< Ballard interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2003

Nothing is real, everything is fake. Bizarrely, most people like it that way.

Collected by Mike Holliday

David Pringle recently sent me a list of those interviews with JGB that are referred to in the Re/Search 'JGB Quotes' book but which neither David nor anyone else on the list appears to have seen. I've managed to track down a couple of these, and here's the first - a lengthy interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist that was included in the 'catalogue' for the Beck's Futures 2003 art exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. This 'catalogue' consists of a box containing various items, and the JGB interview is a separate 18 page booklet.

JG Ballard "We now live in the Present, unconsciously uneasy at the Future, and this short-term viewpoint does have dangers."

The following is the text of an interview with JG Ballard by Hans Ulrich Obrist.

JG Ballard "We're allowed a certain freedom to improvise, but our roles are written by the city."

Hans Ulrich Obrist:
I'm interested in knowing about the transition between your childhood years in the far-east and your arrival in England just after the war. You've said before that those years in China have greatly influenced your writing - all the abandoned cities and towns and beach resorts that you keep returning to in your fiction are related to these spaces in China that the Japanese had abandoned during the war; as well as the semi-tropical nature of the place, with its lush vegetation. When you came to England, it was a place totally exhausted.

You said: "The War had drained everything. It seemed very small, and rather narrow mentally, and the physical landscape of England was so old." I'm wondering how this experience of post-War England as a very dull place compared to China has influenced your later work as a (science) fiction writer. You later said, "Why I became a science fiction writer was because the future was clearly better and the past was clearly worse." And also: "I came from a background where there was no past. Everything was new - Shanghai was a new city."

J G Ballard: Yes, I don't think it's possible to escape from one's past. The brain and the imagination are imprinted forever with the images of one's first years. I think puberty is an important turning point, as it is in the case of language acquisition. I lived in Shanghai until I was fifteen, went through the war and acquired a special 'language', a set of images and rhythms, dreams and expectations that are probably the basic operating formulae that govern my life to this day.

Shanghai was
almost a 21st Century city - huge disparities of wealth and poverty, a multi-lingual media city with dozens of radio stations, dominated by advertising, befouled by disease and pollution, driven by money, populated by twenty different nations, the largest and most dynamic city of the Pacific rim, an important political battleground. In short, a portent of the world we inhabit today. The significant thing for me was that all this was turned upside down by war. Friends suddenly vanished, leaving empty houses like the Marie Celeste, and everywhere I saw the strange surrealist spectacles that war produces. It taught me many lessons, above all that the unrestricted imagination was the best guide to reality.

HUO: You studied medical science at Cambridge and then spent time in the RAF in Canada before coming back to England to become an editorial assistant of a science magazine. At the time you had already started writing fiction. Were your interests in science, technology, the predicament of the individual in a highly mechanised society, and the way in which certain symbols and images can precipitate complex chain-reactions in the imagination there at the very beginning? Could you tell me about the way you honed your work and your style?

JGB: Yes, I think that my imagination was fully formed from the beginning, though that is probably true for most painters, novelists, poets and so on. I've always believed in the radical imagination that sets out to change reality - probably a doomed ambition. I wasn't interested in accepting the social consensus. I wanted to unsettle and unnerve, to provoke the reader. I never consciously shaped my ideas or my style. I simply followed my obsessions, and was confident that they would take me to strange destinations beyond the edge of the map.

HUO: The same year that you published your first texts, in London the Independent Group organised the exhibition This is Tomorrow (at the Whitechapel, London, in 1956) which startled everybody with its flood of popular imagery, undiluted in scale and treatment: films, advertising billboards, car-styling, consumer goods and comics.

You said about your
experience of this exhibition: "To go to the Whitechapel in 1956 and to see my experience of the real world being commented upon, played back to me with all kinds of ironic gestures, that was tremendously exciting. I could really recreate the future, that was the future, not the past. And Abstract Expressionism struck me as being about yesterday, was profoundly retrospective, profoundly passive, and it wasn't serious. This is Tomorrow came on a year before the flight of the first Sputnik, but the technologies that launched the space age were already underpinning the consumergoods society in those days. How much of this did Abstract Expressionism represent? If an art doesn't embrace the whole terrain, all four horizons, it's worth nothing." Could you tell me more about your memories of this show?

JGB: At the time I didn't see This is Tomorrow as an aesthetic event. For me it wasn't primarily an art show, just as I didn't see exhibitions of Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Magritte and Dali as displays of paintings. I saw them as among the most radical statements of the human imagination ever made, on a par with radical discoveries in neuroscience or nuclear physics. This is Tomorrow showed how the world could be re-perceived and re-made.

Very few people today are old enough to remember how
traumatised Britain was by the Second World War (which in many ways we had lost). The British were locked into an exhausted present, and were trying to find their way back into the past, where they hoped they might be happier and discover their former certainties. A hopeless quest. A new future has to be built from scratch, and This is Tomorrow was a start. What impressed me was that it was a confident art.

HUO: Did you befriend Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi there, or did you know them before? You've always said that you had been influenced as a writer by certain artists, painters and even that novels like Crash for instance were composed as visual experiences, "marrying elements in the book that make sense primarily as visual constructs." Could you tell me more about that and about the influence of these artists? I'd like to know also about how you perceived their interests in science fiction writing, New Worlds and in your stories in particular? Did you play the role of a visionary writer? What was the nature of the relations between you? One of cross-fertilisation?

JGB: I didn't meet Paolozzi until 1966, and Hamilton somewhat later. I admired their work greatly, but I think the surrealist painters had the biggest influence on me - de Chirico, Ernst, Dali and Delvaux. These are all painters of mysterious and disconnected landscapes, through which the few human beings drift in a state of dream-like trance, which had a direct and powerful appeal for me.

I admired many of Hamilton's
paintings, such as Homage to the Chrysler Corporation (1957) and his masterpiece, the collage Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? (1956), and I also admired Paolozzi's great early sculptures, the totemic figures constructed from machine-parts, and his brilliantly original screenprints. I don't think I was any kind of influence on them. They were much more interested in American science fiction with its high-technology images.

HUO: The ICA was a powerhouse of experimental exhibition practice at the time, a laboratory for interdisciplinary dialogues. Could you tell me about how you saw it at the time and why it worked? What can we learn now from this experience for the present? In an interview I conducted with Richard Hamilton he told me "The main reason for the ICA's success as far as I was concerned, was that the institution was small enough to be like an intimate club." Would you agree?

JGB: The ICA has always been enormously important as an ideas laboratory, not only in the days of the Independent Group in the 1950's but also in the late 1960s after it moved to its present home in The Mall. There were many important exhibitions devoted to surrealist and installation art, and the ICA was a hot-house where people with original ideas met to exchange ideas. In the last few years it's regained its old flavour. Part of the problem it faces is that the avant-garde is now the new establishment. The new is in danger of becoming the new old. But today's ICA seems to be successfully repositioning itself as a post-2000 ideas lab.

HUO: Could you tell me about the exhibitions that you designed, such as the one in the '60s at the New Arts Lab with the crashed cars (a crashed Mini, an A40 and a Pontiac which had been in a massive front-end collision - a Pontiac from the last grand period of American automobile styling around the mid '50s, with huge, flared tail-fins and iconographic display). You called it New Sculpture.

I know that this
show encountered massive hostility, that the cars were attacked. In a conversation with Eduardo Paolozzi published in Studio International in 1971 you said about this exhibition: "The whole thing was a speculative illustration of a scene in The Atrocity Exhibition. I had speculated in my book about how the people might behave. And in the real show the guests at the party and the visitors later behaved in pretty much the way I had anticipated. It was not so much an exhibition of sculpture as almost of experimental psychology, using the medium of the fine art show. People were unnerved, you see. There was enormous hostility." So, did you consider the exhibition medium to be a unique tool in this respect?

JGB: My show of crashed cars was held at the New Arts Lab in 1969. It was an art show designed to carry out a psychological test, so that I could decide whether to write my novel Crash - begun in 1970 and finished in 1972. I wanted to test my own hypothesis about our unconscious fascination with car crashes and their latent sexuality. One could argue that today's Turner prize, and the exhibitions of work by Hirst, Emin and the Chapman brothers perform exactly the same role, that they are elaborate attempts to test the psychology of today's public.

Going further, I'm tempted to say that the psychological test is the only function of today's art shows, and that the aesthetic elements have been reduced almost to zero. It no longer seems possible to shock people by aesthetic means, as did the impressionists, Picasso and Matisse, among many others. In fact, it no longer seems possible to touch people's imaginations by aesthetic means. People in London flocked to the Barnet Newman show out of a deep nostalgia for a time when the aesthetic response still mattered.

HUO: In 1971 you also said: "Violence is probably going to play the same role in the '70s and '80s that sex played in the '50s and '60s There's what I call in my book, The Atrocity Exhibition, the death of feeling, that one's more and more alienated from any kind of direct response to experience. And the car crash is probably the only act of violence most of us in Western Europe are ever going to be involved with, is probably the most dramatic event in our lives apart from our own deaths, and in many cases the two are going to coincide." What do you think of that statement retrospectively? What about now?

JGB: Violence does seem to play a dominant role in our imaginations, perhaps for good reasons, a symptom of our need to break down the suffocating conventions that rule our lives. Human beings today display a deep and restless violence, which no longer channels itself into wars but has to emerge in road rage, internet porn, contact sports like hyperviolent professional rugby and US football, reality TV, and so on.

HUO: This interview is meant to be published in the catalogue of Beck's Futures 2003. Are you familiar with and interested in today's art? You said, "the tradition in fine arts is the tradition of the new. The main pressure on the sculptor or painter is the pressure of the new. The new to the new. But in literature the main tradition is the tradition of the old. Where Eduardo and his fellow painters and sculptors are expected to find something new to say, my fellow writers and myself are expected to find something old, and to go on saying it." What are your favourite artists and writers of today? What do you think of the ways artists maintain relations between art and the future today? And what about the relations between visual arts and literature? (It's something that has practically disappeared, don't you think?)

JGB: I take a keen interest in what today's painters and sculptors are doing. On the whole my views coincide with those of the great Brian Sewell, but I see the young British artists of the past ten years or so from a different perspective. They find themselves in a world totally dominated by advertising, by a corrupt politics carried out as a branch of advertising, and by a reality that is a total fiction controlled by manufacturers, PR firms, and vast entertainment and media corporations. Nothing is real, everything is fake. Bizarrely, most people like it that way. So in their installations and concept works the young artists are rebelling against this all-dominant adman's media-landscape. They are trying to establish a new truth about what an unmade bed is, what a dead animal is, and so on. Our mistake is to judge them by aesthetic criteria. By contrast, the novel resists innovation, and is much closer to the TV domestic serial.

HUO: In this same interview of 1971, you said, "I think that the biggest need of the painter or writer today is information. I'd love to have a tickertape machine in my study constantly churning out material: abstracts from scientific journals, the latest Hollywood gossip, the passenger list of a 707 that crashed in the Andes, the colour mixes of a new automobile varnish. In fact, Eduardo and I in our different ways are already gathering this kind of information, but we are using the clumsiest possible tools to do it: our own hands and eyes. The technology of the information-retrieval system that we enjoy is incredibly primitive." It's really a premonition of the internet! Are you a big user of the internet? In your opinion, how did it change the way artists and writers look at and interact with the world?

JGB: Yes, it was a premonition of the internet, which I relish for the unlimited information it provides, and the unlimited possibilities. Large sections of it strike me as remarkably poetic. It may turn out to be more important and more innovative than television. It's a kind of collective lucid dreaming.

HUO: A lot of young artists are fascinated by your novels and stories and I know of at least one dialogue, the one with Tacita Dean. You wrote a short piece on her work that was included in a book published by Tate in 2001 where you concentrated on her Trying To Find The Spiral Jetty (1997), and Teignmouth Electron (2000), a series of photographs of a derelict trimaran which belonged to yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who sent false radio signals giving the impression he was undertaking a round the world race, while in fact he was preparing for death in the Atlantic Ocean. Could you tell me more about this dialogue between the two of you?

JGB: I met Tacita at the opening party for Tate Modern, and was immediately charmed by her, as everyone is. I saw her films and was very impressed by them, especially the film made in the rotating restaurant above the Berlin TV tower. It's her masterpiece so far, and a deeply moving effort of the imagination that I haven't yet come to terms with. Above all it displays the foundation structure of reality - the movement of time through an imperceptibly moving space, the passage of light and dark, and shows that human beings are the briefest visitors to the universe that is all around them but of which they are barely aware. Tacita follows her obsessions and, fortunately, it is impossible to guess where they will lead her.

HUO: You wrote several texts on William Burroughs (Hitman for the Apocalypse, Sticking to His Guns, Mythmaker of the Twentieth Century, and an obituary in the Guardian). Like you, Burroughs was very interested in painting and you both studied medicine before becoming writers. Could you tell me more about your connections to Burroughs and the importance his example had for you as a writer and thinker?

JGB: I am a huge admirer of Burroughs, whom I consider the greatest writer in English to appear since the Second World War. I admire him above all for his radical imagination, which he uses like a weapon against his readers. Everything he writes is a challenge, just as his life was a challenge against bourgeois America, which offered suburban values, the family, and a passive acceptance of the capitalist ethos with all its corruption and power-hunger. Burroughs was the ultimate non-conformist, the model for all writers who believe in their own obsessions.

HUO: I just read Mike Davis' latest collection of essays Dead Cities.
It's interesting how social commentators in recent times have been asked to or themselves willingly play the role of prophets. Do you share any of Davis' analyses of all the wreckages caused by the city's growth, his comments on white flight, deindustrialisation, housing and job segregation and discrimination, and what he calls "national sacrifice zones"? What about his prophecies on the future of life and cities in the face of catastrophic terrorism, global warming, runaway capitalism, and fears of all kinds?

JGB: I have just read Dead Cities, and am a great admirer of Mike Davis, especially for City of Quartz. Perhaps he is a little too nostalgic for an idealised America dominated by clean rivers and civic responsibility. I feel that he hasn't come to terms with the form that late 20th and early 21st Century cities have taken - unrestricted urban sprawl, the decentred metropolis, a transient airport culture, gated communities and an absence of traditional civic pride. The problem facing planners and architects is how to accept and make the most of this.

HUO: In your books you have long questioned the state and especially the "normality" state institutions indoctrinate and protect. What do you think of the current prevalence of surveillance, dataveillance, the loss of civil liberties, and increased state control?

JGB: Deplorable. I've long said that the totalitarian systems of the future will be subservient and ingratiating, the false smile of the bored waiter rather than the jackboot. We see this subservient Stalinism in London mayor Ken Livingstone's plans for controlling central London traffic. Hundreds of spy cameras, an army of wardens, a computerised surveillance system out of Alphaville - in short, an Orwellian nightmare come true, but disguised as a public service. Of course, there should be no parking or traffic restrictions of any kind. What we need are more roads, a huge system of overhead freeways on the Los Angeles pattern. But we are too brain-washed to demand this.

HUO: Do you see the recent shift of "acceptable" societal behaviour into increasingly conservative norms as one more potentially dangerous form of such control?

JGB: There are swings and roundabouts. The loss of freedom in the surveillance society is balanced by the huge gain in freedom and possibility found in the internet. On the whole there is a loss in freedom, and the danger is that people may move into the area of psychopathology in order to enlarge the scope of their lives and imaginations.

HUO: Of course, it is somewhat implicit in my last questions, but I'm tempted to question you specifically about September 11 and this new history into which we've found ourselves projected since. And now there are so many geopolitical reshufflings. How does it feel to be a (science fiction) writer - or more generally an artist - in light of these developments? Do you think the artist has a duty to be critical in some way of global or political events?

JGB: September 11 changed America, one of the few countries in the past century that has never been bombed from the air. I feel that the US is still trapped in the 20th Century, and is still trying to solve its problems by 20th Century means - carriers, field armies and bomber groups. Of course writers should speak out.

HUO: The other day you mentioned that you saw Cities on the Move at the Hayward Gallery.

JGB: It was a remarkable exhibition, one of the most impressive I have seen for many years, and I am still digesting it.

HUO: The urban metropolis is often much more than a mere backdrop and becomes a character in itself in your novels. What is it about the metropolis that prompts this? Regarding your research and experience of writing The Empire of the Sun, can you tell me how much memory you have of the city of Shanghai?

JGB: The 'urbanisation', which has replaced the city of old, is where most people live, and its contours shape their minds. Patterns of urban life are constantly shifting, and constitute a script that we all have to perform. We're allowed a certain freedom to improvise, but our roles are written by the city. I went back to Shanghai in 1991 for the first time in fourty-five years, and found that my memories were remarkably intact, though the city is a forest of high-rises and TV towers and has expanded far out into the countryside. In due course it will become the most important city of the Pacific rim, eclipsing Los Angeles and Tokyo.

HUO: The Chinese architect Yung Ho Chang ran an architecture studio based on your book Crash. For him, the moment a crash occurs can be considered to be very architectural. Can you discuss the importance of the architectural for your thinking? I read that your favourite hotel in London is the Hilton at Heathrow airport. Can you tell me why that building, and what relationship or dialogue you have more generally with architecture or architects?

JGB: The Heathrow Hilton designed by Michael Manser is my favourite building in London. It's part space-age hangar and part high-tech medical centre. It's clearly a machine, and the spirit of Le Corbusier lives on in its minimal functionalism. It's a white cathedral, almost a place of worship, the closest to a religious building that you can find in an airport. Inside, it's a highly theatrical space, dominated by its immense atrium. The building, in effect, is an atrium with a few rooms attached. Most hotels are residential structures, but rightly the Heathrow Hilton plays down this role, accepting the total transience that is its essence, and instead turns itself into a huge departure lounge, as befits an airport annexe. Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one feels no emotions and could never fall in love, or need to. The National Gallery or the Louvre are the complete opposite, and people there are always falling in love.

HUO: What is your favourite museum and why? What do you think of the evolutions undertaken by museums in the last few decades? In your view, what role do museums play today? And ideally what do you think their role should be?

JGB: I like traditional museums, the less frequented the better. All the changes in the past fifty years have been for the worst. I remember the Louvre in 1949 when it was completely deserted, whereas today it is a theme-park where you can enjoy "the Mona Lisa experience." This isn't only a matter of funding. Museum directors enjoy being impresarios, guru-figures manipulating the imaginations of the public. Museums shouldn't be too popular. The experience within the Louvre or the National Gallery should be challenging and unsettling, and take years to absorb. The Italians had the right idea. Most of their paintings were in dimly lit churches, uncleaned and difficult to see. As a result, the Renaissance endured for centuries.

HUO: I'm currently working on an exhibition project investigating the significance of the notion of Utopia today; we are gathering all kinds of comments, ideas, utopistic (Wallerstein) works, projects, and concrete utopias coming from various disciplines. I cannot help asking you what utopia means for you and if you think the term has resonance today?

JGB: Sadly, I think that the notion of a utopia died at some point in the 20th Century - two vast utopian projects, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, turned into the greatest nightmares the human race has ever experienced, and people now are understandably sceptical about any future utopia. We're still living in the aftermath of an extremely dangerous century. People today are rightly sceptical about any proclaimed intentions to build heaven on earth. We now live in the present, unconsciously uneasy at the future, and this short-term viewpoint does have dangers. We know that, as human beings, we are all deeply flawed and dangerous, but this self-knowledge can act as a brake on hope and idealism. I look forward to seeing your exhibition.

HUO: I also want to ask you who or what in your mind - in the present or the past - has come closest to realising a utopic project. In many of your novels ambiguity seems a prevalent feature. I've read an interview in which you spoke about the importance of being ambiguous in your work (For instance in relation to your book Crash: should or can people find car crashes sexually exciting, you leave multiple readings open-ended.) Could you tell me more about ambiguity in your work? Do you think ambiguity could be characterised as a central theme, a "red thread", or strategy that connects your diverse works?

JGB: There were times in its history when the United States came close to suggesting what a utopian project might be, but the less appealing sides to American life now seem to be in the ascendant - there's a self-infantilising strain that gives America the look of Peter Pan's Never-never land. However, the future may well be a marriage between Microsoft and the Disney Company - an infantilised entertainment culture imposed on us by the most advanced communications technology. What I fear for my grandchildren is a benign dystopia of ever-present surveillance cameras watching us for our own good, a situation in which we will acquiesce, all too well aware of our attraction to danger. I hope everything I have written is ambiguous, reflecting the paradoxical faces that make up human nature.

HUO: The second law of thermodynamics concerning the irreversibility of process, otherwise known as entropy, is a recurrent, indeed, maybe the recurrent theme in many of your novels. What made this such an important concern for you?

JGB: I think of it as the loss of energy in a system; the move from an organised to a disorganised state. War is a good illustration, but it affects relationships, marriages, one's perceptions of oneself - this is how time says farewell to us.

HUO: Was pop art and its critical fascination with mass culture, television and the media, and its own theorisation of the media important for you?

JGB: Yes, because the mass media have turned the world into a world of pop art. From JFK's assassination to the coming war in Iraq, everything is perceived as pop art. Nothing is true. Nothing is untrue.

HUO: Is the archive an important site for you, either physically or symbolically?

JGB: There are no Ballard archives. I never keep letters, reviews, research materials. Every page is a fresh page.

HUO: In many of your stories, and The Drowned World is just one example that comes immediately to mind, the protagonist is a scientist. What for you is the link between literature and science?

JGB: Science is a new religion waiting to be born. Infinitely more important than literature, which is an old religion - poetry - waiting to die.