Against a stark off-white wall of the Viewpoint Gallery at the Plymouth College of Art stands a lone vending machine, filled with the standard fare of soda cans and mini-bags 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 the hungry, you see. It serves a new master called '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 one example of a concept-led installation art inspired by what is now being referred to as the Great Recession. The creative brain behind it is 30-year-old Ellie Harrison.
Who is 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 are both young women.
They are both British.
Both their publications begin with the word "confessions."
And 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 dataholic—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 possibly could—a Twinkie, a Baby Ruth, a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, a syrup pancake, a pretzel, a Subway sandwich etc. She kept a log of what all that she ate and freeze-framed herself noshing on them on camera. Back home, she posted all 34 images of herself, online. That turned into her first Internet-based artwork titled Greed.
The act must have been habit-forming for since then, Harrison has done several similar projects, wherein she has jotted down the quotidian activities of her day-to-day existence with metronomic regularity and robotic precisian. 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 that I fell into. [But] it was addictive," she said in an e-mail response.
For an entire three-year period—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). "Because I live such a normal and boring life, I found that most of the tea I drank actually took place, while I sat at my desk in front of my computer, in which case, I would just type the entries directly into my quickly-expanding spreadsheet. If I was on the go, I always took a notepad and pen with me and jotted things down in that," she said. 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 a whole 365 days—between March 11, 2001 and 2002—she kept a photographic diary of all the food she consumed. Once a week, she would feed that information to a Web site. It has since been converted into a kaleidoscopic film, of sorts, which runs the entire gamut of all her 1,640 images in fast-motion. Titled Eat 22, it 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 virtual piggybank—only shaped like a box— that is a receptacle of all the unparliamentary language that Harrison uttered in moments of frustration and annoyance over the course of a year. Swirling madly inside the virtual box—as if to get out—are color-coded "speech bubbles" containing some very colorful British slang. "I was counting [the cuss words] but maintaining [the project] became much more of a challenge than I'd anticipated," she wrote in her blog, hoisted specifically to chronicle her experience of documenting her own anger. Ironically, the Swear Box served as a deterrent against bad language and the volume of rage she spewed, shrank as the project steamrolled. Harrison realized that each time she uttered an offending phrase it would 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 had collected more data than she could possibly handle.
"The projects were so demanding and labor intensive that I never really 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 is 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 therapists' lens as outward manifestations 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 would that she now turns to for inspiration.
"I'm going through an interesting phase in my work at the moment, where I am shifting from what I called my "data-collecting" practice to a more outward-looking 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-gathering-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 short length of time that the gallery was 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-understand visual delight?
A few meters away from the popcorn performance, on a display stand sits a rather snazzy, sunglass-fitted, empty can of Coca-Cola. Under its nose is a switched-on cell phone in ready mode. During the entire duration of the exhibition, each time Harrison made a financial transaction—small or large—she shot off an SMS message to this phone. The resultant vibration caused the can to do a little dance, decidedly, at her decision to buy.
"The idea was to begin to contrast 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 open 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 mechanically 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.
Alakananda Mookerjee is a New York City-based freelance journalist. A former newspaper reporter who once spent her evenings at Town Hall, she now lives in "Cyburbia." Her two primary occupations are drinking ice cream sodas everyday and then burning off the soda-and-sugar. Check out her web site, The Papyrus.