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Public discussions of art and money in Chattanooga usually revolve around whether enough public money is being spent on art or whether any public money for art is too much. Tom Gokey has a fundamentally different take on that topic. He’s a recent transplant from New York and still teaches art at Syracuse University in the summer.
Gokey’s medium is money.
In 2011, soon after graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago with massive student loan debt he acquired the exact amount his tuition had cost—$49,983—in the form of shredded cash, pulped it to create fresh sheets of paper and sold it for $607.70 per square foot. If he sold every square inch, his debt would be paid.
Recently, his art has turned to large-scale collective social projects involving debt. The latest is called The Rolling Jubilee.
“My friends and I in a group called Strike Debt—which emerged from Occupy Wall Street—raised $600,000 in a telethon we put on in November,” he said. “Janeane Garofalo was there, Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel was there, Guy Picciotto from Fugazi was there. It was really an amazing cultural event.”
Two weeks ago, the Rolling Jubilee Fund announced that it had used some of the money it raised to purchase consumer debt.
“We bought $1.1 million dollars worth of emergency room medical bills and we just wiped it out. Those people don’t have to pay that any more,” said Gokey.
According to CNN, the group paid about $21,000 to retire over $1 million in medical bills for a little more than 1,000 people.
“Most people don’t know that banks, credit cards, payday lenders, hospitals sell debt on a secondary market for pennies on the dollar,” he said. “And we’re just getting started. With the money raised so far, by the time the project is complete we should be able to abolish over $12 million of debt.
“There’s a lot of other artists involved in Strike Debt, including some really brilliant art critics and art historians,” he added. “None of us know what to think of what we do anymore. It’s like we’re all former artists.”
Gokey could call himself an artist who’s also engaging in activism, but I’m glad he didn’t. Placing his debt work under the banner of art is an in-your-face reminder that everything we do is art.
It’s become a truism that everything in our world is designed. From the Michael Graves teapot that separates you from a little more of your money at Target to downtown wayfinding signs set in Chattanooga’s very own Chatype font to the visionary urban design and technical civil engineering standards that complete to mold the public realm, most of our stuff gets its shape and a lot of its function from choices made by designers.
But even if everything we have is shaped by design, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that everything we are and everything we do is art.
Artists are like tea bags. They can’t help it: the world flows through them like water and comes out different. The best art adds something new to the world or changes the way we experience life. The same is true of art world civilians. The way we dress, our vocabulary of words and movements, how we treat the people around us ... everything is a deep-welling expression of who we are. It’s all art. It’s what we’re adding to the world every day. So why not be more deliberate about the art we all produce every day?
In ancient Hebrew law and the Christian Old Testament, Jubilee happens once every 50 years when slaves are freed and mortgages canceled. The artists of Rolling Jubilee are freeing thousands of people from consumer debt by participating in the debt market as if they were creditors, then canceling the debt.
“I’m shifting away from building objects and more toward trying to build society,” he said. “I want a society where the debts we owe are to each other. I’m obligated to you. If you get sick today, you should be able to get health care. That’s my obligation to you. That’s the real debt that I owe you. The debt I owe to Sallie Mae [which collects on student loans] is illegitimate. It’s a crime that it exists in the first place. No one should have to go into debt to get an education, to put food on the table, to have a basic shelter over their head.”
Gokey and his friends want to create a society in which debt functions differently. “That’s my art now,” he said. “I want to smash the system and build a new one.”
The managers have had their turn. Let’s see what the artists can do.
Gokey will give a presentation on “The Theology of Debt” at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 23, as part of the Theology on Tap series at The Camp House, located at 1427 Williams St.