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Stephen Ellcock shows us the future with images from the past

Stephen Ellcock shows us the future with images from the past

Stephen Ellcock has been diligently selecting iconography and references from history through to the present day. His efforts have culminated in a new book, The Book of Change, published by the Princeton Architecutral Press. Already a popular and influential force on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, Ellcock selects images that he finds relevant to larger cultural forces we experience. As he explains in the foreword to his book, his intention with the book “is not only to confront the past and present but also to provide a signpost for the future, a book that serves as a visual manifesto for a better world.” 

He goes on to explain, “I would count it a great success if the selection and arrangement of images featured within this book inspired just a single reader to shed illusions and preconceptions, to see through the world of lies and deceit, to become wise to its tricks, and to dream the world anew.” Rain spoke with Stephen Ellcock in the following exclusive interview about how he emerged as an expert on image archives and how historical visual references can help us understand and build a better world.

The Book of Change

Mark Benjamin: It’s been great discovering your book, The Book of Change. I was amazed by the imagery. It actually takes me longer to read your book of images than it would a book of words of the same length. I love the foreword, by the way. 

Stephen Ellcock: It’s actually quite heavily edited, not by me. There’s a lot redacted from it by both publishers. 

MB: Well, the message still came across, right? 

SE: Yes, I’m really pleased at the response to the introduction because that day…I don’t know if you know how I came to write it. Last year [2021] has been a catastrophic mess, a series of accidents and disasters for me. As this book was about to be delivered, I had a major fall. I tripped over a tree root and completely smashed my right arm and elbow. It had to be reconstructed in the hospital. I couldn’t do anything. I’m right-handed and I was strung out on morphine and codeine and various other prescription drugs for several weeks, but all the time in the back of my mind, there was pressure that this book had to be delivered. 

The publishers tried various solutions. Obviously, I couldn’t type. They tried having people interview me, they tried a ghost writer and none of it worked. I didn’t like the results. So, what I ended up doing is, lying flat on my back in bed with my phone, I typed it all out in about two sessions using my right thumb. Thanks to predictive text and a mobile phone, the foreword just came out.

MB: Wow. That’s a labor of love. 

Fears by Louise Bourgeois (French American, 1911–2010), wood and metal, 1992; Stephen Ellcock (The Book of Change)

SE: I was also supposed to do other events like book signing which was impossible. Instead, I had an ink pad and was doing thumb prints, hence the thumb print at the end of the introduction. 

Culture today

MB: How did you find this book addressing a lot of the problems, or maybe it’s more your response to what’s going on in the environment and culture today?

SE: Originally, when I signed the contract for this book, it was going to be an entirely different book. It was going to be along the lines of my first book, which was not political. Well, it was sort of political in the broadest sense, but I thought halfway through last year with COVID and everything going on in the world, with the extinction rebellion protests here and all the eco activism and movements like Black Lives Matter…lots of society seemed to be opening up new fissures. The divisions between people seem to be widened by the crisis…by the multiple crises we were facing.

I just thought, this would have been the worst crisis that most people alive today will ever have encountered…the worst crisis since the Second World War. It seemed ridiculous to be slightly indulgent, to pursue what I was going to do: a book about universal symbols and archetypes. I felt that there was a need for something that addressed the current situation, but in a visual sense rather than something verbal. 

SE: What I’ve been trying to do on Instagram and Facebook for years is a way of addressing contemporary issues using a collage technique of imagery so that people can see the relationship between images and hope. There’s a kind of progressive narrative as the relationships of the images, the relationships between each image…there is a kind of story and narrative thrust to it. 

MB: Have you really looked into or are you inspired by Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation?

SE: Yes!

Simulacrum

MB: How does that play into what you do? 

SE: I think what I’ve been trying to do in all these years on social media is to create an alternative vision of the world, and to create a simulacrum of the world by using visuals. I will use great art like the old masters and famous artists, but I will also incorporate art from illustrations, comics, cartoons, stills from TV and film, and even advertising imagery. I suppose it’s a collage technique that was used by the Dadaists, futurists, and the Bauhaus, but all because of social media, you can do it on a grand scale. 

If I post something that’s obviously related to political issues of the day, or post a news item, or images that are obviously didactic or have a propaganda intent, people on Facebook will start complaining and say, why are you doing this? Why ruin everything by becoming political? And I say, well, everything I’ve ever done here is political. It might be a beautiful picture of a landscape or a rainbow or a meteor shower, but it’s the juxtaposition…what it’s saying about the world that is going on around us. 

The Mothers by Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867–1945), woodcut on Japanese paper, 1921–22, Stephen Ellcock (The Book of Change)

Politics

MB: Yeah, people are sensitive about politics these days, but like I always say, the reality is that waking up is political.

SE: Yeah! To me, it’s a method of reading, attempting to decipher the world of signs and symbols, which I suppose fits with the comparisons to Derrida or Baudrillard. Whilst I also love and celebrate the mystery, power, ambiguity, and impenetrability of so many signs, images, and symbols, there’s nevertheless something very satisfying in my ongoing attempts to interpret and decode images and in the juxtaposition of images, revealing cryptic and hidden meanings by placing them next other, unrelated images.

MB: There are lots of people that do collages, but yours have gained such popularity because you’re good at it. How did you first realize that you’re good at it? 

SE: I’ve always had a pattern-making impulse, but I was absolutely terrible at visual art in school. I was very ambitious, but I could never realize what I wanted to do. I just couldn’t do it.  I’ve done various things in my life; I was a musician for quite a while. 

I wasn’t technically very good but I was good at arranging and composing and those kinds of elements of songwriting. I worked in publishing for a bit as well and then book selling, but even things like working in a bookshop…the way things are displayed and merchandising was really important to me. The way that you could persuade people or influence people to buy certain things, or to look at certain things just by the juxtaposition of things. 

Maybe that’s my kind of brain. With social media, it was completely by default. I had no intention of doing it. I was extremely ill a few years ago and I was house bound and bedridden for a few months. My sister persuaded me to join Facebook and I had been completely reluctant to do so. To me, it was an awful thing. I had no intention of joining, but I did just because I was bored. I managed to connect with people I hadn’t seen for quite awhile which was quite intriguing. Just to kind of amuse friends, I started posting images that I found interesting or esoteric or arcane or unusual. 

It started attracting a really interesting response. I realized Facebook is as much a visual medium as it is a verbal medium. There’s something of potential there, particularly with things that they’ve actually ruined recently like the facility to create ever expanding albums, which I loved. I’ve managed to compile albums with more than 10,000 images, which is probably a sign of a slightly obsessive personality. I love doing that.

Nyx series #60002 by Albarrán Cabrera (Anna Cabrera and Ángel Albarrán, both Spanish, b. 1969), pigments, gampi paper, and gold leaf, 2018. Stephen Ellcock (The Book of Change)

A museum at your fingertips

I thought, if people are responding to this and it’s not just having an infinite imaginary museum, it’s sort of that and it’s like having every museum in the world at your fingertips. It’s also more than that because you cannot replicate an art gallery. It’s a different experience. The way that people consume images on social media is completely different from the way that you consume it standing in front of a venerable work of art. People have to take that into account. I think a lot of people do this very well, and seem to assume that if they post on Facebook and Instagram that they’re somehow creating a great museum, but it’s inert; there’s no life to it. It’s just a random collection of images. 

“What we have today in common with medieval times is this sense of an impending apocalypse; there’s a sense of an ending.”

Stephen Ellcock

There may be beautiful images and it may cheer people up and brighten people’s days, but it’s not actually doing anything. It’s not doing anything with the medium, with the potential of social media. I hate the word curator, because I think that everybody ascribes that to themselves nowadays. If I post a whole stream of images, it may have something to do with current events or it may be images with a certain theme that may reflect onto one another.

 

The Jari Family by Hao Zeng (Chinese American, b. 1963); stylist: Karina Sharif, models: Jari Jones, Dominique Castelano, Sam Poon, Dwany Guzman, New York, 2020. Stephen Ellcock (The Book of Change).

Connecting the dots

I hope if they look at them, they will find connections between them. By making those connections it will be more fulfilling than just looking at a random parade of images. I also deliberately try to source material from as many different cultures, geographical backgrounds, and eras as possible. Sometimes that’s quite difficult, but I do try and make it as diverse and reflective of all cultures as far as I can. Basically, it’s an impossible visual encyclopedia of the world.

With books I’ve created so far, I have constrained costs of image rights, so that requires me to be spontaneous and improvise and try and find as much public domain material as possible. Thank God for American institutions. If I had to depend on British museums and libraries, they would have absolutely no resources whatsoever. Places like The Met, The Getty, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian, New York Public Library are all brilliant resources. Most images in their collection that are obviously out of copyright are free to use for any purpose. 

I tend to go down rabbit holes. There are certain areas of obsession I have: the natural world, science, astronomy, old scientific illustrations. In the next couple of years, I hope to make a definitive book about depictions of the cosmos from as far back as prehistory. The way that people conceived of the universe to the way that people interpret the sky and stars right up to exploring the depths of outer space through the Hubble telescope and all the probes and satellites. It’s an area I’m very interested in.

One Good Thing by Esther Pearl Watson (American, b. 1973), acrylic, collage, foil, and glitter on panel, 2019. Stephen Ellcock (The Book of Change).

Internet Archive Project

A lot of the time, I will search for one thing that leads to another, and I will invariably spend hours upon hours researching. For example, recently I have found myself looking at thousands of 18th century lithographs and illustrations of seaweed. I also stumbled upon books of old lace patterns and old Kimono prints and 19th century books of lace instruction manuals for placemaking; it had the most incredible images. The illustrations were just extraordinary. They’re completely abstract. They’re amazingly beautiful.

Nobody’s seen this material; it has been hidden. People have been diligently scanning all this stuff, the whole Internet Archive Project. These are books that have been sitting on shelves, some of them for decades, or even centuries. These lace designs are incredible works of art. Some are incredibly abstract and extraordinary. These are things that were created by people who have long been forgotten. Nobody would know their names but they were extraordinarily skilled. They would have had no formal education other than apprenticeships. I come across things like that all the time. I’d rather do that than go through the archives of the MoMA again.

Der Schützengraben (The Trench) by Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969), gouache and opaque white on paper, c. 1917. Stephen Ellcock (The Book of Change).

The Middle Ages

MB: Interesting. I was wondering because I notice you tend to use a lot of iconography from the Middle Ages. One of my favorite bands recently did an album inspired by the dark ages. A lot of the imagery they used were old drawings from around that time. They were drawing parallels from the dark ages and comparing them to today. I think they wrote the album right after Trump was elected. It does feel like people are confused and that we are living in a little dark age. 

Back then, most people didn’t know how to read, and so they relied on the church to tell them how to live and what to believe. And now today we have more information at our fingertips than ever before, and yet we’re going through an age of misinformation. There’s less of an emphasis on knowledge, a flattening so to speak, or tyranny of the majority which is often misinformed. People are confused. People don’t know what the truth is. They are more likely to repeat falsehoods today than at any time that I can remember. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that.

SE: I think the climate crisis and COVID both bring this idea home. What we have today in common with medieval times is this sense of an impending apocalypse; there’s a sense of an ending. There’s a sense that something is going to happen, hence things like QAnon. I think this existential fear is possibly what drives the impulse of things behind extreme Republicanism. Over the top forms of Republicanism in the states and Brexit here, for example. It’s a cult that is proving to be a total disaster. 

Suffrage poster from an issue of the periodical The Suffragette, with a figure of a woman, “Justice,” clad in armor, bearing a banner labeled “W.S.P.U.” by Hilda M. Dallas (British, 1878–1958), lithograph, c. 1912–15. Stephen Ellcock (The Book of Change).

This country is a quite inhospitable place to live now. It’s too trite to say the divisions are a generational thing, but a lot of it is a kind of fanaticism where they expect some deliverance from something. Because people are confused, they’re adrift. They or their parents, Boomers, were promised things. After the Second World War, there was a period of unparalleled prosperity for most ordinary people in the states. In the UK, extraordinary things happened like the foundation of the National Health Service and things like social housing were given for people to improve their prospects, standard of living, and life expectancy. 

Generational divides

Suddenly, that’s gone within one or two generations. That’s been virtually taken away. Now the people in charge here are the robber barons and the aristocrats. They’re the same kind of people that would have been hanging around with King John. Many of those in government or running the institutions and offices of the state, or those in charge of important financial corporations and institutions, together with those who own most of the land in this country are probably direct descendants of those same robber barons. Nothing seems to have changed.

Society in the West ten or twenty years ago seemed fairly tolerant. There didn’t seem to be much overt racism. We were seeing acceptance of LGBT people. Women were taking prominence in politics, in business, in the arts. There seemed to be a general move towards something better. Now, that seems wiped out and we’re seeing the fault lines that were the result of the economic crash of 2008. The consequences of those policies has then led to Brexit.

Two men in elaborate drag, photoprint, 1920s. Stephen Ellcock (The Book of Change).

One of the terrible, sickening aftershocks of Brexit has been the realization that a significant number of people, (a minority perhaps, but a significant minority), within the diverse community in which I live, obviously harbor racist or xenophobic views and this has been the case all along. Now the genie is out of the bottle and we are these faultiness and vision are being gleefully stoked by powerful interests in the name of the ‘culture wars,’ wars on ‘the woke,’ wars on ‘cancel culture,’ etc. These are the dangerous death rattle of what we should all hope to be a dying culture.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been great because not only did it empower black people around the world, but it also seemed to unveil discrimination in all categories. There were ripples that affected and galvanized other activist movements and groups as well. There were tremendous fringe benefits from that movement.

I have no idea how all of this is going to resolve itself. There’s also a factor of growing inequality. There is a lot of homelessness among people in their thirties and forties. They’re moving back in with their parents, because rents are far too high. There’s no social housing rents. People have to give over 70% of their income for rent before any local taxes or other living expenses, bills, utilities, and things. There will be consequences of this, which I’m sure are going to be really profound.

It’s an aging population and life expectancy is declining for the first time since these statistics were recorded. Life expectancy in the UK has declined by about five years in the last twenty years. Young people are not having children because they can’t afford it and there is no decent freely available, state-funded childcare provision for childcare. Young people can’t afford to buy a house or move out, so they definitely can’t afford to pay for kids. There’s going to be a real crisis point where millions and millions of young people are paying taxes that pay for the care of old people and keeping industry afloat without reaping any significant benefits from the existing, creaking and sclerotic system.

Young people understandably believe they have been robbed of their future. I’m old enough to remember a time when freedom of movement was restricted and obtaining the necessary visa, paperwork, manifests etc. was a real nightmare. When free movement within the EU was established back in the early 90s, it was possible to travel fromLondon to the borders of Russia without being stopped once and you could go and live anywhere in the EU. I am definitely not a cheerleader or an apologist for the EU, but it had its benefits.

MB: Totally. Here in the U.S., this country is in a very interesting predicament with the national debt. It’s now like 136% of GDP, which it has never been this high since the Second World War. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. The average home price here is over $400,000, and before when a city like Chicago or New York would become too expensive, people could just move south or somewhere else. Now that home prices and rents are unaffordable pretty much everywhere, there’s nowhere to go.

Future books

MB: What are the future books you have planned and where can people purchase “The Book of Change?”

SE: I have two forthcoming books in the pipeline. One is about English art and visual culture, titled England on Fire due in May 2022, which is a collaboration with the musician and novelist Mat Osman, who has written the text, and the other is essentially a journey from the microcosm to the macrocosm. It takes the viewer from the infinitesimally small, sub-atomic world to the incomprehensibly vast expanses of outer space. I can’t reveal much more about the project at the moment but it is incredibly ambitious and I am looking forward to revealing further details in the very near future.

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Instagram: @stephenellcock

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