Interviews with Artists

Theo Ellison


Interview by David McLeavy


Published in April 2024


I first came across your work whilst visiting The Football Art Prize, a touring exhibition exploring the broader culture of football and its intersection with the art world. One of the stops on its tour was Sheffield's Millennium Gallery, where I encountered it.

When I visited, I was instantly taken aback by your film titled Skills Video, which depicts the computer game version of the iconic and widely romanticised Brazilian footballer Adriano, who was prominent in the early 00's playing for Inter Milan and also found fame through his character on the Pro Evolution Soccer video games released around the same time.

I wondered if you could start by giving me and the readers a bit of an insight into this work. What were the motivations behind making it?

My work digs into our vulnerability to romanticised narratives, and this video uses Adriano as a case study to explore our attachment to the ’flawed genius’ archetype. Playing and watching football was a big part of my childhood, as was the mythology surrounding it, bolstered by marketing campaigns from the likes Adidas and Nike and Pirelli. Dial-up internet and the lack of instantly available information helped preserve those mythologies - a 90s Pirelli ad featuring Ronaldo (the Brazilian one) posing as Christ the Redeemer sticks in the mind. The likes of Ariel Ortega, Denílson and Adriano, were potential world beaters whose talents were squandered for various reasons, and their narratives were all the more intriguing for it.

Skills Video features a virtual avatar of Adriano, who became immortalised as a cult figure thanks to his unstoppable video game counterpart - which captured his talent without the real-life inconsistency that marked his career. Football fans often seem to live vicariously through their players, and Adriano, with all his mercurial brilliance and lost potential, maps neatly onto the tragic hero narrative. The video plays on the construction of the star, the true distance between virtual and actual, as well as the relationship between the media, market and individual player.

There’s a mini history of football video artworks that centre on a single player - most notably Football as Never Before (featuring George Best) by Hellmuth Costard, and Zidane by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno. The latter features cinematic visuals and slightly pretentious quasi-philosophical mumblings from the player himself. Skills Video riffs on elements from those films as it does YouTube skills compilation videos and the aforementioned marketing campaigns to dig into this relationship between Romanticism, nostalgia and football.

Skills Video, film still, single channel video, 2021-2022

We could spend hours just exchanging names of players from a similar era that we both connect with in a somewhat romanticised way, but that's for a different day.

I am interested in the way that your work, this piece in particular, is partly about football, and relates to a shared experience of nostalgia amongst people of a certain generation, whilst also not really being about football at all. What I mean by that, is it seems like football is a way of reading the work, but it can also be read as an example of humankind's turbulent relationship with success and expectation, and that the protagonist of Adriano could have been replaced by many individuals from outside of football.

You mentioned a few examples of other artists who have tackled the subject of football within contemporary art, but the examples that spring to mind are few and far between. Do you think it is a difficult task to marry both the world of contemporary art and the world of football fanaticism?

Definitely, anytime!

Yeah, it bathes in nostalgia but also undercuts it throughout. I should say for people who haven’t seen the video, that a fictionalised internal monologue appears as on screen text. One line reads, “I like to feel nostalgic for things I never experienced”, and this is undercut with stated preferences for dial-up over broadband, and HD-ready over 4K, as somehow more authentic, and a signifier of a more “innocent time. These days it’s all…you know?”. It’s the cyclical nature of nostalgia. This is a self-dig, really, reflective of sometimes falling into contemplation over the distressing state of contemporary football boot design. Turns out I’m not the only one, as Nike periodically release limited edition remakes of their 2002 model Mercurial Vapors that sell out immediately, even at £350 a pop. Most of these are likely never to be worn. Nostalgia was treated as a medical disorder not all that long ago!

Sure, the fallen saviour is an enduring trope, and a powerful one. Football generates these narratives easily because it’s all about comparison. The two Ronaldos illustrate this: the Portuguese version is an overachieving adonis and the Brazilian original was an unfit, injury-prone genius with busted knee-caps who preferred to skip training. The latter just makes for a more interesting story because it feeds on the imagination of ‘what could have been’.

In terms of whether football-related art is a tricky thing to navigate…working with any kind of pop imagery has potential pitfalls because it carries a whole load of baggage along with it. Both football and art, at least in this country, are intertwined with different class associations, something we should bear in mind when combining the two. Ultimately though, it’s like anything else - if it comes from a place of enthusiasm or affection, then interesting things and new angles can emerge. There are some great examples out there; Mark Wallinger’s Subbuteo plinth, Noa Klagsbald’s unifying photographs and George Shaw’s uber romantic football pitch paintings come to mind.

Skills Video, film still, single channel video, 2021-2022

To stay on the subject of Skills Video, another thing that sticks in my memory is the animation itself. Sitting somewhere between the hyper realistic animation of something similar to MetaHuman, a framework within video game engine Unreal, that allows you to create characters with incredibly high fidelity realism, and the original animation found within Komani's original Pro Evolution Soccer Games.

Could you talk a little more about how you came to the final visuals for the work, and also, perhaps, some of the more technical elements you had to grapple with when making the work?

The footage is shot within the game itself - a recent version of Pro Evolution Soccer. So it’s a modern iteration of an old game, which serves well here as a tool to explore how nostalgia reshapes our memories. With video games this is tied to immersion - we fill in the gaps to retain the suspension of disbelief, but acclimatising to more advanced graphics can deal a blow to our memories of old games when they’re revisited.

I felt compelled to make this video when I saw how Adriano - embalmed as his 23 year old self - looks in the game; melancholic, with permanently downcast, introspective eyes, as if ruminating on his lost past. None of the other players in the game seem to look like that, so perhaps it was intentional, or a subconscious thing on the developers’ part.

The video was pieced together from the game’s replay mode as well as specialised software that allowed for a totally free camera and tinkering with things like depth of field - there was a fair bit of wrangling and trial and error involved to get the extended ‘cinematic’ shots. If nothing else, the project gave me an excuse to watch youtube clips of mid-2000s Italian football for hours on end. It’s a melancholic indulgence.

As much as I would love to further indulge myself and keep talking about Pro Evolution Soccer, I want to fast forward a little to the work that you produced at the back end of last year.

Fata Morgana was produced for Mark Leckey's recent group show titled In the Offing, at Turner Contemporary, Margate.

The work features a render of a lonely castle, perched upon a rotating rock formation that hovers above a turbulent sea. I wondered if you could open up the work a little and give readers an insight into how the work came together and your aims for it?

Fata Morgana looks at the relationship between Romanticism and the ocean. The central image in the video is a moody CGI interpretation of Magritte's The Castle of the Pyrenees, but it also references the melodramatic canvases of British 19th century painter John Martin, Magellan’s sailing expeditions, Donald Crowhurst’s doomed 1969 circumnavigation attempt and the lure of mysterious unreachable islands featured in early 3D video-games. These points of reference merge together to address how the Romantic obsession with a ‘return to nature’ maps onto our strained attempts to deal with our gothic, tech-induced anxiety.

My dad used to be a sailing instructor so I took it up as a kid. There’s nothing like a huge expanse of water to conjure up the sublime - it could feel daunting. Taking a few cues from Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (2006), I wanted the video to indulge a sincere Romanticism without counteracting it with any irony or humour, and this was a tricky thing to navigate, as CGI often feels inherently sarcastic. Fata Morgana feeds Romantic imagery through decidedly un-Romantic digital processes to see what emerges.

The title is taken from the name of a mirage in which objects in the distance such as ships or mountains appear to be floating in mid-air above the water. It also appears briefly in H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, “…a strikingly vivid mirage - the first I had ever seen - in which distant bergs became the battlements of unimaginable cosmic castles."

I like the references that you are pulling from, and how varied they are, from painting, popular cinema, video game culture and your first hand experiences with the natural world.

This might feel a little tangential, but I am interested to get your take on whether you feel people are viewing the products of the digital world differently now, than perhaps in previous years, when high quality digital renders were still on the rise.

With the proliferation of incredibly high quality digital images, often mimicking the 'real' world to a staggering level of detail, it sometimes feels like we are reaching a level of saturation, almost as if these types of images, for the want of a better word, are less impressive due to the volume at which they are being produced.

I am keen to know if you are finding this, and also what that might mean for you as an artist making work in the digital realm.

I think we’re acclimatised at this point. On the one hand, that allows room for these images to be used in interesting ways rather than simply pointing at the technology itself. On the other hand, the drive towards realism has reached a point that we’ll never have grainy images or janky CGI again - unless retrofitted by choice. So there’s less room to play with its imperfections. AI image-making awaits the same fate.

It has been over 10 years since the emergence of 'post-internet’, and digital art remains an unnerving thing. Despite the promise of NFTs and the blockchain to change things, digital art struggles to hold scarcity value or even to absorb its own value of labour. That’s what’s interesting about it - it remains outside our comfort zone. As digital technology evolves so quickly and is already fully embedded within the everyday, art often seems to be playing catch up to pop/internet culture, particularly in the wake of accessible AI platforms - that can feel disconcerting. Again, what can artists offer without just pointing directly at the technology itself or pop culture’s use of it? I think it’s a challenge that has pitfalls but also opportunities to push things forward.

To remain on that point a little, in your opinion, what can artists or artworks offer by using modern digital tools without just pointing directly at tech or pop culture’s use of it?

It’s the same as with anything else really; providing a new angle or insight or formal innovation. It’s tricky, and if an artwork relies purely on quoting pop culture’s use of technology, then it may feel inert. There are examples out there that move beyond that - Jordan Wolfson’s sculptures and videos employ a high tech, quasi-pop aesthetic that really gets under the skin, and Bedwyr Williams’ sardonic art-world drawings play perfectly on Instagram with their meme-like observations.

If art uses a specific technology’s strengths to operate in a way that can’t be indulged in the confines of other spaces like cinema or video games or social media, then it can create its own thing.

You often use AI to generate elements of your moving image work, both in terms of visual likenesses along with audio that mimics figures from the artworld, sport and popular culture. I immediately think of your two channel video work David, which depicts an AI generated image of David Beckham, alongside another screen which suggests a dream sequence that is going on in the head of the aforementioned icon. Overlaid you have the voice of David Beckham, or should I say, an AI generated imitation of his voice, narrating the film and taking us on a trip along a series of tales and anecdotes based on interviews and stories he has told in real life interviews.

I want to get into the weeds a little and chat about ethics. Do you feel there is an ethical line that has to be drawn around using visual and audio likenesses to people that exist in the 'real' world, and if so, where is that line?

I think we’ll need more time to feel the real-world effects of AI before mapping out a coherent ethical framework for its use. Right now, it’s a murky space of moral ambiguity, and David likely sits within that. The narrative of the video is partially based on actual events as well as a documentary from 2000…but the string of anecdotes are heightened to the point of absurdity and mixed with irreverent, fictional details. Mixing fact and fiction is what makes this murky, lending the fictional parts plausibility. The suspension of disbelief rises and fades away continually.

Saying that, I’m treating these figures as abstractions to dig into wider areas…and there’s nothing defamatory in there. It’s openly playing with that suspension of disbelief, not attempting to actually deceive. Where’s the definitive red line? I couldn’t say yet. Indulging in this grey area is ok if it’s done openly and for reasons of exploration. That’s my rationale at the moment. For better or worse, operating under the banner of art allows leeway for that.

Public figures and pop-culture signifiers carry baggage with them, and if you include those things in your work that can’t be ignored. I want to avoid taking the piss or anything overly satirical because that’s uninteresting to me. My interest here lies in exploring the apparent mismatch between Beckham’s appearance and his voice - which was often ridiculed for supposedly sounding too high, nasal, emasculated and working class - to reflect on how feelings of pathos are generated within storytelling. In that sense, it explores similar ideas to the video with Adriano, but he’s an overtly vulnerable figure, whereas Beckham’s image is very carefully curated, particularly since his 2007 move to Los Angeles.

David, installation view, two channel video, 2023

I really appreciate your honesty on this, as it's a bit of a moving target at the moment, with the debate around the ethics surrounding artificially generated content being something that isn't widely agreed upon at the moment.

I am keen to talk about your day to day life as an artist, as from my experience, no one person's routine is the same. What does a typical week look like for you? What settings allow you to be the most productive?

I work in south east London, and as writing, animation and multi-channel video has been my focus for the past few years, there’s a lot of screen time required. I tend to work pretty fluidly so there isn’t really a routine that’s set in stone for months on end - sometimes I’ll work solely on the writing, other times it’ll oscillate between writing and video editing. I teach at a couple of different universities, which have their own changeable schedules. Some installations also involve 3D-printing, photography and watercolour painting. For CGI animations or sequences, thousands of frames are pumped out by the computer, which will omit a jet-engine rumble and keep the space nice and toasty in the winter until it induces a tropical heat around June time. My focus is increasingly leaning towards writing.

Working towards a deadline helps rein in my impulse to overly obsess over detail, and I generally prefer making work ‘in the void’ with all the indulgence that offers. Of course, everything in the end is a compromise or a decision made within parameters, but working under the illusion that it isn’t is what reels me in the most - clinging on to the romanticised idea of the artist.

I am interested to know what the next work or project might be for you. Are you able to reveal anything about what's on the horizon for you?

My focus right now is on writing and developing more absurdist, anecdotal text. I’m currently editing a video that centres around the trope of ‘divine madness’ that serves as a key tenet of Romanticism, and features a libidinous, Holbein-esque talking skull -  it will be on show at Karst Gallery in Plymouth this April.

More broadly, I’m working on projects that dig into our shared anxieties over the perceived nihilism of AI and how that feeds into the ethical complexities of Romanticism.

Norwich Pouter 2, c-type print, 2024


︎ @theo_ellison

︎ @davidmcleavy_


If you like this why not read our interview with Exodus Crooks.


© YAC | Young Artists in Conversation ALL RIGHTS RESERVED