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Patrick Keiller - Profile

By Rachel Moore

1. Space is the Place

"Climb aboard my ship," Sun Ra instructed teen-agers assembled in Oakland, California. Met with incredulity he persisted, "you're in chains now here, space is the place."

For this artist, the map of the world as he saw it in the 1970s had no place called utopia. While extraordinary in every way, Sun Ra's is perhaps the purest and most profoundly motivated instance of what characterises the radical aspirations of the first sixty years of this century. Technological drive fuelled an impulse towards the archaic wherein space travel, machine music, glittering robes and majestic head gear pushed towards a nomadic future in the galaxy. The futurist answer to a futureless world was to leave it.

A few decades later, back here on earth, disenchantment pushes us again towards space. In Patrick Keiller's films, the space that we are being asked to reconsider however is the space around us. Much like the similarly disenchanted Epicureans, we turn now for our re-enchantment to the world of matter. Earth, water sky. Bricks, mortar, steel. Rivers, tracks, roads, and, best of all, bridges. These are the plastics that shape not just how we live, but consciousness itself. And then there are causeways that emanate from the earth's core through arduously constructed landscapes of stone fences, housing estates and factory chimneys right up to the clouds; taking us from the mythic to the mundane to the majestic, from birth to banality and back again. For yes, our landscape looks sordid and tawdry. From high voltage towers that litter the countryside through the suburban shopping mall to the crumbling cement of the city, a world of effaced relationships lies dormant. These relationships are, for each of us, by turns historical, political, autobiographical, archaic, and aesthetic. Thus our task is to enliven that which lies dormant, to stir the sentient springs that portend our awakening. I think of that dormant mass as the Archive of Natural History. Access to this momentous mix of myth, nature, history and sensation lies not behind the authority and classification systems of that other archive, but in the one before us.

Since 1980, Keiller has made films that elasticize the links between the everyday we occupy and how we think and feel. While certain themes cohere like the pre-history, nostalgia, melancholia, childhood, each is a visual encounter with specific material spaces. Each film also has a narration that tells a story, part travelogue, part faux memoir spoken with a voice that distinguishes itself in some way or another. Keiller's films ask us to enjoy a relationship between the landscape we see and a monologue we hear, a relationship that ranges from didactic to fanciful. The films produce an assimilation of the material world that is by turns sensuous, contemplative, and above all, utopian in spirit for they urge us to develop a nomad's perception of space.

2. Pre-history: The Clouds

"Formless... is a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. " (Georges Bataille)

Just as Tristram Shandy begins his life story with his father's monthly winding of the clock, this trip towards birth begins with a technological milestone. Jodrell Bank, the first radio telescope looks like a remnant from a misguided age, a fifties' folly. Its skeletal body, squat and impish for all its modernity, sports a perfectly round white head poised to receive messages from space. Dwarfing trees and buildings, the construction participates in a cosmos built on another scale altogether, suggesting both pre-historic and futuristic landscapes. "Now at last I have got back to the beginning," begins the narrator's voice, rich in Gaelic presence.

The film operates like a periscope from the womb, the narrator marking the moment of his conception while his parents peruse a museum display of the earth's evolution. With the hubris of infancy, the narrator freely accounts for the earth's genesis, idyllic prehistoric society, and the unmediated perception we enjoy before language. While the film shows views of housing and industry from a train window, the narrator reveals the shared atomic nature of things. In the earth's beginning, we're told, 'floating plates of granite covered the still molten metallic matter'. The earth will end in complete atomic homogeneity: 'cars are made of iron, as at the end of time will be all matter'. The shared elemental nature of things through time and space makes the material world, thought Lucretius, and his philosophy understands the world through its matter. The next narration on the virtues of pre-history is set against the image of the ubiquitous high voltage wire tower and you imagine dinosaurs frolicking about. This is terrain fit for giants. Such moments (and there are many in Keiller's films) when the archaic breaks out in the modern, sets loose dialectical tensions, tensions that are performed in images.

This sequence is a bold one. For while it is easy to talk about second nature, the nature that culture makes, at some point one has to acknowledge first nature as the unspoken referent. Moreover, because second nature is such a mimetic phenomenon, so good at taking nature's place, stark distinctions are rarely possible. Take, for example, the estrangement effect of his description of Stone Age economics, of a world in which the absence of enlightenment rationalization frees us too of migraines and all manner of woes, when he concludes, 'and they didn't live on someone else's land'. The tenor of the voice is almost accusatory. But just as he makes the concept of ownership seem unnatural, the insidious way in which second nature metamorphoses to appear natural creeps up from behind. Roads burrow up a mountain pass where atop identical semis carrying prosperity's products - 'mattresses, cat litter, cable drums, ready meals' - move steadily across the horizon.

3. The Clouds

Nearly half way through The Clouds, the narrator finally gets born, 'in a city of our time, a city of sedimentary rocks and reborn expectations'.

Returning to the personae of the infant, yet another continuum opens out, 'I had no sense of separation from the world and I had no language'. The image that accompanies this is one that will pre-occupy Keiller later on, one of many pieces of rock art said to date back to 2,000 and 3,000BC, located in northern England and Scotland. The rocks are horizontal on the ground into which patterns of arcs and circles, dots and squiggles have been inscribed so long ago that their rounded carvings seem an unlikely work of nature. They have the alarming randomness of Samo's graffitti figures (later to surface as the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat) that used to appear on sidewalks and buildings in New York City's back streets. While there is much room for conjecture about this rock art, its context here suggests not just a step away from language and towards direct transfer of meaning from body to stone, as the narration has tapered off, but also a movement towards the randomness and the amorphousness of the inform. A waterfall, close ups of rock formations, water and foam follow the rock art, getting nearer and nearer to the humility of formlessness. 'I was in the world and I was all the world there was', says the narrator. This is not a mere gesture towards the pre-symbolic, but towards the negation of form, towards pure materiality. From image to image now, formlessness and pre-history lurk under and behind, and the world that carries on as if its frock coat were only natural begins to look presumptuous, if not strange.

4. London

This renewal of strangeness characterises Keiller's approach to London and to England. Perhaps it accounts for why I've heard, 'I loved London' countless times from all sorts of people, people who are Londoners.

As I watched the film, however, I wondered at how such epistemic melancholia could have excited such a unified response. At Robinson's request, the narrator has just returned from a seven-year period away. The narrator (Paul Scofield) lays out a litany of London's crimes with classy neutrality. "It's so exotic," he concludes, while on the screen we see Tower Bridge and the tired old Thames, "so home-made."

Hollis Frampton said of nostalgia, "In Greek it means 'the wounds of returning'. Nostalgia is not an emotion that is entertained; it is sustained. When Ulysses comes home, nostalgia is the lumps he takes, not the tremulous pleasures he derives from being home again." Although this film navigates in and around London, it shares with such epics the sense of wounded return. In tone and form however, it's more like the bumblebee's faltering search for nectar, homing in, landing, divining, and moving on again.

Close-ups and pans, rapid montage, moving cameras, reversals, slow and fast motion; these trademarks once thought of as the truly cinematic have become merely second nature, for they mimic the way we see now. Today, novel cinematic perception lies in keeping still. London's shots are symmetrical and static, the camera doesn't move. The camera's stillness sets us free to wander about, we watch the world become animate. We can catch the current of a canal, the rhythm of the river, the stasis of architecture. Betraying an affinity for the surface of things, the shots are largely flat and tableau like, reserving dramatic depth of field for rare occasions. The images and their ambient sounds flow at an even, sober pace. The narrator talks, by turns, about Robinson and his views, refers to himself, relates historical connections to places, or simply quotes other writers all in the one well-mannered voice. There is no small measure of insouciance in this, for while it mocks Robinson's modernist romantic quest and belittles his urban flaneurie, the film is Robinson's space trip. Against the backdrop of Tory re-election and continual dismantling of civic structures, Robinson doggedly presses on with his project, 'the problem of London'. We delight in Robinson's melancholic meandering, for he finds his beloved crowds, his man of the crowd, even a perfect place to write poetry (were he a poet), and someone to talk to about Walter Benjamin in an indoors high-end shopping mall.

Each encounter along this journey partakes of the kind of stranger intimacy that constitutes the utopian side of urban life. It is this sort of cruising, this roving, un-tendered consciousness that constitutes modern eroticism. By developing an erotic perception of the city before us, by roaming about only to stay still, to see is, for a moment, to experience.

4. Robinson in Space

A lesson in historical materialism

1) 'An object of history is that through which knowledge is constituted as the object's rescue.'
(W. Benjamin, On the Elementary Doctrine of Historical Materialism, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press, 1999), p 476)

The mission, this time, is to make a peripatetic study of the problem of England. Biographies, places, labour histories, philosophers, authors connect up as if England was a surrealist's exquisite corpse. And, low and behold, it is. Historically a distinguished seat of capitalism, slavery and colonialism, today its connections to international business, to sources of energy, to garbage, all but out-do the wonder-filled literary connections over time and space so romantically conjured here. We see all of these things in Robinson in Space, but what is privileged, I think are what Ben Jonson would call the underwoods of its identity: those anonymous, ubiquitous sites that move our current economy.

2) 'History decays into images, not into stories.'
One problem of England for a modernist like Robinson is the disjuncture between how it works and what we see. The visible industrial economy, ports that employed hordes of permanent labour that were centrifugal forces of cities, for example, the manufacture of innovatively designed cars, for another, no longer feature. The modern crisis of old was concerned with how industrial labour estranged us from the products of our labours. The Taylorist mode of manufacture, characterised by rationalisation and repetition, replaced artisanal labour, labour whose pace allowed for contemplation, boredom, and story telling. Noisy alienating mass production changed everything for the worse, so the story goes. Now Robinson and the narrator look back on that mode of production with nostalgia, for the situation deteriorates still further. Manufacture, commodities, and labour are all but invisible and noiseless. Industry, for all its sensate violence, was at least dynamic and visible.

The film gives names and history to the otherwise anonymous structures that organize our world and they are largely windowless, apparently unpopulated, the labour hidden, exploited, and massive in scale. Prisons, electricity, coal, manufacturing plants, ports, Robinson presses on, and in the quiet of the fixed frame, we see architecture as an archive from which history might emerge.

3) 'Wherever a dialectical process is realised, we are dealing with a monad.'
The sixth journey culminates with a series of shots of the US signals intelligence base. Gigantic white spheres disappear out onto a desolate landscape, and in their repetition and round perfection, grand form supersedes diabolic function. The seventh and last journey begins with a series of aerospace plants, some working, some demolished. If one doesn't perk one's ears up when the narrator says, 'Robinson says that Blackpool holds the key to his Utopia', certainly one's eyes are startled. Street trams, people walking, amusement park rides, these are scenes straight out of early actualities when our much lamented public sphere wasn't yet theory. Here, colour is rich, space is deep, ambient sound loud and the crash of waves participates in the same revelry as the Ferris wheel. The products of culture seem there to serve and amuse rather than abuse us. One gets the feeling however briefly, however untimely, that this would be a good place to stop.

4) 'The materialist presentation of history carries along with it an immanent critique of the concept of progress.'
Unlike Blackpool's warm brew of nature and urban machines, the rest of this trip shows nature and second nature in violent contrast. Radioactive waste, Trident submarines, power plants, are interspersed with stunning natural beauty, mountain lakes, a phone card sporting a picture of such beauty. The future, given unthinkable levels of radioactive pollution, is dire and archaic. Two more images: the rock art once again (see the Clouds) whose contours remind us of another kind of life that progress has eroded, and finally, a symphony of bridges transporting all manner of things back and forth. And while the narrator cannot tell us where Robinson finally found his utopia, surely it is where progress stops and vehicles more congenial to the transport of intimacy and imagination take over. They go back and forth, not forward.

5) Historical materialism bases its procedures on long experience, common sense, presence of mind and dialectics.'
This last dictum sounds like something the narrator was trying to explain to Robinson while waiting for a bus. While Robinson in Space seems to answer Benjamin's prescription in full measure, its didacticism isn't about history but about seeing. For here, the antimonies of melancholia and utopia combine to fuel a historical materialism that is sensate in its essence. Keiller remarks in Dilapidated Dwelling that to change life, one must first change space. Surely, the sensual retraining at work in London and Robinson In Space begins such a task.

Rachel Moore is a writer based in London and author of 'Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic.' She is also a Lecturer at Goldsmiths in the Department of Media and Communications and is grateful to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for support in her current project, "In the Film Archive of Natural-History".

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