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‘Human or other; depends who comes': the Ballardian films of Paul Williams

Author: • Oct 19th, 2010 •

Category: Abu Dhabi, architecture, features, film, Lead Story, paranormal, travel, urbanism, utopia

Abu Dhabi. Image from ‘Pillars of Wisdom’ (2009) by Paul Williams.

Paul Williams is stationed in Abu Dhabi doing contract work on computer systems. He has made a series of short films during his time there, which I find remarkable for their attempt to, in his words, ‘mix Ballardian landscapes with elements of Islamic mythology to arrive at something new and unfamiliar’. This film work is attuned to the subtle details and emergent urbanism at play in Abu Dhabi, which, like Dubai before it, is fast becoming the epitome of Ballardian spatial logic: an almost sentient, self-replicating landscape powered by the inexorable logic of capitalist realism. In such a place, tricks of perception are commonplace, enhanced not only by the preternatural, blasted desert light but also the strange stirrings of a future urban sensibility.

Below, find Paul’s latest two films, ‘Majlis al Jinn’ and the incredible ‘Vermilion Sands’, as well as another favourite of mine, ‘Solaris’, with its Lem/Tarkovsky references. I highly recommend exploring the rest of Paul’s output (often soundtracked by artists from the Touch soundscape label), which continue to mine this unique nexus of Ballard, Islam, rampant development, industrial isolation and subsonic hums. These filmic miniatures form a unique, ongoing travelogue, often shot from the upper-level hotel room high above the clouds that has served as Paul’s home for the past year, recording his nostalgia and emotion at the absence of his family in the UK, as he captures the evolution of the cityscape warping the desert below.


Note: these films are not viewable in Google Reader and other RSS devices due to embedding restrictions requested by the filmmaker.


Solaris from Paul H Williams on Vimeo.

Video and Music by Paul H Williams – Best experienced with headphones.

Successive bursts of static came through the headphones, against a background of deep, low-pitched murmuring, which seemed to me the very voice of the planet itself.

Stanisław Lem (Solaris)

Abstracted, Mason invented some tale to satisfy her, then carried his coffee into the study and stared at the morning haze which lay across the rooftops, a soft lake of opacity that followed the same contours as the midnight sea. The mist dissolved in the sunlight, and for a moment the diminishing reality of the normal world reasserted itself, filling him with a poignant nostalgia.

JG Ballard, ‘Now Wakes the Sea’.

One morning I awoke to find everything obscured by a thick roiling mist. It seemed to have a life of its own; sometimes moving slowly sometimes quickly. I could smell the sea and I realised that that was where it had come from. I stood on the balcony with the clouds drifting about me. I thought of home and, for a while, it was as if I was floating between two worlds…

- Paul H Williams, 2010.


Majlis al Jinn (Meeting Place of the Jinn) from Paul H Williams on Vimeo.

Video and music by Paul H Williams
Filmed on location in Abu Dhabi
Best experienced with headphones

Genie (Arabic: جني jinnī, or djinni) is a supernatural creature in Pre-islamic and Islamic mythology which (according to both mythology) occupies a parallel world to that of mankind, and together with humans and angels makes up the three sentient creations of Allah. (1)

The Holy Qur’aan reveals that Jinn are created from fire whereas the human beings are created from clay. Although they are invisible to human eyes, the jinn can see us… (2)

I have always felt that the empty swimming pools and abandoned hotels featured in JG Ballard’s stories are symbols of loss and can be seen as “ghosts”. The empty structures shown here are in the process of being made and therefore have a very different relationship with time.

In this video I wanted to mix Ballardian landscapes with elements of Islamic mythology to arrive at something new and unfamiliar.

This is the reality of this part of the middle east: 21st century technologies combined with religious beliefs forged in the 7th century.

Majlis al Jinn takes place on a site that is between dream and waking; between conception and realisation. As it pushes its way into our reality perhaps we can already feel the presence of those beings who may eventually live there… human or other… it will depend upon who comes…

(1) en.wikipedia.org/​wiki/​Genie
(2) http://inter-islam.org/​faith/​jinn.html

- Paul H Williams, 2010.


Vermilion Sands from Paul H Williams on Vimeo.

Video and music by Paul H Williams
Filmed on location in Abu Dhabi
Best experienced with headphones

“Sometimes in the late afternoons we’d drive out along the beach to the Scented Desert and sit alone by one of the pools, watching the sun fall away behind the reefs and hills, lulling ourselves on the rose-sick air. When the wind began to blow cool across the sand we’d slip down into the water, bathe ourselves and drive back to town, filling the streets and café terraces with jasmine and musk-rose and helianthemum.”

J.G. Ballard, ‘Prima Belladona’.

“At sunset, when the vermilion glow reflected from the dunes along the horizon fitfully illuminated the white faces of the abandoned hotels, Bridgman stepped on to his balcony and looked out over the long stretches of cooling sand as the tides of purple shadow seeped across them. Slowly, extending their slender fingers through the shallow saddles and depressions, the shadows massed together like gigantic combs, a few phosphorescing spurs of obsidian isolated for a moment between the tines, and then finally coalesced and flooded in a solid wave across the half-submerged hotels. Behind the silent facades, in the tilting sand-filled streets which had once glittered with cocktail bars and restaurants, it was already night. Haloes of moonlight beaded the lamp-standards with silver dew, and draped the shuttered windows and slipping cornices like a frost of frozen gas.”

J.G. Ballard, ‘The Cage of Sand’.

“May I have some water?”

I opened my eyes to find myself looking up at a tall figure standing over me. The voice was female but the silhouette, burned out by the intense, afternoon sunlight, was strangely androgynous. I was still drowsy. I’d come for a swim at the hotel’s small, artificial beach and, after half an hour of floating under the gaze of the semi-constructed skyscrapers on the neighbouring island, I’d returned to the shore for some food and a nap. The heat was relentless and I was sheltering beneath one of the thatched wooden sun shades planted deep in the soft white sand.

“Yes… yes… I must have drifted off,” I said to fill the vacuum while I located the bottle by the side of my sunlounger momentarily distracted by the lines of ants marching across the microscopic dunes.

When I looked back I realised I was in the company of a young woman. She seemed to be all arms and legs, very thin and angular. Her skin was deeply tanned and still dripping with water. Mirrored sunglasses obscured much of her small sharp face. As she raised the bottle to her lips a multitude of bangles slipped down her arm with a metallic rattle. I watched her drink for some time never having seen her amongst the regular group of hotel guests that I maintained my distance from with casual nods.

“That’s much better,” she said wiping her mouth with a satisfied gasp. “You like Ballard?” she nodded at the blanched copy of Vermilion Sands I had on the small, white plastic table next to me.

“Yes, I’m definitely a Ballardian,” I said smiling. I couldn’t place her accent. It seemed to veer from Russian into something much more eastern.

“Of course you know that Vermilion Sands actually exists,” she murmured.

There was a pause. Even the clanging of the workmen across the water constructing the new high-rise apartments seemed to fade for a few seconds.

“In our minds,” I said.

“A few hours drive from here,” she said ignoring my response. She let the idea slowly form inside my head. “Pen?” she demanded holding out her hand.

I fumbled in my rucksack wondering why I seemed to do whatever she said.

She started to sketch out a map on the pure white napkin that came with my lunch stopping occasionally to toss back her long black wet hair.

“That should get you there,” she said leaning back satisfied with her handiwork.

“Oh yes,” I looked at the map. “There it is Vermilion Sands…”

“You don’t believe me!” she laughed.

“I’m afraid not,” I laughed back. “Not even a little bit.”

She curled a forefinger at me to come closer. I leaned forward and so did she until our faces were just inches apart and I could smell the brine on her skin. She reached up to slowly move her mirrored shades down below the bridge of her nose. I looked into what should have been her eyes. Pale blue sea-anemones waved their delicate tendrils at me as if wafted by warm ocean currents from beneath a different sun.

I nodded my head.

She restored her sunglasses and stood up once more towering above me.

“Go and see,” she said over her shoulder as she returned to the gently lapping waves.

- Paul H Williams, 2010.


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11 Responses »

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Simon Sellars, Simon Sellars, gregorylent, Seb, Seb and others. Seb said: RT @ballardian: New post – from Abu Dhabi: 'Human or other; depends who comes': the Ballardian films of Paul Williams: http://bit.ly/a1Z0zz [...]

  2. Outstanding work Paul and Simon, a new facet of Ballardianism is born …

  3. Excellent! P.H. Williams — the auteur of arabia!

  4. [...] Ballardian: Paul Williams is stationed in Abu Dhabi doing contract work on computer systems. He has made a series of short films during his time there, which I find remarkable for their attempt to, in his words, ‘mix Ballardian landscapes with elements of Islamic mythology to arrive at something new and unfamiliar’. This film work is attuned to the subtle details and emergent urbanism at play in Abu Dhabi, which, like Dubai before it, is fast becoming the epitome of Ballardian spatial logic: an almost sentient, self-replicating landscape powered by the inexorable logic of capitalist realism. In such a place, tricks of perception are commonplace, enhanced not only by the preternatural, blasted desert light but also the strange stirrings of a future urban sensibility. [...]

  5. Such haunting images, the preternatural white light, the silence of the desert underlined by the soundtracks (the memory of Paris, Texas: sand, sunlight, reverberating slide guitar), isolation in landscape, the self becoming liminal in a constructed void.

  6. There are many artists out there who, in one way or another, to more or less extent, felt inspired by Ballard’s world and tried to depict and capture the ‘essence’ of the fiction of the master. And then, well, then there is a guy called Paul H. Williams. An english family man temporarily “exiled” to Dubai due to his job, a man totally (and fortunately) unrelated with the art scene, Paul cleverly took advantage of that opportunity and did what he was born to: poetry (sorry, videos). With honesty, calm, faith, patience, perseverance and precision, like an anonyumous little squirrel raising dried fruits one by one for the future, Paul, armed with his camera and tripod, have been making day by day, video by video, a unique body of work, an exquisite and growing handful of luminous masterpieces that capture Ballard’s atemporal poetry of bleakness and desolation and at the same time, reinvents it and trascends it by its own means. These are not ballardian videos anymore, in fact. These are PaulHWilliamsian videos, period. In this article at ballardian.com, Simon Sellars has posted a very good but extremely small selection of Paul’s work, so believe me: if you want to make yourself a favour, go to paul’s account at vimeo, prepare yourself a good cup of tea (or maybe something stronger), have a seat comfortably, use headphones, click on ‘play all’ and ‘full screen’ and get ready for a very special trip. As I told him once in a comment I left in one of his videos (Majlis al Jinn – Meeting Place of the Jinn) that you can see above, Abu Dhabi is already some sort of mythical and alien place that will be forever-and-ever attached in my imagination to Paul’s videos. By the way, he says says that these videos are done in Abu Dhabi and its sorroundings, but I don’t believe it. I am sure that Paul is in reality a (inner)space traveller and that his videos are nothing but first-hand lyrical dispatches or reports from another world, another parallel dimension in which you can’t distinguish light from sound, sand from air, ancient ruins from modern building sites, swimming-pools from mystic waters, common people from shadowy entities, temples from dumps, hidden treasures from recent debris, ocean from sky, wind from ghosts, distant vehicles from tiny toys, little shining orbs from fleeting thoughts, priests from operators, motorways from crevices, concrete from marble, pieces of plastic from living creatures, palmtrees from streetlamps, dunes from waves. In short: you can’t simply “watch” a Paul video, because these videos, despite the appearances, are not narrations but meditations, not stories but verses, not physical accounts of what is out there, but metaphysical reflections of what is inside, not specific portraits but almost abstract, inner landscapes. By seeing any of his videos, it is obvious that Paul himself dissapeared pretty much when “he” was making them. There is no ego-noise in them. There is no effects. No unnecesary camera movements. I mean, there is no “paul” in that sense of “hey, I am an artist, look what I did and what I saw”. No. Just a vision. A silence, a quiet and static frame paradoxically full of music and subtle (and ghostly) movements here and there. I can almost envision Paul “seeing” something, then placing gently his camera and tripod here or there, not touching the camera and just waiting peacefully for the miracle and mistery to happen in front of the lenses. And that is more or less the way one must approach paul’s work. You have to let yourself go, leave blank your mind and expectations, abandon yourself… and just trust. Otherwise, it won’t really work. So, to really watch a disturbing and yet enlightening video by Paul means to run the risk of having a profound (and very rare) hypnagogical and disorienting experience in which you can see through some kind of lifted veil, in which everything is exactly what it seems and in which it seems that nothing happens, and yet not. And that is the most important gift that an artist can have, and at the same time the most generous gift that an artist can give away to others. Lifting that veil and share what is in the other side, is the main purpose, nature and origin of poetry, I think. Art is nothing but (and it is born out of) silence and generosity. Therefore, thank you so much, Paul.

  7. … and Jésus knows what he’s talking and talking about… he, too, is a ballardian video artist of great repute: http://www.jgballard.ca/olmo/olmo_ballardian_vids.html

  8. More of Olmo’s beautiful videos can be found here too… http://vimeo.com/jesusolmo

  9. [...] path is clear and laid out before us all Cosmic star winds rush through this naked form.lessness Dream of empty virtual desert landscapes And proceed randomly forward – a Henry [...]

  10. [...] Ballard should have a look at this website, http://www.ballardian.com. In particular, take a look at the remarkable short films on the site by Paul Williams. Based in Abu Dhabi, Williams has made a bold attempt to combine [...]

  11. [...] This is a game built metaphorically and literally on blood-soaked sand. Set in the near-future ruins of the city, it all looks rather exciting from a distance. Until you look closer, that is. Then it’s just empty; devoid of Life [...]

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