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.

The Light-Painter of Mojave D: An Interview with Troy Paiva

Balalrdian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Joshua Says GO!’ by Troy Paiva. ‘A 30s twin-tail Lockheed Electra does the big sleep at Aviation Warehouse. Night, full moon, red-gelled strobe flash. Canon 20D.’

Originally published on, 6 June 2008.


Ballardian: Troy Paiva The photography of Troy Paiva treats us to canted visions of a crumbling, post-industrial America — decommissioned military bases, aircraft ‘boneyards’, abandoned desert towns. The scenarios are all shot at night and the work is presented straight out of the camera, mostly untouched by Photoshopping or other post-processing techniques. Troy uses available light, such as moonlight or sodium light (the latter of course plentiful in the modern-day archaeological ruins he haunts), but he also uniquely marks the shots with his light-painting skills (the introduction of hand-held, hand-applied light during the exposure) and the unearthly effects of red, green and blue-gelled strobe flashes. The cumulative effect is startling: like stills from a David Lynch film in a parallel universe in which Lynch, instead of adapting Barry Gifford’s novel Wild at Heart for his twisted desert noir masterpiece, had chosen Ballard’s Vermilion Sands instead.

Although Troy began to read Ballard only comparatively recently, his photography fits the definition of ‘Ballardian’ in the dictionary sense: ‘resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels & stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.’ But it also mirrors a significant strain that seems to fly by those consistently emphasising the ‘bleak’ in that dictionary statement. This is the ‘carnival in suburbia’ atmosphere that has always bubbled below the surface in Ballard but which flowered forth so vividly in books such as The Unlimited Dream Company and Hello America and in stories such as ‘The Ultimate City’, the latter two featuring abandoned American cities of the near future brought back to life virtually by sheer dint of imagination. Similarly, Troy doesn’t so much wallow in decay and entropy as he reanimates the ruins, surging new power through the bones of post-industrialism.

This interview has taken a bit of time to happen. I first made contact with Troy late last year, leaving a placeholder for a possible future interview. It was only recently, when a visitor to this site, Henry Swanson, left some interesting comments about Troy’s work that I was reminded of my duty. I subsequently invited Henry to help me out with the interrogation and the results of our survey into the world of Mr Paiva are here below for your scrutiny. But after all that, it was good timing in the end: Troy’s second book of photography, Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration, is due for publication in early July.

Simon Sellars

NOTE: Although I have tried my best to include a representative selection of Troy’s photos, I found it almost impossible to do justice to the scope, beauty and sheer volume of his work. If after reading this interview you find yourself wanting more examples, my advice is to start either at Troy’s official site or his flickr page and work your way from there.

I had arrived in Vermilion Sands three months earlier. A retired pilot, I was painfully coming to terms with a broken leg and the prospect of never flying again… I found a shallow basin among the dunes… The owner had gone, abandoning the hangar-like building to the sand-rays and the desert, and on some half-formed impulse I began to drive out each afternoon.

J.G. Ballard, ‘The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D’, first published in 1967, collected in Vermilion Sands (1971).

SIMON: Troy, when we first talked about your photos, you said, ‘People constantly refer to my photography as “Ballardian”.’ I can certainly see the connections, especially with Vermilion Sands and its sense of decadent ruin, a lurid, near-future civilisation lost in the desert sands. But is Ballard actually an influence on your work?

TROY: No. I came to him much later. I enjoyed the Vermilion Sands stories very much when I read them a couple of years ago and I can see why people connect my work with his writing. There is that sense of desolation and isolation, the fetishism of decay and destruction and a general sense of being outside the realm of normal society, as well as the melancholia of straggling on after everything has ended.

Same thing happened with Kerouac’s On the Road. After reading it recently I thought, ‘Wow, no wonder people keep saying that to me.’ Much of my photography stems from massive, epic road trips that criss-cross the southwest, where I cover thousands of miles in a couple of very surreal days. The mythology of The Road figures in a lot of my work. I guess these similarities show that human experience is roughly the same for all of us, we just have different ways of expressing it. See also Philip K. Dick.

The books of my formative years were George Stewart’s pastoral apocalypse classic Earth Abides, Hunter S. Thompson’s surrealist freak-out, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Stand, Stephen King’s pop-epic story of The End. Those three books kinda say it all about where my approach to the road, abandonment and the ‘post-everything’ world lies. And the movie Vanishing Point – that encapsulates my own road-trip mythology perfectly.

HENRY: ‘And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The last American hero, the electric Shinta, the demigod, the super driver of the Golden West.’

TROY: ‘And beans, lotsa beans.’ Man, I love that movie. It’s totally what the desert is about for me.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Color Television’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Behind an abandoned restaurant in the sleepy Mojave Desert town of Yermo, CA. The density of the sky was caused by the October Fires in SoCal. You could taste every breath. Night, full moon 2 minute exposure, natural, yellow and red-gelled strobe and flashlights. Composite of 2 images.’

HENRY: There are other things your work brings to mind, like the Mojave Desert Phone Booth.

TROY: Love it. Wish I’d had a chance to shoot it! I got lost on a series of endless dirt roads trying to find it, many years ago. Almost got stuck and had to give up. It’s been gone for at least five years now.

SIMON: What exactly is it about the desert that appeals?

TROY: I just love the expansiveness and isolation – it’s primal and uncompromising. I love that you can go for days without talking to anyone. It’s a land of outcasts and oddballs, where non-conformists can thrive. An incredible volume of American mythology is based on the desert and Western expansion, from the Gold Rush to Route 66. I’ve even heard my photography described as an epitaph for the mythology of the American West.

Dr Paul Ricci was thinking: So this is New York – or was. Greatest city of the twentieth century, here you heard the heart-beat of international finance, industry and entertainment. Now it’s as remote from the real world as Pompeii or Persepolis. It’s a fossil, my God, preserved here on the edge of the desert like one of those ghost towns in the Wild West. Did my ancestors really live in these vast canyons? They came on a cattle boat from Naples in the 1890s, and a century later went back to Naples on a cattle boat. Now I’m making another stab at it.

Still, the place has possibilities, all sorts of dormant things might be lying here, waiting to be roused.

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

SIMON: Your bio says your work is about ‘the evolution and eventual abandonment of the communities, structures and social iconography spawned during this country’s 20th century western expansion’. How did it come to be this way?

TROY: It’s simply who I am. When I was 13 my family went on a road trip, one of many, and we somehow found ourselves bouncing down 15 miles of bad dirt road to the classic ‘wild west’ ghost town of Bodie, arguably the most authentic ghost town in America. Today Bodie is kept in a state of ‘arrested decay’ and is a major tourist destination. Much of the road is paved and the parking lot is filled with tour buses, and in the summer the town is crawling with thousands of tourists from around the world. But back in the early 70s you could drive right into the centre of town and park. When we climbed out of the car we found we were the only ones there! I wandered that town alone for hours, slack-jawed at the thought that people would just walk away from furnished houses and businesses, a whole city, and never come back. I was hooked for life.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Texaco Marine’ by Troy Paiva. ‘North Shore Marina, Salton Sea, 2001. Most, if not all, the letters are gone by now. Night, 100% full moon/star light, 8 minutes, f5.6.’

SIMON: I understand it’s your Salton Sea work that gets most of the Vermilion Sands comparisons.

TROY: Yes. The Salton Sea is an enormous, accidentally created salt lake in a remote corner of the SoCal desert. In the 50s developers built elaborate resorts and golf courses around its shores and the department of interior stocked it with game fish. By the 60s it had become an idyllic combination of Lake Tahoe and Palm Springs, half outdoorsman’s paradise, half retreat for the Hollywood elite. By the 70s, however, two years of record rain caused massive floods and the lake, which has no outlet, began to fester and decay. The smell became unbearable as massive algae blooms died off. Anyone who could afford to move away did. By the 90s fish and birds were dying on a biblical scale – in the millions – triggered by the algae blooms. It’s a horrible, filthy place rimmed with rotten modernist resorts, marinas and trailer parks (most of which have been torn down now), and decaying dead fish and birds. Today the Salton Sea feels very much like the epicentre for the end of the world, a poster child for mankind’s failure to tame nature.

Ballardian for sure!

Ronnov-Jessen: [In your novella ‘The Ultimate City’] one could say that the dynamism represented by New York is actually the dynamism of decay.

Ballard: No, I don’t accept that. The city is abandoned, and with it, suspended in time, is a whole set of formulae for expressing human energy, imagination, ambition. The clock has stopped, but it will be possible for the boy to start it up again, just as in the novel Hello America where the young hero does precisely the same — except he attempts to do it on a continental level.

J.G. Ballard, ‘Against Entropy’, a 1984 interview with Peter Ronnov-Jessen.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Precis’ by Troy Paiva. ‘A flipped Mitsubishi Precis, run over by a tank, in the abandoned base housing at George AFB near Victorville, CA. There were several smashed cars left in strategic lines of sight used for infantry cover during wargames exercises. The engine block in this thing was crushed like an egg. Shot March 2001, 160T film. Night, about 8 minutes, full moon, but overcast, yellow and purple-gelled strobe-flash.’

HENRY: Do you think your photos suggest a cryptic ‘signs of passing’ of American Culture from the world stage?

TROY: I suppose it can’t help but be interpreted that way‚ but I must also say the rest of the world has more ruins and debris left behind than America does. The internet is overflowing with amazing photography shot in the abandoned places of the 21st century. Spend an hour Googling ‘urban exploration’ and you’ll see that the culture is exploding worldwide, so whilst you got the concept right, it’s important to see it as a human, post-industrial thing rather than purely American.

UrbEx is as old as mankind. Humans have always been obsessed with both building and exploration. I’m sure primitive man explored the abandoned caves of his ancestors too. We’re drawn to ruins. It’s just how we’re wired as a species. Whereas the 20th century saw an unprecedented worldwide explosion of construction, by the dawn of the 21st century much of this expansion had failed or become obsolete, leaving the world littered with an amazing array of every type of ruins imaginable. Today we are experiencing a true golden age of abandonment.

SIMON: You describe it as a ‘culture’. That suggests it’s more than simply the illicit thrill of sneaking into abandoned or forbidden territory.

TROY: Yes. UrbEx, or Urban Exploration, is the pastime of visiting TOADS (temporary, obsolete, abandoned and derelict spaces), but not for scientific, anthropological or nefarious purposes. It’s about absorbing the atmosphere and wabi sabi soul of these places. A ‘finding beauty in decay’ aesthetic. I visit these lapsed spaces for several of the same reasons that normal people visit a serene mountain glen: the soul-cleansing quietude and the sense of feeling very small in a big universe. But ultimately it is an entirely different sensibility. Where most people see waste and blight in TOADS, Urban Explorers see elegant devolution and the weight of time.

Found the man Traven. A strange derelict figure, hiding in a bunker in the deserted interior of the island. He is suffering from severe exposure and malnutrition, but is unaware of this or, for that matter, of any other events in the world around him … He maintains that he came to the island to carry out some scientific project — unstated — but I suspect that he understands his real motives and the unique role of the island … In some way its landscape seems to be involved with certain unconscious notions of time, and in particular with those that may be a repressed premonition of our own deaths. The attractions and dangers of such an architecture, as the past has shown, need no stressing …

J.G. Ballard, ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964).

HENRY: Ballard has a strangely acute, Triassic sense of ‘deep time’ in his fiction‚ especially in short stories like ‘The Terminal Beach’. Similarly, in your book Lost America, you wrote, ‘The stars pinwheeling overhead and clouds smearing across the sky mirrored the compression of time created by the relentless pace of the trip.’ You said you were seeking to ‘heighten the unreality’ of these bizarre, spectral non-places.

TROY: It is a different reality. UrbEx night photography is very far removed from normal life, and my goal is to accentuate this surreal, otherworldly atmosphere in the work. One of the big attractions of night photography is this weird time-space distortion thing. Most of the night shooters I know are philosophical about the process. The exposures are minutes long, giving you time to sit in the dark and absorb the scene. Regardless of whether you are shooting cranes in an abandoned shipyard, or you’re on the top of a windswept mountain shooting thousand year old trees, it’s a wonderfully zen, contemplative experience.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Hot Seat 2’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Shot at the abandoned Fort Ord Army Base in Monterey, CA. I recently learned that most (soon to be all) of the barracks and entire laundry have recently been bulldozed. Hundreds of buildings. Gone. Night, full moon, pink and green-gelled strobe-flash, 3-4 minute exposure.’

HENRY: You must get scared sometimes.

TROY: I don’t really worry about stuff very much. I have yet to see a ghost or the undead, although I’ve had thousands of weird experiences. I’ve shot in many supposedly haunted locations and seen and heard things that some people would pass off as paranormal, but nothing that couldn’t be attributed to wind, settling or vermin in the walls. What I have seen a lot of are big poisonous spiders, three-storey drop offs into the yawning darkness with no railings, copper thieves, rattlesnakes, rotten floors and wasted teenage vandals. I’ve come out of buildings crawling with spiders (I’ve had some very bad spider bites over the years), missed a rattlesnake bite by inches and been chased back to the car by a pack of wild dogs. I’ve been run off by crazy, desert-rat property owners racking shotguns. I’ve been swarmed by a heavily armed platoon of border agents in southern Arizona while I was shooting in a pet cemetery. I’ve had countless cuts and bruises and sprained and twisted ankles, and I once gave myself an excruciating second-degree burn while light painting with fireworks in a sandstorm.

Doing this is a whole lot of fun, but there are a lot of very real ways to get hurt or killed. The dangerous aspect of UrbEx night photography is just not something I dwell on. If I did I’d never leave the house.

SIMON: In Lost America you wrote about coming across a sacrificial altar used in an occult ceremony.

TROY: Yeah, that was nasty. They had sacrificed a sheep on a makeshift altar in an abandoned Air Force fire station in a remote corner of the Mojave desert. Blood and entrails were smeared everywhere, lots of evil graffiti about how much fun it is to kill. It was a miserable sight. Sad.

SIMON: You said it was part of the ‘growing evidence of downright creepy stuff’ you’ve encountered. Are you implying that this kind of activity is on the rise?

TROY: Is it on the rise, or has it always been there, bubbling away under the surface? I don’t have the answer for that. Remember what I said earlier about the desert being the last place where oddballs can thrive? Some people are just bigger oddballs than others, what can I tell you?

HENRY: I enjoy reading your interior highway dialogues [Troy wrote 12,000 words to accompany the photos in Lost America]. You should definitely do more existential travel essays – you seem to have a feel for it.

TROY: Thanks, but I clearly don’t have as much to offer as a writer that I do as a photographer. Urban Exploration needs a new young writer, this generation’s version of Lester Bangs or Hunter S. Thompson, who can bring it into a modern pop-culture context. I’m not that writer, but I’ll gladly play the photographic role of Ralph Steadman.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Danger Zone’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Building 4900, abandoned. Decommissioned Fort Ord Army Base. It’s all in the details. Shot 1/07, night- totally dark space, red-gelled strobe and ungelled strobe through fenced room.’

SIMON: Do you know about the recent hysteria in Britain, with people being questioned and harassed by police for using a camera in public places under suspicion of terrorism? There has been a huge backlash from ordinary people demanding the right to take pictures in public without being branded a terrorist.

TROY: I’ve heard rumblings about that sort of thing here too, especially in big cities. No question, the climate for photographers has changed since 9/11. The police have all of us on a shorter leash. Here in western America everything is spread out though, so it’s much easier to fall between the cracks if you get out of the big cities. That’s why I like shooting in rural locations. You are a lot less likely to be hassled by the police or unsavoury characters.

HENRY: Ballard has described Shanghai as ‘cruel and lurid, polluted and exciting’. Except for ‘cruel’ this seems an apt description of your photography (I find your work too surreal to be genuinely malicious). Do you feel this same kind of frantic, otherworldly rush as you travel the land in search of… of what, exactly?

TROY: Ghosts. Not Hollywood movie ghosts-actors under sheets waving their arms, but the ghosts of technology, a slice of amazing human history that is already being forgotten as we rush headlong towards… whatever the hell it is we are rushing towards. I don’t believe in ghosts in the traditional sense, but these places carry a spiritual weight that is unlike occupied places or nature. The stillness and atmosphere, especially alone at night, can be an emotionally overwhelming experience. No question, it is a rush.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Canted’ by Troy Paiva. ‘1959 Buick at a nameless high desert junkyard near Lake Los Angeles, CA. Night, 2 minute exposure, full moon purple and green-gelled strobe-flash. Big and rusty.’

SIMON: Is America really changing as rapidly as your work suggests?

TROY: Yes, it’s changing faster and faster. America is all about speed and ‘the new’ so we’re always replacing things that don’t really need replacing. It’s interesting how the places and objects I find have changed over the years. Twenty years ago it was all about the debris left behind by the finned atomic-age, but now the focus has shifted to the debris of the 70s and 80s: junkyard minivans and wide-body airliners are replacing the big-finned station wagons and 707s. Disposable plastic replacing chromed steel.

Who knows where it’s headed? Surely we’re into another period of contraction in the West as gas tops $4 a gallon, which only means junkyards filled with giant SUVs and more abandonments to explore, but I have no idea where it will ultimately end up.

When Los Angeles is forgotten, probably what will remain will be the huge freeway system. I’m certain the people in the future — long after the automobile has been forgotten — will regard them as enigmatic and mysterious monuments which attested to the high aesthetic standards of the people that built them. In the same way that we look back on the pyramids or the mausoleums in a huge Egyptian necropolis as things of great beauty — we’ve forgotten their original function. It’s all a matter of aesthetics. I think that highways for the most part are beautiful. I prefer concrete to meadow.

J.G. Ballard, ‘How to Face Doomsday without Really Dying’, a 1974 interview with Carol Orr.

SIMON: How did you get interested in night photography?

TROY: In 1989 I was working as a designer/illustrator for a major toy company, drawing and painting every day in a heavily art-directed environment. After several years of that I lost any sense of the artistic fulfilment I was originally getting from the job. The last thing I wanted to do was draw and paint at home too, so I was desperate to find a new personal creative outlet. At the time my brother Tom was a full time photography student at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. One of his classes was in night photography. Being my brother, he knew I’d be fascinated by night shooting on a conceptual level, so he snuck me along to some lectures and shoots with the class in the decaying industrial sections of SF. It instantly dawned on me that this was the perfect way to photograph the abandoned roadside towns I was already exploring. After one trip to the desert to shoot at night I became totally obsessed and consumed by it.

Ballardian: Tom Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Alameda Corridor’ by Tom Paiva.

SIMON: Do you see any similarities with your brother Tom’s work?

TROY: When we were both learning the ropes in night shooting we frequently shot at night together. Now Tom lives in Los Angeles and he has a commercial photography business shooting large format architectural and industrial work. Living 500 miles apart, we seldom get the chance to shoot together anymore. Tom’s aesthetic is the complete opposite of mine; he doesn’t light paint, he doesn’t do the UrbEx-style locations, and his complex and meticulous – and ultimately gorgeous – large-format work is the exact opposite of my quick and dirty, guerrilla-style shooting. My compositional style tends towards a pop-surrealist, melodramatic and cartoony look, whereas his is a more stately and formalist style. His work is cool and elegant, mine hot and visceral. Yes, we’re both night photographers, but our styles couldn’t be more different. We’re very careful to avoid doing similar work specifically because we are both named ‘T. Paiva’ and we both make a conscious effort to avoid stepping on each other’s artistic toes. One way we’re similar though is that we’re both loners, but I think that is a trait that runs strong in most night shooters. It’s funny to watch a group of night photographers descend on a location – they usually say something like ‘meet you here at 1am’ and head off in opposite directions.

SIMON: Who else can you recommend in the field?

TROY: Jan Staller, Richard Misrach, Michael Kenna and Steve Fitch for sure. Studying the lighting work of O. Winston Link, William Lesch and Chip Simons back in the late 80s was really important for me, too. I’d sit there for hours, deconstructing their images trying to figure out how they lit their subjects. But maybe I owe more to David Lynch, Roger Deakins, Vittorio Storaro, Juan Ruiz Anchía, Emmanuel Lubezki, Tim Burton and a trillion other movie artists. I watch a lot more movies than I read photo books.

SIMON: What kind of equipment do you use?

TROY: I shot on film from 1989 to 2004 using cheap, outdated flea-market 35mm gear. It felt right for me to be shooting this forgotten junk with junk. This old work has a Holga-esque, toy-camera lo-fi quality that many find endearing today. I guess I was unintentionally ahead of the curve there too. I stopped shooting for a year in 2004 as the film era fizzled out, frustrated by lab closures, the lack of quality film processing and the low yield of acceptable work with my ancient equipment. In 2005 I moved to digital once I saw that camera technology had advanced enough to allow me to do noise-free time exposures. I now shoot with a Canon 20D and a 12-24mm Tokina zoom lens. I use a heavy, solid Slik tripod because I do a lot of work in wind and rough conditions and I need as stable a platform for the camera as possible. Regrettably, I was forced away from the ‘shooting junk with junk’ ethos by changing technology, but with the 20D already being superseded by several newer models in the past few years, maybe the 20D is already ‘outdated junk’ gear too.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Speedlines’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Mid ’70s Chevy Monte Carlo at the Pearsonville, California Junkyard. This is the last of the Pearsonville work, I wanna try to head back soon tho. Night, 2 minute exposure, full moon, blue and green-gelled flashlight.’

SIMON: You’ve described your technique as ‘low cost/high impact lighting’. Is it therefore accessible for amateurs and people beginning to experiment with photography?

TROY: Absolutely. The advent of digital photography and the ability to chimp the shot on the back of your camera as you work has revolutionized night photography and light painting. In the film era you could shoot a whole roll of film and not know that the leader on the film never got picked up by the sprocket, let alone that your exposures were incorrect or your lighting was not bright enough.

All my lighting is done with a single 20 year old Vivitar 285 strobe flash and a collection of flashlights from a tiny keychain LED to a 1,000,000 candlepower spotlight. I have a set of theatrical lighting gels cut to small swatches that I just hold over the light source. Because the exposures are minutes long, I have plenty of time to do multiple flash pops and take my time with my flashlight work. Observers are often surprised by my low-tech lighting technique, asking ‘Is that really all there is to it?’ I have to keep it simple because this is frequently a guerrilla-style of photography. Travelling light is critical, so all my gear except the tripod fits in a small daypack, allowing me to get in, set up, shoot and get out quickly.

You can buy a flash like mine second-hand for $50. All of my flashlights could be bought at any drugstore like Target or Walmart. Every halfway-large city has at least one theatrical supply store where you can buy gel material. It costs about $10 a sheet. The reason for not trying light painting is not because of cost! Look at any of the myriad night photography or light-painting groups at a photo-sharing site like flickr and prepare to be overwhelmed with amateurs doing this kind of work in all sorts of locations. It’s everywhere now. I seem to have created a Frankenstein.

SIMON: Do you work fast?

TROY: I work incredibly fast compared to other night shooters. A lot of that is a product of having almost 20 years of experience, but I am a seat-of-the-pants type of artist in any media. The less thinking and planning and fussing over the piece, the more relaxed and natural it will be.

It’s kind of like a pianist playing a song with thousands of notes without sheet music: if they think about every note, they can’t possibly play the song. Rather, they turn off the conscious part of their mind and just let it flow. Same for painters and other artists. It’s no different for photography. The more you think, plan and try to get the shot, the more likely it will elude you.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Las Vegas Club’ by Troy Paiva. ‘The YESCO sign boneyard, Las Vegas, NV. Shot May, 2000. Night, 160 Tungsten film, full moon, sodium and mercury vapor lights, red-gelled strobe flash. That’s the Luxor hotel spotlight. Legendary location seen in many TV shows and movies containing hundreds of old signs. Almost everything here was donated and moved to the Las Vegas Neon Museum across town shortly after I shot here, this lot was turned into more manufacturing/warehouse space.’

Had they any idea that Las Vegas was defended by a rag-tag army of children? In an attempt to blind their camera lenses, Manson continued to turn up the electric power flowing into the city. The neon façades of the casinos and hotels were now so many cataracts of white lava, walls of incandescent 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).

SIMON: Funnily enough, given that your signature style is this unnaturally vivid primary-colour palette, I always picture purples and reds when I think of Vermilion Sands, more so Ballard’s Hello America. The gels you use irradiate your scenery – for me it really does evoke the near-future sheen of Hello America‘s abandoned United States, in which whole cities are buried in the desert, a vast continent paved over with accreted hyperconsumerism. But in photography at least, this seems an unusual approach to take with urban ruins – many would rather focus on the grey, rusting aspects of abandoned towns. Perhaps, like Ballard, you are breathing new life into these ruins, recombining them in new and unexpected ways.

TROY: Yes, you nailed it. Most UrbEx photography is a pure documentation of locations weathered to dreary and monochromatic greys and browns, but I’m taking it someplace else entirely by reanimating these places with light. Some say I’m bringing a festive, circus-like atmosphere to these dead places. It’s done in a sort of Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ spirit. My colour choices are usually predicated on the actual colour of the subject and location, not because of some premeditated ‘I must use green tonight’ mentality.

I see it as embracing the idea of death rather than fearing it. It’s about accepting it and having fun with this darker side of the human condition. My work tends to inspire melancholia, especially in older people, because they remember these places from their youth. It reminds them of their own mortality, but I think that palpable sense of transience and loss in these places is actually exciting and inspiring rather than sad or futile. I suspect that feeling runs strong in many urban explorers.

Personally, I’m not that opposed to pollution – I think the transformation of the old landscape by concrete fields and all that isn’t necessarily bad by definition. I feel there’s a certain beauty in looking at a lake that has a bright metallic scum floating on top of it. A certain geometric beauty in a cone of china clay, say, four hundred yards high, suddenly placed in the middle of the rural landscape. It’s all a matter of a certain aesthetic response. Some people find highways, cloverleaf junctions and overpasses and multi-storey car-parks ugly, chiefly because they are made of concrete. But they are not. Most of them are structures of great beauty.

J.G. Ballard, ‘How to Face Doomsday without Really Dying’, a 1974 interview with Carol Orr.

HENRY: Ballard has said that his fiction is the ‘dissection of a deep pathology’. Do you also see your own work as a kind of surgical procedure, laying bare the arid and often post-apocalyptically tinged dreamscapes of the USA in all its mythical glory? Or is it more intimate, personal and emotional than that?

TROY: Jeez, these are hard questions. It is a very personal and emotional process for me. It is an artistic process more than an intellectual one. My photography is about these places as they are now, not as they were. It’s not socioeconomic commentary, an anti-technology or anti-military-waste rant, or a warning about rampant consumerism and conspicuous consumption, though it has been interpreted as such by others. Put simply, I love these places. I am laying bare this rotten underbelly, but I’m doing it because these places simply move me, not necessarily because of what they were, but because of what they are now. It’s all about the atmosphere and feeling, and I try to enhance this surreal vibe with my time exposures and light painting.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: The cover of Paiva’s Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration, published by Chronicle Books.

SIMON: I see that Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG has written the foreword to your forthcoming book, Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration. As we’ve previously seen, Geoff shares a Ballardian approach to architecture and urban exploration.

TROY: My editor at Chronicle Books introduced me to Geoff. He was a last-second addition to the project when my original essayist fell through at the 11th hour. Geoff immediately ‘got it’ and wrote a very eloquent and flattering forward, quoting from The Atrocity Exhibition among several other books. I enjoy Geoff’s blog tremendously, especially when the subject of ‘the philosophy and aesthetics of abandonment’ comes up.

Paiva’s images of airplane graveyards, in particular, are all the more evocative and gripping when you consider that his father was a flight engineer, hopping planes from country to country. In his book The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard describes a surreal landscape of crashed bombers, abandoned air warfare ranges, and disused runways. He refers to such images as ‘the nightmare of a grounded pilot,’ or ‘the suburbs of Hell,’ a ‘University of Death,’ across which people wander, stunned by the ruins all around them.

Geoff Manaugh, foreword to Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration.

SIMON: Tell us more about the book.

TROY: It’s broken down into five chapters: ‘Byron Hot Springs Hotel’, about an abandoned early 20th century resort; ‘16th Street Station’, about a derelict Beaux Arts inner city train station; ‘Decommissioned’, which covers over a dozen various abandoned military and industrial complexes; ‘Desert’, about the abandoned roadsides of the desert southwest; and ‘Boneyard’, a high-desert graveyard comprised of hundreds of junk aircraft.

While it’s as similar to Lost America as you’d expect two volumes of ‘light-painted night photography in abandoned places’ to be, this new one is about specific locations rather than general overviews of types of places. I have the first production copy sitting on the desk in front of me and it really looks sharp. It’s a much higher-quality piece than Lost America. The layout and design is much more sophisticated and refined and the print quality is a vast improvement. I’m frankly floored by it and I’m my own worst critic, so I’m pretty optimistic that other people are going to be floored by it too.

SIMON: What sort of research do you do, in terms of finding out sites to visit and photograph?

TROY: I drive around in the desert and scout locations. I have a collection of old road maps from the 50s, which I’ve studied at length. It’s fascinating to see whole towns on those maps that no longer exist. In the last few years I’ve had a lot of email from people telling me about great locations and I’ve been acting on some of these tips with great results. I’ve also been shooting with a lot of local UrbEx photographers who have introduced me to some spectacular spots very close to home.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Wind Slice’ by Troy Paiva. ‘1930s airliner in storage at Aviation Warehouse in El Mirage, CA, a Mojave Desert aircraft boneyard that services the film industry as well as recycles aircraft parts. Night, full moon, red-gelled flash. 2-3 minutes.’

He welcomed this journey into a familiar land, zones of twilight. At dawn, after driving all night, they reached the suburbs of Hell. The pale flares from the petrochemical plants illuminated the wet cobbles. No one would meet them there. His two companions, the bomber pilot at the wheel in the faded flying suit and the beautiful young woman with radiation burns, never spoke to him… Who were they, these strange twins – couriers from his own unconscious? For hours they drove through the endless suburbs of the city. The billboards multiplied around them…

J.G. Ballard, ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ (1970).

SIMON: And your favourite shoot so far?

TROY: The aircraft boneyards are still my favourites. I’m an airline brat so I grew up around planes. There is nothing that can prepare you for walking up to half of a 747 laying on its belly in the sand. It’s just epic. I shot the derelict ocean liner ‘S.S. Independence’ earlier this year, days before it left to be towed to the breaker beaches of Asia. That was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime shoot.

SIMON: Do you have a desire to shoot outside of America?

TROY: Oh sure: the abandoned industrial cities of Eastern Russia, Gunkanjima – that completely abandoned island city in Japan – the half-finished hotels of the Sinai, the abandoned Formula 1 racetrack at Reims, France… the list goes on and on. Realistically, though, there is more than enough in the American Southwest to shoot for a lifetime.

It’s mainly a money issue. Being a freelance artist in the 21st century is a low-budget lifestyle. Still, with a few deep-pocket patrons I’d be happily winging my way across the globe next week!

Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration is shipping on 2 July, 2008 and is available for preorder via Chronicle Books and

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Clipped and Headless’ by Troy Paiva. ‘A mutilated Delta 727 fuselage on its belly at Aviation Warehouse in El Mirage, CA, a Mojave Desert aircraft boneyard that services the film industry as well as recycles aircraft parts. Night, full moon, red-gelled strobe flash. 2-3 minute exposure.’

+ Troy’s official site
+ Troy’s Lost America site
+ Troy’s flickr stream
+ Design Shed, Troy’s freelance design and illustration site

‘Paradigm of nowhere’: Shepperton, A Photo Essay

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

All photography by Simon Sellars.

Originally published on, 26 April 2008.

In May 2007 I found myself in England for the J.G. Ballard conference at the University of East Anglia. With that out of the way, I did what comes naturally. I took the train to Shepperton: Ballardian Ground Zero. I had intended to take photographs of the arena that has supplied so much raw material for Ballard’s writing, but at the same time I had no intention of infringing on JGB’s privacy. So, no shots of his house and street here. What I was aiming for instead was the traversal of a distinct psychic terrain (while avoiding the dreaded “p*****geography” word), the blanket overlay of Shepperton with a mental template gleaned from so many Ballard novels and short stories.

In the end, despite Shepperton’s reoccurrence across Ballard’s ouevre, just one book coloured the day, so brilliant is its corona: The Unlimited Dream Company, that beautiful, mad, lush waking dream wrenched direct from Ballard’s cerebral cortex. In the book an airport worker, Blake, seeking to escape his mundane life in London, steals a Cessna and crashes it into the Thames River in Shepperton. He is rescued from drowning by a troupe of locals and discovers that he is unable to leave the town; there seems to be an invisible psychic barrier that denies him egress. Giving in to it, he learns that he now has strange powers. He can fly unaided (although still unable to leave the town boundaries) and he can shapeshift into different animals: birds, whales, deer. He can also conjure into being menageries of birds and packs of wild animals from thin air, or even from the orifices of his body. His sexual appetite grows polymorphously perverse and he attempts to mount anyone and anything. Galvanized by his raw libido, the townsfolk forget about their London office jobs and their safe suburban lives, and a cult soon forms around Blake as he teaches them to fly, to reject their hyperreal consumerist lifestyles in favour of a journey into the sun, an ultimate realm in which they would celebrate “the last marriage of the animate and inanimate, of the living and the dead”.

Throughout, Ballard allows Shepperton to glow lysergically before the mind’s eye, a flaring vision of the suburbs and post-industrial liminal zones that threatens to negate the entire world. It’s no wonder he’s such a powerful influence on artists and filmmakers: the writing has a pure visionary quality that, as I’ve always maintained, transcends literature, that bends time and space (but of course). Here, then, are my photos and commentary from my trip to Shepperton — my small tribute to this remarkable book and the marvellously vivid quality of Ballard’s work, my attempt to provide an on-location correlation for the film of The Unlimited Dream Company playing in the cinema of my mind.

I must thank Jo M. for her company throughout the day. Jo’s marvellous insights into the town and her knowledge of Ballard’s work enriched the experience, and her maps and keen navigational skills greatly surpassed my own wretched sense of direction.

This feature is presented in two parts. In Part 1 we set out from the train station, making a direct line for the fields and water meadows surrounding the motorway just past Ballard’s street. Crossing this metallized river by bridge, which Blake was unable to do, we make our way to the film studios, which feature prominently in the book (doubtless Blake made it by flying). In Part 2, due next week, we explore the reservoirs near the studios, also a prominent feature of the book, before crossing back over the motorway and into town, and then on into Old Shepperton where we attempt to locate the exact spot where Blake ditched his plane in the Thames.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Outside the railway station the last of the office-workers were once again making a half-hearted attempt to set off for London. But as I approached they gave up all thought of work. Ties loosened, jackets over their shoulders, they strolled through the holiday throng, their sales conferences and committee meetings forgotten.

J.G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979).

I live in Melbourne, where if you travel in certain directions 40 minutes out from the centre you find outlying suburbs and satellite towns that are basically parched-concrete aprons with brick-veneer boxes on them in which entire families somehow cohabitate. Parks are rare, greenery is sparse and everything is geometric and regimented, with great swathes of freeway cut through the middle. (Here is an example of the type of ennui this leached Australian suburbia can inspire; here is another.) Somehow from reading Ballard I expected similar of Shepperton, 40 minutes from the capital by train, especially given that most people who interview Ballard at his house remark on the dominance of the motorway and the terminal nature of the town.

Ballard himself has been known to play this up, as in his 1988 interview with Paul Rambali. “Post space race, when the moon was discovered to be merely dust,” Rambali writes, “his novels caught the imagination of a young generation that sensed an imminent everyday apocalypse, the future shock of the homogenous new suburbs”:

“I fear this is the future,” says Ballard… He is talking about Shepperton… “Driving through the suburbs of Germany in the Seventies I could see it. Everything is controlled. Even a drifting leaf looks out of place… Once you move to the suburbs, time stops. People measure their lives by consumer goods, the dreams that money can buy. I think that’s more dangerous. People have no loyalties anymore.”

But Ballard continues to live in this suburb where time has stopped, a sort of self-imposed alienation. In this, he is like a character from one of his novels, accepting the entropy that surrounds him.

Paul Rambali, “Visions Of Dystopia”, The Face (1988).

Thus I was a bit taken aback upon arriving at Shepperton station to be greeted by what looked like a picturesque town with a homely village atmosphere, winding streets with real-ale pubs smack in the middle of them, greenery galore and heritage-style red-brick housing. Sure, time has stopped but it’s hardly the dehumanised non-space of Ballardian lore. I’ve certainly seen far bleaker residential areas elsewhere in the British Isles. Still, it’s what’s under the surface that counts in Ballard…

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Completing my transformation of this suburban town, I walked along the main roads leading to the perimeter of Shepperton. To the south I threw my semen at the foot of Walton Bridge. Standing in the centre of the main road to London, I ignored the hornblasts of the passing drivers. Once again I was sure that none of them realized I was naked, and thought they were looking at an eccentric villager trying to throw himself under their wheels.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

In 2004, why did the stars align in such a cataclysmic way in Surrey, the county in which Shepperton nestles? As the Shepperton sign above indicates, it was a bumper year. But that’s not the whole story: in 2004 Surrey was in the top 10 for child road deaths in Britain. What would 2006’s final tally be? The sign’s single interrogation point for 2006 almost begs us to beat the 2004 record. Death Race 2006, perhaps?

Is Surrey, and Shepperton, somehow responsible? Is there any truth to the rumour, spread by Mikita Brottman in her introduction to the book Car Crash Culture, that Ballard in Crash “charts a parallel between road intersections and astrological signs”?

Perhaps the truth is rather more prosaic, yet far more disturbing:

Are we just victims in a totally meaningless tragedy, or does it in fact take place with our unconscious, and even conscious, connivance? Each year hundreds of thousands of people are killed in car crashes all over the world. Millions are injured. Are these arranged deaths arranged by the colliding forces of the technological landscape, by our own unconscious fantasies about power and aggression, our obsessions with consumer goods and desires, the overlaying fictions that are more and more taking the place of reality?

Ballard, Crash! (short film; 1971).

[The] demise of feeling and emotion has paved the way for all our most real and tender pleasures… our apparently limitless powers for conceptualisation — what our children have to fear is not the cars on the highways of tomorrow but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths.

Ballard, “Introduction to the French edition of Crash” (1973).

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

For some reason known only to the interior of my head I was trapped in this riverside town, around which my mind had drawn a strict perimeter, bounded on the north by the motorway, on the west and south by the winding course of the Thames. I watched the traffic moving eastwards to London, certain now that if I tried to leave by this last door of the horizon the same queasy perspectives would unravel in front of me.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Ian Allan Ltd. is a travel agent based in Terminal House just near the station. “The Terminal Beach” (1964) is one of Ballard’s finest stories and the blueprint for The Atrocity Exhibition. Set on the Pacific island of Eniwetok, which has been blasted into an undifferentiated slag by American nuclear testing, the story follows a possibly irradiated ex-US airman who wanders around on the island attempting to find the beach that reminds him of where he was born. Detaching himself from reality, he communes with the dead and reinvents — and destroys — himself according to the “any space whatever” of postwar globalism, represented by the sad spectre of the nuclear-poisoned island.

Before we ventured further into the dark heart of Shepperton, I was tempted to ask Ian Allan himself if he would later sell me a ticket to “the white leviathan, zero”, as the spirit of a dead Japanese man describes the terminal beach. But inside I suspected that like the travel agent in The Truman Show, he would conspire to ensure I could never leave Shepperton, that the only journey I would be undertaking would be deeper and further into my skull.

“Our latent psychopathy is the last nature reserve,” said Ballard in 2000. “A place of refuge for the endangered mind.”

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

The helicopter had retreated to the water-meadow across the river. Swept along towards the church, I saw Miriam knocked from her feet by the running crowd. As she knelt on the grass she was seized by the young women, a group of secretaries who happily stripped the clothes from her shoulders and lifted her into a head-dress of feathers.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

At the end of Ballard’s street is a walking trail that passes through verdant parks and meadows. It’s completely unexpected as you follow the winding road and come out the other side. We pictured Ballard, on first arriving in Shepperton, exploring his environs, going for a walk to the end of his street and discovering this wonderland that is like a theme park torn from its context and thrust into the middle of suburbia, like the geodesically preserved forests in Silent Running. The effect is quite unreal, and gazing into these ponds I was summarily transported to that mystical long shot in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, in which vegetation ripples and sways under flowing water, at once completely artificial in the intensity of the film’s colour and focus but at the same time so organic it transcends reason and logic.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Everywhere a macabre vegetation was emerging. Strange predators moved through the grass. Snakes climbed from the banks of the creek. A plague of spiders cast webs of pus across the trees, drawing silver shrouds over the dead flowers. Above the grave white flies festered in a halo. As a pale dawn filled the meadow I could see shrike attacking the last of the hummingbirds and impaling them on the thorn-bushes. The whole of Shepperton was sickening, poisoned by the despair flowing from me.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

It was then, fifty yards from the motorway, that I made an unsettling discovery. Although I was walking at a steady pace across the uneven soil, I was no longer drawing any closer to the pedestrian bridge… the motorway remained as far away as ever. If anything, this distance between us seemed to enlarge. At the same time, Shepperton receded behind me, and I found myself standing in an immense field filled with poppies and a few worn tyres.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Where we found ourselves, a tiny river cuts under concrete slabs and leafy vegetation snakes around motorway pedestrian bridges. The sound of trickling water blends with the Doppler effect of speeding vehicles. Here, where we found ourselves, “the last marriage of the animate and inanimate”, the absolute state to which Blake craves, would be fully apparent to a man of Ballard’s imaginative powers, in fact would appear fully formed. How many of his books were inspired by walks through this backstreet terrain? The Drowned World, with its vision of a lush, overgrown London? The Unlimited Dream Company itself? Even Concrete Island, despite the austerity of its title?

According to Peter Linnett:

The island isn’t concrete at all. It seems to live, organically. Admittedly it overlays the ruins of some old streets, a cinema, an air raid shelter; but on first sight: simply grass.

Linnett, “The Greening of Ballard: A Review of Concrete Island” (1976).

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

An unvarying light calmed the waiting nettles along the motorway palisade. A few drivers watched me from their cars, demented priest in my white sneakers. I picked up a chalky stone and set out a line of numbered stakes with pieces of driftwood, a calibrated pathway that would carry me to the pedestrian bridge. But as I walked forward they encircled me in a spiral arm that curved back upon itself, a whorl of numerals that returned me to the centre of the field.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Vivid blossoms swarmed among the graves, their semen-gorged petals feasting on the sun. Drunk on the communion wine, I set off across the park, the half-empty bottle in one hand. Beyond the deserted tennis courts lay the river, an over-excited mirror waiting to play a trick on me. Everywhere the air had become a vibrant yellow drum. A heavy sunlight freighted the foliage of the trees. Each leaf was a shutter about to swing back and reveal a miniature sun, one window in the immense advent calendar of nature.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

In the book, Blake transforms Shepperton into an Amazonian jungle in which the concrete underlay is merged solid. As his sexual appetite grows polymorphously perverse, wherever he throws his semen plant life springs up, abundant and richly overwhelming. Some of the most vivid scenes involve this suburban outland overrun by rampant plant life, a psychic green aura seeded by Blake and spread outwards via the collective energy of the townsfolk. As these photos demonstrate, the book’s unfurling of an organic machinery is absolutely rooted in Shepperton reality.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

It was now noon. The air was still, but a strange wind was blowing into my face. My skin was swept by a secret air, as if every cell in my body was waiting at the end of a miniature runway. The sun hid itself behind my naked body, dazzled by the tropical vegetation that had invaded this modest suburban town.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

The light faded as I reached the northern outskirts of the town. Two hundred yards beyond an untilled field ran the broad deck of the motorway. A convoy of trucks was turning off into the nearby exit ramp, each pulling a large trailer that carried a wood and canvas replica of an antique aircraft. As this caravan of aerial fantasies entered the gates of the film studios, dusty dreams of my own flight, I crossed the perimeter road and set off for the pedestrian bridge that spanned the motorway.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

As I gazed at the motorway from this bridge, a car passed underneath, travelling so fast it barely registered save for the high-pitched buzzing sound it made as it flew away into the distance. The speed and power of the thing was completely disorientating and provided such a stark, alien contrast to the field just a few yards away. Here, I felt the full, bracing power of the technological landscape, thoughts of nature completely obliterated by “the solid reality of the motorway embankments”, to quote Ballard in Crash. Yet during this rapture it occurred to me that there was a scene in Crash, a narrative completely encased in steel and concrete, that paradoxically seems in the space of one distended line to map out the terrain of The Unlimited Dream Company, at that stage still six years away, lost in the near future:

In my mind I visualized the cabin of Helen’s car, its hard chrome and vinyl, brought to life by my semen, transformed into a bower of exotic flowers, with creepers entwined across the roof light, the floor and seats lush with moist grass.

Ballard, Crash (1973).

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

As I approached the dead elms, a figure stepped from the dark bracken and barred my path. For a moment I saw the dead pilot in his ragged flying suit, his skull-like face a crazed lantern. He had come ashore to find me, able to walk no further than these skeletal trees. He blundered through the deep ferns, a gloved hand raised as if asking who had left him in the drowned aircraft.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

I hovered above the motorway, ready to land in the nearby fields and abandon my passengers, set down the inhabitants of a complete town in the waist-high corn among the startled farm-workers. But as I sped northwards through the air a strange gradient turned me against myself… Swept back towards the centre of Shepperton, I found myself once more above the deserted streets.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Across the motorway bridge is a Shepperton micro-world, a rustic part of town with farms and fields and horses and cows. Just beyond are the reservoirs and the film studios, and it was to the latter we were drawn first.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Thumping my head with his rifle, Stark drove on these exhausted executives, their wives and children. One by one they faltered and broke into a dispirited walk. Catching their breath, they looked back at Shepperton, which had now receded from them, a mirage miles away towards the south. Beyond the perimeter formed by the motorway the red-brick houses of the village lay on the horizon, a distant perspective on a Victorian postcard.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

I felt like a child in a holiday hotel, senses alert to the smallest blemish in the paintwork of the ceiling, to a strange vase on the mantelpiece, to all the exciting possibilities of the coming day. My skin prickled like over-sensitive camera film, already recording the hints of light that touched the pewter sky above London.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

The great arms of the banyan tree had seized the pavement outside the post office and filling-station, as if trying to pull the whole of Shepperton into the sky. I strode down the empty street, and touched the first of the lamp standards, anointing it with my semen. A fire vine circled the worn concrete and rose to the lamp above my head where it flowered into a trumpet of blossom.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

I could not resist these classically — or perhaps cliched — Ballardian shots, above and below, but in all honesty there wasn’t much of the type around, slim pickings indeed. Shepperton really did catch me off guard in this respect.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

I lusted after him, but for his body and not for his sex.

‘Right — I’ll teach you to fly.’

His white skin was dappled like a harlequin’s costume by the coloured street-lights. I could see my reflection in the windows of the cars around me, the ragged pelt of the flying suit, the semen pearling on my penis, the goggles on my forehead like scarlet horns.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Their faces seemed almost hostile. Seen through this strange light, the placid town into which I had fallen had a distinctly sinister atmosphere, as if all these apparently unhurried suburbanites were in fact actors recruited from the film studios to play their roles in an elaborate conspiracy.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

The famous Shepperton film studios feature prominently in The Unlimited Dream Company, with the suggestion that their mass-mediated dreams have leaked from the soundstages into the surrounding streets, coating the locals with a feverish celluloid sheen. We are actors in a never-ending film, the book seems to say, this dream of global capitalism, reading the lines we are given, never allowed to improvise the script, no room for experimentation, trapped in a three-act structure, our potential forever unrealised. Unless we wake up.

I wanted to wake up, to pierce the veil, so I asked the woman in this bunker at the entrance if there were any tours of the studios available. She took one look at my faux-army jacket and rested her hand briefly on her far-side hip, possibly reaching for a walkie-talkie…or something else. For a micro-second I imagined she would shoot us both stone-cold dead. Her brief, frosty response in the negative was like a forcefield shoving us back onto the street and far, far away.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

The town centre consisted of little more than a supermarket and shopping mall, a multi-storey car-park and filling station. Shepperton, known to me only for its film studios, seemed to be the everywhere of suburbia, the paradigm of nowhere.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Once I was arrested by the police for being over-boisterous in the children’s playground… For five minutes one rainy afternoon I was gripped by a Pied Piper complex, and genuinely believed that I could lead the twenty children and their startled mothers, the few passing dogs and even the dripping flowers away to a paradise which was literally, if I could only find it, no more than a few hundred yards from us.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

There’s a child in this shot of the studio backlots although you can’t see her, as she’s camouflaged by the playground equipment, itself barely visible in the foreground. I remembered the quote above and wanted to snap this scene, but I was extremely hesitant while the child remained. With all the hysteria surrounding the disappearance of Madeleine McCann at the time, and the general paranoia Britain smears around people taking photos in public places, a man shooting a child in a playground from long range would most likely have looked very, very dodgy indeed to a civic-minded individual who just happened to be strolling by. But to hell with it. I waited until the little girl was out of view, took the shot, and imagined the film-studio building behind her, container for the “paradise which was literally, if I could only find it, no more than a few hundred yards from us”.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Advancing quietly towards Shepperton, the early dawn picked out the mast of a yacht moored in the marina by Walton Bridge, the inclined ramp of a sand-conveyor by the gravel lakes, the lightning conductors on the galvanized roofs of the film studios.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

He sat at the wheel of his hearse and roved up and down the back streets of the town, ransacking the houses abandoned by their owners. I watched him load the hearse with rolls of carpet, television sets and kitchenware, an obsessed removal man single-handedly evacuating this jungle-threatened Amazon town.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the studios is the backstreets that rub right up against them. The juxtaposition of a Bacchanalian celebrity dreaming just a few yards away from everyday residential-zone living almost cleaved my mind in two. Do people wander these streets at night, imagining they are actors in their own version of reality? I would. Drunk and belligerent, of course. Would you?

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Already the elements of strange ceremonies and bizarre rituals were taking shape in my mind.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

The open gardens adjoined to these backstreet houses surprised me. I am used to the fiefdom of Australian suburban housing, where everything is high-fenced and closed off, micronational backyards scared [sic] and profane. Even more surprising were the three wooden effigies we came across in one of these open-plan gardens, one of their number struck down by forces unknown, its back to us, Blair Witch style. Doubtless the miniature swing and seesaw set is designed to evoke the simple joy of childhood, but reading it through the glare of The Unlimited Dream Company, I couldn’t help but see it as sinister mirror of the playground across the way that I’d just photographed. The Wicker Man and its disturbing pagan rituals also sprang to mind, for Blake is clearly tapping into the same psychic subterrain as that film.

Would Blake himself now appear, leading the child in the playground off to a sacrificial land where absorption into the next world is possible, leaving behind her physical body here in this demented reverse image as a petrified shell?

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Calming the females, I led them through the quiet side-streets, coupled with each one… But as I steered them to their places, repopulating this suburban town with my nervous semen, I felt that I was also their slaughterer, and that these quiet gardens were the pens of a huge abattoir where in due course I would cut their throats. I saw myself suddenly not as their guardian but as a brutal shepherd, copulating with his animals as he herded them into their slaughter-pens.

Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Part 2: the reservoirs, the high street, Old Shepperton, the Thames.