One decade on, Harrison reflects on her seminal 2002 project Eat 22, and examines her persistent interest in ‘consumption‘ in recent works: Vending Machine, The Other Forecast and Anti-Capitalist Aerobics. An edited version of this text was published in the ‘Food Growing‘ chapter of Playing For Time (p.177-179) in 2015. (Word count: 692)
When I was 22 I took a picture of everything I ate for a year. 1,640 meals and snacks individually photographed and meticulously archived online alongside a colossal spreadsheet detailing the exact time, date, location and foodstuff featured in each. Eat 22, as the project is known, was the result of a then somewhat naive fascination with food. I wanted to challenge myself, to attempt to take account of and to visualise what a year’s worth of the stuff might amount to.
Eat 22 was a ‘success’ to the extent that its early online presence enabled it to reach people all over the world. Perhaps they were drawn to the universality of its subject – food is, after all, one of our few fundamental human needs – or horrified by the abundance, excess and impact of the everyday act of eating that it exposed. For whatever reason, the project seemed to connect and translate across many different cultures with a whirlwind couple of years in which articles about Eat 22 were published in India, Taiwan, Czech Republic, France, Sweden, Germany, the US and beyond.
But the introverted and narcissistic qualities of my repetitive ‘proto-selfie’ process really bothered me. I later confessed that “I was so focussed on the minutiae of my everyday life that I became totally blinkered to everything else going on in the world outside.” In my other text for this book (Work-a-thon for the Self-Employed), I describe how my work has become more politicised in the decade or more that has passed since Eat 22, as I have made a conscious effort to retrain my obsessive mind away from my own life, towards investigating and exposing what is really going on in the wider world.
What interests me now about Eat 22 is the attention it draws to our role as ‘consumers‘ within a global system of food production. Our society places so much emphasis on ‘consumerism’ precisely because we are now so removed from the land and skills required to produce food for ourselves. ‘Food growing’ is now ‘food buying’ for the vast majority – making us completely dependant on wider environmental, political and economic forces to fulfil our basic human need to eat. In 2009, I created my Vending Machine in order to make visible this connection between our food supply and the wider economy. Linked up to a computer reading the live news headlines, the machine is programmed to only release crisps when search terms relating to the recession crop up. Denying access to its goodies inside at all other times, the machine shatters the illusion of consumer culture that we can have what we want, when we want it as long as we have the cash to pay.
Exposing the absurd consequences of capitalism – on society and on the individual – is now the central focus of my work. Nowhere are these more apparent than in a food industry driven by the profit motive, which has created the dual crises of the obesity epidemic (now affecting a quarter of UK adults) and the scandal of food waste which sees more than 15 million tonnes end up in landfill every year. My 2013 performances The Other Forecast (which sees me don a ‘fat suit’ for a faux weather report) and Anti-Capitalist Aerobics aim to show how it is this holy grail of ‘growth’, which inevitably leads to us to producing and consuming more than we need.
Eat 22 and the other ‘data collecting‘ projects I undertook in its wake have taught some valuable lessons. Firstly, that you really are what you eat – both in a material and an ethical sense. In consumer culture more than anywhere, it is essential that you consider the consequences of what you buy. So in 2010, when I launched my ‘environmental policy‘ on my website, I decided to make a vegan diet its central tenet. But most importantly, Eat 22 showed that the personal definitely can be political. Perhaps it is only when we study in depth and disclose information about our own lives that it becomes possible to notice what we have in common and to begin to identify the wider systemic causes of the problems that we share.