JG BALLARD Interviews an 18-Year-Old RICHARD PRINCE

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Richard Prince, 1983. Photo: Peter Bellamy

As a historical document, JG BALLARD’s 1967 interview with RICHARD PRINCE is like an unclaimed piece of checked luggage. Allegedly published by Ballard in Punch magazine in August 1967 (032c can neither confirm nor deny this), it was much more likely to have first been published by Prince in the art magazine ZG fourteen years later. It appears safe to assume that this interview between the sci-fi novelist and an eighteen-year-old Prince never even took place, and yet, as with all things Richard Prince, it feels naive to place too much stock in questions of origin.

En route to Panama in order to claim dual citizenship, Prince finds himself marooned in an all-to-familiar mirage of the hyperreal. Without sufficient proof of identity, he is sent from country to country in hopes of being admitted through customs. After weeks of this, he eventually resigns himself to being a “citizen of British Airways.” Ballard speaks with Prince during his voyage through the winding conduits of international air travel.

JG BALLARD: You were born in the Panama Canal Zone?

RICHARD PRINCE: Yes. In 1949.

 Panaman? Panamerican? 


Yes. Something like that? I left with my mother and sister after my father had been detentioned for presumably stockpiling arms and munitions for 
what I imagined was the 19th nervous breakdown of Cuba. This was in 1956. He was later released, moved to Hawaii and from there has been moving to and from the city of Saigon (what is now known as Ho Chi Minh City).

Aren’t children born in the Canal Zone called Zonians? 


Yes. The Canal Zone has represented for some time the concept of unlimited possibility.

 

____________

 

This year, eleven years after I left Panama, I tried to return to Panama.

You’re eighteen? 



Yes.

The newspapers said your flight to Panama originated from Hawaii. How did that happen? 



I’ve been living with my father in Honolulu all summer. Blonde on Blonde, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors. There’s an aesthetic revolution going on. Class systems have seemed to disappear. Things are opening up. I’m sure the 
liberation will be brief. My father has become involved in introducing a defoliant in Vietnam. Someone wants the jungles to disappear so U.S. soldiers can see the enemy. The death of affect I think they call it.

JG Ballard, photo by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin

JG Ballard, photo by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin

Your father sounds like someone who guarantees hostility and incomprehension. A jungle is a hard thing to get rid of.

He would say something like he’s interested in the hard light of contemporary reality. He’d say his task is to invent reality, not fiction. He talks like that. What some people dream of and write about, he actually does. He loves Vietnam. He loves Vietnam women. I remember him saying something about how he works with a group that call themselves Team Strange.

Why return to Panama? 



I was about to turn eighteen. I have a choice, by law, to become either a Panamanian or an American or both. My father still has contacts with 
government officials in Panama, and we thought it might be smart, for the 
future, to secure a dual citizenship. The security required me to show up in person. I landed in Panama three days before my eighteenth birthday. I was following in my father’s footsteps.

I read in the paper that your troubles started with improper, or I think it was, “the lack of sufficient papers or identity.” 



It was really stupid. I didn’t have a photograph of myself in my passport. Somehow the photograph that had been in my passport became unglued and fell out somewhere. I don’t know how it happened. All I know is when I opened my passport in Customs I found it was gone. The agents there just looked at me and started shaking their heads.

Your father? 



I don’t know.

They kept you there for four days? 



Five. At the airport.

They treat you okay? 



Psychic Jujitsu. That’s all.

Then what? 



I became a citizen of British Airways.

What I read in the newspapers sounded like you were living inside an enormous novel. 



I’ve spent the last three weeks on a jumbo jet crisscrossing the Caribbean and Atlantic five times because no country will admit me.

British immigration officials finally admitted you and held you in custody while trying to arrange admission back to the US? 



Yes, British Airways has spent more than $13,500 feeding and flying me around. I’ve racked up about 20,000 miles in eight consecutive days of jetting back and forth between London, Jamaica, Bermuda, and the Bahamas.

According to immigration authorities, the Panamanians flew you to the Bahamas August 8th, but then you were detained twelve days and put on a British Airways flight to London. 



Yes. I was never clear why I was sent to the Bahamas from Panama. I have my own ideas. My own suspicions. But someone’s orders put me on a plane from the Bahamas to London, and when London wouldn’t admit me, they sent me to Kingston, Jamaica. Jamaica refused me entry and sent me back to London. London again turned me back to Kingston, which promptly flew me to London 
again. En route I was refused entry in Bermuda. On Wednesday I landed here for the third time and was allowed to remain in detention on British soil.

You’re still in detention? 



Yes. But I don’t know for how long. My father tells me he’s flying 
in in a couple of days. I talked to him three nights ago. He sounded uncharacteristically light. Almost amused. He said he was close to the bottom of 
it. He said something about wanting the exact details, hard information, everything. My father likes to know what Charlie Manson has for breakfast. That’s why I emphasize everything.

Earlier you said, “your own ideas” ­— what do you mean, “your own ideas”…?

I’m not sure. At first I thought my return trip to Panama backfired. Something like someone couldn’t get to my father so they got to his son. That kind of thing. My father’s one of those imaginative criminals who wakes up in the morning and almost makes a resolution to perform some sort of deviant 
or antisocial act, even if it’s just sort of kicking the dog. He says he does this to establish his own freedom. What can I say? He’s got a lot of enemies.

What do you think it is your father really does?

He’s interested in applying the physical facts of the environment on people. What he calls the third revolution. The “facts” he says are the things that have come after the consumerism of the postindustrial revolution.

In other words…?

He invades people’s lives with the very products they produce.

Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboys), 1980–1989

Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboys), 1980–1989

He modifies the behavior of a particular group of people by what they consume?

Exactly. He uses things like TVs, microchips, computers, chemicals, tape recorders, cameras. He’s very advanced at how to undermine your situation with what you think you already own and what you think you might control.

Like say, the film in your camera?

Yes. Something as ordinary as a roll of Tri-X. He can very easily dismantle the convention of getting back your snapshots by infusing those snapshots with the element of imagination and thus destabilize what was expected to be everyday pedestrian reality. Serious illness and trauma could result upon opening what was hoped to be pictures of your sweetheart or pictures of the family barbecue. Once a friend of his told me how he planned to somehow prescribe a type of contact lens for Castro, a kind that would produce dystopia. Imagine Castro putting on a shirt and thinking the shirt was alive. Sometimes his ideas are outlandishly absurd. Really funny. Some of them sound like a joke. Never knowing when to take him seriously is part of his design.

The joke, as you call it, is not far from the joke British Airways is pulling on you right now. It’s almost as if your present citizenship is a direct result of one of your father’s extreme hypotheses. What you find yourself in is a type of religion offered up and advanced by British Airways, an open-ended confession where the moral and psychological conclusions have yet to be proven. They have this person, you, and they’re looking at you and asking themselves who is he, what is he, they’re treating your existence as if it were a huge invention.

It’s true. They’re not taking me at face value. And that’s what surprises me. Maybe it’s a conspiracy. I mean I know who I am is an enormous accident, but I never thought they did. My father taught me that the position of the observer itself affects the behavior of electrons or the fundamental 
particles that are being observed. And I accept that. My identity is a complete billion-to-one chance. But at the same time totally real. It’s a paradox we all have to live with, he says. But I’m beginning to see my situation is too ideal for accidents.

 

____________

 

In a way my situation for the last three weeks has been classic. It’s true. Something you read about in the newspapers. And if I can make any sense out of these weeks in the air, they won’t seem so random and meaningless 
as I first thought they were. That’s what I am trying to do now. Make sense.

It’s almost like you’ve been in an atrocity exhibition. British Airways represents itself as another perfectible, meaningful world. You find yourself enshrined in this Homeric journey, having to test yourself against vast scientific and technological systems that began to unwind the moment you were born, and here you are trying to unwind them even more.

Overdetermination. I should feel strange. Pissed off or something. But I don’t. You know, if I think about my situation, it’s just another conventionalized reality. What’s happening to me is probably normal. Or going 
to be. A look at things to come perhaps. The people who have been flying me around haven’t exactly acted surprised. I guess this is why I didn’t get it but am beginning to get it now. I’m beginning to get the sense that it’s the sensation of normality that might be the most extreme conclusion to the hypothesis.

Normality as the next special effect?

Something like that.

How do you approximate the idea of sacrifice on British Airways? What do you do? What would your father do? Kill the stewardess?

My father?…he’d cut off her nipples and feed the steward his penis.

What would you do?

I don’t know. British Airways is far too powerful to commit a genuinely evil or morally repugnant act. I simply lack the ability to impose myself to that extent on such an environment. I don’t think my being a monster would have any direct consequences on British Airways.

Do you think your father stole your photograph? Did he set up some kind of initiation rite for you? Father to son? A coming of age — a sort of test, pass or fail, a ritual?

My father is a psychopath. Everybody knows, or maybe they don’t, but psychopaths never go out of fashion. That’s what I know. And I’m beginning to know that my last three weeks was maybe a birthday present. Love Dad. You know, a birthday present from Dad? And if that’s true, I guess I’ll just have to thank him in some totally convincing style.

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