The question of what constitutes art has been argued over for thousands of years. In 1917 Marcel Duchamp signed and dated a urinal, titled it ‘Fountain’ and exhibited it as an artwork. Duchamp came under intense criticism and scrutiny for his ‘creation’, nevertheless nearly a century later he is heralded as one of the fathers of modern art. More recently, the Young British Artists caused similar controversy in the 1990s and early ’00s for their visual art that was condemned for being very much on the fringes of what the general public would consider ‘art’. For instance, consider Mat Collishaw’s ‘Bullet Hole’, an enlarged image of a fatal bullet wound, and Damien Hirst’s ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, a shark preserved in formaldehyde. These artworks, however controversial, were self-contained, they had physical boundaries within themselves, and were generally funded by the artists, whilst Ellie Harrison’s ‘The Glasgow Effect’ is very much a public and blurred project.
Harrison has been awarded £15,000 by Creative Scotland to stay within the boundaries of Greater Glasgow for an entire year, barring serious illness or death of a relative. In total her project will cost £25,484.01, with Creative Scotland suppling 59 per cent of that. Harrison’s title of the project is possibly the most contentious part of the whole concept, and definitely the aspect of it that has attracted so much attention. ‘The Glasgow Effect’ refers to the mysteriously low life expectancy of Glaswegians that cannot be explained by poverty alone. Statistics from 2010 show that male life expectancy in Glasgow was 71.2 years, seven years below the national average, and female life expectancy was 78 years, four years below the national average.
Harrison has taken this concept and applied the title to her project which in fact has nothing to do with poverty in Glasgow. She has chosen the title solely for publicity reasons – and she got what she wanted: The Glasgow Effect’s event page on Facebook has nearly 6,000 ‘interested’, and 1,400 people ‘attending’, as well as countless debates and polls on its wall, and with most major UK news outlets running articles on the event. Far from aiming to tackle poverty in Glasgow in her year-long stint, Harrison aims to explore the impact of positive localism for communities and artists, as part of a larger Think Global, Act Local! project. She wants to create an example of an artist maintaining a successful career without the need to travel widely, thus reducing her carbon footprint and benefitting her local community. A fair and interesting aim. However, it seems one that she could do without £15,000 of government funding. Surely it would be more worthwhile to her local community to get a job within the Glasgow city limits and fund herself? That would seem a more beneficial scheme for the long-term development of Glasgow and of the reputation of modern British art.
Harrison’s Tumblr states that, through the project, she wants to “increase [her] sense of belonging” and challenge “the fear of missing out”. The project, far from helping her assimilate into her community, seems to have done the opposite. She now sticks out like a rather pretentious sore thumb. She also writes that she believes that “it is the role of the artist to take the extreme lifestyle decisions, which would not be possible for anyone in a less privileged position, and, in doing so, expose the contradictions in all our lives”. Suggesting that choosing not to leave Glasgow for a year is an “extreme lifestyle decision” is not a positive way to publicise your attempt to gain a sense of belonging.
If anything, Harrison has succeeded in increasing public engagement with art. As ever on the internet, there have been people expressing extreme, trolling views just to spark debate, but there have also been genuine discussions surrounding contemporary British art and arts funding – a rare and important discussion in mainstream social media. Arts funding is incredibly important in the development of British art, as well as in a cultural sense. Some commentators are unfairly using ‘The Glasgow Effect’ to knock arts funding in general rather than limiting their criticism to this contentious decision. Whilst contemporary art in many ways needs to be controversial in order to spark debate and challenge accepted cultural and societal ideas, it also needs to have some other motive than simply being controversial. Harrison has simply chosen a contentious title that has little to do with her pretentious, rather empty project in order to gain publicity. She may have gained attention but she has gained little to no respect.
Image: amateur photography by michel @ Flickr