Ellie Harrison: “The etiquette of grief” — Thom Cuell

It has been argued that the death of Princess Diana marked a watershed in British public life, the moment that the stiff upper lip was abandoned, to be replaced by a culture of tears. In Dorian, Will Self drew parallels between the life of the ‘royal broodmare’ and Dorian; her death is the moment when the truth behind the illusion is revealed, and the triumphal veneer gives way to morbid sentimentality. Further away from the mainstream, authors have taken more transgressive approaches; the NME journalist and punk poet Steven Wells, in his novel Tits-Out Teenage Terror Totty (ATTACK! Books, 1999), imagined a robotic Diana being resurrected and ritually slaughtered on a weekly basis, to satisfy the British people’s twin cravings for public displays of grief and vengeance. In 69 Uses for a Dead Princess (Canongate, 2002), Stewart Home (through the proxy of fictitious cult writer KL Callen), imagines Diana’s body being dragged around the stone circles and pagan sites of Northern Scotland, in an approximation of a Druidic ritual.

All of these responses, however, look at the reaction to Diana’s death on a societal scale, asking what the events meant for Britain as a whole, rather than the needs it satisfied for individuals. In Grief Series, artist Ellie Harrison contrasts the performative nature of grief in the post-Diana age, and its commodification by the makers of reality television, with ‘the complicated, messy tears of real life’. To borrow from the Grief Series Manifesto (because we love a manifesto), the project is ‘a quiet rebellion’, a ‘polite intervention’, which seeks to break down the taboos around private grief, by exploring them in a series of public events.

Below is a map of the series, to help you orientate yourself:

Part 1: Etiquette of Grief is a solo show with video by Matt Tullett

Part 2: The Reservation is a performance installation for hotels. It is an hour long experience for one person at a time in collaboration with Jaye Kearney.

Part 3: What is Left? is a photography installation in collaboration with Roshana Rubin Mayhew and 48 members of the public, which exhibited in empty houses across the country.

Part 4: The Unfair is a funfair about anger for parks, promenades, town squares and public spaces. It was a collaboration with Bethany Wells and Adam Young.

Part 5: The Crossing is part scrapbook, part illustrated plan your own funeral kit. It’s a collaboration with Matthew Bellwood and Fergus Dunnet.

Part 6: (unmade) will be a journey or pilgrimage. We’re thinking of building a tiny caravan of grief that travels around bringing grief-based fun.

Part 7: (unmade) A 3 day Dia de los Muertos event and wake to The Grief Series. Tequilla. Food. Music. Art. I will be collaborating with the infamous Live Art Bistro

Here, Ellie discusses the background to her project, the psychological impact of presenting grief in an intimate, live environment, and the interaction between performers and practitioners in creating a space where taboos can be explored.

Thom Cuell: First of all, can you give us an overview of Grief Series as a project?

Ellie Harrison: The Grief Series is a sequence of seven projects that correlate to a seven stage grief model from psychology. For each project I collaborate with a different artist from a different discipline. I come from a performance background but my collaborators are photographers, video artists, designers, chefs, DJ’s and funeral directors. The series aims to create spaces where people can talk and express grief and bereavement in a way that’s empowering rather than silencing. Death is still a taboo so we use playful strategies to engage people. So far ‘team grief’ have dressed as elephants, prompted lads to ring their mums and turn over new leaves, made a funfair about anger and drunk at least 50 litres of port in the process.

TC: How do you feel your practice has developed over the course of the series so far?

EH: I think my attitude to people has changed. I never realised when I made my solo show Etiquette of Grief, that it would form the first part of a decade-long series. The Grief Series was born out of all the conversations I was having with people after the show. Now that I have had all those moving, strange and wonderful stories shared with me, I don’t think I could make a show that irreverent or sarcastic now. I still perform the show and I enjoy it. It’s funny and angry and silly and chaotic…and there’s biscuits. Perhaps while I’ve lost that sense of youthful rebelliousness, I’ve gained the ability to listen without judgment. The series has encouraged me to be more open minded, less sceptical.

Also, increasingly I want to collaborate with people from outside the arts. Death Doulas, chefs, that bloke that lives down the road, a professor of palliative care. It makes for projects that are constantly reinvigorated by new voices and perspectives. I like to make work with a bit of an identity crisis…that doesn’t know if it’s a performance or an installation, a book or a board game, a funfair or an artwork. I worry less about WHAT it is and more about HOW people use it to have conversations they wouldn’t have otherwise.

TC: Place and setting is very important to your performance at each stage of the series – how do you develop the dramaturgy of each performance, and what constraints have you faced?

EH: Yes, place is central to all my projects and now, I’d say the multi-sensory aspect of my work is the vital through line from piece to piece. I think carefully about what participants smell, taste, touch and feel as well as what they see and hear. The taste of rosemary cake from part 2 or the feel of boxing gloves from part 4. It’s about being present in that time and place. I’m not anti-technology, apart from the fact I’m dreadful with it, but I think giving someone your undivided time and attention can be a radical act nowadays. It pushes against this sense of everything needing to be fast and disposable. A way of resisting what Third Angel refer to as the ‘hurryscickness’ of contemporary culture. Sharing a space also helps break down any hierarchy between audience and artist. It’s not even that we are the artists and they are the participant…we’re all people having an exchange.

The main constraint with work that is radically interdisciplinary and free for people to participate in is funding it. Participants aren’t bothered by what it is, if it looks fun and feels welcoming, they’re up for it. But theatres and galleries often want something that is a bit more of a pure artform, either definitely performance or definitely photography and my work is a bit too messy for that. We get by on ingenuity and lovely participant feedback.

TC: It feels as though there is a durational element to The Grief Series, given the scope of the project; how does it feel to have immersed yourself in grief for such a long period?

EH: I always used to feel frustrated when in films, grief is depicted in a short, 30 second burst and then the plot moves on. As if to say, ‘you get the idea’ now let’s move on. When in reality grief is often a long process that you live with. That’s an idea I play with quite a bit in the show. Because of the overwhelming response to Etiquette of Grief, I realised I had to make more work about death to amplify all the voices that had stories to share. Quite a few artists were making trilogies but it seems like an arbitrary number for me. Then I looked at a number of different grief models and the seven stage model resonated the most. It was equal parts bravery and stupidity to commit to such a large project but I leant in to the ridiculousness of it. It has certainly given me direction and when it is over I think I will grieve The Grief Series.

TC: In some cases, such as The Reservation, you’ve created an extremely intimate space to engage with your audience – what challenges does this have for you as a performer, and have audience members reacted in unexpected ways?

EH: Particularly with The Reservation and What is Left? we work with participants one at a time to discuss very sensitive material that often, they haven’t told many people. The late and great Adrian Howells said ‘It’s all allowed’ and this is definitely a guiding principle for the work. If we go in with no expectation of how people ‘should’ react, it’s very difficult to be surprised. All the conversations are very individual and memorable. Some people have been very brave in sharing their experiences. The Reservation is a confidential space so some secrets are protected by the Elephants.

The challenge is to create a space that is safe for both the audience and the facilitator. I think extremely carefully about the ethics of what we do and how to put safeguards in place. I think a big part of that is about transparency with participants about what will happen and what the ‘rules of participation’ are. I try and build structures where participants can take agency about what they share, how, and when they want to move on.

I think audiences can smell the intentions of an artist a mile off and the way the facilitator behaves interpersonally has a big impact on whether people feel safe. Care has to be genuine, rather than a box ticking exercise.

Of course neither me, the team or the participant know exactly how things will unfold, but I hope they believe we genuinely care because we do. Whether that’s Jaye composing hand written letters or me making Rosemary cake parcels. Where our participants are concerned I tend towards the over conscientious but I think that’s a good thing.

TC: Collaboration is a key feature of each stage of the Series; how has working with different performers and artists affected the way you approach your work?

EH: Collaborating on the series is always a balancing act of when to let go of control and be flexible and when to stick to your guns. I’ve always been interested in working with people who think differently to me but I’ve learned a shared sense of values is key to the success of a project, particularly when you have different disciplinary approaches. I often start by us sharing work we like by other artists as a way of talking about what’s important to us with the safety of not talking directly about our work just yet. For The Unfair we were mentored by Tassos Stevens of Coney and he got us to individually write a manifesto for the work. We could see the commonality, celebrate the differences then created a combined manifesto together. It’s an exercise I’ve carried through to subsequent projects.

TC: From the death of Princess Diana to the social media reaction to events like the deaths of Bowie and Prince, it seems as though there is a performative element to the way we react to the deaths of celebrities in particular – is this something which you have noticed developing over the course of the series? And has it affected your work, or reactions to it in any way?

EH: I think bereavement is often an isolating experience and the focus of celebrity can sometimes hold the promise of making grief communal and safe. It’s a very complex issue and one that I did a blog about earlier this year

I think mourning celebrities is mostly sincere, whether that is genuinely grieving for them and what they stood for, or whether it’s a socially acceptable outlet to grieve previous losses. There will of course be people who jump on the bandwagon, who monetise it and I think generally people have a good nose for bullshit. We can mainly tell when people perform grief for their own benefit because there is nothing at stake for them, there is no emotional risk or investment. I’m mindful of the temptation to create a hierarchy of grief when really, each loss, whether it’s David Bowie, your pet or your life partner, is entirely unique. What devastates one person, might feel insignificant to another. We should be wary of making assumptions.

TC: Conversely, there is still a taboo element to the discussion of personal grief – is this something you have looked to address in your work, and have you faced any challenges in bringing discussion of the subject to an audience?

EH: Breaking down the taboo of talking about death is the central reason I made Etiquette of Grief, and subsequently the series was created. The stigma is something I learned and noticed through my experience of losing people. I felt so angry at some of the responses people had to my bereavements. The responses were due to fear and awkwardness rather than a hurtful intention. Death doesn’t feel as much a part of life as it might have done even fifty or sixty years ago when home deaths were more common and people might have witnessed people dying from a young age.

I think the flip side to free healthcare, which is an absolutely vital and wonderful thing, is that death has become medicalised and professionalised. We might not think twice before discussing sex and relationships with a friend but there is an implication that when someone dies we shouldn’t mention it in case we get it wrong. I think practice makes perfect and we need to be having these conversations about death little and often so that when we are confronted by grief, our own or others, we are more prepared.

Having said that, it has been the sheer scale of response to the series that has surprised me. People don’t need that much permission to talk about death….just the right environment. If you create even the smallest of spaces, people will generally fill it with thoughts, stories and memories.

TC: Finally, what comes after acceptance for you?

EH: The final stage of the grief model is acceptance but to be honest I’ve always had a healthy scepticism about the model from a therapeutic perspective. It can, if taken too literally, make grieving like assembling an Ikea wardrobe: Do steps one to seven and your grief will be complete which is not the most helpful way of viewing it from my perspective. It also then sets people up to feel they have got grief wrong. An experience that often comes up when discussing grief models is that someone thinks ‘oh I don’t think I did ‘anger’ maybe I should try and go back and do that’. I prefer to think of it as a palette of things that people might be feeling. In my experience grief isn’t linear so you may swing between two or three emotions and whilst you might find acceptance on one day, it might be illusive the next. If you mean what comes after Grief Series part 7, the answer is probably sleep.

Ellie Harrison is a performance maker and artist based in Leeds. She creates a range of solo and collaborative devised performance work for studios, galleries, found and public spaces. Ellie is currently making a seven part body of work, the highly acclaimed Grief Series. Informed by rigorous research with academics, clinicians and the public, the series aims to create safe spaces where notions of grief and bereavement can be discussed and expressed openly through a range of empowering creative practice.

Her work has toured internationally and has gained national press attention with her being invited to speak on Radio 4 Womens hour and being included in Lynn Gardners Theatre pick of the year. Participation is at the heart of all of her work as a performer, facilitator and mentor of young people. Her work is often characterised by a playful and provocative approach to difficult topics, encouraging audiences to make decisions and participate. She is currently working with Dr Helen Iball on The Compassionate Imagination project alongside archeologists, ethnographers and artists.

Thom Cuell is nailing the jelly of bourgeois materialism to the ceiling of historical inevitability.