Concrete Island: reading Ballard through digital art

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Pau Waelder

Literature and the visual arts have always been close allies. The words of poets, novelists, and philosophers have inspired painters, sculptors, and multimedia creators, while the images, objects, and experiences created by visual artists have in turn moved writers to imagine stories and fantastic worlds. The examples of this creative exchange would be endless, not only among artists, as is the case of Maria Turner, a character in Paul Auster’s celebrated novel Leviathan (1992) that is directly inspired by the work of artist Sophie Calle, but also among curators, this being the case of the current edition of the Venice Biennale, whose curator Cecilia Alemani named after Leonora Carrington’s book The Milk of Dreams.

In light of these fruitful collaborations among wordsmiths and image makers, we initiate a series of artcasts on Niio that bring together a variety of artworks in the form of a reading or illustration of a novel. The selection is carried out by extracting from the text the themes that relate to certain artworks, the images it evokes, and conversely how the artworks can further explore ideas or situations that are merely suggested or briefly described in the book. The selection also draws connections among the artworks themselves, independently of their connection with the novel, and opens up new forms of interpretation.

The first artcast in this series is dedicated to J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974), the second installment in his “urban disaster trilogy,” initiated with Crash (1973) and followed by High Rise (1975). The novel tells the story of Robert Maitland, a wealthy architect who has a car accident that leaves him stranded in an abandoned area between intersecting motorways in London. Trapped in the median strip, he cannot get help from passing drivers or the inhabitants of the high rises nearby, and must struggle to survive. As time passes, the embankment gradually becomes his “island,” a place where he feels safe in his loneliness, a voluntary castaway who may not want to be rescued. 

Ballard took inspiration from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), the quintessential story about a castaway, and replaced the exotic setting of a remote island off the coast of Trinidad with a waste ground in a motorway intersection. In the introduction to the 1994 edition of the novel, the author emphasizes this connection and how a romantic tropical fantasy can become a mundane urban nightmare:

“The day-dream of being marooned on a desert island still has enormous appeal, however small our chances of actually finding ourselves stranded on a coral atoll in the pacific. […] The Pacific atoll may not be available, but there are other islands far nearer to home, some of them only a few steps from the pavements we tread every day. […] As we drive across a motorway intersection, through the elaborately signalled landscape that seems to anticipate every possible hazard, we glimpse triangles of waste ground screened off by steep embankments. What would happen if, by some freak mischance, we suffered a blow-out and plunged over the guard-rail onto a forgotten island of rubble and weeds, out of sight of the surveilllance cameras?”

J.G. Ballard, Introduction to Concrete Island

The story begins with a blow-out that causes Maitland’s car to lose its direction and plunge down an embankment next to the M4 motorway. By leaving the signposted path of the asphalt road, the architect veers off his normal life and even the society he knew. What happens next should be understood as a fable, a somewhat implausible scenario that conveys a deep truth. 

The embankment

“Shielding his eyes from the sunlight, Maitland saw that he had crashed into a small traffic island, some two hundred yards long and triangular in shape, that lay in the waste ground between three converging motorway routes.”

J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island, chapter 1

The abandoned plot of land that Ballard probably modeled after the A40 Westway bridge near White City in London (according to Mike Bonsall) becomes one of the main characters in the novel, a sloped terrain that is apparently deserted but gradually unveils hidden architectures and unexpected inhabitants. In Unstill Life (2014), ZEITGUISED creates a photorealistic 3D model of a highway overpass, that is explored using consciously artificial camera movements. The entire space seems to be in the process of being created, or adjusted, and suddenly turns into a flooded area. 

Henrik Mauler, the creative mind behind ZEITGUISED, has described his work as “virtual vandalism […] my approach of finding things and then tinkering with them until they either break or are put back together in a new way, with an uneasy, uncanny edginess” (theFOUND, 2022). In the video, the highway is actually “tinkered with,” reoriented, reconsidered, until it suddenly becomes something altogether different. Similarly, the median strip where Maitland’s car lands transforms into a somewhat exotic “deserted island,” where he will struggle to survive, send messages to the outside world and develop an uneasy relationship with its inhabitants. The painstaking precision of the simulation fools the eye and makes us wonder whether this is actual footage of a real road or a full 3D animation, which creates the kind of uneasiness that Mauler is looking for and that can also be found in the work of photographer Thomas Demand. The way in which the illusion is broken is similar to the tire break that suddenly leads Maitland’s Jaguar through a temporary wooden barrier and down to the embankment where it finally crashes.

The Jaguar

“The front end had been punched into itself like a collapsed face. Three of the four headlamps were broken, and the decorative grille was meshed into the radiator honeycomb. On impact the suspension units had forced the engine back off its mountings, twisting the frame of the car. The sharp smell of anti-freeze and hot rust cut at Maitland’s nostrils as he bent down and examined the wheel housing. A total write-off – damn it, he had liked the car.”

J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island, chapter 1

Maitland’s car plays a passive yet crucial role in the story, first as a sign of the architect’s wealth and the vehicle that lands him in the embankment, then as his first shelter on the island. It provides him with the goods it can give, and when it is no longer useful, its owner sets it on fire. 

Junkyard III (2019) is a film by Felix Luque and Íñigo Bilbao that belongs to a larger project exploring our society dominated by cars as a sign of status and a selfish, unsustainable form of mobility sustained by an economy modeled after the massive use of fossil fuels and the extraction of rare earth minerals. In a text about this project, media theorists Jussi Parikka and Yiğit Soncul aptly suggest considering “the car industry as the accident of the fossil fuel culture” and ask: “what if we think that the whole industry, with production, distribution, excavation and use, and what it has been doing to the earth’s “resources,” the organisation of labour and gender roles, an historical accident that undermines the viability of organised human existence?” (Luque, 2021). Here the concept of the accident and the exploration of car wrecks carried out by the artsts in a junkyard using a 3D scanner can be directly linked to Ballard’s text and his wider critique of an urban society shaped by fast lanes and high rises.

Catherine and Helen

“He thought of Helen Fairfax asleep in her flat, as always on the left side of the double bed that filled the minute bedroom, her head lying on the righthand pillow, as if she had deputised the various sections of her body to represent both herself and Maitland. […] By comparison, Catherine would be sleeping quietly in her white bedroom, a bar of moonlight across her pale throat.”

J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island, chapter 3

Stranded on his island, Maitland recalls memories of his wife Catherine, but also of his lover Helen Fairfax. The three form an uneasy triangle, with both women knowing of the other. Their bodies are apart but forcefully put together in Maitland’s thoughts and the secrets they have all kept from each other. The architect’s injured body is what initially keeps him stranded in the embankment, unable to leave or reach for help, but progressively it is his mind and his unwillingness to go back to the life he had and to the relationship with the two women that turn him into a castaway. 

Interested in the human body both as a biological organism, a shape, and a geolocated element in our permanently connected data systems, Solimán López has developed in High Meshes (2019) a collection of 3D scans of the naked bodies of anonymous participants, which are combined and placed together by an artificial intelligence software, according to their digital information. Age, race, gender, nationality, income, or social status become irrelevant as the bodies are treated as mere data, and rearranged without even considering their physical boundaries. The way in which people become data in the artist’s work reminds of Ballard’s exploration of what becomes of a person when the systems and protocols of our structured society fall apart, when he or she leaves the “ellaborate signalled landscape” (Beckett, 2015) and falls into a different kind of reality. While Ballard sought this situation in doomsday scenarios in which technology becomes useless, Solimán López moves in the opposite direction, towards a fully digital environment in which human control is lost to the algorithms of an artificially intelligent system.

Escape

“Perhaps, secretly, we hoped to be marooned, to escape our families, lovers and responsiblities. Modern technology, as I tried to show in Crash and High-Rise, offers an endless field-day to any deviant strains in our personalities. Marooned in an office block or on a traffic island, we can tyrannise ourselves, test our strengths and weaknesses, perhaps come to terms with aspects of our characters to which we have always closed our eyes.”

J. G. Ballard, introduction to Concrete Island.

The ending of the novel signals what has been hinted since its first pages, that Maitland is actually a voluntary castaway, and that being stranded in a median strip is the logical conclusion of a long held desire to be left alone. His journey, as it has been reiterated, is psychological: the transition from his socially accepted persona (however entangled in escapist flirts) to the child he once was, happy in his loneliness. Ballard suggests, in the introduction to the novel and the reference to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, that we all in a way seek this isolation and to escape a comfort zone that sometimes feels like a prison. The open ending of Concrete Island leaves the story in a state of unresolved continuity, in which the exceptional becomes mundane and no decisive action will ever be taken. It is a telling portrait of our society, in which anything can become business as usual and all major decisions are endlessly delayed for fear of destabilizing the statu quo. The world beyond the embankment in Concrete Island is a dull gray, a nondescript succession of passing cars and silent high rises, in contrast to the richly coloured space that is Maitland’s island. Seen from the main character’s perspective, the story may be read not so much as a dystopia, but rather as a new beginning.

The Grey Zone : 629d:85dd:9c0d:b5a0:b674:1d5f:a990:c307 (2022) by Gregory Chatonsky depicts a mysterious sculptural object placed in what appears to be a wasteland next to an industrial area. The animated image was created using an artificial intelligence program and is part of a series exploring the idea of a “gray zone” resulting from the mixture of the black box of technology and the luminous white space of the art gallery. Intricately linked to materiality, the tradition of sculpture, and the possibility of a post-anthropocentric from of creativity enabled by AI, The Grey Zone is also connected to Internes (2022), a project consisting of 3D-printed concrete sculptures describing a post-apocalyptic world that has become a nondescript environment which can only be perceived by means of augmented reality technology. Again, this is possibly a dystopia or a new order of reality, something that is often hinted at in Ballard’s novels. 

The artworks selected for this reading of Concrete Island are particularly apt at creating a strange atmosphere placed somewhere between hyperrealism and fiction, by means of 3D scanning, 3D modeling, and the use of artificial intelligence programs. In fact, Ballard’s approach to realism by offering detailed descriptions of every element in the scene can be compared to the precise rendering of a 3D scanner, which nevertheless creates a fictional space, while his exploration of what goes on in Maitland’s mind, as well as the somewhat illogical, dream-like state of his thoughts reminds of the outputs of a generative adversarial network (GAN). Unrealized as a film, although Ballard himself wrote a screenplay based on the novel in 1972, Concrete Island seems to find a better translation into moving images through the fragmented approach of a series of digital artworks than it would as a single visual narration. Maitland’s ordeal is, in the end, more psychological and allegorical than real, and belongs to a type of narration that does not involve imagined facts demanding a suspension of disbelief, but rather asks the reader (or viewer) to become fully immersed in the author’s fictional world, and through this fiction, understand their own reality.

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