Artist Ellie Harrison is being paid £15k just to stay in Glasgow for a year

But it's made her no friends, says Chris Green

How would your career, social life, family ties and mental health be affected if you were never able to leave the city where you live? And what if that city happened to be Glasgow? The artist Ellie Harrison is hoping to find out, having embarked on a year-long project in which she will not leave the confines of Scotland's largest city throughout 2016.

At first glance, it might seem like an interesting idea. But only a few hours after announcing her self-imposed Glaswegian captivity on Facebook, Ms Harrison found herself at the centre of a social media storm, with local residents accusing her of taking part in a 12-month “poverty safari” around their home city.

Many were particularly furious that the 36-year-old artist is being given £15,000 of taxpayers' money to finance her project, in the form of a grant awarded by Holyrood's development agency for the arts, Creative Scotland. 

Even worse, she decided to illustrate the art project's Facebook page with an image of greasy chips – an apparent reference to the city's unhealthy diet – and named her year-long study The Glasgow Effect, a particularly loaded term sometimes used to describe the poorer health and lower life expectancy of Glaswegians compared to other parts of the UK. 

Ms Harrison, who has lived in the city since 2008, described her study as an “action research project/durational performance” which will see her remain within Greater Glasgow for a whole year – barring ill-health or the death of a close relative or friend.

“By setting this one simple restriction to her lifestyle, she intends to test the limits of a 'sustainable practice' and to challenge the demand-to-travel placed upon the 'successful' artist/academic,” she wrote on the project's website. “The experiment will enable her to cut her carbon footprint and increase her sense of belonging, by encouraging her to seek out and create 'local opportunities' – testing what becomes possible when she invests all her ideas, time and energy within the city where she lives.”

However noble the idea might have been, the reaction on social media was immediate and sometimes vitriolic. One of the more measured comments came from Ellie Koepplinger, who wrote: “I've lived here all my life, and I've found that many of my peers have never left the Greater Glasgow area. I'm not quite sure what this project attempts to achieve – right now, I simply am shocked that the first thing the artist has associated with living within Glasgow for a year is a plate of chips. Our culture is so much more than that. I don't believe you need £15k to see that.”

Another local resident, Laura Walsh, pointed out that being forced to stay in the city permanently was simply a fact of life for many people. “I haven't left Glasgow in nearly four years, living on benefits and raising a child at the same time can do that to you. There have even been times I couldn't even afford the bus to travel to the next town,” she wrote.

Ms Harrison told The Independent in an email that she would be posting her response to the criticism on her blog later, but hung up when contacted by telephone. A spokeswoman for Creative Scotland defended the funding it had given her, describing her as a “recognised artist” who had earned a Masters degree from the Glasgow School of Art.

ellie-harrison.jpg
Ellie Harrison

“Ellie's project met the criteria for Open Project Funding and is based on the premise that if society wishes to achieve global change, then individuals have to be more active within their communities at a local level,” she added. “In restricting herself to staying within the city boundaries she is keen to explore what impact this will have her on her life and on her work as an artist with national and international commitments. 

“Our funding will support Ellie's creative practice in the city and we will be interested to see how the project progresses.” 

Despite its problems, Glasgow was once dubbed The Friendly City due to the upbeat attitude of its residents. But based on the angry reaction Ms Harrison's project has received so far, the artist might find that a year suddenly seems like quite a long time.

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