10 June 2011

Arts Admin’s week-long festival of art, activism, climate and cuts, Two Degrees, opens this Sunday June 12. In anticipation jotta talks to curator Mark Godber about the festival’s aims to bring creative activism to the masses and artist Ellie Harrison, who divulges the impetus behind her celebration of the self-employed and her residency at the festival.

Jotta: This is the second year for the festival. Do you believe events that have unfolded in the last 2 years, especially the protests here in London, have created a widespread political agenda in people of all groups?

Mark Godber: Yes we have definitely tried to engage with the political changes that have happened since our last festival. In late 2009 it felt like climate change was ‘everywhere’ in the media, as it was a big focus ahead of the chaotic Copenhagen COP15 climate change treaty negotiations. That ‘most important meeting in history’ was perceived as a failure, and that, along with the change in government here in the UK, and emergence of student and wider anti—cuts movements, has really changed the popular political focus in the UK. At Artsadmin we have committed to producing art projects about climate change over the next five years, including a Two Degrees festival every two years, but for us it was important for this year’s festival to open up and reflect what people are politically active about now.

I don’t think that everyone in the UK is ready to become an activist, but the amazing growth of the anti-cuts movement has been really incredible. Some of the most inspiring events in the history of the climate and anti-capitalist movement have been the ones that work creatively to act as both protest and alternative vision at the same time, and I think we are seeing that a lot in the actions and occupations of the last year.

How did you make the choices for the artists and performers taking part?

One of our aims with this festival is to demonstrate to audience, artists, arts institutions and funders that politically direct work is valid and good, and really of interest to audiences – too often I hear people saying that art which functions as protest is ‘not art’. We want to move away from that pre-conception.

Artsadmin has quite a large network of artists we know, and have worked with before, through our Artists’ Advisory service and bursary schemes. Through these activities we have come across lots of artists working in a live, interdisciplinary way, and our knowledge of their work is one of our first ports of call when we are looking to programme this work.

How did you first encounter Ellie Harrison’s work? And how do her interactive events encasulate the ethos of the festival?

I think I first came across Ellie’s work through her piece Eat 22, back in 2002. Since then I have followed her work. Recently I’ve been telling a lot of arts organisations and buildings about her individual Environmental Policy, pointing out that if an individual artist can commit so strongly to being green, then an organisation should be able to do it.

Even though Ellie works a lot in visual art and gallery contexts, we have been happy with challenging her to work in Two Degrees, where most of the work is live or participatory. It’s been interesting to see the projects which have emerged, the Work-a-thon is absolutely about participation, and bringing people together and the Early Warning Signs project is the kind of public intervention that we try to bring about every festival.

Jotta: Ellie what drove you to create and work with members of the public who are self-employed?

Ellie Harrison: There is a strong element of my practice which is driven by a desire to find and connect with people who are interested in similar things, have similar beliefs / anxieties / concerns / obsessions. This desire is no doubt motivated by the fact that as a self-employed artist, I find myself spending too much time on my own, pent up in the studio or knocking around my flat.

Over the last year, I’ve been doing a fair amount of research into the ways in which labour has evolved in this country over the last decade as a result of the birth of the ‘creative industries’ but also the wider push towards entrepreneurialism and self-employment.

Whereas, I might have originally thought that my decision to choose a career as an artist was free-spirited and self-determined, it seems that it was actually (like the majority of my peers) the result of changes in government policy. The government’s push towards self-employment can be read as the ‘privatisation’ of work: of risk and responsibility. So now pensions, sick-pay etc fall on the shoulders of individuals rather than on larger organisations or the public sector.

Do you hope the project will offer some long-term solutions for those participating? For example, will people be able to take this experience and apply it to their current working situation?

It’s difficult to say what the outcome will be. The Work-a-thon is an experiment. Yes, it does aim to create a social space, where people can meet, chat and potentially forge new friendships and connections, but more than that it is also a playful way of drawing attention to the conditions in which we are now working, in increasing numbers.

Do you feel under any pressure with the festival finale, A Good Climate for Business, resting on your shoulders?

Ha, yes, I do when you put it like that! I’ll be using my time in residence at the festival to learn – to go to the other events in the programme (which look fantastic), talk to people and to try to work through my own thoughts about the relationship between climate change and capitalism.

I’m also making a series of “Early Warning Signs“. They will be positioned in the surrounding area as an intervention into the landscape of The City. They will act as beacons for the festival.

I’m interested in using the language of capital – the shameless and outlandish marketing techniques normally employed to get us to part with our cash – to ‘advertise’ climate change. Revolving signs are normally placed outside garages trying to tempt you in for a cheap MOT, these alternative versions use the same graphics to display ‘Climate’ on one side and ‘Change’ on the other. They are marketing tools powered by the weather – only when the wind blows is their full message revealed.

Pretty apt for thinking about what it might actually take to make people stop shopping and take action against climate change.