16 December 2012
New Escapologist (Issue 8 p.17-21)

Neil Scott interviews Ellie Harrison about her transition from obsessive ‘data collector‘ to active political campaigner.

The neoliberal orthodoxies of the last 30 years lie in tatters: free market capitalism has brought crisis, pollution, debt, inequality, and anxiety. The failure of neoliberalism means that the dominant political narrative is up for grabs: will it be repressive Chinese-style state capitalism or feudal oligarchy or perhaps something else entirely? Could it be new escapologism?

Ahem. Well, the problem there is that new escapologists don’t much go in for campaigning or politics. We live minimally, use few natural resources, but don’t tell everyone to do the same. Does this make us bad citizens? Should we try to improve society rather than simply rejecting its mad dash towards consumerist destruction? I don’t know, but I know a woman who might.

Ellie Harrison is an artist who creates witty installations on subjects such as financial crisis, climate change, and privatisation. She is also currently spearheading a campaign to Bring Back British Rail, which has – as of 5 August 2012 – over 23,000 followers on Facebook.

Harrison wasn’t always a politicly conscious activist. I first became aware of her through her book, Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector, which charts her journey from creator of exercises in self-quantification to deciding to stop life-tracking and engage with the world. She subsequently undertook a self-initiated Artist’s Training Programme that included reading the canon of Western Philosophy and undertaking a Masters in Fine Art. The resulting dissertation squares up to the fact that, as an artist, global warming changes everything and that it doesn’t matter how successful you are in your career if civilization no longer exists. As she says in conclusion:

“[D]o you really want to look back on this pivotal moment in the history of our species and say ‘I did nothing’, ‘I did not make a stand’, or do you want to be able to say the opposite and to retain what should be our most commanding of all human motivations – our integrity.” Ellie Harrison, Trajectories: How to Reconcile the Careerist Mentality with Our Impending Doom (2010)

To find out more about her transformation from life tracker to socially engaged artist and the implications for new escapologists, I met up with Harrison in her studio in the East End of Glasgow. I started by asking her how she got into self-quantification.

Ellie Harrison: It started when I was 22 (2001) and I took a picture of everything I ate for a year. I wanted to see what a year’s worth of food would look like. Digital cameras had just arrived so it was affordable. A by-product of this was that I was creating a database of everything I had eaten. What I discovered is that you can become addicted to recording your behaviour when you do it every day for a year. It makes you feel as though you’re achieving something.

Neil Scott: What do you think of that work now?

EH: I’m quite critical of my younger self now. I think I was a bit of a moron. I was so caught up in looking at the details of my own life, I didn’t tend to look at the bigger picture.

NS: On 1 August 2006 you made a conscious decision to stop tracking your life. What happened?

EH: I realised that by constantly recording everything, you are living this dual life. One minute I’d say ‘that’s fucking brilliant’ then I’d realise that I’d have to record the event (in 2005 she noted every time she swore). You focus on the recording, rather than where you are and who you’re with. I couldn’t just be in the world without documenting it. It was as though someone was always watching.

NS: At one point you were recording everything: every fart, every sneeze, every person you met, your mood, your weight.

EH: I did that for a year: a Daily Quantification Record. Then, I tried to document EVERYTHING I did 24 hours a day for four weeks and that was really horrendous because on the first day I didn’t even want to get out of bed. At the end of each day it took 2 hours to process the data.

NS: And so you stopped tracking, started the Artist’s Training Programme and came up to Glasgow, which is famous for producing Turner prize-winning artists. Did you think of it in careerist terms?

EH: I came to Glasgow because I got funding and I wanted to do an MFA. I’ve become less interested in the petty little art world. Maybe there will come a time when I’ll try completely different career.

NS: Do you not think the artist’s position is a useful one?

EH: I saw a quote from Queen Victoria on Facebook the other about how ‘artists are dangerous because they mix with all the classes.’ As an artist you move between are these different layers. The artist is a moving target. Art exists to offer commentary on the world, but I don’t think what I do is just commentary. To paraphrase Marx: artists have just interpreted the world, the point is to change it.

NS: Are you humanist? Do you think humanity is worth saving?

EH: Maybe it isn’t worth saving, but maybe I don’t have a choice because I am a human and humans are compelled to look out for other humans.

NS: What do you think about technological solutions?

EH: In my experience human beings only need very simple things to keep them happy: other human beings, having nice food, having a warm place to stay, having good conversation, maybe travelling a little bit. What else is there? What else do we need?

NS: Do you think you need to self-actualise on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before you can go out and be a campaigner or should one just go and do it?

EH: When I was younger I had more energy and enthusiasm and I was just doing it. It is only after having done things and reflected on them that you can get closer to self-actualisation. There’s a really cheesy quote from a Paul McKenna book: ‘Do not ask what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.’ God, I am full of cheesy quotes today, sorry!

NS: New Escapologists are minimalists and don’t drive cars, but they also don’t tend to campaign. Does this mean they’re bad citizens?

EH: I don’t think they’re bad citizens. I think I’m probably a bad citizen.

NS: But you have this campaign to Bring Back British Rail!

EH: I heard another quote at The School of Life: “it’s no good being a campaigner if you’re not a good neighbour.” I’m doing a national campaign and it feels too big. We should almost be campaigning for the people at the end of the street. Although I live at the end of quite posh street, so I wouldn’t waste my time campaigning for them.

NS: There is a interesting line in your dissertation: “Collaboration will enable us to surrender our egos to the collective force, liberating our ideas from their containment.” How have you found working with other people?

EH: I am learning to work with other people a bit better. It’s difficult for a control freak because you have to learn not to control so much. You have to learn to not care so much, which is difficult because a lot of the work I do I care so much about.

NS: So with the campaign to Bring Back British Rail, is that just you?

EH: Yeah, it’s mainly just me at the end of an email and spending my weekends stuffing things in envelopes. All I have got to give is time.

NS: What would you say to any young escapologist – or indeed older escapologist – who wants to become more socially responsible?

EH: Anything is possible. It is possible to effect change. You just have to do something. Bring Back British Rail is inspired by that situationist line ‘be realistic, demand the impossible!’ It is trying to popularise the idea of re-nationalisation because it’s such a taboo subject.

NS: What do you think about people who pollute? Are you a compassionate person or do you hate them?

EH: I think a lot of people do those things because they’re unaware of their actions. Some people just buy a new bottle of water every day and don’t realise why that’s bad. Data collecting has made me a lot more aware of what I do in the world.

NS: What do you say to people who look at everyone else polluting and not giving a shit and think that their small contribution is not going to make a difference?

EH: It’s like Gandhi says, ‘you’ve got live the change you want to see.’ Unless you live it, you can’t expect anyone else to. That’s why I’m a vegan because even though it’s really fucking awkward and I can’t eat ice cream or cake, I do believe that if everyone was vegan we wouldn’t have the same disastrous consequences in terms of food production.

NS: So where do you see yourself in five years time? Would you like to take a more active part in politics?

EH: As Quentin Crisp says ‘Living in the future is the death of happiness.’ But I think I’ll probably be doing something quite different. Maybe politics. I haven’t quite worked out how. There is a difficulty in being English in Scotland. But I’d like to do it at some point.

Neil Scott