The Music from the Balconies Nearby Was Overlaid by the Noise of Sporadic Acts of Violence.
These lines, by J G Ballard, overlay a 1984 painting by Ed Ruscha, part of the Artist Rooms bequest jointly owned by National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. The painting is of a tranquil meadow landscape, with only the hint of menacing skies to connect the scene to the textual darkness that envelops the painting.
The text comes from J G Ballard's 1975 novel, High Rise, in which the surface sheen of a luxury high-rise building cracks, revealing the kind of bizarre behaviours and atavistic urges that often haunt Ballard's apparently anonymous peripheral landscapes.
The Ruscha painting is one of many artworks inspired by Ballard's work; in 2010, the Gagosian Gallery staged 'Crash: A Homage to J G Ballard', including work from artists including Richard Prince, Richard Hamilton, and Ruscha. And this week a new show by Tacita Dean, JG, opens at the Frith Street Gallery, a film inspired by Dean's correspondence with Ballard about his short story 'The Voices of Time' and Robert Smithson's earthwork 'Spiral Jetty'.
In fact High Rise itself was inspired by an art exhibition (of a sort), as Ballard explained in his Paris Review interview in 1984. Ballard had been staying at a beach high-rise on the Costa Brava in Spain, and observed one of the ground floor tenants become ever more exasperated by cigarette butts thrown from the floors above him. Ever more obsessed, the tenant began to photograph the offenders from the beach, and pin the photos to a notice board in the building foyer: 'A very curious exhibition, which I took to be another green light to my imagination', in Ballard's words.
In the same Paris Review interview, Ballard describes his working process, explaining that he often starts with a detailed synopsis before moving to the first full draft: 'a running narrative in the perfect tense with the dialogue in reported speech, and with an absence of reflective passages and editorializing.' For High Rise, this synopsis was
about twenty-five thousand words, written in the form of a social worker's report on the strange events that had taken place in this apartment block, an extended case history. I wish I'd kept it; I think it was better than the novel.
Although most of these synopses appear to have been discarded by an author who claimed in 1982 to be 'not very good on the archival side of things', the massive synopsis for High Rise survived--along with several drafts--in a collection acquired by the British Library in 2010. Typewritten as was customary, with the equally familiar violent excisions and corrections overlaying the original draft, the synopsis is a detailed and carefully constructed text reflecting the importance that Ballard attached to the 'objective nature of the invented world I describe'.
Ballard's papers were exhibited last year in the British Library's Writing Britain summer exhibition, part of the Cultural Olympiad, and are available to researchers in the Library (for a fuller account, see Chris Beckett's article 'The Progress of the Text').
It was revealed last week that recent visitors to the archive have included the production team of a forthcoming film adaptation of High Rise, including the newly announced director, Ben Wheatley, who have been reading Ballard's notes and drafts in preparation for their new version.
Producer Jeremy Thomas had been trying to film the novel for many years, and the choice of Wheatley, who so successfully channeled the fearful obsessions of ordinary, caravanning Englanders in his 2012 film Sightseers, seems inspired. In fact the narrative of Sightseers--'sporadic acts of violence' in English camp sites--is itself triggered by an act of littering, an apparently trivial antisocial gesture that loops back to Ballard's own description of the genesis of High Rise in the Spanish resort, and the advent of the violence in his novel.
Quite what Wheatley will make of High Rise remains to be seen; a 2014 shoot is anticipated, and expectations for the first major film adaptation since Crash in 1996 are high.