In Defence of the Virtual: A Secret History of Ballardian Film Adaptations

Originally published in the Norwegian-language magazine Vagant, May-August 2011, pp. 10-11.

In 1986, Christian Bale, as a child actor, made his breakthrough in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, a film based on the wartime experiences of J.G. Ballard. Recently, Bale announced he was returning to Ballard in a forthcoming adaptation of the author’s classic mid-70s novel Concrete Island with director Brad Anderson (actually, this collaboration was first mooted in 2005). This was exciting news for Ballard fans, following the recent hype surrounding Vincenzo Natali’s proposed adaptation of High-Rise, Ballard’s follow up to Concrete Island. But will these projects actually eventuate? Natali’s involvement was originally announced in 2005 2002 with little progress made since save for a mock poster showing the eponymous building, clearly modelled after the Burj Khalifa, plonked in the middle of the ocean (a far cry from the novel’s urban-London apartment block). Ballard’s work, seemingly more than most authors, has generated several failed adaptations and odds are that Natali’s efforts, and possibly Bale’s and Anderson’s, will similarly fall away.

Ballard is a highly visual writer, with references to Surrealist art and film peppering his work from his first published short story, ‘Prima Belladonna’ (1956), to his final novel Kingdom Come (2006). Unsurprisingly, these atmospheric narratives have influenced many artists and generated many attempts to film them. Almost every one of his novels has been optioned for film at some point along with a few short stories, yet the only features that have so far seen the light of day have been Empire and David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), based on Ballard’s infamous 1973 novel, as well as two low-budget, independent productions: Jonathan Weiss’s The Atrocity Exhibition (2000), based on Ballard’s experimental novel of 1970, and Solveig Nordlund’s excellent Portuguese-language Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (2002), based on Ballard’s 1976 short story, ‘Low-Flying Aircraft’.

I am editing a collection of Ballard interviews to be published in September 2012, and one theme I have particularly noticed as I work my way through the 70s and 80s interviews is Ballard’s consistent note of regret about never cracking the American market. For such a lauded and influential writer, it is eternally surprising that his books still do not have a US publisher. But his US stocks might have been very different if a few more of those film options had come to fruition, an observation brought home to me after reading David Pringle’s 1990 conversation with Ballard published in Fear magazine. In this interview there is much tantalising detail about these phantom film projects that disappear into thin air – what we might term ‘vapourware films’ – including the news that Spielberg’s partner Kathy Kennedy was keen to option Ballard’s novella Running Wild (1988) a couple of years after Empire. Ballard, however, feared it was ‘slightly too strong a dish for Spielberg’ while speculating that ‘one of those John Carpenter directors might have fun with it’.

If only!

Still from John Carpenter’s They Live.

Carpenter’s They Live (1988) perfectly matches the consumerist paranoia of Ballard’s 1963 short story ‘The Subliminal Man’, and seems like homage in parts. Dawn of the Dead (1978), directed by Carpenter’s friend and contemporary George Romero, is also completely in tune with Ballard’s attack on consumer culture, and its scenes of resistance fighters holed up in an abandoned shopping centre against hordes of invading zombies anticipates Kingdom Come, which replicates the premise entirely (even if the ‘zombies’ in Ballard’s version are more metaphorical than literal undead). In the Pringle interview, Ballard also talks of stalled development on a proposed film of his novel The Day of Creation (1987), going on to bemoan that ‘nobody has ever got it together’ to film Concrete Island, despite the fact it has ‘been continuously optioned ever since it was published’ and that it ‘would be quite easy and cheap to film’. Will Bale and Anderson buck this trend? Given this track record, it’s anyone’s guess.

But the biggest revelation is that Richard Gere wanted to make a film of Ballard’s suburban fantasy The Unlimited Dream Company (1979). Apparently, Gere, as a practising Buddhist, was keen on the book, with its focus on the reincarnation of the central character in a phantasmagorical version of Shepperton, Ballard’s home town. Gere’s star was soaring at that time, riding on the back of Pretty Woman (1990), so the film would doubtless have exposed Ballard similarly, the way Spielberg also pulled him into his slipstream.

Samuel L Jackson in Running Wild (dialogue from the novella): Ballardé with cheese?

Gere is not the only Hollywood star to venture near the Ballardian orbit. As recently as 2009, Samuel L. Jackson was associated with a vapourware film version of Running Wild, although typically nothing has been heard since. As a match up, it boggles the mind more than Gere. How could Jackson’s larger-than-life, cartoon-Hollywood persona possibly downscale to play the flat, cypher-like detective in this sublime, intense novella about CCTV, surveillance and psychopathology? Ballardé with cheese seems the likely outcome. In the 70s, cult English writer Heathcote Williams wrote a script for Crash, optioned with Jack Nicholson attached to star. According to a 1983 interview with Ballard, this was to be set in Los Angeles with American characters, and ‘was almost Disneyfied – “Walt Disney Productions presents Crash!”.’ It’s unclear if Nicholson was to play the novel’s ‘James Ballard’ character or Vaughan, the sex-and-death obsessed shaman, but imagine the possibilities if the latter. Nicholson’s famously over-the-top Joker would have nothing on this insane piece of casting – the hyper-maniac Jack Nicholson of the late 1970s would have been a treat to watch fucking the car-crash-induced leg wounds of Vaughan’s willing victims.

Outside of Hollywood, there have been many other tantalising near-misses. In the mid-70s, the brilliant eccentric, Nic Roeg, was slated to direct High-Rise from a script by Paul Mayersberg, and in the 80s even Bruce Robinson of Withnail and I fame tried his hand at a High-Rise script. But perhaps my favourite vapourware production was the mooted version of Ballard’s surreal science-fiction novel The Crystal World (1966), which was supposed to have starred the wonderful actor Jean Seberg, from a script by the film writer Jonathan Rosenbaum, directed by none other than towering culturalcritic Susan Sontag. Surely this match up would have satisfied the legion of arthouse nerds who believe that Spielberg sentimentalised Ballard’s work or who point the finger at Cronenberg for reducing Ballard to soft porn.

Jean Seberg as Louise in Susan Sontag’s The Crystal World?

Aside from the harsh economic realities of commercial filmmaking, why did all of these projects fail to happen? From a cinematic perspective, Ballard’s work, especially his earlier, experimental fiction, seems tailor-made for adaptation. It is naturally interesting to filmmakers because it already draws upon a number of filmic techniques at the same time as it aims to reflect, through a formal experimentation, the virtuality of a wraparound media landscape manifest in mass consumerism and advertising. As such, it presents a kind of model of adaptation, but one that, curiously, none of the filmmakers who have tackled his work have followed. Ballard’s writing invites adaptation by virtue of its form, with chapters often reading like film scripts. In the Atrocity Exhibition chapters, for example, and the short stories ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964) and ‘The 60 Minute Zoom’ (1976), it even comes complete with scene placement, exposition of character movement and camera directions. Yet this also problematises any attempt to transmute the work into the physical medium of film because, in a sense, Ballard’s writing is already film adapted into literature, and as such, peculiarly resistant to any attempts to back translate it – to transfer it from the ‘Ballardian’ back into cinema.

Perhaps, then, ‘Ballardian cinema’ can only exist not in a direct linear relationship as suggested by the adaptation process but in parallel with the writing – as in the work of Tarkovsky, Marker and Godard, which Ballard’s writing closely resembles. Indeed, experimental film technique, incorporated into the fabric of Ballard’s earlier work, was designed to reveal the ‘true’ nature of perception, time and memory. Echoing Gilles Deleuze’s philosophical analysis of the cinema of the ‘time-image’, this writing utilises ‘nodes of resistance’ in post-war cinema. Ballard deployed the cinematic techniques of the French nouvelle vague (‘jump cuts’ in his writing – scenes abruptly shifting, temporally and geographically; ‘slow motion’ narrative descriptions; vague, cypher-like characters) as revealing the truth of the merger between the virtual and the actual that was a product of the burgeoning media landscape of the 1960s. In Ballard’s later work, this thesis remains, even as the tropes of ‘outsider’, experimental filmmaking are abandoned in favour of a prose that surveys late capitalism from inside the camera – from the perspective of a world in thrall to reality television and to surveillance as mass entertainment, a world in which experimental filmmaking has become as commodifed as any other product.

In a 2003 article, Chris Darke tried to analyse what a ‘Ballardian’ cinema might look like in the wake of Britain’s obsession with CCTV and public surveillance, before deciding that Ballard’s prophetic powers, which so accurately predicted this state of affairs, negates the need for a process of direct adaptation. Referring to the work of Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, who take Ballard as an influence for their books and films, he writes: ‘Petit and Sinclair have never done anything so vulgar as attempting to “adapt” a Ballard fiction. They understand too well that we now live in the landscape that Ballard has been faithfully anatomising and populating with characters since the 1960s. Why bother “adapting” when you can hit the motorway and find all the sets, the actors, and the (CCTV) camera positions ready and waiting for you?’

CCTV screenshot – somewhere, anywhere.

This certainly seems another compelling reason why Ballard’s work has been so resistant to adaptation. But another could be because the idea, the raison d’être, of Ballard’s work is that it is designed to be more powerful in the individual imagination of the reader than in any ‘definitive’ attempt to fix it in visual terms. Ballard’s work has always contained a degree of enigma, of open-endedness, from its use of similes that provide many layers of parallel narratives to its affectless characters who seem less ‘human’ than the technological landscape, which conversely appears sentient and ‘alive’. Individual readers have many different interpretations of Ballard’s writing, which is probably why, in contrast say to Philip K. Dick, it’s hard to think of an author who boasts a direct, formal Ballardian influence in their writing style. Perhaps this also explains why filmmakers have also been so thoroughly defeated by Ballard. The enigma of his writing, its resistance to interpretation, is what makes it so vibrant and memorable, and on some level conforms to his long-standing manifesto to utilise ‘the power of the imagination to remake the world’. For Ballard, the imagination, in all its vagaries and virtualities, even psychopathologies, must be preserved like ‘the last nature reserve, a place of refuge for the endangered mind’, a necessary corrective when fighting the long-standing resistance war against a consumer culture in which memory and imagination is outsourced to a variety of products and technologies that do all the imaginative work for us.

How can any adaptation hope to encompass that? Attempts to pin that capacity down to one visual interpretation must surely lead to failure. That’s why, paradoxically, the vapourware films of Ballard’s work are perhaps the most successful ‘adaptations’ of them all. Far more than Spielberg or Cronenberg – who, after all, have built up enough clout and independence to present very recognisable ‘Steven Spielberg’ or ‘David Cronenberg’ productions for any project they work on, regardless of the original source – Ballard’s vapourware adaptations linger in the mind the longest, as each and every one of us tries to grapple with the idea of Richard Gere flying through the air above boring English suburbs or Jack Nicholson having sex with car-crash victims in airport carparks. As the saying goes, the results are left very much ‘to the imagination’. Despite the frustration of not seeing these partnerships realised, that’s the fun of vapourware films: imagining the film worlds that might have happened in a parallel universe where the stars had aligned very differently, ghost-traces in a mind that follows forking paths of virtuality, each leading to different films that begin to emerge in the imagination.

Personally, whenever I think of Romero, I imagine yet another parallel world in which Kingdom Come was written in the late 70s, and Romero had used it as the basis for Dawn of the Dead, becoming the first director to adapt Ballard for the big screen and setting the tone for future Ballard adaptations to come: raw, uncompromising, revolutionary, and shot through with the blackest humour, the perfect defence against the insanity of the outside world.

In short: how Ballard’s books, and Romero’s films, always appear to me.

Still from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

Palau’s Archipelago: Lovely and Unique

Simon Sellars: Peleliu

WWII monument on Peleliu. Photo: Simon Sellars.

Originally published in Dynasty, China Airlines’ inflight magazine, August 2009.

Deep in the North Pacific ocean, 800km east of the Philippines and over 3000km south of Tokyo, lies the Republic of Palau. You may know it from the Survivor TV show, which filmed two series here, making full use of the archipelago’s beaches, lagoons, reefs and rock islands to put its contestants through survivalist hell. But secretly, you know those people had a great time, because Palau is possibly Micronesia’s most attractive destination – local myth even suggests it’s the ‘beginning of everything’. Certainly, it’s one of the world’s most spectacular diving and snorkelling spots, with coral reefs, war wrecks, hidden caves and tunnels, blue holes and numerous vertical drop-offs to explore. There’s also a wonderful array of marine life: coral, fish, rare sea critters, giant clams and a phantasmagorical lake populated by millions of softly pulsating, stingless jellyfish.

Palau also has the region’s richest plant and animal life: exotic birds and crocodiles in the mangrove swamps, striking flora in backyards. Plus the local people are friendly, and they love a good acronym. You’ll see these coded missives everywhere on signs, billboards and posters, like ‘W.A.V.E. – Welcome All Visitors Enthusiastically’ or ‘Know Your A.B.C. for Life! Abstinence. Be Faithful. Condomize’. You might find yourself playing this game, too. P.A.L.A.U., for example – could it be ‘Palau’s Archipelago: Lovely And Unique’, for the Republic is very diverse. It includes the capital Koror, a polyglot place with unusual culinary delights, like, er, fruit-bat pie. Southwest, the magical Rock Islands consist of a series of mushroom-shaped limestone islands dramatically undercut by erosion. Babeldaob, the second-largest island in Micronesia, derives its power from incredible waterfalls, traditional architecture and strange, alluring monoliths. Peleliu, once host to one of WWII’s worst conflicts, is now quiet and tranquil, while tiny Angaur, the coral atolls of Kayangel and Ngeruangel and the outlying South-West Islands (some 595km southwest from Koror) offer more remote pleasures.

Assuming that, like most visitors, you’ll only have limited time to island hop, Kayangel, Ngeruangel and the South-West Islands will be well out of reach. But there’s no excuse for not visiting the rest. Begin your stay in the capital, Koror State, which comprises Koror, Malakal and Arakabesang islands, all connected by causeways and forming Palau’s economic centre and cultural hub, home to two-thirds of the population. Here, histories mingle and cultures are borrowed, with many people coming from outlying villages to look for work, joining a steady stream of workers from the Philippines and elsewhere. Downtown Koror is a heady and vibrant place (with unbelievable traffic in peak period), but it’s not the definitive Palau experience … unless you’re after food. Indeed, Koror might well have Micronesia’s best cuisine. Mangrove crabs and shellfish are common menu items, as is the aforementioned fruit-bat pie, which tastes like chicken.

While Koror is not especially picturesque, the Rock Islands certainly are: many of the photos associated with Palau are taken here. The locals know these knobs of limestones, covered with jungle growth and rounded by the wind, as Chalbacheb. There are over 200 of them, a beautiful sight, spread out over a 32km expanse of water. Their bases have been stripped away by erosion, nibbling fish and tiny, scraping chitons, resulting in their surreal, trademark mushroom shapes. The islands are teeming with bird life and the waters around them are home to abundant varieties of marine creatures. Remarkably, there’s also four times as many coral species than in the Caribbean. Another outstanding feature is the 80 marine salt lakes, in varying colours due to algae infestation, each hosting a unique ecosystem. Jellyfish Lake is the best known, and snorkelling here should be number one on your list of priorities. The lake is filled with millions of transparent jellyfish, but don’t worry – they’ve lost their sting. Floating among these flimsy, pink creatures – which expand and contract like so many pulsating brains – is like exploring the atmosphere of an alien world: inspiring, uncanny and spiritual all at once. Don’t touch the jellyfish – they are really fragile – and don’t eat them. Certain tourists have been known to steal them away in bags to use in meals, but remember, these creatures have no natural predators, which is why they’re stingless, so don’t encourage them to develop their weaponry all over again. Other Rock Islands worth visiting include Carp and Neco, calm places with white-sand beaches that are perfect for snorkelling. The Milky Way cove is also popular – it’s actually white, limestone-sand emulsion, supposed to be great for the skin. For experienced divers, the Blue Corner is unmissable, with its bedazzling array of fish and abundant hard and soft corals. Novices should try the German Channel and Turtle Cove. The Ngemelis Wall, also known as the Big Drop-off, is reckoned to be the greatest wall dive in the world, dropping 300m from knee-deep water. There are also intriguing WWII wrecks dotted around the islands, including a half-submerged Japanese Zero fighter. The islands are uninhabited, meaning no hotels, but the camping is atmospheric and tremendous.

Babeldaob (or Babelthaup), joined to Koror by bridge, is huge – around three-quarters the size of Guam – but it’s sparsely populated, as most young people head to Koror for work. Ancient stone footpaths connect the villages, most of the roads are dirt (you’ll need to hire a 4WD), with no traffic lights, and the resorts of Koror may as well be a galaxy away. It’s like travelling back in time to Palau as it was in days gone by. Babeldaob is a mysterious place: at Ngarchelong in the north, there are enigmatic monoliths whose origin and purpose is unknown (save for various god theories). Found in an open field, these rows of four-foot-high basalt markers are known as Badrulchau. Babeldaob’s east coast has beautiful stretches of sandy beach, while the west coast’s shoreline is littered with mangroves and two very lovely waterfalls. The Ngatpang waterfall provides the easiest access, while Ngardmau is Micronesia’s tallest. A dip in the pools at the base of either is essential.

Peleliu, accessible by state boat from Koror, imparts a peaceful, easy feeling. There’s not much to do here, and often it will seem like you’re the only person around. Walking and exploring the jungle and war relics is an awesome, often humbling experience. In 1944 Peleliu was torn apart by one of WWII’s bloodiest battles: the island is just 13 sq km, but 15,000 men were killed here in two months and the forests and jungle were completely destroyed. Today, the greenery has regenerated, making for an eerie sensation should you chance upon a rusted pillbox or burnt-out tank hidden away. Even then, the experience is leavened by the whistles and songs of tropical birds thriving in the regenerated vines and leafy foliage, a cornucopia that has mostly healed the hideous battle scars of old. For divers, the Peleliu Wall is another fine wall dive, beginning in 3m of water but dropping an incredible 300m. White Beach, Bloody Beach and Honeymoon Beach are great for snorkelling. Finally, if time permits, visit serene Angaur, 11 kilometres southwest of Peleliu, where there’s also good diving.

Crown Casino: ‘A snarling, digitised mutilation’

Originally published on, 27 May 2009.


Soundwalk by MELANIE CHILIANIS; photography by Simon Sellars.

“The consumer society is a kind of soft police state. We think we have choice, but everything is compulsory. We have to keep buying or we fail as citizens. Consumerism creates huge unconscious needs that only fascism can satisfy. If anything, fascism is the form that consumerism takes when it opts for elective madness.”

J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come (2006).

We took a recent jaunt to Melbourne’s Crown Casino, prime Ballardian space, in order to map the coordinates of this micronational zone, this city state — consumer-driven control space. We took photos on a Nokia 6288 — photography disguised as furtive texting — while Mel Chil performed a secret sound walk. Her head bowed and her eyes averted (for soundwalkers must not allow the other senses to interfere with the keen art of listening), she strode silently behind us through the Zone, her super-powered, omidirectional microphone and optimal recording unit stuffed into her bag to note the results.

Her sound file* is below — play it loud while reading for maximum effect, for clearly the audiospatial disorientation engendered by Casino space plays a critical role in maintaining the illusion of languid disconnectedness.

* Note: you won’t see the audio player in Google Reader.

Crown Casino increases people’s perception of frequency of winning not only by having big visual displays and advertisements but also by having announcements over a loudspeaker of a poker machine jackpot winner. If every gambler who has lost everything is announced over the loudspeaker in the same way, problem gambling would be greatly reduced. Moreover, the promotion of the illusion of winning is also built into a poker machine in which a winning pay out is made with a loud noise as coins come crashing into the metal pay out tray to remind nearby players that winning is a real possibility.

Public Gambling Enquiry, Australian Vietnamese Women’s Welfare Association.

It’s a unique phenomenon… [a] metropolis … utterly devoted to leisure, something close to suspended animation. And it’s very inviting. But people lying on their backs are very vulnerable to predators.

J.G. Ballard, ‘Live in London’, 1996.

The signage declares, ‘We’re creating a new world at Crown’, a come-on none can resist. But even before entering the Casino, we were aware that we were no longer in the world of quotidian politeness. The first task was to pass through the borderzone, out on the concrete apron surrounding the complex, where brutal expediency in combat with pornographic greed meant that even bag ladies had to secure their shopping trolleys if left unattended.

But this isn’t reality, it’s not even a dream. It’s sort of a halfway house between the two.

J.G. Ballard, ‘Live in London’, 1996.

Opposite the Crown Entertainment Complex, bordering the west side, is the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. Its constructivist lines slice the sky like an obsolete, forward-thinking city of the immediate retro-future to come, a take-off ramp into the ozone that seems to suggest the only way out is through an ascent to heaven, or … this way, down, deep into the east, into Crown — into half-life.

He stared at the silent aisles, working out his challenge to this eventless world. We left the liquor store and paused by a Thai restaurant, whose empty tables receded through a shadow world of flock wallpaper and gilded elephants. Next to it was an untenanted retail unit, a concrete vault like an abandoned segment of space-time.

J.G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights, 1996.

We enter, ‘wearing the Crown‘, instantly absorbed by the otherworldliness of the Casino. The effect is total — there are no clocks anywhere to be seen, creating a timeless zone in which the breakdown of the biological clock (the legend of old ladies urinating at poker tables, rather than missing a hand, for example) is the only indication of chronometry. Perhaps the only remaining link to temporality is the schedule of the televised horse racing. A horse — horses? — seem to haunt the interior…

There is no natural light of any kind, no windows. Mirrors take up entire walls, distending the innards of the place into infinity. The long walk between the mid-section of poker machines and blackjack tables seems to never end. Hovering alien ectoplasm, the sickly UV of Giger-style nightmares, falls into view. Magic mushrooms hang from the ceiling, glowing lysergically. We are in a bunker, are we in a bunker? Miles below the Earth’s surface, below the Earth’s surface? Drinking, gambling and watching spooling sports. Palms itchy.

The first shrines had begun to appear, wayside altars for passing shoppers, places of pause and reflection for those making endless journeys within the universe of the dome.

J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come, 2006.

Hanging from the ceiling, a plaster-cast altar of motorcycle fascism, its strident coat of arms larger than the machine itself. Lest the devotees become too overwhelmed and seize the handlebars, a sign warns: “Display Model Only”. Trinkets pile up on the carpet around the altar, burnt offerings of cigarette butts, an unused condom packet, coins, keys. No passing cleaner makes an effort to clean this up and it seems arranged in a perfect concentric ring. Skin hurts.

The resilient carpet is custom designed and can soak up blood, vomit and semen without leaving visible trace. A crazy man says he knows the man who made it and he makes a fortune, too. He also designs bodybags for prom queens addicted to cocaine and ultraviolent bondage. Did a crazy man really say that he knew a man? (Bringing new meaning to the game of ‘craps’, another urban legend tells of sliding compartments in the toilets that can quickly open to dispose of suicidal high-rollers who lost everything without bringing the corpse back through the main arena.) Very near by, another man looks over suspiciously at our furtive photographic activity, but then he seems distracted by what would appear to be an insect buzzing around his head. He bats at it but there is no insect anywhere to be seen. As we walk away, he seems to be madly shaking invisible bugs out of his hair. Is he shaking invisible bugs out of his hair?

The people no longer wish to be freed from their chains, preferring to use them to accessorise their designer handbags instead. Eyes pop.

The neon façades of the casinos and hotels were now so many cataracts of white lava, walls of incadescent pink and purple that seemed to set alight the surrounding jungle, turning the Strip and the downtown casino centre into an inflamed, shadowless realm through which the occasional armoured car would appear like a spectral dragon on the floor of a furnace.

J.G. Ballard, Hello America (1981).

This green-skinned hepcat appeared to us as if in a dream, doffing his cap with sleazy grace. ‘Come with me to the Food Court’, he moaned in our already twitching ears. ‘I know a mystical place — a snack bar — where they spike the Alcoholic Super Slushies with Viagra, and where cyborg men with vat-grown muscle can inflate their pecs with a bicycle pump to 150psi. It’s called Food & Booze Express City and it’s open 24/7, natch, because you know it, don’t you, man, that Dreamland never sleeps. Oh, and dig: the women are unFUCKINGbelievable’.

Crawford gazed across the peninsula at the gutted shell of the Hollinger house.
‘A year from now some hotel or casino complex will stand there. On this coast the past isn’t allowed to exist.’
‘Why not keep the house as it is?’
‘As a tribal totem? A warning to all those time-share salesmen and nightclub touts? That’s not a bad idea…’

J.G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights.

The final sane act of Nietzsche, that great admirer of self-serving individualism, was one of pity — to collapse to the floor and cradle a beaten horse. In this one compassionate act, he disavowed a lifetime of celebrating self-interest. At Crown, they have decapitated the horse and mounted its suffering head as a totem of gambling law: ‘Let he who is strong fill his pockets, and he who is weak empty his’.

This glowing tube filled with inanimate coin is in actuality a super-computer that runs on pure cash. Pulsing throughout that pile of super-compacted currency is a liquid charged with megawatts of electricity and data, a new breed of viscous fibre optics that draws upon the inordinate strength of abstract social wealth to create simulated neurological pathways with highly complex processing power greater than military mainframes. This super-computer runs the whole operation here at Crown Casino and it is called ‘Mr Severin’. Mr Severin’s word is law and he will not tolerate any deviance from that law at any time.

A lake of neon signs formed a shimmering corona, miles of strip-lighting raced along the porticos of the casinos, zipped up the illuminated curtain-walling of the hotels and spilled over into mushy cascades. Under the ultramarine sky, so dark now that the tone had left their faces, the spectacle of this sometime gambling capital seemed as unreal as an electrographic dream.

J.G. Ballard, Hello America.

We became touched by a presence that was almost entirely indescribable except in rhyming couplets of ever-increasing incredulity, ridiculous-sounding as we mouthed them aloud, like cod Shakespeare. An alien intelligence reaching deep into our souls to finger our pathetic humanity with a cold machinic rationalism that was actually a little bit naughty and a little bit nice. A mystical vision appeared — for we were in the circuit, now — a monolith slowly, slowly descending from the ceiling. White light grew and grew. In the zone.

‘Remember, Richard, consumerism is a redemptive ideology. At its best, it tries to aestheticize violence, though sadly it doesn’t always succeed.’

‘Every shopping mall and retail park turning into a local soviet. A popular uprising that starts at the nearest Tesco. It’s possible. There’s a hunger for violence, that’s why sport obsesses the whole country. Everyone’s suffocating — too many barcode readers, too many CCTV cameras and double yellow lines. That second bomb really got them going.’

J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come.

While their wives indulged in the more passive pursuits of bingo and fruit machines, the mankind gathered in their pit to drink, watch high-volume, biff-and-bash contact sports and back their armchair punditry with hard cash. The more they drank, the more they lost. The more they lost, the more they drank. A gloom began to permeate the air, so much so that condensation seemed to drip from the walls like Amityville house blood, and one sensed that sporadic, remorseless violence might break out at any moment. On the sport screen, some rugby players tore off their clothes and compared biceps and for a moment it seemed the crowd might follow suit. Only one measure could prevent this — a variety show. Mr Severin: call on Elvissey!

Completely Elvis: The Elvises are in the building! Their uncanny sound and appearance will make you feel as if you are watching the King himself. Amazing musicianship elevates the entertaining and genuine portrayals of the famous songs we all know and love. The incredible authenticity of the show takes you on a ride that is unprecedented. Costumes, charisma and charm are coupled with the songs that made Elvis the undisputed ‘King of Rock and Roll’. This combination of artists is not like any ever seen in Australia before.

Crown Casino, 2009.

This man, this fat, tubular, tubercular man – his impersonation was no longer of Elvis, but of a thousand other Elvis impersonators. A discount simulacrum. His women had feathers up their bums and on their heads, and these vixens liked to conga-line to within an inch of some men’s lives. Beer boiling in the glass.

“The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich”

Hunter S. Thompson.

Projected above our heads, 20 feet high, on the big sports screen: the manifestation of schizoid hyperactivity.

Fleeting impressions, an illusion of meaning floating over a sea of undefined emotions. We’re talking about a virtual politics unconnected to any reality, one which redefines reality as itself. The public willingly colludes in its own deception.

J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come.

The horse equine reporter man reads the racehorse results, stutters in vertical hold, image flickers and splits straight down the middle to finally reveal the really real reality underneath. A snarling, digitised mutilation. Mr Severin has had a breakdown — someone, somewhere in here has won far too much cash. The system cannot cope, gets stuck in an infinity loop, cracks and breaks. The noise of clinking coin and tolling fruit-machine bells seems to increase to unbearable levels. But that is the great release, for we have pierced the veil, seen beyond, out into the desertified Racecourse of the Real. No gears and pulleys behind the mask, Phil K Dick-style, but a roiling, raging black void of utter nothingness.

Headaches and a necessary evacuation followed.

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.

J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come.

Kingston Brio

Simon Sellars: Kingston House

Photo: Andrew Rowat. (More photos here.)

Originally published in Dwell, May 2008.

Aaron Roberts and Thomas Bailey, the young architects behind room11, teamed up to design a house for Aaron’s parents, fixing the structure into the topography of the site.

The Kingston House is deceptive. From the street only the property’s raised garage can be seen, tucked away amid neighboring Truman Show lawns—force fields surrounding identikit brick-veneer suburbia. The house itself is over the rise, on a hilly incline. Visible from the house’s sundeck is Kingston Beach to the east, and expanding northwards from there is the Derwent River. To the west there’s a small verdant valley. And somewhere past that are the shops and business district of Kingston, an outer suburb of Hobart, the capital of Tasmania—Australia’s only island state. To the north is Mount Wellington, the4,170-foot-high peak that owns Hobart’s skyline.

Looking back from down the hill, near the valley, it’s hard to pick out the house. The dark shell blends in with the earthy hillside and weather-beaten trees, while the large front windows reflect and absorb the sky. “We didn’t want it to be this big element stuck out on the hill, mansion-style,” says Aaron Roberts, from the Hobart-based architecture firm room11, and co-designer of the house with Thomas Bailey.

At close range, the building is a monolith, its plywood facade treated and stained with dark Madison oil and sharply delineated by the lightness of the decking, which is constructed from local celery-top pine. Towards the entrance, the monolith is sliced open by a long void between house and deck, filled with ornamental pear trees. As the trees change hue and texture throughout the seasons, they enhance “the qualities of the living space, emotionally and experientially,” according to Aaron—something akin to a “seasonal body clock.” The cutaway also serves to reveal Mount Wellington, double-framed from inside by the windows on the near and far sides. As Aaron says, regarding the textured, rough-hewn rock shelf to the right of the building, “We used to come and sit on the rock shelf and think about how the house might be planned. We always seemed to gravitate to that spot, looking back at the mountains and down at the water, and we wanted the house to retain that perspective.”

The project originated just after Aaron had finished university—his clients were his parents, Diane and Hayden Roberts, who run a newsagency in Kingston. According to Hayden, “we basically said we wanted three bedrooms, and that was the brief really.” The design went through seven stages over a period of ten years, beginning with a typical graduate conceit. “Back then,” Aaron says, laughing, “the design was like a curved wave! Like the wing of a plane.” He wasn’t thinking of emotional effects until later, when he began to make connections between the stressful nature of his parents running their own business and the tension of managing his own practice. As a result, he says, “I really wanted to make a calming place, with luxury in the form of space and volume rather than, say, gold-plated taps.” That calmness is apparent in the upstairs living area, which smells like clean living, especially when the windows are open. Furnishings are sparse and elegant—understatement is understandable given the view, engorged with Mount Wellington’s natural theatrics and a sensual lull of sloping hills and inclines. As Diane enthuses, “I just feel so relaxed here, like I’m on holiday all the time. I never want to leave.”

Aaron says he and Bailey conceived “the whole building as one solid, large object that has had elements pulled out of it or cut away, as opposed to a multiplicity of elements that come together.” This thesis is clearly on display in the home’s second void: a square enclosure featuring a Japanese maple, with glass walls connecting it to the master bedroom and bathroom, unifying, in Aaron’s words, this “very intimate zone.” Chocolate-colored, leaf-themed tiles enhance the mood of the bathing space—“it’s more patterned, more personal down at this end of the house,” he notes—and the surrounding walls are lofty enough to deter peeping toms. Both private and expansive, this space is a big hit with Diane and Hayden, although, as Aaron points out, his mother was initially resistant to his ideas.

Diane does admit to worrying about what her family would think—and her father, especially, as a member of a conservative older generation for whom the thought of designer architecture doesn’t sit well with traditional concerns of practicality and comfort. (But even he was impressed with the smaller void. “Now, that’s a bathroom!” he apparently exclaimed on his first visit to the house.) Added to that, after vacationing in Queensland and seeing “big white rendered houses with big white pillars and lovely plants out the front,” Diane says she envisaged something similar, and was thrown by Aaron’s decision to use sparse vegetation rather than lush evergreens. “But as the seasons change,” she says, “they come out in multitudes of blossoms. And I remember ringing Aaron and saying, ‘I’m so glad you did this because I know I was a pain!’”

For Diane, the way the living space and kitchen area merge with no classical sense of division also took some getting used to. For Aaron, though, the concept made sense. “We design houses by looking at the architecture as a vessel, almost like a tent as such. It just stops the wind and the cold but at the same time you are able to inhabit that landscape, that place.”

Elaborating on their design philosophy, Aaron says room11 is investigating ways “to make denser spaces in the city, researching how people might live in smaller spaces. Everyone wants the great Australian dream, the backyard and all that, but the reality is the environment can’t handle it.” So the firm is developing an innovative system of modular housing, “pre-engineered planning for a series of buildings where people could add to the building and take away as needed—an affordable green alternative to standard brick-veneer boxes. It becomes sustainable through the smallness of the building: less to heat, less to light, less services.” In recognition of its efforts, room11 has been invited to exhibit at the 2008 Royal Australian Institute of Architects national conference. The conference explores the impact of globalization on “meaningful architectural practice,” and room11’s brief is to map out how Sydney might deal with various environmental challenges in the year 2025. These challenges will, of course, include drought, which already affects—even shapes—life Down Under.

Though the Kingston House may not exactly be small, it does embody the room11 attitude, made apparent by the cozy temperature of the living space and by one of its most striking features, the uncarpeted concrete floor. Aaron explains that after Diane and Hayden returned from Queensland raving about the hot weather there, they decided to employ the concrete slab “as a big thermal bank so that heat stays in the building until late.” If it does get too warm, he says, “you can open up the windows and the sea air will suck that hot air through.” Hayden reckons they’ve not had to turn on the heating for months—remarkable for Tasmania, which does get cold—while Diane owns up to more skepticism: “I’m a farm girl originally. I always thought concrete floors belonged in barns.”

In light of all this, it’s not too far-fetched to see the organic modernism of the Kingston House as a working model of an eminently possible future. Intimately integrated, its low-impact footprint enables the outdoors to permeate the house but also allows the landscape to breathe and grow.

As the RAIA conference will doubtlessly reinforce, the house—and room11—is meaningful architectural practice in action. But, of course, Diane and Hayden need no further testimony.

Kosmopolis 08: Landing Gear

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Photo: Simon Sellars.

Originally published on, 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.

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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.

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Jordi Costa on the left, me on the right. Photo: Tim Chapman.

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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.

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‘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.

Ballardian: Kosmopolis 08 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.

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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.

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‘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.

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‘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.

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‘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, 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.

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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.

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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.

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ABOVE: Kafkaesque. Photo: Simon Sellars.

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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).

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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?

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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’.

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ABOVE: Barcelona street scene. Photo: Simon Sellars.

Ballardian: Kosmopolis 08

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’.

Sealand: On the Heap

Simon Sellars: Sealand

Approaching Sealand.

All photography by Simon Sellars.

Originally published in The Australian, 10 November 2007.

THE room has no windows. It is dank, pitch-black and deathly still. I’ve lost all spatial co-ordinates. I hear a distant, dull hissing, like soil leaking through a coffin lid. Before the lights went out, I notice the ram’s skull above my bed. It looks occult, sacrificial.

I fall asleep, letting the blackness suffocate me. The dark is so heavy, it’s like I’m buried alive. Then it’s morning and I’m awake. Perception returns. I’m not six-feet under, I’m below sea level, lying on a hard bed inside a tubular concrete tower moored to the seabed. That gentle hissing is the sea lapping against the exterior.

The light comes on and a bearded man enters, dressed in filthy blue overalls. “Sleep well?” he asks, offering me tea. “You get the odd person who can’t take it down here but you didn’t scream, so you must be OK.”

Welcome to the world’s smallest and weirdest “country”: Sealand, a self-proclaimed independent state in the North Sea, 11km off England’s Suffolk coast. Sealand consists of two towers 10m in diameter and protruding 20m above sea level with seven levels containing living quarters, a brig, a chapel, a gym and a so-called data haven filled with computer mainframes. A platform with a lounge, kitchen, post office and helipad links the towers. There are generators, oil drums, splintered wood, mechanical parts everywhere. It’s ramshackle, rusting, a scrap heap.

Call it “adventure travel”. On deck I have to constantly watch my step, avoiding the holes where I can see the water below.

Sealand was a Royal Navy fort during World War II, then known as HM Fort Roughs. About 120 naval personnel were stationed there, crammed 12 to a room, going spare from boredom, isolation and living like tinned sardines. Post-war, the British abandoned the platform and it lay unused until 1967 when Radio Caroline, the pirate station, occupied it. Caroline planned to broadcast with impunity, as the platform was 11km outside Britain’s territorial limit. But Roy Bates, a rival broadcaster, had other ideas. With his son Michael and three other men, he hustled on board, taking the platform by force.

Soon after, Bates declared Fort Roughs to be the Principality of Sealand and himself as Prince Roy, ruling monarch. It wasn’t a smooth transition. In the 1970s Sealand endured a violent coup involving petrol bombs, guns and Michael Bates as hostage. Undeterred, Prince Roy assembled a group of hard-bitten mercenaries and retook the platform. Later, a fake Sealand passport turned up in the investigation into Gianni Versace’s murder. It’s no wonder Sealand’s bizarre history is being turned into a Hollywood film.

For decades all anyone knew about Sealand was the coup and the violence. Its occupants had a reputation for shooting at anything that moved, even government boats. When Bates was summoned to court on firearms charges, it was ruled that as Sealand was beyond British waters it was also beyond British law. Sealand has never embraced tourism or outsiders, enhancing the mystique. So when I learnt they were accepting applications for tourist visas, I was amazed. As co-author of Lonely Planet’s recent guide to homemade nations, this, for me, was the grail: a chance to visit the world’s most notorious micronation.

Simon Sellars: Sealand

Author self-portrait.


I have just left the port town of Harwich. It’s 6am and I’m on a little boat piloted by a fisherman called Gary. I’m bilious but after 40 minutes and the first sight of Sealand’s iconic twin towers, the seasickness subsides into keen anticipation. I look up: the landing deck is high, to deter invaders, and there are no ladders. The only way up is a winch. I ask Gary if he has ever been up. “You’d never get me on that bloody thing,” he laughs.

As he steadies the boat, a young chap fearlessly descends on the winch, sitting on a plank of wood barely wider than my arm, attached to a swaying rope pulley. Casually smoking a cigarette, he jumps on to the boat and introduces himself as Chris.

He gestures towards the plank, and I sit on it, closing my eyes, waiting. Up I go. And then I stop. I open my eyes and I’m suspended above the North Sea, 20m high. I can’t breathe for fear and I’m still not moving.

“Hang on, mate,” shouts the winch operator, Mike. “I’ve just got to turn it around.” He pulls on another rope for what seems an eternity until I finally swivel over the deck.

“Welcome to Sealand,” he says. After a cup of tea, my passport is stamped and we’re off on a tour. I’m escorted into the bowels of the north tower (the south – the “data haven” – is off limits), passing Prince Michael’s bedroom, filled, for some reason, with kendo armour (the royals no longer live here, just a roster of caretakers). The tower is cold and the drop is continuous. The walls are black and scorched from a recent, devastating fire and I ask Mike how it was before the blaze. His eyes glaze over as he tells me everything used to be gleaming, freshly painted. It’s like he has lost a limb. But they are working hard on the refurbishing, he tells me.

Mike’s an old sea dog. The longest he has spent on board is six months. “I like being on my own,” he says, “but one couple spent a few weeks out here and went mad, leaving suicide notes all over the place.” Is he joking?

We descend further and I pose for photographs in the war-era brig. It’s cramped, oppressive, and I wonder what kind of indiscretion would have got a chap locked up here, given that a wartime assignment to Fort Roughs probably meant you were a loose cannon to begin with.

I don’t think Mike is joking…

Back on deck, Chris pours me nasty cask wine before wandering off with Mike to attend to chores, arguing about repairs like an old married couple. I move towards the helipad.

“Oi!” Chris shouts. “Watch the turbine.”

I see the wind generator inconveniently located over the stairway, and duck. Chris chuckles, telling me birds sometimes get beheaded in the blades. Having negotiated that obstacle, I’m now up top, where the view is awesome. We’re alone for miles around. I see distant oil tankers. England is over there somewhere and the sky is wonderfully clear, the air crisp. Chris and Mike join me as a luxury motorboat passes nearby.

“Boats always take a spin around the towers,” Chris says, “to take a look at us nutters on top.” Meanwhile, I’m mulling over the notion that this rusting heap of junk is considered by its occupants to be a “country”. I like the idea in principle, but in reality I just can’t accept it.

“But we meet all the criteria,” Mike insists. “We have stamps, passports, a flag. When we came here, everywhere in the world was owned by someone, some country, except this fort.”

“But the UK could retake it,” I counter, “if they really wanted to.”

Sealand is left alone because it poses no economic threat. When Chris tells me he plans to build a second platform joined to the original — an “entertainment complex” of some kind — I wonder if the British authorities will be so tolerant. After all, Sealand’s already run into problems starting up an online casino.

Mike points to the big spike on the helipad: “That’s to stop unauthorised helicopters. You’ve got to have a deterrent. Can’t possibly let ’em land. It’s game over, then.”

Bless him. That big spike seems pitiful compared with RAF muscle, and yet it represents a valuable lesson for any start-up nation: you will be at the mercy of predators so you’d best get tooled up. Sealand, in theory, understands this.

That night, I sleep below the sea, in the tubular tower, in total darkness. The next day, waiting for Gary to take me back to Old Blighty, I wonder if tourists really will come to Sealand. Yes, there’s the novelty value, but it’s dangerous. You have to sign a waiver absolving the royals of all responsibility should you injure yourself – or worse. For there are no lifeboats, you see. I am told if I fall overboard, or through one of those treacherous holes in the deck, I am on my own. The North Sea is rough and no one will be diving in after me. And those 20m stairwells? Better not get drunk on that terrible cask wine they hand out to all and sundry.

Still, so-called “dark tourism” is an emerging trend. If travellers can make a virtue out of Auschwitz, why not visit a decrepit hulk in the North Sea where men once feared to tread?

Simon Sellars: Sealand

Sealand crew.

Liquid Architecture: In the Beginning

Sleepy Brain: Liquid Architecture 1
The first LA flyer, 2000 (designed by Daniel New)

I was recently asked about my involvement in the Liquid Architecture festival, so I thought I’d explain it here. Liquid Architecture originated in 2000 at RMIT University when I was working at RMIT’s Union Arts as their special events officer. My brief was to devise arts events that would showcase the talents of RMIT students. I knew of the ((tRansMIT)) student sound collective, led by Melbourne sound artist Nat Bates, so I decided to set up a festival promoting ((tRansMIT)) alongside special guests Ollie Olsen and Philip Brophy.

But I’m in not responsible for Liquid Architecture as it stands today — that’s the result of the hard work of Nat, who co-produced the first year with me. Nat, as Artistic Director (along with his various colleagues including Bruce Mowson and Sue Jones) grew the festival to the point where it attracts top-line international guests, while still holding true to the promotion of local talent. I’m amazed that he’s managed to transform our original student-driven initiative into a state-funded, national festival.

My contribution to Liquid Architecture can be summed up like this: I suggested it to the RMIT Union Arts bosses; I named it (see below); I invited Nat to co-produce it; I suggested the half lecture/half performance model; and I was only around for that first year, although Nat invited me back on a very part-time basis in 2004 and 2005 to redesign their web site and catalogue. I in turn rehired LA’s original graphic artist Daniel New, and I like to think that Daniel and myself greatly improved the festival’s visual image during those two years. (It’s gratifying to note that today the festival retains the ice-blue colour scheme and the VAG font-logo that Daniel and I devised in 2000).

Sleepy Brain: Liquid Architecture 6
LA6 poster: the iceberg, Daniel’s idea, is a very literal (and very clever) interpretation of the “liquid architecture” theme

Why “liquid architecture”? I vaguely knew of the term from the work of Marcus Novak, who used it to define “a fluid, imaginary landscape that only exists in the digital domain”, although when I borrowed the term, I was thinking more of Kodwo Eshun and his article Liquid Dystopia, about Drexciya. Eshun wrote, “Drexciya fictionalize frequencies into sound pictures of unreal environments — what Kraftwerk termed tone films — not filled with cars, bikes or trains but rather UAOs, soundcrafts”.

For me, the “architecture” part seemed appropriate in that the sound artists we were promoting were designing sonic environments, sonic structures (not “only in the digital domain”, by the way)…spliced with Eshun, and you get “liquid architecture”.

— Simon Sellars, 2007
Here’s the text of the original program for Liquid Architecture 1:


7pm, Sunday April 16, 2000
Part One: Liquid Dystopia

Undead & machine-translated performances by the ((tRansMIT)) sound collective. With special guest PHILIP BROPHY; short films between performances; and VJs playing video tag-team throughout.

Evolutions and mutations…future directions in experimental electronica…

6pm, Monday April 17, 2000
Part Two: Liquid Crystal

“A History of Electronic Music”, presented by OLLIE OLSEN – a mapping of early experiments through to the warped extremes of the 21st century. Followed by a screening of the acclaimed documentary Theremin. With ((tRansMIT)) presentations by Abi Crompton and Nat Bates, inviting you into the neon-lit recesses of their Sonic Laboratories.

Articles I’ve written about the festival:
>> Liquid Architecture 5: Polytechnic Sound Art
>> Liquid Architecture 4: Slaves to A System of Weird Harmony
>> Lawrence English: Watching While You Sleep
>> 360 Degrees: Women In Sound

Where to Go When: Yap

Photo: Simon Sellars.

Originally published in Dorling Kindersley’s guide to year-round travel, Where to Go When, Craig Doyle (ed), London: Dorling Kindersley, 2007.

Yap – December

Imagine this: you’re a pressure-suit-encased plaything suspended in the void, bobbing about at the mercy of a shapeshifting blue mass. Above, a lozenge of light illuminates a clump of misshapen rock. You float down to the rock and crouch on a ledge, surrounded by sheer vertical walls. The light grows dim as a large, deltoid shape blocks it from view. The shape, its wingspan almost tipping five metres, floats into close range, a jumble of unearthly cephalic lobes and outcropped eye sockets.

And then the creature opens its huge mouth, almost brushing you with its wingtips…all at once you’re in awe, and you’re in fear; you’ve found or you’ve lost religion; maybe you’re a bit in love, too. Are you an astronaut adjusting to the weightless ecology of an alien planet? No, you’re nine metres under the western Pacific, diving the M’il Channel and communing with nature’s very own devilfish – the famous manta rays of Yap.

Tiny Yap might be the proverbial speck in the ocean, but its gentle, graceful mantas are among the world’s premier underwater attractions. Yet on land Yap is just as beguiling. If they’re not diving, most people skip Yap on the way to Guam or Palau, but why miss the chance to explore Micronesia’s most traditional state? Unusual sights will greet you, far removed from Western society: giant stone money, for example, up to four metres wide; or loin-clothed men and bare-breasted women going about their business in the miniscule capital, Colonia.

At the airport, barely bigger than your head, crowds of children meet the planes and everyone chews betel nut, the seed of the areca palm – everywhere and all the time – from adults down to kids and even, so they say, ghosts. Prolonged betel-nut use stains saliva bright red and grinds teeth to blackened stubs, a potentially alarming sight, but when you land and are welcomed by friendly Yapese, you’ll soon feel at ease.

Getting There
Yap, part of the Federated States of Micronesia, is a stopover on the Guam to Palau route. There are no direct flights.

Getting Around
There’s no public transport. The capital, Colonia, is about 15 minutes from the airport by car. Rent a vehicle through your hotel or take a taxi (US$1 around Colonia and US$3 to the airport).

Yap is warm and dry in December, and temperatures average 80 to 81°F (26 to 27°C) year-round.

ESA Hotel ( – basic rooms from US$75.
Pathways Hotel ( – charming hillside cottages with traditional architecture from US$115.
Manta Ray Bay Hotel ( – colourful, spacious rooms from US$150.
Traders’ Ridge Resort ( ) – upscale hotel with rooms from US$215.

Eating Out
The best eating is at the hotels. The Manta Ray Bay’s restaurant, actually an Indonesian fishing boat moored in the harbour, serves excellent seafood (mains from $US15). The Veranda View (mains from US$20), at Trader’s Ridge, naturally has the best view, out over Chamorro Bay, as well as the ‘only professional Yapese chef on Yap’ and betel-nut cocktails.

Accommodation: $US75–215
Lunch and dinner: $US22
Rental car: $US40
Half-day tour: $US50
One-tank dive: $US60

Further Info

Boxed text
Yap’s ancient rai – stone money – was quarried long ago on Palau’s Rock Islands as crystalline-limestone discs, up to four metres in diameter. The rai was then hefted onto barges and towed by canoe to Yap, 400km distant. Although the Yapese are masters of the sea, expeditions were sometimes lost as the awkward cargo (weighing up to five tons) proved lethal in foul weather – the value of the coin was therefore indexed to the difficulties faced in transportation. Today rai is still sometimes used to transact, although the loot never moves, forever staying put in pathside village ‘banks’.

Seasonal information
December through to February is the peak season for manta watching – a day or two should do it, especially since Yap has a ‘guaranteed sighting’ program. Four days is ample time to see the rest of Yap at a luxurious clip, unless you want to extend your stay with a trip to the outer islands. The Trader’s Ridge Resort has the most comprehensive tour program.

Day 1

Play with the mantas – the best time is in the very early morning. In the afternoon, snorkel around Yap’s wonderful reef, blue holes and shallow lagoon. Yap Divers, at the Manta Ray Bay Hotel, is the most experienced operator.

Day 2
Hire a guide to take you to Bechiyal, a relaxed beachside village. Its ancient faluw (men’s meeting house) survived the 2004 typhoon and is the oldest on the island. Later, visit the stone-money banks at Balabat, Okau and Wanyan villages.

Glimpse local artisans at work in open-air workshops at the Ethnic Art Village. Sometimes there are dance performances, as well as demonstrations in carrying stone money and chewing betel nut.

Day 3
Take a tour to the ‘forbidden island’ of Rumung, a 20-minute boat trip from Bechiyal. Since the 17th century, Rumung has been closed to all foreigners – until very recently. It still has no cars, roads or electricity – just stone paths and a strong stench of the past.

Day 4
Hire a guide to show you the WWII relics scattered about Yap, including rusting cannon and shot-down fighter planes – a legacy of wartime occupation by the Japanese.

Take a tour on a traditional sailing canoe, or kayak through the mangrove channels, or mountain bike through lush jungle greenery.

Day 5
Fly to the Ulithi atoll in the outer islands, an unspoilt, unhurried attraction. Spend a day or two snorkelling and diving: underwater attractions include tiger sharks, turtles and some interesting WWII wrecks.

Do’s and Don’ts
• Ask the locals to show you how to chew betel nut. You’ll make them laugh when you stain your nice new shirt with the gushing, bright-red saliva it produces.
• Carry a blade of grass when walking through a village – it’s a sign of respect.
• Don’t just walk anywhere without asking – every centimetre of land on Yap is privately owned, and to not seek permission is a deep insult.
• Don’t sunbathe on the beach in bathers – cover up with a sarong. Although some Yapese women go topless, it’s shameful for females to display bare thighs.