Figures: 650 narratives from people at the sharp end of austerity

By staff writers
May 8, 2015

On election eve, 6 May, at lowest tide, 650 stories from people at the sharp end of austerity were read aloud in a live performance lasting six hours, as part of artist-activist Liz Crow’s Figures project.

The narratives were also audio-streamed with audiences internationally invited to bear witness to the human cost of austerity.

The reading was accompanied by the ceremonial firing of 650 small clay human figures, each one paired with one of the 650 stories: 650 echoes the number of constituencies throughout which austerity is felt and the number of MPs whose choices determine the choices of others. The figures were raised into a bonfire burned until the returning tide doused the flames.

Each figure had previously been hand-sculpted by Liz Crow from raw river mud, collected by hand from the River Avon. In a feat of endurance, she sculpted the figures last month at low tide on the Thames foreshore over 11 consecutive days and nights and in all weathers. Each time a figure was made, its corresponding story was released on social media.

The 650 stories have been drawn from leading-edge research, Parliamentary records and campaigns in the field of social justice. Covering a range of topics, including benefits reform, local authority spending, homelessness, malnutrition, NHS rationing, and so on.

Here are some examples:

Ceri is a teacher. She was asked for an interview for a teaching job and says, “You get a job interview. It’s at the same time as your job centre appointment, so you reschedule the job centre. You attend your rearranged appointment and then get a letter saying your benefits will be stopped because going to a job interview isn’t a good enough reason to miss an appointment.”

Angela works in a supermarket but can’t afford to buy any of the food she handles at the checkout. Sometimes she is so hungry she can hardly bear to look at the food at all. The irony is not lost on her that she ends up going from work at the supermarket to a food bank. She says, “Even with a 10 per cent staff discount it’s completely out of reach. It’s a trap that I just can’t see my way out of. I’ve tried everything I can to keep going. You only get three vouchers from the food bank and I’ve used two already. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

59-year old David was sanctioned, told he was not taking his search for work seriously enough. After five years in the army, he had worked at BT and other companies, before stopping work to care for his mother who had dementia. After she died, he began to look for work and was put on the Work Programme. His benefits stopped after he missed two job centre appointments. 18 days later, he was found dead in his flat. A pile of CVs he had just printed out was found near his body. His electricity was cut off, there was almost nothing left to eat in the flat, and he had only £3.44 in his bank account, which he was not permitted to withdraw, since it was under the bank’s £5 limit. David had had diabetes and died from diabetic ketoacidosis (caused by an acute lack of insulin). The autopsy showed that his stomach was empty.

The figures, fired, burned and broken, were subsequently reclaimed from the tide, gathered and made ready for the final phase of the performance. Details of this final phase will be announced shortly.

Liz Crow says, “Figures sets out to make visible the stark human cost of austerity and to urge action against it. It is avowedly a political artwork, but intentionally not party political. In performing and exhibiting at such a crucial time, I am setting out to involve the widest possible audience in the work and the questions it raises about how we treat each other, what kind of society we want to be, and what role we might each of us have in bringing that about.”

As a disabled person, Liz knows the impact of austerity and is undertaking this mammoth task to reveal its human cost, invite strong connections with difficult facts, and encourage deep debate that will continue long after the work is over.

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* More on the issues in the 2015 General Election from Ekklesia:


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