6 January 2017
Stephen Jardine, BBC Radio Scotland
Stephen Jardine: It’s 10:24, BBC Radio Scotland, Stephen Jardine with you until midday. Twelve months ago artist Ellie Harrison made nationwide headlines with her latest art project. Ellie was granted £15,000 by Creative Scotland to spend a year living in Glasgow without leaving the city boundaries. The Glasgow Effect project was intended to provoke and pose difficult questions about life in the city, but critics branded it a waste of public cash. Twelve months on the project is now at an end and this weekend Ellie will reveal some of the results, but first she’s here to speak to us this morning. Good morning Ellie, thanks for your time.
Ellie Harrison: Hiya.
Stephen Jardine: Thanks for coming in. So a year ago, turn the clock back, twelve months ago, what was the plan?
Ellie Harrison: Oh, the plan for the year? [laughs] It was a ‘research project’. So, it was very much that it was going to unfold over the course of the year. Um, and it has done.
Stephen Jardine: So the plan was there was no plan? Let’s see what happens?
Ellie Harrison: When the ‘chips hit the fan’, as I like to call it, I didn’t want to do a lot of media, I did want to talk to people about this ‘great idea’ that I had, I wanted to get my head down and start work. Working in my studio, but also getting out and meeting people in the city and starting work on lots of local projects here. So I went undercover. Like, that was the way I wanted to do it. That’s how I wanted to contribute my time and my energy to this city. And that was the only way that I could realistically do it in the face of that social media storm.
Stephen Jardine: Right, so tell me, why Glasgow? And why did you call it ‘The Glasgow Effect’?
Ellie Harrison: Well why Glasgow? Because I live here. Like, I think there was so many myths that were bounded about at the beginning of the year, that I was just being ‘parachuted in’ from London. I’ve been living here since 2008, so this is my home city… and you know the project was trying to address the conflicts and contradictions that I felt in my life, living here. Because I’ve been living here, but I wasn’t working here. I was working in Dundee, so I was doing this huge commute across the country two times a week. Most of the commissions or invitations that I got as an artist were in other cities or abroad. I was doing a lot of travelling in that respect. My parents are down in London, I’ve got a continual pull to, you know, take responsibility, be a good daughter, look after them. My niece and nephew, my sister, they’re all in Norwich. So it just felt like everything that I was doing was outside of this city. Why the hell was I living here? Did I really know this city? And was I actually investing any of my time, my energy, my ideas, the skills I’ve acquired through all the education that I’ve had in making it a better place? So that was the contradiction that the project was founded on.
But I chose the title ‘The Glasgow Effect’, because, you know, I’d been living here for five years, in 2013 I first heard that phrase. And to have been living here for five years and to only just come across that, which is actually the dominant narrative for most people who live in this city. To me that was just a symbol of what a divided city this is. Because I came here because of this other catchphrase, you could say, called ‘the Glasgow miracle’. And ‘the Glasgow miracle’ is all about… that’s the PR story that they want you to hear. That’s the story that tells you that there’s been a ‘post-industrial renaissance’ in this city, we’re a ‘city of culture’, we have ‘international art stars’ and that that is raising the living standards of everybody in this city. It’s not happening. It’s just creating more polarisation and more division.
And you can see that, because if you go round the galleries in this city, how much art do you see in the big galleries that are publicly-funded, which is actually dealing with the real narrative of this city? So it was a big challenge to the art world. And it was also an opportunity for me to start to find out more about why Glasgow does have the worse health inequalities in the whole of Western Europe, and to get to the bottom of why that’s happening, but also, most importantly, to invest my time, energy in skills in trying to improve the situation for the poorest people in this city.
Stephen Jardine: So on a very basic level, the £15,000 grant gave you a year off, time and space to take a year off work and explore that and see what life was like in Glasgow, without leaving the city boundaries for a year? That’s it in a nutshell isn’t it?
Ellie Harrison: Yeah, yeah, that’s absolutely it in a nutshell. But the way I framed it to Creative Scotland so that I could get the money, and you know, I did lead them on slightly in that I called the project ‘Think Global, Act Local’, which is a phrase that is borrowed from Patrick Geddes, the famous Scottish thinker, which implies that if we’re gonna be able to… deal with global challenges like climate change, then we need to start to thinking much more locally about shortening supply chains and building stronger local economies so that we don’t have to travel so far. So, I called it that. That was a very sort of benign sounding name, it enabled me to get the funds. But I know all along that I was going to change the name. And I also framed it so it would be a ‘durational performance’. And it has been, in the fact that I haven’t been in a vehicle still since the 31 December 2015, so over a year now. And so I’ve slashed my carbon footprint, my own carbon footprint from 3.5 tonnes, which is how much I produced in 2015 to zero. And just making that change to my lifestyle has enabled me to live my values. I am living the way in which I believe society needs to change in order to enable us… to preserve a climate on this planet where our species can continue to survive.
Stephen Jardine: Which is a perfect moment to say, not everyone is able to do that because they’re not getting grants from Creative Scotland. Like the people who are out and about there just now. Let’s check what’s happening with the travel. Here’s Theresa.
Stephen Jardine: 10:31 on a Friday morning on BBC Radio Scotland. I’m speaking to Ellie Harrison. ‘The Glasgow Effect’ project at an end. It was controversial, we’ll get onto that in a second. Here’s Ben from Dundee on the text “This project was an artistic success from the first week, because she got people talking about her project and what it entailed as well as art, artists and what the role of an artist is in a contemporary society.” That’s from Ben in Dundee there, more on that in a second, but Ellie in terms of what you actually did over the course of the twelve months, how did you spend your time? What was the day like, what did you do? Everyday did you have a plan, I’m going to do this? Or did you just let the city soak you up?
Ellie Harrison: Um [laughs] I mean it was quite overwhelming at the beginning to the year… to cope with, you know because I don’t think that anybody appreciates that actually I’m a ‘one woman band’. And I was listening to the phone-in you did earlier about the ‘work-life balance’ I’ve got a lot to say about that, so we can talk about that later. So.. all I could do at the beginning of the year to try to get a bit of normality in a very abnormal situation, was to just stick to my little routine of going into my studio which is in the East End, processing everything that had happened and…
Stephen Jardine: Did you keep a diary, was that part of it?
Ellie Harrison: Yeah, I’ve got six of these notebooks. I’ve got so many things that have come out… it was an incredible stressful first few months, and so much anger, I guess that was thrown at me, which I just processed. You know, I just processed that and I thought about what it meant and I’ve used that to fuel the project in positive directions. So, I think, one of the first things… I think around March time I started to meet a few people who were interested in the sort of things that I was interested in developing in this city. Because, before I did this project, and what I’ve been doing for the last five or six years is that I’ve really been experimenting with a practice that crosses over between art and activism. So I was actually on the Kaye Adams programme on the 21 November talking about the re-nationalisation of the railways, because as well doing my art practice I also run the national Bring Back British Rail campaign.
So, obviously I have a passion for public transport and I believe that improving public transport is a way of not only addressing social problems, if you can get high quality bus routes to the poorest and most marginalised people in our society then that’s going to do a lot to improve their quality of life, but it’s also going to address environmental problems, you know, shifting people off the roads and onto more sustainable forms of travel. So actually being trapped in Glasgow for a year, and actually localising all of my journeys, I read this really interesting report from The Equality Trust, about actually public transport subsidy itself was rigged towards more privileged people in our society. In that the railways, people who travel longer distances are largely more privileged people and the railways get far more subsidy compared to the buses. And the buses in Glasgow are in an absolute shambles. And that was something that I knew before ‘The Glasgow Effect’ started, and that was something that I wanted to do my best to try to address. Because even in the last year we’ve had maybe four or five bus routes that have been cut. And those cuts are affecting the poorest people in this city. That’s going to do nothing to improve their mental health and it’s going to do nothing to improve their quality of life.
Stephen Jardine: But if you knew that before starting the project, why did you have to take £15,000 from Creative Scotland to spend a year thinking about it, if you knew it?
Ellie Harrison: Well, this relates to your phone-in before, the ‘work-life balance’. You know the slogan, the PR slogan for this city is ‘People Make Glasgow’. I have reworded that, to say I think ‘People are either too busy, or they’re too disempowered to make Glasgow’. And I was in the ‘too busy’ category. I could see all these problems in this city, but I was having to jump on a train to go and earn a living elsewhere to be able to address them. So absolutely I knew… I’ve got a list in a notebook from 2014. I’ve got a list of all these project and campaigns that I knew would make a positive impact on the people in this city’s lives, but I just had no time or resources to be able to do that.
Stephen Jardine: You said to me that people had been angry about this project. Did you expect the anger?
Ellie Harrison: Well… I’m doing a talk on Sunday about the project at the GFT at 12 o’clock and I guess… I’m going to talk about a lot more of the complexities of how it started during the talk… But, you know the project was founded on contradictions. That’s the way I’m describing it. And the contradictions that I’ve explained, that I was living here, but I was barely even here. I was coming back to my base here, but I was contributing very little to the community. So, the fact that it was founded on these contradictions, in hindsight it doesn’t seem any surprise to me that it totally exploded in the way that it did.
Stephen Jardine: Because that’s the reality of life for most people. I live in Edinburgh, but I work here. Lots of people live somewhere, but have to work somewhere else. That’s life.
Ellie Harrison: Yeah, well I’m challenging that way of life. Because that way of life is not sustainable and actually commuting distances are increasing and they continue to increase. You know, in a globalised world our goods, our services, our people are having to travel further distances and with that comes a huge increase in carbon emissions.
Stephen Jardine: But that’s not why Creative Scotland gave you the grant, Ellie. They gave you the grant to live in Glasgow for a year and understand the health inequalities and what makes the problems that Glasgow has exist. That’s why you go the grant.
Ellie Harrison: I don’t think that was in my application actually. Have you read my funding application? [laughs]
Stephen Jardine: No I haven’t. But that’s what ‘The Glasgow Effect’ is.
Ellie Harrison: Yeah, but social and environmental problems are totally interlinked. And you know… I was happy to draw attention to my own privilege in the way that I did. I see that as a success. Because it’s privileged people who are causing climate change. 50% of the world’s carbon emissions are made by just 10% of the world’s population. That is a massive injustice. Inequality is growing to astronomical proportions in Scotland and across the world. These things are totally interlinked and unless we address both social and environmental problems at the same time, then, frankly, we’re doomed.
Stephen Jardine: Your critics say, Ellie, that this has been, the twelve month project has been a ‘poverty safari’. That’s there are people in Glasgow today living on less than £15,000 a year, not because of art, but because that’s their life they have no choices around any of this stuff. What do you say to that?
Ellie Harrison: Um, well I would say, £15,000 – I didn’t live off £15,000, I lived off £8,400 of the £15,000 and I invested the rest of the money in the projects that I have been developing. So actually £8,400 over the course of a year is a pretty low income.
Stephen Jardine: Talk to me about that. How hard was that?
Ellie Harrison: Well I mean, the lifestyle that I’m living is… you know, I was under so much public scrutiny at the beginning of the year… that I have quite obsessive tendencies anyway. So I obsessively started to keep every single receipt for every single thing that I bought for the whole year, so I’ve got that. You know I’ve got all of that data.
Stephen Jardine: What every packed of crisps? Every cup of coffee? Everything?
Ellie Harrison: Every portion of chips. I’ve got a receipt for every single one. And I have that data, because I’m really interested in transparency and accountability and when you have a publicly-owned organisation (as with the railways) then it is a more transparent and accountable organisation. So I was kind of imposing that on myself. You know I felt like I’d taken that public money, so I became ‘publicly-owned’. I needed to be totally transparent and totally accountable. But things are different when you’re just talking about one individual. Like, do I really want to publish all this material, so that people know exactly where I live and can come and burn my house down [laughs] and whatever else.
So actually what I did do, which I found was quite an interesting way of using this data in a positive way was… because I’ve been following the population health research and debate very closely this year. I’ve been going to all the Glasgow Centre for Population Health seminars. And one in June was about ‘The Secret Lives of Low-Income Households’ and they were looking… they were doing a new study called the FinWell study, which will be published next summer and they were looking for participants. So I actually signed up to that. So for the last six months I’ve been having regular meetings with this researcher who’s got access to all of my personal finances, to look at how my lifestyle impacts on my well-being. But the most important thing I want to say is that my lifestyle, the lifestyle that I’ve been able to live on this low income, is you know… I’ve chosen that. I have chosen that. And it’s very different from somebody who’s having to do that. So that’s another thing that I would like to draw attention to. Because it is possible to live on a low income as I have done and have a good quality of life.
Stephen Jardine: And a good diet as well?
Ellie Harrison: Well a good diet, absolutely. Because, you know, I just buy bags of lentils and soak them and it cost £2 and it feeds me for two weeks! The healthiest food is also the cheapest food. But, yeah I guess the thing that I think this city does, particularly, is that it makes it very difficult for people to make good choices. It makes it very difficult for people to make good transport choices. You know everywhere you look you see cars in this city and the majority of the population don’t have access to cars so they are made to feel like there’s huge parts of the city, the M8 for example, that they cannot access; that is not for them. The way that that makes people feel like a failure… I mean Margaret Thatcher said ‘if you’re still on a bus when your 30, then you should consider yourself a failure’. The Scottish Government, and the Labour Government before that have made that a reality because they have failed to re-regulate our buses and they have continued to invest in road building, which only benefits a privileged minority of people in this city and is causing a climate catastrophe.
Stephen Jardine: I know you’ll explore this more in your talk on Sunday. The project’s at an end now. You year is at an end and it’s back to the day job as an art lecturer at the University of Dundee. But they withdrew support for this project didn’t they? How did you feel about that?
Ellie Harrison: I think that’s interesting. You know, this was another one of the contradictions that the project was founded on, was that I didn’t need to apply for that funding. For the last three or four years I have been able to subsidise my art practice through teaching part-time. Which is what I enjoy doing, because it means I can contribute to young people’s lives, help improving young people’s lives and also it means that I don’t have to commodify my artwork, or my activism, I mean the Bring Back British Rail campaign, the national campaign for bringing our railways back into public ownership is subsidised through my work at the University of Dundee. I’m interested in who is actually paying for what in these situations.
Yeah, so they decided that they didn’t want to support the project any more… but that was part of kind of the web of… it’s perverse incentive structures, I think that’s the way to describe it.
Stephen Jardine: What’s that?
Ellie Harrison: It’s you know, I didn’t need to get that money. But I had something in my contract saying that I had to submit ‘significant research grant applications’ in order to keep my job. So to me it was illustrating a system where more privileged people are more likely to get opportunities and rewards. And I was one of them. Because I was in this more privileged role, teaching at the art school, that I was more likely to be able to access this public funding. And that’s wrong. But the way that thing are rigged like that across the whole of society, I’ve explained it with public transport subsidies, but it’s happening everywhere. You know and the main crisis that we face in this city and around the world is inequality, but all of the incentive structures that we’ve got are just exacerbating that. Just exacerbating it.
Stephen Jardine: So what next for you Ellie? Would you repeat a project like this again?
Ellie Harrison: [laughs] You know, a phrase that was used in the original funding application is that it was an ‘extreme lifestyle experiment’. And a lot of people took the piss out of that, but saying there are people for socio-economic reasons who don’t leave Glasgow, and I’m absolutely aware of that. But, it was an ‘extreme lifestyle experiment’. You know there was absolutely no escape from the project. Because it was this year-long durational thing, even when I woke up in the night and I was fretting our worrying about my family who are all, as I’ve pointed out, in other parts of the country, that I couldn’t go to visit them, what if something happened to them? Like these horrible human fears. When that was happening, you know, that was all part of it.
I mean that was one step too far for me. To bring my family into this art project like that. I pushed it too far. I don’t regret anything. I glad that I’ve got to the end of it.
Stephen Jardine: What would have happened if somebody in the family had been take ill? You would have had to go, wouldn’t you?
Ellie Harrison: Well, thank god [knocks on wood] that didn’t happen. But that was a continual anxiety. And like I said, I pushed that too far. I should never have… That was for me the most unethical thing about the project was that I embroiled my family in it in that way. And… thank goodness it didn’t happen, but it meant that really I was kind of ‘on edge’ for the whole year. And in terms of the ‘work-life balance’, I actually only took twelve days off over the course of the whole year.
Stephen Jardine: What you did do is you took a year off social media. I’m curious about that, because you’re clearly very passionate and very eloquent about these things. Why didn’t you take on your critics? Because you chose not to do that, not to engage with people across social media? Why not?
Ellie Harrison: I don’t agree with you at all [laughs]. I mean I have been posting regular updates on my Facebook page.
Stephen Jardine: You’ve been posting updates, but you’ve not been taking on your critics on this, and they’ve been plenty of them.
Ellie Harrison: I have been posting regular updates on my Facebook page. The thing about social media is, and I use it a lot for all the campaigns that I run. I am the admin of about 15-20 pages, so I’m not just pumping out ‘instantaneous ego broadcasting’ as I call it. I’m not just pumping out like banal facts about my lifestyle, I’m pumping facts about the systems that we have… [cut off]
Stephen Jardine: So why not take on your critics? Why not answer them?
Ellie Harrison: Because, social media, I’m just a tiny little… two-dimensional photo. And actually the photo that I have on my Facebook page is from 2006 – this is why everyone thought I was so young. It’s from an artwork from 2006 that I made. It’s more than ten years old now, so everyone thought I was like this young, inexperienced artist, because the photo was ten years old [laughs] but I wasn’t just about to change it because people were taking the piss out of me. You know, I’m going to stick to my guns. And I have been posting stuff out. I’m not going to spend my whole year like churning out banal nonsense, just to be ridiculed. I’m not gonna do that. So, if people wanted to access information, they could easily do that. They could go on my Facebook page, they could join any of the campaigns that I’m involved in running and you could get an insight into what I’ve been working on.
Stephen Jardine: We’re out of time now Ellie, but what’s next?
Ellie Harrison: Well, what’s next is the talk on Sunday. So I’ve got more work to do on that this afternoon and tomorrow. Then I’ll be back at work next week.
Stephen Jardine: You looking forward to it? The old routine, the 9-to-5?
Ellie Harrison: I am. Arh, I’m worried about getting back in a vehicle… I mean even when I go in a lift now it freaks me out a bit. So it is going to be nerve-wracking getting back on the train. But you know, that lifestyle I had is not sustainable. I’ve proved that through doing the project, but I’m looking forward to seeing my students again. I felt really bad for leaving them for a whole year. Some of them have kept in touch with me, so I’m looking forward to going back and contributing to their education.
Stephen Jardine: I’ve got some bad news for you. Fares have gone up again.
Ellie Harrison: [laughs] You don’t need to tell me!
Stephen Jardine: That’s what happens when you take a year off.
Ellie Harrison: I was campaigning about it outside central station on Wednesday evening. We just launched a campaign for the public ownership of ScotRail.
Stephen Jardine: Ellie Harrison, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Very interesting. Thank you very much indeed for your time this morning. Your responses to what Ellie said today, it’s 80295 on the text. 10:50, Friday morning, BBC Radio Scotland.