author: Matteo Bittanti (concept, text, gameplay, execution)title: james ballard plays burnout
format: digital video
exhibited at: SFMOMA, as part of Lynn Hershman Leeson's "Customized Marinetti" (2009). [See "Reviews" below]
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media: video excerpt (low resolution)
Description: The artwork consists in a video montage of simulated car crashes in Burnout Paradise (Criterion/Electronic Arts, 2008). The soundtrack features a mix of “real” automobile wrecks noises mixed with the sounds of a woman moaning and groaning.
Reviews: "IO NON SONO MARINETTI (I am not Marinetti) read the T-shirts worn by the protagonists of one sequence—Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Customized Marinetti—as they jog in place against the backdrop of an apocalyptic cityscape of video-game car chases marked by a sound track featuring a woman’s orgasmic moans." (Ara H. Merjian, ArtForum, 11.02.09) [link]
Disclaimer: "james ballard plays burnout" is not endorsed or developed in conjunction with Criterion/Electronic Arts.
Length: 9' 49", loop.
Set up: In its simplest form, the installation would simply require a video screen, speakers, and a media player. The ideal set-up would feature a steering wheel, peddles, and 3 massive screens for a cockpit simulation. However, the wheels and peddles are not supposed to have any effect on the video – a metaphor for the inevitability of the crash and the driver’s illusion of control. It is also recommended that the simulated seat would rattle and shake at random, but frequent, intervals to simulate a popular convention of video games (i.e. the trembling generated by the force feedback effect of wheel controllers)
“Do we see, in the car-crash, the portents of a nightmare marriage between technology, and our own sexuality?... Is there some deviant logic unfolding here, more powerful than that provided by reason?” (J.G. Ballard, foreword to Crash, 1973)
“There is no line between art and pornography. You can make art of anything. You can make an experimental movie with that candle or with this tape recorder. You can make a piece of art with a cat drinking milk. You can make a piece of art with people having sex. There is no line. Anything that is shot or reproduced in an unusual way is considered artistic or experimental. I would say that everybody is obsessed with sex. Those who say they are not: either they are lying or they are denying their own reptilian side of their sex lives. The only people I know who are really not obsessed with sex are heroin junkies.” (Gaspar Noe)
If c'’etait un rendez vous numerique was a reflection on simulated speed, james ballard plays burnout explores the pornographic violence of its unintended consequence, the Accident, by remixing two cultural artifacts: J. G. Ballard’s 1973 controversial novel, Crash and Criterion Games' racing game Burnout Paradise (Criterion/Electronic Arts, 2008). James ballard plays burnout is a mash-up of themes and motifs from three main sources: Ballard/Baudrillard/Burnout. It takes a range of materials from different media (print, video, video games) in order to create new fictions and new frictions.
Our obsession for velocity is increasingly disconnected from the physical realm as speed is the currency of simulacra and simulation. A paradigmatic example of this tendency is Burnout Paradise, the seventh installation of Criterion’s extremely successful racing game series. Set in an open-world environment – the ever expanding concrete jungle of Paradise City – Burnout Paradise simulates car accidents with a high degree of sophistication, rewarding the players for the most spectacular wrecks (note 1).
Here the accident lies at the center of the experience, not at the perifery. The wreck is the main attraction. In fact, Burnout Paradise features a grandiose “Crash Mode”, which has been renamed “Showtime” in the latest iteration, as to suggest the spectacular nature of the car wreck (note 2).
Burnout Paradise (Criterion/Electronic Arts, 2008)
This creates an interesting paradox: Burnout Paradise allows us to simulate, in a safe, virtual environment, the number one cause of violent deaths in first-world countries, "a pandemic cataclysm institutionalised in all industrial societies that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions", as Ballard wrote in a side note to "Crash!", an essay included in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). Burnout Paradise glorifies mechanical destruction and simultaneously sanitizes the experience by omitting most of the "real" life consequences (e.g. the driver and pedestrians deaths, gory details of mutilations and wounds, pollution and traffic).
In Paradise City, even the most destructive accidents have no lethal consequences: like a zombie, the automobile magically returns to life, eager to terrorize the streets of Paradise City (note 3). In short, Criterion suggests that collateral damage is an integral part of the driving experience - actually, collateral damage is the experience. By removing the drivers' digital personas – the cars are basically driven by ghosts – the developers have erased the
"[T]errifying almanac of imaginary automobile disasters and insane wounds - the lungs of elderly men punctured by door handles, the chests of young women impaled by steering-columns, the cheeks of handsome youths pierced by the chromium latches of quarter-lights" (Ballard 1973, 13).
"Only cars existed in the city. They dashed, they passed one another, they got sick, they squabbled with brazen horns" (Ehrenburg,1999 )And yet, this absence is purely virtual: the players cannot but fill those empty car seats with images of moribund drivers and injured passengers stored in their visual mediascapes. Scenes from television reports, movie sequences, and gruesome photographs of crashes will be inevitably blended into the game environments by prolific minds. The phantasmatic nature of a racing game that features moving cars without drivers implicitly encourages the players to imagine possible narratives of the most brutal accidents they simulate, and, possibly, to re-enact the deaths of celebrities. Lady D's comes to mind.
In short, Burnout Paradise invites us to visualize
"[T]he crashes of excited schizophrenics colliding head-on into stalled laundry vans in one-way streets; of manic-depressives crushed while making pointless U-turns on motorway access roads; of luckless paranoids driving at full speed into the brick walls at the ends of known cul-de-sacs" (Ballard 1973, 15).Paradise City is a vast digital urbanscape ruled by motor vehicles. Unlike Liberty City – the setting of Grand Theft Auto, another simulation that overtly encourages road violations – there are no pedestrians ("nobody walks in LA"). In Criterion's cosmology, heaven is an endless highway inhabited by mechanized beasts. And these beasts constantly collide into each other, impregnating each other in an orgiastic ritual. The car crash becomes a subversive, even transgressive form of popular entertainment. In Ballard's fictional worlds, the car accident is always erotically charged. This is especially manifest in Crash (1973), a story of car-crash fetishism. The novel features a group of characters who are sexually aroused by staging and participating in real car collisions, often with real, dramatic consequences. Their spiritual 'leader' is Dr. Robert Vaughan, "a one-time computer specialist" (63):
"For Vaughan each crashed car set off a tremor of excitement in the complex geometries of a dented fender, in the unexpected variation of crushed radiator grilles, in the grotesque overhang of an instrument panel forced on to a driver's crotch as if in some calibrated act of machine fellatio" (Ballard 1973, 12).Automotive paraphilia has now reached a new level with video games, where the pleasures and excesses associated with reckless driving have become the conventions of a whole genre. Playing Burnout Paradise, I find myself falling prey of the same, morbid, fascination experienced by Vaughan. Like Vaughan, I elaborate "endless variations of these collisions, thinking first of a repetition of head-on collisions" (14). I also "[T]hink now of the other crashes we visualized, absurd deaths of the wounded, maimed and distraught. I think of the crashes of psychopaths, implausible accidents carried out with venom and self-disgust, vicious multiple collisions contrived in stolen cars on evening freeways among tired office workers" (15). After a session of crash-and-burn, I am both elated and numb. I am not the only one.
"The ugly and violent impact of this simulated crash, the rupture of metal and safety glass, and the deliberate destruction of expensive engineered artifacts had left me lightheaded" (125).Dictated by vectors of speed, violence, and aggression, car crashes are perfectly suited to the video game medium. The use of multiple cameras, points of views and perspectives, slow-motion, and exaggerated sound effects used in Burnout Paradise to simulate the wrecks evoke the “frenzy of the visible” that Linda Williams (1999) indicated as the key feature of the pornographic movie.
"I call the visual, hard-core knowledge pleasure produced by the scentia sexualis a 'frenzy of the visible'. Even though this sounds extreme, this frenzy is neither an aberration nor an excess; rather, it is a logical outcome of a variety of discourses of sexuality that converge in, and help further to produce, technologies of the visible" (36).
Moreover, following cinema and photography, video games play a key role in the construction of a media-saturated landscape that Jean Baudrillard (1994) labeled "the hyperreal". In his critical assessment of Ballard's novel, the French philosopher wrote (note 4):
“Yet in Crash, another dimension is inseparable from the confused ones of technology and of sex (united in a work of death that is never a work of mourning): it is that of the photograph and of cinema. The shining and saturated surface of traffic and of the accident is without depth, but it is always doubled in Vaughan’s camera lens. The lens stockpiles and hoards accident photos like dossiers. The general repetition of the crucial event that if foments (his automobile death and the simultaneous death of the star in a collision with Elizabeth Taylor, a crash meticulously simulated and refined over a period of months) occurs outside a cinematographic take. This universe would be nothing without this hyperreal disconnection. Only the doubling, the unfolding of the visual medium in the second degree can produce the fusion of technology, sex, and death. But in fact, the photograph here is not a medium nor is it of the order of representation. It is not a question of “supplementary” abstraction of the image, nor a spectacular compulsion, and Vaughan’s position is never that of the voyeur or the pervert. The photographic film (like transistorized music in automobiles and apartments) is part of the universal, hyperreal, metalized, and corporeal layer of traffic and flows. The photo is no more of a medium than technology or the body – all are simultaneous in a universe where the anticipation of the event coincides with its reproduction, indeed with its “real” production.” (Baudrillard 1994, 117).(note 5)
Andrzej Gasiorek (2005) elucidates:
“[E]verything in Crash is filtered through image-making systems and techniques, principally those associated with photocopies, photographs, advertisements, television, ciné-films, and, of course, the ‘screen’ of the car windshield itself. […] For Vaughan’s, events have no meaning and do not even seem to be phenomenologically present until they are captured and mediated by some means of mechanical reproduction. The image is at the hands of the text’s characters thus the subject of both fetishisation and exorbitation: nothing is more real than the image, and without the image there is no longer any real” (84).The cinematic is superseded by the simulated: in Burnout Paradise as in Crash, “everything is hyperfunctional, since traffic and accident, technology and death, sex and simulation are like a single, large synchronous machine” (Baudrillard 1994, 118). By engaging with the simulation, the player becomes part of the (computational) process. Ultimately, Crash and Burnout are two different mediated manifestation of the same neuroses. Nicholas Ruddick (1992) explains:
"The car 'accident' is no accident, but the product of a psychopathology operating at the cultural level that is worked out according to a post-Freudian logic. Sexuality is, as Baudrillard himself notes, "no more than the rarefaction of a drive called desire" ("Ballard's Crash", 316) [...] [T]he sexualization of the automobile for the narrator after his crash surely functions as a metaphor of revelation for the real object of his desire, namely death and reunification with the organic realm. Far from being abolished, this is desire intensified and freed; but it is a desire beyond the pleasure principle, absolutely unnameable to reason and hostile to consciousness" (Ruddick 1992, δ 11).
Burnout Paradise (Criterion/Electronic Arts, 2008)
While speed is being stigmatized in real life, it thrives in the virtual spaces. One can only wonder if video games, rather than being an "innocent pastime" as industry reps argue, were the visual manifestation of our repressed subconscious, a subconscious where Eros and Tanathos, the life instinct and the death drive, constantly collide.
"The ambiguous role of the car crash needs no elaboration - apart from our own deaths, the car crash is probably the most dramatic event in our lives, and, in many cases, the two will coincide. Aside from the fact that we generally own or are at the controls of the crashing vehicle, the car crash differs from outer disasters in that it involves the most powerfully advertised commercial product of this century, an iconic entity that combines the elements of speed, power, dream and freedom within a highly stylized format that defuses any fears we may have of the inherent dangers of these violent and unstable machines" (Ballard 1990: 97).This passage led me to conclude that my fascination (obsession) for the game might be connected to unresolved traumas, for instance, "real" car accidents (note 6). Or, more disturbingly, the game might not about exorcising demons from the past. It could be a preparation for disasters to come.
"Like everyone else bludgeoned by these billboards harangues and television films of imaginary accidents, I had felt the vague sense of unease that the gruesome climax of my life was being rehearsed years in advance, and would take place on some highway or road injunction known only to the makers of these films" (Ballard 1973, 39).
"The photo is no more of a medium than technology or the body - all are simultaneous in a universe where the anticipation of the event coincides with its reproduction, indeed with its "real" production" (Baudrillard 1994, 119).Film... Photography... Games... Is Burnout Paradise a simulation of my own future crash(es)? Am I rehearsing and anticipating my death over and over again? Is this a form of catharsis ante-litteram? Is gameplay a form of premediation?
These are just some of the questions I ask myself as I drive along the express highways of the Northern perimeter of Paradise City, blatantly ignoring the most elementary rules of driving. In a journey without destination, on the road to nowhere, one can all but enjoy the thrills of speed, trying to fight sudden urges, like crashing a muscle car into the concrete target blocks.
And why do I find this experience so arousing?
Is my survival instinct being stimulated by the simulation of an impeding, violent, death?
Is my sudden desire to engage in sexual activity related to my perceived vulnerability as I drive at supernatural speed?
Baudrillard solves the enigma with a riddle (note 7):
"Pleasure (whether perverse or not) was always mediated by a technical apparatus, by a mechanism of real objects but more often by phantasms - it always implies an intermediary manipulation of scenes or gadgets" (Baudrillard 1994, 151).
San Francisco, August 21 2009
Baudrillard, Jean (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, Semiotex(e), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Ballard, J. G. (1973) Crash, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Ballard, J. G. (1990) The Atrocity Exhibition, San Francisco: RE/Search.
Coulter, Gerry (2007) "Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming", Games and Culture, 2: 358-365.
Ehrenburg,Ilya (1999) The Life of the Automobile, London: Serpent's Tail.
Gasiorek, Andrzej (2005) JG Ballard, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005
Ruddick Nicholas (1992) “Ballard/Crash/Baudrillard”, Science Fiction Studies #58, Vol. 19, Part 3. November. [link]
Williams, Linda (1999) Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Note 1: “The game features two different types of crash based on the car's condition after the crash. If the player's car manages to retain all four wheels, and not break its chassis, the player may drive out of the crash and continue playing; this is called a "driveaway". If a player's car loses any of its wheels, has the engine damaged too much from an impact, or winds up outside of the game's map, the car is in a "wrecked" state and the player will have to wait until his car is reset. Cars can also be torn into several pieces, be compressed and deform around objects as you crash into them.” (source: Wikipedia)
Note 2: This feature finds a parallel in Ballard's novel, where spectacular simulations of the crashes are taking place at a facility called the Road Research Lab ("[T]he technology of accident simulation at the R.R.L. is remarkably advanced", Ballard 1973, 123).
Note 3: One is inevitably reminded of a B-movie of the late Seventies, aptly titled "The Car" (Eliot Silverstein). The tagline - "There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no way to stop... THE CAR" - says it all. See also Peter Weir's The Cars that Ate Paris..
Note 4: The essay is titled "Ballard's Crash". Originally published in 1976, it was subsequently reprinted in various journals (including Science Fiction Studies in 1991) and in Baudrillards' seminal anthology Simulacra and Simulation, in 1994. The essay, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, is available here. For additional information, see Ruddick 1992.
Note 5: It is useful to remember that Baudrillard's exegesis of Crash has been harshly criticized by academics such as Vivian Sobchack and by Ballard's himself. Ruddick (1992) provides an excellent summarization of that debate, suggesting that "Baudrillard's essay [is] a serious misreading, possibly even a shameless distortion, of Crash's themes". While Ruddick's analysis is impeccable, I would not dismiss Baudrillard's attempt to connect Crash to post-modernity and simulations as a "shameless distortion". After all, Baudrillard did not not play Burnout Paradise, which is, by any means, an interactive version of Crash. Nonetheless, somehow presciently, he wrote. "The Accident is no longer this interstitial bricolage that is still is in the highway accident - the residual bricolage of the death drive for the new leisure classes [...] It is the Accident that gives form to life, it is the Accident, the insane, that is the sex of life" (Baudrillard 1994, 125, 128, emphasis added).
Note 6: Several years ago, while I was traveling with my family to Southern Italy, driving along the highway at very high speed, one tire suddenly exploded. My dad lost control of the car, and we started spinning wildly. In the few interminable instances of that crazy merry-go-round ride, I watched the vehicles behind us braking and swerving to avoid an almost inevitable impact. I was also keeping an eye on the guard rail which was getting dangerously close to our vehicle, wondering if that collision would have been less injurious. Furiously whirling in the chaotic maelstrom of concrete of the Autostrada, our Lancia Delta miraculously stopped in the emergency lane, untouched. Incidentally, an highway patrol who happened to be driving a few hundreds meters from us, saw the entire scene. "It's a miracle that you guys did not crash" were his words as he stepped out of the car. Flash-forward to 2008: am I re-playing that scene in Burnout Paradise, over and over again? Am I re-enacting a "real" event through the simulation? Is this digital fantasy supporting the very fabric of (my) reality, as Slavoj Zizek would suggest?
Note 7: Gerry Coulter has written the definitive essay on the relationship between Baudrillard and gaming. It is a mandatory read for anybody interested in the relationship between simulacra and electronic simulations. Consider these passages: "For Baudrillard [...], the games are merely the equivalent of soft drugs" (Coulter 2007, 358)", "Unlike reality, which incessantly demands we believe in, the illusion of the game (which the gamer never really believes in) does not hold such a requirement. For Baudrillard, it is precisely because the gamer does not believe in the game that he or she enters into a more necessary relationship with the rules of the game" (359). Priceless.
The origins of James Ballard Plays Burnout can be traced in a little experiment of mine with gamics (i.e. digital graphic novels based on video games). In 2006 I created a series of gamics using a tool called Comic Book Creator (which underwent several transformations since its first inception). One of them was titled 'Crash' and it was a mix of Burnout screenshots and line lifted from Ballard's novel.
Here's what the gamics looked like:
Another mash-up that I always found inspiring is DJ Shadow's music video "Mashing the Motorway", a glorious homage to Grand Theft Auto directed by Doug Carney and produced by Ben Stokes: