28 January 2017
The Herald (The Arts p.6)

A few weeks ago, I went to a lecture at the Glasgow Film Theatre by artist and activist Ellie Harrison. It marked the end of Harrison’s selfimposed “year of exile” in Glasgow to interrogate – from an artist and activist’s point of view – why certain parts of the Dear Green Place have very poor life expectancy.

Harrison caused a minor media furore at the beginning of 2016 when she launched her Creative Scotland-funded (to the tune of £15,000) Glasgow Effect project with a Facebook page adorned with a close-up of limp and greasy chips.

If this page had stayed within Glasgow’s contemporary art bubble, Harrison’s project might have stayed where most contemporary art projects stay – under the radar of the ordinary man and woman. But an explosion of indignation over what was dubbed by some in the media as a “poverty safari” propelled Harrison into the public eye. As she said at the start of her lecture, she has developed a very thick skin.

In her two-hour long lecture, Harrison attempted to explain her project. She came across as well-intentioned and cleary committed to many causes. She has campaigned to nationalise the railways and improve bus services. During her year in Glasgow, she walked and cycled everywhere.

Afterwards, I noted a remark on Twitter from @MrMalky, who had been watching via livestreaming: “It reminds me of conversations in the cafe at the Third Eye Centre in the 80s #Bless”

That brings me to Forms of Action at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow. In a former life, the CCA was The Third Eye Centre. As groovy a hang-out for activists and artists as you were likely to encounter, in its early days in the 1970s, the centre hosted artists and performers such as Allen Ginsberg, Whoopi Goldberg, John Byrne, Edwin Morgan and Kathy Acker.

Now a lot sleeker and shinier than it was in founder Tom McGrath’s day, there is still a firm commitment to what is described in press material for Forms of Action as “socially engaged art practices”.

The exhibition opens today and there are seven artists involved; Kim Dillhon, Adelita Husni-Bey, Daniel Godinez Nivon, Katia Kameli, Dimitri Launder, Victoria Lomasko and Asuncion Molinos Gordo.

I had a quick fly-through Forms of Action as it was being installed in the company of Viviana Checchia, the centre’s public engagement curator. Checchia, who is from the south of Italy, is more used to being out and about in the city, working with CCA partners such Govanhill Baths and the Glasgow Women’s Library. This is the first exhibition which she has curated at the CCA and it is a subject close to her heart.

“For me, there is no distinction between art and life,” she explains. “This exhibition represents a very broad understanding of art. Forms of Action as a way of stimulating local practitioners and audiences by presenting a diverse series of approaches – it’s not about the when, where and what but about how we approach society through art. I hope this will spark discussion around these issues and stimulate the already existing engagement of people in Glasgow.”

The first work we encounter by Spanish artist Asuncion Molinos Gordo deals with an issue which affects farmers in her home country and also in Scotland – the ways in which farmers have to deal with bureaucracy. The work consists of a plain desk, a chair and a phone. I phone the number as instructed. “Mrs Fraser” answers. She is one half of Fraser’s Farm Phone Service. She and her husband, she says, “have been raising cattle in Aberdeenshire for over 40 years.” Mr Fraser – sounding like a member of the late-lamented Scotland The What? comedy trio – takes over and offers up nine different options to press on the keypad relating to their business.

The number is 0141 380 0476, since you ask. And yes, you can phone it too from the comfort of your own home. It gets the point across…

Other works which catch the eye include Mexico City-based Daniel Godinez Nivon’s series of Tequiografias: colourful and informative group monographs which came out of a collaboration between the artist and an organisation called the Assembly of Indigenous Migrants of Mexico City.

In the week in which President Donald Trump confirmed he wants to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” between the US and Mexico, these works highlight a communal system of organisation which aims to offer information about the lifestyle and culture of the people of Mexico City.

Forms of Action will be accompanied by a series of events which talk out the ideas in the exhibition at venues across Glasgow. In March, for example, two artists present events in Govanhill Baths and Glasgow Women’s Library. Katia Kameli’s Stream of Stories takes to the stage in Govanhill Baths on March 11, while Kim Dhillon and Glasgow Women’s Library co-host a series of reading groups of 1970s feminist children’s books and contemporary radical children’s literature.

Rarely has an exhibition seemed so timely. Maybe it’s time for artists to pick up the mantle again and get us all active?

Jan Patience