Tag Archives: dystopia

Airports: The True Cities of the 21st Century – J.G. Ballard

Airports: The True Cities of the 21st Century – J.G. Ballard.

Ballardian: The World of JG Ballard

Airports, designed around the needs of their collaborating technologies, seem to be the only form of public architecture free from the pressures of kitsch and nostalgia. As far as I know, there are no half-timbered terminal buildings or pebble-dashed control towers.

[…]

For the past 35 years I have lived in Shepperton, a suburb not of London but of London’s Heathrow Airport. The Heathrow-tinged land extends for at least 10 miles south and west, a zone of motorways, science parks, and industrial estates, a landscape that most people affect to loathe but that I regard as the most advanced and admirable in the British Isles, and a paradigm of the best that the future offers us.

[…]

I value the benevolent social and architectural influence that a huge transit facility like Heathrow casts on the urban landscape around it. I have learned to like the intricate network of car rental offices, air freight depots, and travel clinics, the light industrial and motel architecture that unvaryingly surrounds every major airport in the world. Together they constitute the reality of our lives, rather than a mythical domain of village greens, cathedrals, and manorial vistas. I welcome the landscape’s transience, alienation, and discontinuities, and its unashamed response to the pressures of speed, disposability, and the instant impulse. Here, under the flight paths, everything is designed for the next five minutes.

By comparison, London itself seems hopelessly antiquated. Its hundreds of miles of gentrified stucco are a hangover from the 19th century that should have been bulldozed decades ago. I have the sense of a city devised as an instrument of political control, like the class system that preserves England from revolution. The labyrinth of districts and boroughs, the endless porticos that once guarded the modest terraced cottages of Victorian clerks, make it clear that London is a place where people know their place.

At an airport like Heathrow the individual is defined not by the tangible ground mortgaged into his soul for the next 40 years, but by the indeterminate flicker of flight numbers trembling on a screen. We are no longer citizens with civic obligations, but passengers for whom all destinations are theoretically open, our lightness of baggage mandated by the system. Airports have become a new kind of discontinuous city whose vast populations are entirely transient, purposeful, and, for the most part, happy. An easy camaraderie rules the departure lounges, along with the virtual abolition of nationality—whether we are Scots or Japanese is far less important than where we are going. I’ve long suspected that people are truly happy and aware of a real purpose to their lives only when they hand over their tickets at the check-in.

I suspect that the airport will be the true city of the 21st century. The great airports are already the suburbs of an invisible world capital, a virtual metropolis whose border towns are named Heathrow, Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, Nagoya, a centripetal city whose population forever circles its notional center and will never need to gain access to its dark heart. Mastery of the discontinuities of metropolitan life has always been essential to successful urban dwellers—we know none of our neighbors, and our close friends live equally isolated lives within 50 square miles around us. We work in a district five miles away, shop in another, and see films and plays in a third. Failure to master these discontinuities leaves some ethnic groups at a disadvantage, forced into enclaves that seem to reconstitute mental maps of ancestral villages.

But the modern airport defuses these tensions and offers its passengers the social reassurance of the boarding lounge, an instantly summoned village whose life span is long enough to calm us and short enough not to be a burden. The terminal concourses are the ramblas and agoras of the future city, time-free zones where all the clocks of the world are displayed, an atlas of arrivals and destinations forever updating itself, where briefly we become true world citizens. Air travel may well be the most important civic duty that we discharge today, erasing class and national distinctions and subsuming them within the unitary global culture of the departure lounge.

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What Does J.G. Ballard Look Like? Part 2: Design Observer

What Does J.G. Ballard Look Like? Part 2: Design Observer.


Peter Klasen, Les Bruits de la Ville (The Noises of the City), acryllic on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, 1966


Peter Klasen, Anatomie du plaisir (Anatomy of Pleasure), acrylic and oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, 1964-65


Peter Klasen, Une rencontre a bien eu lieu (A Meeting Took Place), acrylic on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, 1965

Here, I want to consider a German-born artist based in France whose paintings are the most Ballardian I have ever seen. So far as I am aware Peter Klasen has never been discussed previously in relation to Ballard or his writing. There are good reasons for supposing that Ballard was unaware of Klasen’s work and I have found no evidence to suggest that the artist was aware of Ballard, though it remains a possibility. The remarkable overlap in their thinking and practice at a critical moment in the 1960s is a matter of synchronicity, not influence.

[…]

Ballard’s impact on the art world has been a subject of growing interest, which was given an additional spur by his death in 2009. His readily acknowledged debt to Surrealism is already well covered and critical attention has recently moved to his friendship with the artist Eduardo Paolozzi.

[…]

the Gagosian Gallery in London mounted the exhibition “Crash: Homage to J.G. Ballard.” This included artists Ballard is known to have admired — Dalí, De Chirico, Paul Delvaux, Edward Hopper, Ed Ruscha, Francis Bacon, Eduardo Paolozzi, Tacita Dean — as well as artists felt by the curators to share concerns with the writer, including Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Douglas Gordon and Damien Hirst. (See the lavish catalogue designed by Graphic Thought Facility.)

[…]

The three paintings shown here are typical of Klasen’s work in the mid-1960s. All of these images utilize a combinatorial system derived from modernist montage of the 1920s. Occasionally Klasen glues images and small objects to the canvas, but just as often he paints the entire “montage” as a seamless unit. The component images are shattered into fragments and here Klasen differs from an American Pop artist such as James Rosenquist whose image quotations are more complete, continuous and celebratory. The resemblance to Richard Hamilton, whose painterly probes of popular culture also fused image-sections into new aesthetic configurations, comes in the way Klasen deploys these fragments across the picture plane, allowing zones of unoccupied space to open up between them. Although traditional commercial Pop iconography sometimes appears (a hotdog, a bowl of food, a lipstick), Klasen’s overriding concern is the equivalence between female body parts drawn from advertising and glamour pictures — lips, eyes, breasts, elbow — and the manufactured or mechanical elements, which include taps, valves, plugs, handles, switches, syringes, steering wheels and car windows. He presents both types of image on equal terms within the painting’s symbiotically organized structure. Several of the same image fragments recur from picture to picture and Klasen’s color-drained image-world becomes a semiotic pressure chamber in which new forms of control (and desire?) subordinate the erotic presence of the female subjects.

In an interview in 2008, Klasen recalled the influence during these years of Jean-Luc Godard’s approach to film-collage, his essayistic abstractions, disruptive inter-titles and anti-cinematic moments of rupture. A graphic montage using sources also favored by Klasen can be seen in a poster from 1966 for Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her about the life of a prostitute in Paris. If Klasen’s pictures are still “sexy” to us, despite their coldness and extreme, disassociating fragmentation, then it’s a violently ultra-modern kind of sexiness.

Now consider this passage from a chapter titled “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” in The Atrocity Exhibition (first published with the title “The Death Module” in New Worlds no. 173, July 1967):

Operating Formulae. Gesturing Catherine Austin into the chair beside his desk, Dr Nathan studied the elegant and mysterious advertisements which had appeared that afternoon in copies of Vogue and Paris-Match. In sequence they advertised: (1) The left orbit and zygomatic arch of Marina Oswald. (2) The angle between two walls. (3) A neural interval— a balcony unit on the twenty-seventh floor of the Hilton Hotel, London. (4) A pause in an unreported conversation outside an exhibition of photographs of automobile accidents. (5) The time, 11:47 a.m., June 23rd, 1975. (6) A gesture — a supine forearm extended across a candlewick bedspread. (7) A moment of recognition — a young woman’s buccal pout and dilated eyes.

This is one of Ballard’s celebrated image lists found throughout The Atrocity Exhibition. The items that comprise the “operating formulae” can be seen as a miniature exhibition list, as an extreme form of conceptual montage, and as a forced marriage of apparently unrelated images (a classic Surrealist stratagem), which replicates the scrambled structure of the narratives within each chapter, and the way these non-linear chapters ultimately cohere as a work. At the same time, it would be possible to use Ballard’s image kit as a set of instructions to assemble a montage on paper that might then resemble a painting by Klasen (zygomatic arch, angle between walls, balcony unit, accident photos, forearm, dilated eyes, etc.). What both Ballard and Klasen share at this point in the mid-1960s is a cold, appraising, analytical eye. It’s impossible to tell how they feel about what they show, or to know what they want us to feel, if anything at all. Their findings are disturbing and perhaps even repellent from a humanist perspective, yet the new aesthetic forms they use to embody them are, even today, exciting, provocative and tantalizingly difficult to resolve.


Page from “The Summer Cannibals” by J.G. Ballard, New Worlds no. 186, January 1969
Later published in The Atrocity Exhibition. Design by Nigel Francis

Ballard’s experiments with condensed collage-novels in the late 1950s have received increasing attention and they were shown at the Gagosian Gallery; the “Advertiser’s Announcements” he presented in Ambit from the summer of 1967 appear in the catalogue. A few months earlier, in New Worlds no. 167 (October 1966), Ballard published a series of comments on his new experimental texts, under the title “Notes from Nowhere.” He considers the intersection of three kinds of plane: the world of public events, the immediate personal environment, and the inner world of the psyche. “Where these planes intersect,” he writes, “images are born.” In Ballard’s attempt to locate himself, by calling on “the geometry of my own postures, the time-values contained in this room, the motion-space of highways, staircases, the angles between these walls,” the intersection of planes again suggests Klasen’s surgically precise combinatorial technique. Ballard goes on to propose that it might one day be possible “to represent a novel or short story, with all its images and relationships, simply as a three-dimensional geometric model.” Then, just a few lines later, in a curious unedited moment that seems to express his ambivalence, he says that he is worried that a work of fiction could become “nothing more than a three-dimensional geometric model.”

By the early 1970s, Klasen had severely reduced the number of image fragments and the agitated visual complexity seen in his earlier montages. In a development that actualizes Ballard’s conception of a new kind of three-dimensional fiction, Klasen’s constructions, while still wall-mounted, become fully three-dimensional with projecting pipes and bathroom fittings. The unrelenting hygienic cruelty of this work, its absolute concentration on a few fetishistic motifs to the exclusion of everything else — breasts and basin, waist and switches, lips and bidet — bears comparison with the strange mental journey Ballard would undertake as he worked on Crash, the ultimate statement of his ideas about the sexualization of our relationship with technology. “Nothing is spontaneous, everything is stylized, including human behaviour,” he said in 1970, in an interview with Lynn Barber in Penthouse. “And once you move into this area where everything is stylized, including sexuality, you’re leaving behind any kind of moral or functional relevance.” Also in 1970, in a brief manifesto, reprinted in his latest monograph, Klasen set out his aims:

Play on the dialectic of a photographic reproduction and its pictorial transposition.

Play on the magical and poetic power of an object out of place.

Respond to the aggression of society with another aggression.

Show that beauty is everywhere, in a bathroom, for example.

Demonstrate that a bidet, a washbasin, a switch can exercise the same fascination on the spectator as the mouth, the body of a woman or a racing car.

Return these images and objects to the spectator-consumer, allowing him to react to these object-tableaux and to project his own fantasies onto them.

Stimulate his awareness by providing him with aesthetic and ideological information about himself and the world that surrounds him.

[…]

“Respond to the aggression of society with another aggression”: this is exactly what Ballard had done in The Atrocity Exhibition, responding to what he called the “death of affect” — of ordinary emotional responses to events — by playing it out within the glinting, recursive, multi-planar architecture of his book, returning society’s images to the “spectator-consumer,” with their inherent characteristics pulled to the surface and intensified, as a morally ambiguous invitation to know oneself better. Ballard, too, had found a perverse kind of beauty in this material, which is one reason why his writing of this period continues to exert its extraordinary hold on readers.

[…]

The overlapping concerns of Ballard and Klasen in the mid- to late 1960s represent one of the great might-have-beens of contemporary art and literature, but a belated union is still possible. It’s hard to imagine better images than Klasen’s, ready-made or otherwise, for the covers of future editions of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash. It’s strange that the French, great admirers of both these books, haven’t cracked this one already.

What I believe, J.G. Ballard

What I believe, J.G. Ballard

Photos from the Freeway series by Catherine Opie

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.

I believe in the forgotten runways of Wake Island, pointing towards the Pacifics of our imaginations.

I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel; in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.

I believe in the beauty of all women, in the treachery of their imaginations, so close to my heart; in the junction of their disenchanted bodies with the enchanted chromium rails of supermarket counters; in their warm tolerance of my perversions.

I believe in the death of tomorrow, in the exhaustion of time, in our search for a new time within the smiles of auto-route waitresses and the tired eyes of air-traffic controllers at out-of-season airports.

I believe in the genital organs of great men and women, in the body postures of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Princess Di, in the sweet odours emanating from their lips as they regard the cameras of the entire world.

I believe in madness, in the truth of the inexplicable, in the common sense of stones, in the lunacy of flowers, in the disease stored up for the human race by the Apollo astronauts.

I believe in nothing.

I believe in Max Ernst, Delvaux, Dali, Titian, Goya, Leonardo, Vermeer, Chirico, Magritte, Redon, Duerer, Tanguy, the Facteur Cheval, the Watts Towers, Boecklin, Francis Bacon, and all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet.

I believe in the impossibility of existence, in the humour of mountains, in the absurdity of electromagnetism, in the farce of geometry, in the cruelty of arithmetic, in the murderous intent of logic.

I believe in adolescent women, in their corruption by their own leg stances, in the purity of their dishevelled bodies, in the traces of their pudenda left in the bathrooms of shabby motels.

I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown, in the stone thrown by a small child that carries with it the wisdom of statesmen and midwives.

I believe in the gentleness of the surgeon’s knife, in the limitless geometry of the cinema screen, in the hidden universe within supermarkets, in the loneliness of the sun, in the garrulousness of planets, in the repetitiveness or ourselves, in the inexistence of the universe and the boredom of the atom.

I believe in the light cast by video-recorders in department store windows, in the messianic insights of the radiator grilles of showroom automobiles, in the elegance of the oil stains on the engine nacelles of 747s parked on airport tarmacs.

I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.

I believe in the derangement of the senses: in Rimbaud, William Burroughs, Huysmans, Genet, Celine, Swift, Defoe, Carroll, Coleridge, Kafka.

I believe in the designers of the Pyramids, the Empire State Building, the Berlin Fuehrerbunker, the Wake Island runways.

I believe in the body odours of Princess Di.

I believe in the next five minutes.

I believe in the history of my feet.

I believe in migraines, the boredom of afternoons, the fear of calendars, the treachery of clocks.

I believe in anxiety, psychosis and despair.

I believe in the perversions, in the infatuations with trees, princesses, prime ministers, derelict filling stations (more beautiful than the Taj Mahal), clouds and birds.

I believe in the death of the emotions and the triumph of the imagination.

I believe in Tokyo, Benidorm, La Grande Motte, Wake Island, Eniwetok, Dealey Plaza.

I believe in alcoholism, venereal disease, fever and exhaustion.

I believe in pain.

I believe in despair.

I believe in all children.

I believe in maps, diagrams, codes, chess-games, puzzles, airline timetables, airport indicator signs.

I believe all excuses.

I believe all reasons.

I believe all hallucinations.

I believe all anger.

I believe all mythologies, memories, lies, fantasies, evasions.

I believe in the mystery and melancholy of a hand, in the kindness of trees, in the wisdom of light.