Alien Electricity

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Photo of J.G. Ballard by Simon Durrant.

Excerpt from Applied Ballardianism: A Theory of Nothing

“Accompanying the i-D interview, Simon Durrant’s monochrome photo portrait compounded Ballard’s abnormal charisma. Ballard wears a black shirt and gazes off camera. His expression is detached yet defined: framing his thumb and forefinger over his left eye, he pulls the skin of his cheek down to reveal a wide, opaque pupil. As a young man, I spent many hours trying to divine the true meaning of that gesture. It seemed overtly theatrical, a coded missive pregnant with symbolism. What exactly was he signalling? I never really knew until 25 years later, when, reading a local newspaper, the answer came at last, forging itself from random connections initially (as did so many insights that were to direct my passage through Ballardian consciousness), before announcing its full presence with alien electricity, like an unpredictable, jagging spark emanating from a Tesla coil.

The newspaper carried a story about a fatal brawl at Sydney Airport between members of two rival bikie gangs. Unhappy at sharing the same domestic flight with sworn enemies, the gangs carried their disagreement through to arrivals. When the plane landed, each gang was met by reinforcements and a brutal skirmish was enacted in front of horrified passengers, as hypermuscled men fought with any weapon to hand. When it was over, one man was dead, his head caved in by a metal crowd-control bollard, as traumatised parents shielded their children’s eyes from his brains splattered across the sleek terminal floor. How could these hapless travellers, still mired in ‘flight mode’, cope with the savage events that tore apart the unreal cocoon of their jet-lagged state?

According to one witness, the simmering tension aboard the plane was ignited when a bikie made a ‘weird eye gesture’ to his rival: ‘He put his hand to his face and with his finger pulled down his cheek with his hand to reveal the pink of his eye.’ When I read that, it hit me like a stun-bolt to a cow’s head, for suddenly I knew. In the i-D portrait, Ballard performs the exact same gesture, setting in train an experiment that produces the same result: the awakening, by any means possible, of complacent suburban stiffs from their cocooned existence. ‘In a completely sane world,’ he once said, ‘madness is the only freedom! That’s why the suburbs interest me… one’s almost got to get up in the morning and make a resolution to perform some sort of deviant or antisocial act, some perverse act, even if it’s just sort of kicking the dog, in order to establish one’s own freedom.’

With my senses reeling, I decided to read his most notorious novel, Crash, a work so vile and dangerous it was originally rejected by the publisher’s reader with the warning: ‘This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.’

With a come-on like that, there was no earthly way I could resist.

I became a Ballardian.”