6 January 2016
An artist faces media outcry after their project is twisted, misreported and thrust luridly into the public eye. I thought I knew whose side I was on.
After all, mob rule is ugly. Seeing an artist torn apart over a £15,000 grant is uglier still. But the reaction to the Glasgow Effect isn’t just a hostility towards art as a waste of time, or an evolved Daily Mail hand-fluttering over used condoms and unwashed sheets displayed in the Tate Modern. It’s a symptom of a deep, justified anger towards an establishment that’s failing Scottish artists, and at entrenched class and cultural divides that it takes more than one year-long art project to cross.
Ellie Harrison’s ‘action research’ project means she won’t leave Greater Glasgow during 2016, except in case of family/friend illness/death. Just days in, it’s hard to say what she’ll do, but her work is a million miles from mindlessly self-indulgent, elitist contemporary art stereotypes. She started her career as a pioneer in the quantified self movement, obsessively tracking her own body’s processes and her own reactions and thoughts in a series of instantly accessible and fascinating blogs. More recently, she’s moved into activism. I came across her through her work This Is What Democracy Looks Like!, a political roundtable discussion between constituents and politicians on a bike built for seven people. She also started the National Museum of Roller Derby, as an archive of feminist full-contact sport, and toured the country in hand-drawn t-shirts with her campaign to Bring Back British Rail.
You wouldn’t know any of this from the way she’s been described in a host of hostile news articles: as a London artist, parachuted into Glasgow to document the privations of life in the city in a patronising, impenetrable kind of art tourism. The outcry was initiated – or at least, its flames were substantially fanned – by Glasgow University undergraduate Aidan Kerr’s story for the Daily Record. He’s no stranger to controversy, after writing an expose that infuriated several SNP members this Spring. His article used the emotive phrase “poverty safari” front and centre, plucked from an interview with Glasgow-based artist and rapper Loki. “London-born” and “middle-class” also featured prominently in Kerr’s scoop – much more prominently than any attempt to engage with her work, or recognition that she was just a few days into a year-long project.
Lyn Gardner’s blog for the Guardian pretty much sums up my first response to the article, and to the onslaught of salty comments and “waste of time” polls that piled up on the Glasgow Effect Facebook event page. And if she’d embarked on a project called The Bristol Effect, I think I would have kept on feeling that way.
But then I chased down the Twitter trail, read comments from a Scottish nurse talking about the horror of the huge numbers of early, preventable deaths caused by poverty, poor diet and addiction that gave The Glasgow Effect its name. Compared them to the contemporary-art-archness of the greasy chips used as the page’s banner images. Then I read Glasgow artist Loki’s longer, more considered blog. He jumps off from Ellie Harrison’s starting provocation of “How would your career, social life, family ties, carbon footprint & mental health be affected if you could not leave the city where you live?’’:
“Gosh I don’t know? I guess life would be pretty shite. Perhaps your horizons would be pretty narrow and you may develop some self-defeating behaviours like over-eating or taking up one or more addictions in an attempt to manage psycho-social stress?
Maybe if you had a more stable upbringing you would be emotionally resilient and less likely to succumb to the vices many others use as coping strategies?
Maybe if you were young you’d join a local gang to cope with deep feelings of isolation and institutional rejection and turn to African American gangster rap because it’s the only form of culture you feel represents you?”
He lists a depressing succession of community arts projects floundering, underfunded or cut completely, from kids’ music lessons to whole venues closed. This outcry isn’t just about art being good or bad. It’s about people feeling their lives are being ignored. That what money there is is being gambled with, or frittered away. About decades of bad spending and mismanagement in Scottish arts. About a city that’s screwing over its own artists – or is perceived to be – so badly that the suggestion of bringing in an artist from anywhere else is enough to make people livid.
Commenters complained that £15,000 was being wasted while food banks closed, and that’s transparently easy to argue with. Creative Scotland is a separate, independently funded body that doesn’t have anything to do with how local councils choose to spend or not spend their money. Its own aims are to support artists, to “enrich Scotland’s reputation as a distinctive creative nation connected to the world.” But although Creative Scotland isn’t an accountable government body as such, its £10.5million spending pot comes from the National Lottery — and lottery ticket buyers are disproportionately likely to be unemployed, or low income. The same people who are worst hit by local council cuts to arts education, or youth clubs, or closures of mixed-use venues like The Arches last year.
Scotland can’t become a “distinctive creative nation” without supporting homegrown artists, as well as hosting outward-facing projects like Ellie Harrison’s. She’s asking, among other things: what happens to a contemporary artist who stays in one city? Turning down invites to international festivals? Meanwhile, missed opportunities in Glasgow mean local artists can only dream of being in a position to ask that question. And far greater numbers of local people are trapped there, by their financial and work circumstances.
So, maybe people should be angry about Harrison’s project. But not at her, an artist, receiving a relatively small amount of funding to carry out a year’s worth of work, as (she has since explained) one of the conditions of her job as an art lecturer at Dundee. At the huge organisations — the university that obliges her to apply for funding, Creative Scotland, Glasgow City Council — and their decisions. And at the gulf between them and the public that’s so big that thousands of angry Facebook comments are only half a bridge across it, unmet from the other side.
Ellie Harrison is handling the mess with good grace. She’s published her original application for funding online. Offered to meet her detractors in person. How many public bodies would offer that kind of transparency? And her track record in activism, in listening, could make this project a platform for something really exciting to happen. People are ready to be outraged, but still ready for something.
Writing this piece, ploughing through social media trails and the pretty horrendous abuse Ellie Harrison has got just for doing her job felt grubby. It reminded me how tempting it can be to keep your head down and make work that looks and speaks inwards, in places of safety. As she steps back from Facebook, it feels like a siege is coming to an end. Ellie Harrison’s head is above the parapet and from a blurred distance she looks like things she’s not (young, inexperienced, parachuted in, a tourist). But as her adversaries get out of firing range, into speaking range, there might be a battle worth watching.