Monday, 26 May 2014

Landscapes of Tomorrow: J.G. Ballard - University of Leeds Event

Date and Time: Saturday 3 May 2014, 10am-4.30pm

Venue: Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds

This workshop-conference, 'Landscapes of Tomorrow: J.G. Ballard in Space and Time', which took place earlier in the month, was co-organised by myself and colleagues Dr Richard Brown and Chris Duffy (University of Leeds). Here, I'll try and give an overview of what was a thoroughly interesting day of research sharing and lively discussion. The theme - space and time - was deliberately broad to allow for the inclusion of papers exploring diverse aspects of Ballard's writing, including physical and psychological zones of transit, modern consumerism and post-cultural spaces. Being in the Gallery, Ballard's visual art influences were also a central focus of the conference. Papers covered topics including:

* Non-places of Modernity
* Collective Memory
* Space and Mediation
* Romanticism
* Modernism and the History of the Future
* Desire, Class and Consumer Millenarianism
* Invisible Literatures
* Inner Space and Geometries of the Imagination

The keynote speaker, Dr. Jeanette Baxter (Anglia Ruskin University), started off the day with her paper, ‘Fascisms and the Politics of Nowhere in Kingdom Come’. After presenting Giorgio De Chirico’s little-known, interwar novel Hebdomeros (1929) as a narrative of 'nowhere' that resists all sense of orientation, she spoke about how in the novel, Kingdom Come (2006), Ballard takes up, and re-conceives, the 'nowhere' motif as part of his surrealist analysis of contemporary history, politics and culture. Within the surrealist imagination, an imagination rendered artistically and politically out-of-place in an emerging Fascist Europe, 'nowhere' repeats as a resonant motif for interrogating narratives of geo-political displacement, homelessness and exile. Baxter argued that fascism returns in modified forms in Ballard’s contemporary 'nowhere', from the 'soft-totalitarianism' forged by the illusion of consumerist choice, to the neo-fascist communities that commit racially-motivated acts of violence against displaced, immigrant workers.

The morning sessions 'Zones of Transit' and  '(In)visible Literatures' followed. In the afternoon, the sessions were themed around 'Consuming Futures' and 'Post-cultural Spaces', which featured a paper from PhD candidate Catherine McKenna (King's College, London), who catalogued 565 items from the Ballard estate. These will be the subject of a new book by Chris Beckett (forthcoming, 2015). An evening panel discussion, 'Ballard’s Shanghai Orientation', introduced special guest Fay Ballard, who shared recollections of her father, and spoke a bit about related influences in her exhibition 'House Clearance' (2 May-27 June 2014), at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery.

My own paper, entitled 'Ballard's Invisible Literatures', was included in the morning session and discussed the collection of ephemera known as invisible literatures, compiled during Ballard's lifetime and kept in his coal-shed:- he would describe them, aptly, as 'the most potent compost for the imagination'. They included material such as market research reports, pharmaceutical company house magazines, promotional copy, technical journals and scientific manuals. I explored the significance of these texts further and traced their influence, focusing on Ballard's time as prose editor at the journal Ambit and his own modification of Surrealist collage in The Atrocity Exhibition novel. I also raised the tentative question of if and to what extent it might be possible to reconstruct Ballard’s invisible library as an object of study.

Thanks again to the speakers, delegates and to everyone that helped to make the conference possible.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Red Star Gazing and the Inevitability of Full Space Communism

Part One

Russian revolutionary interest in science fiction was inevitably bound up with the trajectory of the Russian revolution itself. The veteran Bolshevik and intermittent opponent of Lenin, Alexander Bogdanov, wrote a pioneering novel on space travel in 1908, in the aftermath of the famously incomplete revolutionary upheavals of 1905. Red Star relates the story of a Russian revolutionary who travels to Mars with an alien agent to learn about how the Martians organise their society along communist lines. In 1924, the movie Aelita, Queen of Mars flipped the script, relating the tale of a Russian Civil War veteran and an astronomer who travel to Mars to aid a revolutionary uprising. Clearly, much had happened in Russia to change the parameters of how science fiction might be imagined in the preceding years. Russians were no longer apprentices but masters and teachers of the revolutionary act. Nevertheless, both Red Star and Aelita emerged at moments in Russian history when revolutionary enthusiasm and optimism were on the wane. Was this a case of red-tinted telescopes turning away from the reality of reaction on terra firma and up to the stars, where a more comforting reality might be imagined?

Poster for Aelita in Russian (1924)
Aelita, Queen of Mars is particularly notable for Aleksandra Ekster’s striking constructivist set design. By the early 1920s, a combination of industrial devastation and political pressure had left constructivism somewhat marginalised in Soviet society. In the face of increasing state control of politics and culture, and the reversal of ‘war communism’, signalled by the introduction of the NEP (New Economic Policy), the utopian impulse that had envisioned the categories of art and architecture dissolving themselves and becoming part of everyday socialist life was in decline. By the time of the release of Aelita, the dystopian science fiction novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin had been banned, while Bogdanov had been arrested by the GPU (although he was released after 5 weeks). The cinematic achievement of Aelita, Queen of Mars was illustrative of the Soviet Union’s continued cultural vibrancy, and the inspirational impact of constructivism on Soviet film, but it also indicated the way in which constructivism was being shunted to the side-lines. Other big names of constructivism, including Aleksandr Rodchenko and the Stenberg brothers, would become involved in film poster and set design in the 1920s as opportunities for Soviet construction dried up.

Aelita, Queen of Mars also shows how, in the context of gerrymandered soviet elections, secret police crack-downs and the failure of the German revolution, communists had to look to the stars to imagine the realisation of their utopia. A similar impulse can be detected in Alexandra Kollontai’s hopeful yet escapist utopian fragment, Soon.

The Soviet sci-fi vision would become more influenced by dystopian imaginings of the horrors of chemical warfare in the following years. Whether the post-war ‘return to the future’ in the context of the space race represented a re-emergence of political sci-fi utopianism will be the subject of Part Two.