30 January 2015
Evening Times (p.16-17)

It will take more than a night to create utopia, but that’s a good place to start, says artist Ellie Harrison.

It would be unusual for a creative type not to think big but Ellie has ideas beyond the realm of most with her new project Dark Days.

She has invited 100 people to spend the night with her in Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art on February 13 in an exercise that looks at how public buildings might change their use in the future.

“It’s a post-apocalyptic vision in a way,” says the Glasgow School of Art graduate when we’re standing in the main hall of the gallery after it has closed for the day.

We’re trying to imagine 100 people making this space their home for the night, with sleeping bags and tents wedged between the mighty columns of the neoclassical building.

Of course, this building wasn’t always a gallery. The original house was built as the townhouse of wealthy tobacco lord William Cunninghame of Lainshaw, then was bought by the Royal Bank of Scotland and became the Royal Exchange before becoming Stirling’s Library in the 1950s.

This change of use of the year fits the bill perfectly for Ellie’s project.

“It has had different uses but look how grand it is,” says Ellie. “It was obviously built as a monument to capitalism and since then has become a monument to contemporary art but it is essentially now a public space.

“The project is looking at how we need to re-use public spaces in the future.”

She adds: “Dark Days is two things: it is creating a spectacle within this space, what will it look like when you have 100 people in here making it their home for the night? And at the same time for the people who come I want it to be quite an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.”

The name Dark Days was inspired by the phrase used in theatres to describe the time when there are no productions on stage.

It is fitting that GoMA will be between exhibitions when Ellie and her group stage their lock in.

To research just how to bring 100 individuals together and encourage them to make decisions on how to live together, Ellie attended a Reclaim the Power activist training camp near Blackpool for protesters against fracking.

“They set up this camp to train activists to do creative actions,” explains Ellie. “I was really interested in how well organised and how disciplined it was.

“For me, what was really interesting was that a lot of the processes they use have come out of the Occupy movement and the anarchist traditions for organising, like consensus decision-making.

“It’s all about being non-hierarchical, creating an equal playing field where you can have a collective decision-making process to decide how to run a camp.

“I was really interested in that. But at the same time there was this hidden voice of authority in that process. Who wrote the manual? That’s what I wanted to know.”

The manual Ellie refers to was the once she received on arrival at the camp, with a fairly intense programme of workshops.

She has produced a scaled-down version for Dark Days, which participants will see and have to agree to follow before taking part.

The event has already been over-subscribed seven times over. For those who can’t get in before the doors are locked there is a chance to attend an artist’s talk and film screening of the event at GoMA on March 5.

How 100 people create a community between 6.30pm and 10am the following day is the focus of Ellie’s work. People will be asked to bring a tent or sleeping bag, and all the food they need for the night. Then they work in groups to figure out how to set up the camp and the basics of how to live collectively.

“Everyone has to be over 18, but apart from that it is all about accessibility and how this is meant to be totally open and inclusive, anybody can participate regardless of age or ability,” says Ellie. “I’m going to try and have a gender balance. I will be playing God to a certain extent.”

She adds: “The thing that overlaps with this in a lot of my other work is there are tightly controlled parameters in the beginning: 100 people in this space overnight and I have total control over that.

“But when you get 100 free minds, that’s completely chaotic and I have no control. I like to create these situations where I surprise myself so I really don’t know how it’s going to pan out or what people will do or how they will respond. That’s why it’s a kind of experiment in a way.”

The sleepover artwork is the outcome of Ellie’s year as one of the associate artists at GoMA and coincides with the gallery’s participation in her Early Warning Signs project.

“The city is proud to host its first themed year in 2015, a Green Year,” says Bailie Liz Cameron, chairwoman of Green Year 2015.

“This provides an opportunity to host exciting events, activities and projects all aimed at getting people thinking about sustainability. Glasgow has strong ambitions for a greener future as a European leader in environmental, social and economic sustainability.

“Ellie’s unusual artwork is a very powerful way of encouraging us to think about important issues such as climate change and how we might need to change in the future if we don’t make effective, lasting change now.”

Angela McManus