Aesthetic Excess: Ballard and Stelarc

Radical art defies and transforms collective modes of understanding. Wagner’s famous “Tristan chord” segues between classical harmony, late romanticism and twentieth century atonality due to its ambiguous relationship to its tonal context. The aesthetic value of Xenakis’ Concret Ph lies partly in the technological potentials realized subsequently in granular synthesis techniques which employ global statistical parameters to control flocks of auditory events.

Such sensations are, in Brian Massumi words, “in excess over experience” – suspending practices and meanings in ways that catalyse deterritorializing movement towards non-actual futures (Massumi 2005: 136). The aesthetics of excess provides a limit case of the reflective creation of value that occurs when we modify existing modes of sense-making or embodiment. It also provides a window upon the posthuman as potentiality shadowing our interactions with technological environments.

This contingency is amplified in another radical art work,  J G Ballard’s novel Crash. As I wrote back in 1999:

In Crash the technology of the car has become the adjunct to a violent sexuality.  Its erotic focus and ideologue, Vaughan, is an ambulance chasing ex-TV presenter whose career as a glamorous ‘hoodlum scientist’ has been cut short by his disfigurement in a motorcycling accident.  Marking the parameters of vehicle collisions and casual sexual encounters with Polaroid and cine camera, Vaughan is a social being of sorts, assembling around him a crew of co-experimenters whose sexuality has been activated by ‘the perverse eroticisms of the car-crash’.  The novel’s narrator ‘James Ballard’ recounts his induction into the crashpack; first through a motorway accident, then via a succession of techno-erotic duels and excursions, culminating in Vaughan’s attempted ‘seduction’ of the actress Elizabeth Taylor in the environs of London Airport . .

It is only in so far as Vaughan ‘[mimes] the equations between the styling of a motor-car and the organic elements of his body’ (Ballard 1995: 170), modulating the symbolic requirements of Ballard’s narrative with his histrionic body, that he can remain its primary sexual focus. . .  These impersonal ‘equations’ mediate every affective relationship between the characters and Crash’s residual city of multi-storey car parks, airport termini, hermetic suburbs and motorway slip roads. They are expressed in a language of excremental objects – ‘aluminium ribbons’, Gabrielle’s thigh wound, Vaughan’s sectioned nipples, torn fenders, scars, etc. – whose very lack of quotidian function commends them as arbitrary tokens in the symbolic algebra (Roden 2002).

Crash thus construct an internally referential system of desire around sites, surfaces and interstices of late twentieth century technological landscapes (Roden 2002). But despite its contemporary setting, the novel does not describe this world: it potentiates it. Crash exhibits the contingency of human subjectivity and social relationships given its irrevocably technological condition.

A similar claim is made about the work of the Australian performance artist Stelarc in Massumi’s “The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason”. Massumi argues that the content of Stelarc’s performances – such as his series of body suspensions or his hook-ups with industrial robots, prosthetic hands and compound-eye goggles – is nothing to do with the functional utility of these systems or events. They have no use. Rather their effect is to place bodies and technologies in settings where their incorporation as use-values is interrupted. Of the compound eye goggles that Stelarc created for his work Helmet no. 3: put on and walk 1970 he writes: “They extended no-need into no-utility. And they extended no-utility into ‘art’” (Massumi 2005: 131).

Stelarc’s (somewhat elliptical) rationale is to “extend intelligence beyond the Earth”. His performances decouple the body from its functions and from the empathic responses of observers – even when dangling from skin hooks over a city street, Stelarc never appears as suffering or abject. They register the body’s potential for “off world” environments rather than its actual functional involvements with our technological landscape. Space colonization is not a current use value or industrial application, but a project for our planned obsolesce:

The terrestrial body will be obsolete from the moment a certain subpopulation feels compelled to launch itself into an impossible, unthinkable future of space colonization. To say that the obsolescence of the body is produced is to say that it is compelled. To say that it is compelled is to say that it is “driven by desire” rather than by need or utility (151-2).

These performances embody a potential that is “unthinkable” because disjoined from our phenomenology and world. But, as Claire Colebrook suggests, we have been incipiently “off world” since the dawn of the industrial era:

We have perhaps always lived in a time of divergent, disrupted and diffuse systems of forces, in which the role of human decisions and perceptions is a contributing factor at best. Far from being resolved by returning to the figure of the bounded globe or subject of bios rather than zoe, all those features that one might wish to criticize in the bio-political global era can only be confronted by a non-global temporality and counter-ethics (Colebrook 2012: 38).

The counter-final nature of modern technique means that the conditions under which human ethical judgements are adapted can be overwritten by systems over which we have no ultimate control. Posthumanity would be only the most extreme consequence of this ramifying technics. An ethics  bounded by the human world thus ignores its already excessive character (32).


Ballard, J.G. 1995. Crash. London: Vintage.

Massumi, Brian. 2005. “The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason: Stelarc.” In Stelarc: The Monograph, Marquand Smith (ed). MIT Press: 125-192.

Roden, DAvid 2003. “Cyborgian Subjects and the Auto-destruction of Metaphor.” In Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, Jane Arthurs and Iain Grant (eds). Intellect Books: 91–102.

Colebrook, Claire 2012. “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth.” Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41 (1): 30–39.

4 thoughts on “Aesthetic Excess: Ballard and Stelarc

  1. Exaptivity… That’s the concept I’ve been searching for! the generation of open-ended/hanging applicabilities, or wheels that turn *by not turning.* This provides an elegant way of understanding the domestication of excess via the demonstration of excess in art, as well as describing the productive potentiality intrinsic to the limits of any instance of cognition. It’s a way to conceptualize the limitation and potentiation intrinsic to both aesthetic and epistemological disconnection.

  2. Ha! Neat coinage 🙂 Perhaps the only reason I keep going back to Derrida and Deleuze is that standard analytic philosophy doesn’t afford a vocabulary for dealing with the untimely or the excessive. But maybe this too will pass.

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