9 February 2017
After hitting the headlines and becoming the focus of an angry online backlash last year, the artist reveals what’s next.
At the beginning of this year, with her project The Glasgow Effect (the one where she didn’t leave Glasgow for a year; you may have felt the controversy earthquake when it began) at last behind her, the artist Ellie Harrison was in the papers for very different reasons. Amid protests against rail fare increases in cities including Glasgow, London and Manchester, the group Bring Back British Rail was named regularly. Campaigning ‘for a re-unified national rail network run for people not profit’ and liked by more than 100,000 people on Facebook (Jeremy Corbyn follows on Twitter), BBBR essentially is Harrison; or rather, was when it started in 2009.
‘People said I was mad,’ she says now. ‘What, renationalise the railways? It’ll never happen! Now polls say the majority of people want it and the Scottish Government are discussing it.’ Settling into a seat in Edinburgh’s Spoon café, she’s making one of her first trips outside Glasgow since late 2015, this time to help present Get Glasgow Moving’s ‘Haud the Bus’ petition at the Scottish Parliament, another campaign against the privatisation of public transport. ‘I’m a geek for public transport,’ she smiles, almost apologetically. ‘I could talk about it all day.’
In person, Harrison seems genuine and enthusiastic, and entirely undeserving of all the online crap which The Glasgow Effect dropped on her. As we wrote at the time, the gist of that criticism was that she was ‘a spoilt, middle-class, “London blogger” class tourist, being paid 15k to come up to Glasgow and sample life as low-income Glaswegians live it’. Amid a promising debate about the point of publicly funded art, things got depressingly personal and ill-informed. She was indeed born in London, but she’s lived in Glasgow for eight years now, and works at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee.
‘The university didn’t want me to do it, my family (in London) didn’t want me to do it… by the end of 2015 even I didn’t want to do it,’ she says. ‘Fuck it, I thought, I’m doing it! It was like I had to, to test some things. But the way it blew up, the way it became angry and nasty, for me that was a reflection of the way the world was going.’ The project involved not using public transport, in an attempt to cut her carbon footprint right down. While she walked or cycled in the wind and rain, her movement tracker totalled up the 3753 kilometres she travelled, dropping that footprint to zero from 3.48 tonnes in 2015. The Greater Glasgow-shaped heat map she generated over the year is, she says, ‘a beautiful thing’.
As we talk, this restless thinker spreads out leaflets, flyers, proposals and densely packed notebooks to show her working – and she is working, mainly on projects related to transport which will have a real and measurable effect on the economic and environmental lives of many if their messages are delivered. Some of these – like Bring Back British Rail – have already been widely discussed in the media, although she’d rather we didn’t go into detail about them, preferring to be ‘the puppet master’, making things happen behind the scenes. Yet they’re genuinely big ideas.
The last year was spent in non-stop activity, attending meetings, sitting in on council groups, building an understanding of Glasgow. ‘People focus on what I spent the money on, not on what I didn’t spend it on,’ she sighs. ‘The Glasgow Effect was a boycott of the oil industry, of privatised public transport…’ It was also an all-too-personal study in the loneliness, transience and poverty globalisation can create. Now she wants to put all that knowledge to use.
Harrison says her soulmate is Lee Lozano, the late American artist whose conceptual piece ‘Drop Out’ saw her simply leave the art world and never return, yet we’re reminded more immediately of the Turner-winning design collective Assemble, doing something conceptually beautiful with the possibility of making real changes in the world. She remembers her first train journey of 2017, the first time she felt she wasn’t existing under responsibility to others in over a year. ‘The Glasgow Effect was like a dark cloud hanging over me. But I did it, and I feel like I’ve made my peace with the city because of it.’