24 February 2015

Ellie Harrison is a Glasgow based artist who won acclaim for her data works, beginning with Eat 22 in 2002, including a nomination for the Converse/Dazed Emerging Artists Award in 2011. Her works are permanently exhibited in the Wellcome Collection and at the Open Data Institute’s public collection. Between 2000 and 2006 she amassed a large body of data tracking work, before she called a halt to personal data collecting as art practice. Harrison’s Timelines was recently exhibited during Transmediale CAPTURE ALL, as part of the Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life exhibit. I interviewed Ellie to learn how her former life as a data collector connects to her contemporary art practice.

Stephen Fortune: Your Timelines work dates from when you were a data collector, rather than a recovering data collector. How does it feel to see works from that era of your work re-exhibited?

Ellie Harrison: When I look back on my data collecting work, I feel I was very naive, very young. I was so involved with it, I didn’t have any critical awareness of what I was doing. Adding all this extra admin onto your life makes you feel like you have a sense of purpose. It was a way of feeling productive, especially as an artist. I started Eat 22 when I was in the final year of my art degree – it was a kinda safety net. I didn’t have to think so much about what I was going to do as an artist: I just had to carry on living, but document it. I think I got a bit addicted to that process – it’s a way for not having to think. When I ended one project, and I wasn’t doing data collecting anymore I didn’t know what else to do but to set up another set of rules to collect some other set of information. I was going through the motions, and before I knew it five years had passed and I’d done 16 of these projects!

SF: How do you feel Timelines exists alongside the current growth of people practising self-tracking (aka the Quantified Self)?

EH: I did the Timelines project in the summer of 2006, and it followed naturally from the Daily Data Display series and my Monthly Sculptures. During the Monthly Sculptures, I collected daily data for a month, and at the end of the month rendered it into a display. With Daily Data Display I would collate the data from one day and display it the next morning, so it was getting faster. The Timelines project seemed like the next step. I’d decided to collect everything I did over a 24 hour period as data, for four weeks in total. I had a little notepad, and every time I changed from one activity to the next I noted the time on my watch face. By the end of the day I had pages and pages of this notepad. Then I would spend 2 hours of every night ‘capturing the data.’ It was an ordeal that I wanted to get through. The main thing I realised was how this process removes you from reality. What I ended up with was not a document of a normal person’s life – it was a document of a person who had imposed this ridiculous regime on themselves where they had to spend two hours every night updating a spreadsheet.

SF: The Confessions Of A Recovering Data Collector marks a shift in your practice, away from data collecting and towards something expansive. In retrospect it reads like an epiphany, but was the evolution in your practice really so dramatically dichotomous?

EH: Maybe six months after I did Timelines I remember speaking to somebody and they asked me “what are you doing with your work Ellie?”, and I responded “oh, well I’m a recovering data collector” (laughs). What I did with Confessions was to write down loads of my thoughts about the negative side effects of data collecting, and why I wanted to stop. My work was about trying to get out of those unhealthy working patterns, and to really develop a form of art practice and lifestyle that was more politically engaged and more conscious of these bigger forces at play in the world. I had 40 – 50 confessions by the end of this, and I sent them to Sally O’Reilly. She was acting as my ‘therapist’ and she picked out just 6 of them, and together we worked through them, before publishing them in the book. What I had started to do was to really think about was “what sort of world had I grown up in that had encouraged this behaviour?” That involved developing much more awareness about how technology had influenced this practice. Reflecting on the changes in industry in the UK and across the world, the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism when I was a child, and then growing up in the 90s and going to art school. I was completely oblivious to how they potentially influenced me to start doing these things, or become obsessed with these things. It made me realise that data collecting wasn’t just a quirk that [we] had, it was symptomatic of what society had been developing toward.

SF: A lot of your earlier work presaged the activities now common among the many communities of active self-trackers. How do you regard those who are currently self-tracking?

EH: I guess I feel sorry for them. Because once I had that epiphany, if you want to call it that, I realised that I had this huge obsessive energy that I could be applying to something much more worthwhile. What I thought for myself was “is there not something better I could be using my time for?” and I guess I’m thinking that for them too. One of the things that I started to do was the Bring Back British Rail campaign. I thought about this shift a lot in terms of the concept of the ‘banality of evil.’ According to Hannah Arendt people didn’t really realise that they were contributing to the Holocaust because they were just doing their everyday job, but they were contributing to this immensely evil event. And I was kinda thinking about that, and how you could draw that analogy with capitalism – the way that individuals participate in systems that have all those terrible consequences. With Bring Back British Rail I was conscious about trying to set this completely, ridiculously impossible challenge of renationalising the railways, and to just apply that obsessive energy on a day to day basis. I’m going to spend my evening stuffing 60 envelopes to send to people all around the country with stickers and ‘Bring Back British Rail’ stuff. It’s those banal and everyday tasks that are ultimately contributing to this much greater thing. You can file all that labour in the force of something more positive: so it’s like a banality of good. And that’s why I stopped data collecting.

SF: I wanted to ask what do you think of this contention by Transmediale’s “What does our willing participation in self-optimisation and self-commodification mean?” How willing do you think we are in the aforementioned processes?

EH: I don’t know. I do worry when I see people chained to their smartphones and all the rest of it, I worry that they’re not really aware of the data that they are producing for these big corporations. I know that some people do it willingly, but I think the majority are kinda completely oblivious of what they’re contributing to.

SF: That’s interesting because you’ve remarked elsewhere that data collecting helped you be less oblivious?

EH: You’re right. That is something that I say quite often, the data collecting bit anyway. It made me much more conscious of my own activity. It was a necessary process for me to go through. But, on the other hand, I think some of those things were on account of something deeper than data reflection. Because I have been a vegetarian since I was 12. And again, even when I look back on my twelve year old self – and I think that I was a complete idiot back then – there must have been some sort of core, some sort of ethical code wired into me, for me to have made that decision.

SF: Is there a way towards questioning and challenging our surrounding systems (which is where I consider you have oriented your current practice) that didn’t necessitate rejection of introspective data collection?

EH: For other people, maybe? What I realised in hindsight is that you can tell a lot about the world from looking at your own life because you are subject to these forces in the world out there. I only realised in hindsight because I kinda plowed through the data collecting activities quite blindly. But that’s why it’s really interesting for me now to look back at these works in light of what I see happening around me in the world.

SF: Ego-depletion is this idea that we only have a limited amount of mental energy to give to willpower, and once that reserve is exhausted our self-control is impaired. How do you think that notion of agency sits with your current praxis?

EH: Yeah I think that’s true, and I say that as a self confessed control freak! When I was doing my MFA in Glasgow, I gave a talk called Hedonism vs. Asceticism: A control freak’s guide to the MFA. There are still instances of where I continue to set myself rules to live by. It’s interesting looking at my relationship to food, dating back to Eat 22. When the Wellcome Collection bought the artwork, they wanted it in the section of a gallery called obesity. In 2007 I wasn’t sure how I felt about that though of course I couldn’t control what they wanted to do. But the more time that goes by, the more I think that it’s completely about ‘eating disorders.’ It’s completely about consumption and the continual pressure to consume. In a capitalist society, where we are so used to being able to get what we want, when we want, you have to have incredible levels of self control in order to survive.

SF: Looking at both Artists’ Lottery Syndicate and Early Warning Signs reminds me of the (supposed) difficulty humans face when comprehending ‘risk’ and ‘probability.’ Is the way humans make decisions alongside– and perhaps cope with– complex systems of interest to your work?

EH: Definitely. My Anti-Capitalist Aerobics piece (2013) probably ties in there as well. That came from my proposal to do an anti-capitalist diet programme, which itself comes from my interest in the Weight Watchers format – measurement and the support group combined. When you think about it the support group format is an age old thing: its people getting together and helping each other – you can’t get more basic about what the human life should be about!

But Weight Watchers has commodified that format; you have to pay to go, and you have to buy the stupid products. It’s taken something that should be at the heart of how we live together and help each other and made it into a profit making thing. What I wanted to do with my diet programme was to use that format as a way of empowering people who had problems with their eating. To help them realise, given the fact that there is an obesity epidemic, that it’s not just them: there are billions of people who are overweight and have problems with their eating. There has to be a flaw in the system, otherwise it wouldn’t be happening to everybody. I wanted to use the support group format as a way of empowering people, not to blame themselves, but to turn that anger outwards – like an activist training programme for obese people – or a consciousness raising group, so that people could make more informed decisions. If you’re motivated to fight against some of these oppressive forces, you could then channel your energies into that and lose weight as a result, and make friends! (laughs) That’s my naive, all or nothing, way of looking at it.

SF: As we’ve spoken you’re often “looking back” at your younger “selves” in a disparaging fashion? Do you often reflect on your past instances in terms of their ‘scope for improvement or optimisation.’

EH: Yeah, but that’s because I’m just so self obsessed Stephen! (laughs). I’m EVEN MORE self obsessed than those self-trackers. I think that it is just natural to try and spin these narratives, to make sense of your behaviour over the course of a lifetime. When I was a child I would obsessively collect things – I had a pencil collection and a plastic bag collection. I think there was always an obsessive compulsive instinct and I found a way through data collecting where I could still fulfil that instinct without hoarding a load of unnecessary objects. I was just hoarding a load of unnecessary data instead. One of the inspirations for my Day-to-Day Data exhibition was George Perec, who wrote an inventory of everything that he ate in 1974.1 In the foreword of the book he’s looking at his background as a French Jew, who had lived through World War II and the Holocaust. He implies that this obsessive behaviour comes from that experience, but also from a fear of forgetting or being forgotten. A lot of these psychological problems come from a deep seated fear I think. They just manifest in weird ways in contemporary society. So I guess really that obsessive behaviour to collect, that compulsion to collect, comes from a fear of death.

Stephen Fortune


    1. George Perec, Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four (1976)