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Interview with Patrick Keiller

Patrick Keiller, an architect ‘diverted’ into making films, is principally known for his Robinson series, which began with  London (1994) and has continued with Robinson in Space (1997) and, most recently, Robinson in Ruins (2010). In the meantime, he has also been a consistently productive essayist, and a collection of his written work, entitled The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes, has recently been released by Verso. Spanning more than twenty years of creative and incisive engagements with English landscape, the book marks a timely intervention, both as a luminous companion to the cinematic work and a remarkable body of scholarship in its own right.

 

Steeped in continental influences, Keiller has recently been described as the ‘most theoretically rigorous inheritor of the Situationist legacy’ by none other than Will Self.  And yet a uniquely sideways and melancholic gaze renders his work resistant to easy absorption within the glut of contemporary ‘psychogeography’. The influence of Surrealism is palpable, with the scholar Ian Walker having gone so far as to name his book on English Surrealist photography So Exotic, So Homemade – a phrase lifted directly from Keiller’s London. Having curated a recent series of screenings at the ICA, which drew on the success of the 2012 Tate Britain Commission The Robinson Institute, it seems clear that Keiller’s star is on the rise. He and Robinson, the ‘fictional, wandering scholar’ of his creation, are entering the limelight as never before, despite the ‘increasing insubstantiality’ of Robinson himself – a fact which itself draws our attention to the rich vein of meditations on decay, dilapidation and ruin in Keiller’s work. Narratives of displacement and decline, as well as the heritage of the English journey, also figure prominently in both the films and the new essay collection, which often reveal the theatres of everyday life to be quite different from how they might appear to the habituated glance; to be part of the great multiplicity where a fluctuation on the stock market and the growth of lichen on street-signs take place in curious correspondence. From the collapse of civic identity under Thatcher to the banking crisis of 2008, Keiller’s work also asks if a state of perpetual crisis contains within it a utopian seed – a trace of the surrealistic ‘marvellous’ – that might take root in the imagination.

 

Q

The White Review

— How you would describe your activities?

A

Patrick Keiller

— I usually describe them in terms of the subject matter, which is landscape – urban and rural landscape, or possibly space, or something like that. That seems to be what they have in common.

 

Q

The White Review

— The book is subtitled Cities and Other Landscapes and you’ve formerly used the term ‘urban and other landscapes’ – do you see these expressions as working against a paradigm?

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes, I think possibly that if one hears the word landscape one doesn’t think of it as an urban space; but there are urban landscapes, so the other landscapes, they might be rural, or they might be the bits in-between. They might be industrial. They might be all sorts of things.

 

Q

The White Review

— The places that others have called ‘edgelands’?

A

Patrick Keiller

— It’s not a term I’d use. I don’t think it means very much. But I might have talked about things being peripheral, which is pretty much the same thing, isn’t it? It goes back to the zone – the poetic or literary exploration of peripheral places. But there are two sorts of peripheral places – well, there are many sorts, but one can differentiate, I think, between places which are established as such, like container depots or industrial sites on the edge of large cities, and places that are temporary – which have the quality temporarily – which are different, perhaps. People sometimes regret the loss of the temporary ones, when they get developed. But in my experience there’s usually another one along in a minute.

 

Q

The White Review

— One tends to think that this second type of space might be somewhere where the capital interests are quite high…

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes. A friend of mine did some work in Berlin, on an old military base which was to be developed for housing. It had an established landscape quality, which I think in the normal course of events would be lost on development, in as much as anyone valued it. The idea of the development, although it was going to take a long time, was that it was always finished, so it didn’t matter if it was incomplete. And, similarly, there was a conscious attempt to retain the qualities that it had, or some of the qualities that it had, when it was marginal, when it was anybody’s. But it’s a bit difficult when one starts to become precious about these things, because they only got to be the way they are because people weren’t, if you see what I mean. It’s a paradox.

 

Q

The White Review

— Perhaps it’s a paradox inherent to the reclamation of these types of landscape for art, and artistic production, that it so often runs in tandem with development of a different kind.

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes. I tend to regard these qualities as contingent, and try to come at things from another angle, which is generally in terms of some sort of amateur economics. I got interested in container depots not so much because of their architecture – although their architecture is quite interesting, and has long been remarked on as such, since the 1960s: people like Reyner Banham were quite interested in container landscapes. But, on the other hand, they are to do with moving stuff about, and many years ago I got quite interested in what I probably should have called material flows, although I didn’t know the term then. There’s a wonderful website that displays the material flows of many economies, in terms of various categories.

 

Q

The White Review

— One of the things that remains interesting about these container landscapes is that they don’t seem to speak themselves.

A

Patrick Keiller

— You never know what’s in the boxes. I was once on the Tees, at Teesport: there were containers going out, and when we asked what was in the boxes, it turned out to be milk powder. Our initial reaction was, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have thought you’d put that in a box.’ One always imagines they’re full of toys and computers and stuff. Artefacts.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your work has often been concerned with negotiating this relationship between the appearance of a landscape and the realities it conceals.

A

Patrick Keiller

— Well, yes, that’s right – one of the interesting things about the UK is that the discrepancy between the visible appearance of the landscape, which looks very impoverished, and the supposed wealth of the country, or the economy, is much more marked here than it is in more social-democratic countries. In France or Germany, or the Netherlands, you look at the landscape and it looks fairly prosperous – and it is fairly prosperous. Here, you look at the landscape and it doesn’t look very prosperous: the infrastructure is run down, the housing stock is in a terrible state. But on paper, the UK is still one of the richest countries in the world. Maybe what happened five years ago is that actually we discovered that it wasn’t very prosperous, and that the look of the landscape was a much more accurate measure of the UK’s wealth than the figures. But I don’t know whether that’s true or not.

 

Q

The White Review

— The housing situation was the subject of  The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000), but the broader theme also runs through your three Robinson films. The problematic landscape it entails was the focus of the second of these, Robinson in Space, which itself was perhaps a logical follow-up to the ‘problem’ that Robinson uncovered in the previous film, London?

A

Patrick Keiller

— I’m not sure it was, actually. The film London was supposed to be an account of Robinson’s study, or approach, to what he called ‘the problem of London’ – he didn’t say what the ‘problem of London’ was – while the second film was supposed to be a commission from an international advertising agency, to study the ‘problem of England’ – and they didn’t say what that was either. So in that sense it was a follow-up, but they were about quite different things in a way. Although you could see them as two sides of the same coin, in that London was a study of the city, which was, even then, a centre of global financial capitalism, whereas Robinson in Space was about the landscape of globalised production and consumption, which is slightly different. There seem to be two ways, two aspects, or even two kinds of globalisation: one is to do with the globalisation of finance, and the other is to do with the globalisation of production. In London we have a global financial industry, for better or worse, and although there’s probably a lot more production than people like me think there is, it’s no longer identified as a manufacturing city.

 

The first film was a kind of architectural critique, whereas the second was more definitely directed at the economy. It was motivated, really, by me wondering where everything came from, as well as my distaste – as someone with a background in art and design – for an economy whose future had been said to lie entirely in services: this seemed to me to have unfortunate consequences of a visual nature. This disdain for the idea of making things – which, as a child of the 1950s, was an idea I had been quite attached to – led to a kind of poverty of appearances, if nothing else.

 

Q

The White Review

— In The View From The Train, you write about London’s lack of a contemporary self-image.

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing though. There’s an essay by Adrian Rifkin – ‘Benjamin’s Paris, Freud’s Rome, Whose London?’ – where he first of all entertains the possibility that London might be ascribed to Jacques Lacan, before claiming that if not, then it would be to Mrs. Wilberforce, the leading character of the Ealing Comedy The Ladykillers, which seemed to me a much better idea. But he also writes about London as ‘an essentially unsatisfactory, or even frustrating, linguistic structure’.

 

Q

The White Review

— But what about this idea of the ‘soft city’, the malleability of urban experience? I’m thinking of Jonathan Raban’s book from the late 1970s, where this seemed to be received as a highly positive thing.

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes, but it’s not so much that it’s malleable, because in many respects it isn’t malleable. Physically, it’s remarkably un-malleable, in large parts. Again, outside the City of London ­– in the City they’ve always been building things, it doesn’t change very much, but the buildings are constantly rebuilt. They probably get a bit taller or a bit deeper, and they have car parks where they didn’t before, but the street plan hasn’t changed much. In the rest of London – with the exception of the comprehensive redevelopments of the post-war decades, up until the early 1970s – change was fairly incremental. And in London, the physical fabric is probably older than most of the rest of the UK. I think I’m right in saying that in most of the UK, the houses that occupy the sites they’re on now are probably the first to have been built on that land, whereas in parts of London that’s not the case. I wouldn’t like to say how much, but certainly in the middle of London there are layers. There are layers everywhere, but in other cities I think there is probably much more first-time development.

 

Q

The White Review

— That’s something which is often characteristic of creative renditions of London – that it’s this fabric of different layers; that one can read the past into it…

A

Patrick Keiller

— In the middle, yes. I’m not sure that would be the case in Hounslow. Except in particular places.

 

Q

The White Review

— Is that what makes ‘peripheral’ places more interesting areas to reclaim through some kind of artistic practice?

A

Patrick Keiller

— I don’t know that they are more interesting, are they? My ambition – in as much as there was one, when I started the activity that diverted me from a previous career in architecture – began with the kinds of places we were talking about earlier, which seemed to me to be open to speculation. I was particularly fond of a building in Nine Elms Lane, which was demolished in the winter of 1979-80, but also of places like Beckton. Even in the 1960s, a trip down the A13 on a Friday night in the summer was a real experience. It was a kind of inspiration, as an architect. Although I wasn’t involved then in making images – photographic or otherwise – it was obviously very photogenic, this trip. The further you went, the more photogenic it got. In the late 1970s, when I started to take this activity more seriously, it seemed to me that one could learn how to do it in places like that, but it was much more important to do it in Piccadilly Circus. By this time I was acquainted with what the Surrealists did in Paris, in the 1920s, and although they went to the abattoirs at La Villette, as well as Buttes-Chaumont, the park, they were also active in the centre.

 

Q

The White Review

— Buttes-Chaumont has those huge rock faces, and wooden bridge and miniature temple – and it’s where Louis Aragon found his ‘feeling for nature’ in Paris Peasant.

A

Patrick Keiller

— Indeed it is. Which was the book I started off with in the late 1970s.

 

Q

The White Review

— When the Surrealists started with these procedures, it was in the closing movements of Haussmannisation – when Aragon goes to the Passage de l’Opera, for instance, shortly before it was demolished – so that their practice seemed to come from a sense of removal from what’s going on – there are these huge capital movements going on in the city, changing the fabric of the environment, and they’re left with their imaginations.

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes, although he says that one of the reasons he chose the Passage de l’Opera was because it was about to be demolished, but not so much because it was going to be lost, but so that people couldn’t contradict him. It’s more to do with…

 

Q

The White Review

— …being a guide-book to a non-existent place.

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes, so it’s more to do with not wanting to be pulled-up for missing something. But there are still some passages in Paris, aren’t there?

 

Q

The White Review

— There are still some in London.

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes, indeed. And Leeds.

 

Q

The White Review

— There’s often an overlap – particularly in the first two Robinson films – between fictional histories and factual ones. For instance on the A13, Robinson thinks he’s found Dracula’s house at Carfax. I’m wondering about the impetus behind that. Is that a send-up of Robinson as an auto-didact figure, that he’s not differentiating between these types of histories? He goes to see where H.G. Wells’s Martians landed…

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes, possibly, but it’s the real place, where the Martian crater is, and it really looks like it. And Wells seemed to be quite keen on destroying Dorking, and that kind of thing, at least in fiction. I used to spend a lot of time looking for film locations, especially in Northern France, until I suddenly realised that there was no reason why the location, that said it was such-and-such a place, should actually be that place. But it didn’t seem to matter… so the idea that one can find fictional places in the landscape seems all right.

 

Q

The White Review

— But it’s connected to this feeling for nature, or this experience of some kind of sensation in being in a place where a creative operation has happened in the past.

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes, possibly. The feeling for nature, which is possibly not unlike what he describes elsewhere in the book as a frisson, always struck me as a process akin to that which might accompany the making of a piece of art. Or even representing the place. But it isn’t quite the same, because there’s no art. There’s just the subjective experience, but it’s not unlike the subjective experience one might gain from art.

 

Q

The White Review

— A revelatory experience nonetheless?

A

Patrick Keiller

— That too, but the impetus to take a photograph, a certain kind of photograph anyway, a surrealist photograph – and they’re not always successful photographs – this impetus is very like Aragon’s ‘frisson. And it’s intriguing that these phenomena should have first arisen in literature, when they seem actually quite visual. Like in Hopper – there’s an element of Hopper that seems to be turning these everyday items into sculpture, as other people did – without having to do the painting. But on the other hand, there is still a transformation which is carried out by changing the context. Not every urinal is a fountain. Every urinal might potentially be a fountain, but somebody actually has to go and do it. Whereas with subjectivity, it’s just a question of seeing it in that way.

 

Q

The White Review

— But when you put that next to the image, whether it be an extended cinematic shot or a photograph, there’s this tension that develops between the subjective experience of the place, that you’re either reading about or hearing through the narration, and the actual flatness of the thing that we’re looking at.

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes. But to go back to your fictional places, the appropriation of a place for the purposes of fiction is a bit like this appropriation of everyday objects as art, or, alternatively, Aragon and his frisson. They’re not the same, but they possibly have something in common. Maybe you have to know how to look.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you see the films as trying to teach people how to look?

A

Patrick Keiller

— Not in that way, no. The thing I tend not to talk about very much is the way that the pictures work, in that there’s always an attempt at some sort of hyperreality. There’s nothing nicer than saturated colours and high contrast. And I pursue that. But I don’t think I’ve ever written much about it, or said much about it.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you think that the pictures have a troublesome relationship with the picturesque?

A

Patrick Keiller

— No, I don’t think so, no. Quite often they try to be funny. When I first started collecting found architecture – to go back to found objects and Aragon’s petrol pumps – it’s very difficult to do that with buildings, because if you see a building you can’t really pick it up and you can’t usually buy it.

 

Q

The White Review

— But you can acquire it as a photograph.

A

Patrick Keiller

— You can photograph it, yes. And very often, quite easily. You don’t even have to trespass or anything. So I started photographing things that I thought I would like to make off with, in some way.

 

Q

The White Review

— The film scholar Paul Dave referred to Robinson in Ruins as trying to illuminate what he called a ‘strange commonality’ between all things. And Robinson certainly seems to see this. In London he anguishes over being ‘unable to reconcile the re-election of the government with his understanding of nature’.

A

Patrick Keiller

— Yes, he says something like that, which is hopefully not unamusing. Because you could think ‘how could this be?’ – how could the universe, this bountiful thing, produce such dreary results? And presumably – although not everything comes about – Brownian motion has its limits. Still, we’re all made of the same stuff.

 

Q

The White Review

— I’ve heard it said by many people that, watching the films, they’re almost overwhelmed by the volume of interconnectedness and correspondences. But this infinite capacity to refer away from the subject is normally counterposed with a set of journeys that are in themselves quite linear…

A

Patrick Keiller

— There’s another quote, although it’s not in any of the films, from John Berger’s 1967 essay called ‘The Changing View of Man in the Portrait’. He talks about the impossibility of telling a straight story sequentially in time. There were two paragraphs which were picked up by geographers, and I first encountered the statement not in the essay itself, but in the introduction to Ed Soja’s Postmodern Geographies. I looked at it and thought: ‘That’s very interesting, this is sort of what you do.’ And anyway Berger goes on to say that it’s impossible to tell a straight story sequentially in time, and he thinks of the story not as a line, or a series of points, but as a line that is continually intersected by other lines, so that it’s not a series of points, it’s a series of stars. And I tried to use this as the basis for The Robinson Institute at the Tate in 2012. That’s why it was conceived as seven clusters, which were marked on a map – which was also a journey, a sort of circuit, mainly through Oxfordshire and Berkshire. These were marked on a geological map – to extend the time – and all the camera set-ups were marked on the map as little dots, which weren’t necessarily on the line, because the line was some sort of schematic idea that Robinson was a kind of itinerant, and maybe this was just where he stayed – maybe the line joined up where his campsites were, if he was camping.

 

Q

The White Review

— Are there any other plans for the Institute as a broader entity?
A

Patrick Keiller

— At the moment the Institute is building a shed. But I’m not quite sure whether it’s directly in the line of future development, if you know what I mean. I think the plan is more to do with what I was saying earlier about this trying to work out how the UK and possibly other economies work, and somehow document this. If indeed I ever find out the answer, which I’m not entirely confident about, to be honest. Whatever the answer is, it’s probably not going to come from artists. Although you never know.
 

 

Listen to Patrick Keiller in conversation with The White Review on Resonance FM as part of our monthly radio series. This episode titled ‘Landscaping’ also features contributions from Tacita Dean and Matthew Gregory. For more episodes in the series visit our Soundcloud page here.


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