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

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Grey Areas

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The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has recently opened a new temporary exhibition based around their Jackson Pollock masterpiece Alchemy, and the intensive 18-month conservation it has just returned from to remove nearly 70 years worth of dust from its surface which, remarkably, is still yet to fully dry.

Divided into two rooms, the exhibition displays the work itself in one, and the science and theory behind this ground-breaking conservation and some historical interpretation of the work, Pollock himself, and his relationship with Peggy Guggenheim in the other. This information is conveyed through a series of videos, touchscreens and ephemera from Pollock’s Hamptons studio, such as paint cans and his mother’s old quilting frame, which he used to mount his canvases on the floor while conducting his famous “drip painting” technique. Perhaps most interestingly though, the exhibition contains a 1:1 scale 3D printed reproduction of Alchemy that visitors are invited to touch in order to explore the vastly textured surface of the painting.

Alchemy 3D

The rationale behind interpretive features like this are plainly obvious, everybody wants to touch things in museums. I’ve been at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for three months now and I see this phenomenon first hand every day. The difference with Alchemy however is that its “poured paint” three dimensional surface at least would provide a satisfying tactile experience. This is not limited solely to appeasing the ignorant fingers of visitors however. Museums have long known that education functions more successfully when multi-sensory learning is able to take place. This is why museums have long striven to find ways in which they can permit visitors to touch things within exhibition displays, and to varying degrees of success.

At the Museo Correr in Piazza San Marco I spent some time recently fiddling with a complicated “augmented reality” exhibit that required you to hold a white disc in front of a camera that would then show you an onscreen image in which said disc was replaced in your hands by the Capsella di Samagher, an ivory Roman Reliquary from 5 AD, which is displayed in a cabinet behind. The exhibit is disheartening though as it is obviously expensive and takes up a lot of space in a venue that has little to spare, and it is entirely ineffectual. I wasn’t having a tactile experience of the object, I was having one of a white cardboard disc. On top of that, I was no longer looking at the object itself, but at a computer generated onscreen version of it that in actuality looked nothing like the real thing. It also took me at least 5 minutes of fumbling to work out how to reach this disappointing conclusion.

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3D printing is far more satisfying. While the materials and colours cannot be replicated yet, the shapes and textures certainly can. Nor do the advantages of 3D printing stop there. Jack Shoulder wrote an interesting piece last year about its implementation at the Grant Museum, where the bones and skeletal displays exhibited are accompanied by miniature 3D printed replicas of the creatures they once belonged to in order to help the visitor contextualise what they are being shown.

The idea of 3D printed replicas of exhibits as interpretive materials however was first brought to my attention at the second “Museum of the Future” debate at the British Museum last October. The idea was generally disregarded however but the reasoning for this was due to the gentleman following up his point with the alarming suggestion that visitors should be allowed to print off the exhibits they liked the most and then take them home with them.

In its current manifestation 3D printing does not pose much of a counterfeiting threat. I have no desire for example to take the ugly grey 3D Alchemy from the second room at the museum home and hang it on my wall, nor would I be able to successfully punt it through some dodgy backdoor art market. But technology is a vivacious beast and who are we to doubt that in the future such reproductions may not be possible? Alchemy of course will always be tricky as printing cigarette butts and sand is still realistically a long way off, but there are many valuable objects in museums across the world whose compositions are less complex. The ability to furnish 3D print outs with colour is something we must assume is being investigated, so the possibility of a Rosetta “Stone-effect” replica at some point is not such a ludicrous idea.

You could also argue that a 3D printer will never be able to replicate the artistic process, which is fair enough. The process of creating the artwork can often be what is of most interest when viewing the final piece. However, what if the interest in the piece lies only in financial gain? Artists and artworks have been fraudulently replicated, and even created for years. Sculpture for example will be incredibly susceptible to forgery via 3D printing in the future. Museums and galleries across the world are filled with statuary of questionable provenance due to the failure of artists to break their moulds after the initial production. Nowadays all it would take is a 3D scanner to digitally recreate the mould for any sculpture one desired, which if leaked to the online community could potentially lead to the “looting” of entire collections.

I am all for making collections digitally available however. The work of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for example, and increasingly in other institutions across the world to make their collections viewable either through their own websites or initiatives such as the Google Art Project is a tremendous development. The advent of 3D printing however poses some serious questions as to the extent to which this should be done. Is there a line that can or should be drawn as to the extent to which collections can still be shared digitally, as they should be, without putting them in the grey areas of jeopardy created by technological developments such as 3D printing?