It’s probably just as well that Ellie Harrison became and artist, since her fascination with data, statistics and surveillance might otherwise have ended up in the services of MI6. Rummaging through her various projects, you can certainly imagine her thriving in a job involving monitoring stranger’s everyday lives.
In her past work, Harrison adopted the persona of The Daily Data Logger, dressed in a bright red tracksuit and a utility belt full of measuring gadgets. This character fell halfway between two emblematic figures of our times: the data-obsessed corporate consultant and the TV expert.
“When I started, it seemed like an odd thing to be doing,” she says. “Now, with things like MySpace taking off in such a big way, it seems to blend in with everything else that’s going on. It’s no longer a novelty to document the mundane details of your everyday life for public consumption.”
Since 2001, her projects have included the whimsical Tea Blog, in which every drink she had was assigned a symbol accompanied by the thought that accompanied her first sip, and Eat 22, a film made up of photographs of everything Harrison ate during a 365-day period.
“After doing the big Daily Data Display Wall in 2005, I ended that phase of working,” she admits. “By then, I was measuring so many different aspects of my life that it was sending me a bit crazy. I’ve been taking a new approach recently, after being commissioned by an agency called Prime to infiltrate ordinary workplaces as an undercover artist.”
The Prime commission resulted in a 28,000-word online diary, full of detail about the world of low-paid temping work, and in the formation of the Union of Undercover Artists, through which Harrison came to rethink the links between her art and her day jobs.
“I was working as an usher at Broadway, so even though I couldn’t use that for the Prime project, I decided I’d treat it as an undercover residency too, and began making I’ve Been Watching You, which documented my experiences in the cinemas. It’s an animated notebook, complete with thoughts and star ratings for each film.”
The resulting 38-minute animation is showing in the Café Bar until the end of this month.
Harrison acknowledges that the recent developments in her work extend her observations to other people, and place her work in the tradition of the 1930s Mass Observation archives, where ordinary people documented overlooked aspects of British life in diaries.
“There’s a wonderful bit in one where a man describes his activities on the day of George VI’s coronation,” she says. “But instead of the occasion, he talks about a dead spider on his windowsill and organising boxes on his shelves. It is great to have these insights into how people relate to the times that they live in.”
Harrison’s humorous approach sets her apart from the average blogger, not least in the ways she represents her findings (using an inflatable cactus to illustrate her gaseous emissions, or making sculptures whose shapes, sizes and colours are determined by alcohol consumption) tend to obscure any sense that we are gaining an insight into the subject’s character and personality.
“You can work things out,” she says “so you’ll know I’m a vegetarian and like swimming, but the information can hide as much as it reveals. But I have a fantasy that my biographer or a future anthropologist will wade through it all one day and reconstruct my life, second by second, from the clues I’ve left behind.”