Useful Work vs. Useless Toil


The Turner Prize 2015 exhibition drew to a close this week at the Tramway gallery and there is no doubt it has been a great success for the city of Glasgow as much as for worthy winners, Assemble. The show brought a record number of visitors to the venue, increasing its local influence and improving its stature and reputation further afield.


It also did an excellent job of engaging the city’s residents, both through Tramway’s complementary in-house programming, and across Glasgow itself. A fine example of this being the establishment by residents of the Pollokshields Playhouse, a community arts space in the formerly derelict site across from gallery itself. The exhibition also facilitated the return of the Assemble group to their continuing project in the east end, an adventure playground for children on Baltic Street, begun in 2014 with funding from the Commonwealth Games. The positive legacy the Turner Prize exhibition leaves Glasgow is clear, however it is the effect it will have on its eventual winners that is most intriguing.

Pollywood cinema at the Pollokshileds Playhouse - image © Glasgow South and Eastwood Extra

Pollywood cinema at the Pollokshileds Playhouse – image © Glasgow South and Eastwood Extra

The announcement on the 7th of December last year that the judges had plumped for Assemble to receive the £25,000 prize was a splash with powerful ripples. The key talking point was that Assemble were the first “non-artists” to win the award. Assemble consists of individuals with varying skills, but predominantly come from an architectural background and by their own admission much of the group do not consider themselves an art collective. This of course provided commentators with both cultural and economic concerns.


From an economic standpoint, being non-artists the collective are the first winners to consciously ignore the art market. Assemble’s portfolio is a collection of in-situ community projects, created collaboratively with the people who reside in them. They are therefore, not for sale. Rather than the Turner Prize being a launch pad to fame and fortune, Assemble instead, as they freely admit, saw the exhibition as a perfect opportunity to promote the catalogue from their Granby Workshop. The workshop is part of the Granby Four Streets project in Toxteth, Liverpool that lead to their Turner nomination, and sells handmade homeware created under Assemble’s supervision by the local community. The exhibit created by the group at Tramway was not so much an artwork as a showroom; a physical catalogue to peruse. This is a catalogue however that just won the Turner Prize, and anyone with as little as £8 at their disposal can purchase a piece.

Assemble exhibit at Tramway - image © Murdo MacLeod (Guardian)

Assemble exhibit at Tramway – image © Murdo MacLeod (Guardian)

From a cultural perspective though, Assemble’s non-artist status is blamed by some as the reason for their inability to communicate the social context within which their work is placed. All across the UK families are being torn apart as local councils are being forced to sell off their social housing stock to private developers who replace them with expensive new properties. While a small information panel in their corner of the exhibition explains some of plight of the residents of Toxteth, and Assemble’s work to help the community there, their exhibit in its manifestation as a bespoke home furnishings showroom did little to highlight what is a far wider issue.


My concern is that the excellent work that Assemble is doing does not become hindered by a convergence of these economic and cultural peculiarities. Whilst it is admirable to see creatives ignore the lure of the art market and its stratospheric sums, Assemble’s abstention from it assumes that the art market too wishes to ignore them. I am not suggesting that a simple Turner Prize win will put million pound price tags on everything the group have ever touched, but it will certainly raise the prestige value of owning them. Assemble will need to be careful that any perceived financial value in their output does not negate its good intent, especially if they do not improve their ability to communicate the social context that their work engages with.


The social housing crises affecting areas like Granby Four Streets for example has been described as “social cleansing dressed up as gentrification.” Oppositely, Assemble do not want to appear complicit in this by having their excellent work in these communities misconstrued as gentrification as well. The worst thing for them would be for 10 Houses on Cairns Street to become viewed as “Turner Prize winning properties,” or the art and studio spaces they have created as Durham Wharf and Sugarhouse as harbingers of the bourgeois bohemian economies that have overtaken other formerly lapsed areas of London.


The solution is simple though, Assemble merely have to assume a more conscientious responsibility for their brand. Whether they consider themselves artists or not, they have just been awarded the most famous art prize in the UK. Assemble’s victory owes surely to its clear echoes of the utilitarian principles of William Morris in the unending usefulness of their artfulness. However, as Morris once wrote, “History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.” They can protest, but Assemble have had “art” conferred upon them. They must now accept the responsibility of remembering the people who have helped them create, and specifically, why.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 22.1.2016

The Desired Effect?

Artist Ellie Harrison

Artist Ellie Harrison

Now is the winter of our discontent, and didn’t we welcome it with open arms and furiously typing fingers. Facebook’s Glaswegian contingent was gleefully disgruntled yesterday. Nothing of course warms the cockles, or knuckles at the least, like hammering your frustrations into your keyboard amidst the latest social media outrage. The response to artist Ellie Harrison’s year long “action research/durational performance” piece has been simmering since the Facebook event advertising it first appeared, but boiled into a full blown chip-pan fire on Monday. So, what’s the problem?


The problem is that that the project is most succinctly described as, “the artist will spend an entire year living in Glasgow, unable to leave, and will be publicly funded for the privilege/burden,” delete as appropriate. The root of the problem however is the Facebook event being used to promote it, which is either naively or deliberately fostering this understanding of its premise. The reaction to this pertains to two incendiary elements. Firstly, people are offended at the suggestion that confining herself to Glasgow amounts to some great of feat of survival, like Will Smith in I Am Legend but with a better donkey impression.

The Glasgow Effect event page on Facebook

The Glasgow Effect event page on Facebook

The event page does nothing to help this, painting the endeavour almost as a battle against inevitable declining health. The chosen feature image of loads of greasy chips is crass, but it’s the name of the project, The Glasgow Effect that is particularly troublesome. The term of course is already used to refer to the peculiarly poor health and high mortality rates of the city’s population compared to elsewhere in Europe. To use it as the name for the project seems devoid of any logical consideration. Picking a phrase out of the history books and re-appropriating it because the individual words are relevant is dangerous if you haven’t properly considered their combined meaning. It’s like doing “action research” into the optimum concentration of diluting juice and calling the project The Final Solution.


The other prompter of public ire is that the project is being funded by Creative Scotland, meaning people, not incorrectly, feel the money is coming straight out of their own pockets to pay someone to do what many of them already have, not leave their home city for a year. It comes across like some clever conceit by the artist to acquire a sort of “creative” dole money, receiving a better-than-minimum wage salary to do what ostensibly looks like nothing. Whether you view the project as a privileged outsider being parachuted into the city on a “poverty safari,” or just an elaborate benefit scam, it’s offensive.


But people are quick to take offence, because deep down we find a perverse satisfaction in the camaraderie of a mass social media outrage and are always tacitly seeking an opportunity to turn our keyboards, like Bluetooth pitchforks towards the next deserving culprit. Harrison has given people little choice in this instance though; the magnitude of the backlash towards her project is testament to how badly she has explained it. The Facebook event that attempts to do so contains three paragraphs, and the first and the third are toxic. Sandwiched between the sections about simply not leaving Glasgow for a year and who is paying for it is a second paragraph that attempts, half-heartedly, to flesh out the concept. The trouble is, you can take the finest, tastiest ingredients in the world, but place them between two mouldy bits of bread and nobody is going to swallow it.


But then it’s hardy haute cuisine in the middle either. Harrison’s description of the event is vague and uninspiring. The crux of it appears to be to ascertain if living in Glasgow will have any visible effect on her output, but living here puts little to no strain on her as an artist. It’s a post-industrial creative hub, and materials and inspiration are impossible not to come by. We’re not short of examples of the city’s effect on artists work anyway, be it in it’s Art Nouveau architecture, the Glasgow Boys and Girls or the current Gallery of Modern Art exhibition showcasing works from prominent Glasgow School of Art alumni.


The only glimmer of hope exists in the phrase “encouraging her to seek out and create local opportunities.” There is a suggestion here that her work may involve engaging local communities in the arts in some way but it is far from explicit enough to make any assumptions. Arts funding is subject to two public pressures: the economic right, who demand value for the money spent, and the cultural left, who demand some form of societal benefit from the output. When you filter through the cheap jokes and pontification in the responses to her chip-emblazoned Facebook event page, Harrison’s project is being squeezed like a clogged artery from both sides.


To compound matters, if some sort of community engagement was to be her saving grace here, she has already failed at her first attempt. Social media is an incredibly important tool for interacting with audiences these days and not to show it due diligence can be damaging. Just look at the mess she’s made. It is better to forfeit the exposure social media can give you than to make an uncommitted attempt merely for appearances sake.


I am inclined however to give her the benefit of the doubt. It is entirely her fault that a lack of details about the project has met her with such contempt but someone at Creative Scotland, wrongly or otherwise, has seen value in the idea and I’d like to give her the chance to properly share it with us. To be fair, if one of her strategic aims was to gain a better understanding of the city then she’s learned a valuable lesson already. To make allusions to poverty and hardship whilst “challenging” herself not to leave the city was stupid. To claim receipt of public funding without explaining what it’s actually for, in a city troubled by poverty and hardship was stupid. The chips thing was stupid. But this is all just bad social media, and hopefully the project itself, when less lazily communicated is of some value. Unless of course the event page was deliberately antagonistic, and the real “durational performance” art here is to survive for a year in a city that hates her guts? But that’s really stupid.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 5.1.2016