A talk by Ellie Harrison exploring the relationship between her life choices and her work as an artist for Artquest’s Practice 360° programme at Camden Arts Centre in London.

Ever since her early works, such as Eat 22 (for which she photographed everything she ate for a year), there has been a blurring between Ellie Harrison’s life and work, and an ongoing struggle to balance the two. Over the last six years, as her work has become more politicised, she has developed ever more extreme systems and rules to enable her to live her values (minimise her impact on the world) and be as efficient as possible (maximise her work time) – pushing out all unnecessary objects and relationships as a result. In this talk, as part of Artquest’s Practice 360° programme, she will discuss how this rational path of continual ‘progress’ became ultimately, ironically, ‘unsustainable’, and how at a certain point she had to try to learn to compromise in order to survive.


Hello everyone. Thanks for having me here at Camden Arts Centre. It’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to come back to my home town and prove what a “success” I’ve been to my friends and family! Not that any of them are here [laughs]

So, this is not a normal artist’s talk. It’s a meta-artist’s talk, where I’ll be talking less about the work directly and more about all the messy stuff that surrounds it – what we call everyday life. Showing how these two things are so totally intertwined and how, I believe, your everyday choices and behaviour are so central in defining your ethical code. You are, as an artist, what you eat!

So, I’ll be showing snippets of some of my recent works, to help illustrate these ideas as we go through. And I hope they’ll be some stuff amongst it all that you can relate to your own work as artists or whatever else you do and and they’ll be lots of questions for the discussion later on. Please make a note of them of questions as we have 30mins later for this.

I want to start by giving you a bit of context to my practice, and I apologies if this is a little didactic. Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to hone down what it is I’m doing (across various fields of art and activism), into the simplest / shortest statement possible. Which now goes:

My work aims to investigate, expose and challenge the absurd consequences of our capitalist system, and to explore the impact free-market forces are having on our society and our individual day-to-day lives.

I just want to pick this apart a little and show you some examples of what I mean. By ‘investigate’ I mean: using art as a research process to help me to answer the questions that I have about the world. Such as: why do we keep having recurring periods of financial crisis? Or what is the connection between the global economic system and our food supply?

By ‘expose’ I mean: using the privileged platforms that artists are given to have their voices heard (such as having exhibitions or giving talks like this one), in order to share this knowledge with others and highlight the elements of it which cause me most concern.

And finally, by ‘challenge’ I mean: moving beyond the artworld into direct political campaigning to try to affect real positive social change. This is the campaign to popularise the idea of re-nationalising our railway, which I founded in 2009 and have been running in my spare time ever since.

And it’s the absurd consequences of capitalism that I’m interested in. i.e. what happens when you allow a system that is based on the myth of continual and infinite growth on a finite planet to continue through to its ‘logical’ conclusion. And the continual privatisation of all our public services is the perfect example of that.

At the end of 2013, I did a project called The Other Forecast with an artist called John O’Shea, where we invited six artists to MediaCityUK in Salford to make alternative forecasts for the future. I used my Other Forecast as an opportunity to lay out what I saw as these key ‘absurd consequences’ (based on current evidence), and to speculate about what sort of world we might be heading towards, if the multiple crises which are unfolding as a result, converge.

Such as: our increasing dependency on technology (for performing everyday tasks and maintaining social bonds), the increasing energy consumption which results. Our increasing alienation as individuals (something which I will come back to later!) The increase in levels of obesity and of course increasing C02 emissions as well, resulting in climate change.

But the most important part of this statement for today’s talk is the final bit, because this is where I aim to draw a link between these huge global systems and events (which are often difficult to comprehend because of their intangibility or sheer scale), and the everyday life of one human being.

None of us are separate from capitalism. We’re all living here too. All my work is, therefore, influenced by the struggles I experience in the world – the (indirect) impact these free-market forces have on my own day-to-day life. A nice example being the regular frustration caused by trying to buy a simple train ticket on the ridiculously overcomplicated and overpriced railways on which I depend.

My early works (which I began making at art school in 2001) examined my everyday routine in a less knowingly critical way, such as Eat 22 where I photographed and recorded information about everything I ate for a year. But as technologies developed to make this sort of obsessive documentation easier – self-tracking or life-logging (whatever you want to call it) – through the accessibility of apps and social media, I started to become more critical of our contemporary “culture of compulsive self-disclosure” – “instantaneous ego-broadcasting” as I call it – and the negative narcissistic consequences has

When I quit “data collecting” as I call it in 2006 – I swung to the opposite end of the spectrum by trying to remove myself from the work completely. You’ll see I do have a tendency to swing between poles! I’m an all or nothing person, which is where the reference to extremism comes in. For an example, here’s my Twitter Boycott, which I’ve been running since 2008.

But over the last few years, I’ve allowed details about my life to start to creep back in to my work. When I finally began to realise the significance of famous feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’. For it’s only when we are honest and open about the struggles we face in our lives, that we begin to notice the problems that we share and can identify and attempt to challenge their greater systemic causes together.

I now believe it is only worth disclosing personal stuff if enables discussion about the big issues our society faces. I believe that this is the spirit of the Practice 360˚ programme, and so this shall also be the spirit of the rest of my talk, as painful as it might be! This is what I want to share with you now.

I’m going to focus on my life since 15 September 2008. This is the period of time which most clearly shows how I developed into the sort of artist that I now am. The story I like to tell is that this the date that Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for the biggest bankruptcy in the history of the world. The symbolic start of the global financial crisis which was to dominate our lives for at least the next five years. And given that this Coalition government has only made £23 billion of cuts in this Parliament, compared to the £28 billion it intends to make in the next parliament if re-elected, the impact of this financial crisis on all our lives is far from over.

But this is also the date, quite by coincidence, that I moved to Scotland. I was 29 years old, and I moved to Glasgow to do my MFA at Glasgow School of Art. It’s interesting to look at this decision in a little more detail. I was blindly following the mapped out ‘career trajectory’ for the contemporary artist. That is, going to a prestigious art school and get a Masters degree.

And why Glasgow you might ask? Well this is where it gets more interesting. It was purely a financial decision. I knew that I didn’t want to get into any debt as a result of doing a Masters – to end up in a worse position when I finished than I had been before. And after much application writing, I was awarded the Leverhulme Scholarship, which would cover all my fees and basic living expenses at Glasgow School of Art. So I went there!

It was a classic example of Thatcher’s ‘on-ya-bike’ mentality: if there aren’t work and opportunities where you were living, you should uproot your whole life and go in search of them elsewhere. The consequence of this was that I moved far away from my family who are all in London and my sister in Norwich (who had just given birth to my niece Eve that spring), to live in a ‘different country’ where I knew no one, and had to start again from scratch.

I also walked out on the cosy heteronormative relationship, which I had been in for 9 years, and began a far more neurotic and precarious existence as a single person again. Before I start to tell you more about the ups-and-downs of that, it’s worth reflecting on why this relationship had lasted so long (especially seeing I wasn’t actually even straight).

It was because we had met at art school, we were both artists, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me telling you this, we both loved our own work just a little bit more than we loved each other. Our relationship provided the perfect, secure environment for both of us to start out in the world forging our ‘careers’.

Although splitting up (with JB) was a terrible shock that took years to get over, being single wasn’t all that bad. I realised that it was much easier to make and implement decisions when you are on your own (with no one else to consider or take responsibly for). I could control elements of my life that had seemed a lot harder before, and so I could begin to remove contradictions from my lifestyle. To close the gap between what I believed in and the way I was behaving, “to be the change I wanted to see”.

I’d been a vegetarian since I was 12 years old. But as I got older and learnt more about the impact of the livestock industry on climate change, I felt I had to boycott it all together. So on 1 January 2009, I became a vegan. A year later, as I was approaching the end of my MFA, I launched this ‘environmental policy’ on my website. It has sections on: Energy, Transportation, Recycling, Banking (the sort of things you might get in the policy of a big business). But mine begins with the section ‘Diet’, which is something that you definitely would not. It would take a pretty authoritarian company to dictate what its employees can or cannot eat. But when you’re single and self-employed you can!

This ‘environmental policy’ helped me to practice what I preached, but also start to preach what I practised. It is a real set of guidelines for how I should live my life, as well as a marketing tool – a way of proving my integrity to potential collaborators; showing them just how much I cared about the world! Goddam! And lots of work came from it. Including probably this gig!

When I first moved to Glasgow, I was living in a dark, damp tenement flat with a fellow student from Costa Rica called Juan. I wasn’t very happy there. I had a nasty landlord and there were lots of things I couldn’t control (such as the contents of my fridge, who supplied my energy and when to turn the heating on).

The biggest re-bound thing I did by far, was to buy my own flat. In summer 2009, I helped to fulfil Thatcher’s dream of creating a nation of homeowners, by using my savings (which included chunks of inherited wealth) to get a mortgage and get myself on the “property ladder”. My hope was to create a place of my own, where I could feel secure in a city that still felt new and foreign. Flats are of course a lot cheaper in Glasgow than in London, but it did mean I’d made a certain amount of commitment to city that I barely knew.

I spent the whole of that summer working on my flat – doing DIY, increasing the value of my investment, but also taming and controlling the place to get it just right. I needed to get a flatmate to help pay the bills. My first thought was that I had to find a vegan, someone who I had shared values with and who would be quiet and clean. I was about to start advertising on Gumtree, when Oliver came along.

Oliver Braid was my friend from the MFA. Although we were very close, we had very different ethical codes. He was most definitely not a vegan! But he was a cheeky opportunist. He saw how nice my flat was (after all the work I’d done) and saw that I had a spare room just sitting there waiting to be filled. He would not let up trying to persuade me that it could work. It took him three attempts and when he finally said that he wouldn’t bring any meat into the house. I agreed. And so began three-and-a-half years of our new strange and neurotic homonormative little home.

In the last full year that we lived together in 2012, we ran a radio show together from our flat – the Ellie & Oliver Show. This was when I began to allow details from my everyday life to creep back into my work. We often aired our dirty laundry in public, discussing the tensions of living with each other live on air – what happens when two such self-absorbed individuals attempt to co-habit. These were tensions which were definitely exacerbated by the landlady – tenant relationship that underlined it all.

That year, whilst the Ellie & Oliver Show continued every Friday lunchtime at 12pm, I also joined a Das Kapital reading group. And after reading two volumes, it began to dawn on me that perhaps ‘being a landlady’ – that is taking advantage of my class privilege (and inherited wealth) to profit from someone less fortunate – probably wasn’t totally inline with my anti-capitalist values! I started to feel pretty uncomfortable with the contradiction I had evidently been living.

But the year 2012 marked another turning point in my lifestyle for a number of reasons. The first was the knock-on effect of George Osborne’s lovely ‘austerity programme’. After graduating from my MFA I managed to survive for two years without getting a ‘proper job’. Largely through exploiting my poor tenant, but also by scoring Working Tax Credits from the State on the account of my ‘low income’ as a self-employed person. I actually advocated Working Tax Credits as a lifestyle choice to fellow artists in the video interview I did with Jordan MacKenzie for an Artquest project in February 2012.

But in April that year, I remember listening to the Money Box programme on Radio 4 (as us capitalists like to do!) and hearing the bad news that this little ‘loophole’ – which was providing a lifeline for so many ‘creative entrepreneurs’ (Oliver and me included) – was going to be shut down. George Osborne’s policy had worked! And, through fear of uncertainty, I was forced out onto the labour market in search or a ‘proper job’.

I managed to get my first teaching at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design that September, and then on 13 December 2012 after a gruelling interview process, I was awarded my first permanent lecturing post. And just in the nick of time too, as Oliver announced (live on air, in the show we did called ‘Developments’), that he was finally going to leave.

I was at a crossroads again. I could go back to my original plan of advertising for a vegan flatmate on Gumtree? But because for the first time in my life I now had a salary, I didn’t need to. I could forget the added hassle of dealing with another human being, because I could now actually afford to live on my own. And if I did, at least I could cease being that evil exploitative landlady.

But in reality this decision would probably result in an even more contradictory existence. Although I did finally get to realise the dream of being able to control every single last inch of my environment removing all elements of friction (like Oliver Braid), which were hampering the smooth running of the Ellie Harrison machine. This new lifestyle, came with the guilt caused by the sheer excess of living alone in a two bedroom flat.

The only way I could reconcile this with my values, was to begin to live in a more and more extreme ascetic way – to minimise the impact this lifestyle was having on the world. I cancelled the landline / the internet and the TV licence (to reduce costs and electricity consumption). I then took to switching off the boiler at the plug, so that I only had hot water or heating when I consciously chose to switch it on (not very often). I got the loft insulated and a thermostat installed (courtesy of the lovely Scottish Government’s Green Homes scheme), so I now know I can exist at 14˚C quite easily with the aid of a hot water bottle alone.

But no matter how hard I tried, the fundamental contradiction was still there. That is with the need to move towards a more ‘communal future’ – to share resources in order to live in a more sustainable way. For last year’s Glasgow Open House festival I did a project called Transition Community of One. The blurb for it read:

Inspired by the Transition Town movement, which promotes co-production and communal living as ways to well-being and sustainability, Ellie Harrison will open the doors of her now ‘single person household’ for a screening programme of socio-political films.

By inviting like-minded people into her hermetically sealed ‘luxury apartment’ to learn about and discuss ways to change the world – she hopes expose the paradox at the heart of her lifestyle – test the intolerance caused by solo living and challenge her actually existing ‘socialism in one person’.

Around the same time as this project last year, I also unearthed another fundamental contradiction in my lifestyle that had been building over the last ten years. I created this ‘progress report’ which showed how my productivity levels in both ‘work’ (emails) and ‘leisure’ (swimming) had been steadily increasing over the last decade, with a particular emphasis on my ‘Glasgow years’ (from 2008 onwards).

Whether I was aware of it or not, I had been gradually adapting different elements of my lifestyle to augment this productivity. Refining and perfecting my systems to optimise the Ellie Harrison machine. It was only when I took a look at this graph (which is based on real data I’ve been collecting since 2002), that I saw the harsh reality that my life was simply following the trajectory of capitalism; mirroring its “growth fetish”; it’s demand for continual and infinite “progress” on a finite planet. Or in my case within the limits of what one human being could endure. This is obviously unsustainable! And like capitalism’s recurring periods of crisis, it can surely only end in tears.

I’m sure you’re not aware, but I spent nearly six days preparing for this talk, attempting to boil down everything I’d been reading and thinking about over the last six months. It was particularly difficult (and emotional) because I’m in a very different place to when I wrote the copy in December. Because when I wrote about ‘compromise’, I was really writing about ‘love’. Last year I was starting a new relationship and beginning to realise how much I needed to change in my lifestyle in order to make it work.

But I got dumped in the new year! And the reason she gave was that we were too inherently different. She said she defined her identity through her relationships with other people, whereas I defined my identity through my work (and therefore would always prioritise that!) Isn’t that what all artists do?

But when heartbreak strikes I have found that work is always there for comfort. To get over this trauma, I started a new study regime, reading Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, which is described as: ‘A groundbreaking analysis of the alienating phenomena of daily life under capitalism’ (written in 1947). And wow, it helped me! It distracted me from the sadness, whilst helping me understand more about the situation that I’d got myself into, as a “victim of my own financial success”.

“Human life has progressed: material progress, ‘moral’ progress – by that is only part of the truth. The deprivation, the alienation of life is its other aspect.” p.229

In the book Lefebvre describes what he sees as the paradox at the heart of the ‘bourgeois intellectual’. For ‘bourgeois intellectual’, read ‘conceptual artist’. That it is the activity which the ‘conceptual artist’ does in order to connect to and communicate with society (i.e. their work), which is the very same thing which isolates them from that society (as they spend days locked away in flats and studios on their own, trapped in the world of ideas).

In the absence of meaningful relationships (and estrangement from my family and friends), work has stepped into fill the void. Or perhaps the meaningful relationships have been deliberately sacrificed for the sake of work.

It’s no coincidence that over the last ten years, I’ve begun to use my work as a more direct tool for connecting with other people, of challenging the alienating power of capitalism, by organising more participatory projects. Focussing on bringing together particularly atomised individuals (such as artists, or self-employed people, or both!) And the project Dark Days, which I just staged at GoMA in Glasgow last month. It was an overnight “experiment in communal living” for 100 participants to experience collectively, as well as a “social inclusion project for a socially engaged artist”.

So here I am aged 36, living and working in Scotland. I moved to Glasgow for economic reasons and now it seems I’m staying for ethical and political ones. I feel more at home in a culture that has proud socialist values (not that they always live them, but that’s another story!) And I feel more at home teaching within a Higher Education system that is still free and accessible to all. I would feel very compromised teaching art students in England knowing they were getting themselves into £27,000 worth of debt for the privilege.

But yet I still feel isolated at times and drawn further back south, where I am missing my niece and nephew grow up, and have ageing parents that I really should take some responsibility for soon.

Famous Glaswegian artist and writer Alasdair Gray, has been critical of English artists living in Scotland, that they use it as a ‘stepping stone for their careers’, before fucking off back down south. I don’t want to be like that as I really believe that a happy life comes from committing to and contributing to the community where you live. But we artists – operating in a globalised world – are under such pressure to live transient, itinerant and opportunistic lifestyles.

I can safely say, I have no idea what will happen in the future, but I expect (and I secretly almost hope) that it requires a little bit of compromise.

Ethics: Extremism & Compromise