“The suburbs dream of violence”. The opening words from J G Ballard’s last novel Kingdom Come. I recently saw these words projected into the darkness of Sonar Complex, one of the more experimental performance spaces at Sonar Festival in Barcelona.
This was Kingdom Come: Gazelle Twin, which had premiered at Manchester Art Gallery as part of Future Everything.
The suburbs dream of violence. These five words took me straight into Ballard’s surreal world. Two people slowly walked onto the stage and my mind ran away with the possibilities of what was to come. As a total Ballard aficionado I was jumping at the references in this performance. The dreams of violence from a society that has everything. Two characters on stage, hoods up, looking menacing. Consumerism breaking down into fascism. The shopping mall as a concrete psycho-geographic maze, aggressive sports fans, cable TV channels and endless shopping. Racism and violence as acceptable leisure pursuits, encouraged as healthy activities. I felt like I was in touch with Ballard’s world.
Ballard is known for being on the money with his subject matter. I would argue that now, more than ever, this is the case. In light of Brexit the events depicted in Kingdom Come are eerily close to our reality. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do, the story seems to hit even harder now. The suburbs really are dreaming of violence – and some violence is more than likely on the way with the rise of the far-right in the UK.
Ballard, obviously, worked in words – and used them better than most. The task of transferring a novel into another form such as a music performance risks detracting from its original power. Of course the aim may not have been to create an analogue of the book in another form, but it heavily referenced the novel to such an extent that it seemed to be trying to conjure it up using screens and loud electro. My own involvement in this kind of process within my artwork created an eagerness in me to see if Gazelle Twin’s work appeared as a success, or not. I rely heavily, perhaps too heavily, on Ballard’s writing as a kind of inspiration. Not so much a direct muse, but I can’t shake his strong visual landscapes from saturating my paintings. This lends my work a sort of third hand surrealism.
In Miracles of Life Ballard wrote about how the surrealist painters were a revelation to him. ‘The surrealists rejection of reason and rationality and their faith in the power of the imagination to remake the world resonated strongly with my efforts as a novice writer… But, there was no easy way to translate the visually surreal into prose.’1 Realising that science fiction was a new type of literature that was about the world ‘that we actually lived in… which was completely missing from almost all serious fiction,’2 he set about interiorising ‘science fiction, looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race, a vast untouched continent of fictional possibility.’3 Kingdom Come certainly plays in the realm of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and gives me yet more compelling reasons to read it as soon as possible.
Gazelle Twin’s performance began with dark, heavy tones of electro, and the two actors on stage began walking on running machines, whilst panning video footage was projected in front of them. Initially the actors were coordinated with the film, but their walking action quickly became disconnected from the direction of the camera movements.
Ballard’s books are darkly humorous, yet this piece didn’t convey any wittiness. Instead it went all out for menace and potential aggression. The actors were repeating phrases such as ‘I feel fine,’ whilst stomping forwards on stage. The video projection moved through corridors and banks of escalators unendingly, shots of ram raiders springing up in between. On stage the walker’s restricted movements were confined to the actions of shopping – walking along concourses, being robot-like.
“Consumerism dominated the lives of its people, who looked as if they were shopping whatever they were doing.”4
Altogether the performance didn’t really align with how I feel about the novel. Much of the video footage was easily recognisable as parts of the iconic Barbican Centre – a world leading arts centre, not a shopping mall, and it felt totally at odds with what was meant to be happening. To me the book is about the orchestrated rise of an English cult who worship their brand new shopping mall to the ultimate level. From what I can gather about the debut at Future Everything the music was live, or at least Gazelle Twin was visibly involved, but at Sonar I couldn’t see her, which was a shame as this is the world’s premiere festival for electronic music.
In any case, I was edged out of the complex by my Sonar friends, eager for more Tropical Ron and to see the immense live set from hypnotic Turkish band Insanlar, which turned out to be incredible.
Raster Noton had a showcase the following day, a record label known for crossing boundaries between art, music & installation. The intensity of it blew most of the experience of Kingdom Come right out of my head. Alva Noto’s performance became so powerful it went beyond music and into the realm of art: