In this interview for LADA’s Live Art Sector Research report, Harrison reflects on how Live Art tools and tactics have influenced her practice, and explains how her Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund project evolved into Glasgow Community Energy – Glasgow’s new community-owned renewable energy co-operative. (Word count: 1,010)
Can you describe how Live Art has informed your practice and approach to the Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund (RRAAF)?
I studied Fine Art, originally in Nottingham from 1998–2001, where there was a very active Live Art scene. I always saw performance, interaction, collaboration and new media as key tools and tactics available to me for communicating ideas. My first break was with Nottingham’s Live Art festival eXpo in 2001. After I moved to Glasgow in 2008, to study for a Masters at Glasgow School of Art, my work became more politicised. The idea for RRAAF came about in 2014–2015 after seeing the impact of Cameron’s austerity programme on public funding for the arts, as well as inspiring campaigns (like Liberate Tate) drawing attention to the damaging impact of corporate sponsorship, specifically by fossil fuel companies. Both created a toxic environment, where you were either pitted against peers for diminishing public funding, or you were exploited by big companies to legitimise the business models that are fuelling climate breakdown.
In 2013–2014, I took part in the New Economy Organisers Network’s Campaign Lab, an ‘economic justice’ campaigning course. The course was all about ‘systemic’ change. That means going to the root cause of our problems – in this case broken funding systems – and creating radical alternatives which can produce more positive outcomes. It was clear that we urgently needed an ethical and autonomous funding source for art and activism that would not be compromised by the agendas of the funding body and could speak truth to power.
The basic premise of RRAAF was to set up a new organisation which would invest in renewable energy – one of the solutions to the climate crisis – and use profits generated to create the funding scheme. The skills I learnt at art school – critical thinking, practical skills, confidence, self-motivation – along with the eclectic tools and tactics described above, were all employed to get it off the ground. At the group exhibition Harnessing the Wind at Beaconsfield Gallery in London, I launched a crowdfunding campaign, which enabled me to commission an initial scoping report.
How have organisations, initiatives and networks aligned with Live Art supported the development and impact of your practice and this project?
LADA’s Take the Money and Run Study Room Guide from 2015 was very influential in developing the initial concept for RRAAF, and many of the 157 people who backed the initial crowdfunding campaign were artists. Their aspirations for RRAAF were quoted throughout the scoping report, including this one from curator and researcher Cecilia Wee: ‘RRAAF is exactly the type of inspirational project that is needed to rethink the relationship between art, economy and the environment. Let’s renew and repower the radical and independent!’
Cecilia then went on to become really involved in developing the project over the next year, including helping organise the RRAAF Founding Symposium at the CCA Glasgow in July 2016, where we decided the new organisation’s aims and values and made the decision to constitute as a Community Benefit Society (a form of co-operative).
How has Live Art as a strategy and artform allowed you to (experiment with how you) work with audiences and/or participants?
The direction the project took next was informed by my Live Art practice. In 2016, I undertook what was seen as a ‘controversial’ year-long durational performance called The Glasgow Effect. For that whole calendar year, I refused to leave Glasgow’s city limits, or use any vehicles except my bike. It was a protest against an increasingly globalised economy and a real-life experiment in ‘thinking globally, acting locally’, seeing what I could make happen if I invested all my time, energy and ideas in the city where I lived.
It was during this year that I really came to appreciate the importance of place. This is of particular significance when talking about renewable energy installations, as they cannot just be plonked on any particular community without their consent. Although the RRAAF project had developed a significant ‘community of interest’ around the UK, what it needed to get to the next stage was a ‘community of place’. And because I had deliberately chosen to focus on Glasgow so intensively, it became clear this was where the project needed to grow roots. Over the next three years, we registered the Community Benefit Society and elected more local people onto the board. When we eventually secured funding from the Scottish Government in 2018, Glasgow Community Energy was born. During the coronavirus lockdown in 2020, we successfully installed solar panels on the roofs of two schools in Glasgow. These first two installations alone will save nearly 50 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and raise several thousand pounds annually, which can be reinvested into local community activism through our Community Benefit Fund.
Although most of my work over the last few years has been more akin to community development or running a social enterprise, I still very much retain my artist’s ‘hat’. I’m interested in the project as a whole, including all the legal and financial negotiations and agreements that we have managed to sign, as a conceptual artwork in its own right, as well as thinking about the ‘city as a social sculpture’ that can be physically transformed through an artist’s (or anybody’s) time, energy and ideas.
What do you think the ideas, approaches and practices of Live Art could offer for the future of contemporary art and social change?
In 2019 I published my book The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of Class, Capitalism & Carbon Footprint, reflecting on everything that happened in the run-up to and as a result of The Glasgow Effect project. I am adamant that the skills I learnt at art school – critical thinking, practical skills, confidence, self-motivation – are vital, not only for individual wellbeing, but also for creating any social change. The answer is to make a creative education a normal part of everyone’s life and to fight for the social conditions where everyone actually can be an artist (and an activist), and not just the privileged few.