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The Future of Landscape: Patrick Keiller

Interview by Andrew Stevens.

(photo: Julie Norris)

3:AM: Your timing for release with both Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins was remarkably prescient, both arriving with the advent of new regimes in Westminster. It’s an obvious question but one I have to ask: to what extent was this by accident or design?

PK: It wasn’t my intention, though the film’s completion date was more or less determined as long ago as 2006, so it wasn’t unlikely. The timing of the two films is slightly different. Robinson in Space was photographed in 1995, written in early 1996, completed by the autumn and released in early January 1997, a few months before the election. Robinson in Ruins was photographed in 2008, edited and written, mostly, in 2009 and recorded in March 2010, before the recent election, but it won’t be finished until the end of the summer.

In 1997, I had only ever made films during the period of Conservative government. Robinson in Space won a prize in Rotterdam, and our patrons at the BBC invited us to propose another project, which we did, but, following changes of personnel higher up, it didn’t go ahead. It sometimes seems to me that after May 1997, in the UK, some cultural phenomena previously regarded as marginal migrated to the mainstream, while others became more difficult to pursue. If so, Robinson was in the latter category, and I was diverted into a series of other projects that I have sometimes referred to as The Robinson Institute.

By the end of 2005, I was beginning a second three-year research fellowship at the Royal College of Art, when the Arts & Humanities Research Council announced an interdisciplinary programme, Landscape and Environment. I made an application for a project that includes making the current film and also involves, to differing extents, Patrick Wright and Doreen Massey, and a PhD studentship that was subsequently awarded to Matthew Flintham, whose project is a study of military sites in the UK. The application was successful and the project began in March 2007. I began the cinematography for the film, which at that point didn’t have a name and didn’t necessarily involve anyone called Robinson, in January 2008, on a day after the first of the many stock market crashes that year. The cinematography continued until the middle of November, so that the period of the film includes most of the principal events of the 2008 banking crisis and ends just after the US elections.


3:AM: It could be said that there’s more ‘psychogeography’ around these days than in 1997. Was the project a partial response to the emergence over the past decade of what could almost be termed a psychogeographic vocation?

PK: The project was prompted by what I described as a discrepancy between, on one hand, the cultural and critical attention devoted to experience of mobility and displacement and, on the other, a tacit but seemingly widespread tendency to hold on to formulations of dwelling that derive from a more settled, agricultural past. While the former was extensive, it often seemed to involve regret for the loss or impossibility of the latter, and hence to reinforce, rather than rethink, some questionable ideas.

It’s always seemed to me that whatever psychogeography was, it belonged to its initial Lettrist and Situationist protagonists and, probably, to their period, so I’ve tried to avoid the word. The difference, as I understand it, between what they were doing then and what we do now is that for Debord and his contemporaries, psychogeography, the dérive and so on were preliminary to the creation of some revolutionary, new space, something like that envisaged as New Babylon. I don’t detect anything like this in the more recent activity, which seems to be largely a feature of the UK and its peculiar circumstances.

However, having recovered Robinson from wherever he’d been shut up since 1995, I noticed that he started behaving more than ever like a fully paid-up member of the current tendency. After a few trial runs, he set off, on foot, on an unplanned perambulation, that became a more-or-less elliptical circumambulation of what you might describe as, among other things, the centre of southern England’s reactionary influence, seemingly intent (though this is not unambiguously stated) on bringing about the collapse of what used to be called neoliberalism. The journey culminated in a striking rediscovery, and inspires something that sounds a little like New Babylon, though this is not seen, realised, in the film.

Some aspects of Robinson in Ruins are descended from the proposal of 1997, and the first line of the narration is similar to one in a synopsis written not long after finishing The Dilapidated Dwelling in 2000. The proposal was periodically revived as one in which Robinson, or a Robinson-like figure, returns (or is brought back) from some kind of incarceration to set out (or be sent) on a mission to avert global catastrophe. As the years passed, the catastrophe became more specific until, by the time I found myself beginning to make the film in January 2008, it was no longer necessary to think of it as science fiction. Even so, at that point, I wasn’t sure to what extent the film I had started to make was the descendent of the film I had started to think about in 1997. In many ways, it isn’t.

3:AM: Chris Petit once told me that he wished he’d known you were planning London and the role of a ‘Robinson’ within it, as it came out around the same time as his Robinson. Has his ever caused you any problems to that end?

PK: Robinson was first mentioned in the project for London in June 1990, initially as a first-person narrator intended to evoke both Crusoe and Arthur Gordon Pym, then later as the unnamed narrator’s companion. In 1991, after the BFI had decided to commission the film, Ben Gibson (at the BFI) sent the proposal to Keith Griffiths. I had been in touch with Keith since 1986, when he was one of the people I spoke to before embarking on an academic exchange trip to Prague, and he had subsequently helped develop two film proposals. Keith became the film’s producer, but told us that Chris was writing a novel called Robinson. An extract had already been published in Granta, but I hadn’t seen it. Chris’s novel was published in the summer of 1993, and we did wonder whether to change the name (Worthington, Parkinson, etc.), but in the end I think we thought that Robinson was a big enough concept to accommodate all sorts of characters. London was released in June 1994. The only problem, if it is a problem, is that people sometimes assume that the films’ Robinson came from Céline, whereas the name was suggested to me by Kafka’s Amerika, in which Robinson and Delamarche are a couple of itinerants who describe themselves as out-of-work mechanics.

Paul Scofield once sent me a postcard of August Sander’s photograph Itinerants (1929). In Paul’s absence, I had the idea that one of the two men it depicts slightly resembled him, and perhaps, even more slightly, Harun Farocki, who plays the character Delamarche in Klassenverhältnisse, Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet’s adaptation of the novel. In the film, Robinson is played by Manfred Blank, who I thought slightly resembles the other man in Sander’s photograph.

In Kafka’s novel, another character says: ‘I don’t even believe that his name is Robinson, for no Irishman was ever called that since Ireland was Ireland’. At the time of London, however, one of the best-known Robinsons was Mary Robinson, the President of Ireland, and her husband is Nicholas Robinson, who is Irish, though from a Protestant background. If you Google “Robinson in Ruins” at the moment, most of the references are to Iris and Peter Robinson, of the DUP, and their recent difficulties.

3:AM: In 1999 Reaktion published the spoken narrative of Robinson in Space as book accompanied by stills from the film. How did this come about and why wasn’t there a similar volume for London?

PK: In January 1995, I met Michael Leaman at a conference, Parisian Fields, at the University of Kent, where I had introduced a screening of London. Michael asked if I would be interested in writing a book for Reaktion’s series Topographics. I was just about to spend some time in Berlin, but Michael had already invited a book or books about Berlin. I mentioned that I would soon be beginning a film that would involve visiting a lot of ports. We agreed that I would think about a book on ports, and would get in touch with him after I had finished the photography for the film, which I did. I was fully occupied with the film until late 1996, when Michael, having seen it at a preview screening, suggested the book might be based on the film. I was already writing an essay ‘Port Statistics’ which was included in a book The Unknown City, eventually published by MIT in 2001. While making Robinson in Space, I had accumulated a lot of information for which there wasn’t room in the film. The book Robinson in Space comprises the narration of the film, 217 videograbs from the D3 telecine delivered to the BBC – a frame from each of about half the shots in the film – and extensive annotations that I wrote while I was waiting for Channel 4 to decide whether or not to go ahead with another film, The Dilapidated Dwelling, in 1997-8. The annotations begin in the margin of the narration, the longer ones continuing in a section after the material from the film. Some of the annotation material had been written initially for the essay ‘Port Statistics’.

I had embarked on the essay as a way of clarifying the conclusions that I thought could be drawn from the film, which seemed to have been overlooked by many of those who had reviewed it. Film critics sometimes described it as a document of economic decline, whereas for me, by the end of the film’s journey, any such perception of the UK’s economy had been overturned. Robinson set out with the idea that the UK is a backward, failing capitalism, because it has never had a bourgeois revolution (the ‘Nairn-Anderson thesis’, also alluded to in London), but by the end of the cinematography this had given way to one in which the familiar (and enduring) manifestations of the ‘problem of England’ are revealed as symptoms, not of failure, but of neoliberalism’s success. The UK’s economy may have been unpleasant to live with, but its unpleasantness was not the result of failure. This realisation had provided the film with a kind of happy ending: if the UK’s predicament was deliberately constructed, then it was possible to imagine that it could be changed.

This interpretation is more explicit in the book than in the film, as in the book there is more space in which to make it. The main reason there has never been a similar volume for London is that no one has ever asked me to produce one, though there are a few published essays that begin to fulfil a similar function. Initially, I didn’t think that London had discovered anything as new about its subject as Robinson in Space; it had seemed to confirm, rather than dispel, its preconceptions about the city. For this reason, perhaps, I have never felt any urgency to turn it into a book, though during the last few years, I have developed a few more observations about the city.

3:AM: In Robinson in Space you draw on the work of the geographer Doreen Massey and her comments on the Ridley Scott/Baudrillard skyscraper vision of world cities versus the actual ordinariness of most people’s existence in places like West Brom and Harlesden. Since then Harlesden has become the centre of the capital’s Brazilian community, a São Paulo of the M25 almost. Don’t you think we’re edging closer to that skyscraper notion or are things still rooted in the prosaic reality of post-war town planning?

PK: Doreen wrote: ‘… amid the Ridley Scott images of world cities, the writing about skyscraper fortresses, the Baudrillard visions of hyperspace … most people actually still live in places like Harlesden or West Brom. Much of life for many people, even in the heart of the First World, still consists of waiting in a bus shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes.’ I don’t think the two images are at all contradictory: the people in the bus shelter might be, for example, on their way to or from some non-unionised, low-paid job at an unsociable hour, or they might be long-haul tourists. The bus route was probably sold off years ago to Arriva or Stagecoach. On balance, I expect there are more people stuck at bus stops than there are employees of, say, Goldman Sachs and similar institutions.

In an image of ‘the prosaic reality of post-war town planning’, the bus service would be municipally owned, the buses frequent and on time, and the skyscraper fortresses would never have got planning permission.

3:AM: Since then, Massey has written in her World City (2007), of the “establishment of place identity… framed within a geographical imagination of London as a world city”. Massey’s study was both pre-crash and pre-Mayor Boris (she was a vocal supporter of Livingstone’s re-election), how did your collaboration with her on Robinson in Ruins come about?

PK: I first met Doreen after asking if I could interview her for The Dilapidated Dwelling, and we kept in touch. It turned out, also, that Doreen, Patrick and I had all contributed to The Unknown City. For the current project, I was interested in following up a conversation we had had about ‘nature’, and I asked her if she would be an adviser. Later on, both her role and Patrick’s expanded, so that the project became more collaborative. We are committed for different amounts of time, and we each have an item to produce, informed by our discussion.

3:AM: You’ve said recently of London that “It’s a joke about a man who thinks he’d be happier if London was more like Paris.”

PK: In the 1990s, especially in the early years of the Labour government, there was a widespread view that London would be a much better place if it could become more like a European city. Richard Rogers, especially in the post-1997 context of the Urban Task Force, and the Architecture Foundation, co-founded by Ricky Burdett, who later became a kind of architectural fixer for the capital, were among the leaders of this tendency, and the peak of its influence was probably in 1999, when the RIBA awarded its Royal Gold Medal not to an architect, but to the city of Barcelona. When Pasqual Maragall came to accept the award, he made a speech in which he compared London under Thatcher to Spain under Franco. In the end, however, the Barcelonaisation of London seems to have consisted of a few landmark buildings, notably Tate Modern, the refurbishment of Trafalgar Square, the Jubilee Line extension, a lot of restaurants, and phenomena such as the gentrification of now-fashionable mid-20th century public-sector housing developments and the annual London Festival of Architecture. London has been equipped with the kind of culture that makes life tolerable for educated international bankers, but the revival of urbanism that Rogers and his milieu continue to argue for has not really progressed very far, other than in contexts such as the Olympic Games: ‘High Street 2012’, for example. Instead the city was thrown open to international finance, and has become notorious for its extraordinary economic inequality. It is surprising how many artists and other creative types formerly associated with London now live elsewhere, usually in places where space is cheaper, and everyday life much easier to enjoy.

3:AM: You’ve also said that London avoided East London as it was “too difficult” to include. How did Patrick Wright, a solid scholar of the capital’s east, come to be included in Robinson in Ruins then? Is there more of an acceptance of the east now?

PK: In London, Robinson and his companion walk north from Bishopsgate, via the Boundary Estate, Kingsland Road and Ridley Road market until, having identified what was once the site of the school where Edgar Allan Poe was a pupil, they ‘discover’ it is opposite the house in Stoke Newington Church Street in which Daniel Defoe wrote part of Robinson Crusoe. So there is a brief overlap with the territory of Patrick’s A Journey Through Ruins, but not many camera subjects further east — a distant, bankrupt Canary Wharf, the Financial Times print works in East India Dock Road, and Abbey Creek, near West Ham station. This was partly because the film never completed its list of intended itineraries, but in retrospect it struck me that I would have found it difficult to describe the predicament of Stepney, or the Isle of Dogs, within a critique of London as a whole that comprises only location footage and narration.

London does not appear at all in Robinson in Ruins, and Patrick’s involvement in the project of which the film is a part (he isn’t directly involved in the film itself) is in connection with its initial aim, which was to address the apparent discrepancy between everyday experience and a tendency to hold on to Heideggerian or similar-sounding formulations of dwelling. In the end, it seems to me that we have managed to set aside the question about ‘belonging’ to a landscape in favour of one that asks instead to whom the landscape, and by extension the state, effectively belongs. Similarly, in Robinson in Space, an initial perception of economic decline was replaced by one in which the UK’s economy was seen to be surprisingly successful in its own terms, but having an outcome at odds with the interests of the majority of those who live here.

3:AM: The narrator of the two previous, Paul Scofield, died in 2008. Was he slated to reappear on Robinson in Ruins and how did Vanessa Redgrave come to take over his ‘role’?

PK: I had anticipated a fictional context for a change of narrator. After Robinson’s disappearance at the end of Robinson in Space, Paul’s character published an account of their unfinished project and, as a result, became a government adviser. He later met Vanessa Redgrave’s character, and together they founded a small research organisation. She narrates Robinson in Ruins as its surviving co-founder.

Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 14th, 2010.