19 March 2016
Somerset House, London
Ellie Harrison: Hello everyone, I hope you can hear me OK?
Thanks so much for coming to this talk. I’m so sorry that I can’t be there in person today. I have visited the Big Bang Data exhibition in London, just before Christmas. This photo was taken by my friend Cecilia Wee on 22 December 2015.
But, as I’m sure some of you will have heard, since New Year’s Day, I have been back-up in Glasgow, Scotland – the city where I’ve lived since 2008 – and I am now nearly a quarter of a way through a year-long project called The Glasgow Effect.
The Glasgow Effect is an experiment to see what happens if I refuse to travel away from my home for a whole year. If you have been following this story you will know that quite a lot has happened already!
The project sparked a huge amount of interest in the media and online when it launched at the start of the year. There was a huge national/international debate about class, capitalism, art, education and much more, which it was very exciting to have provoked, if not slightly stressful at times!
I am doing this project to highlight the many contradictions which existed in the lifestyle I was previously living, which I’m sure many others are also guilty of. And, to find out whether it is possible to forge a ‘career’, a ‘living’, a meaningful and sustainable way of working as an artist within your local area, without the need to rack-up a massive carbon footprint, by travelling around the globe to sell your wares…
In the funding application I wrote for this project to Creative Scotland, which is available to read online, I talk about the possibility of engaging in more Skype presentations, such as this one, if I was invited to do stuff in places outside Glasgow in 2016.
This would provide and opportunity to challenge the institution inviting me to consider their own working practices and the carbon footprint of their activities and to test whether it is possible to do engaging presentations using digital technology, without actually being in the room. So you are all guinea pigs in this process. I hope you don’t mind!
I have done these sorts of remote presentations before and they have gone well. But my hunch is that you will only get half the story about who I actually am by meeting me online. Because it is my belief that digital technology – i.e. the reducing of the complexities of life to data, to binary numbers, which are capable of being easily transmitted through this air – is wreaking havoc on our real life relationships and local communities, which we as human beings – the social creatures that we are – all absolutely crave.
It’s not enough to have a fun half-an-hour’s chatting on Skype only to be left alone in a room once the power is switched off. This is a temporary distraction from our chronic alienation, not a long-term cure. My discontentment with the digital world, has been brewing-up over the last seven years, since the publication of my book Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector in 2009. I’ve gone from the tech-savvy naïve young artist, leaving art school at the turn of the millennium, to developing a deep scepticism of most technological ‘innovation’, particularly social media and the ‘instantaneous ego broadcasting’, which it encourages – all that me, me, me, shouting, shouting, shouting and never really listening to what anyone else has to say.
Because I was totally guilty of this sort of behaviour myself (and perhaps I still am to a certain extent), in the early works which I made when I was just starting out: year-long projects such as Eat 22, which I made in 2001-2002 (when I was 22 years old), for which I took a photograph of everything I ate and uploaded these on a week basis online. And Gold Card Adventures, which I made the last time I lived in London in 2002, where calculated the total distance I travelled on London Transport in a year, more than 9,210km.
Web2.0 [as it used to be known] has spawned a whole new generation of data collectors. There is now such a ridiculous abundance of boring information about other people’s lives on the internet, I felt obliged to stop adding to it.
Since then I’ve adopted strict rules about how and when I will engage and what I will choose to share. I’ve been running this active Twitter boycott since July 2008, where I’m allowed to ‘like’ what other people are saying but to never ever speak myself. And I named my Facebook Page ‘Blatant Self-Promotion’ to acknowledge my belief that nearly everything we read on social media should be understood with that disclaimer.
Another ‘confession’ was that I felt as though:
I was so focussed on the minutiae of my everyday life that I became totally blinked to everything else going on in the world outside.
It was clear that I had passion and commitment which I had demonstrated through these many year-long projects, but I was wasting all that energy by studying such tiny and inconsequential things. So I decided to remove myself and my life from my work entirely and to focus my obsessive attention to detail on the wider world instead – particularly the wider social and economic systems within which we are all forced to operate.
The work which is there in Big Bang Data is actually the first piece I made with this new approach. It signals a shift towards the far more politicised practice that I have now. For those of you who have not seen it – it’s an old Vending Machine (circa 1979), which has been re-programmed to vend out free packets of crisps only when news relating to the recession (or the wider economic system) crops up in the BBC News feed. It attempts to draw attention to the hidden relationships between our food supply and much bigger economic forces beyond our control.
But ‘data tracking’ for all those years did have its positives. It made me super-aware of the impact of all my everyday actions on the world. And I gradually allowed aspects of my life to creep back into my work – disclosing information, less for narcissistic reasons, and more in the spirit of the old feminist saying ‘the personal is political’:
That is sharing information to help draw attention to the way that the political and economic systems which govern us actively encourage contradiction and compromise, and how fighting back against them will require concerted, collective effort.
So I want to finish up with the case of The Glasgow Effect. For this project I am using data collection and analysis not as a way of sharing facts about my life with others, but in order to magnify the levels of scrutiny and accountability required of anyone accepting public money.
I will not be publishing cute and fluffy anecdotes about my existence, for others to ridicule, but instead just the hard facts necessary to detail and justify, at the end of the year, exactly how the money was spent, and whether indeed I succeeded in sticking to the project’s rules: a) to stay within the Greater Glasgow area, and b) to not travel in any vehicles other than my bike.
I am keeping detailed records of all my expenses – an exaggerated version of the tedious task facing most self-employed people – and I have this GPS tracking device monitoring all my movements. It is set-up to SMS my Creative Scotland Officer immediately, should I travel at more than 20mph or go outside ‘the zone’. Because as much as the important environmental concerns I am raising with The Glasgow Effect, drawing attend its own funding and the wider economic system which surrounds the project is just as important.
Public funding for the arts is a great thing, it’s essential, but because of that inevitable accountability to the state, there are some things that you just can’t do. This is why I’m actually spending time this year trying to set-up my own ethical and autonomous alternative funding scheme the Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund, powered by renewable energy.
I do want to communicate, but just in ways that are not digital.