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Merlin Carpenter, crashed Mercedes-Benz, installation view, IPS, Birmingham, 2008

Earlier this year, the case of the Crown versus Michael Stone—who in 2006 invaded the Northern Ireland Assembly, threatening to slit the throats of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness(1)—took an interesting turn when the defendant claimed his actions had been a work of performance art. The convicted Loyalist killer presumably thought placing the assassination attempt within an avant-garde tradition would emphasise its essentially conceptual nature, strengthening the claim that he hadn’t meant any ‘real’ harm.

It’s interesting to compare this case with that of Marcus Sarjeant, who in 1981 fired a replica pistol at the Queen during the September Trooping of the Colour (he served two years under the 1848 Treason Act). In a 1982 interview with V Vale and Andrea Juno, JG Ballard describes this as a ‘wonderful conceptual act’, and in a later interview with Mark Pauline refers to it as ‘the ultimate piece of performance art’.

In ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, Thomas de Quincey suggests that once the perpetrator of a crime has been punished, the connoisseur is free to separate its aesthetic beauty from its moral turpitude. However, I think the term ‘performance art’ is here being used in psychological rather than aesthetic qualification.(2)

Interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2003, Ballard said, ‘I’m tempted to say that the psychological test is the only function of today’s art shows, and that the aesthetic elements have been reduced to almost zero… it no longer seems possible to touch people by aesthetic means’. Tracy Emin et al are ‘trying to establish a new truth about what an unmade bed is, what a dead animal is, and so on’. ‘Our mistake’, adds Ballard, ‘is to judge them by aesthetic criteria’.(3)

Ballard is not thumbing his nose here, at what Brian Sewell used to call ‘the Serota tendency’. He genuinely means it’s the audience who are mistaken, not the artists: the separation between art and aesthetics is a diagnostic rather than judgemental pronouncement.

1985 Triad Granada book cover for JG Ballard's Crash, illustration James Marsh 
1985 Triad Granada book cover for JG Ballard’s Crash, illustration James Marsh

Scholars of conceptual art will know that Joseph Kosuth offers a similar diagnosis in his 1969 gospel of analytic conceptualism ‘Art After Philosophy’, arguing that ‘aesthetics are conceptually irrelevant to art’, and calling (pace Duchamp) for art’s critique of the institutions that ratify it. When Kosuth’s essay first appeared, Ballard was completing his experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition .

I believe this book anticipates how the disjunction between art and aesthetics has played itself out more recently as social rather than institutional excoriation.

This shift from institutional to social pathology is foretold in the book’s transposition of a conceptual exhibitory apparatus—transgressive fusions of art, science and geometry—onto the celebrity media landscape of the late 1960s. The novel ‘curates’ a set of experiments undertaken by a schizophrenic individual, known variously as Travis, Travers, Traven, who believes himself to be pioneering new psychopathology whereby, for example, we may observe ‘in the eucharist of the simulated auto-disaster… the transliterated pudenda of Ralph Nader’.

Elsewhere, a military pilot’s obsession with nuclear weapons is held up as evidence of a reaction ‘against the phenomenology of the universe, the specific and independent existence of separate objects and events’. The dissolution of the boundary between the concrete and abstract is a motivation for many of the procedures, whose psychotic nature is often described with meticulous scientific objectivity.(4) This has the effect of ethically neutralising those procedures—an effect augmented by the inclusion in the 1990 edition(5) of annotative commentary on the original text: not once does the older Ballard try to mitigate his youthful transgressions. Far from it, the ‘factual’ annotations seem like the last piece in the fictional jigsaw.

Anyone who’s read this novel will know that the fantasy assassinations of both Michael Stone and Marcus Sarjeant could have been lifted from its pages. But then, so could the ‘pataphysics of Alfred Jarry, the sociopathy of Arthur Cravan, the body-modification of Rudolf Schwarzkogler, the psycho-biography of Sophie Calle, the prostitutional critique of Andrea Fraser, or, more recently, the public mortifications of Mark McGowan, the drunken oratory of Jonathan Meese and the dystopian institutionalism of Atelier Van Lieshout.

Ballard’s novel is known mainly for its prophecy of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, but just as prescient is its anticipation of the psychopathology of much post-conceptual art—particularly its tendency to explore social hypotheses within either a self-fictioning or ‘metafictional’ framework.

In 1969, while still working on The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard was given the opportunity to explore hypotheses he’d advanced in fiction within the ‘real’ social space of the art gallery. His exhibition of crashed cars at the New Arts Laboratory in London was a psychological experiment intended to explore ‘the latent sexual content of the automobile crash’(6), and his observation of the events at the private view—during which guests vandalised the cars and ‘almost raped’ the topless girl hired to interview guests on closed-circuit TV(7)—inspired him to turn the short piece ‘Crash!’, initially a chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition, into the novel Crash .

clipping from Metro, 2 June 2008
clipping from Metro, 2 June 2008

Ballard took the ‘laboratory’ part of the New Art Lab’s name literally, pre-empting his later pronouncement that art is a context for conducting psychological tests.(8) The emergence of mail art and magazine art notwithstanding, the gallery space in 1969 was still seen as an ontologically generative space of culture: a place for minting new cultural currency. To say that art spaces are no longer laboratorial in this sense—in the sense of providing ‘neutral’ conditions under which to appraise acts of sovereign authorship—and to say that the (formerly subordinate) space of discourse is now the laboratorial space of visual art, is to state a postmodern truism. Someone once said that galleries are like hospitals, and that by extension the artworks in them are convalescent. Whoever made that remark probably had in mind somewhere genuinely recuperative like the Royal Brompton, but the postmodern art space is more like the Royal London in Whitechapel: the patient is admitted with one problem only to leave with a set of institutionally incubated infections—the MRSA of ambient art discourse.

Artists and curators either open themselves up to ambient discourse in its nebulous entirety or deploy discursive quarantines to restrict the multiplicity of readings. Of these cultural cordons sanitaires, the Metafictional Appeal is one of the most prevalent. The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art at the Barbican, London was the latest attempt to imagine artworks within a new order of things. If that show left me feeling that the metafictional premise was countermanded by the art world protocols of attributing authorship, crediting collectors and so forth, I was more optimistic about Zodiac 3000: the J.G. Ballard Centre for Psychopathological Research .

Curated by ‘Dr. Robert Laing’ and ‘Karen Novotny’ (characters from High Rise and The Atrocity Exhibition ), this show featured the work of Merlin Carpenter, Alastair MacKinven, Dan Mitchell, Josephine Pryde and Rachel Reupke. It took place at the International Project Space (IPS), Bournville Centre for Visual Arts (BCVA), located in George Cadbury’s Bournville estate, built in 1895 to house the workers employed at his chocolate factory. Intended both as a belated rebuke of Cadbury’s utopian philanthropy (insidious ‘slave labour’ according to Novotny’s introduction to the show) and as a visual manifesto for an emerging ‘New Psychology’, Zodiac 3000 attempted to synthesize all that we associate with the adjective ‘Ballardian’.

The director of IPS, Andrew Hunt, had clearly given Laing and Novotny carte blanche to augment his provocative curatorial programme. The first thing you saw, on the forecourt of BCVA, was Merlin Carpenter’s dilapidated S-type silver Mercedes, which the artist had initially proposed to drive ‘at high speed straight into IPS’s interior sign’.(9)

But the car, the same model that Princess Diana was killed in, and an explicit homage to Ballard’s Art Lab project, was acquired from a scrapyard, the damage inflicted not by the artist but by some previous accident.

I was now primed for the full Ballard experience. But before entering the gallery I had to make it past the porter, who leapt out at me from his lodge like a Beefeater, issuing precise instructions about where I could and could not go on BCVA’s campus. Perhaps Novotny and Laing had briefed him to be more maniacally vigilant than usual—a lone bulwark against the latent middle class anarchy espoused by their exhibits—or perhaps I was missing something.Sociological Interpolation I: The Specifications of Institutional Access

My visit to IPS coincided with reports in the local press expressing outrage over the presence of Carpenter’s Mercedes in the otherwise peaceful (and formerly Quaker) Bournville neighbourhood, and these reports (eg ‘Accident, Art or Eyesore?’ www.bbc.co.uk) may have fostered an antagonistic atmosphere that the porter found himself right at the centre of on a daily basis.

My interaction with him was the most Ballardian aspect of Zodiac 3000 . Later, when I returned to BCVA to use the toilet, he told me that my earlier admission did not authorise my use of the facilities—part of BCVA, he said, not IPS (which has no toilet).

There followed a five-second stand-off as I contemplated my options. I told the porter I’d driven 140 miles to see this show. I had another 140 to drive to get home. The porter, racking up this mileage and offsetting civic empathy against the likelihood of being reprimanded for allowing me to piss when he had no institutional mandate to do so, relented, though he added that, ‘It wasn’t really allowed’.

Once inside, I trip over Alistair MacKinven’s ‘We Don’t Go to Their Parties! Why? Cause We Hate Them!’, long sections of two-by-four fixed to the floor, dividing the gallery into two halves and extending ‘to the gates of BCVA, across into Cadbury’s chocolate factory and out through the entire estate’.

Alistair MacKinven, 'We Don't Go to Their Parties! Why? Cause We Hate Them!', 2008, poster 
Alistair MacKinven, ‘We Don’t Go to Their Parties! Why? Cause We Hate Them!’, 2008, poster

This boundary signifies ‘a social segregation… between two future warring communities—The Cocoshufflers and The White Chocolateers—within the currently peaceful Bournville estate’,(10) consolidated by the distribution of posters throughout the neighbourhood advancing the territorial claims of each tribe.

Merlin Carpenter’s ‘The St George’s Cross’, 2007, ‘The Homecoming’, 2007, and ‘The Riot’, 2008—paintings made by stretching Burberry blankets on wooden frames—take their titles from the first three chapters of Ballard’s 2006 novel Kingdom Come, in which a fictional Surrey suburb devolves political autonomy to the management of the Metro-Centre, a nearby shopping complex. The symbolic power of livery, especially sportswear and flags, is very central to that novel, but it’s not clear to me whether Carpenter is doing anything more than referencing this.

Dan Mitchell’s ‘Middle-Class Sexual Boredom’ series, 2008, juxtaposes images from interior furnishings catalogues with hardcore pornographic images, fusing two Ballardian prognoses: that the boredom induced by consumerism will foster increasingly transgressive behaviour among the middle classes (‘elective psychopathy’), and that sexually explicit images are but one mode of pornography—anything that exhibits a ‘reductive drive’ (science, consumerism and technology are the most frequently cited by Ballard) representing other, dormant pornographies. (11)

Josephine Pryde’s photograph ‘What is going on inside their heads?’, 2008, depicts a volcanic landscape of the kind that captivated Ballard on visits to Lanzarote. Her psychologically captioned topography recalls an important Ballardian tenet. According to the author, ‘The sort of distinction that Freud made between the latent and manifest content of a dream, one now has to apply to external reality?’(12)

That there is no external reality, only a set of hyperreal fictions synthesized by the media, advertising and consumerism, is a fairly standard claim, but the consequence of Ballard’s psychoanalytical take on hyper-reality—and Pryde’s caption conveys this succinctly—is that the world is now so interlaced with fiction as to be an independent psychical entity: not so much a place in which we think as a place that seems to think for us: a reified dream.

It is our increasing awareness of this co-option of our own dream-states into a meta-oneiric consensus that causes the profound boredom that Ballard claims will elicit a form of ‘elective psychopathy’—by which he means consciously irrational behaviour undertaken to reclaim the ‘real’ from the synthesized fictions of late capitalism. Rachel Reupke explores these fictions.
Sociological Interpolation II:Elective Psychopathy

‘One can almost choose to indulge in a mode of psychopathic behaviour without any sort of moral inhibition at all… We’re being driven by the compulsive need to cut the pig-tails off a six-year-old girl… or steal underwear from a neighbour’s wash line – far from being driven, you choose, you elect to pursue some odd impulse…’ (13) Ballard’s use of the term ‘psychopathy’ to describe such behaviour is deliberately provocative, and we may question whether the term ‘sociopathic’ better describes the latent civilian disquiet so often invoked in his work.

After all, the sociopath’s disorder is the result of a dysfunctional environment, while the psychopath’s is a private, often genetic condition. And it is environmental dysfunction that, in more or less all Ballard’s fiction, causes pathology. Environment makes sociopaths of us all, and perhaps elective psychopathy will become a way of distinguishing one’s personal sociopathy from general sociopathy.

The Circle Line ‘booze ban’ party held on the London Underground in June may be evidence of the first signs of this ‘socio-to-psycho’ shift among the professional classes. I didn’t attend this event, but pictures in the newspapers conveyed a dystopian Mardi Gras: Last Night of the Proms meets Euro 96.

One photograph showed a man in a paramilitary-style balaclava. Others had dressed as German officers and French Maids. In a particularly salient image in the Metro (2/06/08), a man in a tuxedo looks smilingly on as a police officer presses his fingers into the eye sockets of a drunken reveller.

Projected onto the wall behind the reception desk at Zodiac 3000, is her ‘Lifestyles towel, aerial view, apartment, wireless technology, casual, laptop, mobile, panning, zoom in, zoom out, waist up, one person, non US film location’, 2008, which uses the tropes of a corporate video, combining appropriated illustrations of Beijing architectural developments and billboard images with footage of a female office worker going about her business.

The film is silent, the worker’s stagy hand gestures emphasising speech that we cannot hear. Like the characters in the business community Eden-Olympia in Ballard’s Super-Cannes, she is a crystallisation of late capitalism’s effects.

Josephine Pryde, 'What is going on inside their heads?', 2008, photograph 
Josephine Pryde, ‘What is going on inside their heads?’, 2008, photograph

Of all the works here, Reupke’s is the one that really encapsulates Ballard’s tendency, in his later work, to see people as disempowered attributes of place rather than active inhabitants of it. There are choreographic similarities between ‘Lifestyles…’ and one of Josephine Pryde’s pieces, ‘Hiroe Takizawa, Sales and Sales Support Specialist, demonstrates a range of expressions used during the selling of fine jewellery’, 2008, a set of four photographs styled by Sophie Politowicz. The decontextualised actions of both Reupke’s and Pryde’s protagonists—the divorcing of style from content—constitute what Ballard might term ‘a dormant pornography’.

Laing and Novotny have turned the gallery into a makeshift foyer, installing a reception desk and an elevator facade, both constructed from basic building supplies by Dan Mitchell. Among the floors listed are ‘The Ambient Clinic of Social Violence, Sensation and Imagination’ (first floor), and ‘The Xrem Sphere of Geometric Freudian Nightmares and Airport Surrealism’ (seventh floor). As with Carpenter’s Mercedes, the desk and lift seem like thematic devices rather than constituent artworks. Clearly, the intention is not to create a believable foyer but to blur the distinction between prop and artwork.

Props are signposts that convey meaning teleogically; artworks are more like encrustations of meaning: they acquire rather than convey it. However, in a curator’s hands, artworks become props, so the distinction may be a false one. Nevertheless, I did wonder what Zodiac 3000 would have been like if this rhetoric had been pursued to its logical conclusion, if artworks and props had been assimilated into a more immersive environment, complete with a proper desk staffed by an actual person, real office carpet, ceiling tiles and patients sharing watercooler small talk as they awaited their appointment with Dr Laing on the first floor.

Although I enjoyed the ‘local’ Ballardian content of individual works, the collective iteration of the ‘emerging new psychology’ discussed by Dr Laing in his pamphlet essay was somewhat muted. In that essay Laing writes that ‘The majority of people experience what looks like embourgeoisment, to the degree that their fantasies are imagined for them’. In Ballard’s recent work—Kingdom Come, Millennium People and Super-Cannes —psychopathologies grow directly from mass social embourgeoisment, attaining an almost normative, ‘broadband’ condition; while in his earlier work—Crash, High Rise and Concrete Island —they tend to be the ‘drives’ of isolated male renegades. These same drives hold sway here. Zodiac 3000’s male participants tend to perform psychopathology, or dramatise it, while Reupke and Pryde offer something closer to an analysis, deconstructing the mechanisms that imagine our fantasies for us, reifying the mass embourgeoisment that facilitates the co-option of our dreams.

Like all utopias, mass embourgeoisment lays itself open to dystopian refutation. The value of Ballard’s work lies in its use of dystopias as points of departure rather than loci of eschatological reflection. Ballard is interested not in the end, but in what happens after the end, after the end of progress. In this sense his project is epilogual. The spirit of the epilogue also pervades the post-avant-garde perpetuation of art after the end of art.

The problem with art, however, is that its discourse still retails the rhetoric of eschatology, still mourns the cessation of progress (as the current fascination with modernism shows).

Perhaps the reason many contemporary artists feel drawn to Ballard is because he offers psychological blueprints for how things might continue when progress stops, for how the drives that power the human mind might be deployed when the cultural, social and institutional settings that once indulged them become moribund.

That is not to say that, like Dr Robert Laing in High Rise, artists will end up barbecuing their neighbour’s Alsatian, though they may, like Mark McGowan, eat Corgi burgers on counter-cultural radio shows.

Sean Ashton is a writer based in London