Sometimes fate and coincidence coalesce in such a way that they cause revelation. In my case this occurred recently when happenstance dictated that an urban prehistory stall I hosted at a science festival saw me located in a space between the material remnants of Glasgow’s prehistory, and a Ballardian nightmare. Completely outwith my control and I suspect beyond the ken of the organisers of the event, I was stationed at perhaps the most appropriate place in the whole city for the urban prehistorian to brandish his assorted wares.
For four hours I stood in what was essentially a glorified passageway in Glasgow’s Riverside Museum beside my rather feeble table of material culture, manipulated images, newsclippings and a flickering laptop slide show of urban prehistory images. On the horizons of my peripheral vision were a huge silver and copper engine, an old Corporation bus, and a display telling the story of the man who patrols the River Clyde to rescue those who jump or fall into the river. My more immediate landscape was starker still. To my right was a glass case containing two rotted timber logboats that had also been recovered from the Clyde, where they had been abandoned thousands of years ago. To my left was a tableaux set up around a crashed motorcycle, where a circular arrangement of television screens – a video henge – told the story of the collision with a motor car that had permanently ruined the bike and temporarily damaged the rider.
The story was on a ten-minute loop and so in effect I relived the story of the crash twenty four times by lunchtime.
This powerful, occult location, struck me as absolutely appropriate, and as I stood dumbly and heard the paramedics recount again and again how they held the motorcyclist in a neutral position while they established the mechanism of injury, it struck me once again that urban prehistory is nothing if it is not Ballardian. In fact, it is an example of what Simon Sellers has recently called Applied Ballardianism, ‘a theory of nothing’.
The remnants of prehistory that jut into the modern urban landscape occur in places that Ballard wrote about repeatedly – motorway intersections and roundabouts, suburban gated communities, industrial estates, shopping malls, golf courses and leisure centres. These renegade essences of the past offer uncomfortable glimpses in to the nature of our consumerist society, often destroyed, damaged or surgically excavated to allow development to occur, the past not being allowed to stand in the way of the present. These archaeological atrocities occur in order for us to exhibit the past in staged, stylized and un-natural ways, making an exhibition of the triumph of modernity over the pagan ancient past that lies barely concealed beneath the surface.
And so I turned once again, and re-arranged the objects on my table, exhibiting myself for a non-existent audience. Passers by lingered over the wreckage of the motorbike and I realized I could not compete with hyper-reality of the crash. Such is life.
“The car crash is the most dramatic event in most people’s lives apart from their own deaths, and for many the two will coincide. Are we merely victims in a meaningless tragedy, or do these appalling accidents take place with some kind of unconscious collaboration on our part?” (JG Ballard, 1971)
Lost in the mud
“Ballard once said, ‘One is aware of a sort of invisible marine world, of living below the water line. It works on you imaginatively after a while.’”
Context: the stall I set up was part of Exploration 2017, a festival of science and academic research taking place in a wide variety of venues across Scotland on 29-30th September 2017. The theme of the stall was Urban Prehistory and to be honest I didn’t get much in the way of interest from the public. I had plenty of time with my Ballardian thoughts in other words.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Jamie Gallagher for allowing me to take part in Explorathon 2017. Helen Green and Denise Telford helped me with the stall, while Fraser Capie kindly brought me a coffee mid-morning. The posters for the stall were designed with the help of Lauren Welsh.
The exhibition telling the story of the accident is called CRASH, a 12 minute installation by Joseph Briffa.
Illustration sources: The JG Ballard photo is a screengrab from a BBC4 documentary. I found this on the website, Volume 1 Brooklyn. The urban stone circle, beneath an underpass, is from the inside cover of the one of the popular Crap Towns books.
Quotation sources: Ballard 1971, from an article he wrote for the motoring magazine Drive. The underwater Ballard quotation was found in the Applied Ballardianism website (link, above).