Art, Clips, Video

How Capitalism Popped In Your Face

Unlikely Stories, June 15, 2009.

Against a stark, off-white wall at the Viewpoint Gallery at the Plymouth College of Art, stands a lone vending machine, filled with soda cans and pouches of chips.

An unsuspecting, thirsty visitor may be tempted to push a button and pick up a drink. But the machine isn’t going to oblige. It’s no longer at the beck and call of those feeling peckish, you see.

It serves a new master: news. Programmed to continually scan the BBC’s RSS feeds, it ejects a snack, each time a word pertaining to “recession” graces the headline.

This is an installation art, inspired by what’s now being referred to as the Great Recession. The creative brain behind it is 30-year-old Ellie Harrison.

Who’s she? There are quite a few similarities between the fictional Rebecca Bloomwood—the heroine of Sophie Kinsella’s bestselling “Shopaholic” series—and the Glasgow-based Harrison.

They’re both young women.
They’re both British.
Both their publications begin with the word “confessions.”
Last, but not least, they both have addictions.

But while Bloomwood, as the novel’s title amply suggests, is an incurable shopaholic, Harrison is an unapologetic data addict—a collector of, well, data.

A trip to New York City in 2000 is what began her obsession with aspects of her daily routine.

In the 96-hours she spent in the Big Apple, she ate just about every quintessentially American candy and popular food she could lay her hands on: Twinkies, Baby Ruth, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, pancakes, pretzels, Subway sandwiches.

She kept a log of what all that she ate and freeze-framed herself noshing on them. Back home, she posted 34 images of herself online. That turned into her first Internet-based artwork titled, “Greed.”

The act must have been habit-forming. Harrison has since done several similar projects, wherein she’s jotted down the quotidian activities of her day-to-day existence with metronomic regularity and robotic precision.

What many would toss out as bundles of otiose statistics and minutiae—unworthy-nothings—has morphed into a repertoire of wickedly innovative, breathtakingly refreshing, out-of-the-box art form that weaves together Hans Haacke-esque themes, digital photography, Web 2.0, computer networks, and electrical switchboards.

“‘Data collecting’ was something I fell into. But it was addictive,” she said in an e-mail response.

A screengrab of Harrison’s “Tea Blog.”

Between January 1, 2006 and December 31, 2008—she kept a record of every single thought that popped in her head, each time she drank a cup of tea (or any other hot beverage).

She found that most of her tea-drinking took place while she sat at her desk, in front of her computer, in which case, she would key in the entries directly into her fast-expanding spreadsheet. If she was on the go, she’d carry along a notepad and pen to jot down her sentiments at the time of sipping.

The resultant “Tea Blog” is an electronic warehouse of 1,650 spur-of-the-moment-ideas. They can either be read chronologically or accessed randomly.

For 365 days, between March 11, 2001 and 2002, she kept a photographic diary of all the food she consumed. Once a week, she’d feed that information to a Web site.

It’s since been converted into a kaleidoscopic film, of sorts, which runs the entire gamut of all her 1,640 images in fast-motion.

“Eat 22” is now a part of the permanent exhibits at the Wellcome Collection—a museum of contemporary off-beat art—in London.

A 2005 endeavor, the “Swear Box” is a box-shaped piggy bank that’s a receptacle of all the foul language that Harrison uttered in moments of frustration over the course of a year.

Swirling madly inside it, as if to get out, are color-coded speech bubbles containing some very colorful British slang.

Ironically, the Swear Box served as a deterrent against bad language. The volume of her rage shrank as the project steamrolled. Harrison realized that each time she uttered an offending phrase it’d take her the next 300 seconds to upload it.

Amassing data on such a mammoth scale was bound to take its toll. Something snapped. Harrison realized that she’d collected more data than she could possibly handle.

“The projects were so demanding and labor intensive that I never stopped to assess exactly what I was doing. This carried on until I reached breaking point, nearly drove myself crazy and decided to quit,” she said.

She’s now reinventing herself as an artist.

In her first book, “Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector,” she allows her body of work, thus far, to be examined through a therapist’s lens as an outward manifestation of a psychological side effect of growing up in the target-driven environment of Thatcher’s Britain.

A self-described “recovering data collector,” Harrison’s style is undergoing a 360-degree spin; a paradigm shift.

Her focus has changed direction from centripetal to centrifugal. It’s not the self, but rather the outside world that she now turns to for inspiration.

“At the moment, I’m going through an interesting phase in my work, in which I’m making a shift from my previous personal data collecting practice to a working style where I address wider social and political issues,” she said in the e-mail interview.

Recently, an exhibition at the Mejan Labs in Stockholm, Sweden, displayed two of Harrison’s creations from her post-data-obsessive phase.

“The History of Financial Crises” re-enacted the turbulent history of capitalism over the last century through a unique medium—a row of 11 retro-style popcorn machines.

By squeezing a whole century into the length of time the gallery stayed open each day, the commotion of the crises was re-lived, in chronological order, over the course of just a few hours.

Faced with the worst economic meltdown in the last 60 years or so, people worldwide, have tightened their purse strings and are hesitant to spend money.

Harrison is no economist, of course, but could she be encouraging consumers to consume again, through her unique, hard-to-miss piece of geeky art? Or, is she perhaps making an attempt at demystifying the workings of the capitalistic economy by breaking it down into an easy-to-grasp visual delight?

A few meters away from the popcorn performance, on a display stand is “Transactions,” a jazzed-up, sunglasses-fitted, empty Coca-Cola can. Under its nose is a cell phone, ready to take calls and text messages.

During the course of the exhibition, each time Harrison made a financial transaction—small or large—she shot off a text message to this cell phone. The resultant vibration caused the can to do a little dance, decidedly, at her decision to buy.

“The idea was to begin to connect the large, seemingly removed, global catastrophes within capitalism with each individual’s complicit, micro-involvement in this system,” Harrison explains on her Web site.

What’s Harrison doing next? Well, one shall have to wait for a signal from the artist herself to know what’s brewing in her mind.

Or, better yet, keep one’s ears pricked for rumblings emanating from deep within a certain club in London—the venue for a project, which Harrison said, no art gallery would touch with a long barge pole.

An installation of a full-blown 1979 disco, with mirror balls and roving colored lights, is automatically set to come to life at the instant an individual ceases to exist. It happens to be former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

“I was thinking of a person whose death is anticipated, but which would polarize opinion when it occurs. Margaret Thatcher seemed the perfect choice,” Harrison wrote.


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