Alessandra Cianetti: Harun, you are setting off to make and document a journey on your boat, Zoar, from London to Birmingham via the Grand Union Canal as the recipient of the Wheatley Fine Art Fellowship 2020. First of all, congratulations! I would love to know more about your plans for this exploration, and how it relates to your collaborative audio-visual work Bruno (2019 – ongoing) that traces a three-hour journey along the River Lea towards North London. Also, I wonder what does this new journey means to you both personally and artistically?
Harun Morrison: I first moved on to the water in May 2016, through a chance encounter with the artist Ella Gibbs who owned the narrowboat Bruno. Ella was experimenting with the boat as a kind of floating-residency at the time; while she set up an eco-lodge in Wales. I was returning to London after 5 years away from my home city and hadn’t sorted anywhere to live. Ella was looking for a new occupant and things rolled from there. So initially it was a pragmatic and impulsive move. However, what was initially planned to be a four month stop-gap extended to a year and a half, including two winters.
Over this time I was gradually inducted and mentored by Ella and her partner Mark, in the ways of boat-living. The licence was for ‘continuous-cruising’ which meant moving to a different neighbourhood every two weeks. Living on my own on this boat across the seasons, in different locations was a steep learning curve. Especially becoming used to being off-grid (with a wood-burning stove for heat and gas canisters for the cooker) and employing the old boaters’ trick of keeping cheeses and milk in a bucket lowered in the water (rather than refrigeration).
These lived-experiences and encounters with other boaters sensitised me to both the metaphorical and material, anti-capitalist potential of boat-living. It also overlaps with other modes of living resistant to the London housing market such as squatting (as opposed to property ‘Guardians’) or housing co-operatives.
In 2016, Bruno became the site of a one-on-one performance devised with Helen Walker, on the River Lea beneath the Hackney flyover. Titled, Offshore Transactions, anonymous speakers who worked in the finance sector, spoke from behind a back lit with screen, conversing with visitors about finance practices and culture in the ‘square mile’.
In 2018, Helen and I documented my final journey on Bruno, from Broxbourne in Hertfordshire to Ponders End in North London. We conceived of it as a static camera shot winding through the landscape. This video is the basis of a work in which the journey is scored with ambient electronic music interspersed with field recordings from the river habitats. Each time the video is played a new score is improvised.
Ella decided to take Bruno to Wales and it’s now on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. Around this time another friend was selling her boat, Zoar.
Not only was buying a narrowboat a viable way of continuing to live in London in the context of its exploitative housing market, it was an opportunity to more consciously collapse a border between day-to-day living and art-making. From the outset I conceived of Zoar as a platform for multiple explorations of being in the city – in terms of remaining off-grid (and the contradictions of this e.g. still using gas canisters which are only possibly through fossil-fuel companies), a proximity to the water, attentiveness to the river and a consideration of what it means to be living-on-the-move.
Over the next few years the intention is to instigate a series of acts with the boat, while documenting, diarising and theorising about the process. These will include converting the boat itself into a camera. Later this year I will gradually make the journey from London to Birmingham via the Grand Union Canal. Inviting friends to join me for legs across the way. What the journey means can only make itself known as it unfolds, but in this case, I wouldn’t want to, nor know how to delineate what is personal and what is ‘artistic’.
Alessandra: Since 2006 you have made artworks nationally and internationally with Helen Walker, as part of the collaborative practice, They Are Here. Alongside her you have explored group dynamics, questions of authorship and politics of visibility often devising context-specific games that ‘seek to create ephemeral systems and temporary, micro-communities that offer an alternate means of engaging with a situation, history or ideology.’ I am really interested in knowing more about your work around labour rights and the gig economy. Can you tell us more about your approach to create these artworks?
Harun: A recurring curiosity across multiple They Are Here works is the potential of entities, beyond material objects, e.g. systems, networks and protocols to fluctuate in meaning and value when dislocated from one context and transposed to another; often this may be a site typically delineated for art. At the same time, by 2016, the impact of Conservative government austerity policies were increasingly felt and visible in the breakdown and closure of so many institutional support structures (decline of Legal Aid, community centres etc). It was in this context that the theorisation of the ‘precariat’ offered a space to consider what dialogue artists outside of commercial markets could have with workers in other fields across the public sector and their clients.
The first iteration of Precarity Centre, Grand Union, Birmingham (2016), was an experiment for us in thinking spatially as to what an art gallery could temporarily become, an experiment in social space, seeding interaction between local precarious groups. All the while recognising the precarity of an artist or phd student, can be markedly different in terms of agency from other kinds of precarity or precarious work. However at the time we were keen to consider how the gallery could be a site of intersectional solidarity, how neo-liberal ideology was affecting different social fabrics be it housing rights, mental health and the non-for-profit cultural sector.
We had observed of ourselves that while fluent in the language of emotions or visuality, we lacked this fluency when speaking of economics. At the same time we recognised that so much of what we saw and (what cannot be seen) is determined through financial and economic relationships. Discussing this with other artists who felt a similar lack of articulation we set up an ‘economics-for-artists’ research group (initially supported by the Live Art Development Agency). So the impulse towards moving into this area of knowledge was to better understand the systems we were enmeshed in, which could not solely be understood through affective interpersonal relationships. This led to the first iteration of The People Behind The Financial System, Southbank Centre, 2016. An artwork comprised of informal encounters between 24 individuals working in the financial sector and the wider public. Over a 2 hour period, attendees were invited to engage in ten conversations of their choice, each lasting 10 minutes. These 24 representatives ranged from politicians and stockbrokers to algorithm coders and security van drivers. They also included interpretations of historical or contemporary figures such as Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes and the (possibly fictional) creator of the online currency Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. The People Behind the Financial System sought to create an open environment of idea exchange, democratising the specialist knowledge and hidden transactions that impact us all. So we would stress that this work was an attempt to make a private curiosity a public concern and ultimately to be of public value.
Alessandra: Over the years, your work has been involving people from different walks of life, including people with varying degrees of resident-status.. Recently you have been commissioned to co-design a community build project in Dagenham by Create London. With your experience of constantly crossing the borders between art world, academia and different communities of participants, what are the learnings and best practices you think we as artists, curators, producers, art professionals should bring into the future for a more just sector?
Harun: Listening is invaluable, the more receptively you listen the better your capacity to respond sensitively to the context you are working in. This extends to questioning if, when and how you are imposing your logics on to others rather than sharing alternative methodologies. This applies to institutions imposing their presumptions upon artists as well as artists doing the same to a group they’re working with. The healthiest collaborative structures consider multiple levels of agency among the participants across the entire process.
Harun Morrison is an artist and writer currently living on a narrow boat on Regent’s Canal. Alongside Helen Walker, he co-founded the collective art practice ‘They Are Here’ in 2006. Through this collaboration they continuously explore group dynamics, questions of authorship and politics of visibility. Recent commissions include I’ll Bring You Flowers (2019) Survival Kit 10, Riga, Laughing Matter (2018) at Studio Voltaire, the performance 40 Temps, 8 Days (2017) at Tate Modern and Beacon Garden (2018 – 2020), a co-design commission and community build project in Dagenham, East London at the invitation of Create London.. Since 2019 Harun has been a trustee of the Black Cultural Archive (est.1981). He has an MA in Critical Writing from Chelsea College of Art and Design. He is currently artist-in-residence with Arts Catalyst and previously in residence at IASPIS and Botyrka Konsthall, Stockholm (2018). Forthcoming work will be shown in Bamako Biennial, Mali (2019) and Dakar Biennial, Senegal (2020). Harun has been a visiting lecturer at Central St Martins, Goldsmiths and the Royal College of Art and is associate faculty for the new studio program Conditions in Croydon. www.theyarehere.net
Featured Image Credit: Tantalus, Helen Walker & Harun Morrison / They Are Here, Victoria & Albert Museum. (2016). Photo by Annalisa Sonzogni