19 April 2011
This interview is published to coincide with the launch of Trajectories – a new web-based project by artist Ellie Harrison designed to enable you to compare your life to other people’s and test how you match up against their achievements. Questions by Gail Tolley.
Where did the inspiration for Trajectories come from?
The idea for Trajectories first materialised whilst I was in the final year of the Master of Fine Art (MFA) course at Glasgow School of Art (which I completed in summer 2010). After a prolonged period of self-reflection which involved an intensive examination of my own ethical code and motivational structure, I identified (amongst many other things) a less admirable habit of comparing myself to other people.
It didn’t matter who they were – other artists, people I looked up to, family members, friends or colleagues, I became aware of a desire to know whether I was doing ‘as well’ or ‘better’ than them or whether I was still ‘in the running’ for achieving what they had, by their age. I confided in others and soon realised that I was not alone! It seems that this sort of behaviour is a common human trait. In our contemporary ‘survival of the fittest’ society nearly all of us seem to be guilty of these ‘odious’ sorts of comparisons.
Trajectories was conceived to play up to this human curiosity by offering a simple and direct way of fulfilling our desire to compare. People can enter their own details and see their career trajectory visualised alongside those of their heroes or rivals from the past and present. As well as being ‘a game’ and a bit of fun, the hope is that rather than act as an individualistic motivational tool, it might make us realise the absurdity and futility of this sort of behaviour and enable us to refocus our attention on what is actually important in our lives. As Socrates so aptly once said, “look how many things there are which I don’t want!”
Alongside the development of the project, I was also keen to discover more about the historical developments in politics which had caused us to become so competitive. My research took me back to the Enlightenment and to the mainstream implementation of ‘meritocratic’ principles – where an individual’s level of success, power and wealth result directly from their talent and hard work (and not from inherited privilege)1. I then began to focus specifically on the period of history which I have lived through and have been (consciously or unconsciously) influenced by. The period from 1979 onwards, which witnessed a rebirth of this Enlightenment liberalism as ‘neoliberalism’ and with Margaret Thatcher at the helm helped to create a culture of career-obsessed entrepreneurs.
For the lecture I gave to art students at Edinburgh College of Art in January, I honed in further on the period of recent history in the UK that overlapped with my own art education: from 1997 onwards. New Labour’s ‘creative decade’ (’97 – ’07), as it is now being referred to2, inspired the proliferation of ‘professional practice’ education in art schools. It helped to create a new ‘talent-led economy’, which ensured that the ‘business ontology’3 of entrepreneurialism was able to spread its way right throughout the cultural sector. All of this, of course, had a major effect on the young, naïve and impressionable art student that I was. The skills and attitudes I acquired growing-up during this period had undoubtedly nurtured within me the ‘careerist mentality’ (visualised in the Trajectories project). But it is the ethics at the heart of this mindset, which it now seems so important to question and challenge…
What do you see to be most problematic about the contemporary prevalence of a ‘careerist mentality’?
The thesis I wrote last year (whilst studying on the MFA) – How to Reconcile the Careerist Mentality with Our Impending Doom – aims to address the ethical implications of continuing to choose the ‘career’ of artist in the twenty-first century. My main concern with the self-centred and blinkered way of operating that is manifest in the ‘careerist mentality’, is that it appears to demand that we base our lives entirely on modes of ‘success’ from the past.
This is problematic because, as we channel all our energy into attempting to climb the established rungs of the art world ladder (or any other industry we might be working in), we fail to face up to the fact that we need to radically transform our behaviour and attitudes in order to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, specifically climate change. Now is the time to be creating new ways of working in the world which are social, outward-looking and move away from the prevalent ‘business ontology’. My conclusion is that there are important characteristics of the new breed of cultural worker, such as our confidence, flexibility, spontaneity, our ability to adapt to change and, most importantly, our work-ethic: our passion and drive, which could be amazing resources if just rechanneled into something other than our own careers.
The aesthetic of Trajectories intentionally borrows from the 1950s – from the board games that began to emerge during the idealistic ‘anything is possible’ post-war period. Games such as ‘Careers’ allowed people to live out their fantasies for ‘wealth’, ‘fame’ and ‘happiness’ from the comfort of their own homes. This nod to ’50s attitudes is also an acknowledgement that this behaviour is old-fashioned and that we need to critically reflect on and urgently update our ways of thinking…
There is a lot of humour/satire in your work, what attracts you to using this tone?
Despite all the serious talk of doom-and-gloom, I think it is vitally important that art remains playful – that it maintains its unique potential to be entertaining as well as thought-provoking. Humour is a very useful tool for engaging people, but satire is ever more essential because of its inherent criticality. Satire, as the dictionary says, “holds up follies and vices for criticism, ridicule and scorn”.
Trajectories is therefore a satirical tool. By drawing explicit attention to this common human trait (which is often suppressed or concealed from view), it aims to encourage both self-reflection as well as the examination of the wider hegemonic structures which may have helped to cause it. Seeing your own life mapped out before you, pared-down to a simple trajectory on which ‘achievements’, ‘life-changing moments’ and ‘points of interest’ are marked as though stops on a tube map, might have a similar effect as the traditional ‘memento mori’ – a reminder of the brevity of life and of the relative insignificance of us all, which I hope will be liberating!
Trajectories is one of several online artistic projects you have created, what is it that appeals to you about working online?
I’ve been using the internet as a site for my work since 2000 when I was still a second year BA student and first registered my domain name. Initially, I was drawn to the instantaneousness of the medium and to its apparent freedom. I loved the fact that I could publish what I wanted, when I wanted, without the say-so or the censorship of a gallery / curator etc. It appeared then as a genuinely democratic way of communicating with an audience. My first major online projects were Greed and later Eat 22, for which I photographed and recorded information about everything I ate for a year, uploading each week’s new content religiously every Sunday evening.
Later I became interested in the façade you could create around your persona by the editing and manipulating of your online presence. I made a couple of projects, which I refer to as ‘semi-spoofs’. Through careful design and the creative ‘borrowing’ of material, I enjoyed making something appear bigger, better and more official than it actually was – the Artist’s Training Programme™ is a prime example. I’m still very interested our ability to control people’s perceptions of our personalities, via the material we publish online. This is something that we all have to consider now that our online social and professional lives are fast becoming more active than our real ones.
With the Trajectories project, it seemed that internet-based technology offered the best way of simply realising the idea and reaching a global audience but, in addition to this, I was also interested in the intimacy and privacy of the medium. I like the idea that someone is able privately to indulge in viewing the website – in playing ‘the game’ – from the safe confines of their own home or desk. It’s not necessary to feel the shame or embarrassment of directly comparing your life to Margaret Thatcher’s, your ex-partner’s, your friend from school’s or a former Spice Girl’s, when you can do it secretly – one-on-one – just you and the computer.
Do you think artists are yet to realise the full potential of working online?
This is a difficult question. ‘New Media’ had its heyday in the decade or so after the birth of the internet, when swathes of artists were commissioned specifically to make ‘web-based works’. This idea was fortunately short-lived. I think it’s unnatural for curators to attempt to force an idea or practice into a specific medium – it does not seem all that productive.
I am sure that the internet has a lot more to offer as a creative medium, but I think it’s something that will have to naturally evolve. The more we get used to living an increasing proportion of our lives online (social and professional), the more likely it will be that the internet presents itself as a logical place for artists to realise ideas. There is certainly a lot more potential to be realised than is currently visible in the ubiquitous (and now near-compulsory) ‘artist’s website’ – which often simply serves as a self-promotional tool to further an individual’s ‘career’.
1. Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety (Penguin, 2005) p.70 ↩
2. Angela McRobbie, Re-Thinking Creative Economy as Radical Social Enterprise, Sociology-of-Culture blog, 18 November 2010 ↩
3. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (0 Books, 2009) p.17 ↩