3 October 2014

Artist and activist Ellie Harrison makes complex, provocative and politically-engaged work, for the gallery and beyond. We caught up with her to talk about geography, digital technology and her unusually ‘apolitical art work’ After the Revolution, Who Will Clean Up the Mess?

The artist Ellie Harrison laughs when she recalls how momentous her decision to move to from Nottingham to study at Glasgow School of Art seemed at the time. “Glasgow just seemed so far away,” she says. “It really seemed the most adventurous thing I had done in my life. Now I’m here and have been here for six years, the map of the UK seems much smaller. A lot of my recent work has been based on that new perspective.”

And when it seemed that the map might be changing again, Harrison captured the moment in an artwork that reflected the excitement and tension of the Scottish Independence Referendum on September 18th. After the Revolution, Who Will Clean Up the Mess? is a series of four confetti cannons, displayed in the Talbot Rice Gallery’s, Georgian Gallery.

If the vote had been for Yes, red, white and blue confetti would have been detonated all over the exhibition space, and was expected to land on the adjacent artworks in the Counterpoint group exhibition. As a No vote was returned, they have remained unchanged. After the result, the last few weeks of the show will feel quite different to the opening days. “It’s strange walking back in and knowing they will now not go off and thinking about them as potential energy,” says Harrison.

Harrison is adamant that the work is about the complexity of the political situation rather than a straightforward reflection of her political views. “While a lot of my work is quite unashamed propaganda, I view this as an apolitical art work,” she says. “I wasn’t trying to persuade anybody to vote Yes or No in the referendum, more to ask questions about the possibilities and consequences of radical political change.”

The work came from a conversation with the artist’s mother about all the work that would need to be done after a Yes vote, disentangling the paperwork and practicalities of the UK. It is also she says a humorous reflection of her personal need for everything to be ordered and rational. She held a party at the gallery on referendum night which was webcast on her own website, “I like things to be really organised,” she said beforehand.” And I’ve got some anxiety about this idea of creating a huge celebration. If I was having my own party I might feel I’d rather not bother, because I’d worry about the tidying up.”

The confetti cannon is characteristic of Harrison’s work in that it takes a familiar or every day object and repurposes it. In the past she has doctored an ordinary vending machine that spews out a packet of crisps every time the recession is mentioned on the news. Her Early Warning Signs take the rotating signs often seen outside currency exchanges to warn of climate change.

Harrison’s art uses social media and recent tools of communication, “They’re specific to my generation. When I first studied art in 1998 to 2001 it was on the cusp of the digital age. I got my first digital camera in 2001, a computer, and a mobile phone and did a web design course. These are my key tools and I just took them for granted. I didn’t understand that I was at the beginning of a digital revolution.”

Soon she discovered that she could use them for more than just promoting her work, they could be the work itself “I realised this technology gave me a voice, it was just working out what I wanted to say.” When she’s not working as an artist or teaching at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee, she’s an activist using her skills to run a campaign to return the rail network to public ownership. Her project Bring Back British Rail came about from all the time she spent on trains, another unexpected result of that long trip from Nottingham to Glasgow.

In the event the cannons did not go off and at 7am on September 19th she said, “I guess I was trying to mirror what was going on in wider society in Scotland so that the fact that I feel particularly bedraggled is quite appropriate.” For Harrison, the cannons represent another journey. One she believes that is not yet complete. “They are still there.” She says, “and they still can be activated at some point in the future, not during this exhibition but metaphorically… the upside of this is that there is no mess to clean up!”

Moira Jeffrey