People’s Bank of Govanhill: Ailie Rutherford

Ailie Rutherford, a Scottish artist, started the People’s Bank of Govanhill during a residency at Govanhill Baths in 2015. It has grown into a long-term project, mapping the local economy and expanding ideas of community currency to re-define our ideas of value, worth and distribution. Rutherford uses an iceberg diagram (coined by JK Gibson-Graham) as a metaphor for the many alternative economies below the surface in Govanhill, where family and faith-based transactions are often not valued in sterling.

What do you do?

I’m an artist. Most of the work that I do involves collaborating with some way. Sometimes that is collaborating with other artists but often those people are not artists. Sometimes they are not people who would come in contact with the arts, even.

We’re told that economics is something you have to be an economist to understand – but the reality is that economics is something we do every day.

I am really interested in working in social contexts and seeing how I can apply my practice outside the closed walls of the arts world. A lot of what I do is underpinned by politics.

What’s the point of the project?

It’s an evolving project, so the point has changed over time. It started from my time as an artist in residence at Govanhill Baths. One of the things that came out of that residency was the conversations I was having with people about what would happen if Govanhill had its own currency.

At the beginning it was just planting the seed. I printed a load of notes. The notes themselves have a tiling pattern from the baths and feature different languages and have a unit of one, but don’t describe what that unit is. Initially it was an experiment to see what happened if we used the notes for different things.

It’s grown organically because people were keen to see what they could do with the notes after that initial experiment. There are a whole host of things I’m looking to do with the project, but one of those is asking questions about what the economy is and what currency is. Because Govanhill is such a diverse place, we want to widen that conversation out and have it with lots of different people.

One of the things I have been doing recently is asking who could be impacted by this but doesn’t know about it. So one of the points of the project at the moment is to widen the conversation.

When was the moment you decided to do this?

My residency finished in March 2015. I had set up this currency exchange booths at the Baths where people could come along and we had this process of exchange. That was meant to be a one-off. From there I had a few conversations with people who had become involved who were keen to know what to do with it next.

Then I got some research and development money from Creative Scotland which was about me developing my practice as an artist and undertaking a period of research. When I looked at these different elements to my practice and where the collaborative aspect works best, I realised that people were keen for the People’s Bank of Govanhill to grow and develop as a project and that the element of participation and collaboration was happening quite organically.”

How do you fit it in?

I was fortunate to get another chunk of Creative Scotland funding to allow me to continue this project as a social artwork for a year, starting in July. There is a real luxury in having that funding. What arts council or Creative Scotland funding can do is to allow artists to focus and develop a piece of work that when you’re focussed on making a living, with a rapid turnaround from your work, you’re not able to do. So part of that funding enables me to do this project as the focus of my practice for a year.

What’s been your proudest moment so far?

I think best moments are when I’ve seen people coming together for events. 

I try to do them at different times and places so different people can come to them, and I always have this fear that no one will turn up. But seeing interested people coming along to events and taking part and being really engaged – not just turning up – one of the things I’m interested in as an artist is how you can engage people in a process where everyone can contribute. And I suppose the best moments are probably then.

I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t invent our own currency and play with it.

I have held mapping workshops in cafes. I did a review of the project so far and asked people to contribute their ideas about where the project should go next, and that was well-attended. Also, we did an event for international women’s day about gender and inequality, especially economic equality and women’s perceptions of the economy, and that was really well-attended. So I think it’s those moments when you see people coming together and thinking about our economy.

We’re told that economics is something you have to be an economist to understand – but the reality is that economics is something we do every day.

What’s been the hardest?

The hardest thing was finding funding.

When I decided to carry this forward there was a period of six months where I did a lot of unpaid work to allow me to do events and stuff. That was really hard and at that point I was not sure whether I would be able to take this forward. I was getting a lot of interest and a growing mailing list and I was getting really concerned that I was going to be able to deliver. This was always supposed to be a project with other people involved as well and I was getting worried about asking people to get involved because I wasn’t sure about asking people to put work in for free.

That’s a good thing about my funding now, is that there are pockets of funding to pay other people for work. I see it as a long term research process now.

What keeps you going?

That’s the thing about being an artist: you kind of just have to keep going because there isn’t an alternative. When you have this precarious working life, you can’t really afford to not keep moving forward.

What’s the next step?

A continued public engagement process. As part of that I’m going out into the street to talk to people. I’ve been working with Inge Zaiceva, a wonderful woman who speaks many languages and who can help me people reach who don’t speak English.

There are many people in Govanhill for whom English is a second language or who don’t speak English at all. There are many Punjabi and Urdu speakers as well as Romanian and Slovakian speakers here. I wouldn’t even assume that English is the most spoken language. I started doing this thing with Inge where we went out with a crowdsourced constitution, like the Pirate Party did in Iceland. We played with this idea of having a mobile presence and a People’s Bank of Govanhill booth and asking people what they want from the project.

We’re testing out different forms of exchanges. I’m interested in this idea of playing with currency and that it has a different value every time you use it. People aren’t sure about that idea but actually, you know, that’s what happens every time you use a currency. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t invent our own currency and play with it.

How will the outcome of the EU referendum affect what you do?

One of the things that everyone is talking about after the EU referendum and the American election is that we are in an echo chamber where everyone on the political left is just talking to one another.

We all have prejudices and most people are guilty of existing in quite a small bubble. So many people were surprised that they didn’t know that the country wanted to leave. Part of that in Scotland is to do with geography, because Scotland voted one way and other places voted quite differently. But also that the result of people not having enough of a conversation with people who are not like themselves.

Part of my practice is trying to say that this stuff is relevant to everyone and there are things that we can do on a local scale to take back our economy.

The potential to change things to be more beneficial for everyone is not outwith our power, but we need to find ways of understanding one another and working together and creating a better sense of cohesion, and we’re not going to do that by talking in isolated bubbles. That’s what the UK and the Scottish referendum has shown – that we need to join up our thinking a little bit.

Everyone was talking about the Leave EU vote and Trump as protest votes for people who are disillusioned and disengaged. They voted for things that are quite often detrimental to them. I don’t for a minute think I can solve this with my practice as an artist but that sense that we can work together to do stuff is important and I think if we don’t do something about that, the alternative is terrifying.

What does community mean to you?

It’s a weird word, many people try not to use it because it can be patronising, it can mean that the community is having things done to them. It’s important to know that there are different communities operating in one area and that they are defined in different ways, by interest, or language, or age, and that it is a shifting thing. 

What would you say to someone looking to do something similar?

The really important thing with exploring the idea of local currency is that it’s important to think about place. To think about what alternative economic things are happening in that area.

I use a metaphor called the economy as an iceberg. I guess a lot of it is asking what’s already happening, what’s the alternative economy? Is it happening among faith groups and families? There isn’t a one-size fits all.

Also, it’s not just about reinventing the money system. What’s really important is some kind of emotional investment in exchange, so that we’re not just reduced to consumers in the exchange. That kind of emotional investment is important.

A simple example is that you would probably not consider spending 20p less on a bunch of bananas that weren’t fair trade if you could see first hand the impact of that. But because we’re removed from that, it’s easy to get the cheaper bananas. Local currencies are about trying to create a connection with people and an understanding between people.

Whether it’s possible to have a local currency on a global scale is also really interesting – thinking about how you measure that exchange and how it’s a fair exchange.

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