Artists blow up £1.2m of high interest debt in Walthamstow
On Wednesday 13th March 2019, 411 people each with an average of £2959 outstanding high interest debt to their names, were sent yet another letter about their long overdue accounts. But this time it didn't ask them to repay the money. Instead it invited them to come and watch those debts being blown up in the shadow of Canary Wharf.
In what is believed to be the first British example of the destruction of debt, this is the culmination of a remarkable project in which a filmmaker and an artist set up their own bank, printed their own cash and sold it as art to raise the funds for this project.
Why are they doing this?
Artist Hilary Powell and filmmaker Dan Edelstyn have been working on their project Hoe Street Central Bank for over a year - drawing attention to the growing personal debt crisis sweeping not just across Britain but across the Western world. They got the idea of debt abolition from Strike Debt in New York who raised $701,317 and erased over $30m of student and medical debt.
Strike Debt were challenging the power of creditors who they argued were taking over Western democracies and preying on our welfare states. The results of their actions: widespread personal debt, decreased personal freedom; democratic rights minimised. They argued that ‘creditocracies’ were emerging across the developed countries, where access to healthcare, education and housing were increasingly controlled by creditor gatekeepers - a problem exacerbated by the austerity policies following the 2008 crisis.
After meeting them in New York and Los Angeles, filmmaker Edelstyn began to examine his home borough of Waltham Forest in London asking whether it was a “creditocracy”. He found that his NHS trust was Barts - the most indebted in Britain due to PFI debt (private finance initiative). This debt meant that the hospital was under-resourced. He discovered soaring food bank usage and schools with their budgets cut to the quick by austerity policies. He met students up to their eyeballs, and despairing residents choosing between eating or paying their rents.
“Enough was enough. I felt this notion of creditocracy was self-evident and something had to be done” says Edelstyn. So he turned to his artist wife Hilary - and the pair devised a solution - to open their own bank, printing out their own cash - but this time using it to help those worst off. “If banks can create their own money at the click of a button, why can’t we? Rather than using it to profit though, our idea was to use it to help those most affected by the fall out of our unequal debt based economy” says Powell.
Structure of the project
Hoe Street Central Bank is a living artwork - HQ of the overall project. While Powell is in charge of running that on a daily basis - along with other artists, designers and volunteers from the local community, the pair also continue to make their feature length documentary Bank Job - chronicling not just their debt buying and art exploits - but also contextualising the issues around debt and money creation. In the film there are interviews with Ann Pettifor, John McDonnell and chief economist of the FT, Martin Wolf.
How can you buy £1.2m of debt for £20,000?
Debts get sold at a fraction of their face value - so the pair have bought up £1.2m of local high interest debt for £20,000. In order to buy the debt you need a license from the Financial Conduct Authority.
Where did they get the £20,000 from?
When the local Co-op bank shut down, Edelstyn and Powell decided to rent it / and turn it into an art space - they called it Hoe Street Central Bank - and promptly began to print their own money - but instead of having the Queen or Jane Austen on the front of their cash, they put Gary Nash, who opened the local food bank, Tracey Griffiths, head mistress of their childrens’ school; Steve Barnabas who set up The Soul Project - a youth project and Saira Mir founder of Pl84U, a homeless kitchen. The artwork money sold well, thanks to an article in the Guardian - and £40,000 was raised - half going to the local causes and the other half to buy the debt.
So what’s happening when?
On 13th March 2019, letters were sent out to debtors who cumulatively owed £1.2m of distressed debt to tell them that their debt was now officially abolished. As it’s quite an invisible act, the next step will be the symbolic explosion of the debt on 28th April in Silvertown. This makes visual what would otherwise be a relatively quiet and non-dramatic climax to the film they’re making, Bank Job.
If you haven't already done so - but would like to play your part in fuelling this movement, and acquiring some great limited edition art with meaning and purpose - get hold of your piece of British political art history here.
Photo by Linden Nieto & Dan Edelstyn
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