(image: Patrick Keiller)
A collection of Patrick Keiller’s essays confirms the filmmaker as one of Britain’s most important geographers
Patrick Keiller has a claim to being one of this country’s most important geographers of the past quarter of a century. Trained as an architect, maintaining a semi-detached relationship to the modern university, and only latterly embraced by the art gallery world (Tate Britain staged a seven-part installation entitled The Robinson Institute in 2012), he’s created an instantly recognisable form of infrastructural aesthetics.
In essay films such as London (1994) and Robinson In Space (1997), he explores – in a manner that is at once droll, analytical and quietly furious – contemporary buildings and landscapes, many of which at first sight appear dull and undistinguished. Using a still camera, mordant and lightly fictionalised commentaries voiced by fruity actors such as Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave, and narrative structures based on bookish perambulations, his central theme has always been the patchily rendered, poorly understood legacies of modernism in England.
The View From The Train, a collection of essays going back to 1982, serves as a valuable introduction to Keiller’s intellectual and political preoccupations. These include the role of individual subjectivity and imagination in imbuing a landscape with meaning; the paradox that Britain is, for the most part, a wealthy nation but, both in towns and major cities, very often looks dilapidated; the fact that “industrial production has not been very successful at producing houses for the people who are otherwise its consumers”.
There are many references to the likes of Henri Lefebvre, but because most of the pieces are tied to his film or gallery projects, these don’t feel merely citational. Keiller also talks about Louis Aragon and, like Aragon, is keen for surrealism to be seen as a tool for political transformation rather than just a visual style.
He’s also strong on the need to document and understand what he calls “found architecture” – buildings and developments that may not be especially attractive to the eye, and that may even be regarded as key contributors to the rise of the “Crap Britain” publishing genre: “Windowless sheds of the logistics industry, recent and continuing road construction, spiky mobile phone aerials, a proliferation of new fencing of various types, security guards, police helicopters and cameras, new prisons, agribusiness (BSE, genetic engineering, organophosphates, declining wildlife).”
These may sound like examples of what Marc Augé has described as “non-places”, but no responsible cultural cartographer should ignore them; indeed, Keiller appears to find in them a perverse glamour.
Because Keiller often discusses 19th-century flaneurs such as Charles Baudelaire, as well as the philosopher Walter Benjamin, who argued for the imaginative as well as political benefits of walking in modern cities, he’s often described as a psychogeographer. (Having his films championed by Iain Sinclair might have something to do with this too.) That term has become a buzzword among academics and artists in recent years, so much so that it has mostly lost its insurgent, socially radical associations and become a byword for near-antiquarian mooching.
No wonder that Keiller tartly observes how “as individuals, we can’t rebuild the public transport system, or re-empower local democracy, but we can poeticise our relationship with their dilapidation”. Elsewhere he claims that psychogeography “seems to have been an end in itself”, so too does storytelling so that “instead of avant-garde architecture, we have the Time Out Book of London Walks”.
Keiller can come across as a little dry … He describes the television dramas of Alan (Boys From The Blackstuff) Bleasdale as “didactic tear-jerking” – even though their politics are likely not a million miles apart. But there is humour (and it’s possibly intentional); I certainly laughed when he talks, like a digital-scavenger version of Mr Pooter, of how “one night, just after midnight I came across Camera 58 of the Freeway Management System of the Arizona Department of Transportation”.
A fine, sometimes repetitious, but never less than insightful volume, The View From The Train would ideally be accompanied by another book: that containing all Keiller’s screenplays.
The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes by