An Interview with Ellie Harrison
Ellie Harrison, Tonnes of carbon produced by the personal transportation of a ‘professional artist’ (2019 / updated 2022). Image: Courtesy the Artist.
Greetings Art Workers!
This month we have a brilliant INTERVIEW with artist and activist ELLIE HARRISON. Harrison has been a long-time pioneer of using art to work towards just transition. Her work combines a deep engagement with direct political campaigning, social practice and rituals of conceptual art. In the following conversation we talk about Harrison’s career, including the infamous The Glasgow Effect, a publicly funded project that saw her commit to stay in the city and not travel over 20 miles per hour for over a year to study the impact causing public outcry.
I am fascinated by how under-discussed mobility is in circles of art and climate justice. Being part of an international community is the norm for the creative art sector and many people from across the world travel to be part of art infrastructure. However, there is very little debate about what it means to be an ambassador of climate change in your work. Nor how mobility figures into privilege which segregates people and contributes to a polluting petroculture. Under the banner of ‘playing the game’, mobility is often the most established way to integrate into the arts. To survive in the “precariat” (Szreder, 2021) means being networked and known, off and online. Being in connection with an international community is an extraordinary perk of the job, and in many ways is the job, but it can feel like the ability to move freely has come to replace other important basic services, such as stable housing, fiscal remuneration and social cohesion. I also find I am having repeated conversations with international artists who tell me that being ‘mobile’, as part of residencies, exhibitions, festivals, allows them to mask the increasing wealth and inequality gap linked to state failure, migration, climate change risk and pandemic recovery. The exclusionary nature of mobility, its practices and assumptions, need to be critically interrogated in connection to displacement and living in relation with land and place. This is something I am working on more next year. Please get in touch if you want to chat! Below Harrison engagingly kicks off this inquiry, unpacking what it means to be physically, economically and socially mobile in the art sector.
Next month will be our last interview before we launch. Hosted by Dr. Cecilia Wee with a special guest, they will discuss Wee’s commissioned participatory budgeting project, Our Community Inheritance, a collaboration with London’s Grenfell community. The asks what does intergenerational wealth mean and how can communities pay forward tangible and intangible assets as part of long-term, equitable and intersectional thinking in the arts.
Finally, if you will be in Hamburg over the next few weeks be sure to CHECK OUT Luiza Prado and Obaro Ejimiwe's (aka Ghostpoet) generative and ambitious BLACKNUSS! a large-scale installation that explores artistic practices of reconstructing and transmitting Afrodiasporic knowledge at the intersection of performance, music and experimental online radio.
Until next time,
MOBILITY: Interview with Ellie Harrison
Tell us about a day in the life of The Glasgow Effect?
The Glasgow Effect was a ‘controversial’ durational performance that I undertook in 2016. It was based on the very simple premise that I would refuse to travel beyond Glasgow’s city limits, or use any vehicles except my bike, for the whole calendar year. Having lived in the city for more than seven years at that point, the project was to be a real-life experiment in ‘thinking globally, and acting locally’—enabling me to slash my carbon footprint for transport to zero and to see what I could make happen if I invested all my time, energy and ideas in the city where I lived (instead of continually travelling around the UK and internationally for work). The project was controversial because I receive a £15,000 grant from Creative Scotland to do it (which many saw as a waste of public money) and because of the title—borrowed from the field of population health to describe the then unknown reason why Glasgow has 30% higher ‘excess mortality’ than very similar post-industrial cities in England (namely Liverpool and Manchester). I had chosen this title because I was interested in finding out more about this phenomenon and because, through this action, I wanted to make the connections between the social, environmental and economic problems facing our city.
In terms of ‘a day in the life’, my year in Glasgow was really just an exaggerated version of the life I had been living anyway. I could no longer go to work (teaching at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee—an unsustainable commute I’d been doing since 2012 which was one of the motivating factors for the project). This meant I could spend far more time in my studio in Glasgow’s East End, meeting up with local people/politicians, planning potential collaborations and attending many local events. Although I had a lot of stress and pressure to deal with as a result of the social media backlash the project received, a ‘good day’ would look a bit like this: Get up at 7:30am—head to the swimming pool for 60 lengths front crawl. Head back home for breakfast (I was just having 50g of nuts and black coffee at that time) whilst listening to the radio (Start the Week, Midweek, In Our Time, Desert Island Discs etc!) Leave the house about 10am and cycle to the studio, be settled at my desk by around 10:30am—spend the morning researching and thinking—reading, writing notes and making plans (my brain works so much better in the morning). 1:00pm—lunch break (at that time I was eating pre-prepared meals of daal and barley or similar, in tupperwares, heated up in the studio microwave). This would be eaten at my desk while beginning to sift through the day’s emails in my numerous accounts (at that time, my Ellie Harrison, Bring Back British Rail, and college inboxes). Lunch would normally transition into an afternoon of admin or working through some of the plans drafted up in the morning. Then in the late afternoon, I would cycle back into town to have meeting, go to an event, work as a volunteer usher at the Glasgow Film Theatre or meet a friend for dinner. At home, I’d aim to be in bed by 10:30pm so I could fit in 30mins more reading before drifting off to sleep. Then, ideally, repeat again.
I’m glad you asked this question. Not just because I am also a fan of Mass Observation [The newsletter was inspired by this British life-writing experiment], but because I have spent a lot of time over the last decade, thinking about ‘lifestyle choices’ and how the ‘ideal day’ can be honed to increase well-being and productivity. This began when I was invited to undertake a residency at Funen Art Academy in Denmark in 2014, which I decided to name after the then government department which oversaw all art schools in England the ‘The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills’. I then continued to explore these ideas in the talk I gave at Camden Art Centre in 2015 ‘Ethics: Extremism & Compromise’ where I began by meticulously breaking down the cost of one of my pre-packed vegan lunches to demonstrate the ‘win-win-win’ of being healthy, cheap and environmentally-friendly The connections between mental, physical and financial well-being are picked up and explored further in by book ‘The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of Class, Capitalism & Carbon Footprint’, which was inspired by the 2016 project and published in 2019 (more on that below).
I’m interested in how your practice brings the two distinct spheres of Art Activism and Conceptual Art—particularly the type of conceptual art originating in the US and UK in the 60s and 70s—together. You’re as likely to set up a campaign (Get Glasgow Moving, 2016-ongoing) or a community energy co-operative (Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund / Glasgow Community Energy, 2015-ongoing) as you are to create installations that employ systems (The Redistribution of Wealth, 2012), data visualisation (Vending Machine, 2009) and timelines (Tonnes of Carbon…, 2020). On an initial reading, these approaches seem very distinct, one uses the aesthetics and communicative power of art to engender social action, the other is about the importance of ideas and their application as a creative act, but they share numerous overlaps as well. For instance, both disciplines share an anti-consumerist message and a dedication to strategic planning. Can you tell us why and how you bring these two types of art making together in one place?
The way that my practice is structured now, largely derives from the intensive thinking time I was privileged to have during the two-year masters programme at Glasgow School of Art from 2008-2010 (this is what first brought me to the city). The writing that I did during that time—How Can We Continue Making Art?, Altermodernism: The Age of Stupid and Trajectories: How to Reconcile the Careerist Mentality with Our Impending Doom—looked at how the artworld and the role of artists needed to evolve in response to the threat of climate change. One of the decisions I took was to invest far more of my own time, energy and ideas—plus all the skills I’d learnt through my lengthy artschool education—into direct political campaigning. So in 2009 I set up my first public transport campaign, Bring Back British Rail, to popularise the idea of taking rail back into public ownership so as to deliver the reliable and affordable services necessary to encourage sustainable travel. As I wrote back then, I aimed to develop ”an approach to practice in which the artist becomes adept at switching between different ’hats’—moving between direct political action and more frivolous artworld spectacle in order to raise questions about and challenge different aspects of our current political and economic order” (quoted in The Glasgow Effect, p.66).
The other thing which became increasingly important was the accessibility of my work, so that anyone (with or without specialist knowledge) could engage with it and take something from it. And so I strive to devise artworks which work on several levels simultaneously—humour and playfulness are central in reaching out to those who may not normally be interested in or understand most contemporary art. Yet more esoteric artworld references (calling back to artists from the past that I admire) are peppered throughout to offer other avenues for interpretation. My book is deliberately written in an accessible way, and through its place-based title and subject matter is aimed specifically at a working-class Glaswegian audience. Yet interspersed in the narrative, and the critique of the social, environmental and economic problems facing our city, are references to many other artists’ work who have informed my thinking. These include the conceptual artists of the 1960s who first identified the environmental impact of making art, such as Lawrence Weiner and Douglas Huebler who said “the world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more” (quoted on p.46). My shift into making more socially-engaged/event-based work and recycling existing consumer objects into artworks, was certainly informed by this sentiment.
When it comes to climate action and Just Transition, I think it is imperative to have clarity on what is meant by the terms like "individual responsibility" or "personal accountability". Which contexts and situations require us to distribute decision-making power and authority, which require taking ownership for things that we are innately complicit in, and which necessitate a redistribution of money, goods, resources where some people need to give up something so others can have more. In your book, The Glasgow Effect (2019), you speak about the entanglement between fiscal, social and transportation mobility and you have had a personal Environmental Policy since 2010. It covers everything from the way you travel, your diet to your finances. It embeds you and your practice within wider societal systems and blurs the lines between art and life. Can you tell us more about your thoughts on individual responsibility for art workers, particularly against operating in a neoliberal system of capital?
I wrote and published the first version of my Environmental Policy in February 2010, as I was coming to the end of my masters. It aimed to outline all the day-to-day actions which I vowed to take responsibility for to limit my own carbon footprint—making these public in order to gain brownie points for my ethical behaviour and to hold myself to account. At the time I saw this Environmental Policy as the foundation on which all my other activity—individual or collective—could be built. How could I act with integrity and conviction and place demands of wider society to reduce carbon emissions, if I was not also doing my bit? I think this is vital. And it’s one reason why I was so drawn to Darren McGarvey’s 2017 book Poverty Safari (inspired in part by The Glasgow Effect project), because it also aims to marry a ”left-wing structural critique [with] an ethics of personal responsibility”. We all need to try our best, and to be honest when we fail. My greatest breakthroughs have been made as a result of acknowledging the contradictions in my behaviour and doing something to address them—The Glasgow Effect project itself arose from repeated breaches to the Transportation section of my Environmental Policy, where I had taken unnecessary flights for ‘Love of Money’ and so I took decisive action to stop this. But as I acknowledged in the book, it’s the economic system we live that in makes it a continual challenge to live our values. Something summed up in this quote from Morgan Quaintance: “neoliberal capitalism has created an existential framework in which compromise and complicity are the new original sins…” (quoted on p.47).
One of the things you set out to examine in your book is “the consequences of dematerialisation and digitisation, and the trading in ideas” (p.48). You draw attention to the failed promises of the ‘knowledge economy’; that it created more consumption and travel, not less. In a western-northern society many of us are surrounded by technologies, such as the Cloud, the Internet, and a teleologic rhetoric of computing power and singularity. The immaterial has become a social goal. We are told that we can separate ideas from matter, despite being deeply dependent on it. One could say that for the illusion of the 'knowledge economy' or digitalisation to persist it requires a withdrawal from any kind of material and social engagement, perhaps also like conceptual art. There is much more to this argument however, dematerialisation has and continues to be a form of resistance from proprietary rights and land ownership. Can you tell us about the relationship between de and re-materialisation in your work, and your approach to the digital?
When I was a Fine Art student at Nottingham Trent University in 2000, I was lucky to undertake an elective module called ‘Digital Futures’. It was basically just a web design course, but it opened my eyes to the possibilities of working digitally at the very start of my career—tools which have since been central to my practice. There were several things that drew me to working online. One was the fact that I could reach an audience directly, without needing to go through the conventional gatekeepers of the artworld: curators and gallerists. But I also loved the fact that I could archive and collect (seemingly) limitlessly. This was particularly appealing as an aspiring minimalist with a contradictory impulse for hoarding. I now have an immense online archive—dating back to those first experiments made during Digital Futures in 2000. It’s only really in the last year, and through our discussions that I’ve come to realise the carbon impact of this digital hoarding habit. One of my aims for the SDNP project is to review and update my Environmental Policy. I want to acknowledge how it has become a more complex document over time as my career has developed and more areas of compromise have been unearthed, and acted upon. I specifically intend to add a digital carbon footprint section—where, at the very least, I take account of the carbon generated by hosting my web archive itself.
Another thread in the book is the tension between our localised real-world lives and the globalised lives we’re encouraged to live out online, especially as workers in the knowledge economy, living: “transient, itinerant and opportunistic lifestyles, chasing work around the world” (p.128). Through meticulously measuring my own carbon footprint for transport I aimed to illustrate how it had increased in an unsustainable way as I developed my career in the ‘creative industries’, and moved further and further away from ‘home’. It was in stark contrast to most working-class Glaswegians living and working in one area with a much stronger connection to place. Not only is this way of localised living far more sustainable, but it’s arguably also necessary in order to be an active citizen and to contribute back to improving your local community. As I write in the book “The more transient and disconnected our lives become, the less we understand the places where we live and work, the less likely we are to fight to make them better, or even to know where to start” (p.119). I came to realise through doing the project and writing the book that the whole normalised middle-class idea of moving away from home to go to university, and then moving again to take up middle-class jobs and opportunities, just begins a life of rootlessness which has many negative consequences for the environment and for mental health. Middle class people obviously don’t always know best.
Your work often looks back to the social and cultural history of 1970s and 1980s, Thatcher's Britain, and tracks the resultant changes to access to public services. I find this history fascinating because I grew up in Dubai and didn't come to the Uk until 1990 so I learnt about these histories second-hand. Can you tell us more?
My key aim in writing the book was to provide the ‘complete context’ for why I chose to undertake The Glasgow Effect project. It’s written in response to all of the social media critics who demanded that I sum up my thinking in a few brief tweets, within the first few days of the project’s launch at the start of 2016. To me it’s a bit of practical joke that the book ended up being sooooo long and taking nearly four years following these short-termist demands to materialise. I decided to structure the book in three parts. It’s not until the 2nd part (one third of the way in) that I begin to describe the actual project and the population health research around ‘the Glasgow effect’. Before then, I felt it was important to understand the backstory: the personal and political history describing how I ended up in Glasgow and how the society/s I grew up in shaped the person I’d become. The first chapter is called ‘Thatcher’s Children’ and describes a childhood in 1980s suburban London—what I remember from my own experience contrasted with details of the neoliberal policies that were being implemented at the time. Although I only came to learn about these as an adult, I wanted to make evident the subconscious impact that they had on my working methods and career trajectory that took me to Glasgow School of Art.
Although I was born in 1979, so only lived through nine months of the 1970s, I return to the politics of this decade throughout the book. I heard recently that people are often obsessed with the decade just before their birth which helped me to understand why this was a recurring trope—it was the decade I was a product of, but which I would never be able to experience. I highlight many of the positive things about this often derided decade—the social conditions which allowed for the emergence of the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Gay Liberation Front and the massive political gains made by both. The Community Arts movement in all corners of the UK, driven in part by the radical cultural programmes of many of the new and relatively autonomous Regional Councils (the Greater London Council, Strathclyde Regional Council, Greater Manchester Council etc.) The positive impact regional governance had on delivering fully-integrated and affordable public transport in these city regions through the PTEs established by Barbara Castle’s radical Transport Act 1968. Nearly all of this was destroyed in the late 1980s through the abolition of regional councils (though Strathclyde survived another decade until 1996), the deregulation of the buses in 1986 (which I consider to be the worst of all Thatcher’s policies) and the introduction of ‘section 28’ in 1988 which rolled back two decades or progress for queer people. But one of the starkest facts to recommend the 1970s is that 1978 was peak equality—the most equal society Britain has ever had—as measured in the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). “Since then there has been a downward trajectory due to growing inequality of incomes and environmental degradation” caused by over-consumption (p. 295). As Naomi Klein says in This Changes Everything: “The truth is that if we want to live within ecological limits, we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970s”, something which I think many of us would actually welcome.
Thank you so much!
Ellie Harrison is an artist & activist based in Glasgow (UK). Her work takes a variety of forms: from installations and performance / events, to lectures, live broadcasts & political campaigns. Using an array of strategies, Harrison investigates, exposes and challenges the absurd consequences of our capitalist system: from over-consumption, inequality and alienation, to privatisation and climate change—and explores the impact free-market forces are having on our society, and our individual day-to-day lives. As well as making playful, politically-engaged work for galleries and public spaces, Harrison is also the founder and coordinator of the national Bring Back British Rail campaign—which strives to popularise the idea of re-nationalising our public transport system—and is the agent for The Artists’ Bond—a life-long speculative funding scheme for artists, now with 160 members across the UK.