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Trompe-l'oeil corridors

Author: • Nov 10th, 2007 •

Category: alternate worlds, Ballardosphere, boredom, CCTV, crime, film, inner space, surveillance, technology

Ballardian: Surveillance Cameras

Annoyed with myself, I set off along the narrow street, past the surveillance cameras that guarded the lacquered doorways, each lens with its own story to tell. Hidden perspectives turned Estrella de Mar into a huge riddle. Trompe-l’oeil corridors beckoned but led nowhere…

J.G. Ballard. Cocaine Nights (1996).

Every good Ballardian needs this: SurveillanceSaver, a screensaver that displays live feeds from over 600 Axis surveillance-camera networks (found via Boing Boing).

Surveillance cameras by necessity record interzones, the hot spots where crime might breed or deviance might spontaneously generate, in locations beyond the reach of our unenhanced optic nerves, or where everything and everyone has simply shut up shop. Business parks at night, city squares cast in gloomy shadow, empty swimming pools, the hooded entrances of hospitals, the city-like scale of airport perimeters, motorway feeder roads where human interaction is factored out of the landscape and the only transaction occurs between speed and machinery. Ballard’s work precisely records such territory, a rich topography inset with mysterious ley lines, weaving a grid to support shadowy lifestyles enacted far away from mainstream thought.

This screensaver is your privileged window onto Ballardian space.

Ballardian: Surveillance Cameras

It cycles through the feeds, lingering for around 3 minutes on each. The action is jerky, frame by frame. At times it takes on the quality of a La Jetee-style photo roman: frozen scenes, no movement, absolutely still, until the glare of a sodium light almost imperceptibly flickers on and off in the foreground. On the occasion that someone walks across the ‘set’, their movements are rendered like some stop-motion Harryhausen creature. In a city square somewhere very late at night in Eastern Europe, the scene is empty except for two motionless civic statues; only one isn’t. Within a second, this man’s legs move, then freeze, then move…trapped in the molasses-like gravity of CCTV time sickness. Behind him, there’s actually only one statue and it remains behind, rooted to the spot.

Ballardian: Surveillance Cameras

Every time I return to my computer to find the screensaver in action, I’m transfixed. Versed in Ballard’s work, when a grey and forbidding car park appears, I hope for a Lincoln Continental to cruise into view, with a ‘hoodlum scientist’ in a black leather jacket receiving a blow job in the back seat, watched passively by the blank gaze of a man in the driver’s seat, his lack of affect matching the camera lens precisely. Or a porno shoot on a construction site on the far edge of town, the camera watching the cameras. I find myself scanning the feeds, examining every inch of the grainy black and white image, to locate some kind of deviation from the norm: waiting, perhaps, for a casually dressed urban professional to scope the aisles in a video store, a mysterious brown package under his arm; or an office worker staying back late in her cubicle, injecting some unknown substance into her arm, unable to bear the thought of returning home to whatever it is that awaits her there. I watch mannequins in store windows, wondering if they’ll ever break the window and go into a club, where they’ll start to dance. I stare at what looks like frozen tundra, hoping for a Tunguska-like object to explode… And then I am jerked from my reverie: the next feed is a pig pen on a remote farm. A huge snout fills the screen, and then the software cuts to a new feed, a dolphin swimming in a zoo, then yet another feed, the underwater underside of a woman’s body doing laps in a pool.

But most of all, I am alert for the offices and the university computer labs and the library reading rooms that randomly cycle through, waiting for the uncanny shock of catching someone I know watching a screen, wondering if they are watching this screensaver, too, watching for me, under the passive gaze of this camera behind me, above and to my right, somewhere out in space.

Far from installing SETI software on our computers to assist in the search for life in outer space, we should be installing this wonderful screensaver, scanning the farthest reaches of inner space, where it is even less certain than in the cosmos that intelligent life exists.

Ballardian: Surveillance Cameras

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14 Responses »

  1. Great stuff Simon. A while back I used some of these invisible but accessible feeds to illustrate Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in a suitably Ballardian way: http://www.mikebonsall.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/witt/tract.htm

  2. beautiful. this moody piece reminds me of my last sojourn in tangier. i had access to the hotel’s computer behind the front desk, but once the clerk showed me how to operate the security camera system i was hooked. i viewed the screen which showed shots of the parking lot, terrace, foyer and bazaar. one click and i could make a single shot fill the entire screen. i hurried thru my e-mails so as to spend more time watching the emptiness that would suddenly come to life.

  3. thanks mike — that’s a lovely little display you’ve got going there. so, would wittgenstein suggest surveillance cameras bring into existence that which previously did not exist (or is it just that it was previously unknowable)?

    and johnny — yes, it’s like crack. did you see anything out of the ordinary?

  4. This stuff puts me in mind of M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing as much as it does anything Ballardian.

  5. really? how so, bosse? unfortunately i haven’t read any MJM, let alone ‘nova swing’…i’d like to, though, if it evokes this world (of course, i know of MJM through new worlds and so on; he’s always been on the ‘list’).

  6. Without going into too much detail, Nova Swing has one mother of an Interzone going. A portion of the Kefahuchi Tract has fallen to the planet Saudade–it’s both the abandoned industrial zone it was before and a site that generates strangeness particular to each observer. Well, I can’t do it justice to it, except to say that it’s the only Interzone, after Burroughs and Ballard, that has exerted on me that fatal pull. NS is the sequel to Light, which is brilliant. But Harrison’s been scripting neural romances for decades–the Viriconium series is a wonderfully stylized series (due allowance made for the first one, the work of a very young man) set in a city that is everywhere and nowhere. One story, A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium, was republished as A Young Man’s Journey to London, as if to illustrate this point.

    One thing Harrison shares with Ballard is the tendency to revisit and rework key tropes.

  7. fabulous! also sounds a bit like tarkovsky, yes? ‘abandoned industrial zones’ (ie, stalker), plus ‘strangeness particular to each observer’ (ie, solaris).

    anyway, your description makes me want to read it right now.

  8. I’ve only seen Solaris, but your comment strikes me as apt…Something about the timing of the film, in fact. In the site, the scenery and the observer’s state of mind appear to have a reciprocal influence on each other, and both appear to be constantly changing.

    Go froth, I mean forth, and buy something by MJH.
    Good value: Anima (two novels in one: The Course of the Heart & Signs of Life–not-science-fiction in the sense that Ballard isn’t either); Things That Never Happen (collected short stories).

    His weblog’s quite amusing as well.

  9. great, will do.

    and i might ‘go froth’, too! (after all, there have been a few rants on this site…)


  10. Great piece Simon – but I don’t think I’ll be installing the screen saver, too many ghosts and spectral spaces to watch, the horror of all that emptiness… I was instantly reminded of the main character in DeLillo’s The Body Artist transfixed by a surveillance camera charting the empty reaches of a back road in rural Finland. Haunting.

  11. “did you see anything out of the ordinary?”

    i saw a man in a hooded djellaba handing a man in a tan suit a packet. the man in the suit walked away like a character out of pepe le moka. i watched a group of spanish tourists take over the terrace in a mood of contained hostility. one day i thought i was hallucinating as a caravan of tiny toy like cars rolled into the parking lot; turned out to be an eccentric german touring group of mini-vehicles. one morning i saw a couple embracing in a corner of the bazaar, an illicit liaison? and so on…

  12. matt, you are depriving yourself. get it on your screen, son…although it is a massive time waster (and chews through the bandwidth, too).

    johnny, those mini-scenes sound like something from one of your fiction pieces! i see why you’re attracted to it, now.

  13. […] the mornings now is hot-corner my screen. Because I have got Surveillance Saver, probably the most Ballardian time waster ever devised. The only cloud on my horizon is that it works more randomly in the system […]

  14. […] blog entry. As odd as it may be to link Chesteron with M. John Harrison, this reminds me of “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,” which I love. Anyway, emphases mine: Herein is the whole secret of that eerie realism with […]

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