We published an interview with The Grief Series‘ Ellie Harrison in our recent newsletter but had to edit it for space. Here’s the unexpurgated version!
Tom Bailey: Tell me a little bit about the Grief Series and where you are with it now.
Ellie Harrison: The Grief Series is a decade-long project. I’m six years in. It’s going well. Really it’s about creating spaces, using art as a tool to create spaces where people can have conversations about death and bereavement because it’s a difficult subject. I tend to use playful strategies to engage people. I think humour’s quite important in dealing with difficult subjects. It’s seven projects long and for each project I work with a different artist, working in a different art-form. Part 1 was a solo-show and I collaborated with a video artist. Part 2 is a performance installation for hotels. Part 3 is a photography project. Part 4 is a funfair about anger in a 20foot by 30 foot circus tent. The form varies and I’m not really interested in making work that doesn’t have an identity crisis.
TB: What does that mean?
EH: Well, I like to make work that doesn’t know whether it’s a performance or an installation, a board game or a choose-your-own-adventure book. I’m less concerned with what it is, I’m more concerned with how people use it to have the conversations they want to have.
TB: It sounds a bit like the Love Arts Festival; that’s about using a play or an exhibition or a workshop to get that conversation started about mental health. I suppose you’re doing the same about grief.
EH: Yes, absolutely. It’s about creating spaces that feel warm and welcoming and where people can engage with the subject on their own terms. And I guess part of the reason for working across disciplines is that I know different audiences will access different parts of the Grief Series and they’ll follow from one to the other. So someone might say, “I go to exhibitions, I came to the What is Left exhibition (Part 2) and I quite like it so now I might go and see the solo show.” Or, “I go to the theatre a lot but I’ve never been to an installation that’s a funfair in the middle of a field but I might try it!” So it’s about introducing people to new art forms as well.
TB: Why do you think it’s important to talk about death? Do you think it’s a problem that people don’t? Isn’t it better not to talk about our feelings?!
EH: (laughs) I think obviously, well, we’re all going to die. You know, it’s happening. And talking about it isn’t going to make it happen any quicker. So I think it’s a good thing to talk about it. Someone described me as ‘an experiential expert on death’ which was a really fancy way of saying that I’ve lost quite a lot of people. I never really intended to make the Grief Series. But people were coming up to me after making The Etiquette of Grief (Part 1), which was quite a sarcastic, funny show, and they were saying, “That really reminded me of when I lost my partner, or my child or my sibling”. They felt quite silenced because there’s a sort of aura of embarrassment that was stopping people from talking about death. Actually we spend so much time planning births and weddings all of those other big life-defining moments. So maybe we need to chat more about death.
TB: A funeral is often organised very quickly and you’re making decisions about things at a time of high stress. I suppose it would be nice that when someone died you could open a little folder and it’s all there…
EH: Yes, that’s actually what Part 5 is all about, it’s an illustrated plan-your-own funeral activity book. A choose-your-own funeral. I was quite lucky because when my Mum died we had a bit of notice, we knew she was going to die, she had a chance to say, “Ellie, don’t spend loads of money on a coffin because it’s not worth it. I’d much rather everyone has something to eat.” And that permission was really valuable. I think opening up these conversations, particularly when people are well and healthy is a good thing.
TB: It seems to be quite a thing at the moment, talking about death. There’s a podcast called Griefcast. It’s a comedian talking to another comedian about someone significant that’s died.
EH: Yes, four people have sent that to me! You were the first though.
TB: Well, I like think that I have my finger on the pulse of Death… It’s a good show, it’s a conversation about death, the idea being that it might get other people talking about it. And because they’re comedians they’re not being morbid or mawkish.
EH: I think a lot of bereaved people feel socially isolated. That’s having an impact on their life. So it’s actually more about living than it is about dying. It’s more about how do we help people live well, whilst knowing that death exists.
TB: There’s other death-related things too. We had Luca Rutherford’s show “Learning How To Die” in the Love Arts Festival in October. One of the things she did was to give you a different ‘time of death” Everyone gets one. It could be 37 years time, or in 3 months time. Mine was “tonight”. I thought, “I really don’t want to die tonight. I’ve got to do the Love Arts Conversation tomorrow!” Actually, coming on to that, you were part of that event too. You did a session. What was that about?
EH: It was about artist resilience. Being an artist is really difficult. Well, I find being an artist difficult. It was a space for us to think about how we can become more resilient. When I was preparing a provocation for the session I put something on Facebook saying, “What helps you to be resilient as an artist and what are the challenges?” I expected a couple of comments but within an hour I had like fifty comments and ten private messages about it. So there’s clearly a need to talk about these things and to address these challenges. I felt like at the Love Arts Conversation we’d opened up a very small space but we could have spoken about it all day.
TB: There was only 90 minutes; we were just scratching the surface.
EH: Like we were dipping our toe into a much bigger conversation that needs to be had.
TB: About how to stay well. There were so many issues that were brought up. Being an artist can be a very solitary activity. Visual artists, writers, often work alone.
EH: Yes, it’s about finding spaces where people can co-work, places like Aire Place Studios, which is just brilliant. You can just drop in and work, with other people around. Sometimes just being in the same room as someone else is really helpful. There was Souping at Live Arts Bistro, shared office space for artists. Sometimes you need that peer-support. There’s a group of artists in Bristol who displayed all their rejections letters in an exhibition. It’s a beautiful idea, showing that collective group acknowledgement that everyone gets rejected, it’s not just you, it’s part of the job. And you’re not alone.
TB: What else came up at the Conversation?
EH: Time management. Being over-worked and under-paid. The reality of being an artist.
TB: How do we make it less about moaning and more about making things that will help?
EH: It’s about signposting information and banding together. Groups of artists putting pressure on organisations to raise awareness about how they work with artists and how to help everyone stay mentally well. And practical help, like using Leeds Creative Timebank. If, like me, you’re crap with technology, you can use hours making stews for artists and get those hours back helping you do your website. Being part of a community is key. Asking for help, unapologetically. Using the moneyless economy, sharing skills, sign posting. And meeting other artists who can help each other.
You can experience Part 5 of the Grief Series in February at Live Arts Bistro.
For all details go to The Grief Series site
Thank you Ellie!
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