Ellie Harrison
Ellie Harrison's previous projects include photographing everything she at for a whole year in 2002The Glasgow Project

There are rather a lot of people who won't venture beyond the boundaries of the city of Glasgow at any point during 2016, simply because of crushing poverty. Even a quick Saturday afternoon escape to Loch Lomond or Millport is almost an alien concept for them. All is not lost, however. A bright and unexpected new dawn could be breaking for the underclass, because it turns out that their way of life is considered so exotic by government arts bodies that they may qualify for lavish funding.

Nobody will be getting a free ride, of course. Anyone putting in an application will be expected to consciously redefine their daily routine as a piece of performance art. This will mainly involve a lot of non-specific self-reflection, and the writing of an internet blog. Illiteracy may therefore whittle down the eligible population quite significantly. And heaven only knows how any of these people can be expected to come across as sufficiently pretentious on their application forms, or pay for a dialect coach who can help them pass for a worthy middle-class recipient of public subsidy.

OK, OK, I'm being far too unkind. Creative Scotland's £15,000 ($22,000) compensation for a year's total confinement in Glasgow was awarded to Ellie Harrison, an artist with a strong track-record and an MA from the city's prestigious School of Art. While she may not have been terribly forthcoming about precisely how her windfall will be put to use, there can be a perfectly justifiable expectation that something tangible and of genuine quality will emerge by the end of the year.

But it's hard to deny she was her own worst enemy in failing to put the end product at the heart of her pitch for funding. Instead, she really did ask to be paid handsomely for – at least in part – "exploring" the impact of being stuck in Glasgow on her personal and professional well-being. I suspect there are one or two people in Cranhill or Easterhouse who wouldn't mind being remunerated for "exploring" an existence they have very little option but to explore anyway. Keeping a diary would scarcely prove much of an additional hardship.

The most crass insensitivity of all is that Harrison's project has been titled The Glasgow Effect, which is a reference to the mysterious phenomenon of Glasgow residents persistently suffering poorer health and lower life expectancy than people in other parts of Britain which have roughly the same levels of poverty. There are several plausible theories that seek to explain this effect, but none have been definitively proved.

Perhaps living conditions in the city induce more stress. Perhaps the culture of the city somehow undermines self-esteem and promotes pessimism. There is even a theory that the overcrowding of slums several decades ago, and the resulting higher rate of childhood infections, prompted natural selection to favour an overactive immune system that effectively exhausts itself earlier in life. But it seems that as far as Harrison is concerned, the scientific debate is already over. The cover picture for her Glasgow Effect Facebook page is a pile of greasy chips.

The Glasgow Effect
The Glasgow EffectEllie Harrison, Facebook

Yes, that was probably intended as a harmless bit of fun, and it might even have been quite amusing had it come from a working-class Glaswegian sending herself up. But Harrison is a middle-class artist who knows that, whatever the exact causes of the real Glasgow Effect, she is likely to remain insulated from them during her self-imposed captivity. The negative effect she expects to encounter seems to largely relate to her national and international standing as an artist. Drawing such a frivolous parallel between a touch of middle-class angst and an ongoing human tragedy is bound to come across as sneering of a deeply offensive variety – especially when she's indulging in a spot of victim-blaming humour.

While Harrison may never be able to authentically put herself in the place of those who really are trapped in the poverty of Glasgow, there is also in an important sense in which the people she has upset will never taste her own reality. In the normal course of events, they know little or nothing about the local art scene, or about grandiose applications for "open project funding". They only heard about this one because the media gatekeeper decided that they should, and indeed that they should be enraged by it.

And how expertly the buttons were pushed. Newspapers that only 16 months ago were waxing lyrical about how Scotland and England are "better together", and printing dishonest "Vows" from London party leaders on mocked-up parchment paper, suddenly seemed to feel no shame in inviting their readers to think that the single most important fact about Harrison is that she is "English" and a "London artist". In fact, Glasgow is her long-term home – she has lived there since 2008. But several natives of the city dutifully picked up on the dog-whistle, and posted irate comments on the internet suggesting that she had randomly chosen Glasgow for a paid holiday.

In truth, Harrison and her bitterest critics ought to be allies. Working-class Glaswegians defied the media in September 2014 by voting Yes to independence, and did so because they saw a unique opportunity to take full control of their own lives for the first time, and to break free from an elite that is all too content to keep them in a state of helplessness. Harrison shares many of the same aspirations, and views her project as a commentary on the contradictions of capitalism. It's almost grotesque that much of the community she has chosen to embed herself in were vigorously nodding along when the defenders of the status quo denigrated her work and ridiculed her motivations. But she must bear most of the responsibility for giving the press the chance to do that.

She may have crafted the perfect pitch for an aloof arts funding body, but it was an utterly dreadful pitch for her home town.


James Kelly is the author of the Scottish pro-independence blog, SCOT goes POP! Voted one of the UK's top political bloggers, you can hear more from James on Twitter at @JamesKelly