7 February 2017

Just over a year ago, Glasgow was convulsed by The Glasgow Effect, an announcement made on Facebook of a one-year durational performance piece by artist and activist Ellie Harrison, whereby she would receive £15,000 from creative Scotland to stay within the city boundaries and engage with her local community. The announcement caused outrage on social media and trial by Twitter, as Glaswegians were forced to confront some deeply unpleasant truths about their city, the chasm between the haves havenots that creates the so-called ‘Glasgow Effect’, where the highest disparity between the middle and working class exists in Britain, if not Western Europe.

The announcement, illustrated with a photo and an unflattering photo of the artist, was like a bomb lobbed into the city during the post-New Year hangover in the depths of winter, the fact that the artist was English and middle-class only added fuel to the fire – while exiles and outsiders can often see a culture more clearly, Scots still have an uneasy relationship with the auld enemy, and a whole can of worms was opened up about the issue of arts funding.

Glaswegians are fiercely critical of their city, but can also be fiercely protective. The image of chips was practically guaranteed to create a reaction, as Glaswegians have something of a chip on their shoulder about their diets, a staple comedic butt of jokes, the anxiety exemplified by the name of the city’s flagship restaurant The Ubiquitous Chip. Harrison relates it to her first experience of trying to buy a snack in the city, (she’s lived here since 2008) and only being offered chips cooked in animal fat, when she’s a vegan.

I would say that from the amount of controversy generated by the project, by the public debate around social issues, arts funding and indeed, what art was itself, the project was already a success by its first week.

However, it went far beyond what Harrison had initially envisaged, as an exploration of contradictions in funding in the arts. While Harrison has often used humour in her work (organising zombie walks to vacant shopfronts and collaborated with the comic Josie Long), in this case the joke backfired on her to some extent. As she explains, the genesis of the project was quite dry; “I made this as an esoteric argument, and it was interesting to see what happened when it went mainstream, but I think there are problems with the art school [Duncan of Jordanstone] where I work, indeed all of them, where they’ve got this cottage industry of researchers, which is churning out bullshit, that has no positive impact on students’ experience, which saps resources away from students, and yet they’re pushing more and more staff to do that.

“In terms of empowering young people, and I know that not everybody gets to go to art school – that’s a very small number of privileged people – the ones who do are getting an education that’s potentially going to transform their lives. Especially if it gives them the things that overcome psychosocial problems, such as having control over their lives, having a sense of meaning in their lives, having autonomy. All of those things you get through education, so for me we need to be channelling all our resources into young people, so more people get access to education like this.

“The agenda in my university is to create an industry which is like a parasite sucking resources from the young people, so I wanted to draw attention to that by acting it out. I tried to mitigate the damage I was going to do by writing this job description to get some high quality cover for the time I was away.

“I like win/win solutions, so when I came up with this idea that could both be a funding application and a way to explore ideas of working within your local community, localising economies, having the time to be an active citizen, I thought I’m going to do this.”

Certainly, one aspect that critics of the project ignored was that Harrison was actually taking a pay cut in order to fulfil the project, and not being paid to stay in the city, but paid not to be able to leave. This is one under recognised and crucial aspect of the project, in that most people, when they gain access to free time and spare cash, use it to get as far away from their communities as possible, or go on holiday. And, of course, one of the perks of being an artist is getting to work and exhibit abroad, which compensates for the low incomes that most artists actually have to live on. Indeed, the piece was originally entitled ‘Think Global, Act Local’ and Harrison used her freed-up time (and some of the public money) to engage more fully with local projects and activism.

These issues are fundamental concerns to Harrison, who sees the political process as going in an opposite, and potentially dangerous direction. “It’s a bit like what we’re doing with Brexit now. We’ve got ten fucking years of negotiations, so much wasted energy going into unpicking these institutions. I see that, at this time, as a massive distraction from what we actually should be doing, which is addressing massive inequalities, problems caused by climate change, these things.

“That’s what I find so frustrating about Brexit – that it’s the people who have suffered the most from the negative side effects of globalisation that voted for it, and what do they get offered? Hyperglobalisation instead. Fuck trading with the EU, let’s start trading with Australia instead! That’ll be an absolute disaster for carbon emissions, because of the huge distance goods have to travel.

“Like striking a trade deal with America instead of France, you’re better just getting your fruit from France instead of all the way from America. It’s the opposite of thinking global, acting local, it’s moronic. And you hear no one in the debate going: ‘we need to localise our economies’.”

Personally, I think that not being able to leave the city would drive me mad – Harrison found herself having to renegotiate her relationship with the city, appreciating it on a more human scale, and vastly reducing her carbon footprint in the process (she’s passionate about climate change).

“It’s very difficult to separate the various mental health issues caused by the project, because they all merged into one, but I’d say there was a Groundhog Day element, which I felt more in the middle, where it didn’t have all the drama of the beginning and didn’t have the stress of the end. I was still working, but maybe less bothered to look after myself.”

One of the most common criticisms made of the project was the old ‘is it art?’ conundrum. Harrison originally conceived of the project as being in the tradition of durational performance as exemplified by Tehching Hsieh, who would perform year-long pieces making incredible physical demands on himself, such as photographing himself every hour over the course of a year, or Lee Lozano, and her legendary Dropout piece, where she would efface herself completely from the art world, an action which had its genesis in an Art Strike held in 1969.

Of The Glasgow Effect itself, she says, “As an artwork, I think the significance of it will become more evident through time. I don’t quite understand what I’ve done yet, but maybe will five, six, seven years down the line.”

Certainly, Harrison found herself documenting many aspects of her existence, in manner she had previously joked about in a book titled ‘Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector’. “It was because of the scrutiny of having taken public money, and the accountability that I wanted to demonstrate, it wasn’t for any narcissistic self-understanding – it was a way of trying to account for this period of time.

“The accusation of being lazy really got to me, so I relapsed with my data collecting. I weighed my rubbish each month, my precise gas and electricity usage so I could calculate an accurate carbon footprint. Because I got trapped in this data collecting thing, and got trapped in my own systems, I couldn’t change anything in particular.”

The ultimate importance of The Glasgow Effect may turn out to be as a prototype for a way of living, one exploring the idea of a basic income. While there is currently much debate about the effects of globalisation and immigration on jobs, there is potentially a far greater threat coming – that of automation. Harrison thinks that the basic income is the only solution to this, as part of a greater social transformation;

“Art and a creative education can play an important part, because it can give people the sense of a lifelong project. So for me, this year was also framed with a bigger motivational structure of ‘making an artwork’, and that’s what the art practice did – all the activity I was doing may not have been art, but art gave it the structure.

“Being unemployed means being stigmatised, although I was also being treated as a ‘scrounger’ by the Daily Mail and the rest, taking public money and doing fuck all with it.

“You can remove stigmatisation by giving it to everyone, making it universal, though I still feel that it’s not just about money, it’s about providing for people’s needs. The more we have to do transactions for every single aspect of our lives, it relates to extrinsic values – the more you’re thinking about money, the less you’re thinking about community – they fall aside. We’re living in a system where we always have to think about money, which suppresses all those other things.”

Perhaps Harrison just naturally generates controversy – in the course of the interview we were interrupted by an irate gentleman who was irked by her ‘F**k First Buses’ T-shirt, as worn to noise up the Scottish Parliament earlier that day. Public transport is one of the aspects of public life she’s most committed to, including running the Bring Back British Rail campaign. She’s especially frustrated by the corruption of the public sector by the private sector; “The Daily Mail even emailed me after the talk going: ‘our readers will still be angry that you spent £8,400 to live off’. And that made me angry, because it made me realise that the smaller the income, the greater the scrutiny. I mean the head of SPT, a publicly owned, publicly funded body, is getting more than £136,000… That’s a disgrace, that’s public money, and I’ll tell you, I did more work at SPT last year than he did. I’ve sat at meetings and he never says a thing.”

Ultimately, however, both The Glasgow Effect and Ellie Harrison’s work are, I think, hopeful, in that they illustrate how individuals can organise their lives around and against these structures.

“My struggle’s in binging down the cost of living, the cost of transport, all the basic things people need access to, all the things that were privatised.

“I didn’t start to realise until I came to Glasgow, and learnt what happened to Labour in the 90s – when I learned about that I set up the Bring Back British Rail campaign, to help educate younger people and keep the dream alive – it wasn’t like this before.

“We need to fight back.”

Brian Beadie