Topic 1 - Dystopia and JG Ballard Archive

In conversation with Laura Farnworth, Artistic Director of Undercurrent 

How did you begin with the Ballard Archive?

I have always had an interest in Ballard and found that his work somehow gets under my skin. I once made a show called ‘Floor 44’, written by Lydia Adetunji and we used Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ as an inspiration. When I heard his archive was held here I knew that I would want to spend some time working through it. I began with meeting Chris Beckett a Curator here at the British Library. Chris catalogued Ballard’s archive and so is very familiar with the contents. Chris helped me understand the archive and its contents and provided me with some starting points for my research. A very useful tool was Chris’ essay ‘The Progress of the Text: The Papers of J.G. Ballard at the British Library’ - this is a great introduction to Ballard and the archive. ’'

Did you have a plan or did it evolve as it went along?

I always spend a little time scoping my research at the outset, otherwise I find the research is directionless. This involves establishing a few starting points and leads, and perhaps a few questions that I want to explore in the topic. In the case of Ballard, the decision to research his archive had in fact evolved from a general interest of dystopian worlds. I gave myself a short reading list of Ballard’s work to begin from and also spent a couple of days actually working my way through the archive to get a ‘feel’ of what was there. This gave me an overview, and allowed me then to direct my research into specific items. Inevitably the research does evolve, and I think this is when you know the research is working with you. I like to be surprised and for the research to take on its own momentum.

Were there different forms of content in the archive? How did you work with those? 

The Ballard archive is not a particularly ‘personal’ archive - by that I mean it is not like other archives that contain lots of diaries and letters. What it does contain is a vast amount of annotated transcripts of his works (Ballard liked to handwrite his drafts before typing them). You begin to get a sense of his process through his notes and annotations. I also found some faxes which stood out to me, where Ballard had prepared answers to journalist’s questions. These I thought gave a very interesting insight into Ballard’s world view, albeit they are obviously crafted for the press. There were a few personal items, such as ‘get well’ and ‘father’s day’ cards from his children and grandchildren, and Ballard’s passports. Near the end of my research I came across some of his notebooks and these were particularly fascinating where you can read how Ballard scopes out a story and concept.

If you were to take this work further what are the steps you would need to take?

To really appreciate the extent of his archive I would now want to read a lot more of his work, his novels and short stories. This would give me a greater appreciation of seeing the notations and comments he makes on his documents, and a closer insight into Ballard’s artistic process. I would also want to spend more time with his visual materials and films.

What are the top 3 things that excited you in the Ballard Archive and why?

1. His notebooks - seeing his concepts and ideas in embryo 

2. A transcript of ‘Concrete Island’ - an unpublished film script

3. His annotations - seeing how Ballard edited and commented on his own work is an insight into his making and writing process

What potential art pieces could you see coming out of working with this Archive?

I’d be interested to play with some of the concepts he discusses and brainstorms in his notebooks and see where perhaps I might run with these same ideas as a theatre maker. There are characters and conflicts and places listed - a perfect platform to begin improvising from with actors and begin talks with a writer. It would be intriguing to see where we ended up with his ideas. 

How has this experience shaped your thoughts as you start to work with a new archive?

Allowing myself to be both structured in my research, but also allow for ‘grazing’ time. Balancing between the two I think makes for the most fruitful process, where you can allow yourself to stumble across a gem, but also recognise that you need to keep yourself stimulated and engaged with some guiding starting points and questions. Plus simply, don’t underestimate how much time it takes to read!

If someone wanted to find this archive where would we need to look?

If you go on the British Library 'Explore Archives and Manuscripts' these are shelfmarks for some of the items:

Notebooks: ADD MS 88938/3/27/1

Passports: ADD MS 88938/1/3

Faxes to press: ADD MS 88938/4

Works: ADD MS 88938/3