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These artists want to blow up the entire financial system

LONDON – “3… 2… 1…” A deafening bang echoed around the deserted Royal Docks marina in east London, as a crowd of onlookers cheered and shouted.

The source of this heckling of a recent Sunday morning? The explosive carcass of a pickup truck painted in gold, surrounded by floating paper bills, each stamped with the word “DEBT” in capital letters. Through the rising smoke, the skyscrapers of Canary wharf, where many banks have their offices, were barely visible.

This skyline in the background was symbolically important to the organizers of the explosion, the husband-and-wife team of Dan Edelstyn, a filmmaker, and Hilary Powell, an artist. Their project “Bank Job” consists of a film and a socially engaged performance, entitled “Big Bang 2”. The explosion was the highlight of the play.

“What we’re really trying to do with our project is raise awareness,” Ms. Powell said by phone a few days before the event. The artists wanted to “get people to start a conversation about money and debt,” she added.

In 2017, Ms Powell and Mr Edelstyn set up a printing press in a disused bank branch to print their own money and sell the banknotes as works of art. They used 20,000 pounds, or about $ 25,000, of the product to purchase £ 1.2 million debt in the secondary market, where lenders sell bad debts to collection agencies, often for a small fraction of the initial cost.

The purchased debt, mostly from short-term payday loans, was written off so borrowers no longer had to pay it back. The explosion of the van, which contained the symbolically stamped scraps of paper, was an artistic representation of the countryside.

The idea for the project came after Mr. Edelstyn met with members of Debt strike, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, during a video shoot in the United States in 2013. “We were the last people you would call activists,” Mr. Edelstyn said of himself and Ms. Powell. But Strike Debt had “a whole new way of looking at the economy,” he added. “I became obsessed.

On his return from the United States to the London borough of Walthamstow, where he and Mrs Powell live, Mr Edelstyn said he was starting to feel that he was living in a ‘creditocracy’, a term coined by sociologist Andrew Ross to describe a society in which almost everyone is in endless debt.

Waltham Forest, the area that includes Walthamstow, has been classified 35th the most economically and socially disadvantaged district in England in 2015, according to local government. Mr Edelstyn said he could see poverty in the neighborhood increasing. “We started noticing that some of the kids who came to our children’s school didn’t even have shoes to wear,” he said.

Mr Edelstyn and Ms Powell started subletting the old bank branch in 2018, and named it Hoe Street Central Bank, after its location, insolently abbreviating it as HSCB Here they printed bills in denominations of 1 to 1,000, with the faces of the locals. community leaders to where the queen appears on the British currency.

For £ 100, for example, you can buy ‘100 Traceys’, featuring Tracey Griffiths, a local school principal, on the front. (It was the most popular denomination, Edelstyn said: “Everyone loves a teacher.”)

Half of the recipes were donated to local charities, including a school, pantry and youth center offering workshops and activities. The other half was used to buy the debts.

The bills were mostly bought by people who wanted to support good causes in the neighborhood, Ms Powell said, but many British museums, including the Victoria & Albert, have also acquired them. Gill Saunders, senior curator of prints at the V&A, said in an email that Mr. Edelstyn and Ms. Powell’s bills “belong to a similar line of artists using banknotes as a means of protest and as works of art. sellable art to raise money for a cause. “

The bank branch was made up of locals from Walthamstow, who worked on printing and distributing the tickets, as well as explaining the project to the visiting members of the public. One of them, Alison Kay, started working there after being fired from her job. as a teacher at a local school, which she said had cut staff because she was in debt. Another “Bank Job” employee, Alistair Gentry, said his elderly and disabled parents were recently evicted from their home because they could not meet their mortgage. Payments. “I really connected with what Dan and Hilary were talking about,” he said.

The Money Charity, a British nonprofit, estimated that in March the average household debt in Great Britain was £ 59,552, or approximately $ 75,500. Average weekly earnings fell 3.7% between 2008 and 2018, according to Britons National Statistics Office. At the same time, the government austerity measures have curtailed social benefits.

Jean Montgomerie, a researcher at King’s College at the University of London who studies debt and economics, said in a telephone interview that it was “pernicious to simply blame debtors for their own problems. This ignores the fact that UK households today are in debt out of necessity. “

Dr Montgomerie said banks and government need consumers to keep borrowing to avoid a recession: “In the UK the financial sector still hasn’t really recovered after 2008,” she said. said, referring to the global financial crisis, in which the UK government offered banks a bailout worth over £ 1,000 billion.

Banks were “increasingly dependent on debt as a sort of guaranteed income stream,” she said. “We are stuck, hoping that the new debt will generate more returns than those that have already failed, without real systemic reform of the financial sector.”

Mr Edelstyn and Ms Powell said they hoped their project would encourage more people to think about the role of debt in the economy.

“We are talking about the need for an appropriate system change,” Mr. Edelstyn said. They expressed the hope to have lit a fuse so that everything goes “boom”.

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