27 January 2011
Inspace, Edinburgh


Hello everyone! Thanks for coming along tonight and for those great and exciting presentations about Edinburgh Art Festival. There’s certainly a lot to look forward to here later in the year.

My name is Ellie Harrison and I’m an artist based in Glasgow. And I’m here to introduce the project I’ve been working on with New Media Scotland with the support of an Alt-w award. It is known as Trajectories. It is a little web-based application which is designed to allow you to compare your life to other people’s and to test how you ‘match up’ against their achievements.

I thought it would be interesting to say a few things about the context for the project and where the idea came from and then to move onto a little demo of where we are now in its development.

So, the idea was inspired by what can only be seen as my less admirable habit of comparing myself to other people – be that other artists, other people I look up to, family members, friends, colleagues, partners even. It’s as though my brain wants to know if I’m doing ‘as well’ as them or ‘better’, or, if I am still in the running for achieving what they have by their age.

No matter how despicable or how cynical this behaviour was, I realised I wasn’t alone! I owned up to some friends, some colleagues, Mark Daniels included and found out that they were guilty of the same, that this seemed to be a common human trait.

It was then that I started to think about designing a tool which would make ‘making these direct comparisons’ between people’s lives easier, which could help us to visualise them in some way. And this is how the initial idea for Trajectories was born back in 2009.

As well as thinking about practical ways to get the project made, acquiring the support of New Media Scotland and enlisting the help of the programmer who I’m currently working with, I was also intrigued in getting to the bottom of what seemed to be the conflict at the heart of the idea. That is the contradiction between this ‘fascination to compare’; the compulsion to do it, with my long held belief that this is not actually a very useful thing to be doing, which is not necessarily going to make us feel any happier or better about ourselves or make us any more successful. As is often quoted ‘comparisons are odious’.

This intrigue, turned into a body of research around the idea and history of ‘careerism’. It took me on a journey through the history of self-help, which incidentally can be traced back to Edinburgh and to this famous book [Self-Help] published in 1855 by writer Samuel Smiles, from which a massive and lucrative industry was born.

The research took me into the 50s, where in the post-war period the first games began to emerge in which you could play the game of ‘careers’; to live out your fantasies and ambitions. I became particularly interested in the ethos of games manufacturers such as Waddingtons in the UK and Parker Bros in the US, for whom their number one concern when designing a game should be the player’s enjoyment, and not the emphasis of any particular morals or values.

So I decided to borrow the aesthetic of this period for Trajectories as a nod to this idealistic era where anything seemed possible. I decided to adopt the prefix ‘The Game’ so as to emphasise that it is bit of fun; completely absurd even. But also, perhaps I wanted to hint to the idea that this is an old-fashioned way of thinking and that we do need to update our views on ‘careerism’ for the new world in which we live.

This idea led into the thesis that I wrote last year, which I have given a lecture on today at Edinburgh College of Art, which looks and the real impossibility of carrying on regardless with ‘our career plans’ and petty status worries, when faced with a very different future and the realities of climate change that are likely to confront this century.

So it’s a satirical tool in a way, which plays up to this human characteristic whilst also asking us to question it. In the tradition of the ‘momento mori’ or the vanitas painting it should be a reminder of the brevity of life and of the relative insignificance of us all, which I hope should be liberating!

So I’m just going to do a little demo of the website, as it currently stands. We’re not quite as far with the development as I would have liked, so were calling this the ‘open beta’ stage, with the hope of having all the functions online next week.

You can compare 2-4 people at anyone time. The site is preloaded with a database of 100 ‘key figures’ who I’ve determined. As you can see this is a wild mixture of people, some famous, some not. There’s also a weird mix of feminists, philosophers, dictators, tennis players, swimmers, pop stars, female astronauts and explorers, people who died young, child prodigies, people who lived to 100 (which I’ve since discovered is known as centenarian), nonagenarians and people a small collection of people born in the same year as my dad.

So please feel free to come and have a go! Thank you.