Ellie Harrison: Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector
Plymouth College of Art Press, Plymouth
11 March 2001 – 31 December 2009
Reviewed by: Megan Smith »
Before even opening Ellie Harrison’s ‘Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector’ first impressions are that this book is an artefact in itself. It is already so beautiful that I hesitate to even crack the spine. I fan the book instead and get a glimpse of colour charts, and text, with a splash of vulgar language thrown in for good measure.
The book, writen by Sally O’Reilly in response to discussions with Harrison about her work, is built as an insight into the artist’s self-imposed therapy to recover from a practice that was bleeding her dry. However, it also strategically sums up her research into a collected piece of data that details the conclusion of an important and intense stage in Harrison’s practice. As discussed within, social media and the internet have instigated a culture of data collection and collectors. However, few people go to the lengths that Harrison has to recognize this trend, to reflect on it and then to broadcast their daily routines through a statistic based art practice. It is admirable to see her close this self-obsessed chapter in her life and to start looking beyond her own body at the world around her. Through her forced articulation of her life she has gained a great insight into the quantity of data a person can produce; this knowledge will most certainly inform the future phases of her practice. Furthermore, she provides a ‘Big Brother-esque’ warning to the general public about how much the market can, and probably does, gather on each individual.
Ironically, Harrison tackles her demons through creatively imposing a self-referential therapy, which feeds back to the very attribute she claims is important to shed, her narcissistic approach to practice. The book is divided into sections where she asks pertinent questions about art itself, such as ‘…what is the point of it all anyway?’ (p.3). She also identifies exposure to, and the assimilation of, historical social prejudices under the ethos and impact of a highly administered ‘British culture’, i.e. the Thatcher administration, as informants of her decision-making. By becoming so self-analytical Harisson critically deconstructs her formed identity and imposed life-rituals.
Up to this point in her artist career, Harrison has fine-tuned a brand; a model of working that clearly identifies her practice. Through her therapy she comes to terms with her decision to divert her creative course, recognizing that she cannot continue with the model of practice she has so cleverly and meticulously devised. This is an essential decision, made in order to foster a new creative challenge – to progress her practice forwards and to become a more competitive artist. Importantly, Harrison could see not only her practice, but also her life being swallowed up by statistics and she did not wish to be labelled as self-obsessed nor as a collection artist, simply regurgitating the facts and figures of a ‘collection culture’. While her model for recovery from compulsive data collection in the name of art is in itself somewhat far flung, with her almost polar adoption of mandates for the future such as to forever give up tools such as spreadsheets, it is her insightful confessions that draw the reader in. Each report also foreshadows the next and her conclusions are wonderful glimpses of what her self-imposed data collecting life has taught her. I can’t help but laugh out load at her addition of motivational slogans that help her counter her problems, not just because they are funny, but they are astute of the times and reproachful of individual social demise, in particular on the internet.
While this book feels like an introduction to a far more in-depth research project, I am satisfied with what seems like a deliberately frugal word count. It let’s me imagine more, which is perhaps the coup-de-grace in Harrison’s summation of this stage of her practice, and it forms a good method to distribute words of wisdom to other artists who may need to break free. ‘Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector’ is what the title suggests; she was a kleptomaniac of all things of the body and the person, and she was becoming a self-statistic. This small book is a token artefact releasing her from the bonds of her practice. It offers the reader a glimpse of the humanity behind the stats. This is a read on how a flesh and blood person with love and emotion jettisons from a stimulating, yet absorbed practice of data visualization to intelligently transition to the area of visual communication.
Megan Smith is a New Media artist, lecturer, and PhD Cand. at Leeds Metropolitan University.
Plymouth College of Art Press