Big bang theory: how blowing up a Transit van wiped out £1m of debt

As dawn broke one spring day last year, Hilary Powell and Dan Edelstyn parked a gold Ford Transit van on some waste ground in London’s Docklands. It was filled with £1.2m of banknotes – and it also contained a bomb. They then retreated to a safe distance, leaving a specialist to trigger the device. “It was the money shot,” laughs film-maker Edelstyn. “The camera man was very nervous,” adds Powell. “And we were too. What if we blew the van up but missed the shot?”

There was another problem. The shot was to be the climax of Bank Job, a film about their attempts to fight toxic debt culture with art, a battle that involved printing their own money. The scene was supposed to have as its backdrop the Canary Wharf skyline. But mist was obscuring this symbol of capitalism, so beloved of The Apprentice’s helicopter cameras. Emergency services workers, council officials, rubbernecking joggers, selfie-takers, art world hipsters and east London insomniacs waited in eerie silence for something to happen.

The husband-and-wife pair called this explosive part of their project Big Bang 2, a sequel to the Big Bang unleashed in the City of London by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, when financial markets were deregulated and the latent exploitative power of capital was set loose. Credit cards came through the post and easy loans suckered us in before the system collapsed into recession, austerity, poverty and even deeper debt. Or so the couple argue in the film’s accompanying book, also called Bank Job. “In hacking the skyline of power,” they write, “Big Bang 2 was our moment of erosion and questioning.”

Money-makers … director Dan Edelstyn and artist Hilary Powell inside the bank they set up. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Powell and Edelstyn had forerunners in their act of creative destruction. In 1994, the KLF burned a million pounds in cash on a Scottish island. But their biggest influence was another Londoner, Michael Caine. “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” the actor told his explosives guy when they demolished a van in The Italian Job.

Edelystn, when he first imagined the project, saw himself as a superhero in a spoof heist movie. He would become the Debtonator, who would destroy millions of pounds’ worth of debt that, with spiralling interest rates, were hobbling community projects in the couple’s manor – including a soup kitchen, food banks, a youth project and a primary school that had been forced to make teaching assistants redundant so they could pay off PFI schemes.

And then, that spring morning, the mist cleared and Mammon’s HQ appeared. The explosives guy yelled: “Fire in the hole!” The camera rolled and – boom! The sky filled with bits of Ford and fluttering paper. “The only thing that stayed on the van,” says Powell, “was the bloody doors!” Then she, her husband, and the rest of the team gathered up the wreckage and, being artists, upcycled the debris to create awork that captured the moment of detonation.

How did the project come about? “I had an existential crisis,” says Edelstyn. “What was I doing as an artist?” A historian by training and a film-maker by profession, Ulster-born Edelstyn made his first impact a decade ago with a film tracing his family’s Jewish ancestry back to a Ukrainian village. Once there, he attempted to revive his ancestors’ distillery – and ended up selling high-end Zorokovich 1917 vodka to Selfridges.

Loadsa Traceys … their banknotes featuring local heroes, such as primary school head teacher Tracey Griffiths. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Today, video conferencing from his kitchen, Edelstyn explains: “That precipitated the crisis. I didn’t want to become an entrepreneur, so I had this meltdown. I started reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Orwell’s Why I Write. They showed the way out.” As did a book by William Morris, Useful Work Versus Useless Toil. This idea of useful work led him to New York where he interviewed members of Strike Debt, a splinter group from the Occupy movement. “They launched a Rolling Jubilee project that buys medical and student debt for pennies on the dollar and, instead of collecting it, wipes it. It’s the people freeing the people.” He decided to attempt something similar.

Edelstyn was also inspired by anthropologist David Graeber who, as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, devised the “We are the 99%” slogan. Graeber died earlier this month but his work will doubtless live on. “His writings are mindblowing,” says Edelstyn. “Think about how many lives are dedicated to working in meaningless jobs to pay off endless debts.” Graeber’s 2011 book The First 5,000 Years urged a revival of the Biblical notion of a society-wide cancelling of debts. His Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, published in 2018, argued that society was harmed by meaningless jobs.

While Edelstyn imagined himself as the Debtonator, righting economic wrongs, Powell had other ideas. A performance artist who has collaborated with the Royal Opera House choir, she imagined Bank Job as Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, or a total work of art. “We also wanted to become involved in our local community and to involve them in our art,” she says. “We wanted to get to know our neighbours a bit too,” adds her husband.

The couple took over an old Co-op bank out in Walthamstow, east London. They renamed it Hoe Street Central Bank, whose initials teased the branch of HSBC opposite. Inside, they decided to print money, just like the Bank of England, although their quantitative easing was aimed at reducing debt burdens rather than filling bank coffers. Instead of the Queen, Charles Darwin or Jane Austen on their notes, HSCB’s currency celebrated local heroes. Their fiver was known as a Gary, after Gary Nash of the Eat or Heat food bank. The tenner was a Saira, honouring Saira Mir of soup kitchen PL84U Al-Suffa. The 20 was a Steve, celebrating Stephen Barnabis of the Soul Project youth service. The 50 was a Tracey, named after primary school headteacher Tracey Griffiths. The money was issued by Powell, Guv’nor of the Bank.

It was made from old £10 notes that had been recalled by the Bank of England, shredded, then turned into briquettes, ready for incinerating. The team took them instead and turned the blocks into pulp, from which paper was made. This was then printed on site by volunteers and students, before being dried on washing lines suspended from the ceiling. They were sold to collectors around the world, and the proceeds funded cash-strapped local causes – and bought up more than £1m of payday loans in E17, the 35th most indebted postcode in Britain.

The debtonators … Powell and Edelstyn in Bank Job.

“The irony is that we only needed to raise £20,000 to buy out £1m of debt, because bad loans are often written down to a fraction of their value in the secondary market. So we wrote to people telling them the debt had been paid off.” In the film, we see Edelsytn dropping the letters into a pillar box. “It was a very emotional moment,” he says. “I’d been reading a book arguing that loading debt on to ordinary people is the biggest constraint on a free citizenry in modern times. And here we were cancelling some of that.”

“The idea is that we can be forerunners for a bigger movement,” says Powell. “We aren’t counterfeiters and we didn’t make legal tender. We were trying to encourage people to imagine that there is an alternative to neoliberalism, to lives of indebtedness.” The bank became a community resource, visited by Graeber and other luminaries of the anti-debt movement, including British economist Ann Pettifor. “It became a place where people could learn about the system that is exploiting them,” says Powell.

Ultimately, Powell and Edelystn didn’t need to blow up the van – because the debts had already been cancelled. The explosion, and the incineration of their own paper money, were to express in physical form the devastation that all these debts and more had already caused.

The couple pulled off a heist of sorts, but their bank job isn’t done. They hope their project will have an afterlife. The book is out this week and the film is due to premiere at the London film festival next month. “Imagine if we could get Bank Job on every economics course,” says Powell. “Imagine if we could really change the world for good.”

Bank Job is published by Chelsea Green on 17 September. The film will premiere at the London film festival, 7-18 October.

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