Operating at Culture’s Margins Notes Towards An Aesthetics of the Impact Zone: Beyond Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition

Jack Sargeant |

Freely adapted from notes written for a lecture and towards a forthcoming project. These are intended as introductory notes only.

In 1967 JG Ballard was best known as a writer associated with the new wave of science fiction, a writer whose short stories had started to collapse the genre’s fascination with distant futures into an interest with the slipstreamed present. Ballard’s earliest novels – The Wind From Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1965) – had already created an apocalyptic template that saw protagonists transformed by terraforming global environmental collapse, but by the end of the sixties he was firmly exploring the ground zero of the contemporary unconscious. If the true meaning of apocalypse is a moment of uncovering and revealing, then in Ballard’s work this includes the opening of the unconscious and a flow from the id directly into the contemporary world.

Between 1966 and 1975 Ballard produced an astonishing body of work – writing a series of powerful transgressive works The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1973) and High Rise (1975). These novels re-imagined science fiction, drawing upon surrealism, psychoanalysis and sexology. They located a dystopian science fiction in British suburbia, a location for an outpouring of apocalyptic psychosexual fantasies. Three of these novels explicitly focus on the car crash as a central theme, most obviously Crash but also in Concrete Island and The Atrocity Exhibition which introduced the reader to an early version of Crash’s Vaughn.

Simultaneously, throughout this period Ballard expanded the role of the author into previously uncharted territory, a zone of truly dangerous science fiction. The first of these interventions appeared in the science fiction magazine Ambit #32 (1967, the last appeared in Ambit #46, 1971), here Ballard took out his first ‘Advertiser’s Announcement’ – a back page advert ‘Homage to Claire Churchill.’ This series of adverts would subsequently appear in New Worlds and Ambit, and would include confrontational images (including a woman with handcuffed wrists and a naked older woman holding a rifle) that would be accompanied by almost abstract phrases. These were adverts for the author’s conceptual ideas, a blurring together of unconscious desire, suggestions of sex and imminent violence, all manifested in the most mundane and ubiquitous twentieth century mediums: the advert.

In April 1970, Ballard also exhibited a trio of crashed cars at the New Arts Lab in Camden, London. Delivered by a wrecking yard, the trio of cars were essentially Duchamp-style ready-mades; the impact of the car and asphalt creating the art that Ballard exhibited, as an artist his role was simply selecting and contextualising the works. Unintentionally, these works recall Andy Warhol’s ‘Death and Disaster Series’ (circa 1962 – 1963), which included a number of car crash images (‘Green Burning Car’, ‘Silver Car Crash’, ‘Red Car Crash,’ etc). A topless model asked questions of the attendees to the opening night, undoubtedly contributing to the sex and death mystique of the wrecked vehicles. Reports of the evening suggest that emotions were unleashed and that people became drunk, further (deliberately) damaged the cars and harassed the topless woman. This was not the writer’s only engagement with strippers, he collaborated with Euphoria Bliss, employing her to read a found scientific text The Side-Effects of Orthonovin G while performing.

Adverts, exhibitions, strippers – all served to push literary science fiction into new uncharted territories. It is telling that J G Ballard often talked of the influence of surrealism, describing it as the “most important imaginative enterprise this century” (Vale and Ryan, p.293).

However, in some way, J G Ballard’s fascinations recall those dissident surrealists who gravitated around the author Georges Bataille and the journal Documents (1929 – 1930). The short lived publication combined essays by Bataille and various contributors on topics ranging from crime to anthropology to jazz. Documents also featured a critical dictionary that included entries on varied subjects with titles such as: ‘Eye’ ‘Factory Chimney’, ‘Mouth’, ‘Big Toe’, ‘Slaughterhouse’ and ‘Angels.’ All of which were accompanied by photographs of open mouths, big toes, and slaughterhouses, alongside other visual depictions that contributed to Bataille’s paradoxical philosophy. The intention was to unflinchingly and meticulously look – the act was one of “de-sublimation” (Ades and Bradley p.12) that countered the aesthetic values espoused by Andre Breton. Parallels can be drawn to the micro-novels that form Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, and to his interest in car crashes, medical texts, non-reproductive sexuality and strippers. Like George Bataille’s heterogeneous – a category that includes parts of the body, ecstatic states, riots… – all are elements that escape closure. In the light of Documents, J G Ballard may then be viewed as a dissident surrealist.

But Ballard’s aesthetic extends beyond these exhibitions. His literary influence can be traced to post-punk (a pointless term, it ran parallel with punk, but while embracing the freedom associated with the genre it renounced the garage rock musical aesthetic for a wider sense of sonic experimentation) and most clearly in electronic music and what became known as industrial culture. Lyrics and songs referenced Ballard’s work – most famously in The Normal’s 7” (deeply influential) single ‘Warm Leatherette’ (1978), but also in the work of Joy Division who named a song on their album Closer ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ (1980).

However, another line of commonality – a shared interest and aesthetic rather than direct influence – can be seen in the mise-en-scene of the cover art of Throbbing Gristle’s three 7” singles released on their own Industrial Records label: ‘United / Zyklon B Zombie’ (1978), ‘Subhuman / Something Came Over Me’ (1980) and ‘Adrenalin / Distant Dreams (Part Two)’ (1980).

Each of these record covers features four photographs; two on each side, one large image is centrally placed, with one small insert image positioned on the upper left-side of the cover, while on the upper right-side is the title of the song, the name of record label, and catalogue number. On the first of these records the name of the band appears in full, while the later two releases merely boast the initials TG. In some way these records look like oblique reports, ready for filing (of course, this was a tactic already employed by Throbbing Gristle with the title and package design of their debut album Second Annual Report, 1977). On the cover of ‘United’ a row of garages on a post-war housing estate is juxtaposed with what appear to be limbs that look as if they have been shot from a distance almost paparazzi style, while the flipside cover for ‘Zyklon B Zombie’ depicts a man in a shower with an insert image of canisters of Zyklon B. The cover of ‘Something Came Over Me’ depicts a canal towpath leading under a bridge with an almost abstracted picture of something mixing in water; male ejaculate, while the ‘Subhuman’ side depicts a black and white image of a pile of skulls from ‘The Apotheosis of War’ by Vasily Vereshscagin with an insert picture of a caravan. Finally ‘Adrenalin’ features an image of a single running shoe on a road in a suburban street, with an insert photograph that appears to depict part of a large format camera bellows, and ‘Distant Dreams (Part Two)’ which features a large photograph of stacked metal frames, with an insert of a tree-lined country road. But as Simon Ford notes these are “walking frames salvaged from Auschwitz” (Ford, p.10.15) and the image of the bucolic laneway actually depicts part of the concentration camp.

These images, ambiguous close-ups of body parts, machinery, unpopulated suburban (or at least appearing suburban) locations, speak to a dislocated and de-contextualised everyday. Like the unconscious everyday that leaked into Ballard’s car crashes and adverts, there is something uncanny at play. The shoe in the street seen on the cover of ‘Adrenalin’ hints at some tragedy, perhaps something discarded following an accident, left behind as a trace of a street crossing tragedy. The canal bank could be the scene of some illicit liaisons, or the location of a crime. Meanwhile behind the closed folding doors of the barren garages a hundred guilty secrets lurk waiting to be uncovered. Like J G Ballard’s crashed cars and oblique re-imagined advertising imagery, there is something more at stake. The heterogeneous comes into play – those elements that exceed closure dance through the margins of these images, and the viewer is compelled to look at and attempt to engage with these works.

If Documents showcased the slaughterhouse, Throbbing Gristle’s oblique street views and deserted urban landscapes hint at the hidden aspects that lurk just-out-of-sight. When Ballard’s protagonists world slowly unravels the gestures are small, but they became larger, thus in Crash a chance meeting following a car smash leads to psychosexual delirium. In ‘Crashed Cars’ a trio of smashed cars caused those attending the exhibition to respond in shock, repulsion, with violence but also sexually. In the iconography of these three 7” records Throbbing Gristle likewise offered a gesture that hinted at more, the first step towards a Documents style gaze at the suburban world of seventies Britain.


To Be Continued.



JG Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, Fourth Estate: London, 2006 (1970).

Dawn Ades and Fiona Bradley, ‘Introduction’ Dawn Ades and Simon Baker Undercover Surrealism George Bataille and Documents, Hayward Galley, London, MIT Press Cambridge, 2006.

Simon Ford, Wreckers of Civilization: The Story of Coum Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle, Black Dog: London, 1999.

Vale and Mike Ryan, JG Ballard Quotes, Re/Search Publications: San Francisco, 2004.


Jack Sargeant (born 1968) is a writer specialising in cult film, underground film, and independent film, as well as subcultures, true crime, and other aspects of the unusual.

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