RUBY ANDERSON talks to recent Slade Graduate ELLIS PARKINSON about his interdisciplinary conceptual art practice that approaches topics such as hereditary power with a satirical edge.
Ellis Parkinson’s creative practice is a conceptual enterprise exploring the acquisition of power. We began by discussing Intangible Covenants (2021), the artist’s installation at the Slade Graduate Showcase 2021. This work was a result of the artist’s own experiences with the police as well as further reflection on the ‘Standard Operating Procedure for the use of Screening Equipment in Schools’, a document produced by the government to be used by teachers in British secondary schools. This pseudo-performance consisted of the implementation of the GATESCAN-P at the entrance of the building, a security arch most commonly used in police ‘intelligence-led’ street operations, with the artist dressed in security uniform directing visitors through. Those entering the exhibition had the option to walk under this measure or not to. Accompanying this physical installation, Ellis produced a research paper exploring the history and origins of police powers concerning the carrying out of stop and search procedures as well as their further propagation by institutions that may not require them.
Ellis’ work is also critical of the dissemination of culture, and the line between fantasy and reality in regard to production companies ‘cashing in on the fantasy’. The artist’s TARDIS (2018) was installed in the corner of a room appearing complete from one angle, with the others remaining unfinished. Additionally, Ellis created an instruction manual to produce this object, in the style of IKEA flatpack furniture.
Ellis’s exploration of acquisitional power has often led the artist to think about our own academic institution. We discussed The Last Will and Testament of One Felix Joseph Slade FRA (2019-2020), another research-based work of debated historicity in which Ellis reimagines the will of Slade’s founder. Ellis places himself as the ‘executor’ of Slade’s will, now the individual who ‘must see the process of having [Slade’s] ashes condensed into pressurised stone, from which Excalibur will be pulled, indicating the finding of the heir’. Ellis also talked to me about his use of tintype photography to capture UCL’s former provost, Professor Michael Arthur, this medium linking to UCL’s history of eugenics.
Intangible Covenants was your most recent installation, accompanied by the research paper you produced alongside it. Do you want to start by talking me through the origins of this idea?
Intangible Covenants is a good example of how I work. I have an idea, and then carry out several months of research before anything physical comes out of it. This is a long-term production – I first started thinking about it in October/November time and had to compile all the research before I could actually produce anything. The write up took about two months, whilst the other elements including continued research and consultations continued in the background. I’d like to publish another edition or iteration in the future.
I felt really privileged to be given the entire document to flick through in my own time – in terms of the presentation of your artistic material, how do the two manifestations of your research coincide or interact with each other?
The research paper and the installation are technically two different pieces. They intersect with each other, with one informing the other. I couldn’t have executed the pseudo-performance I did at the graduate show without having the research to back it up. It is not that I expect people coming to the show to have read the paper at all – they can exist separately, but when you do view them together it makes it clearer why I enacted that performance.
What was the process of conducting such extensive research? I was particularly intrigued by the document you sent through about searching in schools. Did you experience any difficulties with sourcing information?
A lot of the documents that I used were difficult to get access to. There are lots of government websites that are not totally secure – some of them came from that, I just downloaded the documents that I could. It is a bit of a grey area in terms of showing them to other people. Technically, the file you download is not something you are allowed to share. I downloaded the ‘Standard Operating Procedure for the Use of Screening Equipment in Schools’ document as a fresh file, and even when I tried to edit it or save it somewhere else, something in there knew that it wasn’t meant to be sent forward. So, I had to make a copied version. I also did lots of Freedom of Information requests.
The research process was a lot of trawling through police and government databases, trying to find out where the lines are, really. It’s explained in the first introductory part of the paper: how far we let other institutions, whether that be academic, political, whatever, go in acquiring power that they maybe don’t need, power that means they are permitted to interact with anybody they choose on such a physical level – at least in terms of searching, which was my area of intrigue. My focus was drawn to schools particularly because of how unregulated the guidelines are, how little consent is needed for teachers to essentially become a reduced version of a police officer. I began thinking about what this means to me and how it affects me even in a higher education setting. I then started thinking about younger children receiving this treatment: how do they feel about their privacy being violated? Are documents such as the ‘Standard Operating Procedure for the Use of Screening Equipment in Schools’ an attempt to normalise this practice?
That was what was so disturbing to me about this document – it seemed so intended for use, to the point that searching pupils would simply become a normal part of being a teacher, and therefore a normal part of starting a school day for pupils.
Exactly. Some of the documents are written in an almost tongue-in-cheek or callous manner. They have a level of self-awareness that is so odd. And when teachers do carry out searches, it is in no way necessary to make a record of them, in fact it seems actively discouraged at times. It is not necessary for whoever is in charge to let anyone know that this search had to happen or that they have granted the power to do so. If it is not a system that has already been abused, it is one that is primed for this to occur.
You chose to implement this measure at the entrance to the Slade. The bit that struck me the most in your accompanying text was the following: ‘Many of the people who will inevitably visit the show will have little or no experience of being asked to pass through a screening arch, outside of an airport or a high security event. I want audiences to consider exactly why they might believe the arch to be out of place in a building such as the Slade, why the location, history or status would make it incongruous to its surroundings. If the presence of an arch is supposed to promote safety, why would installing one make you think twice about entering a space?’ This seemed to me a critique of gallery audiences, and the elitism of the art world, as well as a critique of our own university. Can you talk a bit more about this?
Consider the demographic of people who attend the Slade. And consider the fact that there are so few staff members from minority backgrounds, and how academic staff often won’t teach anything outside of their own western-European upbringings. It’s only when you take a step back that you ask the question, ‘who is being let in?’, and then the bigger question of ‘Who gets to decide who is being let in?’
The audience that is most likely to attend a gallery showcase is not going to have encountered or been expected to pass through a security measure such as the one I installed. Yet, when I was looking into this and looking into getting one, I was suddenly met with the realisation that I had seen all these interventions before – I had seen them for years. So, the work explored how people might feel when this thing was turned back on them. This tool of ‘safety’ is pushed forward by a subset of people who don’t think they themselves need to comply with it. So, I raised the following questions: ‘how does it feel when this measure is in your safe space? When you are confronted with the idea that you might be a threat, how does it make you feel?’ It is very interesting to see the people who decided to go through it and those who wouldn’t.
Oh really, people opted out of it?
Oh yeah. It was always an optional thing, I never wanted it to be hyper militant. There were some people who decided that that sort of thing wasn’t meant for them; they tried to dodge it, or they asked me if they had to do it. And then there were some people who would go through and then not hesitate when it beeped at them, because they didn’t think it mattered, because they thought, consciously or otherwise, that they’re ‘not a problem’.
I noticed from the install images that you put yourself in the work, dressed as a security guard. Why did you choose to enact this character?
That was an attempt to add a bit of validity to the work. If the object was simply there, I felt like it would have been ignored. As a performance my involvement was very light – I just directed people to the arch and told them what to do. I also answered questions in character – I was much fresher on the research I had done, I spent a lot of time rattling off passages from those government documents about why I was allowed to do this.
What kind of responses did you get to the performance?
On the first day – it had been there for about two hours – a representative from the Slade came to me and said they had received a lot of questions and complaints about why the arch was there. They asked me to move it. They were worried about how it looked. So, I deinstalled it from the main entrance of the building and repositioned it by the interior entrance of the exhibition.
You also once installed your TARDIS within a room at the Slade. I found your description of this object on @sladepainting: ‘the goal was to deconstruct the ways in which corporate ideas infiltrate pop culture as well as ask audiences to reflect on their own relationships with fictional iconography’ – can you explain a bit more what you mean by ‘corporate ideas’ in relation to this object?
In pop culture nowadays, it is apparent that production companies are simply looking to cash in on the fantasy. For the people that make culture, it is about how much they can profit from other people’s passion. Throughout the entirety of the TARDIS build, I was thinking about what the object itself meant and represented. The fact that the build was flatpack commented on corporate ideas – the easier I made it to construct, the more the work peeled back the fantasy that exists around this object. There isn’t any magic to the TARDIS when you can just slot thirty pieces of wood together and have one in your living room.
It’s like pop-up pop culture.
Very much so. The construction was incomplete on purpose, and it was installed in the corner of a room. From one angle it appeared totally real, and the other side was unfinished. It challenged how far people would go to confront that. There was also a whole conversation to be had about the TARDIS now being a worldwide recognisable object, yet still something that has a particular British history of police work. The project was therefore also about whether people wanted to acknowledge that history, to interact with the work and understand the reverie for what it is, or to view it from afar, preserving the nostalgic daydream as it was.
You created an IKEA flatpack instruction manual to accompany the object. Did you use your own instructions to build the object?
I made the physical TARDIS first. To do this, there was a lot of me anticipating how I could make it: looking at how the originals were made, how production models were made, and how other people had recreated it. It was a lot of maths, basically. I worked out what materials I would need, and then broke it down piece by piece to work out the number of elements. I built it from the rough drawings, and then altered my flatpack instructions based on the realities of how everything fit together in production rather than the ideal rendering that I had at the start. Making the instructions was a painstaking job. As I said, part of the conceptual reasoning behind the IKEA flatpack model was that everything should be done as easily as possible. So, I then thought, ‘How can I reflect that in how the manual exists?’, and then thought, ‘Okay, what is the most basic software for someone to draw shapes on?’ and realised this was probably Word…
You made that on a Word document!
Yeah. I did it by drawing individual lines on Word. When I started out, I thought it was a great idea! But when I got into it I realised this was 100% an error. But I was already in too deep!
Another research-based project of yours was the creation of The Last Will and Testament of One Felix Joseph Slade FRA, a counterfeit document that bestows upon you the task of finding Slade’s ‘true spiritual heir’. How did this work come about?
I spent my second year doing a lot of work about value, and how that is attributed to people. It came from me asking myself questions that a lot of students ask themselves. I found myself at a very good university, where obviously a lot of things are expected of you. So, I began to question my position here, whether I deserved it. It’s not a great feeling, especially when you’re studying something that at times can be so personal. I thought there had to be a way that I could reflect that feeling, or ask these questions of an audience. I then started to ask questions of how someone’s worth was defined. How did past generations tackle this question? Who did they look to for answers? The Will of Felix Slade is a result of this line of questioning.
The document appears as if it has been handed down to you. The language was so official, it almost jarred with the satirical edge of the content. I wasn’t certain which elements were factual and which you had invented yourself.
I wanted it to become an object of debated historicity. I wrote it in a way that encouraged this. Between the bits that I have clearly contributed to, there is a level of doubt as to who the author was.
In its simplest form, this work was an attempt to get the ownership and rights to the Slade in order to give them to somebody else. The way an individual had to do this was by parting Excalibur from the stone it was bound to, the nigh impossible test of worthiness that supposedly once provided us with an ideal of hope. It is an active investigation towards the way that an individual’s worth is put on them, rather than it being something of their own choosing. This piece feels one of the most conceptually rich. It had me investigating the history of UCL and how the place came to be, and about Slade himself which nobody seems to know about. It became a criticism of how positions of power are often handed down rather than given to someone who might be the most deserving of it. And that is something that is reflected in our academic environment: UCL just had a change of provost – but it seems as if that change was not something that anyone who attends the university had any say in.
I had the document checked over at a law firm, and they said that if it had the right signatures it would stand, that it could contest what was in place. Creating it felt like something that was necessary for me at the time to address my own questions, but it also seemed like a well-placed look at the way that people are granted titles or positions of power within an academic structure. It very much relates to the lack of diversity of academic staff within UCL, especially my department [see how UCL have addressed this issue here]. The people that hold senior positions have become the landed gentry. They absorb that title, have it until they die, and then they get to choose who gets it next. That is probably the least offensive way that I can say that.
More information about how UCL appoints academic staff can be found here.
Speaking of provosts, you won the Provost Portrait Prize in 2020, and photographed Michael Arthur. How did that come about?
Often Slade will forward students opportunities, so I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring and see if they wanted what I had to offer. The method that I chose was a tintype. It is a method of photography that has historical ties to UCL that are not positive at all. Francis Galton, the posthumously named father of eugenics – one of UCL’s skeletons in the closet – worked with that method of photography, making composites in order to deduce if the way someone looked could determine whether they had the potential for criminal intent or not. I had wanted to create a tintype for a long time but didn’t have a work that suited the aesthetic. It gave me an opportunity to experiment with that, and make something that had a purposeful outcome.
And was the provost aware that he was being photographed in this method?
I have no idea – I did not want to ask him that question.
I guess that is more powerful in a way, a critique that is only detectable when you read between the lines.
For anyone that is familiar with UCL’s history it is not difficult to put two and two together. It wasn’t without reason, I didn’t do it by accident.
Follow Ellis on Instagram at @ellisparkinsonartist.
All images courtesy of the artist. Featured image: Ellis Parkinson, Intangible Covenants, 2021. Performance.