Purple Light – An Excerpt from Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from A Parallel Universe


Published in Happy Hypocrite 8: Fresh Hell. Edited by Sophia Al-Maria. Featuring William Gibson, Mckenzie Wark, Abdullah Al-Mutairi, Monira Al Qadiri, Stephanie Bailey, Alex Borkowski, Judy Darragh, Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Simon Sellars, Malak Helmy, Raja’a Khalid, Omar Kholeif, Francesco Pedraglio and Lena Tutanjian.

Photography by Simon Sellars

Stopover in Dubai.

Between worlds.

A supercompacted blip in time.

The woman walks a few metres ahead of me.


It’s madness to stalk people in the 21st century, with its paranoia and claustrophobia, but I’m compelled. I can’t leave the airport. No one can. Dubai, like everywhere in the Gulf, has retreated indoors. No one can love nor live in the hot sun. The air is artificial and so are we.

We make our own fun.

I follow her from an electronics shop to a café, and back to the departure lounge. She sits down. I’m a few rows behind.

She can’t see me. She hasn’t seen me.

Has she seen me?

She reminds me of someone I once knew.

Someone long ago.

A spectre.

She is all I have.


This isn’t the first time I’ve been here.

Seven years earlier, I was in Dubai for one night, waiting for a connecting flight. I was returning home to Australia from a conference in England. The conference was on the novelist J.G. Ballard. I was writing a PhD on Ballard’s prophecies about the modern surveillance state, and the sense that surveillance systems have become autonomous, producing images for machines by machines.

I wanted to test my ideas at the conference.

I wanted to be tested.

I try to remember the details, the people I met, the paper I gave, the things I learned. But it was so long ago.

Another person.

If I think I can, I’m making it up.

All I remember is Dubai.

Sometimes I think I will always be in Dubai, or Dubai will always be in me. I will never leave its shabby-chic airport. I will always walk the endless travelator that bisects the long terminal, staring at the gold leaf stamped on the ceiling and the fronds of fake palm trees all around.

That first time, my Dubai stopover was not planned by me but by the airline, which included it on its flight plan. It was not random. I had been placed there, some kind of operative, picked up from England and deposited in the Gulf.

The Gulf is Ballardian.

The Gulf is a cliché.

Dubai is a Ballardian cliché.


That time, I was easy prey, a jetlagged zombie stalking the airport’s gleaming chrome. I don’t suffer jet lag well. I had it throughout the conference, and it tripled in intensity as I hopped timezones home, for jet lag is worse flying west to east, when the body clock must jump forward in time.

Biological rhythms follow a 24-hour cycle. ‘Desynchronosis’, jet lag, results when the body cannot adjust to a new chronological regime. Physical functions fail, including excretion and sleeping, and mental faculties are impaired. I recall a catalogue of horror, an urban grimoire, case studies in a medical textbook that documented the condition. Jetlagged travellers walking into the paths of moving cars, unaware of the speed and motion around them. Driving off cliffs and into lakes. Embarking on violent rampages, just like sleepwalkers.

Jetlagged construction workers falling off radar dishes, hundreds of metres high. Jetlagged businessmen falling asleep in meetings, yet still closing important deals. Once, corporations banned executives from making major decisions within 24 hours of crossing an international time zone. Today, the organism has evolved. If you can sleep with your eyes open, especially during transatlantic business meetings, you are a valuable piece of meat.

William Gibson wrote that jet lag is ‘soul delay’; there is a gap as your soul catches up with your body. When you fly from Europe to Australia, the journey takes 24 hours and you pass through five airports and five time zones. By the time your soul catches up, your body has changed beyond all recognition. In extreme cases, there is no reunion; the docking operation is rejected and your soul is left to drift, alone, in violation of your physiology.

In Ballard’s novel Cocaine Nights, Charles Prentice, a travel writer, is accused by his brother Frank of ‘always roaming the world’.

‘All that endless travelling, all those departure lounges,’ Franks says. ‘Do you ever actually arrive anywhere?’

Charles replies: ‘It’s hard to tell – sometimes I think I’ve made jet lag into a new philosophy. It’s the nearest we can get to penitence’.

Toward a philosophy of jet lag.


After I’d cleared customs, a man blocked my way. He said he was a taxi driver, that he could take me anywhere I wanted to go for very little money. I accepted. I was tired and my mind was dull. I have never been a fast thinker, even when fully rested, and have always yearned for a ‘slow thinking’ movement that could validate my kind, like the ‘slow food’ and ‘slow travel’ movements.

I followed him like an obedient puppy. I told him the name of my hotel and entered his car. We drove and the meter ticked over. He was no taxi driver. He knew what he was. He knew I knew, so he dropped the small talk and we continued on in silence. I was resigned to it. I knew we would reach my hotel eventually, after he had taken me far out of my way, and charged me the fare he intended to charge. That was OK. Dubai was his country.

Through the windscreen, dreaming architectural spires pierced the heat haze. The road was enclosed on all sides by enormous, variegated skyscrapers. I will never forget that sight. I had never heard of the Burj Khalifa, today the world’s tallest building, but I was looking at its exoskeleton, under construction, halfway to the sky. It reminded me of the Roger Corman film, The Man with X-Ray Eyes. A scientist invents a serum that gives him X-ray vision, but he is tortured to madness when it allows him to peer into the fourth dimension. At first, he sees through everyday objects, like the exteriors of buildings. Repulsed, yet fascinated, he declares: ‘I see the city as if it were unborn. Limbs without flesh, girders without stone, signs hanging without supports, wires dipping and swaying without poles. Flesh dissolved in an acid of light. A city of the dead.’ In the taxi of that man, who may well have turned out to be something more threatening than a mere scam artist, I felt flattened under glass, observing this unborn dead city.

The most intense culture shock I’d ever felt was when I visited Shinjuku in Tokyo for the first time, but this was not that. This transcended that. This was nameless, unknown. Unstoppable. This had no time for me. This passed me by as soon as I blinked. There was nothing beyond the wall of skyscrapers. The desert, everything beyond, ceased to exist, blurred at the edges, like the outer limits of a video game environment where the pixels haven’t been mapped. Then the skyscrapers receded and the sky was revealed to me. White-blue, a porcelain rinse. The sand, bleached of colour. A violent blast, a scorched palette.

We came to the hotel. The driver took all my money. I let him.

When I left the hotel in the evening to visit the market, the concierge asked for my passport. I fumbled for it in my bag but it was gone. I went back to my room, scrambled under the bed, everywhere, but nothing.

I told the concierge.

He said: ‘Go, go. Come back later to look for it.’

I was adrift for a moment but, as with the taxi driver, the feeling passed. My face was Botoxed, forehead stitched tight in perpetual ambivalence.

The next day I found a new driver, a recommendation from the concierge. I asked him to take me to the Palm Islands, the artificial islands of Palm Jumeirah and Palm Jebel Ali on Dubai’s coast. Like the Burj Khalifa, they were under construction. The Palm Islands are in the shape of palm trees, and when completed, will house self-contained leisure, residential and business zones, on stilts and land reclaimed from the sea. I was attracted to them because they are perfect Ballardian worlds, for what is ‘community’ in Ballard if not an artificial environment? His novels are enclosed completely within motorways, business parks, gated communities, high-rise apartments – Petri dishes where psychopathology can flourish, enabled by provisional lifestyles divorced from consensual reality.


I first heard about the Palm Islands from Paul, a friend I have never met. I know him from the net. We used to visit Second Life together. We had so much fun there. I remember every moment, every pixel. We danced in clubs in Second Life and wore different bodies every night. I was a woman, mostly. I took on high hair, stacked heels, boob tubes, pneumatic breasts, glittery earrings, huge lips. More exactly, an imperfect pastiche of a woman, like the form a panicky alien might assume as it tries desperately to pass itself off as human.

Paul said the Palm Islands were interesting because they use fractal geometries to not only form the shape of their fronds but also to make the most of a coastline of finite length. He was developing a theory that tied economics with fractals and property development. I told the driver about Paul’s ideas, but he was not interested. He was angry. He just wanted to rail against the world. He was Indian. He told me about his countrymen that were working on Dubai’s super-sized construction projects, how they sleep ten to a room in filthy conditions for a few rupees per day. He advised me not to fall for the hype. For him, for his friends, Dubai was dystopia.

He said the frond outlines of the Palm Islands can be seen from space, and that with this projection into space, Dubai is advertising to aliens how morally bankrupt it is – a decadent superstructure, supported by a base of wage slavery. He said that when Michael Jackson died, there were plans to make a third Palm Island in the outline of a moonwalking Jackson. This would ensure Jackson could live forever. This, too, he said, would broadcast to aliens that the human race was nothing, just pond scum.

‘Only in Dubai,’ the driver said, ‘can such bullshit take shape.’

He took me back to the hotel, still complaining. The concierge was there, a curious look of disdain on his face. Something had happened while I was gone. The concierge seemed to know something that he had no intention of ever telling me. As I walked upstairs to my room, I felt his eyes burning into my back. I turned around and he held my stare. I could not read what was behind those eyes.

When I entered my room, my passport was on my bed. I sat down, opened it. It was intact. I didn’t want to ask questions, didn’t care. I lay down on the bed and slept.

Seven years ago.


I’m still here, watching the woman.

I am no longer an academic. In the intervening years, my PhD on Ballard was completed and I became a doctor, but it means nothing. I work as a digital strategist, now, whatever that means; seven years ago, that profession didn’t even exist. Yet Ballard remains, something I do in my spare time. A hobby.

I am trying to reach home.

This is familiar. I know this feeling.

In Oslo, two weeks ago, I was a guest at an arts festival. I gave a presentation on the links between social media’s dark side and Ballard’s surveillance prophecy. I’m supposed to give it again at a conference in Melbourne, but I have to get there first.

Dubai is in the way.

The woman is.

She is slim and striking, almost mannish, with shoulder-length brown hair. High cheekbones. Long arms. Long legs. Enormous blue eyes.

She is real.

She is self-contained.

She is a micronation.

A mannequin.

I cannot read her.

I am soul delayed.

I don’t think I can take it, don’t think I can handle this condition. It seems like my watch has paused, that it is taking minutes for the second hand to complete a single click. I am in purgatory, inhabiting multiple time zones at once, a reflex mechanism consuming breakfast at midnight, preparing for sleep at midday while all around buzzes with daytime proclivities. The past coexists with the present; the future bleeds in.

Time sickness.

Flying from Melbourne to Oslo, I imagined I was travelling through an enormous geodesic dome that sealed off an irradiated outer world from the planet’s dwindling population. Time folded in on itself. The physiological morning was encased in an environmental night. Now, as I sit and listen to the leaden thud of the airport travelator, I have the sense that a version of myself from seven years ago will glide down it, passing through on the way from Australia to England.

Maybe I have always been here.

The woman remains.

I must look busy, must not arouse suspicion. Soon we will be together again.

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

I open my laptop, and click on a link Paul sent me. It’s his latest video, a short film called Majlis al Jinn (Meeting Place of the Jinn), part of a series he shot while living in Abu Dhabi a few years ago. He was working on computer systems there, I think. Some kind of government contract. I never knew the details and didn’t care. He lived in a super hotel, high above the clouds on the top floor.

Micro movement fascinated him. He filmed the Abu Dhabi cityscape at night, the million pinpricks of light across its construction sites and half-formed buildings. In the morning, he filmed the clouds from the top of the hotel as they slowly swathed the highest skyscrapers, then again as they evaporated in the nuclear blast of Gulf heat.

At ground level, he filmed the red-orange sand blowing over the highway, covering the road so completely the tarmac was no longer visible. Then he filmed the sand drifting away, slowing down the footage, as if the tarmac was being uncovered in an archaeological dig thousands of years in the future, perhaps by the same aliens attracted to the Palm Islands space beacon.

He also recorded Abu Dhabi’s sonic ambience, manipulating everyday sounds on his laptop, slowing them, stretching them, breaking them apart and reassembling them to become the soundtrack to his videos, sound moving apart and reforming in the same way as the brilliant red sand. With these simple tools, married to his extraordinary eye, he uncovered something I’d never seen before: a new spatial logic, a sentient, self-replicating landscape powered by hypercapitalism, the strange stirrings of a future urbanism found all across the Gulf.

Paul is a Ballardian – that’s how we became friends. In his microfilms, he wanted to merge Ballardian landscapes with Islamic mythology. He told me about the Jinn in Islam, supernatural beings that live in a world parallel to ours. The Gulf’s new buildings, always in perpetual construction, inhabit that non-place, as do the Palm islands, still a work in progress 14 years on. The Jinn watch us from the steel and girders of Paul’s undead cityscapes. Life pushing through into our world, our dimension. There are ghosts in Ballard’s novels, too, but in reverse. They are found in his ruined urban landscapes and abandoned hotels, in the empty swimming pools that are his stylistic signature. A psychic mist, the outline of life once lived.

Once, Paul told me a story. He was relaxing on the synthetic beach at his Abu Dhabi hotel. He was reading Vermilion Sands, Ballard’s cycle of short stories about a leisure resort of the future, set somewhere in an unnamed desert.

A woman appeared from nowhere. She saw the cover of Paul’s book.

Vermilion Sands exists,’ she said.

She told him about the orange-red sands out on the highway perimeter, a few hours from the hotel. She gave him directions and left. He never saw her again.

Paul drove to the location and filmed the red sands, footage that became the indelible micro work that left its psychic imprimatur on my soul.

I can’t let the woman go, like Paul did. I must follow her to the ends of the Earth, because I know she holds the key out of this interdimensional maze.

I must not arouse suspicion, must look busy.

When I found out I was returning to Dubai, I watched Stopover in Dubai, a short film by the great French director Chris Marker. For a long time, no one knew if it really was by Marker, or a hoaxer, for it was published with no fanfare or advance notice. Later, I discovered Marker had his own YouTube channel, on which he’d been quietly releasing subversive microfilms for a number of years.

Stopover in Dubai is compiled from CCTV footage released by the Dubai Department of State Security. The footage tracks the movements of a Mossad assassination squad as they stalk Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mahbouh across Dubai’s architectural interiors, then prepare to kill him in his hotel room. Al-Mahbouh wanders through Dubai’s airport terminal, past the same duty free shops I have passed, through arid shopping centres and beige hotel lobbies. His stalkers follow. It is CCTV, so we never see the outside world, only Dubai’s airlocked interiors. Intertitles and captions explain the story. Marker adds a haunting soundtrack by the Kronos Quartet. With its sudden stops and starts, the music moulds this found footage into a stifling narrative of inevitability.

A man is being followed. Soon, he will die. When I first saw it, I knew the storyline but did not know the context. I just knew it was a Marker film I’d never seen. Were they actors? It was so odd. At times they look at the camera, as if forgetting their cues and waiting for instruction. But how did Marker gain access to the airport’s secret recesses to film in stealth? How did he arrange the actors to walk past the camera on cue in a live setting, with hundreds of people milling about? If not actors, then who? Innocents caught on random CCTV footage downloaded from the net? That must be it. Marker has invested them with agency, woven an assassination narrative around the crushing predictability of their environment.

Not so long ago, at my lowest ebb, I spent many hours at home, isolated and depressed, trawling live surveillance footage online. I’d navigate to countless hospital corridors, hotel lobbies, university computer labs and city squares, watching the people within who never made a mistake. Waiting for them to react against their quotidian prison, to commit a crime, any crime, live on CCTV. Without the context from Dubai State Security, which I only found out about later, that’s all Marker’s ‘characters’ were to me: dreary people wandering around hotels and airports, emerging from lifts, passing through doorways, getting into taxis. People manipulated by Marker, bored with their ordinariness, into a plastic passion play about mundane architecture, surveillance and death.


I am watching the woman.

I am invested in her.

I have given her agency, life, a narrative.

Who is she?

She is my found footage, my interdimensional key.

I replay her.

She rises and leaves.

There is nothing I can do but follow.

I will submit to her.

I will experience Dubai through her.

I will go wherever she goes, no matter where she goes.

She will lead me away from here.

Chosen at random.

The airport has changed since the last time. The light is purple now, purple lighting everywhere. Before, blinding fluorescent. So many plastic palm trees, now. Plastic Palm Islands.

My skin is purple under the light. I think it is just purple, anyway. I have aged. Dubai will be gone, is gone. But I will be in Dubai forever.

I remember that first glimpse of the Burj Khalifa. Thinking about its unborn state reminds me of a Marc Bolan song: ‘Light all the fires / it’s the King of the Rumbling Spires / Light all the fires / it’s the King and he’s coming home.’

I check the online news. A Dubai building is engulfed in flames, a super tall apartment complex called ‘The Torch’. A burning spire.

Rumbling spires… light all the fires…

I divined this, knew the building was on fire when I flashed on the Bolan song. The future is bleeding in. That is the terrible gift of my jet lag, of my unwanted X-ray vision.

I’m the King and I’m coming home.

I close the browser, revealing my email client. I notice an unread email from Paul, hitherto buried by the client’s bad UX and unnecessarily complicated thread management.

‘Simon,’ it says, ‘I never fully explained what I was working on in Abu Dhabi, but I think it’s time you knew. It was an all-encompassing surveillance system for a government agency. Serious surveillance, designed to track every available signal coming into Abu Dhabi, from every possible source. The aim was to link together airports, hotels, banks, taxis, shopping malls, restaurants. The lot. They wanted to connect all data, trying to find patterns of “anomalous behaviour”. A crazy project, in a crazy place.’

Filming, Paul explained, was his release. He’d walk around Abu Dhabi, wondering about everything he saw: ‘Is this real?’ He filmed on Al Reem Island, when it was under construction. Al Reem is another land reclamation project, another artificial community inset into the Gulf. Paul said Al Reem was ‘between dream and reality’. He shot worlds to come, empty structures in the process of becoming whole. Ruins of the future. That footage became Majlis al Jinn.

‘The Reem Island Ghost was a couple of years later,’ he wrote. ‘It happened in a shopping mall beneath a building I filmed when it was half finished. Maybe that was my subconscious attempt at surveillance: recording crime before it happened.’

The future bleeding into the present.

The ‘Reem Island Ghost’ was the name given by the media to a Yemeni woman who stabbed to death an American teacher there. CCTV captured the incident, and the Abu Dhabi police uploaded the footage to its YouTube channel.

Everything is on film, except the actual murder. The ghost, covered by a burka, and dressed head to toe in black, glides into the mall. An apparition. She nonchalantly picks up a newspaper, enters the women’s toilet and waits.


The ghost hurriedly exits the toilet, trying to reach the lift, as panicked shoppers and children stream away from her.


Ribbons of blood smeared across the toilet floor.


The ghost leaves the mall, merging into the night…

One of the strangest details is the soundtrack: the police overdubbed the footage with music from the Batman film The Dark Knight. In its own way, the choice is as artful as the soundtrack to Stopover in Dubai. Dramatic, swelling action chords punctuate the action, turning the vicious murder into a thrilling cat-and-mouse game. The music plunges the remote footage into a valley of deep surreality, placing its violence centre stage, and throwing into stark relief the fact that violent crime in Abu Dhabi is extremely rare. In fact, the police, with their ridiculous Batman fetish, seem to be enjoying it. Quite possibly, this was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to them.

Although covered by the burka, and, therefore, ostensibly immune to surveillance, the ghost was arrested within 48 hours.

Ghost in the vision machine.

Nowhere to run.

Where to hide when everything is visible?

I am thinking about the soundtrack. Something about it nags me, makes me question anew the authenticity of the Marker film.

What if, like the Reem footage, it was Dubai State Security, not Marker, that had added the soundtrack and intertitles to Stopover in Dubai? What if all Marker did was download the film, exactly as is, and press ‘publish’ on his YouTube channel?

In the end, it doesn’t matter.

In the near future, we will all star in someone else’s psychodrama, whether we want to or not. Whether we are aware of it or not.

The police are the real auteurs.

Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame have become a judicial sentence.


‘Simon,’ Paul’s email continues. ‘In the Gulf, without doubt, someone is watching you. You think you’re watching someone, and that’s where it ends, but someone else is watching you. Always. The Gulf has eyes. That’s how it is. Look around the airport. The air is so still.’

Completely absorbed in Majlis al Jinn, I forgot to keep an eye on the woman.

I look up, look around.

She has gone.


Taken everything with her.

Taken the world.

No more.

I am nothing, everything an illusion, even my own body. Flesh dissolved in acid of light.

I am so tired I see spots before my eyes, but they are not the usual vitreous jelly. They are grains of time, which is degranulating, like Paul’s shifting red sands blown off the highway, and as time itself is swept away by the cosmic wind, Dubai’s outline is revealed beneath it, and I am lost within the coastline’s fractal fronds, which repeat identically as I follow them.

The further out I go, and the more they repeat, the more I see there is no beginning or end, and it is only then do I understand.

There is no way home.

There never really was.

Simon Sellars is the publisher of Ballardian.com and the co-editor of Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from A Parallel Universe.


Welcome to Hollingsville: Foreword to Ken Hollings’ Bright Labyrinth

hollings ray gun

Ken Hollings hunting for non-people. Image via.

This is an early draft of the foreword I wrote for Ken Hollings’ amazing book The Bright Labyrinth: Sex, Death and Design in the Digital Regime, published December 2014. I eventually discarded this draft as it took a bit too much artistic licence. It read more like a short story than a foreword and was more focused on a scenario external to the book than it was about the book itself. The final draft was a more sober affair, engaging with the book’s themes in a substantive manner. Nonetheless, I’m fond of this little flight of fancy, and so I present it here as my way of promoting Hollings and The Bright Labyrinth to the world. 

I’ve been to Hollingsville, and I’m here to tell you what I found…

I was on Twitter, jonesing for a dopamine hit. I’d been sleeping with my iPhone, tweeting in the shower, on the can, in the gaps between working, sleeping and living, until the gaps threatened to flood and replace reality. My vice was retweets. I’d scour the web for any kind of link that could be framed within the particular ‘Ballardian’ brand identity I’d built for myself – essentially, a fetish for dystopia. Skimming what was on the other end of the links, I’d tweet them out quickly to my followers, lusting for the kind of instant reaction that would make my Bit.ly stats go haywire and my pleasure receptors shunt into maximum overdrive.

I wanted to go viral every time, seeking validation in click-through rates, absorbing the hot RT action pulsing through my Tweetdeck command module like digital crack. Retweet me 50 times, and I’d want 100. Retweet me 100 times, and I’d wonder what the hell was wrong with everyone who didn’t retweet me. The more retweets I got, the more retweets I needed to keep me going, and the more I needed, the more my returns diminished, until the act was an empty habit and nothing more. I’d become an auto-pilot, a subliminal man – a non-person.

Out of nowhere, I began to notice Ken Hollings in my timeline, tweeting about so-called Twitter ‘non-people’. What he had to say was weird and intense, but shot through with the pealing bells of truth, and I was drawn to it instantly like a moth(man) to flame. I’ve long been intrigued by ‘dark Twitter’, a glitch-crack in the network, through which it’s possible to glimpse a slumbering intelligence. Think of numbers stations on shortwave radio, and the illicit thrill ham radio operators shared when they tuned into these eerie transmissions hiding in plain sight. Dark Twitter is like that, but with the weirdness amped up tenfold. And you have to know where to look.

Hollings tweeted a link to a blog post he’d written. The post drew a correlation between a certain species of Twitter spambot and EVP – ‘electronic voice phenomena’; ghost voices heard in white noise, made famous by Konstantins Raudive. Hollings’ theory was that these bots have somehow escaped from whatever corporate campaign they were shilling and are now doomed to haunt the Twitterverse, searching, like Raudive’s disembodied entities, for real humans to follow and interact with.

‘It may be,’ Hollings wrote, ‘that they have somehow replicated themselves and it is the digital echo of their non-presence that has now decided to follow you.’

This would explain their behaviour, which, however baffling, was indeed observable. A Twitter ‘non-person,’ Hollings continued, ‘will sometimes attach itself to a conversation you are having with one of your real followers, as if they were somehow hovering on the edge of your exchange – shy but anxious to take part.’

hollings TV

Not Brian O’Blivion, but Ken Hollings… Image via.

As I read the post, a dreamlike feeling overwhelmed me. I remembered back to a year before, when I was listening to the music of Syd Barrett on heavy rotation. I wanted to know if anyone else was obsessed with Barrett at that particular time, so I searched Twitter for mentions of his name. What I found was deeply bizarre, a pocket of the network inhabited by bots that were broken in some fundamental way.

Here is the really weird part: their tweets always included Barrett’s name and, for reasons unknown, references to Tobe Hooper’s film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sieved through cut-up sentences with their own inscrutable logic. If in a former ‘life’, they were in fact pimping a product, they certainly weren’t doing so now. These things were selling neither Hooper’s film nor Barrett’s music, and their bios and tweets linked to no one and nothing, being entirely self-sufficient.

As I read more of Hollings’ blog post, I understood clearly that I’d already met his Twitter non-people.

‘If you examine their profile a little more closely,’ he observed, ‘these accounts usually have just 22 tweets (occasionally 20 or 21 but I have yet to see one with more than 22).’

When I encountered the Chainsaw-Barrett abominations, it struck me that they were all stuck on … 20 tweets.

Extrapolating the EVP hypothesis, Hollings wrote, ‘Often, the tweets take the form of words in unconnected strings … or selections of quotations from established names, but which have been put through some kind of weird syntactic blender… form[ing] themselves into the kind of cryptic arrangement of images that Raudive would have instantly recognized as emanating from another world.’

On my Barrett search, among the tweets I found were these:

‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The and Syd Barrett are raked-over’.

‘Franklin bought me CD Syd Barrett, I think it’s automatic.’

‘Franklin’, of course, was the fourth character to be slaughtered in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Here was Hollings’ ‘weird syntactic behaviour’ in full effect. Like defective A.I., it was as if these bots had managed to break free of human control, but the effort of doing so had fried their code, reducing them to stuttering incomprehensibly into the void, their algorithms torn and frayed. The bots have since vanished: there is no trace of the account names nor their tweets in any Twitter search engine I can find. Yet their psychic imprimatur remains.

I found my encounter with them thoroughly unnerving for reasons I was only superficially able to articulate (through the references to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which has long disturbed me on a primal level). Yet Hollings accelerated my understanding to an entirely new plane, and it is through him that I can now see the bots’ sly joke (‘I think it’s automatic’) that defines their new, self-aware limbo.

broken head

A visual analogue to Hollings’ non-people. Image via.

I tweeted Hollings’ post to my followers and it went viral immediately, instantly taking its place among my top ten retweeted and most-clicked links of all time. It was crazy – normally, Forteana would not get that kind of reaction. But the rush, that mighty dopamine rush, did not come. Instead, I was struck by the realisation that my online identity, shackled to my ridiculous, Pavlovian retweet addiction, had been a complete sham.

According to my stats, Hollings’ post had defied the odds to strike a chord with many people, across many different timezones and nationalities. Now the game was no longer about sharing kooky links, but about getting to grips with something on the edge of 21st-century consciousness: digital existence, the new flesh. I was staring at the forking unrealities of the Bright Labyrinth, and I could either take Hollings’ cue and try to find a way out or continue paddling in the shallows of unawareness like a simpleminded fool.

I let Hollings know the link to his post was fast becoming my most popular.

‘Maybe,’ I tweeted, ‘it will make its way to the non-people.’

‘The non-people know where to find me,’ he replied.

And they did. A few days later, Hollings told me he was now being followed by a bot called ‘Myrtie Weldy’, and that he’d searched for its name online but the only Myrtie Weldy he could find was a woman who died in 1868. Most spambots are affixed to names that are as syntactically blended as their tweets – why was this one scraping the actual names of the dead? The EVP theory was expanding, like gas filling a room, and I now had to accept fully the reality of what was before me.

Around this time, a fellow researcher, Anindya Bhattacharyya (aka @bat020), showed me his Tumblr, which collects examples of ‘hipster spambots’ – bots that try to pass themselves off as social media gurus, or, in their own words, ‘social media ninjas’ (or even ‘social media mavens’). Their tweets are micro-masterpieces of irritating linguistic tics, filled with faux-ironic declarations of love for beer, bacon, zombies and ‘problem-solving’. Pop culture as profession, and hipster obsessions – bacon, mostly (other popular ‘professions’ for this class of bot: ‘bacon ninja’ and ‘bacon evangelist’).

They, like the Chainsaw-Barrett bots, don’t link to or sell anything at all – not even bacon – and it struck me that they were like the classic Men in Black of UFO lore, which tried desperately, comically, to mimic human behaviour. MIB could pass muster if you didn’t look too closely, but do a double take and you’d find disquieting flaws (like a missing earlobe, or one eyebrow too high, or an oddly aligned hairline, or mangled speech patterns).

hipster spambot

A hipster spambot. Image via.

I showed @bat020’s Tumblr to Hollings. What did he make of it?

He tweeted me a few days later.

‘Googling “bacon evangelist” produces 11,000,000 results – some quite surprising.’

He wouldn’t explain what exactly was so surprising about them, and was rather evasive, in fact, except to clarify that ‘these things seem to come in waves, little clusters of activity that then stop’. He said he was ‘still observing.’ He also told me a spambot had favourited his previous tweets about non-people, and that a ‘bacon ninja’ had begun to follow him. In this Twitter underworld, ‘bacon’ was some kind of trigger word, but I didn’t have the insight or intelligence to decode it.

Clearly, I was still too impulsive, too reliant on quick thrills, too obsessed with self-gratification. After all, the bacon spambots weren’t attaching themselves to me as they were to Hollings (favouriting his tweets at the rate of around one a day, he said). On the contrary, I was being actively warned off. The only spambot that bothered with me during this entire episode was one that tweeted me a line from Kenny Rogers’ song ‘The Gambler’: ‘You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away and know when to run.’ That represented its one and only tweet – and it was aimed at me. I took it as a gentle threat. Naturally, the ‘bot’ has since disappeared.

hollings twitter

Hollings reflects. Image via.

All this activity began soon after Hollings ‘invited’ the non-people to find him in that original tweet, and once I understood that, I knew the score: Hollings is the John Keel of the digital realm. Like Keel in the world of UFOlogy and the paranormal, Hollings is a lightning conductor for high strangeness. Like Keel, he does not judge or ridicule, remaining lucid and objective even in the face of the most outrageous scenarios (even when the smell of bacon is in the air…). He places them in a context that only he can place, because, again like Keel, he is ferociously well read, marshalling a battery of historical and contemporary sources.

The Bright Labyrinth, then, is a catalyst, a strange attractor, creating a force field of connections, a grid of interlocking nodes. It laces together JFK’s exploding head and airport architecture, Augé’s theory of non-place and McLuhan’s electronic frenzies, Archigram and Benjamin, CNN and CCTV, drones and panopticons, Nietzsche (the book’s animating spirit) and Fritz Lang, Capek and Kubrick. On and on and on, backwards and forwards through time, until the intensities of the force field coalesce, manipulating extraordinary currents to bring into focus something we struggle to understand. Something that is only everything: our networked reality.

Just as that infamous entity from another dimension, Indrid Cold, found Keel – even spoke to him on the telephone in an unearthly, metallic voice – the non-people knew exactly how to find Hollings, and how to speak to him.

And now you have found him, too. May you never return from your trip. Like me, you’ll be better for it. Shaken, challenged, but whole. No longer a non-person.

Welcome to Hollingsville.

Ken Hollings, The Bright Labyrinth: Sex, Death and Design in the Digital Regime (2014), Strange Attractor.

bright cover

Retake the Future: Deb Verhoeven on Crowdfunding Academic Research

Hips 4 Hipsters, Research My World 2014. ‘Led by seasoned campaigner Dr Mel Thomson, Hips 4 Hipsters aims to develop and test new treatments for superbug bacterial implant infections.’

Originally published on RMIT Blog Central, 31 July 2014.

In 2013, Deakin University ventured into the world of crowdfunding. On Pozible, the Australian version of the highly popular Kickstarter platform, Deakin launched Research My World, an initiative to crowdfund eight research projects requiring small to medium amounts of funding.

The results were outstanding. In the initial campaign, six of the eight projects were not only fully funded but exceeded their targets. A second round in 2013 saw a further two out of three projects funded. In 2014, a third campaign was launched: five projects, all fully funded.

In an inherently conservative research environment, Research My World is commendable. It taps into the power of online networks to harness public interest and enhance the relevance of academic institutions. That’s no small feat in a time when, as we were reminded at the recent RMIT Web Conference, universities are confronted with all sorts of predictions, gloomy or otherwise, about their future in the digital age.

Crowdfunding is the practice of raising funding for any type of project by asking for multiple smaller donations from the public (urban regeneration schemes and political campaigns have been successfully crowdfunded). Crowdfunding has demonstrated its value by raising awareness for projects that have not been championed by traditional avenues (for example, films rejected by studios have found support via crowdfunding).

The concept attracts good and bad press. Adherents say it taps directly into financial and emotional support from a public wearied by corporate spin, while detractors claim it’s often a platform for scam or joke projects (like the campaign to make a batch of potato salad, which raised $8000), and that because of this, even genuine projects risk prejudice by association.

There was probably an element of risk with Deakin’s initiative, the first in Australia. However, the results speak for themselves, and these are not only financial. Research My World led to what the project leaders call ‘digital capability’: the new-found confidence of researchers to use online and social networks to promote and improve academic work.

Professor Deb Verhoeven has led the project through its two-year development period. She is Professor and Chair of Media and Communication at Deakin University, and previously held the role of Director of the AFI Research Collection at RMIT.

Simon Sellars spoke to Professor Verhoeven about Research My World and its risks, benefits and possible future outcomes for all universities.

Were you surprised at the overwhelming success Research My World has achieved? 

To be surprised would imply that we had expectations! We went into the first round of funding with the view that we were embarking on an experiment. Without really discussing it openly, I think we all believed that around a 60% success rate would indicate a successful experiment and we were thrilled that we exceeded this. The most recent round of Research My World achieved a 100% success rate, so I hope this indicates we’ve improved our techniques with experience.

At the institutional level, how supportive was Deakin of the campaign? 

Across the board at an institutional level, Deakin was fully supportive and Research My World could not have succeeded without this all-of-university effort. Some individuals were sceptical, which is to be expected. I hope we’ve been able to bring them round.

It’s been suggested the concept of crowdfunding has a ‘trust problem’, and that many people see it as a platform for scammers, ‘quackery’ and half-baked ideas. Did you have to overcome such credibility issues when pitching the idea to stakeholders, researchers or backers?

I’d like to see the evidence base for those assertions. As I mentioned earlier, there were, and I suspect always will be, doubters. It’s important to remember that this is a nascent field. It is very dynamic and as it changes, so, too, will public perception.

I don’t think ‘trust’ was a critical issue for us. We deliberately focussed campaigns on the researchers, each of whom was passionate and committed, often for an extended part of their career, to solving a particular problem. I believe they earned the public’s trust, and hence their success.

It’s also been suggested that crowdfunding is unlikely to fund 100% of an academic research project. Is Research My World, then, a game changer?

Crowdfunding itself is a game changer but not because it will fully fund projects, which is possible, but won’t be typical of crowdfunded research. It’s a gamechanger because it repositions the relationship between universities and their publics. This is about the emergence and development of collaborative economies and research practices, and not just about switching one source of funding for another.

Kenya Healthy Minds, Research My World 2014. 

‘Led by Elijah Marangu, this project aims to identify gaps in mental health care in Kenya. The results will be used to inform capacity building strategies to improve mental health care in Kenya, in primary health care settings.’

How important was marketing strategy to the campaign? Did you work closely with Deakin’s marketing and communications department to promote Research My World? 

We did work with Deakin marketing as well as Deakin’s PR staff and Deakin Research’s media unit. But the brunt of communication effort was left with the researcher’s themselves.

You’ve presented some interesting statistics around this, which suggests social media was crucial to the researchers’ promotional efforts. For example, across 45 days, the campaign generated over 200 stories in print, TV and online media. This included more than 3000 tweets. 

While that indicates traditional media is not quite dead and an integrated approach to promotion is needed, it also points to the power of social networks. How receptive, initially, were the researchers to working with such tools?

Most had limited exposure to social media, but their responses during the campaign differed wildly. Some were in complete denial – a couple of projects didn’t engage at all in social media and didn’t meet their targets. Others were completely immersed in a variety of social media that has continued beyond the life of the campaign.

There were interesting disciplinary preferences. Scientists, for example, were especially uncomfortable mixing their private and professional social media profiles.

The pilot project report for Research My World talks about building ‘digital capacity’, with researchers noting ‘their newfound social media skills as an intangible benefit from their involvement’. I’ve been designing and implementing social media training for RMIT staff, and I’ve found the concept of ‘digital capacity’ to be a very useful way into that.

I like to think of it as ‘social media training by stealth’. One of the key outcomes for researchers was their expanded online profile and the belief that this had opened professional opportunities for them. This is evident in their feedback to us:

‘I’m now more skilled (but with more room to grow) in the use of social media. I’ve also become more outward looking – more aware of who’s doing what beyond the confines of Deakin and my world of research.’

‘I was not a tweeter previously and now am. I have also set up a Facebook site and put more effort into engaging through Research Gate. I have set up a Twitter widget on my unit for Trimester 2. I think this has catalysed me to take the first – the biggest and the hardest – step in becoming digitally literate, specifically around my own profile. This is excellent.’

‘I have made important professional relationships entirely on Twitter that will stand me in good stead to form partnerships for ‘proper’ research grants from the NHMRC/ARC, particularly from the Indigenous Health Care community.’

Quotes from researchers cited in the Research My World pilot project report.

What challenges should universities be aware of before exploring crowdfunding?

The key challenge is to ensure there is high-level ownership of the initiative. Without this birds-eye perspective, it’s difficult to coordinate all the required aspects of university operations so they can work collaboratively towards a successful campaign.

It worked for Deakin that we also had an ‘academic champion’ who could represent the project to researchers, as well as across a range of administrative functions.

Retake Melbourne, Research My World 2013. 

Led by James McArdle, this project aims to crowdfund ‘an innovative app which lets you travel through time using iconic photographs of Melbourne’.

This interview was brought to you by Creative Communities, RMIT’s Web Policy Awareness Campaign. This week, the spotlight is on the University’s Social Media Policy

Check out RMIT’s Social media for research, teaching and collaboration instruction and Social media for campaigns instruction for more tips on using social networks to promote campaigns and academic research.


‘The art of the pivot’: RMIT’s 2014 Web Conference

Storey Hall. Photo: courtesy RMIT University.

Originally published on RMIT Blog Central, 7 July 2014.

This year RMIT hosted its second annual web conference at Storey Hall, the University’s iconic lecture theatre/conference centre. It was the perfect venue, with its harmonious blend of 19th-century structural strength and radical postmodern restoration. Remember, that new facade and interior was controversial with the media and public when completed in 1995. Storey Hall, then, reminds us that change can be integrated with tradition, and that, over time, what was once disruptive can become fully accepted.

What better metaphor for RMIT’s Web Transformation Program, which the conference promotes? The Program introduces radical change to RMIT’s web presence, delivering a new content management system (CMS) and distributed content model (DCM). Naturally, this might seem disruptive to people used to a particular way of working, but ultimately it’s a positive addition to the online RMIT universe. RMIT’s web transformation blends the ‘structural strength’ of the main RMIT website – content showcasing the University’s global reputation in technology and design – with a ‘radical restoration’: the CMS and DCM. The result: design and content that reaches the widest possible audience.

In 2013, the conference introduced the new CMS and the changes it would bring – to workflow, content management, cross-channel curation. This year, it was all about digital trends in the wider world and how RMIT might prepare for a projected tsunami of change in the near future.

Jeremy Hodgson, RMIT’s Director of Web Services and Information Policy, opened the event. He spoke about the primacy of platforms, focusing on the YouTube phenomenon and how the aura of the platform frequently surpasses content posted on it. His message: content must be more adaptable than ever before if it is to ride this new power dynamic.

It’s a timely point, especially in light of a recent article by David Hepworth on digital distribution. Hepworth used Beyoncé’s new album as a case study to show how new advances in digital distribution have become far more significant to consumers than the actual content being distributed – even if that content is produced by a megastar like Beyoncé, let alone a higher education providers. The speakers following elaborated various ways of delivering ‘radical’ content that could overcome this type of scenario.

Keynote speaker John Barnes, RMIT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Engagement and Vocational Education, focused on digital marketing strategy and the need for businesses to be in sync with user preferences. Metrics are the key for Barnes. It’s all very well having a superb, fully operational CMS, but where’s the value if the effectiveness of content isn’t measured accurately? Other presenters would return to this theme, which, along with the notion of ‘digital disruption’, seemed to sum up the tenor of the event.

Brett Maishman, National Sales Manager for Fuji Zerox Australia, warned of the dangers of ‘channel proliferation’. With a multitude of channel options available and 1-billion-plus connected devices pinging one another worldwide, how can organisations maintain consistent messaging? His answer: personalisation. Customers today demand a new relationship based on their specific needs. In Maishman’s words, ‘If you don’t know them, you’ll lose them’.

Yet unspoken in his talk was the downside of such a relationship. Get the balance wrong and you run the risk of stalking your audience. Many businesses trip themselves up in an effort to stay relevant on social media. A recent high-profile case involved McDonald’s and its attempts to ingratiate itself into its customers’ lives with a ‘heart-warming’, tell-all hashtag, only to watch in horror as it turned into a ‘bashtag’. Let’s add to Maishman’s message, then. It’s important to be nimble in a time of change, but also to retain a strategic approach: plan, create, listen, measure.

Cameron Owens, CEO of Symplicit, among Australia’s largest customer experience consultancies, introduced the concept of ‘digital disruption’. This is the threat businesses face when their market share is eroded by newer digital competitors. Banking, publishing and education are facing this, he warned, but the solution is relatively simple: ‘Be curious and strong when responding to change.’

He presented a few core tactics. ‘Whatever connection people have with your business,’ he said, ‘they also have with 300 other people.’ Given this, social media must naturally be at the heart of any marketing strategy, but in a way that embodies differentiation: focusing on customer experience and service to set a business apart from the pack. Owens reiterated how RMIT has invested materially in different channels – web, mobile, video, social – but that in itself is not enough. The challenge is to ‘sweat the assets’, extracting full value from optimised digital channels. That can only be done through regular and rigorous review of analytics and metrics, analysing and assessing user journeys and behaviours.

John Riccio lays down the law. Photo: Simon Sellars. 

John Riccio, National Digital Change Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia, spoke about ‘digital maturity’: the point at which an organisation moves from being a novice in the digital space to becoming a trusted expert. Digital maturity is a journey with peaks and troughs; a business doesn’t reach it overnight, and it involves much testing, re-testing and re-planning.

For Riccio, web policies are an enabler in that, but only if designed a certain way. In a digital environment, no one wants freedom of speech curtailed, so policies should be a ‘bumper on either side of the journey so that people don’t go off the rails’. Then, if the policy framework is adaptable enough, you reach a point where use of a particular technology has become mature enough that you don’t need the policies front and centre.

Policy then drops away to become a guide, implicit as a kind of background hum, but in order for that happen, it must be designed so it’s responsive to new devices and new ways of working. That’s not to say that governance isn’t important. In fact, Riccio believes it’s necessary to avoid what he terms the ‘minestrone effect’: silos doing their own thing on their own terms, without a centralised strategy or oversight in place, creating a soup of conflicting strategies that dilutes a brand. It’s how governance is implemented, packaged and delivered that is important. That’s a message RMIT’s own web policy awareness campaign also endorses, with its central theme of empowering people to build an online presence and use it with confidence, resulting in that desired end state: robust digital maturity.

Shefik Bey, Managing Director of the U1 Group, explored the challenge RMIT faces in its plans to develop a responsive design for its mobile site. He highlighted the ‘deep structures’ within the RMIT desktop site and the difficulties in boiling this down to a responsive mobile template. He made the salient point that there are currently no best-practice principles for responsive design. By the time there are, he suggests, with the rate technology is progressing, a different technique – even a different delivery system – will have replaced it. ‘If mobile is today,’ he speculated, ‘wearables are the future’. Google Glass, anyone?

Still, he offered a few handy tips for managing today’s challenges. Reiterating points from earlier speakers, what’s needed in any digital transformation, he reckons, is flexibility; in his words, learning ‘the art of the pivot’. As did the other speakers, he emphasised the importance of ‘success metrics’ and ‘success reporting’. Make sure your metrics are robust enough to ride the ever-shifting waves of the digital sea. Go back to core principles. Encourage experimentation through innovation. Bring silos together.

Importantly, keep your written content succinct. Make sure it translates from desktop to mobile. For Bey, the channel is not important; good content will endure, no matter the platform.

Shefik Bey faces the future. Photo: Simon Sellars. 

On that note, we’ll end this wrap-up of the first half of the conference. Follow us to PART TWO, where we review the second half of the event. We discuss the importance of user research, the art of writing great online content the art of writing great online content … and nothing less than the web’s apocalyptic future.

More information:

Journey to the Centre of Google Earth

Google Earth

This essay was commissioned by Anne Hilde Neset for Only Connect Festival Of Sound 2014: J.G. Ballard. It was published in the Only Connect catalogue, May 2014, edited by Anne Hilde Neset and Audun Vinger. Thank you to NyMusikk and Only Connect for permission to republish it here.

“We want to create a digital mirror of the world.” Google Earth Outreach geo-strategist Karin Tuxen-Bettman, aboard a Google boat photographing and mapping the Amazon, 2011

When you open Google Earth, it settles at the default elevation of 11,000 km above the planet. The effect is tranquil, partly from the soft-glow space panorama and partly from the sense of disengagement. The crystal-clear imagery, supplied by NASA, depicts the world in a photoreal representation. It is the ultimate expression of what cartographers call the God’s-eye view: the desire for absolute visual objectivity in maps, presenting every region of the globe in its proper place.

But maps lie. They naturalise the planet’s boundaries and endpoints in ways that serve ulterior motives. The most popular map of the world, the Mercator projection, is a cartographic model of reality founded on a blatant misrepresentation. In the Mercator world, countries are not relative to each other. The sizes of North American and European countries are wildly inflated, while those of third-world nations are greatly diminished. During the 1970s and 80s, the so-called “map wars” were fought, during which a new map, the Gall-Peters projection, was pitted against the Mercator, which stood accused of being a repressive symbol of Eurocentric colonialism.

Google Earth is more than the God’s-eye view – more than just us mortals seeing through the eyes of God. In Google Earth, we are God. We see over, under, inside and out. We see into the beyond, with a second sight unavailable to our mortal selves. We see ghosts of dead friends and dead strangers. We see ourselves. If the colonial God’s-eye view in Mercator maps is an uneasy settling of the planet (hoping the savages will stay in their place and not upset the prescribed order), then Google Earth, with its forking paths Google Maps and Google Street View, is a parallel world bleeding into this one.

“Copyright traps” are fake features cartographers insert into maps to catch plagiarists. If the map is copied and published without permission, it can be traced due to the inclusion of a street leading in the wrong direction, or a building that doesn’t exist. In Street View, such impossible objects are a matter of course. Google boundaries are porous. They dissolve. I have never seen anything so beautiful in all my life as the melting freeways of the USA, the next nature of glitched-out Google projections. In Google Earth, images are spliced together, taken at different times of day. Sometimes you can see the joins, where the process hasn’t fully knitted. It might be an RGB-separated cloud of light surrounding an object, or a pink-yellow pixel-glitch tornado rising to the sky. Sometimes in Street View, if your connection is slow, when moving through a city, the interlacing mechanism is revealed. You can see the front of a building sliding in over the background, compressing the architecture into a narrow band of light so that it appears to be a paper-thin facade slipping into place. Reality becomes a stage set, the scenery changing before your eyes.

google postcard

Los Angeles: the melting freeways of the USA. Archived image from Clement Valla’s Postcards from Google Earth.


Archived image from Jon Rafman’s 9 Eyes project.

Sometimes, the Google Earth algorithm maps one texture over another to produce beguiling landscapes. A freeway overpass, suspended high above the ground, follows precisely the undulating terrain of a large valley, producing a contorted, fluid road system from another dimension. Clouds smear over the contours of a mountain, like a form-fitting, fluffy white blanket. Skyscrapers are laid flat against the ground, yet, impossibly, impart a three-dimensional sense of height. Google Earth is a digitised Mercator, squashing disproportionate dimensions into a totalising system with its own internal logic (Google Maps are actually based on a Mercator variant). When Apple’s iPhone maps also began spewing out strange new topologies at a rapid rate, the company was roundly mocked, yet I thought them immensely poetic, a world I would very much like to live in: Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field.

As a child, I was fascinated with world maps, which were always Mercator. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I realised Greenland was not twice as large as Australia, as the Mercator projection asserts, but that Australia in reality was three times larger than Greenland. My daughter is two years old and already fascinated with my iPhone, which often displays Google and Apple maps, following my obsession. Perhaps she will spend the next few years thinking it’s entirely natural for freeways to dip and bend across the landscape like straps of liquorice. Google Earth may be a digital Mercator, but it does not lie. It has no need. It lays everything bare and it can afford to, for its weapon is seduction.

The Google camera sees everything, even that which is invisible to the naked eye. Recently, Luboš Motl, a Czech blogger, wrote about how he would feel an uncomfortable tingling in his buttocks, like many ants stinging him, when riding his bicycle under certain power lines. He noted that his bicycle seat has a hole in it, revealing exposed metal just a few centimetres away from his body. Combined with his sweat from the bike ride, he surmised that he must have been conducting an unusually high electrical field through his body generated by the power lines. He posted screen grabs from Street View that appeared to confirm this hypothesis. The images displayed bright cyan and pink clouds following the power lines under which he rode, presumably a revelation of the supercharged electromagnetic field that had infiltrated his being with such a baffling sensation.


Google Street View: power line anomaly. Czech Republic, 2011.

Unsurprisingly, Street View even sees ghosts. Inside this strange mechanism, I flick a switch and  zoom in to my childhood home, which I sold recently after my parents were taken ill. I look into our former backyard and see my father there. I try to get closer but I am repelled by the absolute limits of the zoom function. Dad’s face is duly blurred but he is walking purposefully. There is no sign of the broken hip that made him reliant on a walking frame, no sign of the rapidly advancing symptoms of dementia that now afflicts him. He is frozen in time-sickness. As I advance to the next frame, his pixels are squeezed through an interlaced crack in the algorithm. I am lost between worlds, like a louse trying to find a crack of daylight in a crumpled bed sheet. Everything passes through us now: electromagnetic waves; tweets bouncing from mobile phone towers through our bodies; images of our dead and dying loved ones. The machine teaches us how to remember.


My father at home. Google Earth, Melbourne, Australia, 2011.

I float in space, watching the Earth from 11,000 km out, the God’s-eye view. Greenland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland… pinpricks of light on the Google projection. They are all linked in my mind. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to visit Northern Europe. There is something about the landscape that inspires great wonder in me. Perhaps it was that childhood perception of Greenland as this enormous, mythical landmass, even bigger than Australia, almost completely filled with ice and snow. Now, I have the chance. My first stop is Norway. I patch into the console and spiral down into the ground, into Oslo’s Bjørvika district and the Barcode Project, the controversial high-rise redevelopment in a former docklands area.

I have a Norwegian friend, and she tells me the Barcode Project represents a city in a permanent state of near future, convenience hardwired into its new building projects at the expense of conservation; a new-rich decadence. The Barcode is a Ballardian development, she suggests, reminiscent of the worlds of J.G. Ballard, especially his novels Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, which document urban decadence hidden behind sleek architecture, powered by a deviant human psychology mutated by technological systems. Soon I will be in Oslo in real time, in the real world, to give a talk on Ballard, surveillance culture and cinema. Then, I will be able to test my contact’s hypothesis for myself, but for now all I have to see with are my Nine Eyes.

bunker 366 Zeedijk

World War Two bunker (Atlantic Wall). Google Earth, Ostend, Belgium, 2009.


Archived image from Jon Rafman’s 9 Eyes project.

Street View cars take panoramic images of streets around the world, which, when stitched together, provide the software’s immersive digital landscape. The cars have nine camera lenses affixed to a pole on the car’s roof: the “Nine Eyes of Google Street View”, a term coined by artist Jon Rafman. This allows the Google perspective to be truly wraparound: over, under, inside, out. Nothing escapes this 360-degree gaze. Not a startled deer running down a highway. Not a boy in full clown costume performing a hold-up. Not a grieving woman kneeling by the side of an overturned car. Not a girl sitting in the middle of a road, her possessions strewn around her. All are past or present images frozen in Street View; some remain, some now erased.

Accidents, robberies and moments of intense human drama sit side by side with tableaux of industrial stillness. A boy dragged down a dirt road by masked men is photographed with the same dispassionate perspective as a cow shepherded through a gate. Or a World War Two bunker overlooking a seaside road in Belgium, or a massive Zardoz-style facemask buried in the green countryside. A glitch in the imaging system – a radioactive-bomb-burst of sickly digi-yellow, overlaid in error on a field of sublime green – is rendered with the same objectivity as moments of stunning natural beauty: a golden sunrise so unreal it’s like a Martian horizon. But “Nine Eyes” is also the name given to the once-covert international surveillance arrangement, in which eight Western democracies agree to share signals intelligence with the US – not just telephonic monitoring, but, as we now all know post-Snowden, all-invasive internet spying. I watch Oslo through the Nine Eyes of Google. The NSA watches alongside me. With me. Inside me. I see the world with eighteen eyes.

In 2008 and again in 2012, the Street View car captured artist Carlos Zanni in Milan. He converted these shots into artworks: Self-Portrait with Dog (2008) and Self-Portrait with Friends (2012), the “self-portrait” conceit giving the illusion he had control over his dual appearance on the Google stage. But, as he says, “It was just luck. I had no control.” Street View has moved on. Zanni’s website still links to the spot where he was first captured by Google, but he no longer appears: the image database has been updated. There is now just an empty pavement and a blank wall. Because of this, Zanni thinks Google is building a “time machine” that will allow us to see cities unborn. He believes Google has been saving and storing Street View layers since the project began in 2007, with the aim of eventually allowing us to traverse a particular area back in time. In the near future, a version of me will browse the Barcode Project, reducing the opacity of the various layers of time stacked on top of each other, allowing the earliest ones, the girders and steel of the unbuilt Barcode high-rises, to fade away and gradually take flesh as their blue-and-green pixelated facades slide into view.


Barcode Project. Google Earth, Oslo, Norway, 2009.

PWC building

PricewaterhouseCoopers building, Barcode Project. Google Earth, Oslo, Norway, 2009.

People are waiting to live and work in the Barcode Project. In fact, they are already there, we just can’t see them yet – the layer is hidden. Photoshop tools. Deselect the eye symbol. I can’t see the layer anymore. I can’t clone the layer. I feel disorientated. Something’s not right. I can see the joins. They don’t match. There is no synergy, no match between the old and new. I can’t gauge it. The scale is wrong. I try to get closer to two women walking past the Barcode construction zone but they literally disappear before my eyes the closer I get. The connection is lost. I am two frames into the future, and there are no people in the Barcode Project. Only strange shapes and weird colours.

I’m inside this bizarre machine again, and I turn around. I let it turn me around, and I see a low-slung underpass, an isosceles triangle of light next to Rostockergata, the main street lining the construction zone. In this crack between worlds, I see layers of history, discarded and forgotten. Reams of graffiti, old soup cans, a smashed TV set, a disfigured bicycle, torn paper, mattresses. I see two young men, one bearded, the other wearing a hoodie, immersed in conversation, squatting behind a pile of rubble. I must look closely to see them, zooming in at the maximum. None of this exists now in reality, not in these coordinates; the images are datestamped “2009”. When I first tried to find information on the Barcode Project, I Googled “Rostockergata”. The first result was an entry on Wiki Maps: “This place was deleted. It will be removed from all search engines in a few weeks.” It is an appropriate requiem. I found a Norwegian blog that mourned the loss of Rostockergata’s old waterfront character, paved over by the shiny new Barcode reality. In the comments, a reader wrote: “Rostockergata forsvinner ikke! Den skal reetableres mellom Dnbnor byggene i Barcoderekken.” Using (what else?) Google Translate, I understood this to mean: “Rostockergata can live: just relocate it in the sliver of space between the Barcode buildings.’ There, it will be resurrected as an historical simulacrum, flat and substanceless.


Underpass, Rostockergata, opposite the Barcode construction zone. Google Earth, Oslo, Norway, 2009.

In the construction zone, on the green-and-blue facade of the PricewaterhouseCoopers building, I see fake perspective tricks worked into the building’s skin. This type of game is always a con, a way for architects to ignore the lived experience of a city by focusing attention on the bling of a building. Pure illusion. It does not reflect reality, only itself, like two mirrors distorting each other into infinity. In Melbourne, where I live, there is a similar development, the Docklands Precinct (or “Shocklands”, as I prefer it). Like the Barcode Project, it’s a redeveloped industrial waterfront area in the city centre. Like Barcode, its buildings are designed so close to each other they create narrow passages between them. Urbanists call such spaces SLOAP: Spaces Left Over After Planning. The Shocklands are hostile to urban life and human scale. The SLOAP there forms hyperactive wind tunnels that repel all street-level activity through constant wind motion and noise. Instead of designing sites for public interaction from the start, the SLOAP is what we get, and the architects can always claim: “There is your public space.”

When work started on the Barcode Project, the remains of nine wrecked ships were discovered, dating from the early 16th century. No trace of this history remains in the new buildings, except that tangentially aquatic blue-and-green palette. In the Shocklands, the old maritime culture is reduced to the shape of a row of high-rises designed to look like the prows of ships, or abridged with fibreglass anchors, rope and sailor caps decorating the shells of plastic cafes and restaurants. These establishments are named to provide the final touches to a copy of an original that never existed: Capn’s Cafe; Steam Packet Restaurant; Mariners Tavern. This is the ultimate expression of the terminal logic suggested by the Rostockergata blog. Let’s call it “zombie urbanism”: what happens when an area of urban life is killed off then reanimated under external control (following the old-style zombie trope, whereby the dead are woken from the grave and controlled by witch doctors). What made the area vibrant in the past is sucked out and re-injected into a distortion of its former self. The old way of life is remaindered. The old buildings that could be salvaged are completely gutted, surviving in traces as a grotesquery.


Melbourne Shocklands. Google Earth, 2010.

Buildings face away from the sun, and the “instant city” effect creates cold, empty streets that go nowhere, or have no organic relationship to the buildings that have been erected. Streets exist only to separate buildings. The main human functions are spending and excretion: no one visits for anything but shopping or sleeping in airlocked apartments after work. It’s pure Ballardian terrain, such as you might find in Super-Cannes, about a high-tech gated community where the architecture controls how the inhabitants think and behave. “Thousands of people live and work here,” Ballard writes, “without making a single decision about right and wrong. The moral order is engineered into their lives along with the speed limits and the security systems.” As in zombie urbanism, in Super-Cannes’s ultra-modern community “a lack of intimacy and neighbourliness” is replaced by an “invisible infrastructure that takes the place of traditional civic virtues”.

According to Clement Valla, who collects unnatural Google images in his online archive Postcards from Google Earth, the glitches causing the landscapes he finds (such as the aforementioned bendable freeways) are not errors but logical to the system, which is only doing what it has been programmed to do: ceaselessly recombine dynamic data to provide seamless illusions of continuity. So, too, are the effects of zombie urbanism. Recent research by environmental psychologists describes how architects see the world, and it does not match what laymen see. A term has been coined to describe this: “architectural myopia”, whereby the architect is trained to look for different qualities in the environment to non-architects. Instead of harmonious relationships and contextual essentials, architects see objects removed from context, nothing but abstraction and attention-grabbing elements. This matches the logic of a world completely given over to surface, surrendered to machines. In that crack, that portal, between the Rostockergata underpass and the construction zone, I see all of this. Street View does not lie.

When I arrive in Oslo to give my talk, I will compare the city to what I’ve seen inside the machine, for I have seen Oslo already. It is imprinted on me, overlaid. It has augmented my reality, merged with my childhood dreams of Nordic Europe. I am already there. I never left Oslo. I have never been to Oslo but it fills me with déjà vu. By the time of my arrival, the Barcode Project will have advanced further, bearing little relationship to the under-construction Street View images of it I’ve come to know. My projections and prejudices will be sorely out of date. I will have to reassess the Project once again. In my hotel room, overwhelmed and overloaded from living two realities at once (three, including the vagaries of childhood dreams), I will turn off the computer. The screen will turn black. It will be dark outside and the lights in my room will be off, but I will still be able to see the outline of my face in the monitor from the streetlights outside, for I can never unsee.


Oslo: through the eyes of machines. Google Earth, , 2013.

Paul Virilio, urbanist and theorist of cyberculture, once told an interviewer about a science fiction story in which artificial snow was seeded with tiny cameras and dropped from planes. He explained, “when the snow falls, there are eyes everywhere. There is no blind spot left.” The interviewer asked: “But what shall we dream of when everything becomes visible?” Virilio replied: “We’ll dream of being blind.” Desperate, I will dream that same dream, but even gouging out my eyes – all eighteen of them – will not be enough, for the imprint will remain, the augmented overlay, glowing like tracer bullets in the radioactive darkness of the mind’s eye. Remember, I can never unsee.

Then I will dream of death, but even death won’t save me, for I will have left enough data, enough tweets, enough cookies and enough honey traps from my online browsing patterns to allow unscrupulous marketers to harvest the information and construct a digital version of me. It will be a magnificent feat of malware, social engineering composed of my online leavings. This digital construct will traverse the Google Earth just as I do now. It will spam my friends and family, and it will tweet the same observations about Street View as I do. Actually, not “the same observations about Street View as I do”, but “the same observations because it is me”. No one will tell the difference. In the future, we are all sentient spambots.

My digital doppelganger will see me in Google Earth, reflected in the hubcap of the Street View car. It will see me reflected in the illusory facade of the PricewaterhouseCoopers building, watching myself watching the Barcode Project. It will see me in the machine, which has taught me how to remember a past I never had and a future I will never see.

The machine will teach my doppelganger how to live, at the same time as it teaches me how to die. No one will tell the difference.

albert st glitch

Google Street View anomaly outside my home. Google Earth, Melbourne, Australia, 2009.

‘Zones of Transition’: Micronationalism in the work of J.G. Ballard

Map of Lunghua (Lunghwa) civilian camp, Shanghai. Courtesy Rick McGrath.

This essay by Simon Sellars was originally published in J.G. Ballard: Visions and Revisions, Jeannette Baxter and Roland Wymer, eds (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 230-48. Reproduced with thanks.

The essay can be considered a companion piece to Sellars’ earlier ‘Extreme Possibilities: Mapping the sea of time and space in J.G. Ballard’s Pacific fictions’.

From Jeannette Baxter and Roland Wymer’s introduction to J.G. Ballard: Visions and Revisions:

‘In “Zones of Transition”, Sellars re-reads the psychosocial character and logic of Ballardian space in light of the idiosyncratic, real-world phenomenon of micronations. Tracing parallels between Ballard’s physical and psychological spaces or “zones” of suspension – motorways, airports, supermarkets, shopping malls – and Marc Augé’s idea of “non-place”, Sellars tracks the development of Ballard’s varied and differentiated micronations across a wide range of short stories, such as “The Enormous Space” (1989) and “The Overloaded Man” (1961), and novels including Concrete Island, the much-neglected Rushing to Paradise and Kingdom Come. To what extent can the urge to create micronations be attributed to globalisation’s illusion of connectedness and the failure of political action to spark the mass imagination? What revolutionary potentials are to be found in Ballard’s models of micronationalism? Are they spaces of physical and psychological retreat or can they be read as viable models of imaginative resistance and regeneration? Sellars engages with such exigent questions in order to probe new critical territories and to cast a throughly contemporary light on Ballard’s shifting conceptions of psychology, space and community.’

by Simon Sellars

‘The collapse has begun’

Consider the spatial imagery in Ballard’s work. It is often predicated on a vocabulary of secession, a quasi-revolutionary zeal mediated not so much by hard rhetoric or ideology but by a concealed network of colonies, anomalous regions and virtual city-states, often metaphoric in nature and analogous to the mind-state of his deracinated characters. Examples are found across all phases of his career: the counterfeit spaceship in ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’ (1962); the abandoned New York in ‘The Ultimate City’ (1976); the gated community in Running Wild (1988); the ecotopia in Rushing to Paradise (1994); the overtly secessionist movement in Kingdom Come (2006). Ballard’s fabled vision of suburbia is similarly detached, defined as the psychological catchment area of the built environment. ‘In the suburbs you find uncentred lives,’ he told Iain Sinclair in 1999. ‘The normal civic structures are not there.’[1]. In addition to its psychosocial character, there is an anarcho-libertarian slant underpinning this spatial logic that is of particular interest since its structure and complex interaction with the outside world strongly parallels the successes and failures of the real-world phenomenon of micronations: small, often ephemeral ‘nations’, sometimes without land, but occasionally claiming the type of physical space Ballard describes. Micronations can be satirical or a component of an art project, but occasionally they can have political motives. Micronations are sometimes called ‘model nations’ since they are often hobbyist exercises that mimic the structure of independent nations and states, but are not recognized as such by established states.[2]

There is a further correspondence with what Marc Augé identifies as ‘non-place’. According to Augé, in the era of ‘supermodernity’ (the ‘obverse [of] postmodernity’), our perception of time has altered due to ‘the overabundance of events in the contemporary world’. History has lost its authority and become non-functional, collapsed into an eternal present where ‘the recent past – “the sixties”, “the seventies”, now “the eighties” – becomes history as soon as it is lived’.[3] This contraction of time and space necessitates an ‘anthropology of the near’, a discipline no longer focused on archaeo-exotic locales but on the immediate urban present, where we are ‘even more avid for meaning’ due to our inability to invest much substance in the recent past.[4] For Augé, this produces ‘a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality … a communication so peculiar that it often puts the individual in contact only with another image of himself’.[5] The physical manifestation of this is ‘non-place’: ‘Spaces which are not themselves anthropological places [but] instead … are listed, classified, promoted to the status of “places of memory”, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position’. This is a ‘world where people are born in the clinic and die in the hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions’.[6]

Augé’s terrain of transport systems, airports, supermarkets, hospitals, holiday resorts and hotel chains – overlaid with the virtual topography of super-compacted communications networks – is also rich Ballardian territory. According to Roger Luckhurst, Crash (1973), for example, portrays a ‘suspended state of duty-free malls, a zone at once inside and yet outside the legal parameters of the country it exists in … [the characters] experience the motorways as weirdly detached from an embedded culture or history or morality’.[7] The peculiar qualities engendered by Ballard’s suspended zones, mapped by the spatial and temporal vectors of Augé’s non-place, echo the odd limbo that many model nations inhabit. These qualities transform into explicitly micronational movements in Ballard’s later work, typified by Millennium People (2003), with its ‘anomalous enclave’[8] of middle-class discontents, and Kingdom Come, in which a shopping centre is overrun by consumers, sealed off by an ad-hoc paramilitary force and declared a ‘micro-republic’.[9] But Ballardian micronationalism always follows a particular trajectory, devolving into an act stripped of rebellion and recycled into a self-reflexive game that is always bested by the super-absorbent properties of consumer capitalism. When the chosen model replicates global, national and militaristic modes, micronational alternatives fatally collapse and Ballard’s failed secessionaries, trapped in this eternal feedback loop, have no choice but to integrate back into the system, which, as explained in Millennium People, is ‘self-regulating. It relies on our sense of civic responsibility. Without that, society would collapse. In fact, the collapse may even have begun’ (104). Where, if anywhere, might viable models of resistance be found in Ballard?

‘Inverted Crusoeism’

Born in Shanghai in 1930, Ballard lived there until 1945, entirely within a mesh of parallel worlds. First, he grew up among the privileged expatriate community in Shanghai’s International Settlement, which was under British and American control but on Chinese sovereign territory, and then, when war broke out, in the Lunghua civilian camp, occupied by the Japanese. He has described Shanghai’s wartime limbo as a ‘strange interregnum’ when ‘one side in World War II had moved out and the other had yet to move in’. [10] Subsequently, he elaborated, ‘zones of transition have always fascinated me’,[11] and his writing would consistently explore this fascination. For Andrzej Gasiorek, Ballard’s characters pursue a ‘flight from anything that might disturb the safety of an alienated habitat … [a] retreat from the beckoning light into the darkness of the cave [sounding] the death-knell of all politics’.[12] Although this analogy refers to the later novels, an anti-political retreat seems to have been a driving motivation right from the start of Ballard’s career. Ballard has said that his earliest literary influences were ‘The Ancient Mariner … The Tempest … Robinson Crusoe … Gulliver … even the Alice books to some extent. One reads them at a very early age, and they shape one’s view of “alternative” fiction: non-naturalistic fiction that creates a parallel world which comments on our own’.[13] The Crusoe metaphor, the potency of being cut off from civilisation (wilfully, in the Ballardian universe), testing reserves of inner strength in order to build a new world of the senses, is a motif he would return to repeatedly.[14]

Still from the documentary, Shanghai Jim (dir. James Runcie, 1991). In this sequence, Ballard returns to Shanghai and the Lunghua site, pointing to the old assembly hall building.

Tentative attempts to document this strange slipstream can be found even in his first published story, ‘The Violent Noon’ (1951). It is set during the Malayan Emergency, which lasted from 1948 to 1960, when the National Liberation Army guerrillas battled British, Malayan and Commonwealth forces. The story portrays that extraordinary stasis in the life of nations when the locus of power is undecided, or is being usurped by something unknown, resulting in a moment of suspended time, an interzone where accepted laws and morals cease to apply.[15] This peculiar sense of alienation is more clearly essayed in Ballard’s early science-fiction work, where the narratives would betray a consistent fascination with escaping the strictures of chronological clock time. ‘The Day of Forever’ (1966) is a prime example: it is about a future when the Earth has stopped rotating and time literally stands still. A young man, Halliday, haunts the abandoned hotels in an African town, scavenging food and supplies, and hoping to rediscover his ability to dream, which he somehow lost when time began to stand still. Previously, he had lived in ‘the international settlement at Trondheim in Norway’,[16] an obvious reference to Ballard’s own childhood. In his semi-fictionalised account of his war years, Empire of the Sun (1984), Ballard’s avatar, young Jim, transposes this sense of frozen time to Shanghai. He imagines Shanghai’s International Settlement as life lived ‘wholly within an intense present’,[17] a comment on the unreality of the expatriate experience, where class and privilege shelter Jim and his family from both the past – Shanghai’s relationship to its Chinese history – and the future: the spectre of impending war.[18] Unsurprisingly, given this biographical connection, Ballard has described ‘The Day of Forever’ as a ‘favourite story of mine … Perhaps the young man running around those abandoned hotels reminds me of my own adolescence, and that strange interregnum in Shanghai’.[19]

‘The Day of Forever’ and Empire of the Sun also recall Augé’s non-functionality of the past and non-existence of the future, and yet this ‘intense present’, free from both historical consequences and future implications, also liberates Jim when it is transferred to the stasis of Lunghua. In Empire, Ballard writes: ‘For the first time in his life Jim felt free to do what he wanted. All sorts of wayward ideas moved through his mind, fuelled by hunger and the excitement of stealing’ (120). In The Drowned World (1962), a subtly revolutionary flavour underwrites this liberation, hinting at micronational themes to come. The character Kerans holes up in the crumbling penthouse suite at the abandoned Ritz Hotel, in exile from the scientific party he was working with:

Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.[20]

There is a palpable sense that the vestiges of the old world are being destroyed before this ‘radically new environment’ can be ushered in, which will finally free Kerans to test and live off his mental and physical reserves without the deadening aids of civilized society: ‘This inverted Crusoeism – the deliberate marooning of himself without the assistance of a gear-laden carrack on a convenient reef – raised few anxieties in Kerans’ mind’ (47).

Concrete Island (Jonathan Cape edition, 1974). Artist: Bill Botten.

Ballard’s ‘inverted Crusoeism’ is also on display in Concrete Island, which again takes the familiar narrative shape of the robinsonade. The architect, Robert Maitland, crashes his Jaguar, stranding himself on ‘a small traffic island, some two hundred yards long and triangular in shape, that lay in the waste ground between three converging motorway routes’ (11). Maitland’s interior thoughts make the connection explicit: ‘”you’re marooned here like Crusoe – If you don’t look out you’ll be beached here for ever”‘ (32). Alone, feverish and injured, and therefore unable to leave the traffic island, which is invisible to passing motorists, he imagines the wasteland reshaping itself into ‘an exact model of his head … moving across [the island], he seemed to be following a contour line inside his head’ (69, 31). Although this suggests that the entire narrative might be taking place in Maitland’s mind, perhaps in the split seconds flashing through consciousness as he dies on the island from his injuries, the scenario can be read as more than simply a literary conceit.

Ballard wrote Concrete Island at a time when the real-world potential of micronations was beginning to be explored. The best-known example, Sealand, was founded in the late 1960s by the pirate-radio DJ, Paddy Roy Bates, who took over an abandoned WWII gun platform in the North Sea and declared it an independent state. In Western Australia, in 1970, a wheat farmer, Leonard Casley, outraged at government production quotas, formed the Hutt River Province Principality. Styling himself as ‘Prince Leonard’, he declared ‘war’ on the Australian federation, a non-violent, three-day conflict that resulted in the ‘secession’ of his farm. In the same year, a drifter named El Avivi founded another micronation, Akhzivland, by claiming a small town in Israel that had been evacuated after the War of Independence, a typical zone-within-a-zone. Akhzivland operates to this day under a cloud of dubious legality, as does Sealand and Hutt River. Maitland replicates these overt acts of reclamation, recovering and recycling of territory. Although he does not go so far as to declare war or overt sovereignty, he does in fact claim the concrete island, which, like Sealand and Akhzivland, is a liminal region, an adjunct to civilized society, forgotten and discarded: ‘”I am the island”‘, Maitland declares (71).

Approaching Sealand. Photo: Simon Sellars.

During the 1980s and 1990s, there were several further instances of individuals forming micronations in their homes and declaring their real estate as sovereign territory, either as a joke [21] or due to some kind of dissatisfaction with the outside world. Actually, it is remarkably easy to treat micronations as a joke and, indeed, adolescent boys often tend to form them, explaining the classic ‘bedroom’ mode. At one level, the act of founding a model nation is an extension of the standard adolescent fantasy of building a model train set, managing an infrastructure and controlling the lives of the little plastic people inside. It is also a variation of the teenage urge to wall oneself off from the world by never again setting foot outside the bedroom door. According to Maggie Jones, this gambit has been taken to extremes in Japan, in the explosion in recent times of ‘hikikomori’, which translates as ‘withdrawal’ and refers to ‘a person sequestered in his [bed]room for six months or longer with no social life beyond his home. (The word is a noun that describes both the problem and the person suffering from it and is also an adjective, like ‘alcoholic’.) […] though female hikikomori exist and may be undercounted, experts estimate that about 80 percent of the hikikomori are male, some as young as 13 or 14 and some who live in their rooms for 15 years or more.’

Jones discusses the phenomenon with distinctly Ballardian overtones, describing one case in which a hikikomori took showers for hours on end: ‘In some cases these psychological problems lead to hikikomori. But often they are symptoms – a consequence of spending months cooped up inside their rooms and inside their heads.’ On another occasion, a hikikomori scrubbed the bathroom tiles for many hours: ‘”Our water bills were 10 times what they’d normally be,” his brother told me. “It’s as if he was trying to clean the dirt in his mind and his heart”‘.

Jones suggests that many hikikomori withdraw in response to the uncertainty of conditions in contemporary Japan. Socialised into the traditional ‘salaryman’ way of life, in which a person’s absolute loyalty is to one place of lifetime work, the illusion of choice and identities brought about by a globalised economy means that many choose the hikikomori life rather than face the uncertainties of the new era. In another convergence with Ballard, Jones notes how hikikomori ‘often describe punching their walls in a fit of anger or frustration at their parents or at their own lives […] acts [which] seemed to be attempts to infuse feeling into a numb life’.[22] This recalls Crash and the actions of its characters who not only voluntarily shut themselves off in a micro world – the slip roads and underpasses of the motorway system – but also actively morph their bodies through pain and trauma in an attempt to counter the death of affect they feel from the world around them.

As does Jones, Ballard explicitly links this dynamic to the confusion – the ‘superabundance’ – of the post-war era:

Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia. Despite McLuhan’s delight in high-speed information mosaics we are still reminded of Freud’s profound pessimism in Civilisation and its Discontents. Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings – these diseases of the psyche have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect […] this demise of feeling and emotion […]

Increasingly, our concepts of past, present and future are being forced to revise themselves. Just as the past itself, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age […] so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present. We have annexed the future into our own present, as merely one of those manifold alternatives open to us. Options multiply around us, we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly.[23]

In Empire of the Sun, young Jim is effectively a Western hikikomori (under Japanese guard, ironically). In Lunghua, sharing a room with two adults who disdain him, he shuts himself off in his tiny cubicle, which is sealed off by a curtain, and where he is ‘at his happiest in this miniature universe’. The photographs posted on the walls, the ‘mise en scène’ Jim provides for himself (appropriately, since he imagines he is inside a newsreel about the war), are described in loving detail and it is clear he would stay there forever if possible. Even as he stroked the head of his pet turtle, Jim ‘envied the reptile its massive shell, a private fortress against the world’.(175)

Later, this tendency finds another striking echo in Ballard’s short story ‘The Enormous Space’ (1989), in which the character Ballantyne is demoralised by a serious car crash, a painful divorce and the incessant demands of his job. He decides to shut himself off from the world and his problems, never to leave his house again, a decision rendered in explicitly micronational terms:

I sat at the kitchen table, and tapped out my declaration of independence on the polished Formica. By closing the front door I intended to secede not only from the society around me. I was rejecting my friends and colleagues, my accountant, doctor and solicitor, and above all my ex-wife. I was breaking off all practical connections with the outside world. I would never again step through the front door.[24]

Having seceded into willed social isolation, Ballantyne collapses the outside world into a fatally narrow inner perspective: ‘I would eat only whatever food I could find within the house. After that I would rely on time and space to sustain me’ (698). With that, he convinces himself that he is free to do as he pleases, to the exclusion of all others, since he is supposedly acting true to his imagination, a point Ballard makes by reintroducing the Crusoe metaphor:

In every way I am marooned, but a reductive Crusoe paring away exactly those elements of bourgeois life which the original Robinson so dutifully reconstituted. Crusoe wished to bring the Croydons of his own day to life again on his island. I want to expel them, and find in their place a far richer realm formed from the elements of light, time and space. (700)

Still from Home (dir. Richard Curson Smith, 2003), based on Ballard’s ‘The Enormous Space’.

In fact, Ballantyne becomes crazed with delusions of immortality, referring to himself in the third person and believing he can detach himself from the physical plane: ‘I am no longer dependent on myself. I feel no obligation to that person who fed and groomed me’ (701). Ostensibly outside of morality, he survives by trapping and eating neighbourhood pets. He even resorts to cannibalism, killing and eating the TV repairman after animal stocks are exhausted. His narration describes chronological and spatial dimensions expanding away from him, as also happens in Empire of the Sun, when young Jim, his senses similarly deranged by hunger and the dislocation of war, hallucinates the interior of his house withdrawing from him. After a colleague calls on Ballantyne, he admits her to the house and then watches her ‘walking towards me, but so slowly that the immense room seems to carry her away from me in its expanding dimensions. She approaches and recedes from me at the same time, and I am concerned that she will lose herself in the almost planetary vastness of this house’ (708). By the final scene, she too has been killed and is lying in state in his freezer, where he is soon to join her in a planned suicide.

‘The Enormous Space’ frames a consistent theme in Ballard’s work: the concept of a neural freezone as a ‘morally free psychopathology of metaphor, as an element in one’s dreams’,[25] although it pushes this to the extreme: total immersion into the realm of the imaginary and a fatal disengagement from reality. As such, it is a virtual retelling of ‘The Overloaded Man’ (1961), in which the character Faulkner attempts to disassociate objects from their cultural meaning by ‘training his ability to operate the cut-out switches’.[26] Faulkner tells his friend Hendricks that he might ‘actually be stepping outside of time’, explaining that it is difficult to invest conscious recognition in objects ‘without a time sense’ (334) and drawing us once again into the time-slippage tat characterises the archetypal Ballardian interzone.

Faulkner continues with his experiment until objects and structures appear as pure geometric shapes, ‘armchairs and sofas like blunted rectangular clouds’ (337). He even perceives his wife as an angular collection of planes, which he attempts to ‘smooth’ into a more rounded form, pummelling her body, which he no longer recognises as taking human form. When he has finished with her, she falls to the floor, appearing to him as nothing more than ‘a softly squeaking lump of spongy rubber’ (343). In fact, Faulkner has murdered her without even realising it, a victim of his own internalised messianic complex, and the story ends with his understanding that what he desires most is ‘pure ideation, the undisturbed sensation of psychic being untransmuted by any physical medium’ (343). Reaching this state would at last allow him to ‘escape the nausea of the external world’, which he achieves by drowning himself in his backyard pond, ‘[waiting] for the world to dissolve and set him free’ (344).

Both ‘The Overloaded Man’ and ‘The Enormous Space’ represent the outer limits of Ballard’s longstanding project to map inner space, a concept he has defined as ‘an imaginary realm in which, on the one hand, the outer world of reality and, on the other, the inner world of the mind meet and merge … a movement in the interzone between both spheres’.[27] For Ballard, the existence of this ‘imaginary realm’ is a response to the all-invasive media and communications landscape, and its inexorable collapsing of time, space and consciousness into hyperreality:

We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind: … the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-empting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the computer screen … The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a compete fiction – conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads.[28]

But the oscillating ‘movement between spheres’ from the earlier definition is critical: once the balance favours irreversibly either side of the spectrum, the consequences prove fatal, as Hendricks warns Faulkner in ‘The Overloaded Man: ‘By any degree to which you devalue the external world so you devalue yourself’ (334). In later years, Ballard would explore the obverse of this equation, but with the same result, as his characters drag their psychopathologies kicking and screaming into the outer world of reality, which they attempt to reshape in accordance with their degraded inner maps. This is a notable development in Rushing to Paradise, which signals in Ballard’s work the stirring of a sense of entrapment within late capitalism, manifest in a much harder version of micronationalism.

The echoes of real-world enclave-cults such as Jonestown are apparent in Rushing to Paradise, and its central character, the charismatic Dr Barbara, seems modelled on religious-utopian gurus like Jim Jones and Waco leader David Koresh. Dr Barbara builds an isolated community on an abandoned Pacific island, and, like Koresh, coerces others into joining her through sheer force of personality and rhetoric, before destroying almost everyone and everything as the authorities move in. In so doing, she provides, as Gasiorek suggests, ‘a darker account of the megalomania that may be productive when confined to the autonomous imagination … but that is so cataclysmic when unleashed upon the world … for, as Ballard has rightly noted, the “history of [the 20th] century is the history of a few obsessives, some of the most dangerous men who have ever existed on this planet, being allowed to follow their obsessions to wherever they wanted to take them”.’[29]

‘Gated communities, closed minds’

The urge to form micronations, whether as a joke, an experiment or a religious utopia, can in some ways be attributed to globalisation and the failure of political action to ignite the mass imagination. As Ballard once put it, the ‘overriding power of the global economy threatens the autonomy of the nation state, while the ability of politicians to intervene as an equalizing force has faded’.[30] In this vacuum, micronational enclaves thrive. Sealand and Hutt River are benign examples, but there are other more aggressive templates, as documented in Erwin S. Strauss’s incendiary handbook, How to Start Your Own Country (1984), and in the research of sociologist Judy Lattas.[31] These include model nations formed as scams to lure unwary investors, right-wing communes promoting racial purity, and hardcore anarchist anomalies concerned with the violent carving out of patches of turf in thrall to utopian ideals. Strauss even outlines various methods for those wishing to form their own micronation, such as the ‘mouse that roared strategy’,[32] which involves getting hold of small, ‘cheap weapons of mass destruction’, finding a patch of unclaimed, disputed or forgotten territory (such as Sealand’s gun platform), occupying this interzone, and threatening to use the weapon against any superpower that tries to evict you.[33]

Strauss justifies this in ‘libertarian moral terms’, arguing that ‘whoever (through the initiation of force) puts a victim in the position of having to choose between his own life and freedom, and the lives of others, is morally responsible for whatever the victim must do to protect his own life and freedom’.[34] With a similar agenda, the self-styled ‘anarcho-leftoid’ Keith Preston predicts that the ’empire’ of the United States, like the Soviet Union before it, will at some near-future point cease to exist, broken down by market forces into smaller, self-governing entities. Gangs led by drug warlords will prove the true power base, forming provisional governments and controlling micro city-states in a grassroots structure embodying ‘different values, beliefs and customs … sovereign in their own enclaves, federated with others when necessary for joint purposes’.[35] Preston looks to various historical models to justify his prediction, such as ancient Greek republics, medieval city-states, traditional tribal networks, early American pioneer societies and micronations, concluding that sovereign enclaves are ‘the only possible approach to avoiding either chaos or tyranny’.[36]

While either solution might seem radically implausible, there are clear antecedents in the real-world phenomenon of suburban gated communities. The infrastructure of these micro-worlds is predicated on the unease that particular groups feel regarding a certain quality of life and welfare that they believe governments cannot guarantee, but that can nonetheless be bought via sealed-off suburban areas guarded by surveillance technology and private security firms. In Running Wild, the gated community, Pangbourne Estate, is essentially a micronation, one of many similar estates in the area housing thousands of urban professionals and their families: ‘Secure behind their high walls and surveillance cameras, these estates in effect constitute a chain of closed communities whose lifelines run directly along the M4 to the offices and consulting rooms, restaurants and private clinics of central London’.[37] But Pangbourne Estate is also an archetypal non-place. Although it takes its name from the nearby town, it ‘has no connections, social, historical or civic, with Pangbourne itself’ (15), echoing Augé’s description of transient urban environments that are neither ‘relational, historical or concerned with identity’, but that are connected instead, via the high-speed technology of the motorway and networked surveillance, to ‘transit points and temporary abodes’[38] – the offices, consulting rooms and private clinics of the Pangbourne universe.

For Ballard, globalisation’s mediation, consumption and broadcasting of experience produces a paradoxical effect that gives the illusion of connectedness, but in fact creates withdrawal, a regression into disparate, private worlds culminating ‘in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect … [the] demise of feeling and emotion’.[39] The result, in micronational terms, is what a character in Super-Cannes (2000) describes as ‘the ultimate gated community … a human being with a closed mind’.[40] Corroborating some of Preston’s more extreme arguments, Ballard’s late-period work, beginning with Rushing to Paradise, renounces the preoccupation with temporality that was the hallmark of his earlier work in favour of an obsession with defending physical space from outside forces.[41] This shift reaches its apex in Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes, which provide unambiguous examples of the professional middle classes retreating into fortified enclaves, bulwarked not so much by weaponry as by the switching off of the sensory reach of the human nervous system with its replacement: a technological exoskeleton of CCTV, satellite dishes and triple-security locks. Reading Ballard, Augé would surely recognise his own conclusion:

In one form or another … some experience of non-place … is today an essential component of all social existence. Hence … the fashion for “cocooning”, retreating into the self: never before have individual histories (because of their necessary relations with space, image and consumption) been so deeply entangled with general history, history tout court.[42]

Screenshot from a random Japanese CCTV feed.

In Millennium People, this commingling of individual and general histories is explicitly generated, even actively encouraged, by capitalism’s tight control of space, image and consumption. The novel charts an uprising in Chelsea Marina, an exclusive gated community in London, where middle-class citizens, rejecting their perceived role as a type of ‘new proletariat’, revolt against what they see as a meaningless society, turning their community into a miniaturised war zone. But the action is doomed to fail, since the revolutionaries are too indoctrinated in consumerism to push the boundaries completely:

I tripped on the kerb and leaned against a builder’s skip heaped with household possessions. The revolutionaries, as ever considerate of their neighbours, had ordered a dozen of these huge containers in the week before the uprising. A burnt-out Volvo sat beside the road, but the proprieties still ruled, and it had been pushed into a parking bay. The rebels had tidied up after their revolution. Almost all the overturned cars had been righted, keys left in their ignitions, ready for the repossession men (8).

The revolt that almost causes Chelsea Marina to secede is swiftly absorbed back into the system, an act of rebellion finally remembered more for a childish, tabloid act of violence than any sustained program of social change. Inevitably, the authorities move in as martial law is declared and Chelsea Marina becomes ‘an anomalous enclave ruled jointly by the police and the local council’ (256). The transgression of meaningless violence is usurped by the more powerful intervention of state violence, the Simulated State absorbing and repackaging rebellion in an unequivocal demonstration of the futility of performing actions that can be broken down and reabsorbed as news bites, as spectacular entertainment. For John Gray, this is an important dynamic in Super-Cannes, where it is threaded throughout the narrative as ‘part of a new industry where we’re fed with brilliant, violent, strange, surreal imagery, but with the goal not of emancipating us, but of keeping us at the job, keeping us working … the liberation that comes with wealth, affluence, freedom of choice can be used as a tool of social control’.[43]

This insidious current also powers Kingdom Come. The novel’s narrator, Richard Pearson, is a former adman, bored, jobless and disaffected. He travels to the London satellite town of Brooklands to investigate the death of his father, killed in the Metro-Centre shopping complex by an unknown gunman opening fire on the lunchtime crowds. He becomes embroiled in the dark undercurrents of Brooklands’ sport-and-product obsessed social strata, where fiercely nationalistic, violent mobs wear shirts emblazoned with the St George’s Cross. He meets David Cruise, a forgotten actor now the host of the Metro-Centre’s cable-TV channel. Drawing on his advertising experience, he reboots Cruise’s image, portraying him as the tortured noir hero of billboard campaigns and TV spots in a notable inversion of Cruise’s blow-waved idol persona. These inflammatory mini-narratives spark the imaginations of the Brooklands residents, bonding them into a tightly controlled mass that hangs on Cruise’s every word. Swept away with delusions of grandeur, Pearson pulls the strings of Cruise, this ‘smiley, ingratiating, afternoon TV kind of führer’ (258), stage-managing Cruise’s overwhelming popularity with the Metro-Centre crowds, and, incredibly, the actual secession of the Metro-Centre itself.

‘Greater autonomy’

Visualisation of David Cruise’s ‘noir’ ad campaign in Kingdom Come. Courtesy of The Metro-Centre, a promotional website for the book (2007).

Kingdom Come reads like the fictional companion to the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (2002), an initiative of the architect Rem Koolhaas that is among the most exhaustive analyses of the phenomenon of consumerism. A central focus of the guide is how the traditional idea of the suburban mall, as a distinct, clearly delineated entity, is disappearing, rendering meaningless the old demarcation between urban and suburban space. Shopping becomes ‘urban’ and the city becomes the mall:

Shopping, after decades of sucking the public away from the urban centers, has proven to the city that it can now create all the qualities of urbanity – density of activity, congestion, excitement, spectacle – better than the city itself has been able to do in recent memory. Once, shopping needed the city to survive. Now, the urban has been reduced to a theme of shopping.[44]

Analogously, Kingdom Come portrays Brooklands as simply an extension of the Metro-Centre, a mere sideline on the way to the main event:

The traffic into Brooklands had slowed, filling the six-lane highway built to draw the population of south-east England towards the Metro-Centre. Dominating the landscape around it, the immense aluminium dome housed the largest shopping mall in Greater London … Consumerism dominated the lives of its people, who looked as if they were shopping whatever they were doing.(15)

In Ballard’s new metropolis, shopping has so invaded the urban that it fulfils all civic and social functions, becoming a virtual city-state far more influential than standard institutions. Kingdom Come argues that the distinction between religion and consumerism becomes blurred when the globalised economy erodes faith in institutions and governments, so that the only thing left is ‘a cathedral of consumerism whose congregations far exceeded those of the Christian churches’ (15). The Harvard Guide concurs, although it notes the process in reverse: in the US, churches model themselves on malls to become ‘megachurches’, featuring bowling alleys, aerobics classes and counselling services.[45]

Operating like megastores, these new entities are armed with enough economic and emotional capital to completely obliterate all competition, ‘function[ing] suspiciously like the category killer … for every megachurch that pops up, one hundred churches fold’.[46] Not only is ‘shopping melting into everything, but everything is melting into shopping’, with governments ‘no longer willing or able to support … institutions’ in their original state.[47] Traditional social and civic structures must either face the threat of obsolescence or remodel themselves after the consumerist model, as indeed happens when the Metro-Centre dismantles traditional conceptions of the city to redefine urbanity, then religion, as itself:

[He described] the huge dimensions of the Metro-Centre, the millions of square feet of retail space, the three hotels, six cineplexes and forty cafes.
‘Did you know,’ he concluded, ‘that we have more retail space than the whole of Luton? … The Metro-Centre creates a new climate, Mr Pearson. We succeeded where the Greenwich dome failed. This isn’t just a shopping mall. It’s more like a …’
‘Religious experience?’
‘Exactly! It’s like going to church. And here you can go every day and you get something to take home’. (40)

According to the Harvard Guide, ‘shopping has created its own interior realms – the bazaar, the arcade, and the shopping mall all exist in a lineage of greater control and greater autonomy from exterior conditions’.[48] In Kingdom Come, the logical extension of this ‘greater autonomy’ is the Metro-Centre’s secession from Brooklands, which begins when a group of residents see the inherent worship of shopping as a way to instil political control: ‘The micro-republic would become a micro-monarchy, and the vast array of consumer goods would be [the] real subjects’ (222). Ballard’s revolutionaries are so in thrall to consumerism that they no longer wish to live within the terms and values of the real world. Secession of the consumer state seems the commonsense solution, yet they fail to see, as the Harvard Guide demonstrates, that consumerism is already autonomous, and that it is everywhere, limitless and relentless, redefining the world as itself, even the acts of transgression enacted in its name. As in Millennium People, the revolution becomes an act of empty symbolism as the authorities again move in to drive the rebels from the mall they had occupied for two months.

As to where a workable model of resistance might lie, answers can be found in Ballard’s assertion that true revolution can only occur through imaginative means, a revolution of aesthetics rather than political ends, preserving the sovereignty of the imagination as if it is, as he puts it in Super-Cannes, the ‘last nature reserve’ (264), but without the fatal inversion that beset Faulkner and Ballantyne. For Ballard, politics is a subset of advertising. Politicians sell personal style rather than objective government, resulting in a complete invasion of the political realm by consumerism and aesthetics. For Ballard, because ‘world economic systems are so interlocked … no radical, revolutionary change can be born anymore … It may only be from aesthetic changes of one sort or another that one can expect a radical shift in the people’s consciousness’.[49]

Kingdom Come (Norton edition, 2012).

In Kingdom Come, the explicitly micronational elements in the narrative are easily recouped by consumer capitalism. What is not so easily absorbed is Pearson’s new sense of worth, the sense that he has found himself in a confrontation with the forces of consumerism and has summoned the nerve to walk away, resisting what the Harvard Guide terms the ‘psychoprogramming’ of end-state consumerism. Pearson, alone, sees the folly of the Metro-Centre micro-republic, predicting how the consumer landscape, which has now expanded to become the State itself, will always renew itself:

One day there would be another Metro-Centre and another desperate and deranged dream. Marchers would drill and wheel while another cable announcer sang out the beat. In time, unless the sane woke and rallied themselves, an even fiercer republic would open the doors and spin the turnstiles of its beckoning paradise. (280)

In his analysis of Kingdom Come, Benjamin Noys highlights its ‘self-criticism’ of Ballard’s late-period work and the fascination with transgression: ‘While Ballard traces how such a “revolution” flirts with fascism the end of the novel traces the descent of the revolution into the kind of inertia that was found in his earlier fiction’[50] – indeed, the inertia of ‘time slippage’ that was paradoxically revealed to be liberating in stories like ‘The Day of Forever’. Pearson broadcasts his creations to the world, but when they reach peak capacity he disengages, refusing to follow the logic of transgression – the cycle of action-reaction-destruction – to its bitter conclusion, a trajectory that destroys the characters Prentice in Cocaine Nights and Sinclair in Super-Cannes. Both literalise their unconscious roles as switches in a perpetual relay of destruction. Prentice willingly substitutes himself for his brother Frank as perpetrator of a fatal, mysterious house fire, while the real crime of consumer capitalism – the selling of transgressive acts as entertainment, which led to the fire – reforms around him, forever evading detection. Sinclair takes his place as the death angel of the novel’s anomie-infested business parks, avenging another character’s death, yet undermined by the knowledge that his rebellion will inevitably be soaked up as more balm for violence-hungry consumers.

Contrary to this, Pearson enacts an alternative that Noys, taking his cue from Baudrillard’s early work, terms ‘becoming banal’:

The account that … Ballard give[s] of simulated alterity suggests that transgression is not actually transgressive; it is rather that transgression is boring… To play the game of transgression is to fall within an unacknowledged banality, as well as to continue to sustain the dead forms of contemporary culture. Therefore it is a matter of pushing through and completing the banality of transgression … Contrary to the desire to find a real future crime we might follow Baudrillard’s previous suggestion for a fatal strategy: becoming-banal.[51]

Pearson’s actions suggest that remaining anonymous, withdrawing and embracing obscurity could well prove to be the most radical strategy of all. But the point would not be to disengage completely, lest Ballantyne’s fate be visited, but in knowing when to stop, to withdraw, to resist classification, to exercise choice, to reform – and when to re-emerge.

Within this fluctuation, there is a final connection with micronationalism. In 2003, the Amorph!03 conference was held in Finland, gathering together delegates to discuss the future of micronations. Many of the micronations represented were based on the NSK model, a template that marked a shift away from the traditional claiming of physical space. According to NSK, a Slovenian art collective,[52] their micronation is in fact a ‘state in time’, which ‘claims no territory, but rather confers the status of a state not to territory but to mind, whose borders are in a state of flux, in accordance with the movements and changes of its symbolic and physical collective body’.[53] For the ‘NSK State in Time’ – informed by the breakup of Yugoslavia, the subsequent reorganisation of geographical boundaries and the re-emergence of Slovenia – the process of globalisation has changed forever the role of the nation state. Therefore, time, as an aggregation of individual experiences, becomes the only productive way to measure, and inhabit, space, which has now become a commodity, fought over for inscrutable nationalistic or consumerist purposes. Movement for NSK creates subjective time, and therefore new experiences, recalling Halliday in ‘The Day of Forever’, who, moving from town to town, attempts to restart his imaginative inner life in a global era where time has stopped completely.

Ballard’s characters, to varying degrees of success, have been claiming allegiance to their minds – to the sovereignty of their imaginations – since the very beginning of his career, and the message appears more pertinent today, as Ballard outlined in a 1987 interview:

The consumer conformism – ‘the suburbanization of the soul’ – on the one hand and the gathering ecological and other crises on the other do force the individual to recognize that he or she is all he or she has got. And this sharpens the eye and the imagination. The challenge is for each of us to respond, to remake as much as we can of the world around us, because no one else will do it for us. We have to find a core within us and get to work.[54]

But it is his final words from the 1987 interview that are particularly worth remembering. There, we find a genuine call to arms that puts his failed revolutionaries – Faulkner, Ballantyne, Prentice, Sinclair – to shame.

Instead, Ballard points towards the future and to Pearson: ‘Don’t worry about worldly rewards. Just get on with it!'[55]


[1] Ballard, quoted in an interview with Iain Sinclair, ‘J.G. Ballard’s Cinema in the Slipstream of Discontent’ (1999), Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (eds), Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008 (London: Fourth Estate, 2012), pp. 367-8.
[2] For background information on micronations, see John Ryan, George Dunford and Simon Sellars, Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-made Nations (Footscray: Lonely Planet Publications, 2006); Erwin S. Strauss, How to Start Your Own Country (Port Townsend: Loompanics Unlimited, 1984 [1979]); and Judy Lattas, ‘DIY Sovereignty and the Popular Right in Australia’, in Mobile Boundaries/Rigid Worlds (Sydney: Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, 2005) <http://www.crsi.mq.edu.au/documents/mobile_boundaries_rigid_worlds/lattas.pdf>, accessed 18 July 2010; and Cabinet, issue 18, Summer 2005 <http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/18/toc.php>, accessed 18 July 2010.
[3] Mark Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. J. Howe (London and New York, Verso, 1995), p. 30, 26.
[4] Augé, Non-places, pp. 7, 29.
[5] Augé, Non-places, pp. 78, 79.
[6] Augé, Non-places, p. 78.
[7] Roger Luckhurst, ‘The Angle Between Two Walls’: The Fiction of J. G. Ballard (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997), p. 129.
[8] J. G. Ballard, Millennium People (London: Flamingo, 2003), p. 265.
[9] J. G. Ballard, Kingdom Come (London: Fourth Estate, 2006), p. 222.
[10] J. G. Ballard, ‘J. G. Ballard’s comments on his own fiction’, Interzone, April 1996, p. 23. Here, Ballard clarifies the ‘strange interregnum’, which refers to two periods: the time between Pearl Harbour, in December 1941, and internment at
Lunghua in March 1943; and the end of the war in 1945, when American forces took control of Shanghai. He revisited the phrase to describe the latter in his autobiography, Miracles of Life: ‘August 1945 formed a strange interregnum when we were never wholly certain that the war had ended, a sensation that stayed with me for months and even years. To this day as I doze in an armchair I feel the same brief moment of uncertainty’. J. G. Ballard, Miracles of Life (London: Fourth Estate), p. 104.
[11] Ballard, ‘J. G. Ballard’s comments’, p. 23.
[12] Andrzej Gasiorek, J. G. Ballard (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), p. 188.
[13] David Pringle, ‘J. G. Ballard Interviewed by David Pringle’, Interzone, April 1986, p. 12.
[14] In the introduction to Concrete Island, Ballard writes: ‘The day-dream of being marooned on a desert island still has enormous appeal, however small our chances of actually finding ourselves stranded on a coral atoll in the Pacific’. J. G. Ballard, Concrete Island (London: Vintage, 1994 [1974]), p. 4.
[15] The character Hargreaves finds himself, despite his reservations, caught up in a narrative of revenge that frames innocent men for the murder of a British officer, the implication being that during war, normal ideas of reality are suspended. J. G. Ballard, ‘The Violent Noon’, Varsity, 26 May 1951, p. 9.
[16] J. G. Ballard, ‘The Day of Forever’ (1966) in The Complete Short Stories: Volume 2 (London: Harper Perennial, 2006), p. 137.
[17] J. G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun (London: Grafton Books, 1988 [1984]), p. 27.
[18] In the novel, a simulacrum of London is erected in Lunghua, a clear desire to continue the cushioning effect of the expatriate International Settlement from the outside world: ‘A sun-bleached sign, crudely painted with the words “Regent Street”, was nailed to a bamboo pole … Naming the sewage-stained paths between the rotting huts after a vaguely remembered London allowed too many of the British prisoners to shut out the reality of the camp’ (167). This recalls the satire, Passport to Pimlico (1949), a film about an anomalous enclave, supposedly part of Burgundy, that forms in the London borough of Pimlico, allowing its residents to shut out the grind of post-war rationing and government control while still claiming their right to be ‘Englishmen’. Ballard has mentioned the film’s relevance to his work, particularly the English tendency to withdraw into unreal social isolation: ‘We have a sort of Passport to Pimlico view of social behaviour in this country. It’s an Ealing-comedy, Dad’s Army view of the world: we laugh, but forget that in the real world there is a war going on too.’ J.G. Ballard, ‘Papering over Cracks’, The Drawbridge, issue 5, 2007 <http://www.thedrawbridge.org.uk/issue_5/papering_over_cracks>, 19 July 2007.
[19] Ballard, ‘J. G. Ballard’s comments’, p. 23.
[20] J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World, (Harmondsworth and Ringwood: Penguin, 1974 [1962]), p. 14.
[21] For examples of adolescent and ‘joke’ micronations, see Ryan, Dunford and Sellars, Micronations, pp. 56-7.
[22] Maggie Jones, ‘Shutting Themselves In’, The New York Times, January 15, 2006 <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/15japanese.html>, accessed 28 December 2012.
[23] J.G. Ballard, ‘Some words about Crash!: 1. Introduction to the French edition of Crash!’ (1974), Foundation, The Review of Science Fiction, no. 9, November 1975, p. 45.
[24] J. G. Ballard, ‘The Enormous Space’, (1989) in The Complete Short Stories: Volume 2 (London: Harper Perennial, 2006) p. 698.
[25] Graeme Revell, ‘Interview with JGB by Graeme Revell’ (1984) in V. Vale and Andrea Juno, eds, RE/Search #8/9: J. G. Ballard (Re/Search Publications: San Francisco, 1991), p. 47.
[26] J. G. Ballard, ‘The Overloaded Man’ (1961) in The Complete Short Stories: Volume 1, p. 334.
[27] Ballard, quoted in ‘Munich Round-Up: Interview with J. G. Ballard’ (Uncredited interviewer; 1968), trans. Dan O’Hara, Ballardian, Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (eds), Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008 (London: Fourth Estate, 2012), pp. 12-13.
[28] J. G. Ballard, ‘Introduction to the French edition of Crash!’ (1974), Foundation, The Review of Science Fiction, no. 9, November 1975, p. 48.
[29] Gasiorek, J. G. Ballard, p. 139.
[30] J. G. Ballard (1996), quoted in V. Vale and Mike Ryan, eds, J. G. Ballard: Quotes (San Francisco: RE/Search Publications), 2004, p. 37.
[31] See Lattas, ‘DIY Sovereignty’.
[32] This gambit is named after The Mouse that Roared, a 1955 novel and 1959 film adaptation about a fictitious European country, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, which inadvertently captures the American government’s experimental doomsday device, leading to the USA’s defeat in an accidental war.
[33] Strauss, How to Start Your Own Country, pp. 18-19.
[34] Strauss, How to Start Your Own Country, p. 21.
[35] Keith Preston, ‘When the American Empire Falls: How Anarchists Can Lead the 2nd American Revolution’, Attack the System, 2005, <http://attackthesystem.com/when-the-american-empire-falls-how-anarchists-can-lead-the-2nd-american-revolution, accessed 13 July 2010.
[36] Preston, ‘When the American Empire Falls’.
[37] J. G. Ballard, Running Wild (London: Arrow Books, 1989 [1988]), p. 16.
[38] Augé, Non-places, p. 78.
[39] Ballard, ‘Introduction to the French edition of Crash!’ p. 45.
[40] J. G. Ballard, Super-Cannes (New York: Picador, 2002 [2000]), p. 256.
[41] Gasiorek, J. G. Ballard, p. 186.
[42] Augé, Non-places, pp. 119-20.
[43] John Gray, ‘Interview with J. G. Ballard’ (2000), Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (eds), Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008 (London: Fourth Estate, 2012), p. 379.
[44] Sze Tsung Leong, ‘…And There Was Shopping’, in Chuihua Judy Chung, Jeffrey Inaba, Rem Koolhaas, Sze Tsung Leong (eds), Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (Cologne: Taschen, 2002), p. 153.
[45] ‘One megachurch in Houston even designed its entertainment schedule in consultation with Walt Disney World’. Sze Tsung Leong, ‘The Divine Economy’, Harvard Design School Guide, p. 302.
[46] Leong, ‘The Divine Economy’, p. 302.
[47] Leong, ‘…And There Was Shopping’, p. 129.
[48] Sze Tsung Leong and Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, ‘Air Conditioning’, Harvard Design School Guide, p. 93. In addition, as the developer of the Bluewater shopping centre, a complex with rich Ballardian significance, says: ‘We have never seen [a shopping mall] as the last regional centre, but as the first stage of a city’ (Chuihua Judy Chung and Juan Palop-Casado, ‘Resistance’, Harvard Design School Guide, p. 640).
[49] Ballard, quoted in Revell, ‘Interview with JGB by Graeme Revell’, p. 52.
[50] Benjamin Noys, ‘Crimes of the Near Future: Baudrillard/Ballard’, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, January 2008 <http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol5_1/v5-1-article8-Noys.html>, accessed 18 July 2010.
[51] Noys, ‘Crimes of the Near Future: Baudrillard/Ballard’.
[52] NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) is perhaps most famous for its ‘music branch’, the group Laibach.
[53] Eda Cufer & Irwin quoted in Ryan, Dunford and Sellars, Micronations, p. 129.
[54] Jonathan Cott, ‘The Strange Visions of J. G. Ballard’, Rolling Stone, 19 November, 1987, p. 127.
[55] Cott, ‘The Strange Visions of J. G. Ballard’, p. 127.

Red-dirt Voodoo: Rebuilding Australia’s Northwest

reddirt road

Originally published in Architectural Review Asia-Pacific magazine #128: New Civic Realms. All photography by Simon Sellars unless stated otherwise.

In my time as AR editor, I never imagined the job would take me to Australia’s remote northwest and the Pilbara and Kimberley regions. How could architects design in places where there is no built environment to speak of? That guiding question underpinned the trip and my mission to review ARM’s Wanangkura Stadium in Port Hedland, a town devoted almost exclusively to the iron ore mining that makes the Pilbara among Australia’s richest resource regions. I also wanted to visit two other remote projects with significant architectural involvement, both in the Kimberley: the Broome North housing development, with planning and research by CODA, and Iredale Pedersen Hook’s West Kimberley Regional Prison.

Near Derby, 220km north of Broome, the West Kimberley Regional Prison is touted as a world first in penal architecture. Its design was developed according to local Indigenous philosophies on living, including the ‘Five Guiding Principles’: custodial proximity to land and family; cultural responsibilities; spiritual relationship to land, sea and waterways; kinship and family responsibilities; community responsibilities. The prison will incarcerate 120 males and 30 females in 20 self-care units. For males, there are seven different housing designs, four for women. The units are grouped according to family ties, language and security ratings.

reddirt roos

I’ve seen work-in-progress photos and it doesn’t look like a prison. It looks humane. It’s a different way of incarceration and I can’t help but compare it with what I was told by Broome locals about their jail, that guards would turn a blind eye to prisoners leaping the low-security walls to visit their families a few streets down because, with a sense of duty, they would always return at night. With the West Kimberley Regional Prison’s emphasis on trust, responsibility and family ties, it seems a formalised version of that chaotic model. I wanted to talk to the architects about it but they were evasive. Before I left Melbourne, I set up a meeting with them in Derby for a viewing of the site but they cancelled at the very last minute. (Later, strangely, they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, even discuss it via email, saying they weren’t authorised due to ‘client issues’, even though the original meeting was arranged for me to discuss, and write about, the prison). I’d already paid for accommodation, though, so after a day in Broome I had no choice – I was off to Derby.

The drive was worth it. The desert highway between Broome and Derby is pinkish black, stained with red pindan dirt, and by the end I, too, had red dust all over my clothes, my hair and the car. I was coming down with ‘red-dirt voodoo’, a bizarre affliction identified by journalist Chris Johnston in Australian popular culture, principally the Mad Max films and the early songs of Hunters and Collectors, which are located in the Australian outback. According to Johnston, these cultural artefacts describe “the same kind of red-dirt voodoo concerned with a post-apocalyptic survival instinct, totems and pagan demons, industrial waste, nuclear fallout, feral children, big engines, no petrol and bad, bad animals… picking from the bones of mankind, taking shelter in primitiveness after the fall… The desert is expanding, the nothingness grows”.

Appropriately, the scale of the lonely highway was punctuated by the power and speed of the trucks that plied it. I drove a new, sturdy 4WD, but even so, the road trains thundering past threatened to blow me off the bitumen. Overtaking them is a test of nerve. You must build up a head of steam for a few kilometres before flooring the accelerator in the hope of passing the behemoth, which is so long it seems to go on forever, and avoiding meeting another truck head-first on the opposite side of the road. People roll their cars out here, travelling too fast down the endless, straight highway and their bodies aren’t found until a long time later. There were no police about and I admit I was tempted to take the vehicle to the limit, just to see what it felt like, to see how fast I could go. I was addicted to the road, to the voodoo, recalling the narration from Mad Max 2, when Max appears in the opening sequence, described as a “man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again”.

reddirt aliens

Before Derby, I stopped at the Mowanjum Art and Cultural Centre. It’s part of the community of Mowanjum, home to three Aboriginal tribes – the Worora, the Ngarinyin and the Wunumbul – who paint exclusively, obsessively, the Wandjina spirit beings that, they say, came from the Milky Way to create the Earth, and that still visit them today. Looking at their paintings, I felt a strange sensation as I noted the Wandjina’s uncanny resemblance to the infamous ‘grey’ aliens of Western UFO lore. Architect Steve Irvine, who works closely with tribal communities in the Kimberley, designed the centre and its roof is covered with a giant painting of the Wandjina, like some kind of tribal space pad. This is architecture that speaks to the heavens.

Derby itself was dusty and quiet – nothing was happening there at all except its massive tides, among the world’s highest. I drove out to the pier, where the water was out as far as the eye could see. An old fishing boat was stuck in the vast mud flats, forlorn and abandoned, and what seemed like hundreds of evil black spiders hung on the underside of the pier, swaying back and forth in the wind in their web-built cocoons. Two old women caught crabs in the mud and a powerful sense of melancholy overwhelmed me. The prison remained elusive.

reddirt boat

Returning to Broome the next day, I detoured to Eco Beach, an ‘eco resort’ built by developer Karl Plunkett alongside an idyllic stretch of coastline. Plunkett, according to his website, is a self-styled ‘visionary’ and his image even adorns an illustrated timeline of the area’s exploration in the past century, on the side of the resort’s admin building. Plunkett originally built Eco Beach in 1996 only to lose the lot to a cyclone. He then rebuilt it, making it stronger and fully self-sufficient with $300,000 worth of solar batteries working overtime in a complex, computerised operation. He told me this is Australia’s biggest standalone hybrid system. “Basically I’m a town,” he said. He meant the resort but the personal pronoun was telling. When I asked him what role architects can play in such developments, he just laughed and said that in his projects his construction company always handles design inhouse. “Architects are too expensive,” he scoffed.

Back in Broome I was introduced to Bill Reed, co-founder of Linneys, Broome’s famous pearl and jewellery store (the town’s pearling history is one of its most enduring tourist draws). He took me on a tour of Broome’s old architecture, pointing out details in the vernacular design like the Short Street Gallery, probably the last structure in Broome with ‘wind tunnels’ on the roof to funnel air down through the building, once essential in this hot environment in the days before air conditioning. He told me about Lord Alistair McAlpine, the quixotic father of Broome tourism, who washed up in Broome from England in the 1980s, when the town was pretty much derelict. McAlpine built the sumptuous Cable Beach resort, where scores of travellers today continue to drink cocktails right on the edge of the beach, watching camel trains cross the sand as Broome’s remarkable, venerated sunset falls from the sky. According to Reed, McAlpine also restored many of Broome’s crumbling old homes and buildings, teaching the locals that there was much to appreciate in the vernacular architecture.

reddirt gallery

Reed is appreciative of Broome North, effectively a new suburb of Broome that offers affordable house and land packages; it officially opened while I was there. In its planning stage, it featured significant involvement from CODA, in a wonderful example of architects collaborating on meaningful urban design with developers (Landcorp, the Western Australian government’s developer, in this case). CODA undertook a wide-ranging cultural, historical and environmental analysis of Broome, forming meticulous design guidelines that influenced Broome North’s development, structure and subdivision. I was set to meet with CODA in Broome, but, frustratingly, they too cancelled just before I left. It was down to Reed to give me some of the picture. He told me that the ambition with Broome North is to grow Broome as a town, to instigate “proactive planning rather than reactive”, the opposite to the Pilbara where there is an ongoing attempt to reverse the damage done to communities by mining. This is an important consideration, given Woodside’s planned gas processing hub at James Price Point, north of Broome.

reddirt court

Many locals hold grave fears that the hub will turn Broome into a coastal version of Port Hedland, overrun by fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers, its soul sucked dry by a transient working population only interested in money. Everyone’s heard the stories, often exaggerated, of FIFO miners barely existing on a diet of pills and prostitutes, working until they drop, fighting in Port Hedland pubs and streets, decked out in ‘gang colours’ – the high-visibility vests and work uniforms of Fortescue Metals, BHP and the rest. Yet Reed, eternal optimist, said the hub will be a good opportunity for unemployed locals, especially young Indigenous people. He’s not worried about FIFO either, telling me that they won’t be allowed to wear their colours into town. And when they do come in, they’ll be escorted. The hub is a very divisive issue, though, and you need to be careful who you talk to about it. Roughly, the older generation are all for it; the younger generation want nothing to do with it. I was invited to a party in Broome where I made the mistake of asking a couple of people their thoughts; I got the evil eye and the cold shoulder. Later, I learnt that Woodside’s security firm, called, unbelievably, ‘Hostile Environment Services’, had been patrolling the town, intimidating people with miniature cameras worn around their necks and on the undersides of their cars, recording angry faces and insurgent locals.

Finally, I flew to Port Hedland, monumental in my mind after hearing so many horror stories about it. I was squashed into the edge of my seat, the only person of average build on an aircraft packed with muscled-up miners. For the two days and two nights I spent there, my ears were assaulted by the constant clatter of heavy machinery, road trains, non-stop swearing, all day and night planes and 100-wagon-long freight trains. Never mind the so-called two-speed economy, Port Hedland is the economic autobahn – no speed limit. Everything is hyper-accelerated, hyper-functional. Mining companies buy up all available accommodation, paying thousands of dollars over normal rental rates to eliminate all competition for beds. When that overspills, mini cities are set up containing hundreds of caravans and fibro huts – ‘dongas’ – for miners to crash in, although to me they seemed more like refuelling stations for cyborgs to reboot than places to sleep. Fly in, fly out; plug in, plug out. What else is there to do on a tour of duty except go a bit nuts? Out here, miners suffer mental stress, and drug and drink problems, even poor dental hygiene, so limited are the health services for the FIFO army.

reddirt hotel

There aren’t any hotels in town except the Pier Hotel and I wasn’t keen to stay there, for reasons that will become clear, so I found accommodation in one of the miners’ mini cities near the airport, sleeping in a donga as cramped as a cell. I was met by a security guard from the compound and when I asked him how to get into town in the evening, he said, slowly and deliberately: “Don’t stay out after dark, mate. You really don’t want to be in town after dark.” Undeterred, ARM’s Sophie Cleland insisted on buying me a drink at the Pier. In the 70s an English journalist wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that it was the ‘world’s toughest pub’ and the label stuck. According to one desert legend, it holds the world record for the most stabbings in a pub in a single night: 86, including six barmaids. That seems completely apocryphal, yet Cleland showed me a wall plastered with the mug shots of banned patrons, mostly, a notice said, exiled for knife fights. Cleland asked if she could photograph the wall, and the ‘skimpy’ – the lingerie-clad barmaid – said yes. A miner next to us sneered, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” but nothing happened. He just went back to his beer and we went back to ours. It was like he was playing a role. There was a lot of that. During dinner back at the compound, a miner sat next to me. As he shovelled stringy, tendony steak into his mouth, he regaled me, uninvited, with a blow-by-blow description, including sound effects, of the arm-severing and tendon-snipping scene in the film 127 Hours. Then he talked me through his unwritten film script about a robot miner who can pull his camera-eye out to surveil people by stealth, and who can also shred your skin with a laser cheese grater. My cyborg metaphor had come to life. Hostile Environment Services could learn a lot from this guy.

Port Hedland is a funny old place and it may even have the last laugh on Broome, which fears becoming Port Hedland, by stealing a share of something Broome holds dear: tourism. Recently, cruise ships visiting the northwest have begun to skip well-established, tranquil stop offs in the Kimberley for Port Hedland, where passengers instead don high-visibility vests and helmets to tour refineries and mines. After all, it is a visually remarkable place. With giant mining machinery and iron ore ships stained with red dirt (all the streets and buildings, too) and huge mounds of ‘red gold’ – iron ore – glinting in the sun, Port Hedland is like a mining city on Mars.

On my last day, Cleland took me on a tour of her oasis in the desert: ARM’s Wanangkura Stadium. Bubbling over with excitement and energy, she was like a proud parent displaying her newborn baby. Describing the building’s steel panelling, she said, “it is of its context. This is the iron ore city – out of the ground comes iron ore, and it’s turned into steel. This is an area of extreme climates and extreme weather patterns, and those ideas are ingrained into the building. We’ve taken the local context and put it back together in another way”. As she said it, at last the riddle hanging over this remarkable trip – that guiding question – was resolved, tying together all the architecture I’d seen and heard about in Derby, Broome and Port Hedland.

In the end, it was simple: tourists will come and go but the landscape will remain. Respect the landscape first and foremost – and the community’s relationship to it, no matter how harsh the context – and the rest will fall into place.

Tourism Western Australia and Australia’s Northwest Tourism kindly sponsored AR’s trip to Australia’s northwest.

Extreme Metaphors: ‘A Launchpad for Other Explorations’

Extreme Metaphors PB front

‘A Launchpad for Other Explorations’ by Simon Sellars. Introduction to Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara, Fourth Estate, January 2014. 


The conditions of J.G. Ballard’s childhood in wartime Shanghai are well known, exposed by the success of his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), and Steven Spielberg’s film version of that compulsive self-mythology. Yet pre-Empire, Shanghai was admitted only in metaphor to Ballard’s writing, and the war mentioned en passant in the ubiquitous mini-biographies adorning the front-papers of his novels. A typical example contained various combinations of the following elements: ‘He was born in Shanghai in 1930 to English parents. The Japanese interned him for almost three years in a civilian war camp. He came to England when he was sixteen. He studied medicine at King’s College, Cambridge. He worked as a copywriter, then as a Covent Garden porter, then as an editor on a scientific journal. He trained to become an RAF pilot. His first professionally published short story was “Prima Belladonna” in 1956. He was a leading light in the so-called “New Wave” of science fiction. He lives in Shepperton, England. Crash is his most notorious novel…’

Occasionally, there would be self-reflexive variations, statements so intense they were surely the handiwork not of bored copywriters but of Ballard himself: ‘He believes that science fiction is the authentic literature of the twentieth century’ (or ‘science fiction is the apocalyptic language of the twentieth century’). ‘He believes that inner space, not outer, is the real subject of science fiction.’ Today, given Ballard’s post-Empire canonisation, it’s easy to forget he began as a writer of science fiction, although in the 1960s he established his name with a quartet of end-of-the-world disaster novels that anticipated climate change: The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1964) and The Crystal World (1966).

In that decade, he also produced a number of short stories that inverted science fiction via one of its most cherished tropes, time travel, using the premise to formulate the fabled theory of inner space informing those early bios. Anticipating Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, Ballard demonstrated how encroaching advertising and mass consumer culture played on submerged desire, implanting new, artificial subjectivities to create a schizophrenic underclass. In response to such conditions, his characters retreated into the private imagination – ‘inner space’ – cordoning it off as a virtual ‘nature reserve’, preserving its sovereignty by any means possible. A recurring theme was the idea of escaping or cheating time, precipitated by a period of psychic turmoil. Recording the Daliesque motif of stopped or ‘melting’ time, Ballard uses the symbolism of time (that is, the unit of measurement; clock time) as an arbitrary, man-made construct imposing order and control on the free reign and chaos of the subconscious. Faced with the reality of life in that tumultuous decade, inner space for Ballard was a far more strange and compelling setting for science fiction than its traditional environs in outer space.

Coining the slogan ‘Earth is the only alien planet’, Ballard joined forces with Michael Moorcock to lead the British New Wave, producing an extended, linked sequence of fragmentary, non-linear short stories that continued to address the psychosocial effects of the media landscape. These were mainly published in Moorcock’s revolutionary New Worlds magazine, the mouthpiece for the New Wave, and later collected as The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), which, billed as an ‘experimental novel’, cemented his reputation as a dark magus, a writer able to face the most extreme aspects of our culture and divine a secret logic from the chaos.

In the mid-seventies, Ballard mostly abandoned formal experimentation in favour of traditional narrative technique, although the subject matter was just as confrontational, perhaps even more shocking for the neutral style encasing it. The novels of this period include Crash (1973), about a cult of bored, middle-class professionals who feel alive only after modifying their bodies via staged car crashes; Concrete Island (1974), about a man who crashes into a patch of wasteland beneath a motorway, subconsciously ‘marooning’ himself in the city; and High-Rise (1975), in which a high-tech apartment block descends into tribal warfare. These seductive, disturbing narratives seek out the edgelands of cities, making strange the familiar landscapes of suburbia, and have proved enormously influential for their clinical portrayal of the new roles we assume from the technological landscape. They have inspired not only writers but also musicians, artists and filmmakers, who respond to Ballard’s highly imagistic style (itself influenced by surrealism), and even architects and urbanists, drawn to his penetrating critique of the contemporary urban condition.

Then came a brace of unclassifiable novels: The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), Hello America (1981), The Day of Creation (1987) and Rushing to Paradise (1994). If an overarching theme could be detected, it’s perhaps that each presented a lysergic vision of mythical lands (sometimes right before our eyes, as in suburbia) undermining and degrading the structural integrity of the urban West. In between were Empire and its sequel The Kindness of Women (1991), both playing surrealistic games with Ballard’s life story. In his later career, there was a final incarnation: Ballard, the writer of subversive crime fictions such as Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006). Indeed, crime was the perfect genre for the age of conspiracy theory and inscrutable global power structures that would come to define the new millennium, and which Ballard’s work had always foretold. Of course, he continued to write brilliant short stories throughout, as well as the novella ‘The Ultimate City’ (1976), about a future New York abandoned and then repopulated, regarded as among his finest work.

Illustration for Ballard’s ‘The Drowned Giant’ by Shafeen Alam.

Actually, what this potted history suggests is that Ballard’s career is almost impossible to summarise. Reading the blurbs of his later novels, therefore, with their Shanghai-Empire focus, feels like submitting to a ritual incantation designed to fix a public mask for this most elusive of writers. In reality, if your first introduction to Ballard is by way of, say, his short story ‘The Drowned Giant’ (1964), then you might think you have stumbled on to a master magical realist in the Swiftian tradition. If Crash is the initiation, then you might think twice before proceeding further, unless your palate is already sufficiently developed with a taste for the blackest intellectual meat. And what if your introduction is via one of the many interviews he gave across the arc of his career?

Ballard published approximately 1,100,000 words in novels, 500,000 in short stories and at least 300,000 in non-fiction. The combined word count of all the interviews he gave is around 650,000. In the Ballardian galaxy that’s a second sun, an enormous parallel body of speculation, philosophy, critical inquiry and imaginative flights of fancy that comments critically on his writing, often explains it and, sometimes, extends or even goes beyond it. Ballard enjoyed talking about his work, in marked contrast to the contemporary literary landscape where authors see interviews as a tiresome duty, or as a PR exercise, a chance to push product, or even as a chance to vent spleen on real and imagined enemies. As Iain Sinclair said of Ballard: ‘He doesn’t speak badly of anybody, any named individual. It’s almost a superstition, no gossip.’ In interviews, it was common for him to ignore any mention of literature and fellow writers altogether. Questions as to his literary influences were deflected or summed up with a short list of his childhood reading.

Ballard was never comfortable defining his place within the canon, and had little time for contemporary literature, which he saw as stuck in the mode of the nineteenth-century ‘social novel’, unwilling or unable to confront the fragmented subjectivities induced by the new media landscape. In contrast, his stories and novels present psychosociological case studies, based on highly skilled readings of real-world trends in culture, consumerism, technology and media. Frequently, this predictive charge was fomented in the interview situation, a kind of philosophical ‘laboratory’ where he could test ideas, opinions and observations, and later smuggle them into the airlocked worlds of his fiction. The opportunity to review his interviews is therefore an important one, and, in the twilight zone of critical opinion that invariably follows an important writer’s death, to be taken seriously. With the benefit of hindsight, and Ballard’s complete body of work before us stretching back fifty-five years, not only are we able to unearth the philosophical and imaginative seeds that would spawn his most significant writing, but we are also able to experience a kind of extended remix of the themes woven throughout his work.

Extreme Metaphors PB spine


Arguably, Ballard’s most striking interview is the one he gave to Carol Orr in 1974, soon after the publication of Crash, when his notoriety was riding high. Four years earlier, the entire run of the American edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, to be published by Doubleday, had been pulped after a Doubleday executive became apoplectic at some of the more controversial material within (principally the story ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’). Then, Crash was turned down by a publisher’s reader with the infamous words: ‘This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.’ Ballard was probably about as ‘cult’ as a writer could be at the time, and although still regarded as primarily a writer of science fiction, was distancing himself farther and farther from the genre. As a writer of SF, his ostensible line of work was to collate the future, yet he undermines that job description by telling Orr that there is no future, that ‘the present is throwing up so many options, so many alternatives, that it contains the possibilities of any future right now. You can have tomorrow today. And the notion of the future as a sort of programmatic device … a compass bearing … a destination that we are moving towards psychologically and physically … is rather outdated.’ It is for this reason, he has claimed elsewhere, that science fiction is dead, its predictive capacity castrated by the ever-changing, real-world present. The prophetic nature of that observation can be gauged by the fact that William Gibson, among the most intelligent and successful of contemporary science fiction writers, has said in recent interviews that he has given up on writing SF for similar reasons – almost three decades after Ballard.

Orr asks Ballard about the likelihood of nuclear holocaust, and his response both predicts and undermines the nuclear hysteria and paranoia that would peak in the 1980s. Warning that networked technology and identity theft will become greater threats, he argues that we must be prepared for a coming age ‘where bank balances will be constantly monitored and at almost any given time all the information that exists about ourselves will be on file somewhere… where all sorts of agencies, commercial, political and governmental, will have access to that information’. (This can be tested empirically: how many of us have been the victim of online identity theft, and how many of a nuclear holocaust?)

Compare with Alvin Toffler’s bestselling non-fiction book Future Shock, published three years earlier but in 1974 still considered a frightening, all-too- real future vision. Toffler warned of ‘massive adaptational breakdown’ unless ‘man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs as well as in society at large’. He predicted turmoil on an epic scale, with most of the population struggling to cope with the psychological shock of a mass- mediated life. Ballard, although concerned, discerns a rather different outcome, rooted in his belief in the affirmative possibilities of new technologies. He tells Orr that modern urban dwellers are psychologically tougher than ever before, ‘strong enough to begin to play all kinds of deviant games, and I’m sure that this is to some extent taking place’. He explains how the isolation that results from immersion in technological systems will invariably play into our latent fantasies: ‘We tend to assume that people want to be together in a kind of renaissance city if you like, imaginatively speaking, strolling in the evening across a crowded piazza … [But people] want to be alone. They want to be alone and watch television.’ Orr is unsure, her voice trailing as she struggles to articulate: ‘No, I can’t agree with you there. I think it is not a question of a conscious decision…’

Patiently, Ballard clarifies the true ‘togetherness’ of the technological age: people pressed together in traffic jams, aeroplanes, elevators, hemmed in, an artificial connectedness that breeds pathologies of violence, following by withdrawal into, for all intents and purposes, inner space. Protesting, Orr says she doesn’t want to be in a traffic jam, but neither does she want ‘to be alone on a dune, either’. Ballard counters: ‘being alone on a dune is probably a better description of how you actually lead your life than you realise … The city or the town or the suburb or the street – these are places of considerable isolation. People like it that way, too. They don’t want to know all their neighbours. This is just a small example where the conventional appeal of the good life needs to be looked at again.’ The exchange is significant because, with hindsight, we can determine Ballard testing the hypothesis behind Concrete Island, the follow-up to Crash, and a concentrated study in willed social isolation (Concrete Island’s protagonist crashes and maroons himself under a motorway overpass; he decides to stay there, finding new reserves of psychological strength as he escapes the pressures of his city life). Here, Ballard’s interview-art is in full effect: running the test, storing the results, turning the tables on his interrogator.

ballard concrete

In later interviews, Ballard would refine his views on affirmative social isolation, enthusing about the possibilities of private media and suggesting that the average home would soon acquire the processing power of a small TV studio, enabling us to broadcast our intimate fantasies to one another. In 1982 he told V. Vale that ‘everybody will be doing it, everybody will be living inside a TV studio. That’s what the domestic home aspires to these days … We’re all going to be starring in our own sit-coms, and they’ll be very strange sit-coms, too, like the inside of our heads. That’s going to come, I’m absolutely sure of that, and it’ll really shake up everything.’ It is this vision, not Toffler’s, that continues to resonate.

Yet for Ballard there was always a dark side. Today, online persona factories frame a fluid performativity enabled by the irresistible connective tissue of social media. What is YouTube – now inevitably banal, smoothly integrated into the fabric of everyday life – if not the medium for each of us to design and star in ‘our own sit-coms’? Anyone familiar with Ballard’s brutal short story ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ (1977) will recognise the dark shadow of those ‘very strange’ productions (indeed, of what we now recognise as social media), with its disturbing warning about the dangers that await when we have the capacity to broadcast ‘the inside of our heads’. Ballard’s futurism, always potent, extremely well reasoned and argued – frequently alarming – was, above all, uncannily accurate. He did not flinch, and he expected us not to, either.


From the moment I first read a Ballard interview (before any of his fiction, in fact), his slyly subversive conversational style colonised my thoughts and I became obsessed with tracking down every interview he ever did (my search continues; this collection merely scratches the surface). Back then, naive and inexperienced, I convinced myself that these interviews were superior to his novels. Sacrilege today, of course, but there was a case to be made, for I deeply admired how he worked the interview format with a neurosurgeon’s skill, finessing philosophical positions and aesthetic strategies that would later find purchase in his work, triaging real-world scenarios into the dark revelations of his fictional mirror worlds. I would find a new fix in obscure zines. I would painstakingly transcribe his radio and TV appearances. I would badger my elder Ballard-watching associates for access to their magnificent collections, but I had a lot of catching up to do. Henry James gave just three interviews in his life; there are at least two hundred published Ballard conversations. Before he’d even uttered a word, Don DeLillo once presented an interviewer with a card that warned: ‘I don’t want to talk about it’. In his heyday, Ballard could talk for hours, plying his interrogators with Scotch to keep things sociable.

He was courteous, approachable and generous with his time, and patient in explaining the terms and conditions of his work, although he once told an interviewer that ‘the ideal interview is one where I remain silent and you just ask a stream of hundreds of questions. Or – the interviewer hasn’t read the books he’s asking questions about, and the author can’t remember them!’ (He came close to achieving this goal in one of the more unusual interviews in this collection, the series of yes/no answers he gave to Sam Scoggins in 1983, an exercise in stylised repetition that, like a tape loop of music, grows in the imagination the more it is repeated.) Of course, he was being flippant. His real interest in making that remark was probably psychoanalytical, wanting to uncover the hidden intentions behind a particular line of questioning, or to turn the process into an autodidactic, quasi-surrealistic game.

He championed the independent press, often granting interviews to obscure photocopied fanzines and other small publications. A review of the publication history of his interviews reveals titles like Speculation, Corridor, Cypher, Vector, Search & Destroy, Aether SF, Etoile Mecanique, Hard Copy, The Hardcore, Hard Mag, Albedo One. These are labours of love on the parts of their publishers, mimeographed enthusiasm, largely forgotten, even in the all-seeing digital age. After Empire of the Sun, mainstream newspapers and magazines clamoured to speak to him, but still he held court with the underground. In the early days, it was the SF zines that came knocking on his door, but after RE/Search, specialists in ‘industrial’ culture, published Vale’s remarkable 30,000-word interview with him in 1984, punk and music periodicals picked up the pace. Ballard welcomed them, for he did not think his art was ‘pure’ and could speak for itself, nor did he appear to think it was degrading to explain his work, or that he had a certain type of audience, high or low.

In a 2010 article on ‘why novelists hate being interviewed’, Tom LeClair notes a recent trend: novels that portray interviewers as ‘irresponsible or unworthy of respect’. According to this ‘genre’, interviewers are hapless lackeys of the evil media machine, pilloried by long-suffering novelists because they haven’t read the books they’re supposed to be asking about, or they put words into the novelist’s mouth, or they want to talk about gossip and nothing else, or the novelist is forced to do the interview out of contractual obligation to the publisher. Finally, LeClair wonders ‘if the novelists’ animus against interviewers might be displaced animus against passionately curious readers, those who want to learn about authors to better comprehend their books. It appears that some novelists want to be understood, but not too thoroughly understood. [Philip Roth] suggests a darker, Oedipal motive for the animus: “Old men hate young men”.’ Such charges cannot be levelled at Ballard, who talked to almost anyone willing to make the trip down the motorway to his home in Shepperton or to ring the phone number he nonchalantly allowed to be listed in public phone directories.

Of course, earlier in his career, he had little time for ‘fandom’ as at least one interview in this collection attests, but he was always prepared to converse with those genuinely interested in the mysterious forces propelling his work, which he catalogued in his prose poem ‘What I Believe’ (1984). There, we find an index of his obsessions, including the ‘power of the imagination’; motorways; birds (indeed, flight of all kinds, powered and unpowered); the ‘confidences of madmen’; ‘the beauty of the car crash’; abandoned hotels; forgotten runways; Pacific islands; ‘all women’; supermarkets; the ‘genital organs of great men and women’; the death of the Space Age; Ernst, Delvaux, Dali and de Chirico; and ‘all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet’. In fact, that small list could be a mini-index to this present volume, in which all its elements are present and correct, and which in turn function as launchpads for other explorations, other themes: psychological, ontological, metaphysical, sociological, political, satirical, comical.

As evidenced by the reference to Ernst, Delvaux and the rest, visual art was a touchstone for Ballard, and he often said he wished he’d been an artist rather than a writer. Perhaps it is within that discipline, rather than the navel-gazing, venom-inked pens of literature, that we might find the light that can illuminate Ballard’s inimitable strengths as an interviewee. Daniel Miller, in an essay on the function of interviews in the art world, wrote of the interview itself ‘as art form’. This is meant both literally and figuratively, the former in that the conversation piece becomes a thing of crafted beauty, and the latter in that it becomes an appendage of the visual artist, albeit one with a mutually beneficial, symbiotic function: ‘the principal vehicle of public relations and vital theoretical supplement to artistic practice’. Miller identifies interviewer and interviewee as switches in a circuit, an ‘actor network’ (after Bruno Latour) that also includes inanimate and virtual objects. Because visual artists, perhaps more than any other creative discipline, are constantly in negotiation with institutional and bureaucratic politics in order to find funding – ‘negotiation, exploration and strategy’ – they are also constantly in negotiation with their ideas and their work, and the best ways to present them in order to ride the dynamism and flow of the network they are enmeshed within. In this respect, Miller explains, ‘the interview serves both as a clinic in which abiding patterns are seen to and as a laboratory in which new connections are forged’.

In the same way, Ballard sought to make new connections in the interview situation, to use the occasion as a workshop for experimentation, a test bed for later integration into his art. Nonetheless, these are experiments based on familiar patterns, for repetition is vitally important to his work (both in the fiction and in the interviews, and in the body of both combined), as a kind of linguistic hypertext that endlessly turns in on itself, erases itself and erects itself anew, providing no discernible start or end point – evading linear time once again, even in death – yet still providing familiar markers with which to orient oneself. It is not for nothing that interviewers came to refer to Ballard as the ‘Seer from Shepperton’, for the insights he offered so casually were always infused with that deep intelligence, itself informed by a vast cosmology of inner space. All who interviewed him knew it well. We were struck by it, lost deep in thought, sometimes confused or disconcerted, after it came to us as part of that disarming mix of full-frontal future shock and old-world, erudite charm, delivered like a child’s spoonful of medicine that turns out to be surprisingly pleasant to the taste.

Doubtless you, too, will become enamoured of the taste as you make your way through the chronology we have assembled, spiralling down through wormholes to the far side of his fiction, and a parallel universe familiar but strange, where Ballardian pronouncements reveal their covert meaning, as he pulls all the outer limits and farthest reaches of his career into sharper focus.

Extreme Metaphors PB back

If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It: or, What’s the Point of Architecture Criticism?

want blood

This is the transcript of a talk I gave for Refuel Victoria’s Monday Night Talks. I was on a panel of four responding to the topic ‘Blood-Sport or Boosterism?, explained by the event organisers like so:

“What’s the point of architecture criticism? What are its conventions and can we productively subvert them? Who speaks and writes about architecture and why? How might we broaden the conversation about architecture and what it means? Of late, there has been a good deal of debate about criticism and how to do it. This panel discussion uses a new book edited by Naomi Stead, Semi-Detached: Writing, Representation and Criticism in Architecture, to open up a more complex account of architecture criticism and the role it can play in architecture and in the broader culture.”

Besides myself, speakers included Naomi Stead, Ian McDougall (Ashton Raggatt McDougall) and Tom Morgan (co-editor, Post magazine). The chair was architecture critic Justine Clark.

Originally published on Australian Design Review, 25 July 2012.

The question for the panel is: “What is the point of architecture criticism?”. I aim to find a way into the ‘problem’ by addressing a few interrelated points. I speak from the perspective of an editor and publisher of architecture reviews, in particular the humble project review – a form of criticism maligned in recent times. Examples of this particular stance can be found in the recent online debate about the MCA, as recorded on our website, in which architect Sam Marshall said “most architectural criticism is drivel,” and in Alan Davies’s recent post on Crikey, ‘Are architecture reviews critical?’. According to Davies, architecture reviews in professional journals “usually present only one solution (the adopted one!) and tailor and massage the constraints to flatter that choice – to make it seem like it was the inevitable, best and only one. More often than not these ‘reviews’ are written by the architects themselves and consist largely of pictures. Even those written by others are rarely critical and seldom in any way that isn’t awfully nice and awfully oblique. They’re really fluff pieces, not reviews in any meaningful sense of the word. There’s little of the plain-speaking criticism a novelist or painter might expect from a critic.”

I’m disappointed in Davies’ assertions, as he is a critic whose opinions generally stimulate me, but also because he appears to be recanting a 2010 article he wrote on the subject, almost identically titled (‘Is architectural criticism critical?‘). There, he wrote: “I would love to see architectural reviews [that discuss] to what extent the architectural outcome was retarded or advanced by the actions of other parties such as the owner and the builder… [However] While authors depend on reviews for sales and some architects perhaps benefit from them, developers and owners generally do not. They might even be damaged by a negative appraisal. So any critique of private developments that is truly critical would have to step carefully around commercially sensitive issues.”

As Davies’ 2010 article suggests, it’s an act of bad faith to equate architecture criticism with literary criticism, art criticism or even film criticism, although confusingly, Davies, the 2012 model, is hardly the first to suggest that it should be treated as such, with many of the most strident voices in support of similar ideas coming from architects themselves. Architecture criticism, and I’m talking about the project review of the type found in both AR and AA, and which Davies, 2012-style, is pointing his gun at, is in fact a peculiar act of collusion between architect and reviewer. There is no getting around that. Most obviously, the reviewer needs the architect’s help or even permission in accessing the building, particularly if it is a private home. Often the architect has paid for the photography that appears in the magazine and also owns the rights to the plans that are published alongside the review and photos. For all of these reasons, there is an unspoken burden of responsibility on the reviewer to not shed blood, to not stick the boot in, to not claim that the building doesn’t work or has failed its civic or public function, to skirt around the issue of how it has failed the client or the taxpayer. After all, the architect’s eyes are watching – they’ve gone to all that trouble! And, to be quite blunt, architects also tend to inhabit thin skins.

A good writer will of course find ways to test such constraints, using their wordsmithing to craft constructive criticism. For my part, I have never instructed a reviewer to hold back. I would also never censor a writer who submitted a review containing very strong opinions. However, the reality is that a great deal of self-policing occurs. If the reviewer is an architect, invariably they will not want to be seen to be attacking a peer, nor will they want to jeopardise potential collaborations or future job opportunities – this appears to be particularly so at a time when so few job opportunities seem to be on offer. If the reviewer is not an architect then those pressures obviously don’t apply, although the burden on the publisher remains. If we annoy an architect by publishing a less than enthusiastic review, then there’s a reasonable chance that the practice won’t give us access to their best projects in the future, and as a commercially driven, advertiser-beholden publication that is a worry. I’m not saying I’d pull the review necessarily, or rewrite it, but it is a concern – advertisers, after all, want to be situated next to the best projects. This is peculiar to the profession: architectural criticism, in this form, is what it is and there’s little point in pretending otherwise. After all, a film reviewer doesn’t need to ask a director for permission to view the film before reviewing it.

Yet Davies and certain architects, including some in the audience at Monday night’s discussion, feel that the gloves should come off, that we should say in plain-speaking terms when, why and exactly how a building does not work. My response? If you, the architecture profession, want a more ‘robust’ culture of criticism, in the ways that you have outlined, then that is up to you, as architects, to accept the consequences. I place the onus back on the profession because I’m somewhat bemused that publishers are being held accountable for this particular ‘problem’. If you want us to ‘spill blood’ in a review, then I’m fully prepared to spill blood, and to unleash my review-dogs of war, but don’t then turn around and say you’re not going to publish with us again, or that you’re going to sue. I don’t believe in negative or hurtful criticism for the sake of it, but I do believe – like Davies, funnily enough – in honest, constructive criticism. And sometimes that can sting.

This brings me to another point: the threat of libel. When I first started atAR I was warned that defamation laws in Australia are particularly vicious and unforgiving when it comes to criticising buildings, no matter how reasoned or articulate the opinion may be. In this country architecture writers can be and have been sued, and Alan Davies knows this. In his 2010 article, he acknowledged: “The law has long made it hard to review buildings critically. In 1979, architect John Andrews won a defamation action against Fairfax for claims in the Sydney Morning Herald that the Belconnen office complex he designed ‘leaked like a sieve, was an administrative nightmare, a property manager’s nightmare and, in effect, a security risk’. The leaking issue is something that presumably could be established factually but the other points are much harder to pin down.” From talking to other architecture editors, publishers and writers in Australia, I know that this overarching, unspoken threat is not confined to one misty incident in time.

One way to get around the constraints of the project review is to publish features alongside them that talk in more general terms, that are ‘no holds barred’ about the problems and challenges facing Australian architecture. But even then, and I don’t exaggerate, I’ve received semi-serious death threats and half-serious threats of legal action for publishing certain pieces – and I’ve only been in the job just over a year. Let me assure all of you: in the journals at least, there is no conspiracy to protect certain reputations via ‘fluffy’ architectural criticism, or to preserve a certain elite, or to prop up whatever other silly charges get levelled at us. To return to the ‘blood sport’ metaphor, and to quote AC/DC this time: “If you want blood, you’ve got it”. But then my warning would be: “Be careful what you wish for.”

To conclude, I feel that a large part of my role as AR editor is to involve the public in the debate about architecture and the built environment, to widen and enhance the conversation by capturing and including the public voice. In that sense, I agree with architect Don Bates, who in the audience on Monday posed a provocative question to the panel: What does it really matter if architecture criticism, as we once knew it, no longer exists? Maybe we’re looking at the wrong model: Why do architects want to be assessed in the same terms as film or book or art reviews? Again, the humble architecture project review is what it is, unless you, the profession, say otherwise.

In this debate about ‘toothless’ architecture criticism, and the point of the critical discipline, people frequently point to the demise of long-form architecture writing as some sort of harbinger of doom, as if it means the profession itself no longer matters, but a lack of writing about architecture should not be confused with a lack of interest, public or otherwise. On Twitter and in the margins of other social media, such as the comments sections of online newspapers, there is a very vigorous, very robust and often blood-spattered public debate happening about our built environment involving architects, planners, developers and the public alike. The interest is there but the means to tap into it in a meaningful, analytical way is perhaps not, at least as long as the obsession with the ‘review’ remains – or at least, a nostalgic view of what a review is supposed to be (as local lore states, real blood, alongside the metaphorical variety, was spilled in the old days of RMIT’s Half Time Club, a legendary live forum for architectural debate). As another audience member, Ammon Beyerle, suggested, perhaps it’s not the public that lacks the language to deal with architecture – perhaps it’s architects who no longer have the language to communicate with the public.

For me, asking the question “what is the point of architecture criticism?” is to ask the wrong question, and it’s no wonder that we are, in a sense, getting the ‘wrong’ answers by asking it. After all, this exact same debate crops up in a circular fashion in Australia, and there are online records of similar debates, couched in remarkably similar terms, being conducted as far back as 2003. Has anything been resolved in the meantime? I don’t want to sound entirely cynical by posing that question, as I wonder if the debate crops up in times when the profession itself – let alone the sideshow of criticism – is perceived to be ‘in crisis’. Was that the case in 2003? I can’t say for sure as I wasn’t on the scene then, although I can say that ‘crisis mode’ is certainly the perception today from many quarters. Perhaps asking the question, then, is a sign of the profession wanting to claw some credibility back for architecture, to make architecture mean something again in the face of rampant development, artificially intelligent consumerism and sentient capitalism. And that’s valuable – it’s an undeniably valid concern. Yet I still think the debate can be productively shifted sideways without losing that core ideal.

This brings me to my final point: that perhaps the role of the architectural advocate, rather than the critic, will play a more crucial and central role in not only educating the public about good design but also actively involving all of us – critics, architects or otherwise – in the conversation about good design and liveable cities. Here in Melbourne, for example, Stuart Harrison, Simon Knott, Christine Phillips and their Amsterdam-based colleague Rory Hyde fulfil that role, with their fingers in publishing, radio and TV pies. Learned, articulate and witty, their response to the built environment, and their advocacy of it, is never dumbed down or less than serious, yet it is always engaging. It’s not simple cheerleading, either – it’s an honest appraisal of what makes good built design, and the implications if that is ignored. Given an even bigger stage, I have no doubt that they would continue to educate an even wider public interested in the makeup of our cities. I like to think that the project reviews I’ve commissioned for ARbegin to approach this new mode, too.

I’ll end with two quotes that articulate the idea of advocacy for me, and that also render further the question “what is the point of architecture criticism?” as redundant. The first quote is from Kieran Long, the English architecture writer, who participated in a similar panel organised by Domus magazine. On Twitter, Long said: “Any long essay on the future of architectural criticism is about the most pointless piece of writing imaginable.” When pressed, he responded: “I was part of the Domus event, and it was an aimless discussion. [Architectural criticism] just feels like a microscopic concern right now, and the current state of it doesn’t really reward/merit lengthy study.”

The second quote is from Michael Kimmelman, the New York Timesarchitectural critic, who makes a similar point, while introducing the advocacy angle:

“To a large extent, the public conversation about architecture has been dominated by people who shared particular interests in formal and material innovation … But there have always been vast numbers of people interested in buildings, landscape and urban affairs, infrastructure and planning, in the interaction of formal and social inventions – people who have profound interests in cities and transportation and the way we live – who have felt left out of the conversation … I’d like to believe that my role is to act as an advocate, not simply to respond to what’s proposed or built – which often means going beyond the role of a reviewer, as criticism is so often defined. Architecture is far too important to lose itself in questions about the state of criticism, which is not interesting.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Long and Kimmelman.

Indeed, there are far bigger fish to fry.

Nebula: Portable Art


Designed by Andrew Maynard Architects, Nebula is a mobile gallery and workspace allowing artists with disabilities to bring their work into the wider community. Simon Sellars talks to the architect about this portable project.

Photography: Nic GranleeseJorge de Araujo

An abridged version of this interview appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #125: Architecture and the Arts. The full interview first published in Vagant magazine, 02/2012.

What was the rationale for creating a mobile art space?
It originated at the Art Day South Studio in Dingley, run by Arts Access Victoria for artists with intellectual disabilities. Dingley is on the suburban edge of Melbourne, and the staff didn’t like the fact that the artists are confined to the suburban edges when in fact they’re doing really interesting artwork that deserves a wider audience, in the wider community. So they said, “Let’s allow ourselves to be adaptable and to move around, to have a safe controlled space that will allow us to take this work to people.”

 It’s a very democratic space.
The brief called for flexibility – for a mobile art space that can also be a theatre space, a meeting place, a gallery, a workshop space. I called myself an ‘editor’ on this job rather than an architect, because, really, I interpreted a wad of drawings that the artists produced about what kind of space they’d like to work in. I was somewhat intimidated because I had to ask: “What is my role? Is it a conduit?” But on reflection, I’m really happy now because I’ve realised that is my role and it’s a valuable one.

That idea of you as the ‘editor’ is very intriguing in that it runs in counterpoint to the traditional idea of the architect as top-down arbitrator of design.
Yes. The project’s artistic director Rhian Hinkley put pictures of different caravans and things like that in front of the artists and said, “If you had something like this, what would it look like?” And from that, these amazing drawings came out, with lots of really punchy colour, lots of strong, hard lines. About four or five drew this gesture on the side of the caravan, like a canopy, which was great, because if you have these hard surfaces – this wall coming down to become a floor – and then, independent of that, you have a canopy coming down, that means you’ve got different levels and you can negotiate the edge of the structure.


The discourse around disability and architecture is problematic. You never hear about architects designing for people with disabilities.
A lot of architects think of it as a limitation to creativity – I’m no different. But what we made very clear from the start is that we’d like to take the things we see as a constraint and try to subvert them, to turn them into an opportunity. Nebula’s handrail, to allow disabled access, is an example of that: “Right. Well, if I have to put bloody handrails on it, it’s going to serve a secondary function.” So, instead of just hiding them underneath, we tethered them together to make a big ‘bench top’ for the artists to work on.

There was a nice irony in launching it at Federation Square, which has been criticised for being an inaccessible public space to people with disabilities.
Yes. The Art Day South people were aware of that. The location of the launch was partly a political act, as is the nature of, I think, all transient city space. But it’s not a negative response. What they’ve engineered is something incredibly positive, and I love how it really subverts the idea of ownership of the space, and then the threshold of entry: who’s invited into it and who’s not. Since the launch we’ve had people asking if they could hire Nebula for other events but the answer is “no”, because it’s the artists’ territory. If you’re invited you can come in, but it’s up to the artists to dictate that.
What they also want to do with Nebula is ‘ambush’ places. They want to go to public parks and set it up as a performance space: lift one edge of the space and do a performance. But also to set it up outside the football, where there are long lines of people waiting to get into the stadium. I reckon they should just lift the edges up and get people to walk through it on the way to the stadium, so that the lines of people actually participates with the project in creating an interesting public event.


I agree that as a temporary space it’s very interesting. When it was at Federation Square, kids passing by sat in its shadow and started playing spontaneously. It seemed to relax them and draw them into a new social interaction.
And then if you lift the edge of the canopy, suddenly they’d be able to sit on it without even thinking about it. Architects are notorious for saying “I meant to do that!”, but it’s great when you can allow for, and admit, unplanned events. I think most architects underestimate their political role, whether they intend to or not, but deep down I think even the most ruthless bastard of an architect has got this broader idea about their contribution to the city’s spaces that other professions just don’t have.

It’s a hard paradigm shift for architects though, to think beyond the idea of designing ‘the monument’, and to think about transient space and objects and structures that won’t be around in 20 or 30 years’ time.
Yes, we architects really do have to get over ourselves, and to start to push ourselves beyond that idea of the form maker who creates the sculpture in space, as though that is actually some sort of generous gesture to the public. It’s that old school idea of philanthropy: putting a sculpture at the end of an axis to make that public axis strong. Well, I mean, hang on – that’s bullshit. Creating a nice little community space that’s well connected with just a simple seat and a tree in it is probably far more inclusive than this idea of building a monument to the people. Talk about authoritarian – that’s just Stalinist, isn’t it?