Bank Job: art as activism

May 2019. In the shadow of the towers of London’s financial centre, Canary Wharf, a golden Ford Transit van explodes. With this single act, £1.2 million of high interest ‘toxic debt’ is cancelled for a London community.

Artistic strategies as a form of protest and as a way to effect change have been used by many over the years. Contemporary artists Jane and Louise Wilson’s 1999 Turner Prize nominated video, Gamma, and the Greenham Common women themselves come to mind, as does The Children of Don Quixotes’ red tents along the Seine, the Occupy movement, Extinction Rebellion and Bob and Roberta Smith, to name but a few. After all, part of an artist’s gift is to reimagine and re-present ideas for us to contemplate and consider, and Bank Job does exactly that.

The book tells the white-knuckle adventure story of a London-based couple who were fed up with an economic structure that pushed creative people to the fringes.

Influenced by the Strike Debt movement in the US, which opened their eyes to the dark heart of
the financial system, they set up a printing press in a disused bank in Walthamstow and printed their own banknotes.

The faces of local unsung heroes in their community replaced the traditional historical figures we are used to seeing on bank notes, and, when the notes were sold as Art, half the proceeds went to these local stalwarts and half for the purchase and destruction of local high interest debt.

The movement engaged a wealth of both local and global support, showing in no uncertain terms the widespread desire to free everyday people from the opaque language and corrupt traps of loans, in a country where it has become harder and harder to pay bills on time. In the UK, one in eight civilians is classified as working poor.

Both a daring tale and a deeply personal memoir, this book opens with honest reflections on the authors’ own experiences of debt through the eyes of their childhood to their own adult life, and goes on to examine the wider impact of a society that for generations has entangled the concept of money with a person’s identity. Furthermore, for many readers it will be an empowering education about money.

Dan and Hilary write in the book, ‘If 85% of our politicians don’t understand how money is created there is an urgent need for some far-reaching economic education not only to help us understand the system as it is but to take the next step in reimagining it.’

Whatever political mast you pin your colours to, this is a thought-provoking read.

Hilary Powells work ranges from audio-visual epics, supported by Acme and Henry Moore Foundation, to print works collected by V&A and MoMA. She has a track record of involving diverse communities in making art – from public participation in the production of a pop-up book of the Lower Lea Valley to large-scale print collaborations with demolition workers and material scientists as Artist in Residence at UCL Chemistry.

Dan Edelstyn is an English documentary filmmaker, screenwriter and singer with The Orchestra of Cardboard.  

Bank Job
by Hilary Powell & Daniel Edelstyn

Publication date: 17 September 2020
Paperback original • £14.99
Pre-order through your favourite local bookshop

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Main image: Ethan McArthur via Unsplash