The Art of Unpayable Debts


Haiven, Max. 2019. “The Art of Unpayable Debts.” In The Sociology of Debt, edited by Mark Featherstone. London: Policy.


This chapter provides a reading and a contextualisation of three recent performative public artworks to map the way unpayable debts manifest across politics, economics, culture and society under the global order of financialised capitalism. By unpayable debts here I have in mind both, on the one hand, the proliferation of financial debts that cannot be repaid and, on the other, the subterranean collective moral or political debts that, though they cannot be quantified, are no less real or important for that. Starting with a brief consideration of the power and materiality of the imagination as a key dimension of capitalism’s financialisation, I then turn to a reading of UK artist Darren Cullen’s ‘Pocket Money Loans’ (2012-present), Argentine artist Marta Minujín’s ‘Payment of Greek Debt to Germany with Olives and Art’(2017), and Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore’s ‘Gone Indian’ (2009). I am in search of two parallel counter-currents: first, the way dominant systems and structures of financialised power impose unpayable financial debts as a methodology of domination that secures exploitation, extraction, oppression and/or inequality; second, the way that these same systems and structures of financialised power depend upon the disappearance, denial or diversion of the unpayable debts owed to or claimed by the dominated and exploited on which they are, ultimately, based. My effort here is not to provide a comprehensive theorisation of the topic of unpayable debts, but rather to map some coordinates that, between them, triangulate the particular ways that, in the current financialised global order, a dialectics of unpayability plays out.