16th February 2019

Put your money where your mouth is

- written by Laura

A whitewashed former Co-op in Walthamstow with utilitarian sans serif branding, from the outside HSCB (Hoe Street Central Bank) looks innocuous enough. But inside filmmaker Dan Edelstyn and artist Hilary Powell have been running a year-long programme of radical and compassionate economics called Bank Job.  

The aim has been to educate the local community (me included!) on how the economic system is rigged against ordinary folk and about the screwed up nature of predatory debt, which is bought and sold between companies for only a fraction of the amount owed. 

Alongside a talks programme, Dan and Hilary enlisted a crew to screenprint a new currency at HSCB, which was sold to write off local debt as well as raise money for nearby charities. Instead of bearing the Queen’s face, these notes celebrated local heroes like Gary Nash (who set up Eat or Heat foodbank), Steve Barnabas of youth space The Soul Project, Saira Mir of PL84U-AL SUFFA (which provides hot meals for the isolated, elderly and homeless) and Tracey Griffiths, the head teacher of Barn Croft Primary School, which brings students, teachers and parents together to share in decision making. 

To date the project has raised £40,000, £20,000 for these four charities and £20,000 to write off a whopping £1m of exploitative debt. If you’re wondering how £20,000 can write off a debt five times its size, then you’ve just discovered how the exploitative interest rates crippling debtors are just meaningless numbers when it comes to the companies calling in loans.

When we caught up with Dan and Hilary, they were planning a spectacular finale to the project – a ceremonial explosion of the £1m in a van on a Docklands site. The bank is currently issuing bonds and plans to make coins for investors from the exploded wreckage.

Ahead of this big bang, we caught up with Dan and Hilary to find out more about Bank Job and using art to change the world for the better.

Can you tell us a bit about what you mean by ‘predatory’ debt, and what makes it so insidious? 

I feel that predatory debt is a debt which is exploitative of people who are already struggling within an economic system that is set up against them. Predatory debt pretends to appease the problem of cash flow but in fact it exacerbates the deeper issues of poverty. Predatory debt aims its tentacles at the most vulnerable members of our society, and ensnares them in a never-ending cycle of exploitation and claims their wages and productivity far off in advance. It seeks to extract the maximum from those who already have the minimum. 

How are these type of loans part of wider economic landscape that threatens societies’ most vulnerable?

Professor Andrew Ross from New York University wrote a wonderful book called Creditocracy in which he describes an encroaching class of creditors who are barring access to the basic common or public good, such as healthcare, education and homes. His argument is that since the 1970s there’s been a systematic attack on the welfare state across the so called ‘First World’ countries and that creditors are seeking to attach rents to almost everything they possibly can. It’s a critique wonderfully illustrated in the book Harry’s Last Stand, in which the late Harry Leslie Smith conjures a vivid image of his childhood, during the great depression and then charts the optimism that accompanied the end of WW2 and the birth of the welfare state. His book was written as a warning to us and a wake up call – he was so upset to see all the progress being ripped apart along the lines that Ross describes. It’s not just the most vulnerable who are under assault, it’s almost everyone – the working and the middle class. 

Also if the collective mind is occupied with making rent repayments, how can we find time and space to deal with the truly urgent collective issues – like threats to democracy and climate change? How do we fund the things we urgently need to reduce poverty, when these projects are not seen as profitable by high street banks?

Do you think creative people have a responsibility to address social issues?

I think we all have a responsibility to see things clearly as they are and to call them out. Human beings are not brutes, we feel things deeply. None of us would ever want to see a child suffering, we don’t condone gratuitous violence, nor do we like to see vulnerable people abused by the powerful. These innate drives towards fairness and reasonableness exist in all of us, yet the world has so many acute problems that we couldn’t exist or survive if we were attuned to them all, all the time. So we have to choose to serve humanity as best as we can, while also making sure that we look after ourselves and our families. It’s not easy.

How important was it to you that the work actually did something to solve an issue, rather than just comment on it?

Really important. As a filmmaker I am not interested in tracing just a story and experiencing it from the outside. Together with my partner in the job (and wife) Hilary, we have developed a technique we jokingly call ‘method arting’ in which we try our best to live the story, to really know what it feels like in some way. This way of bringing stories to life goes deeper than most TV journalism and it’s much more painful to make. The films really take it out of us, and the projects are long haul and fuelled by passion and endured because you have to see this amazing vision finally come off. Many people around us connect and then disconnect from it, but we keep on going. Sometimes I think of art as an affliction rather than anything, which is sad, but you go in and out of fashion and it can’t matter. You have to do it because you believe the work is important and that it needs to live in the world. 

A big part of the project has been engaging the local community, from printing bank notes collaboratively to hosting talks about economics that demystify some of the more complex systems that surround us. What have been the challenges of getting local people involved? And what’s your advice for other artists wanting to develop meaningful connections?

Getting people to go on the notes was the first big challenge. We were in some senses asking them to become symbols of resistance. This is moving many people out from their comfort zones and exposing them to the possibility of online cruelty, and to the success or failure of the project as a whole. As humans we tend to try and avoid moving out from our comfort zones yet this project has taken place almost exclusively beyond the edges of almost everyone’s. Yet we have had such fun together and though perhaps there are traces of exhaustion and perhaps desperation in some of my sentences above, it has been a marvellous project. It’s like a train now, rattling on to its final destination, almost independently of its drivers.

There was a bit on your site that really resonated with us, “By nothing more than luck we are born into our circumstances, and they then set the parameters of our childhood experiences and our beliefs about what may be possible as an adult.” How do you feel about shrinking arts provision in schools and what can we do to encourage more working class kids to see the creative industries as a possible future?

I’m always very interested in personal development and the idea of accessing equal opportunities in education should be right at the heart of our society. Like Harry [in Harry’s Last Stand] said so eloquently, the British working class fought tooth and nail for every shred of education, healthcare and workers’ rights. They were not bestowed from above but rather wrestled directly as a good and just result of all the human sacrifice of two world wars. It’s appalling to me as a student of twentieth century history to witness the brutal destruction of this and I do feel that children bring this all to life most poignantly. Harry Leslie-Smith barely even had a childhood, the grinding poverty was so intense, yet along with his generation, he demanded a better deal for all. I see art and the ability to think in agile and fresh ways (and to defy bureaucracy and to seek out meaning) as absolutely integral to our collective soul. It’s no surprise to me therefore that this is under attack by a government hell-bent on turning the clock back to a more squalid and morally repulsive time where the poor were viewed as undignified animals worthy only to toil and to prop up their betters. 

Your plans for 2019 are pretty epic: the feature film and a huge explosion! Why did you decide on such a theatrical act? And will it be the culmination of the project?

It’s a big year for us, we knew we were writing of £1m of high interest debt, but it’s a quiet and fairly invisible act. The explosion is really happening to give a visual climax to the movie and to create a powerful piece of art that will bring widespread attention to the cause. By creating a spectacle, our aim is to focus the collective mind on the horrors that are at play each and every day in our economy. It’s a passionate cry demanding that we look for solutions to the personal debt crisis that has been the result of 10 years of austerity mixed with stagnant wages and a totally deregulated financial sector. The bang is a reminder that something is already on its way.

Daniel Edelstyn