An island is always an uncomfortable entity, for there the struggle between earth and water is simply contained, never entirely over. In one of many reflections on territorial matters Gilles Deleuze writes ‘that England is populated always comes as a surprise; humans can live on an island only by forgetting what an island represents. Islands are either from before or from after humankind’ (1).
How did the island come to be inhabited? Who got there first and how? What relation do the islanders have with the separation that structures their lives from within? An island is a dérive, a geological drifter, and sometimes it reclaims its original absence, it thinks of itself as a desert. Could one say then that this theme of England as a desert island motivates Patrick Keiller’s filmmaking? In other words, could one trace in his work the idea of an essentially deserted place, occupied by people yes, but only provisionally, part-time, awaiting a better destination? Could Keiller’s journeys be thought of as preparatory explorations meant to capture the moment of disappearance? The sense emerging from his films and from the essays collected for the first time in The View From The Train is that Keiller’s work is at its best when it manages both to trace the history of England’s ‘occupation’ and to capture the instants immediately following its evacuation. Some passers by, 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 the built environment. As if England were actually only an experiment, a temporary settlement, a millenarian avant-garde. Since every island could be imagined as longing for absence, Keiller’s work could be said to identify the specific traits this state of affairs has assumed in England. After all, as Deleuze continues, ‘an island doesn’t stop being deserted simply because it is inhabited’ (2).
The essays, composed over the last thirty years, show how these problems are thought through and analysed with fastidious care. The wilful reliance on the petulance of facts (see for instance the wonderful text ‘Port Statistics’ [p. 36]) is a recurring strategy; it guarantees a ground whilst at the same time challenging assumptions as to what figures can do. Keiller gives us a cue to this when he writes in the introduction that his first film ‘did not say very much that had not been said already. Its novelty was perhaps more in the way it represented what we already knew’ (p. 1).
Towards the end of his Species of Spaces, French author Georges Perec writes ‘I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving, intangible […] places that might be points of reference, departure, origin […] such places don’t exist and that is why space becomes a question… It is never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it’ (3). Perec’s reflection – developed within the Oulipo, therefore at close conceptual and geographical contact with the Surrealist legacy and the Lettrist and Situationist cliques – emerges from a sense of absence. It is because space does not exist, it is never given, that space becomes a matter of discussion. Perec is after the ‘infraordinary’, a renewed vision that would wrest space of its immediacy in order to return it to a richer immediacy. The writer – like the filmmaker – goes about this very systematically – there are specific practical exercises in his work – and the goal of his investigation is what he calls exhaustion (as in his An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (4)). The accumulation of apparently lifeless observations and mute facts aims to produce the transition from one lack to another, from the absence of space to its resuscitation by exhaustion. The tension between the absence of space and the need to make the question of space problematic, removing it from the self-evident, drives Perec (and Keiller) to exacerbate the lacks. 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, deserted streets of a deserted island, like those of Atget invoked via Benjamin at the beginning of the book (p. 18).
One should also note that Keiller’s characters all confess to a feeble existence. They are on the verge of disappearance. Rather than inhabiting their spaces, they haunt them, they look at streets and buildings as if they belonged elsewhere. The shorts produced prior to his first long feature (London, 1994) are particularly telling in this regard (5). The character from his first filmic work – the wry 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 (but then a ‘beyond’ is always already implied in the use of a raconteur, isn’t the voice the most accurate manifestation of disembodiment, both as signature and isolation?). In The End (1986) the narrator professes an excess of powerlessness and admits to being unaware even of his (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’. Most characters speak from the threshold of life, either before it or just after. This gives the films their singular sense of ‘irreparability’ (the philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes ‘at the point where you perceive the irreparability of the world, at that point it is transcendent’ (6)).
Robinson himself – this most penetrating researcher, half Kafka, half Defoe – never speaks with his own voice, he rather listens to his thoughts uttered by his partner. By the time his ruination has become the thematic underpinning of a feature film, he has vanished, leaving behind only the findings 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 voice by proxy, in the third instalment his absence has become more radical; he has transformed into an ‘influence’.
In this cinema of abeyance one is then presented with a redoubling of absence. The space can be observed only in the absence of its inhabitants and simultaneously the one who observes can do so only by insisting on his absence from this space, by turning this absence into the point of view. Keiller’s films can then be thought of as phantom rides, albeit very different from the ones he analyses in this book (p. 159). What Aragon called frisson (p. 16) ‘the possibility to endow with a poetic value that which does not possess it’, and Perec calls épuisement, a minute description of ‘what happens when nothing happens’, becomes in Keiller a special kind of look. The question of looks and views permeates the book as much as the films. Evoking the idea of a radical subjectivity capable of transforming absence into productive friction, Keiller writes: ‘reciprocity of imagination and reality; place seen in terms of other place; setting as a state of mind all are phenomena that coincide in films’ (p. 31). Who is looking then? What is this look doing? What kinds of looks cross the multiple absences of these films? What kind of absence are we talking about?
Keiller begins London with the sentence ‘this is a journey to the end of the world’ (7). A book produced to accompany an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London is titled The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet (8). One would expect then to be in the presence of an apocalyptic filmmaker. The apocalyptic film works, however, in the opposite way to Keiller’s. The gaze of the apocalyptic filmmaker tends to focus on human elements amongst the complete destruction of landscape and organic life. The absence is in the landscape itself, a human look on a non-human landscape. Keiller tries exactly the opposite: he tries to show what space would be if seen anew. Absence is in the look, while the objects of this look are familiar, ordinary locations and already existing places. In end-of-the-world films one tries to revive the look where civilization is disappearing; here the opposite movement is at work, bringing the look elsewhere, where culture – our way of taking space as a given, of overlooking it – can’t quite reach it. Keiller is therefore producing look as an overlook, both in terms of deliberately failing (or pretending) to notice acquired ways of looking at space and in terms of having a view from above (or beyond), as 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 absence is in the eye and it is Keiller himself to suggest this idea. Commenting on his first works, he writes ‘the first experiments are marked by a lack of people, human presence and activity’ (p. 11). The overlook registers absence at two levels: an attention for architecture, a certain insistent look at it, demands the denial of human presence, as if individuals had to be removed from the buildings they use before these buildings can be ‘read’. More importantly though the absence of human events is a consequence of Keiller’s discourse – not just a by-product of his ill-boding tone (one always understates the ironic inflection these pronouncements have) – but the very thing Keiller is looking for, the possibility to change space before we change society. The imagined space can be extracted from the actual only if an absence is registered within the image, the absence of lived life, the sign that the promise the film is formulating is by no means achievable in and by the film. Yes, the actual space contains the eventual space. No, the gap between the two is not easy to bridge. Absence is a therefore a result of the overlook Keiller adopts and of its commitment to the (emancipatory? subversive? revolutionary?) ideas informing this practice. His images yield a space without people because they try to produce a space that doesn’t exist. One encounters a redoubling of the absence within actual 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 – to be deserted.
The subjectivity that transforms this space necessarily constitutes itself elsewhere; away from the communities or collectivity we inhabit in our actual everyday. In other words, a collectivity for this eventual space doesn’t exist, not yet at least (but also, here is perhaps the politics of these films: a collectivity doesn’t exist even for actual space; if capitalism exists as it does, then we can’t exist).
One starts understanding also the frustration Keiller feels for the contemporary psychogeographer: instead of functioning as preparatory exercises, these subjective reinventions risk becoming self-referential activities removed from their ultimate goal. The more we invest in them the more we move away from designing and building better dwellings. However, the argument against psychogeography is one that Keiller seems at times to direct also against himself: in the end these films do not ‘build’. They do not conceive a new community, if not through the nature of film, which allows radical subjectivity to pass for collective. Perhaps this is why even if much remains hidden, I have the feeling that these films know two or three things about me.
If there is something apocalyptic then, it is not, as is usually the case, in something that we observe, but in the observer. If in end-of-the-world films the eye witnesses disappearance, in Keiller’s films the eye seems to produce it. The overlook makes manifest the idea of cities without men and in the latest Robinsonian instalment effectively hints at a deserted planet. The potential for transformation can be occasioned not in the gathering of crowds but in the solitude of a profane illumination. Is it perhaps that something like a human community, which could exist these places has disappeared – as Lefebvre seems to think – or that we are building but no longer dwelling as Heidegger has it?
At the beginning of the book Keiller quotes Wilde ‘the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible’. In another essay he adds ‘the meaning in the landscape resides only in the imagination of whoever looks upon it’ (p. 33). This taking the side of things, this reliance on the visible, seems at times to enact a degree of animism. London (1994) confesses to this quite explicitly: ‘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’. This seems to recuperate the idea that if we are to survive ourselves, to survive our lives, we have to recuperate a look on the everyday that we have lost because of our immersion in it. We have killed the world and now we have to bring it back to life. The root of our interest in the everyday seems played always around this idea that the actual everyday contains and hides at the same time, the eventual everyday.
In his Traité de savoir-vivre, Raoul Vaneigem prepares the ground for the world to learn what it already knows, because, as he writes, ‘we can escape the commonplace only by manipulating it, controlling it, thrusting it into our dreams or surrendering it to the free play of our subjectivity (9).
What this book gives us to think then is the geography of absence. The essays insist in particular on London, ‘London is structured around an absence’ (p. 95) and ‘one often detects a sense of absence, even in the center of London’ (p. 156), ‘London began life as a port, but now the port is absent’ (p. 37). But absence here is not thought ‘as the opposite of presence but as the moment where our presence is not necessary for things to go on’ (10). Keiller thinks space as absent. This absence however is not the subject of his films – the subjects are rather ‘the problem of London’, ‘the problem of England’, ‘the survival of life on the planet’ – but the condition thanks to which Keiller can make these subjects into films.
The absence therefore has to be incorporated in the look. Keiller is at once seer and producer of absence. He doesn’t film absence as such, but a relation to the absence of space, he does not film things but relations between a look and an idea invaded by the real. One could say that Keiller’s films work by frames, rather than by images. Something moves inside the space that the stationary camera has opened. Something is invoked, called to resist, the landscape is allowed to profess its own absence. Serge Daney writes ‘because it is impossible to predict everything, what one needs to do is accommodate the “more” that comes from the real. Divine revelations, left-overs, objective signs, proofs and evidences, bad surprises, elements of the real preventing the imaginary from shutting off. The filmmaker looks once and then he too becomes passive and disappears between what he has rendered and what he didn’t want’ (11).
Keiller’s frames leave humans out and revel in the deliberate scarcity of gestures – like a text on port statistics – in the composed withdrawal of intentions, in the disappearance of the look. But then one already knows that the absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence.
Patrick Keiller, 2013. The View From A Train: Cities and Other Landscapes (London: Verso Books).
- Deleuze, Gilles. Desert Islands and Other texts 1953-1974 (trans. Michael Taormina; ed. David Lapoujade) (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 9
- Ibid., 10
- Perec, Georges. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (trans. John Sturrock) (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 91
- Perec, Georges. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (trans. Marc Lowenthal) (Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press)
- Thanks to Will Self for lending me copies of Keiller’s shorts.
- Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community (trans. Michael Hardt) (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press), 105
- London (1994)
- Keiller, Patrick. The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet (London: Tate Publishing, 2012)
- Veneigem, Raoul. The Revolution of Everyday Life (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith) (Oakland, CA: PM Press, ), p.3
- Daney, Serge. L’exercice a été profitable, Monsieur. (Paris: P.O.L., 1993), 60
- ibid, 20