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.

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