27 May 2016
Deveron Projects, Huntly
Deirdre Heddon: And she’s recently embarked on a project called The Glasgow Effect… [Skype call] Hello Ellie?
Ellie Harrison: Hi [waves]
Deirdre Heddon: Hello Ellie. We can see you, you can’t see us. It’s Dee Heddon here. We met very briefly, as it happens, in a pub in Glasgow. In Mono in Glasgow, for anyone that knows Mono. Ellie it’s very sunny and beautiful in Huntly, I don’t know what it’s like in Glasgow today?
Ellie Harrison: Grey [laughs]
Deirdre Heddon: Oh, I’m glad I’m in Huntly. So, Ellie I’ve got a very strict ten minutes to have a chat with you about your work. And I began by introducing you, when you weren’t with us in the room, to the audience that’s here and there’s probably about eighty folk in the room today, which is great. And we’ve had a nice lunch and we’ve come back in and we’ve heard about the rainforest in the DRC… So now we’re moving to Glasgow for something entirely different, and I explained that there’s a reason why you weren’t here in this room with us today, and that perhaps we’d begin by you explaining why you weren’t here with us today in Huntly.
Ellie Harrison: Yes. So I’m working on a project which turned out to be quite controversial called The Glasgow Effect and it’s a very simple premise that I’m not going to leave the city for a whole year… and to see how that affects my life and also affects the life of the people and institutions that I have responsibilities to outside of the city. So, it was a way of trying to reduce my carbon footprint and of resisting the continual pressure that there is in the art world or for artists to travel in order to find work.
Deirdre Heddon: OK, and how’s that going so far?
Ellie Harrison: Well [laughs], I mean I haven’t left Glasgow yet… and yeah, the other thing that I’m trying to do is not use any vehicles at all. So I’m just cycling. And I mean it is… the reason the project was so controversial at the start of the year, for people who followed the online debate, is because it’s funded by Creative Scotland and so therefore, I’m not really in a situation where I’m having to earn any money. So, the pressure to actually travel and find work doesn’t exist anymore because… I can stay here and just work on stuff that I don’t need to generate any money from. So, yeah, I’ve succeeded in staying in the city and… but… lots of interesting things have opened up. I guess my perception of distance has changed a lot, because I’m not even going on the bus or on the Subway or on any trains, so even going to the Southside… I’m in the East End at the moment. I’m at the WASPS studios in Dennistoun. But even going to the Southside is a bit of an expedition that I need to factor into my day. But yeah… I am focussing a lot more on what’s happening in this city and I’ve got a lot more time to, I guess, address lots of the problems that I can see in the way our city is being run and the infrastructure that’s being provided for transport particularly.
Deirdre Heddon: One of the reasons the project was initially, at least, thought to be controversial was because of its title The Glasgow Effect, which… I don’t know if you want to talk about that. Because ‘the Glasgow effect’ is obviously a term that wasn’t invented by you and has other resonances I suppose, and part of the two days in Huntly is to talk in a away about equality and The Glasgow Effect is very specifically addressing a particular inequality that’s evident in the city of Glasgow. I don’t if you want to talk about that at all and how you think your project relates to the other ‘Glasgow Effect’.
Ellie Harrison: Yeah, I mean I knew when I picked that title that it was going to be provocative. But the reason I chose it because I guess… I’m an economic migrant to Glasgow. I came here because of ‘the Glasgow miracle’, because I went to the Art School, went to get my masters. You know, I was just blindly following this kind of… career trajectory that’s mapped out for most privileged people who want to get into the art world. So it was probably only like after… I think it was about 2013-2014… having lived here for maybe four or five years in a bit of an art world bubble, that I heard the phrase ‘the Glasgow effect’. And I was shocked to find out what it meant but also I guess even more shocked that other people I spoke to in the art world had no idea what it was and it really kind of occurred to me that there was real polarisation of wealth and privilege in this city that is not being addressed in the majority of culture, or at least visual arts culture, that I could see. So I picked that title.
And a lot of what I’ve done… because I do quite a lot of campaigning work. I made a decision when I was actually studying about how I wanted to spend my time was to invest a certain amount of my energy and enthusiasm and skills that a lot of artists, well most artists, would normally just channel into their own career, furthering their own cause, that I would try to re-divert some of that energy into bigger political aims. So that’s when I set up my Bring Back British Rail campaign, which is campaigning for… a return to public ownership for the national rail network. So that takes up quite a lot of my time… I’ve completely forgotten what I was talking about now… I can’t see you!
Deirdre Heddon: You were talking about ‘the Glasgow effect’… it’s OK to go off on other journeys as well. I think it’s important that folk do… maybe in a way, and partly because of the provocation that you set out consciously and also because of the power of social media, that maybe people didn’t realise that you had that really political commitment to sustainability issues and indeed probably justice and equality more broadly throughout your practice prior to coming to The Glasgow Effect. So Bring Back British Rail is probably one of the most visible campaign projects in the UK and whether folk made that connection between you and that other campaigning work, I’m not certain. But social media whipped up a bit of a storm that you then had to survive in some ways. Do you think folk are recognising a bit more the… I guess, the political aspirations of your project now?
Ellie Harrison: I don’t know. I mean… it is in its very nature a bit of a slow burning project… I guess, it’s been an angry project from the start. And I guess all the anger, having to endure all that abuse, you know, I kind of endured it in silence for quite a few months and actually it’s only going to motivate me more to try to do something to make a change in this city. And I guess, yes… the things I was going to say. I was going to talk about… when I was talking about Bring Back British Rail… I decided to start doing that campaign as almost a criticism of art. You know to say that art can’t make the changes that I want to see in the world so therefore I’m going to re-divert quite a lot of my time and energy into direct political campaigning. So there’s always been this sort of ‘anti-art’ or ‘anti-artist’ strand to what I’ve been doing and thinking: ‘god, if only all that money and all that energy and all that time was re-invested into something that actually could make a difference to our world’…
I guess that’s really what I’m doing with my year… and the way I framed it… and this is why it pissed so many people off, is that I could actually do nothing, make no art works at all and I’d still be making an artwork by doing the project, because if I succeed in staying here for a year without leaving, then I’ll have created what I set out to do. So it means then that I’ve got a year of time, being paid for by Creative Scotland, to actually channel into whatever I want to do. So I’m trying to do as much… campaigning work locally, but also developing other projects and one of those is… trying to set up a new funding scheme called the Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund, which will use renewable energy… to create a funding stream for radical art… and actual protests and direct action. So it’s kind of like encouraging a more politicised art practice, through providing some sort of support structure for that. So I’m trying to do that, I’m trying to do a hell of a lot… too much really. But it’s also because I feel this terrible weight of responsibility, you know, I’ve taken the public’s money, I’ve got to give them something!
Deirdre Heddon: Well thank you for joining us. My ten minutes is up. I think folk can probably find out about your Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund online.
Ellie Harrison: You certainly can if you visit [shows postcard with website address]… the Kickstarter isn’t running anymore but you can join the mailing list.
Deirdre Heddon: And you’re coming back in in about thirty-odd minutes for the discussion, so maybe you’re staying online to hear everyone else.
Ellie Harrison: Yeah, can do.
Deirdre Heddon: Anyway… can I have a round of applause for Ellie Harrison.