A recurring feature of Patrick Keiller’s work is the lack of human presence and activity. Throughout his films, Keiller delivers a vision of England as a desert island, depopulated and unoccupied. Scrutinizing Keiller’s early shorts and feature-length films, this article argues that the absence of human subjects allows the filmmaker to articulate a broader discourse on space, so that the films can be described as “spatial fictions.” Keiller, by aligning his work with various strands of utopian thinking on space—from the surrealists to Henri Lefebvre and the situationists—forces us to think the relationship between cinema and space and offers a geography of absence as the precondition for the imagination of a new space. The article shows how this framework informs Keiller’s visual grammar, including his emphasis on a deliberate scarcity of gestures and the invisibility of the cinematic apparatus. By withdrawing from the production of the image, Keiller suggests that the absence of a sign always functions as the sign of an absence.
The works of Patrick Keiller, from his early shorts to the four feature-length films produced so far, sit somewhat uncomfortably between documentary and fiction, embedding at once the argumentative quality of the essay, the erudite precision of the travelogue, and the lyrical suspension of the poem. If it is true, as Theodor Adorno (1991: 23) says, that “the essay’s innermost formal law is heresy,” then Keiller’s films could be said to fit within the essay film tradition. However, while the influence of Chris Marker on Keiller is evident, such classification might be too reductive, if not misleading. As Laura Rascaroli (2008: 25) explains, the “temptation of assigning the label of essay film to all that is non-commercial or experimental or unclassifiable must, however, be resisted, or else the term will cease being epistemologically useful.” The films are indeed difficult to classify, and one should perhaps resist the urge to categorize them. However, they do display recurring formal strategies. In the shorts, the camera frames the world from a (sometimes) mobile subjective point of view, and the first-person voice-over reveals the inner meditations of a main character. In the feature-length films, the camera is static, gazing at the world from what appears to be an objective point of view, while the voice-over, delivered by a narrator on behalf of a character (Robinson) whose voice the audience never hears, takes the filmed spaces as starting points for personal, aesthetic, sociohistorical, and critical observations. Here the stillness of the frame is reminsicent of the experiments that marked the advent of cinema and of the aesthetic that dominated nonfiction films from 1906 to World War I. Tom Gunning (2016: 55) describes these early cinematic works as displaying “the ‘view’ aesthetic,” writing that “early actuality films were structured around presenting something visually, capturing and preserving a look or vantage point.” Keiller seems interested in stressing the element of mere presentation in his frames, and the result is an emphasis on the autonomy of the spaces and situations the camera records from the authorial gesture. Gunning identifies the goal of the “view” films precisely in this claim for the world’s independence from the filming subject: “‘Views’ tend to carry the claim that the subject filmed either preexisted the act of filming (a landscape, a social custom, a method of work) or would have taken place even if the camera had not been there (a sporting event, a funeral, a coronation), thus claiming to capture a view of something that maintains a large degree of independence from the act of filming it” (55–56).
The counterpoint between image and sound in Keiller’s films, however, is never merely illustrative but rather structured around a series of deferrals, subversions, literary or philosophical references, and personal musings. It is perhaps this thoughtfully incongruous relation between visual and aural elements that led Iain Sinclair (1998: 298) to describe Keiller’s first feature-length film as an “essay, document, critique, poem,” thereby avoiding privileging one category over the others.
This deliberate disconnection points also to Keiller’s political strategy. Throughout his work, one finds a repeated association of landscape filmmaking with the pursuit of a transformation of everyday reality. The critical lineage with which Keiller aligns his films is one that is committed to demonstrating via cinematography the possibility of creating a better world. The utopian strands that inform this corpus, running from the surrealists to the situationists and beyond, ground the political import of Keiller’s work. Nevertheless, the question of whether cinematic images—and artistic expression, in general—can produce the collective radical subjectivity that surrealists and situationists saw as the goal of their projects is never completely settled. The risk that this type of poeticization can quickly be absorbed and become a self-referential activity removed from its ultimate goal or, worse, can be put to the service of various forms of neutralizing cosmesis is one that Keiller repeatedly addresses. In a text on psychogeography, for instance, he writes: “I am inclined to set the growing interest in the poeticisation of experience of landscapes—typically urban landscapes, but also those of railways, airports, and various other industries, even agriculture—in an economic and political context” (2013: 70). The context alluded to is one dominated in Britain by a generally dilapidated, but very expensive, built environment and by the apparently irresistible rise of gentrification. Keiller concludes polemically with a quote from Witold Gombrowicz (already used by Michel de Certeau): “Incapable of magic architecture, we made art out of our deprivation. I hadn’t realised it was quite that bad. ‘When one does not have what one wants, one must want what one has’” (73). At the same time, however, the voice-over—frequently reminiscent of the impassive tone of public information films—is occasionally used as an explicitly polemical tool. In London (1994), for instance, Keiller reports someone shouting “Pay your taxes, you scum,” during a visit of the Queen to Leicester Square. While these instances are isolated enough to come across as “tonal disruptions” (Bruzzi 2008: 118), when the sociopolitical commentary occupies the foreground, it offers the opportunity to bridge the gap between the reflections on the past and the problems of the present, between the transformation sought by the views and the political gesture that underpins them.
This constant crossing of boundaries and the speculative approach to their subject matter make the films difficult to qualify and even more difficult to discuss. In many ways, these films already offer a conceptual framework that seems to leave little room for commentary, since part of their strategy is precisely to present a discourse and offer a series of arguments. And yet their political and formal inventiveness, the accumulation of references, the oblique adoption and deflection of various theoretical positions seem to invite endless opportunities for criticism. However, perhaps surprisingly, the literature devoted to Keiller’s work is not as conspicuous as one would expect. Most critical approaches to Keiller’s London and Robinson in Space (1997) have focused on the films’ analyses of English capitalism (Dave 2000, 2011, 2013; Burke 2006), while commentaries on Robinson in Ruins (2010) tend to rely on the film’s proposed alliance with nonhuman forces, such as the lichen (Xanthoria parietina) on a road sign at Oxford’s Abingdon Road (Dave 2011; Fisher 2010; Hegglund 2013).
There are, however, notable exceptions: Steve Pile, for instance, emphasizes the phantasmagorical aspect of Keiller’s films, describing the explorations of London as “less about reaching a source or a destination (the arrival at places already known) than about the amnesias, frustrations and diversions of the city” (2005: 11). In Lights Out for the Territory, Iain Sinclair (1998: 298) describes London as “a modestly ironic epitaph to Conservatism and the destruction of the city,” a consequence of the triumphant “dictatorship of the suburbs and suburban values.” More importantly, Sinclair provides a succinct yet illuminating précis of Keiller’s inspiration: “He was interested in the exploration of architectural space . . . Surrealist texts, Czech modernist poetry, the implications of psychogeography” (299). In a text that provides a useful reconstruction of the filmmaker’s scholarly work, Anthony Kinik (2009: 108) emphasizes Keiller’s “participation in a tradition of theoretical, historical, and practical engagements with the built environment, one with tremendous implications for cinema.” It is this cultural milieu that Will Self (2014) emphasizes when he writes about Keiller that “the very manner in which he shoots his films—circumscribed as they are by factors of time and money—is that of a dérive: an arbitrary progress through town and country, with each camera set-up an opportunity to capture the frisson, and thereby detach the map a little more from the territory.”1 The references to André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Guy Debord offer the opportunity to respond to the very manner of Keiller’s films—their serendipitous association of image and text—in a way that moves from their formal specificity rather than submitting this to the subject matter (English capitalism, the problem of England).
The attempt here is then to read Keiller’s films as “spatial fictions” (Conley 2012: 147): reconfigurations of existing spaces under the pressure of the cinematic gaze, itself operating under the influence of various strands of utopian thinking. Understood in this way, these films can be said to have as their goal the production of a new imagination of space. Space is also the umbrella term Keiller (2014) uses to frame his various activities: “I usually describe them in terms of the subject matter, which is landscape . . . or possibly space.” This reading therefore focuses on the role that space (and the built environment, in particular) plays in the films and on the ways in which these spatial fictions are haunted in various ways by absence. It is from the connection between these two terms, absence and space, that the argument takes its energy. This does not, however, amount to saying that the question of English capitalism—or, more broadly, the reflection on why Britain is what it is today—is sidelined; rather, it is submitted to the scrutiny of what happens on the screen, of the methods and mechanisms of the films but also of Keiller’s scholarly work. In this case, the filmmaker and the essayist cannot be separated.
In the following article, I will use the idea of spatial critique as a guiding principle to understand Keiller’s work and its relation to the theoretical context that emerges in his films and essays, before discussing the solitude of space. I will use the expression to describe how, in Keiller’s films, the transformative possibilities of cinema are repeatedly paired with a deliberate emphasis on the absence of human presence and activity.
The interpretative framework briefly sketched above produces a shifting of the emphasis away from the political events the films evoke and toward a reflection on the ways in which these events are transfigured as part of a wider spatial fiction, one that relies on and experiments with the cinematic ability to change the perception of existing spaces. Paul Dave (2011: 19) frames the three Robinson films as reactions to particular electoral results. For Dave, the films could be organized as responses to the mood of electoral cycles, with “the first bringing with it the dismay and shock of another Tory government following on from the long night of Thatcherism; the second marking the advent of a New Labour government able to capitalize on the intense suspense and excitement generated by this delayed change; and finally, the moment of May 2010, coughing up the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition” (19–20). What these interpretations tend to overlook is that the critical force of these films has a spatial dimension that cannot simply be reduced to the political moments they allude to and, in some cases, document.2 These have already been mediated by the film’s spatial critique. The prominence of the question of space—not over the political question but as an eminently political question—becomes clear in Keiller’s identification of the landscape as an accurate measure of the country’s wealth. In an interview, Keiller (2014) says that “one of the interesting things about the United Kingdom is that the discrepancy between the visible appearance of the landscape, which looks very impoverished, and the supposed wealth of the country . . . is much more marked here. 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 United Kingdom’s wealth than the figures.” The priority of the landscape and of a critique of space over the milestones of political life can be traced back to the strands of utopian thinking mentioned above. Keiller is much closer to the surrealist-situationist lineage than most commentators have acknowledged and, as a consequence, to the proposed reconciliation of Karl Marx’s political economy with Friedrich Nietzsche’s revaluation of all values attempted by Henri Lefebvre. During Robinson’s sojourn in Reading, following a “visit” to the places of Jane Austen’s education and Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, the narrator of Robinson in Space quotes Lefebvre: “The space which contains the realized preconditions of another life is the same one as prohibits what those preconditions make possible” (Lefebvre 1991b: 189–90; Keiller 1999: 5). This short reference at the beginning of the film ideally places Robinson’s entire project under the aegis of Lefebvre’s “production.” In his magisterial The Production of Space, Lefebvre gives the term production a double connotation that grounds his analytical matrix. On the one hand, he notes that space is produced: every society and its mode of production generate a specific spatial practice. On the other hand, however, Lefebvre also warns that space is itself productive. To the idea that “(social) space is a (social) product,” he adds that “the space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action . . . as such, it escapes in part from those who would make use of it. The social and political (state) forces which engendered this space now seek, but fail, to master it completely” (1991b: 26). Space is therefore not just the product of a particular mode of production but a force with a relative autonomy, capable of reproducing the conditions it has been designed for but also of undermining them, of turning against them, of suggesting the preconditions of another life. The importance of spatial critique as a necessary tool for any emancipatory politics was already a central concern for Lefebvre at the time of the publication of the first two volumes of the Critique of Everyday Life and his works on the urban problematic: Right to the City ( 1996), The Urban Revolution ( 2003), and La Pensée marxiste et la ville (Marxist Thought and the City; 1972). The Production of Space systematically makes space the focus of political struggle: “(Social) space is not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products: rather, it subsumes things produced, and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity—their (relative) order and/or (relative) disorder” (Lefebvre 1991b: 73). The work ultimately dismisses the solutions suggested by the surrealists, in particular “the substitution of poetry for politics, the politicization of poetry and the search for a transcendent revelation” (18). However, it acknowledges at the same time that the surrealists’ attempt to “decode inner space and illuminate the nature of the transition from this subjective space to the material realm of the body and the outside world” (18) remains part of an unfinished project. Lefebvre is equally ambivalent about the work of the situationists. While he assigns great significance to Debord’s détournement, he finds the method to be self-defeating. Describing the appropriation of the Halles Centrale between 1969 and 1971, Lefebvre writes: “The diversion (détournement) and reappropriation of space are of great significance, for they teach us much about the production of new spaces. . . . Be that as it may, one upshot of such tactics is that groups take up residence in spaces whose pre-existing form, having been designed for some other purpose, is inappropriate to the needs of their would-be communal life” (168). Despite these significant differences, an urgency for new beginnings, for a comprehensive renewal, is never far from Lefebvre’s concerns, given that, as he writes, “diversion (détournement) and production cannot be meaningfully separated” (169).3
The productive dialogue (which often descended into a quarrel and then a dispute) between Lefebvre and the situationists can be seen most explicitly in the striking affinity between the “theory of moments” and the “practice of situations.” Influenced by his experiences with the surrealists, Lefebvre developed in the second volume of the Critique a theory of moments that would respond to “the need to organize, programme and structure everyday life by transforming it according to its own tendencies and laws” (1991a: 343). The theory, Lefebvre adds, “wishes to perceive the possibilities of everyday life and to give human beings a constitution by constituting their powers, if only as guidelines or suggestions” (343). In its first manifesto, the Internationale Situationniste declared that the main task of the new group would be “the construction of situations, that is, the concrete construction of temporary settings of life and their transformation into a higher, passionate nature” (Debord 2002: 44).
This spatial critique then has an intrinsic relation to what one could call our form of life and, in particular, to a radical renewal of the everyday. As Andy Merrifield (2002: 173) notes: “To change life is to change space; to change space is to change life. Architecture or revolution? Neither can be avoided. This is Lefebvre’s radiant dream, his great vision of a concrete Utopia.”
In a text on films shot by the Lumière and Biograph companies before 1903, Keiller (2013: 155) writes: “On looking at them what struck me was a contrast between their often familiar-looking landscapes and the unfamiliarity of the society glimpsed in them. In the last hundred years, the material and other circumstances of the United Kingdom’s population have altered enormously, but much of the urban fabric of the 1900s survives.” This passage provides an important link: looking at the built environment offers the opportunity to see a certain backwardness in the way we live. The spatial elements of the landscape allow one to evaluate our way of life. While Dave (2001: 21) is right in pointing out that Keiller shows, throughout London, “an allegiance to traditions of municipal socialism and a culture of cosmopolitanism (London under the GLC); a support for the republicanism mandated by theories of Britain’s incomplete bourgeois revolution; and ‘anti-capitalist’ style direct action,” the renewal Keiller’s films point to seems to go beyond the scope and promise of municipal socialism. The emphasis in the films can be said to rest on the ability of film or photography “to poeticise or otherwise transform experience of everyday surroundings” (Keiller 2013: 118). The films’ defamiliarization of familiar locales has in sight the possibility of catching glimpses of a radical subjectivity capable of engendering a revolution of everyday life. The expression, derived from the imaginative title given to the English translation of Raoul Vaneigem’s ( 2012),Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations (The Revolution of Everyday Life), implies a radical overturning of what is already here, a sweeping upheaval not merely of the mechanisms and hierarchies of the political and economic system but of those minute gestures, habits, perceptions that—often implicitly—sustain and promote it.4 While the import of this revolution may seem limited, its promise is to rebuild society from the bottom, showing “the extent to which the objective conditions of the contemporary world advance the cause of subjectivity day after day. Everything starts from subjectivity, but nothing stays there” (Vaneigem 2012: 4). Robinson in Space begins with the notes of Allan Gray’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), followed by a voice announcing the departure of a Great Western train to Plymouth. The narrator, whom we can imagine is sitting on that very train, delivers a passage from chapter 23 of Vaneigem’s book titled “Radical Subjectivity.”
Reality, as it evolves, sweeps me with it. I’m struck by everything and, though not everything strikes me in the same way, I am always struck by the same basic contradiction: although I can always see how beautiful anything could be if only I could change it, in practically every case there is nothing I can really do. Everything is changed into something else in my imagination, then the dead weight of things changes it back into what it was in the first place. A bridge between imagination and reality must be built. (Keiller 1999: 1)
The Solitude of Space
The relation between cinema and architecture is, then, a defining feature of Keiller’s work. In a reflection on the subject, the filmmaker (2013: 147–48) writes that while architects have sought to use cinema as a source of spatial concepts, “what initially attracted me—and continues to attract me to the medium is that it offers the possibility, albeit constrained, to experience non-existent spaces and in particular to experience spatial qualities seldom, not yet, or no longer encountered in ordinary experience . . . for me the medium’s allure has always derived from its capacity to imaginatively transform already-existing space.” This imaginative transformation seeks ultimately a point from which everyday reality can be transfigured. Filming an environment—paying attention to its form and materiality, its overlooked spatial qualities, its vitality, and to the animation that it might impose or receive—is the first step toward changing the conditions of life. Keiller can be said to use film not to depict space but to critique and transform it. In Keiller’s spatial fictions, film becomes, or, rather, returns to being, a spatial technology. At the opening of the essay “Architectural Cinema,” Keiller (2013: 75) writes that “since its invention, the cinema has offered glimpses of what Henri Lefebvre described, in another context, as ‘the preconditions of another life.’”
This focus on the transformative possibilities of film can be more fully articulated once it is paired with a second observation: in Keiller’s films, the human element is essentially—which does not mean entirely—absent. The presence of human beings is rare, and when we do encounter this presence, we are surprised, almost stunned. When human presences cut across the continuum of townscape and landscape, we experience a shock, as if these were a startling exception (perhaps this is what motivated Mepham  to write that “Keiller is a composer of epiphanies”). What one encounters on the screen finds confirmation in the author’s words. In describing the choice of his subjects, Keiller (2013: 11) writes: “I began to look at places as potential photographs, or better still, film images. . . . This visual material deliberately depicts places that are nearly or altogether devoid of human presence and activity, but which because of this absence, are suggestive of what could happen, or what might have happened.”
The films are constantly returning to this original gesture, the creation of absence but also its reception, to the fact that a certain absence is already at stake in space. Absence can been seen as inhabiting these films in three senses: the absence of human subjects allows space to be reopened, to offer itself to “what could happen,” to “what might have happened,” to what could be; the absence of characters articulates an inability to inhabit space (our hold on the everyday is too tenuous); and the absence of formal gestures maximizes film’s transformative potential.6 The camera gazes from a position that cannot be identified with a subject within the film, nor does it betray an “intention.” As Iain Sinclair (1998: 302) writes, “Keiller gazes at London with autistic steadiness.”
Absence of Human Subjects
Toward the end of London, Robinson says that the capital is “too thinly spread, obscured, too private for anyone to know, its social life invisible.” The description that Mepham (1994) attributes to London negatively should here be reread positively: “The population of this hauntingly beautiful but unreal world is silenced.” I would argue that this absence is not an attempt to see the unseen but rather to see what is already in full view. While Burke (2006: 24) writes that “the desire to see underlies Robinson’s investigations” and that “Keiller’s camera frames that which usually goes unnoticed,” what Keiller turns our attention to is not that the secrets of the landscape must “be gleaned from what cannot be seen.” Everything can be seen, if only we knew how to look. In order to learn how to look, in order to see what could be, we need to empty the frame of human subjects. Similar voiding strategies can be detected in urban science fiction, in both its literary and filmic forms.7 It is not surprising, for instance, that Nigel Kneale’s science-fiction serial Quatermass II (1955) figures in the exhibition that accompanied the release of Robinson in Ruins. One could equally think of Brian Aldiss’s novel Greybeard (1964). The book describes a world emptying of humans where a small group of middle-aged survivors, rendered sterile by a nuclear accident, trails along the Thames Valley confronting the circumstance that no younger generation will ever succeed them.
However, this device could also be seen as a response to Louis Aragon’s emphasis on film’s restriction of vision as a method to emphasize expression. In his first published essay, Aragon (2000: 52) writes that the cinema essentially relies on two properties: an ability “to endow with a poetic value that which does not yet possess it” and the power “to wilfully restrict the field of view so as to intensify expression.” Aragon’s remarks, while seldom referenced explicitly, can be seen to resonate with the work of a number of filmmakers in Europe and the United States who operate outside of conventional narrative codes and who show a deliberate focus on landscape. James Benning’s Four Corners (1998), as well as his California Trilogy (El Valley Centro , Los , Sogobi ) and the recent RR (2007), Ruhr (2009), and Small Roads (2011), deploy similar strategies. Peter Hutton’s Fog Line (1971) and Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s Trop tôt, trop tard (Too Early, Too Late) (1981) are other important—albeit very different—instances of a tradition that insists on the relevance of space for film and on the ability of film to transform space.8
The absence of human subjects in Keiller’s films offers the vision of England as a desert island, a landscape dominated by isolation. In Stoke Newington, north London, the narrator of London (1994) says: “They had gone looking for the man of the crowd and had found instead shipwreck and the visualisation of Protestant isolation.” It is worth noting how, for Deleuze, the island is always an act of recreation. He writes that to live on an island or to image an island is to dream “of pulling away, of being already separate, far from any continent, of being lost and alone—or it is dreaming of starting from scratch, recreating, beginning anew” (2004: 10). There is an inherent impossibility in thinking of an island as inhabited. In the same text, Deleuze writes “that England is populated will always come as a surprise; humans can live on an island only by forgetting what an island represents” (9). An island, Deleuze continues, represents first and foremost the origin, “radical and absolute” (10)—a perfect place for a spatial utopia. The island remains deserted even if populated; the lack of human presence is, as it were, the island’s conscience. Deleuze adds that “those people who come to the island indeed occupy and populate it; but in reality, were they sufficiently separate, sufficiently creative, they would give the island only a dynamic image of itself, a consciousness of the movement which produced the island, such that through them the island would in the end become conscious of itself as deserted and unpeopled. The island would be only the dream of humans, and humans, the pure consciousness of the island” (10). Inhabitation begins when the illusion of mastery of the island is renounced in favor of letting the space realize a consciousness of its own. One could then see the films themselves as acts of spatial re-creation; they gesture toward a re-creation of space. Keiller’s work traces the history of England’s “occupation” through the instants immediately following its evacuation. Some passersby, very few indeed, remain, but one imagines them on their way to ferries, trains, airplanes, cars, and bikes that will take them to other shores, returning England to its natural status: a desert island, with fragments of built environment—as if England were actually only an experiment, a temporary settlement, a millenarianist avant-garde. In order to reimagine our space, we have to insist on its invisibility to us, on its absence from our life and, as a consequence, on our absence from it. Thus Keiller’s attention turns first and foremost to what Lefebvre (1996: 103) calls “practico-material morphology.” This morphology, for Lefebvre, offers a number of possibilities, virtualities, and potentialities that must be cultivated: “The virtualities of actual societies are seeking, so to speak, their incorporation and incarnation through knowledge and planning thought . . . if they do not find them, these possibilities go into decline and are bound to disappear.” In other words, unless certain possibilities that remain latent and only reveal themselves negatively in the built environment are not nurtured and “realized” by knowledge (in this case, by film), they disappear, leaving one without alternatives. Keiller’s films are devoted to, and practice, these very alternatives.
Absence of Characters
It should also be noted that the characters that animate Keiller’s films are all, in different ways, on the verge of disappearance. Rather than inhabiting their spaces, they haunt them, gazing at streets and buildings as if they already belonged elsewhere. The shorts produced prior to his first feature-length work are particularly significant. The character that narrates Stonebridge Park (1981) declares, after having committed a violent crime, a longing for “the safe world that exists only between railway stations; and only demands the passive acceptance of the view out of the window.” He then continues: “Why was it that existence always implied that one should intervene in the world? Why could one not somehow contrive to remain a spectator of the picturesque bungling of others?” In Norwood (1984), the audience learns that the narrator is actually dead and musing from beyond the grave. In The End (1986), the narrator professes an excess of powerlessness and admits to being unaware even of his own (“assured”) inexistence. The voice from The Clouds (1989) begins his story by observing that his mother “lived as if in a trance, a mere receiver of thoughts” and concludes by describing himself as “weary of life before even having entered upon it.”
Robinson himself—this most penetrating researcher, half Franz Kafka, half Daniel Defoe, with the physiognomy of Manfred Blank from Straub and Huillet’s Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations) (1983)—never speaks with his own voice; he rather listens to his thoughts uttered by his partner (see Keiller 2012: 6). While in London we learn from the narrator that Robinson starts fearing for his well-being as a consequence of John Major’s victory in the 1992 election (“There would be more drunks pissing in the street when he looked out of the window and more children taking drugs on the stairs when he came home at night. His job would be at risk and subjected to interference. His income would decrease. He would drink more and less well. He would be ill more often. He would die sooner”), in Robinson in Space his isolation has become complete (“He seemed to know no-one in the town, and he had no telephone. His only reassurance was the presence of eighteen undeniably utopian Routemaster buses, operated by enthusiasts in a deregulated market”) (Keiller 1999: 6). By the time his demise has become the thematic underpinning of a third film (Robinson in Ruins ), he has vanished. All that is left of him is the result of his research: “19 film cans and a notebook found in a derelict caravan.” If in the first two films, Robinson controls the counterpoint of image and sound by proxy—through the voice of Paul Scofield—in the third installment, his absence has become more radical; he is now an “influence.”
It is worth recalling how Lefebvre pairs space and the everyday along diverging lines. The two concepts are linked and yet estranged, because either the built environment does not take the living into account or because the everyday flattens the built environment and foregoes the stories it embeds (this particular disassociation has been extremely productive in the work of Nigel Thrift, Edward Soja, Derek Gregory, and Edward Casey but also, in different ways, in Michel de Certeau, Guy Debord, and Marc Augé). The absence of humans and of characters from space shows that space is itself invisible from our life, its effects uncalculated, but more importantly, it shows that space can be seen differently. If space can be seen differently, in the tradition that Keiller inherits, then the everyday, life itself, can be seen differently. The utopia here is precisely in thinking that space itself must be changed before society can be changed, and that once the fabric of space is seen in a different way, then this change takes hold. Keiller (2009: 413) himself writes that attention to landscape functions “both as a critique of the world, and to demonstrate the possibility of creating a better one, even if only by improving the quality of the light.” Within the same text, Keiller declares that when he first started, landscape filmmaking “involved the pursuit of a transformation, radical or otherwise, of everyday reality” (413).
Absence of Gestures
In this cinema of abeyance, one is then presented with a redoubling of absence. Existing space can be observed only in absence of its inhabitants, and simultaneously, the one who observes can do so only by insisting on his own absence from this space, by turning this absence into the point of view. Iain Sinclair (1998: 302) writes that the experience of watching these films “is like the very beginning of cinema, when an audience was thrilled by watching the representation of a train arriving at a station.” Keiller is therefore producing the point of view as an overlook, both in terms of deliberately choosing to frame overlooked space and in terms of looking over and over again. A grammar of overlooking can be traced in Keiller’s frequent cuts from wide shots to close-ups and extreme close-ups or in the biography of the lichen from Robinson in Ruins.
The overlook registers absence at two levels. An attention for space—a certain insistent look at it—demands the denial of human presence, as if individuals had to be removed from the space they use before this can be “read.” As Sinclair (1998: 302) writes, “Keiller is shooting surveillance films with a postcard camera.” At the same time, the imagined space can be extracted from the actual only if an absence is registered within the image, the absence of lived life. Absence is therefore a result of the overlook Keiller adopts and of its commitment to the (emancipatory, radical, utopian) ideas informing this practice. His images produce a space without people because they try to produce a space that does not exist by redoubling the absence within existing spaces: these are not for us, they are not how we want them, they can’t be inhabited, they don’t stop—even when inhabited—being deserted. Keiller’s films cultivate the ambition of “creating spatiality” (Alvarez 2015: 37). The relation with the profilmic space is both faithful (the places are observed in detail, gazed at through durational shots) and completely imagined (through the lens of what one could call a geography of absence). The absence is both observed in the space and projected on it; as a consequence, one feels that this absence really does exist and yet is completely “imagined” (produced by “the filmic image”).
The potential for transformation can be occasioned not in the gathering of crowds but in the solitude of a profane illumination.
The Tenderness of Space
The narrator of London confesses that “Robinson believed that, if he looked at it hard enough, he could cause the surface of the city to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events, and in this way he hoped to see into the future.” The reference here is to Lefebvre’s (1991b: 39) representational space: “the dominated space . . . passively experienced—which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate.” Cinema is a technology of space; it is not a representative device but a spatializing technology. Lefebvre famously condemns images (an indictment that would be echoed by his former assistant Jean Baudrillard) with a critique that, at times skirting on iconoclasm, is directed not at a particular type of image but at visual media themselves: “Where there is error or illusion, the image is more likely to secrete it and reinforce it than to reveal it. No matter how ‘beautiful’ they may be, such images belong to an incriminated ‘medium.’ Where the error consists in a segmentation of space, moreover—and where the illusion consists in the failure to perceive this dismemberment—there is simply no possibility of any image rectifying the mistake. On the contrary, images fragment; they are themselves fragments of space” (1991b: 96–97). However, he also points out that “occasionally an artist’s tenderness transgresses the limits of the image.” When this transgression is occasioned, something else altogether emerges, “a truth and a reality answering to criteria quite different from those of exactitude, clarity, readability and plasticity” (96). By negotiating a position between the absence of signs and the signs of absence, Keiller’s spatial fictions return space to its potentiality, thus consigning it to its own tenderness, an exactitude beyond measure.
Iván Villarmea Álvarez (2015: 82) develops a similar reading and describes London’s interrupted dérives as “the backbone of Robinson’s research, his fieldwork.”
See, for instance, the night of John Major’s victory in 1992, which Keiller introduces in London with a series of shots from a high viewpoint, a compositional strategy widely used in the tradition of landscape painting. The narrator offers no consolation but a mix of shock and depressed resignation:
It seemed there was no longer anything a Conservative government could do to cause it to be voted out of office. We were living in a one party state . . . Robinson’s first reaction was one of spleen. There were, he said, no mitigating circumstances: the press, the voting system, the impropriety of Tory Party funding—none of these could explain away the fact that the middle-class in England had continued to vote Conservative because in their miserable hearts they still believed that it was in their interest to do so.
In an interview from 1983, Lefebvre reflects on his relation to the situationists: “I was close friends with them. The friendship lasted from 1957 to 1961 or ’62, which is to say about five years. And then we had a quarrel that got worse and worse in conditions I don’t understand too well myself, but which I could describe to you. In the end, it was a love story that ended badly, very badly. There are love stories that begin well and end badly. And this was one of them” (Lefebvre 1997: 69).
Vaneigem remains loyal to a Nietzschean version of Marxism, one that aims to contaminate political economy with the politics of desire.
Built in 1969 by two architects who had designed other examples of municipal modernism (including the new Harlow railway station), the Canal House is visibly inspired by the work of Eric Mendelsohn.
This absence of gestures is precisely the gesture. In this, Keiller belongs to a tradition of landscape filmmaking that also includes James Benning; the literary parallel would be Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.
For more on the topic, see Sobchack 2004.