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'If I had a pound for every time someone mentioned psychopathology': A Review of the First International Conference on the Work of J.G. Ballard

Author: • May 10th, 2007 •

Category: academia, alternate worlds, architecture, Brian Eno, gated communities, literature, Michael Moorcock, New Worlds, reviews

Ballardian: International J.G. Ballard Conference
The UEA Studio: Conference Headquarters (photo: Simon Sellars).

I attended From Shanghai to Shepperton: An International Conference on J.G. Ballard at the University of East Anglia on the weekend, and I’m suffering a bit of a comedown. I always get a bit melancholy when these temporary autonomous zones collapse and everyone returns to virtual communication. Especially when said TAZ was so inspiring. I already knew the quality of discourse would be outstanding – one look at the conference abstracts could tell you that – but after meeting and greeting, listening and absorbing, I was left overwhelmed with happiness centred around the feeling that Ballard might, finally, be receiving the level of critical attention his work so blatantly deserves.

There’s still a lot of work to be done on that score, though: I’m carrying with me the Lonely Planet Guide to Great Britain, where, in the literature section, Ballard does not score a mention, yet Will Self and Martin Amis do! Will Self, a man who has repeatedly outlined his literary debt to Ballard… I know some of the people who wrote this guide, so I’ll be having a word in their shell-like, don’t you worry about that.

At the conference, my own paper was on micronationalism and the vocabulary of secession in Ballard’s work, specifically the types of autonomous enclaves he has written about since his very early career, and the political potential of these ‘non-places’. I focused on how the later works — from Cocaine Nights onwards — were explicitly concerned with defending physical space, a process that leads to the actual secession of the Metro-Centre as a ‘shopping republic’ in Kingdom Come, and I tracked the simultaneous real-world successes and failures of actual micronations, such as Sealand and the Hutt River Province. This of course was a direct result of my role as a co-author of Lonely Planet’s recent guide to Micronations, but I’ll hopefully be posting the essay here next week, so I’ll spare any further explication for now.

For me, there were numerous highlights enfolded within the two days of the conference. Dan O’Hara‘s paper, ‘Reading Posture and Gesture in Ballard’s Novels’ was among them, with its deft analysis of the angle at which Ballard’s dialogue deflects away from the physical expression of the characters, destroying Realism with judicious reference to cybernetics. Dan’s engaging style and crystal-clear explanation of terms and concepts was compelling. Joanne Murray delivered another outstanding analysis, looking at two exhibitions from the Early Independent Group, Growth and Form (1951) and Parallel of Life and Art (1953), and exploring how these art works prefigured the collage and ‘spinal landscape’ approaches of The Atrocity Exhibition. Backed up with a visual display and her poised manner, Joanne thrilled us all with a connection previously unexplored by Ballard scholars.

Ballardian: International J.G. Ballard Conference
The UEA’s Ziggurat: Ballardian Concentration City (photo: Simon Sellars).

Pippa Tandy’s slideshow presentation, ‘J.G. Ballard and the Call Sign of Sputnik 1’, expanded upon the cold war themes that have previously preoccupied her work, continuing her unique archaeology of the imaginative strata underpinning some of Ballard’s most formative writing. On the same panel, Umberto Rossi delivered a poignant examination of war themes in The Kindness of Women, and was especially pleasing for making a case for Kindness as an underrated Ballardian masterpiece. I couldn’t make it for the third paper from this panel, David Ian Paddy’s ‘Empires of the mind: Autobiography and anti-imperialism in the work of J.G. Ballard’, but I made up for it: in the taxi to the pub on Saturday night, I coaxed the Welsh-speaking Mr Paddy into reciting the first line from Crash — in Welsh…’Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash’…

I also missed John Carter Word‘s presentation, ‘Going Mad is their only way of staying sane: The Civilised Violence of J.G. Ballard’, but I was assured by others that it was a cracker, with its approach to representations of violence shaped by Norbert Elias and certain strands of evolutionary psychology.

Two other papers I really desired to hear but was unable to (because they were on at the same time as my own) were Jeanette Baxter’s ‘Visual Geographies: Surrealist anti-colonial poetics and politics in The Crystal World’, and Rick Poynor’s ‘Visualising Ballard: Representation, Misrepresentation and the Graphic Image’. As this recently published paper makes clear, Jeannette is breaking new ground with her examination of Ballard’s surrealism, and I’m eagerly anticipating her forthcoming book on that very topic. Rick Poynor has of course appeared here on Ballardian, so naturally my anticipation was piqued, but no matter; he was kind enough to lend me More Dark than Shark instead, the rare, out-of-print book on the artwork of Russell Mills and the early lyrics of Brian Eno, for which Rick supplied five essays. As luck would have it, I have Eno’s first four albums (covered by the book) with me on this trip and I’ve been obsessively listening to them and reading More Dark… ever since the conference, when I should have been looking out at the English countryside from my train and bus windows, or scouting Ballardian multi-storey car parks instead.

I appreciated Mark Williams’ paper, ‘The Underground Exhibition: A Ballardian Animadversion of Ballardianism’, as it explored a period I’m quite interested in: the period of New Worlds magazine when Michael Moorcock was editing it and Ballard was writing for it. Mark was engaging for the way in which he let his imagination wander a bit, straying away from rigid academic discourse and into entertaining speculation, with a surprising diversion into Lovecraft territory. Mark Fischer’s ‘Masoch after Ballard’ was as dynamic, dark and as engaging as you’d expect from the k-punk himself, and drew on some of the themes he explored here on Ballardian in his piece on Steven Meisel. I’m drawn to Mark’s work; the symbiosis with the aims of this site is, I think, obvious. I missed the other speakers on Mark’s panel, but judging from the question time, where Jennifer Hui Bon Hoa dominated with her smart and lengthy observations, she would have had some incandescent points to make in her paper, ‘The Pornography of Abstraction in The Atrocity Exhibition’.

Ballardian: International J.G. Ballard Conference
The UEA’s Speed Control Ramp: A Code-song from the Quasars telling me to calm my speedy nerves before delivering my paper (photo: Simon Sellars).

On my own panel, Owen Hatherley‘s paper, ‘Ballard’s Banlieue Radieuse’, was a bright, extremely clear-headed analysis of the affirmative nature of Ballard’s future, especially Vermilion Sands. I also enjoyed Sebastian Groes’ paper, ‘Kicking the Dog Will Do: Ballard’s Unhuman London’, for its original assessment of schizophrenic ‘urban semiotics’ in Ballard’s mapping of orbital London, and for the fact that Sebastian ad-libbed one of the weekend’s best lines: ‘If I had a pound for every time someone mentioned the word ‘psychopathology’ at this conference, I’d be a very rich man’. The other word that would have made him a fortune was ‘Gasiorek’, as in Andrzej Gasiorek, the scholar whose superb volume on Ballard’s work was quoted by seemingly everyone, including me. And seemingly, everyone had a different pronunciation, too, which was amusing; in the end, I plumped for Gas-syee-rek. Is that OK? As for Ballard’s books, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, as you’d expect, were by far the most referenced. However, on the same panel as Sebastian, Alistair Cormack’s ‘The Unlimited Dream Company: Blake and Ballard’ was notable not only for its skilful negotiation of the themes of one of Ballard’s most neglected works, contrasting it with Blake’s poetry to reveal a dark, ‘cannibalistic’ element in the book not found in most reviews, but also for the manner in which it was delivered, with Alistair’s passion oozing from every flourish of his hands, from every flick of his hair, from every look from under his glasses. A joy to listen to, and to watch.

Away from the panels, I responded to the first roundtable discussion, where Roger Luckhurst outlined how Ballard has perhaps transcended literature, suggesting that it’s up to all of us to locate new, non-literary ways in which he might be interpreted and adapted. This thrilled me, naturally – as anyone who’s read this blog would gather, that’s pretty much my mission – and it’s a relief to know I’m not working in isolation. In the second ’roundtable discussion’ (well, they weren’t really, considering each participant stood up and delivered a paper, like the rest of us), Raymond Tait’s work was brilliant, based on his trip back to Ballard’s alma mater, King’s College, Cambridge, and his interviews with some of Ballard’s school friends. This yielded some surprising results, including a possible model for Vaughan in Crash: none other than the school bully whom Ballard had befriended, and who later died in a — wait for it — car crash. Raymond delivered with wit and style, and his biographical trip was a needed break from the hardcore theory of the rest of the weekend. On the same panel, it was also nice to hear David Pringle speak, and to meet the man who was profiling and championing Ballard at a time, in the mid-1970s, when most people were not.

I provided myself with other breaks by wandering around the UEA grounds and the ziggurat halls of residence, in particular, a series of pyramidical, mirrored structures ringing a lake and woodland, resembling nothing less than a Ballardian Concentration City. All around, the Brutalist architecture was superbly integrated into art and aesthetic, into functionalism and living, so much so that I thought a garbage skip was in fact an art work along the lines of the industrial sculptures dotted around the grounds. There was a swarm of rabbits darting around my legs, too, and hundreds, maybe thousands of interconnected rabbit holes – an animal kingdom version of the ziggurat – and one couldn’t help but compare these hyperactive beasts to the usual activities of university students after a few lagers.

Ballardian: International J.G. Ballard Conference
More ziggurat hi-jinks (photo: Simon Sellars).

On top of all this, we had the indefatigable Rick McGrath running around filming absolutely everything that moved, including my jetlagged eyes during my paper, and no doubt all two days of conference footage will end up on his website at some stage. Rick was the kid-in-a-candy-store JGB fanboy, providing North American-style comic relief in among the career academics, beginner intellectuals and hardcore Ballard biographers. Rick, by the way, is exactly the same in real life as in his emails; Umberto Rossi, by contrast is not, being more soft-spoken and courteous than his online, rough-house ‘hoodlum intellectual’ persona. I wonder how my own two personas compare?

Finally, many many thanks to Jeannette Baxter, the charming, accommodating conference organiser, and to everyone who helped and attended for a really top-class way to spend two days. Apparently, there will be a two-volume publication of the papers at some stage in the future, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the ones I missed and to revisiting my time in Norwich via the time travel of the printed word.

PS: There was only one wild-animals-in-the-high-street joke made at my Aussie expense: take a bow, L.J. Hurst!

PPS: Over the next few weeks, I’ll be travelling around Britain and hopefully visiting some of the micronations I’ve been writing about, as well as stopping in Dubai – the Ballardian city of the future – on my way back to Oz. There will be a few postings here on Ballardian, but the majority of this travel writing will appear on Sleepy Brain, so also check that in the month of May if you feel so inclined.

+ ‘Ballard in Anglia’: Owen Hatherley’s conference wrap-up
+ ‘Nightmares at Noon’: John Carter Wood’s review of the conference
+ Various posts about the conference at the JGB Yahoo group

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11 Responses »

  1. Cracking review. I’m cheesed off I missed it, but then I’d have had to forego the pleasure of the 80mph+ wind from nowhere halfway up Cairn Gorm. Judging by your pics, Norwich was rather more temperate – and a good deal more reminiscent of a Stalinist Teletubbyland.

    As for the pronunciation of ‘Gasiorek’, surely ‘Gassy Wreck’ would be appropriate? (gas in the sense of petrol, not longwindedness, I should emphasise)

  2. Fanboy?

  3. Sounds brilliant and overwhelming. Will the papers be published in a tome somewhere? Too bad Ballard himself couldn’t have made an appearance. Then again, maybe it was more Ballardian that he didn’t.

  4. Last week……

    1. Ballard’s exhausted texts. Owen on the largely dis-spiriting, though excellently organised, Ballard conference at UEA. There was much celebration of Ballard ‘finally getting the recognition he deserved’ but it seems to me that anyone worthwhile (…

  5. I hate you…

  6. I really do…

  7. I’m joking…

  8. For real…

  9. Echoing Supervert’s question–are these papers going to be published or is there a way of accessing them before that? By sheer coincidence most of them appear highly pertinent to my work…

  10. it’s in the post!

    “Apparently, there will be a two-volume publication of the papers at some stage in the future, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the ones I missed and to revisiting my time in Norwich via the time travel of the printed word.”

  11. […] UEA was quite a plateau of sustained intensity. At the always-excellent Ballardian there’s a very comprehensive overview of the weekend, with links and trackbacks to other blogs with write-ups. And quite extraordinarily, […]

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