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England on fire? Stephen Ellcock and the need for radical, noisy art

The curator discusses confronting the government’s crackdown on protests with “something truly wonderful”.

By India Bourke

When the UK government finally pushed its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill through parliament last week, it perhaps hoped that the measures enacted to curtail protests would stifle dissent and contain the anger growing within the country. Yet there is reason to believe that the new laws’ impact could have the opposite effect.

Already, sparks of continued resistance are taking shape among activists and artists alike. These could be seen and heard especially loudly on Friday 29 April, in the voices of climate protesters at HSBC’s annual general meeting in London. “Money, money money, it’s so scummy in HSBC’s world,” sung the Extinction Rebellion flashmob, adapting ABBA.

“By shutting down avenues to protest, such as through the policing bill, the government is pushing people towards finding new and alternative ways to be heard,” warns Jun Pang, the policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, an NGO that has battled the legislation’s passage through parliament.

“The legislation will inevitably lead to contention over what constitutes ‘egregious noise’,” adds Lewis Jamieson from Music Declares Emergency, an environmental pressure group. “We would expect many to see it as a challenge rather than be cowed.”

Nor is it only via music that the new bill is likely to meet resistance. Stephen Ellcock, a social media art curator, sees a long tradition within British culture that suggests creativity of all kinds burns bright when confronted by struggle and injustice. And in his new book, England on Fire, the former bookseller and music producer draws out this seam of radicalism across the ages.

Instead of resorting to gentle pastoral idylls to represent England’s green and pleasant land, Ellcock resurfaces the work of a wide range of artists, from overlooked 19th century printmakers to female surrealists. In the place of sedentary lords and ladies, he offers saturnalia. In the place of haywains; standing stones, the Cottingley fairies and scenes from anti-fascist marches. Only England could see another world in anything as mundane as tea leaves,” writes the musician, Mat Osman, in one of the book’s lyrical, hallucinative chapter openings.

The collection is also an attempt to push back against the rise of insularity he has seen creep into UK politics, Ellcock tells me from his London home. “Growing up, I was lulled into a false sense of security that things were getting better for minorities, LGBTQ+ people; racism seemed to be less severe than in other places. But then suddenly it felt like maybe that’s not the case.” Especially since the 2016 Brexit vote, “there has been this seething resentment beneath everything – stoked by politicians, and used to manipulate and exploit people,” says the 65-year-old. 

Ellcock blames this trend towards “dissolution and disillusion” on decades of underfunding by Conservative governments (in everything from social welfare to youth services, libraries and mental health provisions). It is a downward spiral which, he fears, the climate crisis threatens to worsen further still.

But Ellcock is also inspired by ongoing attempts to resist, renew and re-energise – in protest and in art. “The land grabs that have been attempted across history were always disrupted by events such as the Peasants Revolt or Jack Cade’s rebellion – people refused to have common land simply taken away.” Today, he sees that same spirit embodied in work as diverse as Jamie Reid’s screen prints for Extinction Rebellion, Leah Gordon’s hand-tinted images referencing the politics of enclosure, and the neon sculptures of Chila Kumari Singh Burman, whose work combines Bollywood imagery, Blackpool illuminations and colonial history.

“We’re being misdirected by unscrupulous politicians and plutocrats to avoid wonder and enchantment, and we’re supposed to be little more than serfs, happy with our lot. But if you can incorporate the marvellous and wonderful into daily life, if you can confront someone with something truly wonderful, you’ll grab their attention.” 

Ellcock knows about rising from the ashes. His talent for finding connections between images, objects and people (as we speak his mind leaps, magpie-like from idea to idea) found a vast new audience at a particularly low moment in his life. In 2009, with little money and sick at home with undiagnosed pneumonia, his sister persuaded him to sign up to Facebook where he began sharing images from the more curious nooks of the internet’s visual archive. Before long, hundreds of thousands of followers were signing up to his Facebook and Instagram pages. Numerous books have followed, but, with each, Ellcock has resisted compiling nondescription coffee-table fare.

His latest offering is the “antithesis” of the policing bill, he suggests: “I hope this book represents everything that is against those pieces of legislation.” Climate change especially requires a “policy of mass resistance”. 

And so can culture help rejuvenate activism in the wake of the government’s protest crackdown? A recent report from the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations found art that includes a sense of local particularities and an emphasis on those most impacted by climate change’s effects had “strong potential” to catalyse engagement.

Much more still needs to be done when it comes to introduce issues such as climate change into creative output, says researcher Adam Corner, but projects such as the Season for Change initiative (run by Artsadmin and Julie’s Bicycle) are setting examples for others.

“I think there’s going to be awful civil unrest at some point,” predicts Ellcock. England may be “a pirate ship taking on water”, the text in his book suggests, but it is also “a firework that burns forever”.

[See also: Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe: why neoliberalism leads to ecocide]

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