Features EssaysPerformance Published 7 February 2014

At The Shattered Edge

Gareth Damian-Martin on J.G Ballard, John Cage, performance and the novel.

Gareth Damian-Martin

“Most of his complex annotations have been shown to be complete fictions, an endlessly unravelling web of imaginary research work, medical personalities and the convoluted and sometimes tragic interrelationships of their private lives. Occasionally, however, they describe with unusual clarity a sequence of events that might almost have taken place”

Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard could never really be considered much of a performer – engaging instead in the typically limited cycle of readings and Q&As expected of an author. Instead, he seemed to let his characters perform for him, making art of crime, sex and death – live acts of transgressive power safely encased on the page. Yet, to me, his texts have always cried to be sounded-out, spoken aloud either as an act of conjuring his “visionary present” into being, or simply to connect his steely prose with its fleshy subject matter.

Take The Atrocity Exhibition, described by Ballard himself as a series of “condensed novels”, a text fractured into repeating phrases, anti-narrative structures and potent imagery. An arrangement formed of 60s celebrities, medical procedures dystopian landscapes, this dense block of writing feels like a score for a performance, a structural entity ready to be reconstructed into one, or many, of its possible dysfunctional wholes. I’m not talking about an adaptation; but a performance of the text, a reading that is more a realisation of a written reality than an act of storytelling. The Atrocity Exhibition, in its complexity, challenges the concept of adapting or staging a novel – this is a text that cannot be translated from word to action. It is this mode of thought that led me to At the Shattered Edge: An Unfinished Exploded Novel

At the Shattered Edge begins with a novel I started writing in 2010, and that I never finished.

It sits in pieces, ready to be reconstructed, like the fragments of a skeleton in a shallow grave. The map of a thing – “dead” – but finished? No, unfinished. Exploded. Exploding even.

Like the corpse, the novel is “bound” when it is finished, when it is done, when it is dead. Its strata are numbered and arranged, a counting down, page one to page last, a “house of leaves”.

What is to be done with the unfinished novel? Unbound, unbindable. It can’t be buried, always surfacing at unfortunate times – appearing in the syntax of a conversation, the colour of an experience.

At the Shattered Edge is an attempt to keep the unfinished novel in this potent state, to keep it from becoming finished. Not by binding, but by performing. Not by constructing, but by derailing. It is a process that has its roots in a long history of fragmenting prose, both on stage and off.

At the heart of that history is John Cage’s “writing through” of texts like Ezra Pound’s Cantos or James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Each one of these acts was dictated by a series of esoteric rules, such as mapping the individual letters of Ezra Pound’s name onto his own work in order, so that the writer’s work came to spell his identity over and over, between snatches of poetry. These aggressive deconstructions resulted in deformed versions of canonical works, fragments that Cage himself would go on to perform. Through his experiments Cage reanimated Joyce and Pound’s texts, firing new synaptic links between the words that made up their networked structures, forging new connections between the seemingly discrete word-units that made up each work.

20 years before, William S. Burroughs, ever the masochist, was performing equally aggressive attacks on his own writing, using a version of the “cut-up” technique that emerged during 20’s Dadaism. Explained in its own name, this “scalpel-and-glue” approach is unruly and fractious, with none of the systemic nature of Cage, but all of the effect, twisting Burrough’s own prose into a monstrous conflations of word and image.

Both artists were performers as well as writers, bringing these chopped-up texts to the stage ready for reading, whether in Burroughs americana drawl, or Cage’s precisely clipped syllables. They made an art of it, particularly Cage, whose experimental musical work led to a writer a more interested in composition than character. Along with Ballard, in was Burroughs and Cage that gave me a process to employ, an explosion to conduct – step by step.

Part systemic, part fractious, the process I employ for At the Shattered Edge uses a simple statistical algorithm to break down my own novel into a constant flow, following a loose grammatical structure.

The algorithm functions by selecting a section of the original text and then searching the remains of the document for every instance of that same section. It then selects, at random, one of the sections that follows the various examples of the first section. By putting these two sections together it generates a new text, and it continues to follow the same process until the character limit is met. This algorithm is a dumb process, knowing nothing of grammatical structure; it simply makes a “probably correct” variant of the text, matched work to word, phrase to phrase. “by the way” can become “by the time”, or even “by the by”. These can become “by the way back”, “by the time to go” or “by the by the by the by”.

The text becomes a spiraling thing, ingrown, its forward movement dictated by the structures it is based on, the word-units it is built from. This process can have no end, the millions of variants able to inflate the text to an unreadable length. This is the palette from which I work, cutting off promising sentences and transposing them together, constructing from the fragments. Then I derail again, feed sections back into the algorithm, adjusting, reconfiguring, working with accidents and appropriations. It is grown in the image of Cage, cut in the spirit of Burroughs.

The shift to performing is the final derailment, the performance of a text without allowing it to become speech. The text must be present, be read, otherwise this all becomes a soliloquy. It’s a fast reaction, text and voice requiring a space that refuses to be inert. That’s my aim, not a performance as a sequence of events, but a performance as a sequence of words that might have almost taken place.

The text of the original novel is concerned with space – particularly the spaces of urban alienation, as well as those liminal spaces which escape this alienation, that allow people to remain between states and statuses. It is a text which is obsessed by the idea of the heterotopia, the other-space. It was Michel Foucault who introduced this concept, and though Foucalt’s heterotopia concept was only sketched in his work, and remains underdeveloped, it provided me with the key to creating a space in which the text of At The Shattered Edge could be performed.

“real places—places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society— which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, […] are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.”

Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, Michel Foucault

At the Shattered Edge: An Unfinished Exploded Novel takes place on a stage where the text, and its meaning, is simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Each of these is an active process, and each keeps the novel unfinished, unbound. Its an attempt to realise the potential of texts like Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition in performance, not through adapting, or creating their images, but through allowing the words, the text to become a heterotopia in which the audience can enter – where meaning is not a constant, but an always unfinished structure, a spire of papers, a sedimentation of language. In other words: a city.

Advertisement