Book review: The Glasgow Effect, by Ellie Harrison

Ellie Harrison
Ellie Harrison
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Were one minded to be generous then this work – subtitled “a tale of class, capitalism and carbon footprint” – might be described as a bit of a bric-a-brac of a book. Another way to consider it is as a shambolic diary. Most readers, I would think, would be primarily interested in Ellie Harrison’s take on her notorious “Glasgow Effect” artwork, where she pledged to “not travel beyond Glasgow’s city limits, or use any vehicles except my bike, for a whole calendar year”. What would the author (stroke artist, stroke activist) say about the work, its consequence and the furore around it? To get to that point, the reader has to go through various chapters of polemic about neoliberalism (defined basically as anything she disagrees with); memoir; rather meandering sections about public transport reform and quite a lot more. A book that ought to have been half its length and far more precise is instead rambling and inchoate.

We should start with the art. There are rather cursory descriptions of previous conceptual and performance works. These include Anti-Capitalist Aerobics, The Other Forecast, Gold Card Adventures, After The Revolution, Who Will Clean Up The Mess? and Eat 22. The last is especially interesting as it pre-empts the year-long “durational performance”, and had already been done by the award-winning novelist Peter Burnett in his The Supper Book, with a great deal more verve and wit. Indeed, the analysis of so-called creatives whom Harrison evidently loathes was done previously with the avant-garde writer Stewart Home’s year-long art strike under Margaret Thatcher (although not producing avant-garde poetry did little to save any coal mines or steelworks), or with his creative destruction in Book Shredding. Michael Landy went even further, destroying all his worldly goods in Break Down. Don’t look for any references to Fluxus, Arte Povera or Art Brut (or even Art Naive).

“The Glasgow Effect” was a coinage from public health thinkers in trying to determine why life expectancy was shorter in Glasgow, even across social classes, than in other comparable deindustrialised cities. On the evidence of this book, “The Glasgow Effect” artwork did little to address this conundrum. It is very striking that throughout the book Harrison seems to give different explanations for her project. At first it is a protest work to highlight the disparity between different funding bodies. Her employers in Dundee (I assume she signed a contract) required her to “write and submit a significant research grant application”. When Creative Scotland did award a £15,000 grant for “The Glasgow Effect”, it effectively put the two bodies in a double-bind: accept the grant and be unable to fulfil her teaching, or turn it down and fail in the obligation to produce research and grants. So it began as a kind of bureaucratic prank, although her preferred phrase is “it was genius”. But the stunt soon became something else, after she announced the anti-art project with a rather gauchely selected picture of chips. Many felt that this was a piece of nostalgie de la boue or poverty-porn. That public money was facilitating it made it even more of a piece of ill-conceived hauteur.

The most interesting sections of the book document the social media brouhaha (although I slightly question the ethics of publishing all the various comments: were the original posters asked permission?). Then the art becomes the outrage it provoked, and Harrison casts herself as a kind of art-martyr, whose self-inflicted “career suicide”, in her words, is a self-flagellating account of her own hypocrisy, a protest, she writes, against herself.

But the result is a book, and as a book it should be judged. My first observation is that there is a rather limited set of references. Writers such as Darren McGarvey (whose Orwell Prize-winning book Poverty Safari grew out of his objections to Harrison’s announcement of her Glasgow Effect project), Carol Craig, Alasdair Gray, David Harvey, EF Schumacher and Patrick Geddes are cited again and again and again, often with the titles of their books as if the reader is too dim to remember or check the footnotes. One might have expected, given the obsession with public transport, that Chris Harvie might get a name-check. There is a constant pursing of words in inverted commas. One page alone has “parachuted in”, “the Glasgow miracle”, “arty”, “psychosocial”, “individuality”, “knowledge economy”, “creative industries”, “brilliance”, “underclass” and “dislocation”. Harrison does say that her usage is to question the meaning of words and to “parody the jargon used in academic circles”. But “it” does “quickly” become ‘“wearing” on the “reader”.

There are numerous repetitions, an overuse of exclamation marks and descents into babble – “Aaaarrrrgggghh!” – as if argument and aesthetics can be overridden by emphasis. This might be acceptable in a Tweet or on a Facebook post, but in a published work is comes across as slapdash and jejune. The material on public transport is interesting; but if you think it is difficult in Glasgow, try living (as I do, and by choice) in the Scottish Borders. (If I go to Edinburgh on a Sunday there isn’t a bus back after 20:10).

The final words are “My message to anyone still reading is: channel your anger. Let’s get educated, get disciplined and get organised!” Of course one can care about the climate and minimise our impact. But I wonder how many trees died in order for this self-indulgent and self-justifying book to hit the shelves. Stuart Kelly

The Glasgow Effect, by Ellie Harrison, Luath, £9.99