gift

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.

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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.