ARTIST AS ACTIVE CITIZEN
I was first approached to write this text for a-n's Artist Council on 22 July 2019. I was in the final week of an epic year-long project to write my first book, The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of Class, Capitalism & Carbon Footprint, inspired by the controversy surrounding my 2016 ‘durational performance’ The Glasgow Effect (for which I refused to leave Glasgow’s city limits, or use any vehicles except my bike for a whole calendar year). The UK was at the start of a heatwave which would see the hottest temperature ever recorded on our island – 38.7°C in Cambridge – and result in hundreds of deaths.
The original brief, was for a new project about ‘making artists activate!’ Looking at ‘how artists can also sit around board room tables or negotiate with councils etc.’ Despite being up-to-my-eyeballs with proofreading, tweaking typesetting, endnotes and illustrations for the book – trying my best to focus amidst the haze of heat – this invitation immediately grabbed my attention. The whole driving force behind The Glasgow Effect project was to attempt to live what I called a ‘low-carbon lifestyle of the future’ – where I would reject the demands of a globalised ‘knowledge economy’ to travel excessively for work, and instead see what I could make happen if I invested all my time, energy and ideas in the city where I live.
Once I emerged from the social media shitstorm sparked by the project (largely because of the £15k public funding I received from Creative Scotland to undertake it), I began to make myself a familiar visitor (if not to say an irritant) at many public bodies around the city. As well as meeting and attending seminars with researchers from Glasgow Centre for Population Health who were investigating the so-called ‘Glasgow Effect’ (a term they’d coined to describe Glasgow’s mysteriously poor public health compared to similar post-industrial cities in England such as Liverpool and Manchester), I was also in-and-out of the Glasgow City Chambers most weeks. First, I wrote to the head of the Council, then Frank McAveety, to ask for a meeting. He was ‘too busy’ but put me onto his deputy Archie Graham. I met with him and Jill Miller, the Director of Cultural Services at the Council’s ALEO Glasgow Life on 3rd May. They thought I wanted to talk about ‘art’, but actually I wanted to talk about piloting new economic models, challenging car-centric culture and improving public transport to the poorest parts of the city – all the stuff that had been concerning and frustrating me since I moved to the city seven-and-a-half years before, but which I hadn’t previously had the time or resources to address.
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Ellie Harrison (b. London 1979) is an artist and activist who has been living in Glasgow since 2008. Her work seeks to make visible the connections between social, environmental and economic injustices in our world, and to actively address them. In 2010, she became the first visual artist to publish an Environmental Policy. In 2016, she slashed her carbon footprint for transport to zero and made headlines with her ‘controversial’ project The Glasgow Effect, for which she refused to leave Glasgow’s city limits, or use any vehicles except her bike, for the whole calendar year. Her first book The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of Class, Capitalism & Carbon Footprint was inspired by the 2016 project and published by Luath Press in November 2019. In September 2019 she premiered a new work at Manchester Art Gallery – Bus Regulation: The Musical was inspired by the 1980s hit musical Starlight Express and presented in collaboration with the Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign.
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THE WIDE REVOLUTION: REFLECTIONS ON THE HISTORY OF POLITICAL ART
Politics ebbs and flows in the history of art. Restricting ourselves initially to the narrow dimension of the politics of art expressed in the subject matter of artworks and the content of art’s discourses, there is an evident rise and fall of politics in art that is registered in the familiar quantitative idiom, in which it appears that there is more politics in one period of art history and less politics in another. It is at the extremities of such waves, presumably, that this ‘less’ and ‘more’ obtain absolute values, and we can hear arguments that politics in art is now obsolete or the autonomy of art from political struggle has now become impossible.
There is nothing naïve about acknowledging that politics and art come together and drift apart according to the fashions and ‘turns’ of art and its discourses, but there is also a structural condition for art that has a more long-lasting political character. In this second sense, art is political regardless of whether it is “political art”, “activist art”, socially engaged art or none of the above. However, it is also evident that the recognition of the institutional or infrastructural politics of art itself wanes in the consciousness of artists, curators and critics at certain periods and is revived at others. What’s more, there is a broad range of opinions based on the assumption that art is immanently political. At one end of the spectrum, art is regarded as a special activity that resists the existing society simply by being art or being aesthetic. At the other end, art is complicit in power and privilege though its economic, institutional, social and material institutions.
One variant of the understanding of art as immanently political argues that art’s autonomy is itself a political accomplishment insofar as it is secured and safeguarded by a constellation of economic, normative, pedagogical and civic measures. Also, despite the sophisticated conceptual scaffolding that supports art’s normative autonomy, it has not been too difficult for critical theorists to devise ingenious traps, to reinsert all manner of artworks that shy away from politics back into the political map. For instance, Julian Stallabrass observes that apolitical artists produce the interior decor for the super-rich, and the Guerrilla Girls treat all art as a super carrier of the racial and gender inequities that prevail in society, not only through the values crystallised in artworks themselves, but also in the way that works are collected, circulated, displayed and taught. As a result, art has never been able to separate itself completely from politics.
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Dave Beech is an artist and writer. He is Reader in Art and Marxism at Chelsea, Camberwell and Wimbledon, the University of the Arts, London. He is the author of Art and Postcapitalism: Aesthetic Labour, Automation and Value Production (Pluto 2019) and Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics (Brill 2015), which was shortlisted for the Deutscher Memorial Prize. Art and Labour: On the Hostility to Handicraft, Aesthetic Labour and the Politics of Work in Art (Brill 2020) will be published in August. Beech is an artist who worked in the collective Freee (with Andy Hewitt and Mel Jordan) between 2004 and 2018. His current solo art practice translates the tradition of critical documentary film into sequences of prints that combine photomontage and text art. Recent exhibitions of these works have been staged in New Orleans and Vienna with an exhibition in Exeter postponed due to the Covid-19 lockdown.