Photo: Simon Sellars.
Originally published on ballardian.com, 11 November 2008.
Sorry for the long absence — I promised ‘daily updates’, well, that didn’t happen. It’s taken me ages to get my thoughts down about Barcelona and Kosmopolis because the experience was so rich, but contributing factors included jet lag, computer problems and a lengthy spell of writer’s block. But mainly it was the richness and how to process it. Kosmopolis was the best literary festival I’ve attended for the intrigue in the program as well as for the organisation — even as one of the lesser participants (in terms of career and achievements), I was made to feel like a king. The Kosmopolis team are a genuinely interesting, creative and dedicated bunch and this transmits into every facet of the show. Thank you Jordi, Miquel, Barbara, Teresa, Juan, Marta and everyone else!
Arriving in Barcelona is a sensory delight. The rhythm of the city is completely different to Melbourne. You get a valid sense of this via traffic flow, the true index of civility. In Barcelona cyclists are treated as road vehicles with equal rights on the tarmac, and traffic signals for both vehicles and pedestrians are adhered to insofar as it facilitates smooth egress for all. This does not mean a nation of automata. When there are no cars, for example, pedestrians cross against the lights, and vice versa it’s the same with vehicles. The police don’t seem to mind. It’s organised chaos (the traffic flow is dense and perpetual, and seemingly balancing on a knife’s edge) and it works. This idea of ensuring harmonious flow by treating rules as guidelines, with the safety of right of way observed above all, seems a simple and obvious point, but in Australia in inner-city areas traffic flow can often be bloody chaos with everyone lockstepping onto their neural GPS to the total exclusion of the rights of others. When I compare the two situations, I think of Barcelona as an organism that knows how to breathe in, and when to breathe out, and that can regulate its breathing for an easier life and stress-free relaxation; I think of urban Australia as a heart-attack victim with fatty arteries and severely constricted breathing.
This can also be indexed by the approach to alcohol. If people were drunk and out of control on the streets of Barcelona, they kept it very well hidden. Is binge drinking popular there? I wouldn’t have thought so. In Melbourne, smashed beer bottles are a common sight on the streets and broken glass is everywhere in the inner city following Friday and Saturday nights. In Australia the government wants to tax alcohol to combat this, to make it so expensive that it will be prohibitive to have more than a few drinks, thereby taking out as collateral damage those who are responsible and who can handle their drink. This is the Nanny State in motion, proffering band-aid solutions that do nothing to get to the heart of the problem, which is cultural and is rooted in Australia’s frontier approach to binge drinking. Try to limit people’s enjoyment of wine in Spain and see how far you get. Alcohol is not the problem in Australia — the problem is social. I felt safe walking around Barcelona at midnight, because there’s none of the paranoia and edginess that is increasingly a feature of Melbourne street life. Instead, there is conviviality — more on that later. I’ll even declare this despite having my wallet stolen on La Rambla just two days into my stay. I was with Mike Bonsall, who was in town for the festival as a punter (along with Tim Chapman and Mike Holliday; great to see you all!). We’d ingested a few drinks and I just didn’t think. Stupidly, I put my wallet in my back pocket, even though I’ve worked as a travel writer and I’ve written on travel scams and dangers — including putting your wallet in your back pocket on La Rambla. So, before we knew it, we were running the gauntlet of a large group of young women who began groping us (!) — ‘Oooh la la, come home with me, baby’. We would have been in their clutches for no longer than a minute before breaking free, but I knew straight away my wallet had gone. The girls had gone, too, melted away into the crowd. But it didn’t ruin my trip because Barcelona’s delights far outweigh its petty crime. Every city has its hazards and I was warned about this one, but I let my guard slip. I don’t think I should blame Barcelona for that idiotic lapse in concentration. Besides, there was an upside. The next day, Teresa from Kosmopolis took me to the police station and gave me a guided tour of the neighbourhoods we passed through, pointing out beautiful historical architecture on the way and filling me in on the unique character of each area. Thank you so much, Teresa — for your wonderful company, it was worth losing my wallet.
Detail from Andrés Hispano’s ‘Autoscan’ installation, at the ‘Autopsia del nou Mil.leni’ exhibition at CCCB, Barcelona. Photo: Tim Chapman.
For the first few days I explored the Ballard exhibition. Unfortunately I had an unfamiliar camera with me so my most of my shots, taken in low light, were unsatisfactory. Of course, Rick McGrath was at the opening of the exhibition back in July and he took many excellent photos, so please refer to his batch in lieu of mine. As for descriptions, I won’t go into too much detail given that McGrath has covered the ground thoroughly in his report, so well in fact that much of it felt very familiar on first visit. What I will say though is that it is an impressive achievement, and one of the most imaginative displays of its type that I’ve seen. I saw the Kubrick exhibition when it came to Melbourne and this matches it, perhaps even surpasses it, because it gives free reign to creative interpretation of Ballard’s metaphors, and all on a budget a fraction of the Kubrick. Jordi and his team have allowed their imaginations to run wild and this has resulted in something quite stunning, in particular the skeletal car body buried in sand. One thing Rick didn’t really comment on was Ann Lislegaard’s black-and-white computer-art rendition of themes from The Crystal World — I spent almost an hour sitting in a darkened room watching this creation, with its looped 3D scenes of interiors and outdoor scenes bathed in an ambience that morphs from light to shade, seemingly crystallising at the meridian into shards of solid, jagged matter. Punctuated with quotes from Crystal, one of Ballard’s most lyrical works, this was a stunning monument to the fashion in which JGB attempts to reorder the senses to provide a deeper, more meaningful existence that cuts against the grain of convention.
Jordi Costa on the left, me on the right. Photo: Tim Chapman.
LEFT: Claire Walsh, circa 1968.
In a very pleasant surprise, Claire Walsh, JGB’s partner, was a last-minute guest of the festival and I was thrilled to meet the face of two of Ballard’s advertiser’s announcements. Jordi Costa and the CCCB’s Miquel Noques took Claire on a guided tour of the exhibition and V. Vale and I were able to tag along. Claire was full of interesting background regarding some of Ballard’s most famous works. For example, discussing Ballard’s crashed-car exhibition, a focus of one of the autopsy rooms, she echoed JGB’s description of the confrontational aspects of the show. Claire was at the event and she emphasised that it was meant to shock, that it was meant to jolt people out of their complacency. According to her, JGB’s oft-repeated descriptions of a drunk, confused and enraged audience were no exaggeration — the public had never butted up against a man of Ballard’s dark intelligence before. Intriguingly, the effect was echoed in the present exhibition, held under similar circumstances — I’m told that in Spain Ballard is virtually unknown, and that many people attending this exhibition were witnessing his work for the first time. Combine this with the fact that Jordi and his team pulled no punches in framing Ballard’s work, presenting often queasy images of medical procedure, wartime horrors and mediated violence, and the effect sometimes approached a similar level of outrage. In the guestbook, there were examples of patrons expressing their anger at the imagery on display — ‘The worst exhibition I’ve ever seen!’ (on the same page as another quote: ‘This is the best exhibition ever’); ‘Scandalous!'; ‘This man is sick!’ — nestling comfortably alongside the words of praise (which far outweighed the negatives, of course). There were also, perhaps predictably, just a few too many examples of mutilated and mutated penises.
‘Frank Ghery [sic] rules': guestbook hijinks at the Ballard exhibition. Photo: Simon Sellars.
Before we entered the exhibition, I realised I’d forgotten my camera battery so I raced back to the hotel to get it. Downstairs I saw Lou Reed, Kosmopolis’s star guest, sloping laconically through the CCCB lobby followed by a tightly coiled media scrum. He looked very bored in that distinct Lou Reed way, and I was struck by the image of him standing stock still against a Kosmopolis banner while scores of paparazzi took pictures, their flashes firing simultaneously. At one point Reed stretched his palms slightly outwards, while retaining the same rigid face, before puffing his chest out. This image made me recall old interviews where he would talk about channelling feedback from his guitar in the same breath as he would eulogise the mech-human jolt of messing with the nervous system through systematic methamphetamine abuse. Watching him bathed in a hundred flashes, I saw him as a creature raised under electric light, feeding off the popping bulbs, absorbing the photo-synthetic light into his body, allowing it to course through his veins to produce a pure artificial being harnessed to the electric sun and to the raw power of the media. The ever-popping flashes illuminating his body were so rapid and intensive, I expected his bones to start glowing beneath wafer-thin skin.
LEFT: Lou Reed: electro-shock therapy. Photo: courtesy Kosmopolis.
This was on the Thursday, and until his performance with Laurie Anderson on Friday night, I kept seeing him out of the corner of my eye, in and around the CCCB courtyard, heading his entourage, a study in ‘jaded’, causing a commotion with the crowds, at one stage roped off in an enclosure like a zoo exhibit, bored and expressionless, waiting while the fans lined up for his book signings and while rubberneckers like me watched him studying his fingernails. I’m not the biggest fan of his music, save for the Velvets, but his real-life presence was so inorganic, so bloodless in a completely compelling way, it had to be tracked and followed. It was pure celebrity reaction in action (although, funnily enough, I’d never imagined Lou Reed as inhabiting that rarefied level; he always seems ‘cult’ to me… let’s face it, he’s no Jagger) and I noted the delicious juxtaposition of the virtual Ballard on the top floor of the CCCB, a man who has dissected the celebrity process with clinical and unerring precision. I imagined his presence radiating pure waves of insight down on the proceedings below.
On Friday night Lou and Laurie read Catalan poetry and writing, which was utterly bizarre. I’m not sure of the background of this event, or of how and why it happened. Do Lou and Laurie have a connection to Catalonia? I can’t say. All I can tell you is that Lou was on stage at Kosmopolis while Laurie was at the University of California, Berkeley, reading her parts in a live video feed projected on a massive screen behind him. No music, no singing. Lou sounded as if he was reading from the usual tales of heroin, transvestites and Warhol back in NYC — there was that same, familiar raspy drawl that everyone associates with him — whereas Laurie was more engaging and injected multiple personalities into her reading. The whole set up was so strange. When Lou would turn to her, dwarfed by her image, and she would smile benevolently back at him, it seemed like a fairy tale in which Lou, a dark knight, had been shrunk to size by a Queen who wanted to keep him all for herself. But they are in love, I know it’s not like that, I just had a sensory blipvert channel jump induced by the scale distortion and the jumbled spatial dynamic.
Lou and Laurie: telepresent love. Photo: courtesy Kosmopolis.
There was a funny moment when Lou mispronounced a list of Spanish surnames and place names, and the audience erupted into laughter. But the biggest cheer was reserved for the duo’s reading of the Yellow Manifesto (1928), written by Salvador Dali, Lluis Montanyà and Sevastià Gasch. A futurist ode to the extremes of the imagination and to the beauty of machinic art, it occurred to me that it was surely an influence on Ballard’s ‘What I Believe’:
We have eliminated from this MANIFESTO all courtesy in our attitude. It is useless to attempt any discussion with the representatives of present-day Catalan culture, which is artistically negative although efficient in other respects. Compromise and correctness lead to deliquescent and lamentable states of confusion of all values, to the most unbreathable spiritual atmospheres, to the most pernicious of influences… Violent hostility, in contrast, clearly locates values and positions and creates a hygienic state of mind.
After reading through the Manifesto, with its litany of things to be smashed, Lou quipped: ‘I wonder what they’d think of the internet?’ With its call to dismantle bourgeois complacency and the blandness of youth in favour of Catalan independence based around the beauty of enigmatic art, the Yellow Manifesto is a powerful call to arms that clearly still has relevance in today’s political climate. Indeed, I saw anarchist and independence graffiti everywhere in Barcelona, as in the following example, which was stencilled onto a series of mobile-phone advertisements. At first I thought it was actually part of the ad, in a depressingly familiar instance of corporations co-opting revolution, because it was so accurately placed in the exact same spot each time, until I twigged that the stencil artist had actually targeted this particular ad for whatever reason.
‘Anarchy in Catalonia, it’s coming sometime and maybe…’. Photo: Simon Sellars.
When they’d finished their performance, Lou looked up at Laurie and they had a little telepresent moment together, strong love coursing through a hi-def internet link; Laurie gave Lou a radiant smile and made little pincer-like movements with her fingers at him, clearly some kind of secret sign, and he smiled sheepishly at her, this woman who is perhaps the only person in the world that can make Lou Reed self-conscious.
The Ballard segment of the festival kicked off with a panel, ‘Postcards from the Interior Space’, chaired by Jordi and featuring Marcial Souto, Agustin Fernandez Mallo, Marta Peirano and Toby Litt. Unfortunately no one told Mike B and I that the translation of the Spanish/Catalan speakers was being transmitted through portable headsets, so we sat through most of the session in bemusement, perking up when Litt spoke in English. This was a Ballardian experience in itself. Understanding Litt only, we attempted to decode the questions and replies from other speakers that led to Toby’s answers. Sometimes we got it and sometimes the old brain would go into freefall, much the same as it does when it reads Ballard and must submit to the process of unworking the similes and parallel narratives that form the shifting strata of his work. Litt told the audience that the foreword he wrote to a forthcoming volume of academic essays had been rejected on the grounds that it wasn’t likely to entice people to read more Ballard, given his position, which is that it’s impossible to truly understand or truly ‘get’ Ballard’. From there, Toby suggested that all academics have got Ballard wrong. He then read the rejected foreword (which he revealed was finally accepted as the afterword to the book), which built an extended metaphor around the notion of Ballard tunnelling out from the ground under his Shepperton house. Funnily enough, perhaps even appropriately enough, given Toby’s main point about academia, I can’t pretend I fully understood the analogy.
‘Postcards from the Interior Space': Marcial, Agustin, Marta, Jordi and Toby. Photo: courtesy Kosmopolis.
Litt also referred to psychogeographical interpretations of Ballard, mentioning Will Self, but said he had problems with this angle, with writing about London in this way. I have sympathies with both academic/theoretical and psychogeographic readings of Ballard, but I also agree with Litt when he says that Ballard translates because he maintains a floating parallel world on top of the ‘physical’ world of his novels. It’s a good point, but why then criticise specific readings of Ballard? Surely the indeterminate, open-ended nature of JGB’s writing supports, even encourages, this in its drive to resist categorisation? Well, that’s my position anyway, that this open-endedness generates a program of resistance. Litt also critiqued readings of Ballard that accept Ballard’s version of his life as the truth — I presume Empire of the Sun is the reference — and said he wished that Ballard had never expanded upon his Shanghai childhood in interviews, so that readers would be forced to confront his parade of surrealist war imagery and violent technofutures on their own terms. I do understand what he means — I’d read Atrocity, Crash, High-Rise and Concrete Island before Empire or the bulk of the interviews, and they did seem like the work of mad genius bleeding through into the frame from a parallel dimension. But even now, with the full weight of Ballard’s history informing my study of his work, I see his autobiographical retellings as another fiction to be decoded. His obsessive restaging of the Lunghua theatre is a form of circular time that again resists definition, resists commodification, resists classification — a guerrilla war against the type of ‘eventless present’ that he sees as a by-product of consumer capitalism and its drive to erase history and collapse the future into the present.
There, I’ve just given you the gist of what I spoke about on the panel the next day with Jordi, Vale and Bruce Sterling, where I felt unusual, but happy, appearing as the ‘academic’ among two larger-than-life personalities. Vale showed a 10-minute film of his work with RE/Search and the relationship with Ballard he has forged, and then talked about Ballard’s role as visionary and dreamer. Bruce talked about Ballard’s influence on his own writing and on cyberpunk. But I’ll leave further summaries for now, as I believe Tim C is preparing a transcript of the talk which I hope to post here soon.
‘Myths of the Near Future': Me, Bruce, Vale, Jordi. Photo: courtesy Kosmopolis.
After the panel, we had a beer in the courtyard. In another welcome surprise, Iraklis from Athens showed up, with his mate Antony! Iraklis is a long-time reader of ballardian.com, from around 2005 onwards, so it was great to meet him. We had an interesting chat about the public perception of Ballard; it seems the situation in Greece is the same in Australia in that he is still regarded as a ‘cult’ author. Perhaps he is. I think Mr Ballard should be proud of getting under people’s skins so thoroughly. It was here that we saw Robyn Hitchcock wandering around with his guitar. He was due on stage that night but was serenading random strangers in the meantime, and we watched him perform a Doors song for a small child, who was clearly delighted and/or bemused by this colourful man. The next night I saw a selection of Catalan poets at the CCCB’s Cafe Europa, and they were doing very interesting things with collage sound and sampled voices. My favourite was the guy who attempted to replicate the way we hear our own voices and the process by which it is filtered through the vibrations of the skull and ear canals, rendering it completely different when heard on a recording. I hate hearing my recorded voice, so this was repellent and fascinating for me. He related all this to the way we cannot trust our own interior voices and memories, which may or may not be creations and constructs of the media — Catalan poet, meet J.G. Ballard. Another poet repeated combinations of words and phrases and looped them through a bank of samplers, creating music from the beauty of the Catalan language. I find it a nice language to listen to, and I chose not to hear the translations on the portable headsets this time. I wanted to free-float and concentrate solely on the musicality of the phrases and intonations, the meaning of which I was clueless, but the poetry of which I immediately and instinctively responded to.
Robyn Hitchcock does his wandering troubadour thing in the CCCB courtyard. Photo: Tim Chapman.
Afterwards, talking to the MC, this poet said something interesting, about how he prefers ‘ignorance’ to ‘knowledge’ because with ignorance, interesting ideas emerge. He gave the example of people who believe that white wine removes blackberry stains or that spirits are good for headaches; in the gap between perception and recognition, ignorance occurs and new and surreal juxtapositions emerge that inspire radical art and thought processes. These performances again put me in mind of the Yellow Manifesto and how it really sums up the appeal of Kosmopolis, with its focus on grassroots, independent, innovative and creative literary ideas. There were no real superstars at this festival, but instead successful writers and artists who have proved that you don’t need to sell your soul to make it. In this respect Ballard, a true maverick, is the perfect fit.
Lydia Lunch at Cafe Europa. Photo: courtesy Kosmopolis.
Lydia Lunch was also appearing on this night, as she now lives in Barcelona. She performed a spoken-word piece to a fractured jazz-rock soundtrack, typically angry and very ‘fuck you’ and all about the war on terror and global conflict tied in with Spain’s history of conflict. After, she said to the MC that she chooses to live in Barcelona because in the US she would be reminded every day of the hypocrisy of that society and the violence it wreaks on its citizens. In Barcelona, by contrast, she says that every day people wake up and forget about the horrors of the past because each day is seen as a new chance to drink, fuck and forget. To my surprise, I found myself agreeing with this angry and loud American called Lunch: there is indeed a mood of relaxed optimism in this city and it touched me even on my brief stay. It invigorated me in fact, and in the week-and-a-half since my return I’ve been inspired to make a number of important and long-delayed changes to my life and lifestyle, which are already in motion, a direct result of my nine days in Barcelona and the deep impact it and Kosmopolis had on me and the possibilities I can now envisage for creative work that is symbiotic with a healthy inner life.
ABOVE: Kafkaesque. Photo: Simon Sellars.
ABOVE: Brechtian. Photo: Simon Sellars.
If you are a writer, or literary minded, how could you fail to love this city? I came across stencils of Kafka, and graffiti that quoted large chunks of Brecht. It’s a city made for walking, for inspiring thought. The back alleys and side streets are immersive and the architecture across all styles is superb. I walked many kilometres each day, directionless but always finding something to inspire. I did so much walking and uncovering of back streets that I didn’t make it to any of the Gaudi attractions (I’ve been to Barcelona before, and did the whole Gaudi thing, so I’d subconsciously made the decision this time around to see the more of the quotidian fabric of the city instead).
Gala, is that you? Photo: Simon Sellars.
It was during one foray into a back street that the lady in this shot came into view. She saw me taking photos of buildings and stopped right in front of me, extending her walking stick out towards me, smiling radiantly all the while but not saying a single word. Look at the amazing way she is dressed and that face that knows all: she looks like a female Dali. She struck this pose as soon as she saw me, as if to say: ‘Hey! What about me? I’m the finest architecture here’. For a moment I wasn’t sure what she was doing and then I realised she was offering herself as a model to be photographed. As soon as the shutter clicked, she turned on her heel and walked briskly away, still smiling that same brilliant smile, still uttering not one word. And that is what I love about Barcelona, the casual surrealism that is woven into the fabric of the place. Included with the pack given to Kosmopolis participants was a series of monographs published by the CCCB that explored urban space and the need for a vital public space in order to maintain a healthy society. One, ‘Collective Culture and Urban Public Space’ by Ash Amin, is especially relevant. Amin writes about the need for a ‘post-human perspective’ on urban space that brings together ‘the most promising examples of surplus made to work as such':
These would include bazaars and shopping malls in which difference is treated as a virtue, streets and squares of free and safe mingling, parks and other recreation spaces resonating with vitality and mixed use, libraries and schools that sustain public interest and reach out to the reluctant, bus shelters and car parks that are not the dumping ground for the dregs of society, buses and trains that work and offer a pleasant experience to the travelling public. Here, the qualities of multiplicity, conviviality, solidarity and maintenance can be expected to crowd out malfeasance, reinforcing a sense of shared space.
It is no accident that Amin had been commissioned by the CCCB to write about public space. He repeatedly emphasises conviviality as the key to a healthy and dynamic urban fabric, and as I was reading this, I thought, ‘That is Barcelona’. Whatever problems there may be with the Spanish government or economy, what Barcelona in particular has is convivial public space, and I, like Lydia Lunch, would be willing to give up many other things to experience that on a daily basis.
I have a final observation about Barcelona: I have never seen so many young men on crutches in any city I’ve visited. Are Catalan males very sporty, are they just really clumsy, or do they have very brittle joints?
The Dali Museum. Photo: Simon Sellars.
On my last full day in Spain, I travelled to Figueres to see the Dali museum. I am staggered by how popular his work continues to be. The queues and crowds were massive and the whole complex was like a warped theme park, Disneyland nightmares for the masses. There were plenty of school groups there and I could only think that being introduced to Dali at a very young age must be a very good education indeed, exposed to images of young virgins being auto-sodomized by their own chastity and labia-faces. This is what I mean by casual surrealism, which appears to be threaded into the Catalonian DNA.
And now it’s encoded into mine. On the way home, I picked up some British newspapers at Heathrow to find that the UK was in the midst of the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand/Andrew Sachs scandal.
And every time I read the name ‘Georgina Baillie’, I was convinced they were referring to ‘Georges Bataille’.
ABOVE: Barcelona street scene. Photo: Simon Sellars.
ABOVE: The thrill of it all: nu-architecture at Port Olympic, Barcelona. Photo: Simon Sellars.
..:: Soundtracks to inner space: Future Engineers, ‘Studio Mix 2007′; Underground Resistance, ‘First Galactic Baptist Church'; The Martian, ‘The Stardancer'; Simple Minds, ‘Themes for Great Cities'; PiL, ‘Radio Four'; Lalo Schifrin, ‘Jaws Theme'; Ennio Morricone, ‘Come Maddalena’.