10 Minutes with Harun Morrison

Harun Morrison (b. London, currently navigating the UK Inland Waterways) spans various media in his practice including text, video, sound and spatial design. His ongoing interest in the shifting potentials of civic space is informed by being a boater, which in turn prompts questions about land ownership in relation to itinerancy, and the degree to which living on water affects one’s relationship with the environment and state infrastructure (notably sewage, administrative systems and the National Grid).  In 2006, alongside Helen Walker, Harun co-founded collective practice They Are Here. Recent commissions include I’ll Bring You Flowers (2019), Survival Kit 10, Riga, and Laughing Matter (2018) at Studio Voltaire co-commissioned by Block Universe, which saw the gallery converted into a comedy club. The performance 40 Temps, 8 Days (2017) at Tate Modern highlighted the use of temp labour at the institution in the context of the wider gig-economy. Harun is a former artist-in-residence with Arts Catalyst, Furtherfield, IASPIS and Botyrka Konsthall. In recent years Morrison has co-designed a number of community gardens, including the conversion of a car park in Dagenham, East London on the Becontree Estate, and for Bootle Library in Liverpool, commissioned by Rule of Threes.

You are both an artist and a writer, how do these roles feed into your artistic practice?

I find them complimentary processes and ways of thinking; both generate images, often images suggest words and words suggest images so they function in a loop. In my forthcoming exhibition at Eastside Projects, a short science fiction story is presented as a poster that occupies an entire wall, however I also write essays on various topics for different online platforms. I oscillate between writing within what I designate as my artwork and writing to engage with situations or tropes that provoke fruitful reconsiderations of previous positions. In time this may contribute to the development of future artworks too. Writing is a way for me to begin a process of working-things-out, this is never conclusive, but closer to a series of exercises made public.

In turn, I think this steers my writing towards the propositional and calls for multiple approaches which are the basis for formal and stylistic variations. In a recent text concerning public art and memorials for example, I consider memorial-as-legislation “A monument to cleaners? Raise the minimum wage. A monument to nurses? Properly funded hospitals. A monument to soldiers? Dissolution of the arms industry.” Whereas the text Fictions Opens at Sunset (2020), installed at Eastside Projects is an exercise in design-as-speculative fiction, the outlining of the bar functioning similarly to the stage descriptions that might inform a scenographer’s designs, as well as conveying affect or providing narrative space.

The circulation of writing and especially how it’s initially made public is another focal point where the designation of my writing as artwork typically occurs. How writing is mediated through publication and design is a recurring interest and leads to long-term dialogues with graphic designers who I involve with the re-presentation of a text in multiple iterations, ranging from the printed page to a gallery wall.

What / who inspires you right now?

I’ve been listening to the group Sault on repeat, in particular the two albums they released in 2020, Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise). To date they’ve kept an anonymous profile, but their air of fugitivity underscores the lyrics’ references to police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and yearns for liberatory futures. At the same time you could slow-dance to at 3am to many of the tracks. It’s woven together with ambient funk and house, but it’s also protest music, just not as we typically recognise it. Shout out to the architecture practice, Apparata, they designed the conversion of Old Manor Park Library, a communal set of studios in Manor Park, across two floors with twenty units. They also transformed The White House (reopened in 2016), a former farmhouse on the Beacontree Estate in Dagenham, into a community art space. In both sites they’ve been incredibly sensitive to the layers of architectural history they’ve inherited, in the White House for example, exposing the original brick and oak beams of the 18th century property and simultaneously solving issues of ventilation. Old Manor Park Library was purpose-built in 1904. You have a palpable sense of an intergenerational dialogue with the original architects through as to what interior civic space means a hundred and fifteen years apart between then and now. Praise to my three sisters, Kara, Tamsin and Safiya, who all work in the healthcare sector, administering vaccines, surgery and biochemistry respectively, and by extension other critical workers, it hits different when they’re relatives. Finally my cacti – as a model of resilience, there’s five of them on my studio shelf. Have the lockdowns drawn out our inner cacti?

How have you kept sane during the pandemic?

My state of mind fluctuated across the pandemic from wild over-imaginings to dealing with the mundanity of day-to-day repetitions, which brought its own challenges. Much of what I was initially projecting was mediated by various post-apocalyptic movies, the unease of certain scenarios playing out like snippets of prepper and survival narratives. As that dissipated I relied on a generic combo of memes, Netflix and music, they were all means of dissipating stress. This was coupled with a project I self-initiated, Interviews With Critical Workers (2020) through which I conducted 1§ interviews with different critical workers in my social circle. It became away to process how the pandemic was affecting friends and relatives while also providing a space for them to get their points across in an unhurried way, one that wasn’t searching for soundbites. It fascinated me that so many of the interviewees focused on administrative systems and infrastructure in the NHS for example, which may not be easily consumable in an article, but integral to understanding how the UK government’s mishandling of the pandemic was not only the result of poor decision making in that immediate time frame, but systemic defunding over many years previously. 

Away from my laptop, Epping Forest was invaluable, I’d go for walks there every other day, slowly discovering new paths, especially around the River Roding Valley. It was also a safe way to be in relation to others in physical space while keeping distance: there was comfort in seeing figures running through the park, flying kites, even if they’re reduced to abstracted figures in the landscape – as no doubt I was to them.

They Are Here (Helen Walker & Harun Morrison), Offshore Transactions, 2016.
Hackney Flyover, Up Projects.

What is your preferred medium to work with?

I avoid thinking in terms of medium, I am trying to articulate ideas or possibilities and make choices accordingly – or even more satisfying they call to me, once a train of thoughts  are running to the point certain logics determine their own outcomes. I’m practicing naval knots at the moment, simply tying and untying pieces of rope, to become a more competent boater. If I presented the trace of these exercises as an artwork, I’d call it Knot Practice. Puns are great bridges between ideas. I often try to draw out the undecidability of objects through acts of dislocation. Do you think thought can be a medium?

5.If you could teleport yourself to any time or place in the world, where and when would it be?

Teleportation without external technology. . .  as mental power would also be thought as transport. In a popular sense it’s a bodily dematerialisation and rematerialisation, in the realm of thought both sci-fi  and historical fiction are teleport technology, narrative can be a form of teleportation. I’m currently writing a novel set in 1920s Harlem about a specific unattributed portrait photograph,   so I would go there. Specifically I’d visit the studio of photographer James Van Der Zee (1886 – 1983) who took the picture. He and his wife, Gaynella Greenlee, launched the Guarantee Photo Studio on West 125th Street in New York in 1916. I’ve been thinking a lot about the potential overlaps between the 2020s we’re entering now and the Harlem Renaissance and Roaring 20s a century ago. In particular both the joy and  social fervour of minoritised groups, how we are articulating this through emergent social justice coalitions, art and publication right now. 

Image Credit: Zoar Departing From St Pancras Basin, 2021.
Photo by Rose Nordin.

6. You currently live on a boat moored in Paddington on the canal, do you see your work being influenced by the journey you take through the boat?

Living on the boat is something I think about and incorporate into my work as a form of situated thinking. It opens up questions of itinerancy, polylocality, DIY/ DIWO  (do-it-with-others)  and maintenance in relation to sedentary living. Specifically how Capitalism and modern administration seeks to tie us to ownership of private property (as opposed to a boat or even a car, which can be termed personal property) and how this can be contested. Better rights-for-renters would be a significant tonic, however one response is living on water. This is not suitable for many people so cannot be pushed as a solution. However more and more people in the UK and the US are also living from cars or vans, some out of necessity and others by way of choice, so I’m interested in connecting these communities of people living itinerantly and exploring shared solidarities. Boat-living is also a means to think about state infrastructure: the National Grid, sewage systems and health databases. As a boater I’m off-grid, but still dependent on it (charging my laptop, in a coffee shop for example), or when it comes to voting I’m registered at my parents address. 

Over the last three years, the two boats I’ve lived on first, Bruno and currently Zoar, have aIso been sites of production, becoming floating studios or stages. On Bruno, working with Helen Walker, we created a screen that enabled people working in the finance sector to talk anonymously about their work in the city for one visitor at a time. The piece was titled Offshore Transactions while the boat was moored by Hackney Flyover on the River Lea. Currently I’m converting my boat Zoar into a camera obscura, which will enable me to document my planned journey along the Grand Union Canal from Paddington to Birmingham and later onwards to Stoke. The idea being that my means of transport and documentation become one and the same.

7. Can you talk a bit about the importance of collaboration in your work?

Collaboration has always been central to my work, this ranges from over a decade working with Helen Walker as They Are Here, to more one-off collaborations with other artists, academics and specialists from a variety of fields. We founded They Are Here in 2006, conscious of the legacy of art collectives such as Group Material and General Idea, as well as performance groups in the UK such as Uninvited Guests and Lone Twin. One of recent projects was ROUTINE (2018) at Studio Voltaire, in conjunction with the performance festival Block Universe. We put a call out for individuals who self-identified as living precariously to attend a two-month program of stand-up comedy workshops with a guest coach we hired. The selected participants were paid for their attendance. For the closing weekend of Block Universe, we converted the gallery into a comedy club. Each participant did a 5 minute routine. Generating space for self-narration is integral to many of our works.

It’s encouraging to see greater support for collaborative and group practices as the moment. By no coincidence the term is ever more institutionalised and has taken on associations with public funding mandates and performance of solidarity. Words like collaboration and community are in danger of having any remaining potency sucked out-of-them.  I also sense a difference in how the term collective is more often used today by emerging artists, its commitments are often looser, and might denote a set of affiliations, with aligned perspectives, presenting work under a shared name, but not necessarily tightly co-creating together.

I’m currently resident in the UCL’s Philosophy Department  at King’s College London with Dr Katherine O’Reilly, (who’s working on a publication on Ancient Women Philosophers). We’re focusing on Diogenes of Sinope, and the school of Cynics, who I like to think of as proto-performance artists. We’re at that stage of our dialogue where we’re sharing texts, videos and other reference material without thinking too hard about outcomes, it’s always a seductive place to be. 

8. Any exciting projects coming up?

I’m writing a novel to be published by Book Works in 2022, titled The Escape Artist, and my exhibition at Eastside Projects Experiments with Everyday Objects opens physically on May 19th this  month till the end of July, parallel to Leah Clements. I’m also contributing a new video work to Estuary Festival produced by Cement Fields.  I’m also working on two gardening projects in Liverpool and Finsbury Park that had been postponed during the lockdowns. Finally I’m producing a zine on Diastema, focusing on people with a gap between their front teeth like myself –  which I’ve been gathering material on for a while – still looking for participants who might feature. . .