BY Brian Dillon in Interviews | 10 OCT 03
Featured in
Issue 78

London Calling

An interview with Patrick Keiller

BY Brian Dillon in Interviews | 10 OCT 03

During the 1980s Patrick Keiller made a series of short films which juxtaposed footage of urban and other landscapes with fictional narration. His first two feature-length films, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), are quasi-fictional anatomies of urban, industrial and commercial space at the end of the 20th century. In 2000, he directed The Dilapidated Dwelling, a study of the decline of housing stock in the UK.

Keiller's latest undertaking is The City of the Future, an interdisciplinary project incorporating architecture, film, literature, fine art, photography, geography, history, sociology and economics. It is an ambitious investigation of the ways in which the city (London was the project's starting point) has changed in the course of the last century. Its raw material is the National Film and Television Archive's collection of films from the first decade of the 20th century, testament to an enigmatic and vanished experience of the city - as Keiller put it in London: 'It no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern: London was the first metropolis to disappear.'

Brian Dillon  How did The City of the Future evolve out of your earlier films?

Patrick Keiller  London was based on the idea that city space can change - or can be changed - in ways that involve subjectivity rather more than physical alteration. In the UK this has become familiar only recently - for us it was largely a phenomenon of the 1990s - but it was explicit in France in the 1950s and 1960s, in the Surrealists' perception of Paris, and in Prague in the 1920s.

BD  So it's a poetic transformation of the city, rather than a practical one?

PK  Urban redevelopment was something my generation grew up with. It was often unwelcome, but the idea that buildings aged and would be replaced seemed fairly general. Large-scale redevelopment is still encountered - in Spitalfields, for instance - but it no longer happens to the extent it used to. London is not about that, but it does seem to be part of what happens instead. The subsequent film [Robinson in Space] was (partly) about the production of a particular kind of new space - the logistics landscape, the supermarkets, the spaces of the consumer 'revolution' - very visible outside London. It was a search for a modernity, or supermodernity.

BD  The City of the Future is also our city, the past's future: a future that is not quite as it was imagined at mid-century.

PK  In making The Dilapidated Dwelling I had looked at some fragments of a film called Neighbourhood 15, which was commissioned in 1947 to document the activities of the reconstruction committee of West Ham Borough Council, and made by Stanley Read, later director of the BFI. The subject is seen as if by a schoolboy who lives in the Tidal Basin neighbourhood of Canning Town, which had been very heavily bombed. Much of the borough was then only about 50 to 80 years old. There was a lot of what was regarded as slum housing, but also a lot of housing that wasn't that old at the time, much of which survives, despite the bombing and subsequent redevelopment. I was struck by a contrast between the familiarity of this space and the extent to which the way of life seen in the film had changed.

BD  Whereas in fact, in the era of redevelopment, there was a belief that the whole space would be altered.

PK  Yes - people's existing patterns of life were relocated in new spaces, which was often traumatic and sometimes catastrophic for some of the people relocated, to an extent we will never really know. This is now less common, and instead we live 'new' lives in old spaces. The film asked whether this is likely to change, and concluded that it probably isn't.

BD  So the way that cities change has itself changed. How does archive film register that change?

PK  The onset of the relative non-transformation of the built environment appears to coincide with the beginning of cinema, so that the films depict familiar spaces inhabited in an unfamiliar way.

BD  How is that subjectivity manifest in the early films?

PK  First, I suppose, as the subjectivity of the filmmakers, which isn't necessarily what I'm most interested in, but one detects other things. There certainly appear to be more people in the streets, and people occupy the streets in a different way - there are hardly any cars - though the presence of the camera is often visibly influencing events.

BD  Do people carry themselves differently?

PK  I think they probably do, though it's difficult to say. I hadn't realized, for instance, how many men still wore top hats in the 1900s, but in many respects the impression varies from film to film, or even the speed at which one runs them - and it's often not known at what speed they were originated. I have been looking at a film, Panorama of Ealing from a Moving Tram, a view from the top of an eastbound tram passing Ealing Broadway, photographed in 1901, which suggests an almost emancipatory atmosphere that reminded me a little of Pissarro's paintings of Bedford Park in 1897. The streets are lined with large union flags, which I initially thought might be celebrating some event in the Boer War, or Empire Day, but the people don't 'look' particularly jingoistic - if that's possible - and it turns out that both the film and the flags were prompted by the inauguration of the electric tramway - one of the first in London - and Ealing's incorporation as a borough, which coincided on 10 July 1901 and are events of a rather different kind.

BD  The public space in question in The City of the Future is primarily London at the beginning of the 20th century.

PK  Initially it was, but I'm inclined to widen the geographical scope so as to concentrate on the first decade of cinema. The early films appear attractive because most of them are single shots of 50 to 100 feet (about 1 to 2 minutes) - they explore their landscapes in a way that later, more conventionally edited films do only rarely.

BD  Given the length, texture and resonance of the films, are they reminiscent of contemporary film art, of film, in a way, starting again?

PK  Certainly the forms - the single, long takes; the static camera or the phantom ride - are among forms one finds in present-day gallery film and international cinema. Film may not be 'dead', but it is changing - the project we're discussing was made possible, or at least much easier, by digital technology, and the changed status of photographically originated film follows the spread of electronic images. The first decade of film interests me more than, for instance, the late 1900s - 1907 is already difficult - because although there are some very compelling subjects, by then most of the films are edited sequences of much shorter shots, so that one is continually glimpsing a few seconds of another world, then being hurried on somewhere else.

BD  The project has already produced its own little utopias, its own places ...

PK  I've made a database. This is a somewhat bureaucratic realization of a fiction that was envisaged as something like a virtual city, but it's also a tool for others. I don't think anyone has ever looked through the archive's catalogue - the National Film and Television Archive is where I have concentrated - searching merely for documents of urban space. It's intended to become a searchable database for people who are interested in urban space in film, especially actuality film from the early years of the 20th century. The majority of the titles I've viewed are from before World War II, most of them before sound.

BD  Is the labyrinthine database a preparation for something that can be exhibited: a film or installation?

PK  It's part of the preparation, but also an end in its own right. The search has also produced some film programmes, but the goal is to produce a 'work', or works, both for gallery or similar exhibition and as a single screen film. At the moment I'm intending to produce something that permits both these options - a digital assembly of film and other material that can be viewed in various ways. I don't think it will be Robinson 1900. I wondered if someone might fall through time and find themselves on the top of a tram in 1900, but that seems unnecessary.

BD  London through the looking glass...

PK  For The Dilapidated Dwelling, I had an idea that the narrator would discover a virtual city of video-on-demand for the streetscapes of the last 100 years - if you wanted to explore Camden Town in 1904 you could type it in and you'd be there, on a tram in the High Street. In the film this was a redundant device, but I still find it attractive. A selection of archive film might be a 'ruin' of this, first, because so little of everyday life ever appears in films, and second, because only a few of the early films survive. However, viewing the films seems to have removed the need for such devices, and the idea that the project might be some kind of sequel to the preceding productions ...

BD  ... which have a very strong, if enigmatic, narrative component. Is something similar possible, or desirable, with this project?

PK  I'm not sure; I don't really want anyone to talk over the films. Another question is to what extent it's linear. If it were a virtual city, when you reached the top of Camden High Street, you could decide whether to go to Chalk Farm or Kentish Town. I've noticed that the films are often very self-contained and don't seem to lend themselves to compilation. On the other hand, that's exactly how 'editing' evolved, when exhibitors spliced single-shot films together.

BD  But at the same time, faced with a streetscape around 1900, you're looking at an experience of the city well documented elsewhere.

PK  Yes - but however well documented, we really know very little. Film is not very good at interiority, but I can explore the interiority of the past, and the difference between this and the interiority of our time, in other sources, and juxtapose this with the appearances in the pictures - which is how the other films work.

BD  It wouldn't be difficult to find narrative precursors: the turn of the century is saturated with literary visions of the city transformed or threatened ...

PK: My starting-points were to be Dracula, War of the Worlds, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent; Sherlock Holmes was revived in 1901. But then one discovers that Simmel's The Metropolis and Mental Life was published in 1903, so there's a lot to do. Bergson's Matter and Memory is 1896, which is the second year of (projected) cinema. There were visitors, too: Apollinaire, in 1901, and Lenin, who lived in a house in Finsbury during 1902-3.

BD  So you could pan slowly into the 1920s: T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf ...

PK  But the turn of the century appears more attractive, because of the films. The first films offer a kind of window, before the cinema was diverted into narrative. The first decade of film is a time of tremendous technological change, with the 'first' skyscraper in 1895, the motor car, the first transatlantic radio transmission, an enormous increase in the size of ocean-going ships, powered flight, the electric tram, and the spread of earlier inventions such as electric light, the phonograph and the telephone. It's also the peak period of European emigration (though by this time more from southern Europe), and emigration and cinema engage in various ways. It was a decade of an enormous acceleration in the growth of virtual space, similar to that which we experience today.

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.