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<em>Picture: Walter Baxter</em>

Picture: Walter Baxter

As is always the case, this election will be won and lost in just a few key battleground areas. The swing seats hold the key to the final result, and The Caledonian Mercury will be looking at several of them over the next week. Here are the first five –

Almond Valley
Almond Valley is the sort of seat Labour needs to win if it is to regain power at Holyrood. This used to be Livingston, and it was won in 2007 by the SNP’s Angela Constance with a majority of 870.

Boundary changes have made things even tighter since then – and, according to one assessment, this is now the most marginal constituency in the country, with the SNP holding a notional majority of just four votes.

Ms Constance believes the last four years have consolidated her position and that incumbency will give her the edge over Labour stalwart Lawrence Fitzpatrick.

But, having lost some areas that she knew well – such as Broxburn and Uphall – and gained others with a Labour tradition – such as Fauldhouse and Longridge – the result here is anything but clear.

Also standing: Emma Sykes (Liberal Democrat), Andrew Hardie (Conservative), Neil McIvor (National Front).

Prediction: SNP hold.

Edinburgh Eastern
This battle between two political heavyweights encapsulates the fight for the Scottish government. A high-profile Nationalist is up against a less well-known but solid Labour candidate, and what happens in this seat should give a good indication of what is going to happen across Scotland.

The SNP’s Kenny MacAskill won here in 2007, but boundary changes have since given Labour a notional majority of 545. The Labour candidate is the Reverend Ewan Aitken, Church of Scotland minister and former Labour leader on Edinburgh city council.

Mr MacAskill believes his personal vote – built up over the past four years – will see him through, and he is doing all he can to link Mr Aitken with the unpopular trams debacle.

Also standing: Martin Veart (Liberal Democrat), Cameron Buchanan (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP hold.

Glasgow Southside
Somehow, the old name of Glasgow Govan carried more romance and appeal than the renamed constituency. Maybe it was the by-elections of 1973 and 1988 – both won by the SNP – but, whatever it is, this is a much-changed seat.

Boundary changes have stripped it of much of Govan including the shipyards, and have brought in Govanhill, the Gorbals and Toryglen.

But a Tory glen it isn’t. This is a straight fight between the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon (who won Govan by 744 votes in 2007) and Labour’s Stephen Curran, a local councillor.

There have been claims of dirty tricks, with SNP sources muttering about claims that Mr Curran’s people have been telling voters they don’t need to worry about Ms Sturgeon being returned to parliament, because she is standing on the regional list and they can get both Mr Curran and Ms Sturgeon to parliament if they back Mr Curran on the constituency vote.

This claim has been denied by Labour, but it underlines how tense and how important this seat is.

Ms Sturgeon is under pressure in what has traditionally been a Labour heartland, but she will be hoping that the national swing to the SNP from Labour will be enough to see her returned again.

Also standing: Kenneth Elder (Liberal Democrat), David Meikle (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP hold.

North East Fife
Normally, the notional 4,500 majority which Iain Smith holds in this rural Fife seat would make this an easy hold for the Liberal Democrats – but these are not normal times.

The battering which the Lib Dems have taken in the polls because of their Westminster coalition deal with the Tories – and their subsequent decisions in government – have made this seat vulnerable to both the SNP and the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems are throwing resources at North East Fife in an attempt to head off the opposition attacks, and Mr Smith is finding on the doorstep that he has yet to build up the sort of personal vote that the local Lib Dem MP, Sir Menzies Campbell, has cultivated.

Sir Menzies would have no trouble holding this seat, but Mr Smith is facing a much harder fight. His majority will be cut – there appears to be no doubt about that – but the three-way battle may play into his hands, with neither the SNP (whose candidate is Rod Campbell) nor the Tories (Miles Briggs) likely to garner enough Lib Dem votes on their own to unseat him.

Also standing: Colin Davidson (Labour), Mike Scott-Hayward (UKIP).

Prediction: Lib Dem hold.

Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale
The battle for this big Borders seat is between two of Holyrood’s best-known and longest-serving MSPs: Jeremy Purvis for the Liberal Democrats and Christine Grahame of the SNP.

The two have fought each other so many times before that this has the feel of a personal grudge match about it.

Mr Purvis is the sitting MSP, but boundary changes have given the SNP a notional advantage – and, according to one assessment of local government voting patterns, may now have Ms Grahame in front by 1,200 votes.

Mr Purvis faces the added problem of general disillusionment with the Lib Dem coalition in London, and he has been doing his best to emphasise his work in the constituency and move discussions away from English tuition fees and Nick Clegg.

He faces an uphill battle, though, particularly against someone such as Ms Grahame who is very well known here.

Also standing: Ian Miller (Labour), Peter Duncan (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP gain from Lib Dems.

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Douglas Gordon’s '24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro'

Douglas Gordon’s '24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro'

Whether you do or you don’t know much about art, and even whether or not you know what you like, the chances are you’ll find something to tickle your fancy in the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art – and probably whether you mean to or not, simply by being in the city while it’s on.

As well as taking over most of Glasgow’s designated art galleries, from the big bastions of Kelvingrove, GOMA, Tramway and the Hunterian to boutique tastemaker spaces like Sorcha Dallas, The Modern Institute, Mary Mary and Washington Garcia, the 50-plus artists featured in this year’s fourth biennial festival – known as GI for short – will pervade the dear green place like never before.

You might be surprised by Susan Philipsz’s specially-commissioned sound work, Lowlands, playing with your ears along the banks of the Clyde, or catch a glimpse of Sam Kennedy’s window-based creations in the SWG3 artists’ complex, from the train between Partick and the SECC. Look out for the 50 eponymous velocipedes of the White Bike Plan, provided free for festival-goers to pedal between venues, in NVA’s restaging of an anarchist Dutch anti-car action from the 1960s (when they didn’t have to worry about the likes of Glasgow’s central one-way system.)

Other sites and venues around town include vacant shops, an abandoned glue factory, a former hairdresser’s salon, Speirs Lock, South Portland Street Suspension Bridge (where Berlin-based artist Jodi Rose will use the cables as musical instruments), Govanhill Baths and Our Lady of Good Counsel church.

If it’s the blockbusting or controversial face of contemporary art you’re after, head for the Tramway. Its packed GI programme includes both local hero Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro, in which his signature slowed-down Turner Prize-winner is simultaneously reversed, on adjacent screens, and Swiss artist Christoph Büchel’s immersive Camp 2010, a fictional environment constructed in shipping containers, whose cryptic potential references range from human trafficking to the Lockerbie bombing.

If, on the other hand, you simply fancy going for a pint, then that too can be art, according to US visitor Eric Steen’s Glasgow Beer and Pub Project, taking place at the Market Gallery in Dennistoun. Given his credo that “drinking beer with friends is a form of activism; a social act with political side-effects as it helps build community, place, and interest in local business”, and his interest in “the ability beer has to bring people into a greater understanding of their city or region as a rich social site”, Steen could make himself a lot of friends in Glasgow. Especially since his “multi-sensory installation” incorporates craft beer sampling as well as home-brewing instruction.

Also on the fun front – although doubtless with his signature dash of the mind-bendingly lateral and/or savagely dark – David Shrigley’s brand-new sculptures, comprising the festival’s first-time appearance at Kelvingrove, are sure to be a popular draw. And likewise countering contemporary art’s popularly forbidding image is the Cybraphon, on show at SWG3, a robotic, interactive “band” housed in a Victorian-style china cabinet. It not only starts playing when it senses an audience’s presence, but responds with purported delight or dejection to its traffic on Facebook and Twitter. The immediate childlike delight it offers is allied to deeper intent, however, combining an implicit critique of social-network dynamics with the latest in language computation technology.

The Cybraphon’s vintage exterior and cutting-edge abilities make it a perfect emblem for this year’s GI theme of “past, present and future” – another cannily accessible, widely flexible headline hook on the part of festival director Katrina Brown.

“It partly came from thinking about a lot of contemporary artwork that uses re-enactment, uses existent sites or products – whether it’s film, or TV, or magazines – to make new work and generate new ideas,” she explains, highlighting approaches that variously inform many of the aforementioned GI attractions. “A lot of the artists engaged in that way of working are also looking at moments where we’re imagining a future, and that seemed to be a very pertinent issue. The other factor was the realisation that 2010 was the 20th anniversary of Glasgow’s reign as European Capital of Culture, which gave us an opportunity for both looking back and hopefully looking forward.”

It’s an apt commemoration, given that 1990 was when Glasgow first surprised the world with its appetite for challenging contemporary work, and laid the modern-day cultural foundations on which GI notched up an attendance of nearly 90,000 in 2008, and continues to greet the future in such expansive and cosmopolitan style.

April 16-May 3