Below is an interview with Ellie Harrison about her project The Grief Series with her collaborator Jaye Kearney. This interview appears in abridged format within the print edition of Issue 2 of I STOOD UP AND I SAID YEAH.
How did the Grief Series come about? What was your original intention with the project?
Ellie: The aim with Etiquette of Grief (part 1) was to make a public space in which bereavement could be discussed openly and it became apparent through early showings of the work just how much of an expressed need there was/is for this space. Audience members would approach me afterwards and share their stories with me, saying that they wanted to talk about bereavement without the social awkwardness that too frequently accompanies the subject. It became clear that with such a rich subject matter, more work needed to be made. The series is a sequence of seven works using the seven stage grief model as an initial point of departure. Each work will be a collaboration with a different artist, working through a range of cross disciplinary practice including performance, photography, installation and web art. Parts 1 and 2 are currently touring and planning has started for parts 3 and 4. Part 2 is a collaboration with Jaye Kearney entitled The Reservation.
Can you say a bit about how you want the audience to engage with or be affected by the work?
Jaye: For me I hope that those who have lost loved ones will appreciate the space we have created, a monument to loss and a reflection on the pain of bereavement and remember they are not alone and, I hope, that we understand. I think the strength of the piece is that, even though it is structured, within that there is the ability for every single audience member to have a unique experience.
For me music is incredibly evocative. I only wish we had the ability to allow people to choose any song from a limitless library. That way every single audience member could have the one song that means the most to them and we could build an ever expanding library of ‘Songs To Grieve To’.
I hope The Reservation might offer them some much needed relief or even pleasure in the ability to talk freely about someone they have lost with no fear of embarrassment or reprisal.
For those with no experience of bereavement I hope that perhaps they can relate the experiences and emotions we present with another kind of loss they may have experienced. I also hope that they may learn something; to recognise their own behaviour towards others, or that person’s behaviour in the wake of death, and perhaps change their perspective. Maybe next time they know someone who experiences loss they will be better equipped to deal with it? I would like to think that I am, having been through this process, a more tolerant person.
Ultimately I hope that they enjoy their experience, the freedom that we have given them, the ability to explore, indulge their curiosity and play the game a little.
This issue of I Stood Up and I Said Yeah is about provocation. In what ways do you see the work as provocative or challenging?
Ellie: Although Etiquette of Grief is playful and irreverent, it seems to be the notion of creating space to talk about death that people find provocative, rather than the material itself. I want the series to become increasingly participatory as it progresses and this comes with a number of challenges. I have come to believe that in Britain, the bereaved are at risk of being a marginalised group. Even worse as they may not realise they are a group due to the individual nature of bereavement. Drawing on my own observations and those that others have shared, people surrounding the bereaved don’t know what to say and all too often it is only discussed in a therapy space. Whilst I see the benefit of someone attending therapy, that shouldn’t be a substitute for society learning to address the subject. We all at one time or another, are likely to experience the death of someone we are close to or have to support someone who is grieving. I think that in some ways by confining the conversation to a therapeutic space we are silencing the bereaved and that comes with a worrying implication that people who aren’t trained counsellors aren’t qualified to discuss it. I am not a trained counsellor and I make that clear but I am still able to engage in the subject matter.
Jaye: The Reservation is potentially incredibly provocative. This is both the danger and payoff for ourselves and the participants. The issue of grief and personal loss has the potential to dredge up deep and even repressed emotions and memories and while we hope that audience members take care not to share anything they are uncomfortable with there is a delightful frisson in sharing a painful moment with a friendly stranger. Perhaps some of the weight of this is shifted in the telling?
The challenge for us I think is in creating a safe environment, where people feel they can trust us, in a very short space of time. Without any trust audience members will be reluctant to share and will not gain the same depth of experience from the piece. As the first point of contact, bar the usher, I feel a great weight of responsibility in this. The aim with the opening section, in my opinion, is about allowing them time to adjust – to the elephant guise, to the subject matter, to us. There is a crossover that happens on the stairs, that is such a seemingly small thing but allows us to signpost that there is more than one of us and allow them to meet Ellie in a pressure free environment before later when she joins them in the room and talks to them.
You mentioned in an interview that many audience members have shared their stories of grief with you as part of the work. Are safety and risk, both for you and for the audience, a part of the project? How do you manage these?
Ellie: Particularly in making the second part of the series: The Reservation, risk is something we have thought long and hard about and continue to do so. For me, transparency is key: carefully managing the audience’s expectation of what the rules of the performance are. We (Jaye Kearney and I) have clinical supervision which is not to imply that the work is therapy, but to be conscientious and make sure best practice is observed so that we are well prepared for a range of responses both from participants and from ourselves. We have tried to be very clear that this is not a therapy space and signpost clearly where participants can access appropriate services. However an artist’s aim is always at some level, to move an audience, provoke thought and provide a rewarding experience for them and from the generous and positive feedback we’re receiving it seems to be working. I’m aware that it can be a very intense environment and not everyone’s cup of tea.
Jaye: Audience members will be presented with many options along the way and we would hope that they choose wisely, not allowing themselves to delve too deep in to memories or emotions that may harm them. There are a number of points where they are given a chance to opt out, or to choose not to engage with an activity that might trouble them. These choices were very important to us in the creation of the piece.
As previously mentioned trust is essential. Along the way ethics have been a big part of the creative discussions at every step. The subject matter is deeply personal and we would not want any audience member to think that we take this lightly or that what they share is in any way likely to come back and bite them on the ass – it never leaves the room. I often wonder that in fear of this we have gone too far the other way, signposting too much of the performance in advance but perhaps this is small price to pay in creativity for ensuring the safety of our participants?
What unexpected outcomes have there been for you?
Jaye: The finished product is almost entirely an unexpected outcome for me. I am pretty sure this is not the piece we expected to make.
I wonder if anyone ever makes the piece they expected to make and where do these unused ideas go? For example there was nothing wrong with the idea of an institution for the treatment of bereaved elephants – which is something we Scratched twice in June. I am still incredibly fond of this idea but it put the focus in the wrong place for the audience, asking them to be carers and experts rather than revealing their own vulnerability which was clumsy to manage. In a performance situation this did not work.
We shifted instead from a scenario where we placed people in a situation with heightened emotions of grief and asked them to examine their responses to a performance which asked them to recall these emotions for themselves and how they and others might have dealt with them. Or not.
Other unexpected outcomes have come from our own responses to the material we share ourselves. It can be extremely exposing and in a one-to-one environment feels perfectly safe, but once shared we have no control with what the audience does with this information they have about us. And we have unfortunately had to deal with some insensitive behaviour on the part of some participants which led us to question the piece in great depth at a very late stage in the process.
How have these affected your performance/practice?
Ellie: A year ago I would have described a key part of my practice as examining audience participation. Whilst this remains the case I am increasingly finding that my work is taking me in to more overtly interventionist territory. I am trying to sensitively balance an awareness that I am at the start of investigating vast fields of research such as bereavement and the ethics of intervention, whilst continuing to make work, using practice as research.
How have the theoretical and educational aspects of the project, via your research and collaborations with grief professionals fed into the performance?
Jaye: While the research aspects were limited on my side, I was more involved in the integration of these findings in the process. We did watch a lot of footage of bereavement counsellor Henry de Mena and this did inform a lot of the language we used. He talked about a list of instructions that one woman left on her fridge for her friends to see which included things like not being afraid to say her dead husband’s name. He also talked about the use of the word dead as opposed to euphemisms. A lot of what he said echoed findings Ellie had come across in seminars and in her conversations with counsellors.
What seemed particularly resonant for us was the way that child grief is dealt with through games. In a playful performance environment these tools allowed us to more quickly break through some barriers in a way that adults may not normally respond to in a therapy session.
Ellie: In The Reservation the influence of grief theories has been overt. I tell the audience about continuing bonds which is a more progressive and postmodern movement in grief theory that challenges the idea that when someone dies your relationship with that person ends. It challenges the notion that there is a time limit on grieving, a point where someone should have ‘got over it’ and ‘moved on’.
How do you see the project moving forward?
I hope that by the end of the series we, me and my collaborators, will have acquired a real momentum with audiences following from one piece to another, perhaps moving into new territory as the work becomes more cross disciplinary. So that someone who primarily engages with visual art might come to a grief series performance and vice versa. I would like to have made space for the forming of a community who can discuss bereavement openly, with humour and sadness and in all its complexity. Already the work is sparking conversations between audience members and I hope that these discussions will continue.
To find out more about The Grief Series, visit ellieharrisonperformance.wordpress.com/the-grief-series/