As our offices are based in Dalston, we heard last year about a Walthamstow based, political art project called The Bank Job. After awarding their print the Jackson’s Prize at The Festival of Print exhibition (you can read about it here), we looked further in to the group. Hilary Powell and Dan Edelstyn have set up a fascinating project that combines economic activism, political performance art, filmmaking, printmaking and altruism into one succinct, streamlined, successful piece.
Tegen: Could you tell us a little about The Bank Job? What is your mission statement?
Dan: The project started when I (Dan here) heard about a group of New York based anarchists who had bought up and abolished over $30m of student and medical debt.
At the time I’d just finished working on my debut feature length documentary with Hilary – and I had never studied much economics. My only understanding of debt was that very basic moral one – that we all have, which goes like this: “you should pay your debts.” I had never given that a second thought – yet this group clearly had other ideas, and I felt simultaneously attracted to finding out more about them and also slightly terrified of them – as they seemed radical and a little dangerous.
The trip out to New York to meet and interview them went well / and I read their movement literature which introduced a concept called “Creditocracy” whereby our democracies were being systematically attacked by a creditor class who were stripping away access to the basic public good – and becoming gatekeepers to housing, healthcare and education. This was an interesting concept – and it was well argued. I began to wonder whether Britain too was a “creditocracy” and on coming home began to search my home borough of Walthamstow for clues.. bit by bit, Bank Job came into being. It probably really truly started the moment we found out how banks create cash – just by typing numbers on a screen – and we thought – if they can do that – why can’t we. I asked Hilary if she could start printing out some cash for us – and when she agreed, we were in business.
Our ethos or mission statement is very much to intertwine our ideals with our practical actions – and to try and create the world we want in the here and now. It hurts us all to live in a world of massive inequality – and to use art to pierce the lame belief that nothing can be done is an immense privilege and a duty we feel we have to discharge.
Tegen: What would you define ‘The Bank Job’ as? Is it conceptual art, grassroot activism, a community project or all three?
Dan: I would say it is all three. There are plenty of concepts at play – and it is very multi-layered. On the one hand it’s contained within an old bank, which gives it a sort of living and breathing status – for instance I’m reclined on a chair typing this, my feet on top of an old bank desk, which gives it a certain nonchalence and in a sense a bit of theatricality.
Within the bank we have all sorts of local collaborations at play – we work with freelance screen printers, letter press specialists, designers and photographers, as well as people who help us pack the orders – so it does have a deep community connection – and of course at our events we have loads of people we know from the borough coming in – that said, the word community has a strange connotation when used to describe art or filmmaking – somehow it detracts from the importance of what’s happening – it seems to be a way of emasculating things – if you say so and so is a ‘local writer’ or ‘local filmmaker’ they seem to confined to a lesser category, so we are careful with branding ourselves as a community project.
On another level we’re a documentary feature film, not just documenting what’s happening within the bank, but really asking questions about who we are, and what we’re doing as artists – and who we are as a country too – and what we really want as an economy going forward. All these different levels co-exist harmoniously – or relatively harmoniously – but they are a lot to take on.
Tegen: What is the 2019 Explosion?
Dan: The explosion is called Big Bang 2 – it takes place on 28 April and will be amazing for us. The idea of calling it Big Bang 2 is to put it into direct conversation with Maggy Thatcher’s Big Bang, in which she liberalised the rules that governed banks and the stock markets. Many economists see this as the turning point which led towards the massive personal debt crisis which is facing us now. In many ways we see it as one of the root causes of the decline in our manufacturing base, and the decline of some of our industries. There’s a connection to all this and Brexit.
Tegen: Could you give us a timeline of how this project started, the different events that have happened and the different stages that are coming up?
The Bank itself opened in March 2018
29 April 2019 Big Bang 2
May – opening of exhibition in the bank –
End June – closing of exhibition
May to June – a packed events programme.
July – coin manufacture – where people who have bought a bond get their commemorative coins sent out.
Tegen: Who is involved in the project and what are their roles?
Hilary – The governor – she’s the artist in charge of the overall look and feel of the bank itself and the money design (in collaboration with graphic designer Phil Seddon) – and she’s also the visionary in charge of the design of the bonds – and other assorted artistic relics associated with the project.
Dan – head of explosives – and filmmaker – and co-artist. That’s me – I also seem to end up writing a lot.
Alison – head of postage and packing
Linden – cameraman – and editor – helping us make the documentary
Phil – the graphic designer
Farah – screen printer
Suzanne – letter press expert
Spike – letter press expert
Meltem & Melissa – Foil blocking experts
Alasdair – all rounder / artist who contributes a wide variety of skills.
Tegen: Why did you choose to incorporate printmaking?
Dan: We wanted to produce our own cash – so we knew we’d have to do printing – but Hilary had a history and love of printmaking – so it wasn’t a big leap for us.
There’s something beautiful about using the best of the analogue printing techniques – we do a lot of digital and have become deeply involved in digital marketing techniques as reaching our audiences has been a critical part of being able to survive. So we like to think we mix the best of the old and the new technologies offered by the printing press.
Tegen: How did you come up with the design of the notes and bonds and what is the process for printing them?
Dan: We started with The Gary – he started the local food bank – and we wanted to shoot a portrait of him a little similar to the imposing pictures you get on real bank notes. Something epic and heroic, so we basically parodied the banknotes we use every day – and got Gary to pose and be as imposing as he could. This was a lot of fun – then what we did was take that formula and find other impressive people in the borough we could also treat in the same way. Next graphic designer Phil Seddon – under brief from me and Hilary, came up with amazing designs which really built on the brief and surprised us. The designs were then separated into layers, starting with screen print, then moving to letter press where the black and details were added, before the gold or silvers were stamped in through the foil blocking machine. We had other people working on guillotines to cut the notes out.
Tegen: Could you explain in layman’s terms for us the economic structure that allows you to buy up debt and how it benefits people? (if possible)
Dan: Yes – if a debt’s not paid for a few months, then it becomes a distressed debt – which means a bank will sell it, perhaps at 50% of its value to a debt buyer. The debt buyer acquires a book of these debts and he tries to collect as many as possible – if he has trouble with a certain proportion, he may sell it on at a lesser cost – and on and on this goes, till it gets towards the bottom of the barrel. That’s where we came in / buying up very distressed debt, at a value of 2p in the pound.
Tegen: You’ve had a huge amount of publicity and your notes are in collections worldwide [you can view their press page here], how do you think this has affected the project?
Dan: It’s been great to feel that the project has touched so many people. The personal debt crisis won’t go away any time soon – particularly while most politicians don’t understand where money comes from, and hence the true routes of the issue. The publicity has been good as it’s helped us to sell first our money and then our bonds to audiences all over the world, this has been vital as we have struggled to fund ourselves and the work. We come from an older school of art production, perhaps harking back to Aristotle where art, philosophy and the ethics were all intertwined. I’ve been reading a lot about all this lately, as we have been asked to write a book – and it’s important to be able to clearly articulate our beliefs and to find that our methods are similar to other artistic movements of the twentieth century, there are definite connections with dada, the surrealists and the Situationist International. All these movements had their day, they had grand theorists and they seemed to be poised to change the world. We have been quite intuitive with all this, we have tried to be sensitive in our working methods – and we have tried to take as many with us on the journey towards a parallel world of possibility as we could. We really want to see a fairer economy working in all our interests. Sometimes we just look at Westminster and despair – doing the Bank Job is the thing that reminds us we can make a difference, starting locally.
Tegen: Where do you see The Bank Job ultimately ending up? In an ideal world what would you like it to be?
Dan: We don’t see the Bank Job going on for ever – the explosion is definitely the climax and then the film and the outreach will be where we really get the maximum possible impact for the ideas and change as much as we possibly can for people across Britain and beyond. We are creating a learning portal / membership site, through which we hope to keep building audiences and training them in all aspects of the work we have learned along the way.
We have plans for a related project once we get this one to bed – but it’s best not to talk too much about that here, as revealing things that haven’t happened yet doesn’t often make them come true.
Tegen: How can the public help and get involved?
Dan: The best way to get involved just now is to either buy one of our bonds – they start at £10 – and allow you a ticket to the explosion, or come to one of our events – we’re currently scheduling these in – through May and June.
Tegen: Which part of the Bank Job do you feel is most effective?
Dan:We don’t believe that scaling up the debt purchase is really hugely effective – we need a structural solution to the debt problem – by which i mean that banks need to be creating a lot less debt / money – or else we need a massive personal debt bailout across Britain as a start.
The film will end up being our most effective and enduring tool / particularly once it’s incorporated with the membership site. These things will be useful to many people – in educating them and raising awareness of the issues we are all facing.
Tegen: Do you have any suggestion for anyone trying to start their own art activism?
Dan: Yes – try your best to take baby steps / don’t get swept away. Injustice can sometimes be heart breaking – particularly when you see the innocent helplessly caught up in events that are sweeping them away. Try your best not to blame yourself, and try to always treat yourself well as you practice activism. Move slowly, and look after yourself and your family too, just as you are looking after other people. Try not to become too angry, nor to see everything as black and white. Build slowly and steadily.