Space Exploration

Patrick Keiller on landscape cinema and the problem of dwelling
by Leo Goldsmith  posted January 18, 2012
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As a common device in classical cinema, the establishing shot has a simple function: the unambiguous presentation of the space and location within which the film's characters will interact and the narrative will unfold. Usually, it conveys this place in terms of an archetypal setting (city, country, war zone); frequently, it also connotes a particular locale, a part of the world, bound up in a specific historical moment that will serve as pretext or catalyst for the protagonists’ individual struggles and reconciliations.

In Patrick Keiller’s films, however, the establishing shot, for lack of a better term, is everything. Such shots may identify specific places with their own archetypal or historical resonances: London, the English countryside, various military and industrial sites across Britain. Each city street, field, ruin, or supermarket parking lot framed in Keiller’s fixed wide-shot serves as the stage that his characters traverse in their travels, making discoveries and remarking on items of local and historical interest. We never see these characters, and only hear about them in the droll, loquacious voiceovers of Paul Scofield, Vanessa Redgrave, or Tilda Swinton. Instead, we see a succession of largely unpeopled establishing shots, suggesting perhaps that the landscapes themselves—including architecture and nature—are the bearers of a complex palimpsest of narratives as much as any actor playing a role.

Following a set of fascinating early experiments, often shot with a handheld 16mm camera and narrated in the first person, Keiller embarked on what would become the Robinson films. A trio of semi-documentary travelogues, the films follow the odysseys of the eponymous protagonist—really Keiller himself, with a subtle nod to Defoe's famous castaway—through Britain's sometimes green and pleasant land. In the first two films, 1994’s London and 1997’s Robinson in Space, Robinson first crisscrosses England's capital on a kind of Baudelairean jaunt and then circumambulates the British mainland investigating the nation's industrial sites. Along for the ride in both is the film’s narrator, an unflappably dry Paul Scofield, who professes to an "uneasy, bickering sexual relationship" with the hero. An unaired television documentary from 2000, The Dilapidated Dwelling combines Tilda Swinton's similarly fictional narrator with more conventional documentary material on the subject of housing, including interviews with architects and academics and archival images of Buckminster Fuller. It wasn't until 2010 that Keiller extended his earlier series with Robinson in Ruins—narrated by Vanessa Redgrave as a former lover of Scofield’s character—which retraces his wayward path around various historical, military, and agricultural sites of Oxfordshire through reels of film Robinson apparently left behind after his unexplained disappearance.

Robinson in Ruins

Robinson in Ruins

Keiller’s emphasis on landscape—along with a certain unmistakable Englishness—has prompted many to align his work with the early films of Peter Greenaway (H Is for House, Dear Phone). But in each of his films, Keiller demonstrates a set of more socially and politically engaged concerns (political economy, labor history), which he interweaves with the lore (his own as well as others'), witty observations, and literary and cinematic references. Given this diversity of sources, it might be more productive to compare Keiller's work with that of artists who intersect and interrogate notions of space with various media, resources, and tools: the cinematic geographies of James Benning, the deconstructed edifices of Gordon Matta-Clark, the reimagined artscapes of Robert Smithson, the hybrid fictions of W.G. Sebald. Like each of these artists, Keiller explores places equally for their accumulating histories, their picturesque presence, and their possible futures.

* * *

As I understand it, you typically begin your films by shooting locations, and then research the content of those images afterwards. Do you begin with a kind of plan as to where you would go and what you would shoot?

So far, in every case, the pictures have been made first, with the aid of some sort of recipe—not so much a script as a plan of action. For the first Robinson film [London], I wrote a document to give myself and my potential patrons, the British Film Institute’s Production Board, an idea of what we might end up with. There were about 50 pages, in two parts. In the first part, at the top of each page was a list of possible camera subjects, beneath which was ‘sample’ narration, nearly all of which was not included in the finished narration. The second part of the document was much less detailed, and was a list of journeys, possible itineraries. I think there were 12. The film was conceived as being made over 12 months, so that it wouldn’t matter when I started—if I’d started in April, I would have photographed the last few months of the film first. But in practice it didn’t work out like that, because the film was more diaristic than I had expected, and we started at the end of January, so the first half of the document—which I think covered September to February, or thereabouts—wasn’t used, apart from a couple of passages of sample narration that survive in the finished film. By and large the film was made from about four of the 12 journeys specified in the second half of the proposal. However, they were really only there to fall back on, because the film effectively made itself up as it went along. And because the film was specifically about the city I lived in, I never spent a night away from home.

The second film [Robinson in Space] was much more tightly arranged because it involved a lot of travel. It was made by following a more or less continuous line on the map of England, divided into seven sections. But the third one [Robinson in Ruins] was much more tentative, because although I had a long list of potential locations, they weren’t very well arranged—possibly because whenever I tried to pin down an itinerary, I began to worry that I might end up remaking the second film. I had already decided to concentrate on fewer locations in more detail, and eventually the cinematography began almost by accident when I noticed a camera subject just down the road in the city where I live [Oxford], that had until then never struck me as particularly photogenic: a house that had been encased in plywood. This became the film’s first camera subject, the research project that produced the film having been conceived as a critique of dwelling.

This is the research project in which you collaborated with the geographer Doreen Massey, author and historian Patrick Wright, and then-PhD student Matthew Flintham (Royal College of Art), which then became Robinson in Ruins? How did this collaboration come about?

An emphasis on belonging seemed to me to have appeared, quite suddenly, on the UK’s mainstream political agenda. Previously, there had been a tendency to characterize the UK in terms of cultural diversity or multiculturalism. It seems to be much easier for neoliberalism to accommodate cultural difference than for it to address questions that involve class. After the terrorist attacks in 2005, mainstream politicians began to talk about national identity and social coherence. The collaboration was intended, partly, to provide an opportunity to discuss these matters with other people, especially people who were perhaps better qualified to do so than I was.

The film itself goes back further, as I had retained the idea of making something like it since finishing the previous one in 1997. It hadn’t seemed possible to do that until 2004, when I learned of a forthcoming research program [the Landscape and Environment Programme of the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council]. It wasn't easy to devise a proposal for a research project that would necessarily involve making a film, although it had seemed that the two previous films had some sort of academic credibility as research. Well, one of them anyway—my belief in this was encouraged by the way that Robinson in Space in particular had seemed to have made a discovery of some kind, so that this exploratory filmmaking was a legitimate research method to find out things that weren’t just about filmmaking. I thought that the kind of film that I wanted to make would be credible as research because its question was geographical, like that of its predecessor.

What was the discovery that you made with Robinson in Space?

The underlying question of Robinson in Space was: How is it possible for the UK to survive economically when it doesn’t seem to make anything? The dominant, southern economy appeared to be characterized by a lot of middle-class people driving about in imported cars selling each other life insurance. Was that sustainable? It didn’t sound very sustainable, and now we know that it really isn’t sustainable. But it turned out that that wasn’t what was happening at all. What was happening—and was rather more interesting to look at—involved a lot of automated factories and other, curious things that most people never saw, because they tended to be located in out-of-the-way places. There was, for example, a surprisingly healthy steel industry, which was a surprise to me, and I think to others. This is what persuaded me that the film was credible as research, because it did actually find out something that I don’t think many people appreciated. We had a perception of economic decline. Many people of my generation, aspiring to something like a European art-and-design culture, tended to misread the UK’s dilapidation and other impoverishments as symptoms of decline, when they’re really symptoms of the successful operation of an unattractive economic model. In 1997, briefly, the UK even had a surplus of exports over imports. Though it hasn’t had one since.

However, towards the end of the film I began to notice that underpinning the novel landscape of a permeable, globalized consumer economy (more permeable than those of social-democratic western Europe), was the substructure of the ‘hard state,’ the U.S.-UK military-industrial economy. This was and still is visible as the UK’s extensive military estate, U.S. military and security installations, the nuclear power industry, and companies such as BAE Systems (in 1995, still ‘British Aerospace’) and Lockheed Martin, which recently carried out the census for the UK government, and are one of three partners (the others being Serco and Jacobs Engineering) that operate the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment.

Robinson in Space

Robinson in Space

There are quite a lot of these military sites in Robinson in Ruins as well.

I didn’t set out to include these sites in the film, but it didn’t really surprise me that they’re there. The fourth member of the research project team, Matthew Flintham, was a PhD student. He was almost an antidote to my waywardness, because his PhD project [about militarized space in the UK] was by far the clearer of the two. I was a little wary of the subject because it had come up in the previous film, and I did initially find it difficult to connect with the project’s stated subject. The first part of the film, in which Robinson sets out for Speenhamland, is intended to unpick a myth that labor mobility is an aspect of a traditional English freedom, and that industrialization first took off in Britain because people were ‘free’ to move to factory towns, more so than elsewhere in Europe. However, it turns out that this freedom of movement was the result of legislation in 1795. A significant counter-move to this piece of legislation was initiated in Speenhamland, in Newbury, in the same year—the system of poor relief known as the Speenhamland system.

Robinson disappeared at the end of the second film, in which the narration ends: "I cannot tell you where Robinson finally found his Utopia." This is followed by some pictures of prehistoric rock carvings, which are perhaps emblematic of this utopia, and a picture of Newcastle. So, perhaps, Utopia is somewhere near Newcastle. When anticipating a sequel, long before the film was constituted as part of a research project, I imagined that, after loitering around the rock carvings for a while, Robinson had gone to RAF Spadeadam, not far away, in Cumbria, where the rocket motors for the Blue Streak missile were tested in the late 1950s. Blue Streak was the last domestically developed delivery system for the UK’s strategic nuclear weapons, but it was never produced. It was cancelled in 1960, and in 1962 Harold Macmillan and John F. Kennedy agreed that the UK would buy Polaris from the U.S. Since then, the UK has never had a credibly independent strategic nuclear weapon, so that, because of this military dependence on the United States, it has arguably lost its independence in matters of foreign policy. It used to be suggested that this was why Tony Blair committed the UK to the Iraq War, though it now seems more likely that he actually believed it was the right decision.

Anyway, it seems that Robinson was preoccupied with this history, so much so that he was lurking around RAF Spadeadam and was eventually arrested by Ministry of Defence police. Are you familiar with the Quatermass films?

I am, yes.

Ah, well—Quatermass 2, the Hammer film released in 1957, involves a rocket base, and I think it was by then fairly well known that somewhere near the Scottish border there was a secret rocket project. I don’t think the public knew exactly what it was for, but there seems to be a connection between the narrative of Quatermass 2 and Blue Streak, even though one is a moon rocket and the other a weapon. There is a clue to this in the Hammer film, in which there’s a sign to Carlisle, which is not far from Spadeadam. I imagine Robinson has conflated the narrative of Quatermass 2 with that of Blue Streak, so that he understands the UK’s subservience to the U.S. in matters of foreign policy as the result of some Invasion of the Bodysnatchers-style takeover by a malevolent vegetal intelligence, like that of the Quatermass story, signaled by the cancellation of the (supposedly impractical) weapons system.

Now I’m thinking about Quatermass and the Pit, in which Quatermass digs up an ancient alien spacecraft, buried for millions of years under a London Underground station, in relation to all of your films, which also seem to dig up secret histories that are hiding in plain sight.

Well, I’m very flattered by the comparison! There were three films, and the last one was made a very long time after the others, so they at least have that in common. In the original 1955 BBC series Quatermass II, Quatermass was played by John Robinson.

I'm curious about the relationship between your films and cartography. In his book Cartographic Cinema, Tom Conley makes the claim that films and maps are similar in that they represent and reconfigure space in particular kinds of ways. Your films don’t deploy maps as extensively as some other films do, but is there a way in which the films themselves function as maps?

I’m not sure that they do. I do incorporate maps—not in the film, but in making the preview DVDs for Robinson in Ruins I organized the menu as a (geological) map. The film wasn’t originally designed as a line on a map, but I have subsequently drawn one, plotting the various camera subjects and marking a general progression. The geological map is also part of the menu of the BFI’s retail DVD, though the preview discs had chapter-buttons named as months and positioned on the map, so that the film becomes a landscape, while on the retail DVD the buttons are merely beside the map, a more conventional arrangement.

But in terms of the film being like a map, I’ve always thought that it’s very difficult for a linear progression of rectangular images to be like a map—or indeed to be like anything that involves the horizontal plane. It’s like the problem of depicting architecture. Sitting in a room, one is in the middle of volume, whereas if you are sitting in front of a moving picture, it’s usually flat, vertical, and ‘over there’ somewhere. Of course, the camera can move—and in many cases does move—which can assist in assembling successive pictures and creating a constant sense of movement. But my camera movement slowed down and eventually stopped some time ago.

Many people who watch the film London have been to London, but if you’ve never been there, I imagine it’s quite likely that you’d experience the film in a very different way. And the more one reduces a location to single images, the more likely it is that the reconstruction of that place is going to be at variance with what you might experience if you were there. That doesn’t particularly bother me, because I’m not trying to make an architectural documentary, though in Robinson in Ruins, the space construction is more ambitious, especially towards the end of the film, when many of the locations are intervisible, so that one can perhaps begin to construct an awareness of a landscape beyond that seen in individual frames.

I am interested in the idea of mapping in film, but I don’t quite understand it, to be honest—perhaps out of literal-mindedness. But it’s one of the reasons that I was very interested in invitations to make multi-screen installations. In 2006, I made a reconstruction of a large railway station in Mumbai [the installation Londres, Bombay at Le Fresnoy near Lille, France] that was an explicit attempt to make a virtual architecture. There were 30 screens, and these were configured in a space that was rather like a railway station, in a spatial relationship like that of the camera positions, producing 30 perspectives. It was an attempt to replicate a large complex space with multiple moving images. I had recently read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, in which the character is making a study of the architecture of 19th-century capitalism, and I was interested in the relationship between 19th-century capitalism and neo-gothic architecture, [which you see] especially in railway stations.

In your installation, The City of the Future, at the BFI, you also used railway imagery in the form of early and pre-cinematic representations of train journeys—panoramas, phantom rides, and so on. It's interesting that the histories of travel and film are so closely related, but there’s also a specific connection, at least in the U.S., between the histories of railway and landscape photography, like the work of photographers like A.J. Russell and William Henry Jackson, or Thomas Edison’s railroad films.

Well, you can make many connections between railways and cinema. The film strip looks like a railway track. Cine cameras and projectors turn rotation into linear, incremental movement, whereas a steam locomotive turns reciprocating linear movement into rotation. And the steam passenger railway begins at almost exactly the same time as photography, and so you can see the cinema as the belated combination of the two, if you like. There’s a book—Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey—which examines the railway’s panoramistic view. There were two sorts of panorama: the 360-degree panorama, which was not much seen in North America, and moving panoramas, typically views from boats and, later, trains. Stephan Oetterman, in his history of the panorama, even suggests that ‘the moving panorama anticipated, in art, the speed of travel that the railways would soon make a reality.’ One of the first panoramas to be brought to North America from Europe was a moving panorama of a railway journey between Liverpool and Manchester, which was the first city-to-city passenger railway. I’ve written about this. [‘Phantom Rides,’ in The Railway and Modernity: Time, Space and the Machine Ensemble, eds. Matthew Beaumont, Michael Freeman (Oxford etc: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 69-84.]

In a way, this makes sense, because the experience of travel that the cinema presents often inspires the spectator to have similar experiences.

Well, the panoramistic view is an early identifier of modernity, I think, isn’t it? I don’t know who invented the term "phantom ride," but it seems to have been current at the time the films were made. It’s sometimes applied to tram as well as railway journeys, but the former are more usually called "panoramas," as are sideways-facing railway-journey films. As far as I know, the first film photographed from a train was Départ de Jérusalem en chemin de fer, which is a diagonal view looking back along the platform. These are views that were available to passengers, whereas a phantom ride, strictly speaking, seems to be a view from the front of the locomotive, a view not conventionally available even to the driver, suggesting an incorporeal, disembodied experience.

You were mentioning the similarity of the train track and the film strip, and you’ve written at some length about your decision to shoot Robinson in Ruins on film instead of digital video. Now, obviously your films dont move in the way that phantom ride films do, but there is the sense that film is linear, whereas digital video is not—at least when you get to the editing table. So, do you think that film is more appropriate to your work in that, in some ways, it better represents the sense of a linear journey in space and time? Is that one of the reasons you insisted on working with film?

I don’t think so. I edited the film on my laptop. My preference, I think, is based on some kind of quaint quantitative reasoning. The Mumbai installation was originated as HDCAM, and involved takes of up to 30 minutes’ duration. Some of the takes were very long, because the installation was ambient, supposed to resemble real time. In this context, the benefit of digital is that you don’t have to turn the camera off. But in my experience, that isn’t necessarily a good thing when making a film. With the newest film, the [shooting] ratio is only about 2.6-to-1.

My feeling is that, as video formats change rather quickly, there’s always a danger of originating something in a format that, in 10 years’ time, won't exist. A neighbor of mine is an archivist. I was describing the dilemma, and he mentioned that for archivists, the problem with digital information is that it requires management: you've always got to worry about it where it is. If I had photographed Robinson in Ruins on a RED camera and stored the data on a hard drive, I'd be constantly having to make sure that the hard drive hadn’t seized up.

Also, with landscape and architecture, I’m always mindful of the tradition of large-format photography. With moving pictures, even 35mm negatives are very small, but even the largest digital formats don’t exhaust the possibilities of a 35mm negative, and with 35mm, if larger digital formats are developed in the future, one can, at least in theory, go back to the negative for a higher resolution image.

This question of the scale of the image seems particularly important, because so much of your work is based on looking at landscapes and their minutiae, their materiality. There's that passage in London, which recurs in Robinson in Ruins, about how Robinson believes that "staring at landscapes [will] reveal the molecular basis of historical events, a way to see in the future."

Robinson in Ruins

Robinson in Ruins

Because I started off making 16mm films, I was always very conscious of the ‘dancing’ grain, and found myself referring to Democritus and Lucretius. Hence, in one of the early films, Valtos: "The universe is composed of minute particles in constant motion, moving about with enormous velocities." So, the "molecular basis of historical events" is a joke about film grain. I imagined this Democritean universe made out of little ping-pong balls—a granular universe, atoms as very small bits of stuff. Doreen [Massey] ribbed me about it a little, I think because it seemed too horizontalist, too Hardt-and-Negri. She didn’t use the term ‘emergent phenomena,’ but I think she meant that although the universe may consist of tiny things, they don’t all work as individual tiny things. There are more complex phenomena in play.

My early films didn’t involve a static camera—they were all very handheld. To be perfectly honest, I distrust my static camera. I distrust the tendency not to move the camera, because it’s a little like laziness. It’s much more difficult to move the camera, especially if there’s a risk of losing the light, or the subject, which there nearly always is. And when I do move it, I rarely use the result. In the non-Robinson film The Dilapidated Dwelling, about house production, there is a certain amount of footage originated on the move, from trains and cars, and it always strikes me as a bit soft. Also, if you move the camera, perhaps you don’t look so hard, and that’s a worry.

In your early films, the handheld camera maybe becomes an index of the look itself, of the person holding the camera, rather than what the film is asking you to look at.

Yes, and, of course, the early films are written in the first person.

This staring at the landscape itself, in all its concreteness, seems very important to you. Following Appadurai, one constantly hears about global capitalism’s process of deterritorialization, both the way in which it displaces populations, but also how things like communications technology tend to make physical space seem immaterial. But your work, with its emphasis on landscape and place, seems designed to oppose this logic.

There is perhaps an attempt to emphasize materiality, which might have something to do with the fact that the films are originated in film, not digital formats. But I think it’s easy to overestimate the extent to which technology makes anything immaterial. The world is not flat, and the economy is certainly not weightless. Also, the most recent film was prompted by a critique of dwelling that was in part an explicit attempt to engage with mobility. I was very encouraged by Doreen’s critique of the film, in which she perceives the film’s stillnesses as not static, as becoming, rather than being.

The things that you see in the film also have a materiality, especially, perhaps, the ruins. Again, I didn’t really set out to photograph ruins, though I was very interested in the location of The Tomb of Ligeia. Do you know that film? The Roger Corman film. That might have been a camera subject—Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk—but it was much too far away. I’d also planned to visit the ruin in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later—Waverley Abbey in Surrey. It’s very nice. And very unlike Surrey.

Your films seem to weave together lots of elements of both the material and the imaginary, nonfiction (like documentary images and historical detail) and fiction—both pre-existing literature and films, as well as your own fictions about Robinson and his adventures. And this combination seems to relate to Henri Lefebvre—whom you’ve written about at some length—and his idea of space and its relation to the imagination. In The Dilapidated Dwelling, you quote his idea that "The idea of a new life is at once realist and illusory, and hence neither true nor false. A total revolution...seems to be in the offing, as though already immanent to the present. To change life, however, we must first change space."

In London, at the beginning, there is a caption: "The Great Malady: The horror of home," which is a slight misquotation from Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals, which has [in Christopher Isherwood’s translation] "The Great Malady, horror of one’s home." I used to be quite familiar with “horror of one’s home”—not in the sense of the house I live in, but of, say, Trafalgar Square. Now, in the new film, it says: "From a nearby car park, he surveyed the centre of the island on which he was shipwrecked: ‘the location,’ he wrote, ‘of a Great Malady, that I shall dispel, in the manner of Turner, by making picturesque views, on journeys to sites of scientific and historic interest.’" That's the mission statement for the film: Robinson goes off to "sites of scientific and historic interest" to make, more or less "picturesque views."



I’ve never found Lefebvre an easy read, but I do find passages in Lefebvre that I cling on to, and often repeat. In The Production of Space, Lefebvre identifies his famous conceptual triad, which involves spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space. I understood these three descriptions to mean that, while everyday activities such as looking out of the window, or walking in the street, might be construed as spatial practice, and the designers of a building, or a new city, might be engaged in producing representations of space, if one seeks, in some imaginative way, such as writing, making images, or making films, to change and appropriate space, one is dealing with representational space. Moreover, if representational space admits the possibility of change through effort by, and works of, the imagination, then it might be possible to dispel a Great Malady ‘in the manner of Turner’ by making picturesque views. That seemed to be what the films are doing, in that they do seek to change or appropriate space. Until recently, it hadn’t occurred to me to connect that idea quite so directly with what I was doing, though I recognized that representational space was perhaps the subject of the films. Although Lefebvre was quite dismissive of André Breton, and didn’t align himself with surrealism (in the way that he does, to some extent, with the Situationists), it is not difficult to make a connection between that notion of changing and appropriating space and surrealist transformation, which is where I started off.

This becomes especially important as so much of Robinson in Ruins is about the history of enclosures in Britain, and the appropriation and re-appropriation of rural spaces that you look at in the history of the Oxfordshire risings of 1596.

Yes, and this gets back to the connection between cinematography and rock art. If one seeks to rethink dwelling, then maybe rock art is quite a good place to start. Writing about rock art, the archaeologist Richard Bradley [in Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe: Signing the Land] refers to a distinction between the tenure exercised by settled farmers, "a stable pattern of settlements, boundaries and fields, not unlike the world we inhabit today," and that of hunter-gatherers and other mobile peoples, based on "paths, places and viewpoints." Rock art was more significant in the latter context, and "lost much of its impact as this was replaced by a territorial system depending on stable, mixed farming." A landscape or territory based on "paths, places and viewpoints," sounds to me rather like a film, so that perhaps it is possible to address these questions around landscape with a cine-camera. [In making Robinson in Ruins,] I expected to encounter evidence and locations of the displacement of a previously settled agricultural workforce, and resistance to that. But the project was initially conceived as an attempt to reconcile belonging with mobility, and I think the way the film presents landscape does convey that.

In this sense, there’s a connection between the themes of your film and the Occupy movement, which has arisen in the wake of the banking crisis, which the film is partly about. Particularly in Europe, there seems to be a movement not just of occupying, but of squatting—in "dilapidated dwellings" in places like Lancaster and Liverpool, and in "ghost estates" in Ireland.

In relation to this question of belonging, accounts of the 1596 Oxfordshire Rising seem to suggest that the rebels were more mobile than we might expect. It’s difficult to envisage their predicament in terms of some sense of belonging, perhaps because it’s easier to imagine they knew that the village no longer belonged to them.

On the other hand, something that interests me about experience of landscape is the degree to which the idea of land as a public good has survived. Land may be owned, but landscape seems to belong to everyone. Even the people who own land don’t seem to regard it as they would a personal possession. Much of the British landscape is covered in public footpaths, and while I was working with the camera, I was rarely impeded, and never by a farmer. However, we do know that it’s very hard to find a way to live in the British landscape, as you may have seen, with the evictions of Irish Travelers from Dale Farm. If people try to live in it, they tend to encounter quite a hard time. I would like to think that the film both raises the question of land reform and conveys the efficacy of protest: although, for example, the Oxfordshire Rising failed to materialize, it so alarmed the government of the day that it soon prosecuted enclosers and enacted anti-enclosure legislation.

I’m not in London, and in recent months have been heavily occupied with preparing an exhibition, so that while I turned out for the London anti-university-fee-increase protests in 2010, I haven’t yet visited Occupy. One of the seminars we gave last year was at a university in London, in a building that was occupied, but I have the feeling that the film is not as well known to the current generation of protesters as I’d like. It’s perhaps a little difficult to find. As we were leaving the building, someone asked me what we’d been doing, and when I explained she seemed surprised that the film wasn’t posted on the Internet. This was before it was even available as a DVD. The theatrical release, with press campaign, festival screenings, reviews, and so on, suddenly seemed very old-fashioned. I hope the exhibition I’m working on (for Tate Britain) will be more immediately provocative. At least it’ll be free. 


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London, directed by Patrick Keiller
Photo Gallery: Space Exploration


January 12–18, 2012 Patrick Keiller’s Robinson Trilogy
March 27–October 14, 2012 Patrick Keiller


Leo Goldsmith co-edits the film section of The Brooklyn Rail and is a PhD candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. He contributes regularly to Not Coming to a Theater Near You and Reverse Shot.

More articles by Leo Goldsmith
Author's Website: Not Coming to a Theater Near You