Ellie Harrison is an artist in Glasgow who a year ago announced her latest project, The Glasgow Effect, to some serious controversy, especially from Glaswegian rapper/commentator Loki who like many pointed out the issues with middle class artists diving into working class problems to make themselves a name, and further their career.
Not to mention The Glasgow Effect is something very real that drags the life expectancy of people in the poorer areas of the city, and with archive documents from the 1970’s revealing government and council policy was to ‘skim the cream’ (shift more affluent families out of Glasgow and into the new towns being built in the land around the city far from the crushing wheels of industry) mixed with a democratic deficit (Glasgow, and indeed, Scotland, doesn’t have control on the democratic levers it needs to change things so people feel their vote is worthless) and an increasingly corrupt city council combines in a cocktail that drags people down in a way people in other comparable cities like Manchester or Liverpool aren’t.
Harrison didn’t endear herself to anti-poverty campaigners by having this image on the website for her project.
Added to this was her mission statement;
Think Global, Act Local! is year long ‘action research’ project / durational performance, for which artist Ellie Harrison will not travel outside the Strathclyde region. By setting this one simple restriction to her current lifestyle, she intends to test the limits of a ‘sustainable practice’ and to challenge the demand-to-travel placed upon the ‘successful’ artist / academic. The experiment will enable her to cut her carbon footprint and increase her sense of belonging, by encouraging her to seek out and create local opportunities – testing what becomes possible when she invests all her ideas, time and energy within the region where she lives.
When I first saw this a year ago when I was still living in Bristol, and also in what I thought was fairly good health and not recovering from a stroke, or being treated for thyroid cancer, I found it not so much as offensive but patronising. After all, people don’t leave their area of Glasgow because they don’t have the money, or the support structure to do so and frankly, someone having a project where they restrict their movement to see how it ”increasing their sense of belonging’ smacks of Millennial self-centredness.
A year on and I’m now back in Glasgow taking time to recover from my stroke, while still receiving cancer treatment. I’m living with a friend in Dennistoun, in the East End of Glasgow while I’m unable to work, even at times unable to walk as I’ve also had a slipped disc since August. This is relevant because it means I’ve been restricted to a limited part of Glasgow which is within coughing distance of some of the worst areas of mortality and poverty not just in the UK, but Europe. Last week I went to Shettleston health centre for some physio, and the area is dripping in poverty. It is also the only area in the whole of the UK where life expectancy is falling. Compared to Dennistoun which is gentrifying for a number of reasons, the differences are stark.
And here’s my problem still with Harrison’s work. She can escape being trapped in a city (and staying in Strathclyde means you’re in a pretty huge area), those most at risk of The Glasgow Effect are trapped. There are people within walking distance of where I type this now who will never, ever leave the city they were born in and will die in. Not through choice, not because of poor transport (and like many UK cities, transport is poor the further out you go) but because they don’t have the same chances as Ellie Harrison, who made it clear in her year that she managed to travel quite far.
I also admit that I’m criticising this from a position where once I’m fully fit I’ll be able to have options open up for me, and right now I’ve settled on a half dozen or so possibilities, but again, I’m lucky. I appreciate the fact I’m lucky, and it strikes me from reading and watching Harrison’s statements upon completion of the project it seems clear to me that this is nothing but onanistic middle class backslapping. I don’t think the fact that Harrison spent a year restricting herself to Strathclyde benefited anyone but Harrison herself, and that it isn’t going to make some kiddie in Shettleston who is born into generational poverty feel that they’ve got opportunities.
There’s a long, and lengthy history of the middle class, and of a mainly establishment media, speaking for and down to, the working class. Assuming they’re considered at all, and of course there are virtually no working class voices in the media, which made Loki’s criticism of The Glasgow Effect welcome but ultimately Harrison left her restrictions. Most trapped in the crushing generational poverty in Glasgow don’t, and glib art projects like this don’t help. It makes the working class; the poor; the vulnerable subjects to be poked and prodded at. Rats in a cage as you will. A year long art project has only massaged the egos and consciences of people who can sail past the real Glasgow Effect quite easily and as soon as this stunt is forgotten, few in Scotland’s media will care about people dying far too young in parts of Glasgow.