Harriet Richardson – Men Are My Muse

by Rubén Palma
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Harriet Richardson is a contemporary artist who explores themes of provocation, politics and sexuality in her conceptual works. She is known for her unique, often subversive approach to art, which often involves unconventional materials and methods. Richardson’s work has been featured in numerous outlets, most recently including The New York Times and VICE. In addition to her work as an artist, Richardson is also an advocate for the Climate Crisis and its disproportionate impact on minority groups, frequently using her platform to raise awareness about social justice issues.

Censorship Series Stand Alone Piece II

Hi Harriet! Thank you for sitting down with me! First question that I always ask. How does a regular day look like for you in London?

My new year’s resolution for 2024 was to be on my phone less, so seen as we’re now approaching March, I like to begin each day with my crusty eyes staring into the relentless glowing monotony of Instagram (there’s always next year). At the moment we’re still technically in Winter, so my day starts about 1 hour later than usual when my SAD light wakes me up. If I’m being good, I’ll go to my artist studio in Vauxhall and work from there, if not, I’ll work from all the different soft places in my house. After all, optimising the benefits of working for yourself is the only way it’s sustainable.

My day consists of balancing tasks that allow me to earn a living whilst enabling me to be an artist. It took me 28 years to realise that physical exercise makes me less sad, so I try to go for a run around 3 times a week. I’m working on a performance piece that requires me to have the strength of 6 grown men by June, so I’m hoping ‘Couch to 5k’ will get me there.

I live in London, so I justify that decision by attending as many art, design and comedy events as my social battery will allow. At the end of last year, I was fortunate enough to visit Marina Abramović’s show at the RA and it blew my mind. 

My days end late, as I tend to be at my most creative in the evenings. My favourite place to be is in the bath, so this is where you’ll find me writing my to-do list for the next day.

Scandalous Book 2024

I’m curious. Growing up in Manchester, what kind of kid were you? What did you enjoy doing, and how did you spend your time?

I grew up in a first-generation middle-class household with working-class parents in Manchester. This meant that my parents knew what it was to be poor and often reminded me and my brother of how lucky were to have a roof over our heads. As a result, they were anxious by nature, which I think contributed to my shyness and tendency to play by myself. 

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my childhood, or playing alone, I just didn’t know any different. All my games involved imagination and fantasy, which I think informs a lot of my work to this day. I loved coming up with complex narratives for little plastic figures. My playmobile dad would always be tied up in some kind of mafia-related love affair. I made my barbies argue on a Jeremy-Kyle-style set about who had the biggest boobs and the stupidest boyfriend. All my teddies had mysterious illnesses or suffered traumatic accidents from the top of the stairs to the bottom. On reflection, I think was attracted to the expression of real emotion and problems through play because I was so sheltered from them. It feels like all of this has influenced the emotion and themes of my art.

Boys were also a huge fascination of mine in my teenage years, primarily because they were banned from the house. Even the mention of a crush could bring a weird hue over my home which would last days. A symptom of this kind of unintentional sexual repression meant that I spent a lot of my teenage time sneaking around. I remember walking 4 hours in the snow in Ugg boots just to meet a guy I fancied for 20 minutes in the park. It’s not a surprise to me that suppression and control feature heavily in my work.

Scandalous Book 2024

Both your parents are graphic designers, how has that influenced your creativity and career path?

It’s been both the making of and the downfall of my creativity and my career path. Even before I left school, I was aware of the outsider perspective that my life would be easier because my parent’s had ‘careers’ instead of ‘jobs’. This is somewhat true as they transferred their first-generation graduate work ethics and their graphic designer approach to creative ideation onto me, but it also meant that for at least the first 10 years of my adult life, I didn’t allow any other creative exploration to come near. For me, graphic design was where creativity started and ended.  

I viewed any other creative practices as a waste of time and held the belief that only graphic design was good because it was sustainable as a job. It took me 24 years, plus 4 years of therapy to undo this mindset. I can’t tell you if having graphic designer parents is a good or bad thing because I don’t think it’s either, but it’s certainly shaped who I am today. 

What’s your earliest memory of you creating something?

Whenever my mum meets a new boyfriend, she takes great pride in telling them about what she calls my ‘first ever artwork’. I was 3 years old, and after many failed attempts, I had successfully used the potty for the first time independently – albeit in my parents’ bedroom. On realising I had no toilet paper to complete the process, I proceeded to pull the wallpaper from the wall to wipe my behind. Mum didn’t have any wallpaper left to replace the hole I’d created, so she was forced to wash it and stick it back on. I regard this as both an early display of creativity and an act of authoritative rebellion. It’s also the only piece of my art that my parents have on their wall, to date.

Scandalous Book 2024

Alright, so you worked at Pentagram for four years, that’s a huge platform. How did that come about?

The combination of my fear of failure and the urge to make my parents proud meant that I achieved the highest awarded degree in the history of my university, along with 3 D&AD student awards. I left university with one friend, mental health issues and enough accolades to give me the pick of the top design agencies in London. Still on a mission to prove something, I opted to work at the world’s largest (and probably most famous) independent design agency, Pentagram. 

Meeting with Pentagram Partner John Rushworth, it was clear that he valued the lateral thinking that my university instilled in me, and I subsequently worked as a Designer on John’s team at the Pentagram London office for 4 years. This gave me the invaluable experience of working closely with, and occasionally annoying some of, the most well-respected and established designers in the world. Pentagram taught me the fundamentals of proper practice in design, paired with the all-important craft of running a business, which I will value forever. 

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Gotya, and then one day you attended a climate strike. The biggest In years. Tell me about that event, and how that changed your envisioned trajectory in life.

Attending Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Youth for Climate’ strike in 2019 was a pivotal moment in my creative career. After rallying the troops (five to be exact) I skipped work for 2 hours to attend the protest, against the advice of the majority of the Pentagram Partners. 

In a complete rush, I knocked together around 20 protest signs with copy lines off the top of my head, all relating to the climate crisis. They ranged in originality and effectiveness, from ‘I can’t swim’ to ‘I can’t believe I have to protest for this shit’, but the important part was that we we’re contributing to the movement. The crowd favourite read ‘Leonardo Dicaprio’s Girlfriends Deserve A Future’, which saw me getting papped a couple of times by different news outlets. As the days passed, I saw myself and my signs getting coverage on Twitter, Vice, Refinery 29, culminating with me, sign in hand, on the front page of The Guardian. 

This event was both the first time I’d seen creativity used actively for a good cause without it being attached to some kind of brand with an ulterior motive or agenda, and the first time I received feedback in real time for a piece of my work. My creative involvement in this movement is a feeling that I’ve been chasing ever since.

The reception and recognition of my work that was created only for good was worth the possibility of getting fired.

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Leaving a company like Pentagram must have been a nerve wrecking decision. Can you tell me about that period in your life? And what was your thought process like?

Both the nature and unique structure of Pentagram isn’t designed to nurture creative careers for a long time, so leaving after 4 years is not only the norm, but actively encouraged. It’s like the swimming pool of design, if you stay too long you just end up exhausted, hungry, and wrinkly before your time. Because of this, it didn’t feel scary leaving. It felt exactly right that I’d learnt what I needed to learn to enable me to make the next steps. 

Where do you think your love for wordplay comes from? And why are words a powerful art form?

God, I wish I knew. I think there has to be a link between graphic design and its demand that you’re able to effectively communicate a wide audience whilst keeping them engaged – which words are great for. 

When I was 19 I fell in love with a man who made puns his entire personality and also wasn’t in love with me, so I really upped my wordplay game during that time. I think above all, my success with wordplay is the same reason that ABBA were such great songwriters; their first language was Swedish, and mine’s Mancunian, so we’re both looking at language from the side instead of front on.

Censorship Series Stand Alone Piece

I saw an interview with Elon Musk, where he explained that the only reason he bought Twitter (X), was because it had become too censored and bias, not allowing certain people the freedom of speech. He bought it for a huge overvalued price btw. What’s your take on censorship on social media? What’s your opinion on it?

I’ve not seen that interview because f*ck Elon Musk, but even imagining that man having a point of view makes my mouth dry. 

Discriminatory censorship on social media is a blatant violation of the principles of freedom and equality. It’s beyond infuriating to witness the silencing and marginalization of certain voices based on the prejudice and bias of a group of insecure billionaire sociopaths. This form of censorship, prevalent on various social media platforms, limits our exposure to diverse perspectives and perpetuates systemic inequality. It fundamentally undermines the very essence of free speech and the democratic ethos these platforms supposedly uphold. It’s about time we stand against such discriminatory practices and demand a more open, inclusive social media space where every voice, irrespective of its origin or outlook, is heard and respected.

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So with that in mind. How do you think that censorship affects the art world?

Some of the most celebrated artists in history would never have happened if they’d been active in a time that falls such a victim to surveillance and censorship. Protest and pushing boundaries have been part of Art since Art began, but even with this in mind, there still must be a way in which art is seen and distributed. Instagram and Facebook and Tiktok limit this to the point that a lot of brilliant Artists have already given up the fight. 

Can you tell me about your inspiration and creative drive behind your work?

Anger. I’m the least angry person you’ll ever meet with but when I’m alone with my thoughts and stewing in the suppression I feel from all aspects of my home, work and creative life, that’s when I think of something. In terms of a muse, I think straight men really drive this. I find them and the impact that they’ve had on my life completely fascinating. 

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You recently launched Art School Members Club. Tell me about that, what is it and what’s your vision for the project?

ASMC is a concept gallery that I’ve created with the aim of challenging the toxic exclusivity and elitism that I experienced in entering the world of art. I believe that appreciating, creating, and owning art is for everybody – not just the privileged few. Art can be anything. Artists can be anyone. ASMC is a space that not only allows me to showcase my own work and make it available to the public, but to showcase works and artists that may not otherwise be represented. @artschoolmembersclub.

I followed the hilarious series between you and your landlord. I gotta know, what’s status quo? Where are we at right now?

Firstly, I prefer the term ‘land-collector’ over ‘landlord’. There’s just something about a person who owns nine properties in central London and during a housing crisis, whom doesn’t abide by basic tenant rights that just doesn’t sit right with me. I can’t put my finger on it. As you will have seen, my landlord likes to enlist the free labour of her DJ friend or husband to aid me in fixing small issues such as broken pipes or a door that doesn’t lock. Utilising a creative approach to dealing with her is the only way I can sleep at night.

A few days ago you completed your 100 Days’ performance. Can you tell us about that?

I had a breakdown at Christmas and convinced myself that I’m meant to be pursuing something more performance centric than I’m currently doing. The art that feels most authentic to me is usually the stuff that’s reliant on an audience of some sort (whether online or in person). The other element that I think makes for the more successful pieces of my art is my personal investment and involvement in the piece. 

‘100 Dates’, is a collaborative online performance that took place on Valentine’s Day 2024. From early morning until midnight, I engaged in back-to-back candle-lit video calls, dating over 100 different people for 5 minutes each. This performance was accomplished without any breaks, challenging my endurance for human interaction in the form of video conversation.

The performance was just over a week ago now, and if I’m honest, I’m still in the recovery and processing phase. In the aftermath, I find myself revisiting the conversations, the laughter, the outrageous flirting, and the bizarre sensation of dating old flames and brand-new people moments apart. This performance, while exhausting, was an incredibly rewarding exploration of connection, vulnerability, and the shared human experience.

How did you come up with the idea? 

100 Dates was inspired by rejection. I developed a crush on a man who slid into my DMs, and after talking daily for about a month, we decided to meet face-to-face. It was only when we were sitting across each other in a bright London café, discussing the weather and not knowing what to do with out hands, that the stark contrast between our late-night chats and the present moment hit me. Post-date, I realised that the pain from a digital rejection can often feel more profound and intense than a fleeting in-person mismatch. This is not only due to the time and energy invested but also the feeling that the other person has already been a guest in your home and your bed. By conducting 100 dates in my own home, I aim to explore the dynamics of digital interactions and the possibility of genuine, lasting connection.

I also just didn’t want to be alone on a day which, in some other outcome, could’ve been filled with passionate, kinky, DM-founded sex. It turns out chocolate strawberries taste even better when you make them for yourself.

What motivates you?

Anger, fear and hormones, honestly. The fear of being lonely, forgotten, sad, abandoned, undesirable, unable to afford my rent, average. Anger towards pretty much everyone and everything that feels unjust or uncomfortable. Depending on which part of my cycle you catch me in, I’m either cooking up the best idea I think I’ve ever had or I’m planning my funeral. It would be silly to think that my hormones don’t affect my creativity and productivity.  

Anybody you look up to?

Four years of psychotherapy has taught me that having crushes or idols isn’t something that’s sustainable for me, but I think admiring people’s work and seeing how others navigate life is essential. In terms of artists, I love Bo Burnham for his satirical take on heavy subjects. I love Carolee Schneemann for her bravery. I love Julia Fox for her heroism in the face of controlling men. I love Jerry Saltz for making me think I’m an Artist. I love Harry Hill for being the first reason I urinated whilst laughing. I love pigeons for their tenacity and their incredible homing abilities. I love Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson for giving me something to hate so passionately.

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How would you describe a perfect day?

I’m awoken by my phone ringing, it’s Bo Burnham. He’s calling to tell me that Carolee Schneemann isn’t actually dead, and she wants to work with me, then he asks me out. I look down, that’s weird, my boobs are closer to my face than before, and they feel bigger somehow. Before I get to examine myself properly, I realise there’s something tickling me under the covers. I pull the duvet away and find one million pounds in bank notes. I start collecting the scattered notes when there’s a knock at the door. It’s Julia Fox, she’s flown in from NYC to tell me that my style is five stars, and she has news from the big apple that Jerry Saltz wants to meet me to present the Turner Prize in person. Suddenly, we’re interrupted by yelling in the street. It’s Harry Hill, and he’s informing the neighbourhood that there was a freak plane crash in which a heroic bird collided with an engine, fatally injuring Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson, who we’re all on their way to the annual anti-feminist ergonomic keyboard conference.

Either that or maybe just hanging out with my cat and then a cinema date.

Alright Harriet. I always ask these two questions at the end of an interview. The first is. What’s your favourite movie(s) and why?

One of my favourite pieces of film is Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’. Whether intended or not, it ended up being an immersive experience because I watched it during a breakup and in lockdown. Bo’s ability to create something completely immersive and claustrophobic and in equal parts sharp and heart breaking is like nothing I’ve seen before. The setup of it being a one-man-show resonated with me and how I feel creatively, romantically, socially – alone. Sadly, I think a lot of people don’t see it as anything more than a mashup of TikTok-style soundtracks, but they’re wrong.

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The second is. What song(s) are you currently listening to the most right now?

Everything Alex Turner writes is unparalleled and, respectfully, I want to drink his bath water. As you know, I’m a huge lover of writing and I have an unwavering respect for people who manage to use language in such an elegant and manipulative way.

I get stuck on one song and just listen to it repeatedly until I hate it. Right now it’s ‘Bodypaint’ by the Arctic Monkeys. I like the bit where he says ‘And if you’re thinking of me, I’m probably thinking of you’ because it’s nice to know that Alex Turner is thinking of me. 

One of my all-time favourite songs is Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’. I listen to it at least thrice daily. As both an artist and a person I often find myself torn between contributing to good and the overwhelming urge to do something immoral, which I think this song defines perfectly. 

At my funeral, as my coffin crawls towards the incinerator, I want the song ‘Is it cos’ I’m cool by Mousse T’ to accompany me whilst nude selfies are projected onto the crematorium’s walls. I would also like to frame a really shitty ex for my death, but I haven’t decided which one. Maybe I haven’t met him yet.

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