Speculative Illustrations

Eduardo Paolozzi in conversation with J. G. Ballard and Frank Whitford

Copied without remorse from Studio International, Volume 182, 1971, pp. 136–143

WHITFORD: Eduardo Paolozzi, whose current exhibition at the Tate Gallery is, surprisingly, the first large-scale showing of his work in this country, has known the novelist J. G. Ballard for some time. Both artist and writer have many interests in common. Both are fascinated by technology, by the predicament of the individual in a highly mechanized society, and both explore the way in which certain symbols and images can precipitate complex chain-reactions in the imagination. Others are also convinced that the external world provides material more highly charged imaginatively and more humanly urgent than any fiction or fantasy. Ballard, who wrote the introductory notes to Paolozzi's graphic series General Dynamic Fun, has also been influenced as a writer by certain painters, as references in his work to specific artists and descriptions of landscapes recalling specific paintings make plain. What follows is an edited version of a conversation between Ballard, Paolozzi and myself conducted in Paolozzi's studio in July of this year. We touched on many subjects, on Surrealism, on violence, on the nature of reality and, especially, on technology as the subject-matter for art of all kinds. Inevitably, much of the conversation otherwise concerned with technology was taken up with discussions about whether or not the tape recorder was working properly. I began by putting it to Ballard that both he and Paolozzi are working within a surrealist tradition, a tradition which, especially in this country, has never been taken very seriously.

BALLARD: There's something about Surrealism which touched the whole Puritan conscience. It's a variety of Symbolism I suppose, a 20th century variety using psychoanalysis as its main language. And if you accept as a definition of a symbol that it represents something which the mind tries to shield itself from you can understand why people in puritanical Northern Europe and North America have always been uneasy in the face, not just of Surrealism, but of Symbolism as a whole. What sort of incursion into the imaginative life of all the arts in England and North America have the symbolist poets made - Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Jarry, and so on Almost none. And the Surrealists get the same treatment. But I don't see myself working in a surrealist tradition at all because Surrealism was like Hollywood in a sense, was a one-generation movement. You can refer to the Surrealists in connection with my own fiction, but I certainly don't use the basic techniques of Surrealism, automatic writing, for instance.

PAOLOZZI: I wouldn't quarrel with the use of the word Surrealism in my case because, after all, it#'s the reason I went to Paris, to see the Surrealists. Any book on surrealism excites me still. I don't mind trying to extend the tradition. It's easier for me to identify with that tradition than to allow myself to be described by some term, invented by others, called `Pop', which immediately means that you dive into a barrel of Coca-Cola bottles. What I like to think I'm doing is an extension of radical Surrealism.

BALLARD: Surrealism took one of its main inspirations from psychoanalysis, accepted the distinction between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality. But one, the world of the mind, is largely ruled by the laws of fictions, by one's dreams, visions, impressions and so on, and the whole idea of the unconscious as a narrative stage. Surrealism moulds the two worlds together, remakes the external world of reality in terms of the internal world of fantasy and fictions. Now what has happened, an done reason why there are really no Surrealist painters in the true sense of the term today, is that this position has been reversed. It's the external world which is now the realm, the paramount realm of fantasy. And it's the internal world of the mind which is the one node of reality that most of us have. The fiction is all out there. You can't overlay your own fiction on top of that. You've got to use, I think, a much more analytic technique than the synthetic technique of the Surrealists. Eduardo does this in his graphics. He's approaching the subject matter of the present day exactly like the scientist on safari, looking at the landscape, testing, putting sensors out, charting various parameters.

The environment is filled with more diction and fantasy than any of us can singly isolate. It's no longer necessary for us individually to dream. This completely cuts the ground from under all the tenets of classical Surrealism. Why I admire Eduardo is because he's making within the span of his own lifetime as an adult, sculpture and graphic art which is a complete turnabout. I mean that he's accommodated himself to this change. From his early sculpture, where he was using the technique appropriate at the time of overlaying an external reality, the world of nuts and bolts technology, with his own fantasies, he's gone round now to the opposite position. He is now analyzing external fictions.

WHITFORD: And yet, Eduardo, you think that although it's all out there in the external world it takes a creative leap in order to recognize what's out there, and that the majority of people don't recognize, or are incapable of recognizing precisely what is there to be seen unless it's presented to them in a fine art context. You once pointed out to me the irony of the situation when we were in an apartment in New York full of Pop Art when all the real art, the truly significant material, was just outside the window.

Yes, I keep thinking about that. But I'm also thinking about he way in which reality surpasses the fictions of even the wildest imagination. Like the machine for milking a rat. Incredible, yet it actually exists.

But people are curiously unable, aren't they, to get outside the categories which have been imposed on them from the outside. They approach art with a very different kind of mental set from that with which they approach reality. And somehow the two worlds don't touch. Would you therefore think your role to be to take something of significance from out there and to put it in a context in which it can be appreciated with that kind of mental set?

Well, that may be too simple. If you look at the series of etchings, the Olivetti project, the basic image remains to all intents and purposes unchanged. But the very fact of presenting it as an etching means that you have to look at this image in a much more serious way than you would if you just found it in the pages of Time or Newsweek. But it has to be a particular image; one chooses one from three thousand which one has collected over twenty years. That's what I call normal. I try to reject the ordinary ways of making the art image. But just as, possibly, for want of a better parallel, a classical artist might have done 500 drawings based on a friend, one's looking at 500 images involved with a kind of global situation and one's choosing an image an image which acts as a metaphor for one's particular feeling. But unless one emphasizes and arranges the images into patterns of irony the point will be lost.

Both of you often choose images which have to do with crashes, violence of all kinds, but particularly with car crashes. For which particular ideas or feelings does the car crash act as a metaphor?

Well I don't altogether know, and I'm glad I don't know. I follow my hunches and obsessions and I agree with something Eduardo said the other day. That violence is probably going to play the same role in the 70s and 80s that sex played in the 50s and 60s. There's what I call in my book, The Atrocity Exhibition, the death of feeling, that one's more and more alienated form any kind of direct response to experience. And the car crash is probably the only act of violence most of us in Western Europe are ever going to be involved with, is probably the most dramatic event in our lives apart from our own deaths, and in many cases the two are going to coincide.

Although our central nervous systems have been handed to us on a plate by millions of years of evolution, have been trained to respond to violence at the level of finger-tip and nerve-ending, in fact now our only experience of violence is in the head, in terms of our imagination, the last place where we were designed to deal with violence. We have absolutely no biological training to deal with violence in imaginative terms. And our whole inherited expertise for dealing with violence, our central nervous systems, our musculature, our senses, our ability to run fast or to react quickly, our reflexes, all that inherited expertise is never used. We sit passively in cinemas watching movies like The Wild Bunch where violence is just a style.

Just over a year ago I put on an exhibition of crashed cars, what I called new sculpture, at the New Arts Lab. And I had three cars brought to the gallery. It was very easy to mount the show because the technology of moving cars around is highly developed. A crashed Mini, an A40 and a Pontiac which had been in a massive front-end collision, a Pontiac from that last grand period of American automobile styling, around the mid 50s. Huge flared tail-fins and a maximum of iconographic display. And I had an opening party at the gallery I'd never seen 100 people get drunk so quickly. Now this has something to do with the cars on display. I also had a topless girl interviewing people on closed-circuit TV so that people could see themselves being interviewed around the crashed cars by this topless girl. This was clearly too much. I was the only sober person there. Wine was poured over the crashed cars, glasses were broken, the topless girl was nearly raped in the back seat of the Pontiac by some self-aggrandizing character. The show went on for a month. In that time they came up against massive hostility of every kind. The cars were attacked, widows ripped off. Those windows that weren't broken already were smashed. One of the cars was upended, another splashed with site paint.

Now the whole thing was a speculative illustration of a scene in The Atrocity Exhibition. I had speculated in my book about how the people might behave. And in the real show the guests at the party and the visitors later behaved in pretty much the way I had anticipated.It was not so much an exhibition of sculpture as almost of experimental psychology, using the medium of the fine art show. People were unnerved, you see. There was enormous hostility.

PAOLOZZI: But you didn't predict the acts of aggression against the crashed cars.

BALLARD: That's true. I didn't predict the acts of aggression against the crashed cars. That's the one thing I didn't imagine.

WHITFORD: Eduardo's exhibition is going to be organised, we hope, around four or five pieces of most recent sculpture, you know, the hopper, the bombs and so on. I think this is going to be tough, to make heavy going for a lot of people. and it's right too that artists should make it difficult for us.

The man in the street might not know the difference between Duchamp and anyone else but his sophistication, his appreciation of colour, forms and so on is enormously subtle and one can almost visualize at time when the sort of separate role of the painter or sculptor is no longer necessary, when the engineer of a Boeing designs a new airliner and the shape he chooses for an engine may itself contain all the ironic and imaginative comments on itself that the specialized imagination of people like Eduardo now provide. Eduardo can now look at some technological object and in his sculpture give it that ironic and imaginative replay in which other people recognize their first perception of that object, that first blunted perception heightened and illuminated. But the day may come when his role is no longer necessary. But at present he is necessary and his graphics are concerned with the nature of the environment on a compacted and subtle level. How new techniques in microscopy or a whole range of scientific techniques are providing access for the imagination to reach into the world of modern technology and illuminate it for the imagination of other people. I mean he is looking at very complex worlds where you need a lot of training before the doors can even be opened.

PAOLOZZI: The public's dilemma comes from the fact that they're still looking for objects, you see, objects in the fine-art tradition, and it's this kind of object the public usually gets. Most of the American Pop painters fit absolutely into the tradition of, say, post-Corot painting. A Liechtenstein is no more radically really than, say, a Manet. I mean, Manet completely revolutionized painting. If I can cast myself back to 1850, or whenever it was, I can see that Manet delivered a body-blow to the safe and comfortable posture of the intelligent eye. How can any Pop painter be said to have had that kind of impact, to have advanced beyond that?

As far as I'm concerned there's a slight note of disillusionment with America now; the American dream is over. I like to think that the Olivetti things take a cool look at a special kind of pornography, the pornography of human values. And in a way forcing people to look at a state they accept, like having monkeys working with computers, and also perhaps suggesting the kind of corporate image, the faceless man. That whole world of Fortune magazine, the whole business language of the American Stock Exchange, the faceless white-collar worker turning into a mechanical man. It's not just technology, it's looking with as fresh an eye as possible at the whole realm of human experience.

WHITFORD: Jim, you were suggesting earlier that the average person now is highly sophisticated when it comes to fine art, and to grasping points made visually, and I don't think it's true in many cases. For example, there is still very little acceptance of the ideas to which Eduardo gave general currency during Independent Group meetings all those years ago, when was it, in 1952. He still puts on slide shows of images culled from all kinds of sources similar to the ones which took up the first part of the first meeting of the I.G. and there's still incomprehension, isn't there?

BALLARD: What kind of images are you talking about?

Things like the source material for the Olivetti project and Bunk which is, in fact, a series of graphics reproducing many of the images first shown at that I.G. meeting. There is hostility even in art schools when Eduardo gives such slide shows.

PAOLOZZI: Art schools are in a desperate situation. The students are all hooked up on concept art and sub-Christo, can one say sub-Barry Flanagan? It such a thing possible? And they see it all the time in the pages of Studio International. I think that kind of thing needs to be said. They're all hooked on ironic statements now. You know, someone fills a room with mud, so now we've got to fill a room with mud that's been chromium-plated.

WHITFORD: Jim, were you aware of the Independent Group while it was going on?

BALLARD: I remember going to the 'This is Tomorrow' exhibition in 1956, a long, long time ago. But if that show were to be mounted now I think it wold be as fresh and as revolutionary in many ways. I think you have to give Pop painters every credit for what they did. They liberated the external environment, perceived it at first glance. But now I think we need to look at the external environment at second glance and look beyond the worlds of consumer goods and mass iconography. You'd agree with that, wouldn't you?

Well, you know the bombs at the Tate are my answer to the Brillo boxes.

BALLARD: To go to the Whitechapel in 1956 and to see my experience of the real world being commented upon, played back to me with all kinds of ironic gestures, that was tremendously exciting. I could really recreate the future, that was the future, not the past. And Abstract Expressionism struck me as being about yesterday, was profoundly retrospective, profoundly passive, and it wasn't serious. Why I became a science-fiction writer - of marginal interest - was because the future was clearly better and the past was clearly worse. Abstract Expressionism didn't share the overlapping, jostling vocabularies of science, technology, advertising the new realms of communication. `This is Tomorrow' came on a year before the flight of the first Sputnik, but the technologies that launched the space age were already underpinning the consumer-goods society in those days. How much of this did Abstract Expressionism represent? If an art doesn't embrace the whole terrain, all four horizons, it's worth nothing.

WHITFORD: The other day I inferred from something you said that, in your view, visual artists now more often produce relevant statements than writers do, that the fine arts today seem curiously more able to find metaphors for contemporary life than poets or novelists. Is this fair enough?

BALLARD: In the fine arts there was a major revolution somewhere about 1860 and in the field of literature that revolution hasn't yet taken place. There's a consciousness in English life that we also lack, a missing revolution here, too, which would have redefined the landscape. The fact is that the main tradition in the fine arts for the last 50 years at least has been the tradition of the new. The main pressure on the sculptor or painter is the pressure of the new. The new to the new. But in literature the main tradition is the tradition of the old. Where Eduardo and his fellow painters and sculptors are expected to find something new to say, my fellow writers and myself are expected to find something old, and to go on saying it. And nothing alerts, will strike terror into the ear of a publisher so much as the word 'experimental'. And the next most alarming word is 'new'.

You see, the novel, despite what appears to be the technical advance of Joyce or William Burroughs, the novel is basically an early 19th century structure. The writer still sees himself in the role of an Academy painter producing historical paintings. The sort of revolution achieved by the Impressionists, limited simply to its effect on the choice of subject-matter, has not yet been achieved in literature. I mean no-one is yet writing like Corot painted, if you see the connection. Most writers see themselves in the same role as Homer. They're telling the story of how it happened.

PAOLOZZI: I think Ballard's subject-matter and mine touch at certain points. We're both involved with the encounter with machines, and we're both involved with forcing people to look and with preventing them from escaping from certain facts. I don't want to make prints that will help people to escape from the terrible world. I want to remind them.

WHITFORD: The imaginations of you both are obviously stimulated, excited to an unusual degree of all aspects of technology, and yet, it seems to me, the vast majority of us haven't the imagination to cope with the enormous riches which technology has conferred on us. For example, when a satellite was first used to beam TV from one continent to another for the general public someone somewhere had a brainwave. Let's use this previously undreamed-of facility to create a truly wonderful programme. But was the imagination up to it? Not at all. In the face of all that awe-inspiring technology, the switches, batteries, angles, circuits all working like magic, all they could think up was to show the first tram leaving Sydney depot at 4.30 in the morning, a baseball match from San Francisco and the Beatles in the studio in London singing a song they'd composed specially for the occasion. It was all live, of course, but it might just as well have been on film. They could have saved themselves all the trouble. Here is a classic example fo how the imagination has failed to keep pace with the possibilities afforded by technology of all kinds.

PAOLOZZI: This is quite true. I'm prepared to spend the rest of my life on that premise. A lot of people who are actually manipulating the mass media are curiously under-educated. And the media are such tremendously well-made machines, like warfare, which also have a tremendous amount of money spent on it, and the machinery protects the inefficient, the amateurish because there are so many compensatory devices. So that the bad photographer will be rescued by the art editor, the incompetent interviewer rescued by the man on the cutting-room floor.

BALLARD: Another example: I believe the space programme, both Russian and American, has failed to excite the public imagination in real terms, and I think this may also have something to do with missed opportunities by the mass media. To have been alive, to have watched Armstrong as his foot landed on the surface of the moon ... yet the effect on people's imaginations was nil. Now why? I think you're getting sort of radical social classification into two groups of people: those who work within modern science and technology and modern communications, who actually appreciate what's going on, and those who are outside it. And we are just members of the studio audience. We are watching the acrobats but have absolutely no understanding. We are like a charabanc party that's arrived by mistake at Sadler's Wells and are watching a ballet we don't understand. But I think it's the role of the artist to connect the two. His subject-matter is no longer the world of manner and the world of ordinary appearances. He has to illuminate the real world for the ordinary person, the new world which technology and communications have created.

WHITFORD: But what is this reality? Our experience of the world is now so often at second hand, has been processed and reprocessed by many kinds of high-and-low definition reproduction methods, so that what we often take to be the reality is simply the distorted reflection of it. What I'm trying to say is something like this: a hi-fi enthusiast who knows his Beethoven only from records is likely to be disappointed when he finally hears Beethoven live. The pianist makes mistakes, the audience coughs, he gets all kinds of things not on recordings which turns the whole thing into a totally different kind of experience. Or when people see a Van Eyck in a high-quality reproduction and then see the original they can quite easily prefer the photograph. And I think that Eduardo is especially strong in exporting the subtle changes that occur, almost accidentally, from one translation into another medium. So that in the Olivetti etchings you get the original, which is a photograph reproduced in a newspaper, which is then blown up in a new photograph, retouched, and then etched, and there is a dialogue at the time between the image and the medium into which it's being transferred.

It's got to the point where I would rather have a carpet made to look like the Mona Lisa than the real thing. It's got to that. But a multitude of experiences, of simultaneous happenings often of very disparate kinds is a very 20th century thing. You watch Apollo taking off on a TV in a bar in San Francisco then go round the corner to have your shoes shined by a topless shoe-shine girl. These kinds of ironical juxtapositions happen in life all the time. But what we do know is that and there are many good funny films about this - the mass media demolish experience, negate real experience. You know, in the crowded underground train everyone's reading the Standard with headlines like `20,000 dead'. Any of these large human disasters, Pakistan, Ireland, but Dad, Dad still comes home and Mum's still fussing because he's fifteen minutes late. And that's what I mean by the insulating against experience.

BALLARD: But technology in terms of video-tape machines and so on may make it possible to have a continuous alternative to direct experience, and I mean any alternative. You can have this played back in a slow motion, or do you want it in infra-red, or do you want it this or that. Take your pick, like a juke-box. Technology may make it possible to have a continuous feedback to ourselves of information. But at the moment I think we are starved of information. I think that the biggest need of the painter or writer today is information. I'd love to have a tickertape machine in my study constantly churning out material: abstracts from scientific journals, the latest Hollywood gossip, the passenger list of a 707 that crashed in the Andes, the colour mixes of a new automobile varnish.

In fact, Eduardo and I in our different ways are already gathering this kind of information, but we are using the clumsiest possible took to do it: our own hands and eyes. The technology of the information-retrieval system that we employ is incredibly primitive. We fumble around in bookshops, we buy magazines or subscribe to them. But I regard myself as starved of information. I am getting a throughput of information in my imaginative life of one-hundredth of what I could use. I think there's an information starvation at present and technology will create the possibility of knowing everything about everything.

When Apollo 99 blasts off to Alpha Centauri we will know everything about the crew all of the time. It's always struck me that Eduardo's studio is lavishly equipped with photographic and recording equipment of various kinds. He spends a large part of his time on information collection and sorting, and an equal amount of time ensuring that he has a ready access to all the material he has around him. It's a far fry from the nearest thing I can visualize which is books on shelves in a library where one has a kind of notional access to the material but no real access because it's not all scanning in front of your mind.

And it struck me that the information system Eduardo has designed for himself comes very close to the sort of information-retrieval systems that a scientist has. For instance, Dr. Christopher Evans at the National Physical Laboratories uses very similar devices and has a similar internal scanning system to make sure that he keeps up to date with whatever touches his imagination. I know no writer, other than Len Deighton, who maintains this sort of system. Most do not even grasp the fact that they need information to keep their imagination up to par. Deighton used to have, perhaps still does have a computer, a Telex and an electric typewriter plugged into the system.

PAOLOZZI: Just think that only two people in Bucharest are going to read this.