Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Ballard in Anglia

Webster watched the images of the young woman on the screen, sections of her body intercut with pieces of modern architecture. All these buildings. What did Talbert want to do - sodomise the Festival Hall?

If one is going to hold a conference dedicated to JG Ballard anywhere, then surely one of the best places to do it is at the University of East Anglia. A whole mini-city planned on the scrublands at the edge of Norwich by Denys Lasdun in the early 1960s. The concrete walkways run past the laboratories to a series of living quarters designed like concrete ziggurats, while the surrounding greenery teems with beautfully incongrous rabbits. At the end of the walkways is one of Norman Foster's first major buildings, an art gallery of gleaming white metal, housing the Sainsburys' collection of ethnographic relics in an antiseptic hangar.

Nonetheless, the upshot of the conference was something of a tussle over Ballard, between those who would claim him for the British postwar avantgarde (pop, the Independent Group, Paolozzi, Banham and the New Brutalists) amd science fiction (New Worlds, the SF short story) against those who would claim him for Literature. Obviously there have always been tensions here, with him owing as much to Conrad as to Burroughs, but, well, when someone describes the Atrocity Exhibition as a failure because it wasn't sufficently realist, a point has been missed somewhere. This critique seemed to suggest that it didn't connect with a mass audience because of its experimentation, a bizarrely inappropriate sub-Lukacs line to take with this book. Not least because of its absolutely huge effect on pop. Working class teenagers like Ian Curtis or John Foxx read The Atrocity Exhibition no doubt because of its jarring, oppressive, overloaded qualities, and surely this book (along with High Rise and Crash) had more influence on Pop Culture from around 1976 to 1983 than any other work, by anyone. Sadly Ballard's own self-confessed lack of interest in music means that some of his most interesting descendants never get discussed at these sort of events...as unlike with say, Paolozzi, he was never likely to collaborate with Cabaret Voltaire. Perhaps his gradual absorbtion by South Bank Show types can be put down to this too.

So there were some strange recuperations here, most memorably an attempt to read High Rise as some sort of sententious Family and Kinship in East London style anti-Modernist critique. But some excellent papers came out of it as well, some of which apparently will end up in a two-volume book - highlights being papers on Ballard's links with everything from micronationalism, Blake's prophetic books, the Independent Group, to Tom Wesselman's Great American Nudes and Siegfried Kracauer's Mass Ornament - but here's my contribution, without my nervous gestures, mercifully.


Anonymous Rob Annable said...

Looking forward to reading that one! I've been neglecting your other blog and need to catch up.

Some Lasdun related stuff here by way of a trade:


8:45 pm  
Blogger Kosmograd said...

Great stuff.

Foster's Sainsbury Centre is a curious building, a beautifully sterile space. There's that fetishisation of the services that you get in high-tech architecture - I wonder what Ballard would make of that.

I'm also intrigued why Ballard is so obsessed with the Heathrow Hilton, though it is difficult to think of any other large public or semi-public buildings in a high modernist style in the UK. Any thoughts?

1:27 pm  
Blogger Kosmograd said...

Of course, I should have checked the mighty Ballardian website first:


“Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human
being. Within this remarkable building one feels no emotions and could never
fall in love, or need to.”

I think the next Ballardian conference/ conflab/ bunfight should definitely be held here.

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