What’s Next for Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee?

Thomas Gokey helped activist group Strike Debt plan Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee. Now, with the “People’s Bailout” going strong, what’s next?

| March/April 2013

Syracuse University art professor Thomas Gokey earned his Master of Fine Arts degree five years ago, but remains chained to his alma mater by $49,983 of debt. As a recent graduate, the prospect of indefinite payments compelled him to make an art piece in which he put his debt up for sale in reconstituted squares of shredded money from the Federal Reserve. The piece was called “Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper.”

The project got good press, but the debt remained. Three years later, Gokey helped create the Rolling Jubilee, a “People’s Bailout” project which has raised over $465,000. With that money, the activist group Strike Debt plans to buy $9 million of Americans’ medical and educational debt for pennies on the dollar—and then cancel it.

Strike Debt, which grew out of Occupy Wall Street, wants to foment conversation about the debt we rack up in pursuit of basic needs, and the industries that profit from that debt. Gokey is currently on a year-long unpaid leave from teaching to help organize the Rolling Jubilee and upcoming Strike Debt projects.

How did you come to be interested in debt, and how did you decide to talk about it through your artwork? 

Well, I tend to make work about what I’m thinking about. And debt really controls my life—it’s just this massive burden. I came up with that particular project in 2007 to ‘08, after I graduated from art school.

I was thinking, my diploma is just a piece of paper, and it costs all this money. And our money is just pieces of paper that are more or less worthless, but we treat them as valuable because they are “legal tender for all debts public and private.” So we’re basically passing around these pieces of paper with IOUs on them. And a lot of artwork is just worthless material, like a piece of paper with some charcoal marks on it. So part of what I got really interested in was, how do we put value on these priceless things?