Harrison identifies how she gradually became more politicised as a result of her growing awareness of her own labour conditions and ‘self-exploitation‘ within the post-Fordist world of work. An edited version of this text was published in the ‘Activism‘ chapter of Playing For Time (p.205-206) in 2015. (Word count: 711)
“The meaning of life is work”. That was the world according to my grandpa Goronwy Daniel. Although I didn’t get to know him as well as I would have liked when he was alive, his words seem to have loomed as a spectre over my entire adult life. I got my first personal computer in December 1999 when I was twenty, and my first mobile phone exactly one year after that. With hindsight, it seems, the working methods I developed to launch my ‘career’ as an artist, were archetypal of the state of ‘continual labour’ these advances in communication technology have ushered in.
It wasn’t until 2006, that I first became conscious of my own labour conditions and attempted to pick apart this feeling that I was ‘always at work’. As one of my ‘data collecting’ experiments, for the project Timelines, I decided to track and map everything I did, 24 hours a day, for four weeks. All that happened was that I drowned in data entry and cursed all the additional unnecessary ‘work’ this process required. I later confessed that “I felt I was spending hours each week employed as the administrator for my own life.”
It was only when I took real ‘time out’ to reflect when studying for my Masters at Glasgow School of Art in 2008, that I began to realise the potential of this obsessive ‘work ethic’. If only it could be applied to a more worthwhile cause than the bolstering of my ego and the furthering of my own ‘career’. In my 2010 thesis How to Reconcile the Careerist Mentality with Our Impending Doom, I defined a new role for myself and other artists of my generation, which would hover somewhere between ‘artist’, ‘activist’ and ‘administrator’.
I discovered that I could use the ‘flexibility’ championed in the post-Fordist world of work, coupled with the unique ‘work ethic’ of artist – not only are we ‘always on’, but there is also rarely a connection between this labour and a wage (i.e. we often slog away ‘for the love of it‘, for ‘a need to know’ or for many reasons other than money) – to become an Counter-Hegemonic Propaganda Machine. Using a variety of tactics: some more subtle than others, some in the art world and some beyond, I could make the case for social justice in every field in which I worked.
In 2009, I set up the Bring Back British Rail campaign (which I continue to run today), with the aim of using my marketing, PR and social media skills – garnered from ‘professional practice’ courses at art school – to directly promote the idea of the public ownership of our failing national rail network. Within the field of art, I aimed use my administration skills to coordinate projects – situations or experiences – which would not only make visible the systems of oppression at play but, at once, offer practical ways of challenging them.
In 2011, again troubled by my own labour conditions and increasing ‘self-exploitation’, I devised the Work-a-thon for the Self-Employed. Couched within the spectacle of a ‘world record’ setting attempt for the most self-employed people working together in the same place at the same time, over the course of a normal 9-to-5 day, the project aimed to unite an atomised and otherwise hidden ‘community’ of labourers within our new ‘creative industries’. By actively addressing the negative side effects of the freelance lifestyle – namely the isolation and the unregulated and increasingly longer working hours – I hoped that those taking part would come to notice the problems and struggles we all share and realise the real power we have to address them when we come together.
Looking back on the past decade or more of work, I can certainly say that, as Goronwy’s maxim may suggest, it has been the de-alienating creative practice I’ve been lucky enough to pursue, which has given my life ‘meaning’. But as the ‘the machine’ herself can attest, the extreme imbalance between life and work it often requires is not necessarily all that healthy. Exploitation of any kind (whether in the cause of social justice or not), should never be encouraged and so I must keep reminding myself to take that all important ‘time out’ from my technology, relax and occasionally have some fun.