Interview with Performance Artist, Ellie Harrison

Artist Ellie Harrison opens her installation, Rage Receptacle, tomorrow in Leeds. Running until 27 April the outdoor project is part of Transform my Leeds and will give participants a chance to let off some steam. The Leeds-based artist constructs a temporary, interactive booth that questions how, when and why we encounter anger in our daily lives. Through a sequence of games, tasks and activities – Harrison invites the public to decide on how best to express frustration. This standalone piece is part four of Harrison’s The Grief Series which examines the 7 stages of mourning. This work is in collaboration with Paula Chambers and Bethany Wells and Harrison speaks to us about her work with grief and the audience. She is also hosting an artists’ talk The Making Of The Rage Receptacle on 19 April at 6pm at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

A: You are known as an “artist and performance maker” – how did you get into this “line” of work!?
EH: I came from quite a traditional “theatre” background but increasingly became interested in performance that acknowledged the audience or gave them a sense of agency. I found that site based work held all sorts of possibilities for the audience to be in the centre of the work, rather than outsiders peering in. I had specialised in Live Art at University and during my Masters. I now work in a brilliantly grey area between visual art and performance.

A: Do you feel that the audiences’ involvement in your work is essential?
EH: Yes, in all parts of the series they activate the experience on some level. In order to engage an audience physically, often in a task or in a way that incorporates all of the senses, you need to engender trust but also, a sense of where the parameters are. I want to guide their experience, I want them to engage for a sustained period of time and that means my work has to be inviting and persuasive, whilst at the same time challenging them. This is why much of my work has become quite bespoke to each person. The Reservation (part 2) is a one to one performance installation that lasts an hour. That takes real investment from the participant but I also think the payoff can be huge. The Rage Receptacle is interesting because it’s a free experience for public space. It very consciously targets an accidental audience who might not invest in other arts activity. You are asking for their time and this is quite precious in a world where speed is so highly prized. Can you draw a participant in, gain their trust, challenge them and round off the experience in 10 minutes? It’s a challenge, and no doubt the piece will be tweaked and evolve once it has the participants moving through it.

A: Why did you decide to explore the stages of bereavement?
EH: I made part one of the series in response to my own experiences of bereavement and I was overwhelmed by the audiences positive and often moving feedback. Although Etiquette of Grief’ is quite a playful and irreverent show, it opens up a space to discuss death without embarrassment and I think there is a serious cultural need for that. It made me realise there was more work to be made and more voices to be heard. I often steal structures from elsewhere in my work and The Grief model seemed like a good way to give each piece a distinctly different focus whilst also contributing to a cohesive body of work. It’s worth noting I am highly sceptical of a linear grief model. It is not like assembling flat pack furniture: simply follow instructions 1-7 and you can guarantee the outcome. Flat pack furniture is rarely robust enough to survive for very long. I prefer to think of the model as a palette of what people might be feeling. They may return to some feelings regularly or go back and fourth between two phases. It is different for everyone which is why each piece brings in different collaborators and might resonate with different audiences.

A: Obviously this is quite a sensitive topic, how did you approach it?
EH: Etiquette of Grief (part 1) can be very irreverent because I am dealing with my autobiography and I may poke fun at it in whichever way I like but when you are dealing with the material of others it is much more complex. It is about creating an environment where participants have control over what they share and trust that I value them and won’t make them look stupid. Interactions can be very sad and people inevitably cry, but there is no right or wrong way of people expressing grief and laughter is an important tool for confronting difficult things. I think very carefully about the ethics of what I do and try to combine rigorous research with a warmth and respect for the people who participate.

A: You collaborated with Paula Chambers and Bethany Wells for the Rage Receptacle, how did their practice inform your work?
EH: Paula, Bethany and I all have very different practices and I could quite happily spend a year or so just absorbing the different ways each of them think and work. If we all brought the entirety of our practices together we would run the risk of creating Frankenstein’s monster. It is a complex process of working out which parts of our three practices are compatible and which we can and should let go of. This project has been very intensive and tight timelines have meant we have had to answer this difficult question quickly which hasn’t been easy but I have learned so much from both of them. I can definitely see how Paula’s ability to strip back extraneous layers has had an effect on the way I work. Her ideas are distilled into the sculptural objects she creates in a way that is much more ambiguous than my previous work and is wonderfully haunting. Paula also crafts objects by hand and this is something I would like to explore more.

Bethany has quite an interdisciplinary practice spanning architecture/performance design, illustration and writing. Whilst I tend to write endless lists to map a process, Bethany has the ability to draw what any of us may have in our head. On a project that has an element of building in it, this skill is invaluable.

A: What do you have planned for the future?
EH: Parts 1-4 of The Grief Series are in repertoire with Etiquette of Grief touring in June and plans to expand part 3, What is Left? in the autumn. I don’t think my work is ever finished until the audience have activated it and so it will be interesting to see how people respond to The Rage Receptacle. I would like to tour it nationally. I have an idea of what each future part of the series will be but it’s important to leave enough space for my collaborators and participants to own it too.

The Rage Receptacle, 19 – 27 April, Transform my Leeds, Eastgate, Leeds.

1. Image courtesy of Ellie Harrison.