to respond to and add their own entries to, I hope.

I was struck then by the range of debt stories that came my way – and it was these entries from the financial to the social to the spiritual and everything in between that informed the ensuing narrative of the project. The debt stories that move me – and the audience the most – are the human, personal ones, which may also voice something of the broader social context in which they sit. Today, I realised that, with my mother gone and most of my Iranian relatives in other countries or preoccupied with their own lives, and no Iranian diaspora to link to in Lewes, (my only Iranian friend left Lewes last year, and my time-poor, work-rich life means I don’t reach out beyond here at the moment), preparing for Nowruz could seem a strangely out-of-sync activity – if I think about it too much. There lies grief and regret and the echoes of my mothers Nowruz parties, the smell of baked rice with dill…

And yet it is essential for me to prepare, cook, host and reflect on my mother’s culture and my own hybrid one at this time of year (whether there are Iranians around to identify with it or not).  It is an occupying of a legacy, which enriches me – and my partner and the children also love it. (Giving them £5 notes wrapped in ribbon helps, one of the many traditions.).

One of the entries to the Birmingham Book of Debts prompted me to reflect on this today, which I want to share (though it was physically destroyed, stories remain) and I think it will resonate with any second or third generation child of immigrant parents, or even beyond:

‘The debt: Part of my identity (Indian, specifically Gujarati) on my maternal side

I am half -Indian on my Mother’s side. My maternal grandmother is an incredible woman who emigrated from India to Kenya, and then finally to Britain in the 60’s. This half of my identity is rich in culture – the food, language, traditions, Hindu religion are all a source of wonder for me.

I feel indebted to this culture for forming a huge part of my identity as a woman in this modern, British society. When my mother passed away on my tenth birthday, I felt like I’d lost my intrinsic connection to the Indian culture. Now I watch on as my Grandma and maternal aunts and uncles converse in a language I don’t understand and can’t speak. I do not know how to cook my Grandma’s curries and my knowledge of her religion, Hinduism, is non-existent. I really wish I knew more about this side of me and feel like it’s a debt I can repay perhaps if I make more of an effort to learn about it.’

Happy Spring. Next time, more on the lost island, altruism and equality…

Encountering a dead artist

When I went to visit the Musee de Picardie – a very grand and impressive Museum of the region, in the process of being renovated but still full of treasures – and take a look at this incredible permanent intervention by Sol Le Witt there, it blew me away. Sophie showed me around and then we went upstairs to meet Sabine.

Sabine Cazenave is the Museum Director (there aren’t many female Museum Directors anywhere in the world and I was very pleased to meet one) who had mentioned Chohreh Feyzdjou when we met in Brighton the first time, and now started to talk in more depth about this extraordinary artist who I did not know of. I looked at the photo of her in a catalogue and she instantly reminded me of me, when I had long crazy hair in my twenties. And of course the Iranian thing, and the wrapped works! Memory, loss, longing, obsessive methods. Abject though, very different end of the spectrum, but so powerful visually. The French state own all her work as she died suddenly, very young and it was left to them, and Sabine was charged with going through and organising her studio into a permanent collection that I think is mainly held in Bordeaux.

It’s curious how hearing about this woman and her devastatingly powerful work moved me and triggered old memories, seeing our parallels.  An Iranian Jew (a complex thing to be in Iran) she came to Paris, aged 18 to study at the Beaux-Arts, and while she was there the Revolution broke out (1979).  I moved to Paris aged 21 to escape, Thatcher’s Britain, my family and to pursue the 19th century Bohemian dream of the artist, alone in my garret but in a city of visual inspiration, a city that would value that dream and not always being ask me what my real job was. And to some extent it unfolded like that, and I got my real art education there – but on the streets and in an informal way, mentored for a time and given my first show by a Puerto Rican artist called Alfonso Arana .

Like my some of my own family in Iran, Chohreh was caught up in the promise of radical change offered by the rising clerical regime and returned to Iran, even marrying a Muslim for a short period, then quickly realising I think that there had simply been a transfer of power in her country, into something that proved an even darker shade of black.  My mother I remember warned of this in 1978, as Khomeini was being cradled in France, and I recall the violent political arguments as one of my second cousins, visiting us in Southampton while studying at Manchester Uni, revealed he was going to join the Revolutionary Guards.  I have never seen my mother so furious. He used to use my bedroom for his 5 daily prayers and I used to pretend to walk in on him by accident, just to try to study what he was doing. I had never seen anyone praying like that before.

Returning to Paris, Chohreh seemed to have a fast and steady rise in her career, and I am amazed that I never saw her work in the flesh, as it was on show when I was living in Paris still, and came to the UK too in a few groups shows later on. She opened a shop, selling her works, labelled “Product of  Chohreh Feyzdjou’ in 1992, and I note she was in a group show with Sarah Lucas and wonder if that was an influence on Lucas and Emin’s The Shop in 1993…Except Chohreh’s work seemed to be an ironic comment on consumerism, which later seemed to be the driving force for their work with Saatchi etc. – but who knows how it would have gone if she had lived? I get the sense she was very ambitious, a force to reckon with. A candle that burnt itself out.

She was showing all over the world and promoted by top gallerists.  I lived a low key life, drawing and painting most of the time with a few small shows in Paris and Toulouse, travelling a lot, selling some work sometimes, having spiritual adventures and teaching English to business people to cover my rent, where I learnt a lot about engaging up close with people who were very different from me and developing a connection, in order to teach them a language. This has proved deeply influential in my working practice, even today.  And I was in love with Paris and the freedom it gave me to be myself, to be a citizen of the world, and I liked the fact that people seemed to be interested in both my Englishness and my Iranian-ness. A bonus. Like her, I also went on a journey of self –discovery to Iran in 1992 (only I am second –generation so it was my first time, not a return) travelling around the country with my mother, falling in love in secret with an Iranian man and later, on returning to Paris, trying to convert to Islam (which didn’t go so well).

I saw Choreh’s connection to Sufism –  check her amazing walls of rolls of black dusted Persian poem – and remembered my own Sufi teacher, Javad, who I met and followed for a while in Paris – learning those complex group movements /dances and at times, whirling with the universe. He was the one to persuade me to convert to Islam (much to my mother’s horror) and I introduced my Mother to him while visiting Mashad, where he was based. She was very suspicious, but was wisely hands-off, seeing perhaps that my connection to him was a cultural not spiritual one, and temporary –if impactful.

It was through Javad and my mother both that I came to love Rumi and Hafez, which has influenced so much of my work.

Monument (to the end of money)

Monument to The End of Money (Alinah Azadeh)
Cheque books, credit cards, wrapped in ripped indigo kimono, green wool, wire.

The quantity and often the form of Chohreh’s work was prolific and colossal.  She packaged and rolled up her entire life, covered it in a dusting of black ash and then, suddenly at the age of 41 from a complex illness, life took her away, back to darkness she had covered it with. I have been reading about it in the catalogues Sabine gave me and it really is worth looking more closely, online. Something about her scrolls works really moves me.

I have used wrapped scrolls before both with my own personal artefacts –  like this one –  and with groups, as part of Portraits of the Unseen, a collaborative show at the National Portrait Gallery I did with 3 groups of young Muslims in 2010.

Chasing Mirrors: Portraits of the Unseen

Chasing Mirrors: Portraits of the Unseen (National Portrait Gallery, 2010)

The shared desire to preserve, protect, catalogue, display. Our work is very different philosophically, but it’s always somethingI take note of when someone is introduced to me in such deliberate detail, there is something to weave in here.

Amiens (2)


So, next, waking up in a really nice hotel, right next to the Cathedral, I went looking for the head of St John the Baptist there (or the ‘chef’ of John the Baptist, which might disclose how important the head/intellect is in French culture, the head is the boss!). An irresistible quest, which was apparently what prompted the construction of the biggest Cathedral in Europe.

I felt the sunrise through window with the outline of the spires in dark relief before I set off, wandered through it with open mouth, and tried to walk the floor labyrinth to its centre ( but failed, too hard, loved to have seen or joined pilgrims shuffling around it on their knees, in a state of transcendence, or despair depending on whether they kept coming up against a dead end, like I did) .


I was struck at the externalisation of mans  desire to literally reach the heavens (let’s face it, it was men who went this big, at that time, with their big money, made from the blue of the woad plant!).  A kind of beautiful bling in delicate stone, carved reliefs showing the story of John the Baptist, who was like Jesus’ mentor and baptised him (which means baptism predates Christianity ?) and then, just for telling Herod not to mess with his brother’s wife – but more probably because he started foretelling the Jesus as a rising star to trump Herod’s own celebrity – he had his head cut off, burnt his body, and well, the rest is a better known story. I read somewhere that John the Baptist ‘had a monopoly’ (on baptism, as it could only be done by him) and Jesus ‘had a franchise’. Interesting to think about religion as a kind of spiritual franchise..

BUT someone had the cunning thought to save the head, and it ended up in Amiens, and a version of it, if it ever was really saved, lies in this beautiful box, behind a grilled case in the wall. Tiny, like the Mona Lisa. Except he had nothing to smile about. He must have been a powerful orator, and what a threat is was – and still is – to speak your mind to the powerful! I later read that at least 5 other cities across the world claim to house the head of John the Baptist… what is is that is so powerful (for the faithful) about holy relics, even if unlikely to be authentic they still seem, as physical fragments of a teaching story so embedded in our cultures, to conjure something charismatic and magical.

Ok, this is only the first 2 hours of my 3 day stay recounted! and it is past midnight. I will catch up on the rest later, my visits to the island, the Museum collection etc, after final meetings at the Library on the long train ride home!
But, in brief, on the rest of that day, I :
– chatted a lot with Sophie about Amiens and all the people I would meet and their relationship to the project
– had sushi lunch with nine cultural workers, movers and shakers,
– gave a one hour impromptu lecture on my work to a class of art students at the Arts Faculty at the request of Alain who teaches English and Visual Arts,
– was served a cup of tea by a art student in drag offering false confessionals
– we met with the director of the museum, Sabine – and learned more about the work of 2 really interesting french artists (Samuel Rousseau and someone else I have forgotten the name of) and one extraordinary, late, Iranian artist, Choreh Fayzjou, – who I will write about more soon. And also something about the sociological context of Picardie which might inform the work i do
– Found out they do want me to come up with ideas to make a work (which had been hinted at) for a garden island they do projects on as part of the Hortillionages Festival and their own exhibition on Caritas. And then we will take it from there.
– Got very excited about this, especially once I had visited the island, which – unbelievably – is called Isle Perdu (the lost island) and -wait for this- is so named because it is owned by a couple called Mr and Mrs Perdu (Lost). Who said romanticism was dead? …

Amiens, (1)

Then, and now.
Coming to Amiens, speaking French again, stepping into the aesthetic of a beautiful historic place, eclipsed me into my past, as a 20 year old landing and living in Paris for 6 years – old style, a la boheme, the only model of an artist I had at the time, or was aware enough of to follow…And being ALONE in a city, at those rare times when I was not accompanied by Sophie, the Woad partnerships projects director from the Museum, exploring cultural, natural and historic spaces, (the HUGE cathedral, the museum of treasures, the streets and canals, touches of Venice and Amsterdam…) , eating out in restaurants at night with my research material as company, feeling totally at home and remembering how eating or drinking out alone in Paris 20 years earlier was always a more self-conscious affair, accompanied by a packet of very strong cigarettes, coffee and a sketchbook, charcoal hands and a belly full of desire to be and feel more visible, at ease, more loved.


I have always found cities more a place of refuge in some ways than smaller towns or even natural spaces. I get so high on, in particular, the cultural intake and transfer that occurs from walking into a jaw-dropping building like the Amiens Cathedral, the uncovering of streets I have never walked on before, brushing past strangers who I may never pass again, being able to understand snippets of conversation as they breeze past me, though not in my native tongue.
Being both the guest of the Museum – with, I must say, two warm and brilliant women – Director Sabine and Woad project director Sophie – to feed me all the cultural, socio-historical background to the town and its culture that I could possibly want, and more – and also being able to speak French has given me kind of autonomy and immediate access to some of the wider story of this city. And I love to experience new places, through their wider stories – or at least the version that first presents itself.

Monday was an enriching day . Let’s see, where to begin:

I looked more closely at the meaning of ‘caritas’ – the theme that the Museum has set this year and that interlinks with Fabrica’s own themes which I am exploring. Caritas – is like the notion of charity, but something more – it is loving kindness, altruistic love. It stems here from the story of Saint Martin, important saint in this historically catholic (though now predominantly ‘de-christianised’) City. Seems a bit like St George is to some English people.
Saint Martin was a roman soldier, sent off early to war by his father to make sure he didn’t give it all up to become a monk – but gave everything he owned away en route to Amiens anyway.
Approaching the gates of the City, he saw a beggar with not enough clothing to keep him warm and was so moved by his fellow human being in-need, he tore his blue cloak in half and gave the beggar one half. Significant because apparently the Roman army owned half of a soldiers belongings, including his cloak, and so he gave away his portion, I guess? Also, there were a bunch of onlookers, all much more well equipped /well-to-do than he was, who just watched, laughed or mocked. Apart from one at least, who much have been moved / shamed and humbled enough to record the story in some form. So that’s what the blue in the French flag is! (which I assume was dyed in Woad, the plant that made the City rich and prosperous and on which the
Cathedral is built.) and every French person from Amiens, and farther afield too – knows this story. Except I had never heard of it, which made me feel like a stranger again. Most of my exposure to French historical knowledge was to do the revolution, bastille day etc plus of course all the poets, artists, Paris, etc. I always avoided the Catholic zone, mixing mainly with people from either none or other faiths in Paris.
So was his spontaneous act of altruism totally selfless? I guess this depends on your belief system.And something I will look into more later, as its a complex question (which a few of us will try to unpick next monday at Fabrica!) – but trying to keep an overview of my trip for now! And need to keep a few ideas back for then, too, if I am honest…


Starting points…

Starting points are slippery things, when your work intersects with so many different areas of knowledge, thought, medium and audience. They have a habit of wandering off and hydra-like, breeding new starting points..But I have to start somewhere, and the term ‘line of enquiry’ was what I was given to anchor me in my intentions for the next four months. This implies enquiry is a linear process, which, knowing the way I process ideas and practices, isn’t a familiar approach. I would say it’s more like a two-way spiral ( a sculptural form I have used a lot).
But, given my current practice and its focus over the last decade, the suggestion to respond to and develop more thinking and experimenting on ideas around gift, debt, societal fairness, generosity, equality and altruism some of  which I have already spent quite a bit of time considering and informing my work through, was irresistible.

Alinah Azadeh,Burning the Books (Portslade), Boundary rd

Burning the Books (II). Photo: Sogand Bahram

Add to that a number of questions – which are very much around right now  – considering the role of the artist as contributing agent of social change in times of constraint and upheaval, and I’m definetly already grateful for the time, money and public platform to do so. I love my job.

Just responding to one of my proposed lines of enquiry  could take up the whole residency, but I like a broad palette, close in colour range, so here we go. I’m excited about preparing for the Unwrapped Event – There’s an ‘I” in Altruism’ at Fabrica on Feb 24th, where I will be one of five speakers.

But first, this weekend, with the themes of this event and my own web of questions in mind, I’m being sent to Amiens, France on a four day go-and-see !

Amiens and Brighton are becoming cultural siblings and this residency is part of that cross-border partnering. I’m being hosted by the Le Musee de Picardie (who are doing a programme along related themes to Fabrica’s this year, more on that later) and getting a general tour of (key) people and places, then we see how it unfolds from there.  So off I go, to my former adopted home, La France…