Crash, and the Aesthetics of Disappearance

In April 1970, the exhibition Crashed Cars opened at the New Arts Lab in Camden Town, London. On display were three smashed up cars: a Pontiac, an Austin Cambridge A60 and a Mini. At the opening, an actress was hired to wander topless through the gallery and interview members of the crowd for a live feed to CCTV monitors. Jim Ballard’s debut as a gallery artist was provocative: visitors poured their wine on the cars and smashed the glasses on the gallery floor. According to some accounts of the evening, the actress was sexually assaulted. After the opening the installation continued to provoke acts of vandalism, from the breaking of windscreens and mirrors to paint being daubed on car bodies to seats being urinated upon [Ford]. Although the work was designed to elicit just such a reaction, the ferocity of the response was surprising, not least to the creator of the work, the artist otherwise known as the science fiction writer J.G. Ballard.

Atrocity Exhibition
Sally Porter places a price tag on a wrecked American Pontiac, an exhibit at ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ put on by British author J. G. Ballard and sponsored by the Institute for Research in Art and Technology, Robert Street, London, 1st April 1970. The exhibition demonstrates Ballard’s belief that ‘the car crash is the most dramatic event we are likely to experience in our entire lives apart from our own deaths’. (Photo by Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images)

Ballard’s foray into gallery exhibition extended many of the ideas underlying the novel Crash[1973] that was, at the time of the exhibition, a work in progress. Ballard’s exhibition came at the end of a period of multimedia experimentation, including his collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition [1970] [which contained a chapter entitled Crash!], poster and print advertising works, collaboration on a play and participation in an experimental documentary on his workscreened on the BBC in 1971. The tenor of the time favoured radical forms and gestures, from Carl Andre’s sculpture Equivalent VIII [1966] – denounced in the UK press when the Tate Gallery bought it in 1972 – to the controversial provocations of COUM Transmissions’ exhibition/performance at the ICA in 1976.

In this context, Ballard’s exhibition was surprisingly unradical. Where Andre’s infamous pile of bricks was an example of inscrutable minimalism, and COUM’s proto-punk exhibition of bloodied tampons, knives and syringes tested the limits of publicly presentable art objects, Ballard’s art works were sourced from a wrecker’s yard and were simply smashed-up cars, claimed as found objects and presented for the audience’s consideration. Yet these objects – long since consigned back to the scrapyard to be melted down – remain radical as an idea because Ballard’s gesture eschewed the trappings of experimental modernity for the cool surface of the contemporary object.

Like many things that are experienced when young, Ballard’s Crash had a profound influence on me when I finally got hold of a copy in 1979, my second last year of high school. I had read about the book and its reputation as an avant-garde text in SF magazines, and in a chapter on the New Wave in Robert Holdstock’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction [1978]. I bought my copy of Crash from Galaxy Bookshop in Sydney, and, as I gazed at its lurid cover as I travelled home on the train to the suburbs, I took in its details. On the cover was a naked woman in front of a crashed car, its bonnet raised up like a gaping mouth, the woman’s possibly lifeless head lolled to one side, her lower torso obscured by a twisted piece of metal. The cover seemed appropriate to the novel’s uncredited [and no doubt unofficial] subtitle: A BRUTAL, EROTIC NOVEL.

Crash’s cult reputation preceded my experience of it, but its reality was something quite different to what I had expected. Certainly, all the advertised violence was there, so too the dark satire of celebrity, and the strange meetings of sex, violence and cars, yet what was remarkable about Crash was just how approachable Ballard’s prose style turned out to be. It certainly wasn’t self-consciously avant-garde in any obvious stylistic sense: it deployed none of the cut up experimentation of William Burroughs, or the nouvelle roman, or even the fragmented prose of Ballard’s own experimental phase. It’s content was provocative, certainly, but its delivery was deliberately effaced and novelistic in the English tradition. Its opening sets out its themes and stylistic method:

“Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. During our friendship he had rehearsed his death in many crashes, but this was his only true accident. Driven on a collision course towards the limousine of the film actress, his car jumped the rails of the London Airport flyover and plunged through the roof of a bus filled with airline passengers. The crushed bodies of package tourists, like a haemorrhage of the sun, still lay across the vinyl seats when I pushed my way through the police engineers an hour later. Holding the arm of her chauffeur, the film actress Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Vaughan had dreamed of dying for so many months, stood alone under the revolving ambulance lights. As I knelt over Vaughan’s body she placed a gloved hand to her throat” [Ballard, 3].

The precision of Ballard’s prose is evident here. The novel proceeds in flashback from this scene, slowly building back to a dramatic recursion, but as an opening it sets the stage of its action – the roads and flyovers of London, the peripheries of Heathrow Airport – and the actors of the piece, the now-dead bystanders divided into two categories, both depersonalised groups: airline passengers, package tourists. A startling analogy describes a horrific scene without detail, but one rich with suggestion: the bodies like a haemorrhage of the sun. A dead body of the fictional antagonist Vaughan juxtaposed with the presence of a real world person, Elizabeth Taylor, and the “gloved hand to her throat”.

Ballard’s writing has the clarity of a flash photograph and the dramatic counterbalance between extremes underscored by the matter-of-factness of its delivery. Even in the oft-quoted sequences of the book where Ballard’s prose turns to ‘pornographic realism’, the text gains its most profound emotional effects in the slow accumulation of disturbing images:

“The volumes of Helen’s thighs pressing against my hips, her left fist buried in my shoulder, her mouth grasping at my own, the shape and moisture of her anus as I stroked it with my ring finger, were each overlaid by the inventories of a benevolent technology – the moulded binnacle of the instrument dials, the jutting carapace of the steering column shroud, the extravagant pistol grip of the handbrake. I felt the warm vinyl of the seat beside me, and then stroked the damp aisle of Helen’s perineum. Her hand pressed against my right testicle. The plastic laminates around me, the colour of washed anthracite, were the same tones as her pubic hairs parted at the vestibule of her vulva. The passenger compartment enclosed us like a machine generating from our sexual act an homunculus of blood, semen and engine coolant” [Ballard, 68].

Jean Baudrillard observed that in “Crash, everything is hyper‑functional: traffic and accidents, technology and death, sex and simulation are all like one single, huge synchronous machine”. According to Baudrillard, Ballard’s book was the “…first great novel of the universe of simulation” where the moral gaze “…the critical judgementalism that is still part of the old world’s functionality…” [Baudrillard, 1991] is absent, an absence framed by the functionality of the text itself:

“Crash devours its own rationality, since it does not treat the dysfunctional. It is a radicalized functionalism, a functionalism that reaches its paradoxal limits and then burns them away. Thus, it becomes an undefinable object, and hence fascinating” [Baudrillard, 1991].

For Baudrillard, Crash was an artifact of a “non-symbolic universe” where images attained their power through the reversal “of its mass-mediated substance (neon, concrete, cars, mechanical eroticism) [that] seems truly saturated with an intense initiatory power” [Baudrillard, 1991].

It’s a well-noted fact that Ballard has given his name to a particular kind of image, the “Ballardian” image or site. Jeanette Baxter argues that the term “functions as a kind of trigger for conjuring up a series of distinctive images and landscapes which capture the contemporary condition in all of its violence and ambiguity; murdered celebrities, crashed cars, surveillance technologies, media politicians, gated communities”. To this list Baxter adds, “vast shopping malls, drowned cities, nuclear weapons ranges and testing sites, landscaped business parks” [Baxter, 2008: 2].

These are the sites of Baudrillard’s notion of an “initiatory power” that provokes a sense of estrangement from our sense of everyday reality, a process connecting Ballard’s science fiction to the corpus of the genre. One of Ballard’s major achievements as a SF writer was to widen the scope of his imagery from the obligatory Golden Age props of spaceships and aliens to the landscape of the contemporary world. Ballard was neither first nor alone in that project, but with the aid of his precise and focused prose, and a predilection for a particular array of images, his name has become indelibly associated with them.

Science fiction operates as a language of realism. In both its literary and filmic manifestations, narratives are framed by an effaced mimesis where effects, visual or textual, are rendered in the context of the believable, the everyday. This is one of the genre’s most significant features, and examples of experimentation with representation – from anti-realist languages and avant garde approaches to poetic, fantastical or compacted narratives – are exceptions to a field marked by a strict adherence to realism. Experimental SF novels such as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar [1973], Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren [1975] or John Clute’s more recent Appleseed [2001] are rare examples that challenge this orthodoxy. It is hard to think of many recent examples of SF cinema that might equate to the stylistic adventurousness of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville [1965] or Weekend [1967], save perhaps for Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour [2013].


Another opening, another time… Richard and Stephanie nova Milne, who exhibit art as the art-making duo Ms&Mr,unveil their installation video work Occult To Do List 1988/2012 at Alaska Projects in Sydney, September 2012. The gallery is unusual – it is a single, small room on the 6th floor of a concrete multi-storey car park in Kings Cross, an exhibition space accessible via long set of echoing stairs, or by car, located at the bottom of the hillside structure. At the opening, the crowd are exceedingly polite. They drink beer and wine, smoke and chat behind bright yellow plastic bollards erected to protect visitors potential from vehicular mishaps. In the gallery space itself, mounted on a wall that leans away from the viewer at a 45-degree angle, is a three-screen video work displayed on monitors. On an adjacent wall is a watercolour that places the word CRASH over what appears to be a painted landscape, the text rendered in exact replica of the lettering on the first UK addition of Ballard’s novel. The watercolour is spotlit not by gallery lights but by the beam of a parked car that shines into the room. Nearby, adjacent to the gallery, is the same text again, this time rendered in two-metre-high polystyrene letters: CRASH.

Videodromes for the Alone: Amputee for the Neurotic Future 1988/
Ms&Mr, Videodromes For The Alone: Amputee of the Neurotic Future, 1988/2012. Three-channel synced video installation with sculptural elements. Digitised archive VHS footage from a home movie by John Alden Milne from the collection of John Milne, Pywacket from the Bell and Candle [1958], animation, assorted rotoscoped found footage and sound by nova Milne. Audio 2min, Visual 1 min, loop.

The images on the three screens need some decoding. On the right hand vertical screen is the side-on image of a car slowly rising and falling, its body lifted up, its tail to the ground, its body slowly disappearing, and then reappearing, into the floor of the picture. It quotes David Pelham’s 1974 Penguin edition cover for Ballard’s novel The Drought [1962], itself a pop art inspired quote of Ant Farm’s Cadillac Ranch [1974]. The middle screen has two components: the background is a direct quotation of Chris Foss’s cover for the 1975 Panther edition of Crash – the same paperback version that I’d had back in the late 1970s – while in the foreground the figure of a young boy is holding out his hand in mock pain, the hand covered in tomato sauce, the boy acting out the charade of being an accident victim. On the left screen, another image of the boy is seen. This time the context is more ambiguous, the boy seen from the side, in vertical screen format, in the reflection of the car on the right-hand screen, perhaps asleep, perhaps pretending to be dead. The rendering of the images in all three screens accentuates pinks and reds, the individual elements have been collaged together and they shift, drifting apart, components slowly realigning, a signal of the provisional nature of the composition, the individual elements appropriated from various temporal locations and recontextualised into the here and now. Ms&Mr use elements of personal history in the form of old home movies and videos cut up and reused – the image of the boy is in fact a sequence of Richard that has been placed into an entirely new temporal location. Later, after the show is finished, Ms&Mr retitle the work Videodromes For The Alone: Amputee of the Neurotic Future 1988/2012.

‘Video art’ is an imprecise term that refers to an array of technologies, from the long-defunct studio-bound tech of six decades past, through the development and release of portable gear and offline editing to the contemporary setting of HD mobile phone cameras and edit suites in every computer. As the technology of ‘video art’ has developed and dispersed, it has been marked by its disappearance from our collective consciousness. To notice a projector or a flat screen set up in a gallery space is completely unremarkable, but what is all the more startling is the fact that cognitively we cannot ‘see’ this technology. Like the ‘frame’ of realist prose, the representation of most video art exists in a cognitive space that appears to be quite separate to its delivery mechanism: we simply cannot sense the space between our eyes and the screen as we focus on images conjured in the soft light of a projection or the flow of HD plasma.

A number of artists working with screen technologies have experimented with the aesthetics of science fiction in what I would define as an aesthetic zone between the SF genre proper, and its manifestations in cinema and literature, and the edges of contemporary art practice. In this category we might include works by Anne Lislegaard, an artist who has examined in detail the potential of adapting themes from SF novels into installation works, including a work based on Ballard’s The Crystal World, or Aeronut Mik, whose screen works such as Middlemen [2000] and Pulverous [2003] have touched on elements of dystopic SF themes. The work of Ms&Mr and its engagement with Ballard’s text is notable for its reflexive techniques, eschewing the conceptual ‘stability’ of faux-cinematic montage for a more discursive and ‘unstable’ visual collage, and an exhibition staging that further enhances and highlights the audience’s viewing of the work.

Ballard’s novel anticipated our contemporary moment, not because of the disruption of order, or the intrusion of symbolic desire into a waking state, but because these strategies of estrangement have been so comfortably absorbed by media. Where Crash remains provocative is in its unflinching will to expose the apparatus of its making, a will not wholly resolved by form, but an uncertainty that powers its effect.


Ballard, J.G. Crash. London: Panther, 1975.

Baudrillard, J. “Two Essays”. Science Fiction Studies. #55 Vol. 18, Part 3, November 1991. Date Accessed November 22, 2012.

Baxter, Jeannette. “J.G. Ballard and the Contemporary”. J.G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Baxter, ed. London: Continuum, 2008.

Ford, Simon. “A Psychopathic Hymn: J.G. Ballard’s ‘Crashed Cars’ Exhibition of 1970”. /Seconds. Date Accessed Nov. 22, 2012.

Published in Amelia Barikin and Helen Hughes (eds), “Making Worlds: Art and Science Fiction” (Surpllus: Melbourne, 2013). www.surpllus.comAlso at

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