5 January 2016
The List

Creative Scotland has funded a contemporary artist to the tune of £15,000 and people are mad as hell about it, David Pollock explores why they shouldn’t be so hasty.

In times to come, all of us who have been following the snowballing omnishambles that’s the reaction to Ellie Harrison‘s art project ‘The Glasgow Effect‘ will remember where we were when the whole damn thing bottomed out for us. For me, it was the time spent listening to some of the more heroically ill-informed callers on BBC Radio Scotland the morning after the Twitter meltdown broke, each one getting irate because other people were and they felt they had to join in.

‘I believe the fuss is about a photo of chips,’ said one caller, Andrew, who seemed open-minded and thoughtful on the subject. ‘Don’t politicians and a lot of the Glasgow people have to take a long, hard look at their own lifestyle? Isn’t this maybe the idea?’ Sadly not, although fair play to him for engaging with it. In Harrison’s words, The Glasgow Effect is a ‘year long “action research” project / durational performance, for which artist Ellie Harrison will not travel outside Greater Glasgow for a whole year (except in the event of the ill-heath / death of close relative or friend).’ She’ll create art only in the city, emphasising a greener, more localised and community-based practice.

Does everyone reading that know what an ‘”action research” project / durational performance’ is? Of course not. So it’s easy to see why more necessarily reductive newspaper headlines were taken as gospel – hitting a nadir with the International Business Times’ recent and heroically shit-stirring ‘English artist Ellie Harrison gets £15,000 of taxpayers’ money to live in ‘crap city’.’ Heaven help her for being born in London. In a matter of hours, the aggregated gist of ill-feeling and trash talk towards Harrison I read on ‘The Glasgow Effect’s Facebook page and elsewhere had it that she was a spoilt, middle-class, ‘London blogger’ class tourist being paid 15k to come up to Glasgow and sample life as low-income Glaswegians live it. Somewhere in there she was also a Tory, a No voter and a relative of Iain Duncan Smith (!).

I don’t know Ellie Harrison, but on the basis of simple accuracy she needs a bit of defending here. She was born in London and moved to Glasgow in 2008 to study on Glasgow School of Art’s famed MFA course on a scholarship. Since 2013 she’s been a lecturer in Contemporary Art Practices at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee. If she were related to Iain Duncan Smith, we can only imagine his Christmas dinner conversations with an artist whose GSA bio says ‘Whilst studying on the MFA programme she became the first individual artist to openly publicise an Environmental Policy on her website and launched the Bring Back British Rail campaign, calling for an end to private interest in public transport.’

Look at the work she’s created. ‘A Brief History of Privatisation‘ alongside the comedian Josie Long, detailing the effect of privatisation on 20th century Britain; ‘High Street Casualties‘, an invasion of Birmingham’s city centre by ‘zombie employees’ marking the sites of major stores closed since the financial crisis; ‘This is What Democracy Looks Like!‘, which saw a group of constituents and their local MP cycling around London in conversation on a circular bicycle built for seven; ‘After the Revolution, Who Will Clean Up the Mess?‘, a set of confetti cannons primed to go off only in the event of a Yes vote in the Scottish Indyref; the self-explanatory ‘Anti-Capitalist Aerobics‘.

Have a look at that list and let it sink in. Even if you think the launch of this project was pretty clumsy, she sounds like one of the good guys, right? ‘The Glasgow Effect‘ has another 360 days to run, and if Harrison is given the space and handles it right, it has the potential to tell us much about artistic sustainability, opportunity, localism, how artists work and fund themselves, Scotland’s institutional attitude to the arts – and now about how the public views the arts too. Harrison has been pilloried, but there’s a lot of support out there for her and plenty of possibility in her raised profile.

Yeah, those chips, though… in hindsight she could have done without heading the Facebook page with a photo of a plate of chips and titling the project after Glasgow’s unexplained rates of poor health and low life expectancy. Yet ‘the Glasgow Effect’ recalls ‘the Glasgow Miracle’, the phrase used to refer to the conditions behind the city’s hugely successful contemporary art scene, and the chips were clearly a playful and ill-judged representation of Glasgow, destined only to be seen by a relative handful of people in contemporary art-following circles. It’s been a job keeping up with the memes on this, so apologies for mentioning this uncredited, but the post I saw with a photo of Tracey Emin looking pissed off had it right; she might not have expected or hoped for it, but Harrison now has a big platform and a huge audience waiting to hear what she has to say, of the kind very rarely afforded a contemporary artist.

In truth, though, when the art world hits the mainstream media it’s always a white-knuckle experience. Unless you’re talking record visitor numbers or auction sales (because commercial value always = good, so we’re told), the basic disconnect between taking something complex, hard to explain and possibly a bit whimsical and breaking it down to rolling news soundbites is an impossible task, usually followed by thousands of irate comments about how ‘it doesn’t mean anything and my pre-school relative could do better’, or variations on a theme.

Maybe the art world could do better, could be more open here? It’s an irritation that ‘Ellie Harrison is producing an ‘”action research” project / durational performance’ is somehow a more acceptable phrasing than ‘Ellie Harrison wants to find out why Glasgow can be the best city in the world to be an artist’; as if the piece is still aimed at a grading lecturer rather than anyone who might be interested. The best contemporary art is involved with taking unique, provocative ideas and making them real, and that they often come wrapped in impenetrable jargon can’t help but make people suspicious.

Perhaps it’s to be expected that those who like to wield an opinion are weighing in, although it’s a shame that most are doing so while knowing nothing about the artist or giving thought to what she’s really trying to do. Of course, there’s a whole argument about whether the arts should be publically funded at all and how this should be done, both of which play out daily elsewhere, but what’s really unedifying is the way online battle lines are being drawn amidst the Scottish creative community; between those who have received public funding and those who haven’t, or those whose fierce independence has them shying away from Creative Scotland altogether. It’s sad to see.

You see, the thing about contemporary art which isn’t made plain enough is that of course you get to call it shit if you don’t like it. But you wouldn’t call a song shit if you hadn’t heard it or a film shit if you hadn’t seen it, so why call art shit unless you’ve thought about it from all angles? Yes, ‘The Glasgow Effect‘ seems odd and borderline narcissistic on paper, but it’s just started. In addition to all its uses mentioned above, we might learn from it something about why many Scots creatives choose to work elsewhere; hopefully something which Ellie Harrison doesn’t now decide to do.

David Pollock