Object of the month: Eat 22 (An interview with Ellie Harrison)

17 January 2014

For one year and one day, commencing on her 22nd birthday on 11 March 2001 and ending on her 23rd, Ellie Harrison photographed everything that she ate. The resulting film and book entitled Eat 22 can currently be seen in Medicine Now. Nearly 12 years after the project was completed, Charlie Morgan spoke to her for Object of the Month.

 Ellie Harrison, Eat 22

Ellie Harrison, Eat 22

Ellie Harrison has always been interested in food. When she created Eat 22 it was the first of a wider series of ‘data collecting’ projects in which she painstakingly recorded details of her own life. In 2006 Ellie officially quit data collecting and instead of looking inwards at herself began to use art to look out at “what was going on in wider political and social systems”. Yet despite this she is still drawn back to food as a subject matter. In 2009 she produced Vending Machine, a normal machine reprogrammed to only release crisps when news of the recession came up on the BBC News RSS feed. Through projects like this she is attempting to create a “direct link between wider economic and political events and our food supply” and to examine “the absurd consequences of the capitalist system” of which “the obesity epidemic is one and climate change is another”. It was in the context of this change in approach that I spoke to Ellie about her enduring interest in food.

Charlie Morgan: In Medicine Now, Eat 22 is in a section about obesity, and I know obesity and our relationship to food is something you are interested in now. At the time did you actually think about it in those terms?

Ellie Harrison: No I wasn’t really; it’s funny actually because when I came to the launch at the Wellcome Collection in 2007 I just found it hilarious that my piece of work was right behind the John Isaacs thing. I had never really thought about that piece in relation to obesity, I don’t know whether I took offence at the fact that it had been bunged in the obesity section, I might have done actually at the time! But now I think it makes perfect sense, and actually I’ve just made a film for a project I did called The Other Forecast in which I’m wearing a fat suit because I’m talking about increased rates of obesity.

CM: One thing that I always find interesting is that when people read through the book of Eat 22 they are in a sense just looking at pictures of you eating food, but they also quickly learn quite a lot about where you’re studying, where your family live, where you work and so forth. You produced the book in a sort of diary format but what were your thoughts behind providing that additional information, did you ever think that someone could look through it and piece together bits of your life?

EH: I just wanted to be as thorough as possible when I was doing it, but I guess I always have a sick fantasy that people might look it and piece together bits of my life! I think everybody has that same sick fantasy now; everybody’s publishing information online, everybody sort of hopes that people will be interested in the minutiae of their everyday lives. But I think I was really unconscious of all of that when I was doing it because I was so young and it’s only in hindsight that I’ve thought more about the process of making this private information public and why you would want to do that. I’ve thought about what it might mean perhaps in terms of an attempt for some sort of immortality through documenting something that will live on longer than you do, I mean that’s probably one of the reasons why a lot of artists make work.

I never knew it was going to end up in the Wellcome Collection and I never knew it was going to make the impact that it did. It just seemed to strike a chord with people all over the world who were able to identify with it and it really sort of snowballed in terms of the press coverage that it got. It’s quite weird thinking back on it now because I was a different person then and when I look back at my life, yeah, you can extract all of that information about what I was like then, but I guess I’m quite different now.

CM: You’ve said now you think of yourself as quite young when you produced Eat 22, do you think it was a product of your age?

EH: It was definitely a product of my age but also of technology. I was at university and I learnt how to do basic web design, and also digital cameras were just being released around then. I got one of the earliest digital cameras which was a 0.8 megapixel camera and it seems really backward now, but if it hadn’t have been for those developments in technology I don’t think it would have been possible.

At the time I was a student learning about the internet and it just seemed such an amazing tool for an artist. It was really liberating to be able to communicate directly with an audience in a way that just wasn’t possible before. As an artist working in a more traditional field your fate is in the hands of exhibition curators, critics and others who choose what to show, and I just saw the internet as an amazing tool to bypass all of that, a really democratic way of getting information out.

I was really inspired by that and had all of those things not come together at the same point in my life then it may not have happened.

CM: Just going back to something that you mentioned before when you spoke about the interest in Eat 22 snowballing, did you ever get replies from people doing the same sort of project?

EH: A little bit, on the website there’s a links page to other projects that were happening around the same time. I became aware of other people who were doing similar things and I remember corresponding with quite a lot of them. We had a sort of shared experience because it does have such an impact on your life. It did dramatically change my eating habits and I felt really restricted all the time because I couldn’t go anywhere without the camera. People ask me if I ever cared about what I would eat because it would look bad and that wasn’t ever a concern. It was more a concern with the amount of work involved in processing all the images: that was the biggest thing that was likely to deter me from eating. Everything I ate was more work!

CM: The concerns you had (or didn’t have) lead on to comments we often hear in Medicine Now. Sometimes when people visit the gallery and read Eat 22 they can be quite judgemental about what you eat: the amount you eat, whether or not they think it’s healthy. At the time did you ever become judgemental about yourself?

EH: I never really thought about that at all. I went into it thinking that I could produce a realistic picture of everything that I’d eaten, but it did end up changing what I ate. I think I did have a worse diet then than I have now: because I was a dirty student for half of it! I was eating Pot Noodles, I was eating ice creams and packets of crisps and I never really eat stuff like that now. I think I had a faster metabolism back then!

CM: With regards to eating habits – and this is probably the question we get asked the most in Medicine Now – to what extent did Eat 22 affect your eating habits after the project had finished?

EH: Afterwards, because it was such a novelty to be free and not to be being watched the whole time, I did eat more than I should have done. I think it probably takes about a year to recover, to just go back to normal and to remember what normal is. I wouldn’t recommend it as a diet!

It is useful for creating awareness of what you’re eating and nutritionists do recommend food diaries. But I was reading a blog post today about fad diets and how you can get really into them and they can really work for a short space of time but then there’s always going to be a backlash when you stop, and I think it would be unsustainable to try to attempt to do something like that for ever. It’s always going to end somewhere and there’s always going to be some sort of backlash.

CM: Finally, how did people around you react? Did you end up damaging any friendships as a result of the project?

EH: Not really because it didn’t really impact on other people’s lives in such a massive way. My friends and family took some of the photos but I developed a way of taking a lot of the photos myself.

CM: The original selfies.

EH: Yeah, the original selfies exactly. I discovered that if I turned a pint glass upside down and then I balanced the camera on top of the pint glass I could take a picture of myself on the timer very easily. I probably did a lot more than half of them that way, so I think for everybody else involved it still remained a relative novelty.

Ellie Harrison is currently running the Bring Back British Rail campaign and working on a number of artistic projects. She can be contacted through her website.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.