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‘Perverse Technology’: Dan Mitchell & Simon Ford interview J.G. Ballard

Author: • Aug 15th, 2008 •

Category: archival, consumerism, Ernst, interviews, Marcel Duchamp, photography, psychopathology, Salvador Dali, sexual politics, speed & violence, surrealism, terrorism, the middle classes, visual art

Ballardian: Crashed Cars

ABOVE: Image via Hard Mag.

The following written interview with J.G. Ballard was first published in issue 1 of Hard Mag in 2005. It was conducted by Dan Mitchell and Simon Ford, the publisher and editor respectively of the magazine, and was intended to follow up some of the questions raised in Ford’s article about Ballard’s ‘Crashed Cars’ exhibition of 1970, published in the same edition. The article has since been revised and republished over at /seconds and if you’re unfamiliar with the exhibition, it makes for a great introduction. Meanwhile, the interview makes its first reappearance beyond the confines of Hard Mag here at ballardian.com.

Many thanks to Dan, Simon and Hard Mag for sanctioning this second wind.

Interview Date: March 2004 (1756 words)
Original font: Lucida Sans Typewriter Oblique (9-point)

Copyright Hard Mag 2005.

Ballardian: Crashed Cars

We’re interested in the reaction of the visitors to ‘Crashed Cars’. Do you think the work and a similar presentation today would elicit a similar response? Would an audience today be more detached and more self-conscious about their reactions? Are the reasons for going to such events different today from then? Was the audience likely to be more critical then? How did the audience see themselves then (today’s art world audience can be accused of looking to be seen looking good), were the visitors part of an elite, did you see them as sophisticated? Or perhaps as mere extras in a visual field dominated by your work (the grass to the cows)?

At the opening party there was wildly drunken reaction, and what seemed to be barely repressed hostility came bursting out. During the month on show the cars were attacked, daubed with paint and so on. Many visitors stared at them numbly. I don’t think there would be the same reaction today, 35 years later. Since then there have been so many provocations that the audience response to three crashed cars would be much more calm. People are still shockable today — as with the Myra Hindley handprints portrait — but nothing defuses a sense of shock more than the sense that it’s all been done before. Duchamp’s urinal would produce no gasps, in fact I think a [sic] saw it, or a replica, at the Hayward gallery some ago. No-one was looking at it. I said to my girl-friend that the only way to startle the audience would have been to urinate into the thing, which I think someone has now done. I don’t think today’s audiences are all that different. Apart from the Arts Lab regulars, the audience in 1969 were readers of International Times, rather than today’s Time Out, and people interested in any new ideas that might be floating about. They certainly weren’t extras — I was very keen to see their reactions to the cars. The whole thing was a psychological test, to see whether my hunches were sufficiently confirmed for me to go on and write Crash. They were. The show’s object was not to shock, but to prompt a response.

What would have to be done to create a similar response today, given the increased number of international artists, the larger scale of the art world, the many crossovers with global finance through sponsorship deals and the post-young British artist Tate Modern era/culture?

To shock people today is as easy as it ever was. Set up a situation that elicits pity sympathy and concern and then deride the sentiments — the Hindley portrait did that. But that kind of outrage has been devalued, and the artists with it. Besides, there are far more subtle ways of unsettling people. Think of the outrage that greeted the impressionists. Dali’s melting watches, Ernst’s eroded rocks are far more disturbing than anything dreamed up by the Turner Prize.

Ballardian: Crashed Cars exhibition

ABOVE: Ballard’s crashed Pontiac. Photo via The Terminal Collection.

Were the cars for sale as artworks? Did you see them as artworks, then and now? Were you asked or did you ever plan to do any more shows? What is your general attitude to the art world, did you ever want to be an artist?

They weren’t for sale, though there is a photograph of the Pontiac with a ‘£3500’ [sic] price tag in the windscreen, which I think was published in the Daily Mirror and was probably put there by the cameraman. The cars were certainly sculptures of a kind. I wasn’t asked to do any more shows. The Arts Lab closed for good soon after, and the 1970s began, a dreary decade. I saw the cars as a one off. I’ve always been very interested in painting and sculpture, which are a better key to the public’s imagination than the novel, a form that tends to resist innovation. In many ways the art world is ferociously competitive, far more than the literary world, whre [sic] writers are protected by their agents and can work in total isolation if they want to (like myself).

Was Euphoria Bliss the stripper/interviewer at the opening party? Do you have a copy or can you summarize what you described as the stripper’s ‘damning review’ she wrote for the underground paper Friendz?

No, the interviewer was not Euphoria Bliss, who was highly intelligent (and I hope still is) and completely tuned into the various projects I experimented with — stripping to a recital of a scientific paper at the ICA and so on. These were part of my then association with the magazine Ambit, for which I was trying to drum up publicity. Euphoria, who worked as a professional stripper, was extremely beautiful, and easy-going. The interviewer/stripper at the Arts Lab was recruited by someone at the gallery. She disapproved strongly of the cars, deciding that she would only appear topless (a fascinating response, it seemed to me at the time). A couple of drunken guests manhandled her in the back seat of the crashed Pontiac, and she claimed that they had tried to rape her. I can’t remember the review in detail or her name, but she was damning.

Ballardian: Crashed Cars

ABOVE: Euphoria Bliss holds court. Front row left to right: Euphoria, Eduardo Paolozzi, Ballard, Michael Foreman (art editor of Ambit) and Dr Martin Bax, editor of Ambit. We don’t know who the chaps at the back are. This photo was taken in 1972, at the Royal Academy of Art in front of a Paolozzi sculpture that was being exhibited.

Would you produce something similar to ‘Crashed Cars’ today? Has the car, at the same time as maintaining its position as the engine of capitalism, lost something of it’s power to signify by its very dominance and accessibility (for example, cars are smashed up for fun on quiz shows to aid the spectacle). Has the ‘crashed car’ taboo shifted, and if so to where?

I would if I wanted to test some idea, though I think those days are past for me. I think the car has retained its hold on us, partly by the way in which it elicits aggression and an illusion of freedom and partly because while driving we control the possibility of our own deaths. The Princess Di death took on extra resonance that would have been absent if she had died in a hotel fire.

Are you still interested in creating ‘posters’ that can be read as novels, or has the poster lost some of its power? If so what has it been replaced by?

Sadly, the economies of publishing are against the idea.

Was Millennium People intended as an attack on the middle classes? Compare to the 1959 short story ‘Now: Zero’, a text that kills its reader.

Not an attack, no. As one of the middle classes. I feel for their plight. Their rebellion in MP turns out to be pointless, since they are the last group who could hope to rebel — docility is in their bones. The book is about pointless violence, and pointless protest, which are increasingly around us today. It’s a waste of time looking for a motive, when the absence of a motive is the only point. This makes Hungerford, Columbine and so on impossible to predict. The Islamist attacks on New York and Madrid are another matter entirely.

Ballardian: Crashed Cars

ABOVE: JGB photo via Hard Mag.

Why blow up Tate Modern? Is it because it is now the representative site of contemporary high culture, an instrument of the massification of that high culture, and the ‘spiritual’ heart of new religion, a cathedral to the art of spectacle? Or is it a cultural Auschwitz? Would it be better to disseminate this culture far and wide, so there was a mini Tate in every shopping centre, or really dissolve the barrier between culture and life Helmut Newton photos used to sell Sainsbury’s economy baked beans?

My revolutionaries see Tate Modern as one of the ways in which the middle classes are brain-washed, along with education generally. (Not a view I share). The process of popularising doesn’t necessarily entail dilution or dumbing down — the Hollywood film was popular but highly original in its heyday. But the modern movement set out to be provocative and revolutionary from the start (Manet?), and popularising the avant-garde is bound to blunt the blade. The entertainment conglomerates that now rule our world can neutralise and absorb almost anything, and one needs educated feet to dance just out of reach of their embrace. People have done it — Dalí, Helmut Newton, Francis Bacon and others.

Are the middle classes really at fault here, squeezed as they are between the workers (soldiers, policemen, builders etc.) and the ruling elite who use the workers to maintain and build order? What else are they supposed to do? This comes close to a very important theme for Hard Mag, just what is the role of the middle class intellectual/artist/writer/thinker? What is the responsibility now? Have things changed much in the last 50-60 years? What would you be interested in seeing happen in the next 5-10 years? How far can you see things (such as the art spectacle, middle class attitudes of unfairness and intolerance) continuing to accelerate?

The middle classes aren’t at fault. They are the yeomen class, who have given loyal service to the feudal lord, refining their archery and swordsmanship, and now find that they are no longer needed, since the feudal lord has hired foreign mercenaries equipped with the new wonder-weapon, the flintlock. As for the special problems facing the middle-class artist — it looks as if alienation is going to be imposed on him whether he likes it or nor. Most artists and writers in the past have been middle-class, the surrealists to a man, with backgrounds similar to those of the Baader-Meinhof gang. However, the middle-class world against which they rebelled was vast and self-confident. Who today would bother to rebel against the Guardian or Observer-reading, sushi-nibbling, liberal, tolerant middle-class? I think the main target the young writer/artist should rebel against is himself or herself. Treat oneself as the enemy who needs to be provoked and subverted.

Is there a role today for an avant-garde? And if so what fields of operation are open to such an avant-garde? Is there the possibility for such an avant-garde within the art world and the world of publishing today?

Yes, though it won’t necessarily appear in the places we expect. Follow your own obsessions, use them like stepping stones. and with luck you’ll find your way into your mysterious inner self.

All the best,
J.G. Ballard

Ballardian: Crashed Cars

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2 Responses »

  1. You lot are perverse, love it.


  2. […] J.G Ballard. Interview by Dan Mitchell and Simon Ford for Ballaridan, 5th August. Available at: http://www.ballardian.com/perverse-technology-jgballard-hardmag-interview (Accessed: […]

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