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Thread: Ballard's Drowned World

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    Jan 2018

    Default Ballard's Drowned World

    JG Ballard's Drowned World hits an Essex pool -- A Chelmsford swimming baths has turned Ballard’s prescient apocalyptic novel into a truly immersive performance

    It’s Saturday night in Chelmsford, and 100 people are waiting for security to admit us into a postapocalyptic hellscape. We aren’t queuing outside Wetherspoons, but standing in our swimwear in the changing rooms of the Riverside leisure centre.

    We’re here for the world premiere of a performance inspired by JG Ballard’s The Drowned World as part of the Essex book festival. In 2018, director Ros Green commissioned a multimedia event called The Nuclear Option in a secret nuclear bunker in Kelvedon. Now she’s asked an outfit called Wet Sounds, which creates underwater listening experiences, to adapt Ballard’s dystopian novel. “Perhaps not that many people who come to the evening will have read the book,” she says. “My hope is that this will catalyse them to do so.”

    In the changing rooms, Essex families mingle with couples on (frankly bizarre) dates as well as day-tripping Londoners. An oppressive throbbing bounces off the tiles. We hear birdsong, the jungly vibes of the cicadas. The pools are dimly lit in dark blue. Superb projections of ruined, Piranesian interiors scroll across the walls. Only the lifeguards in yellow polo shirts taking selfies detract from the illusion.

    Finally, a municipal charon allows us into the water. Who knows what we’ll encounter in this simulation of a lagoon above the submerged ruins of London? “There’s no real precedent for anything like this,” says Chris Adam, one of the three musicians who have composed a synthesiser score for the adaptation.

    “I’ve played all kinds of weird events,” says Andrew Wright, a fellow member of Chelmsford’s Resonance arts collective, “but never with this much water.”

    What is the appeal of water-based performance art? Joel Cahen of Wet Sounds reminds me that we begin our lives surrounded by liquid, perceiving vibrations and sounds. “The novel was a very attractive to me because it deals with the desire to go back to the primordial amniotic world, to go back to being drowned.”

    But what’s also important for Cahen are the differences between hearing above and below water. “When you’re underwater, sound is perceived through the bones. This makes it more intimate. Above the water, the sound is more public as if it were to do with a communal consciousness.” The trio of musicians perform music to be heard both under water and above. “You can customise the music just by putting your head in the water or raising it above the waterline,” says Merrick. The only restriction that Cahen imposed on the musicians is that they keep playing. “As soon as it goes silent, the illusion is shattered because you realise you’re in a municipal swimming pool.”

    Given recent flooding, The Drowned World is topical. In the book, nature is reasserting itself after millennia of human domination. At the start, a group of scientists is preparing to withdraw to higher latitudes because the lagoon over London is poised to become uninhabitably hot. But our hero Kerans doesn’t want to leave his suite at the Ritz and head to cooler climes. Instead, he plans to go south, deeper into the jungle. Haunted by nightmares that seem to belong to his evolutionary ancestors, Kerans may be motivated by an indomitable death wish.

    In the deep end, a woman tells her companion: “God, the music is sinister. It’s like Jaws.” It is, though the soundscape is nothing like John Williams’ exquisitely oppressive melody, but rather teems with electronic textures evoking fireworks, screeching bats, air bubbles popping during Kerans’ deep dive to a submerged planetarium. I dive to the bottom of the deep end to simulate his descent: the throbbing intensifies, and the music is almost unbearably intimate. I return to the surface to escape, where I’m soothed by music redolent of Brian Eno, Boards of Canada, and, probably, Colchester’s burgeoning ambient scene.

    Even as I recline on a noodle, I feel as though I’m assisting at the birth of a new art form. I look up at the wall. A silhouetted figure of a man is running through a black-and-white jungle. Perhaps he’s being pursued by Triassic predators. Then, in a bravura twist, the silhouetted man runs backwards – as if dramatising Ballard’s conceit that time is, thanks to environmental catastrophe, in reverse. All this is compelling to me, though a lot of it wouldn’t have made much sense if I hadn’t read the novel.

    The music hits a groove. I find myself dancing in the water. And it’s not only me: quite a few are joining in what must look like an aqua-aerobics class. I’m not sure where we are in the story at this point, but possibly the key moment in which Kerans is captured by Strangman’s gang. Strikingly, the audience behaves impeccably, while the music and drama goes dementedly Lord of the Flies. Civilisation may be dying in fiction, but not in Chelmsford.

    No one applauds when the lights go up; not, I suspect, because they haven’t enjoyed the experience, but because there are no norms for how to respond to this kind of performance. Apparently, the show lasted 45 minutes, but I feel as though I might have been there for a minute or all night.

    “I’ve no idea what that was about,” someone tells a mate in the showers. “But I will read the book.” There were only three performances of The Drowned World during the festival, but there should be more. It is worth a West End transfer, or a residency at Zaha Hadid’s Olympic pool. And then maybe a tour of lidos when the weather gets warmer.

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