In a time long ago, before Trump, Brexit and ‘Extinction Rebellion’ the news agenda latched on to an art project. At the eye of the storm was Ellie Harrison, Lecturer in Contemporary Art Practices at Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art whose idea (publicly-funded to the tune of £15,000) was an ‘action research project/durational performance’. It sought to highlight and address inequalities as much as explore low-carbon living and now Harrison has written a book about the controversial project.
The Glasgow Effect, meant that over the period of a year Harrison would not leave the city limits of Glasgow; living a stark, low-carbon lifestyle, using only her bike as transport. The year would be spent in assorted social activism.
Harrison originally came to Glasgow to study at the Glasgow School of Art and it was here that ‘The Glasgow Effect’ was coined. It referred to clinical research which tried to uncover why the health of Glaswegians was so much worse than comparable post-industrial cities in the UK. A deathly combination of poor diet, drug use, crime and chaotic families were to blame.
Harrison’s ambitions for the Glasgow Effect were laudable: “The richest ten percent of humanity causes nearly half of all our carbon emissions…in Scotland we are using three times more than our fair share of the world’s resources to fund our carbon-intensive lifestyles.”
However, her venture was launched at a time of economic downturn and food banks and the profligate-sounding project hit a raw nerve. Harrison, perhaps unwisely, used a photograph of greasy chips (which also forms the front cover of the book) to illustrate her idea. Unintentionally this made her appear condescending.
The press went batty and, abetted by trolls on social media, ‘The Glasgow Effect’ became a focus for ire.
Harrison’s book on the project is as much a memoir as a manifesto and it charts the gestation of the project. Darren McGarvey (aka Loki the rapper) initially slammed the project as a “poverty safari” but he later saw Harrison as an ally in his powerful TV exposé of the poverty trap. Yet, it’s hard to fully appreciate from the book quite what Harrison’s illusive art project achieved – if anything. Often it reads like little more than an extended dissertation.
Although the book is well-written it is very dense, with every date and expense listed and offering up to 25 pages of chapter notes. Scandalously there is no index, yet any number of pie charts. And the structure of the 300 page book doesn’t really aid the reader. Defining and understanding the mechanics and philosophy of the Glasgow Effect remains enigmatic.