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'The Glasgow Effect' Is Bad Art, But Raises Important Questions

11/01/2016 15:13 GMT | Updated 10/01/2017 10:12 GMT

By now, I'm sure that nearly everyone has heard about Ellie Harrison's controversial art project called 'The Glasgow Effect'. Funded by Creative Scotland, Harrison proposes a "year long 'action research' project / durational performance" during which she will not leave Greater Glasgow. According to Harrison, this will force her to engage with her local community, seeking local artistic opportunities rather than having to travel for work. The project rocketed into the public spotlight, coming under fire for its condescending tone and being cited as a waste of public money. Whilst some of the criticism levelled against the project is entirely valid, many of the social media responses on the Facebook event were aggressive, knee-jerk reactions which condemned the entire idea without pausing for thought.

It is true that the idea itself is deeply flawed. Many people, artists included, don't travel away from the city where they live, not as an artistic statement, but because they simply can't afford to. Presenting the idea of staying in one city for a year as a unique experience and a 'performance' demonstrates a lack of perception on the part of Ellie Harrison. Moreover, the experience of an artist on sabbatical from a university lecturing job, such as she is, will be radically different from the experience of a family living on minimum wage in an impoverished area, with little hope for change. She is in a privileged position, and cannot accurately reflect what life is actually like if people are restricted to one area. There is nothing interesting or special in the project.

However, although the notion is problematic in itself, it is also simply bad art. The main problem with this project comes with how Harrison chose to present it. By calling the project 'The Glasgow Effect', referring to the comparative poor health and low life expectancy of residents of Glasgow, and choosing an image of chips for the event photo, Harrison depicts the project as a voyeuristic 'poverty-safari'. The name and picture are poorly chosen, reductive, patronising and create the impression that Harrison sees herself as superior to the people that she will be living amongst for a year. If the project had been called, as initially intended 'Think Global, Act Local' and selected a different image, then the project would still be a bad idea, but would be nowhere near as offensive or condescending.

'The Glasgow Effect' is being funded by Creative Scotland, who gave Harrison £15,000 for the year, and have consequently been subject to heavy criticism for wasting public money. This criticism is, however, misguided. In a year of severe cuts to arts funding, it is important that organisations such as Creative Scotland continue to fund art, encourage artists and, in particular, to support risky and controversial art. By its nature, art frequently takes risks, challenging boundaries and perceptions. Although this particular project is not a good one, that does not mean that Creative Scotland should stop funding potentially unsuccessful projects. 'The Glasgow Effect' is publically funded and thus we have the right to question how the money is being spent, however Creative Scotland made the decision to invest the money in this project, and that decision should not be overturned by an angry mob. Art should not be bland, uninteresting and generic; it should raise questions, and can be disquieting and infuriating. From this perspective, Harrison's project can already be considered a success.

Indeed, when the project first snowballed into the public eye, there was debate as to whether the art project was in fact an exploration of the phenomenon of social media outrage. Whilst this now seems unlikely, if this was the case then it would have been a huge success. Scrolling through the Facebook event, comments range from the confused, to the humorous, to the outraged and downright nasty. Whilst there is some support for the idea, the majority of the responses are heavily critical. Some of them are perfectly valid and well-articulated, but others demonstrate a knee-jerk reaction, as people jump to conclusions and are in a hurry to jump on the bandwagon and condemn without thinking. Indeed, the whole event jumped into the spotlight with incredible speed, and has fallen by the wayside just as quickly; although many of the reactions offered insight and perceptiveness, the fickleness of the collective social media consciousness is keenly demonstrated. That said, however, the whole event has developed into a debate raising questions about issues such as creative funding, conceptual art, social inequality, the purpose of art and public spending. Perhaps Harrison would have been better placed if her project had been about social media reactions; but nevertheless it is undeniable that the badly chosen name and image raised the project's profile more than anything else could.

Ultimately, the blame lies not with Creative Scotland for taking a gamble on a questionable art project which has not (yet) paid off, but rather with Harrison herself. Her choice of title and accompanying image are indicative of a position of middle-class privilege and are offensive to many, presenting as it does a reductive and patronising view of Glasgow. But whilst the project itself is a dud, the questions that have been raised as a consequence are important, with regards to art, social media, poverty and public spending. As an insight into modern life and culture, the reactions to the project are more worthwhile than the project itself.