BY Kari Rittenbach in Interviews | 04 JAN 11

Patrick Keiller

An extensive interview with the British film-maker, writer and lecturer, about the Robinson trilogy and much more

BY Kari Rittenbach in Interviews | 04 JAN 11

KARI RITTENBACH: Robinson in Ruins (2010), unlike either London (1994) or Robinson in Space (1997), had a team of researchers behind it – Matthew Flintham, Doreen Massey and Patrick Wright – as part of the AHRC-funded project ‘The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image’. Did the conversation with your colleagues have an effect on how the film was made? Robinson in Ruins seems to lean away from literary themes, towards the more explicitly sociopolitical. After the BFI screening the project was presented as a political intervention; what necessitated that action?

Patrick Keiller: The first two films had established themselves in various academic contexts. Robinson in Space, in particular, by visiting a large number of relatively little-studied sites, had made what seemed to be a genuine discovery about the UK’s economy. So the idea of film-making as research wasn’t new. I initially asked Doreen and Patrick to be advisers. Their involvement grew as the proposal for the project developed, and the film evolved in a context shaped by our discussion. There’s a tendency for a film to be received as a more-or-less successful or amusing cultural product; we’re attempting to create a discussion in which the project is understood as we intended: as a political critique, a response to economic and environmental crises.



KR: In London, Robinson loitered on the outskirts of the city, unable to escape its grasp. By Robinson in Space he was touring the country, haunting for the most part unrecognizable urban non-places. His tour of Oxfordshire in Ruins isn’t particularly rugged or wide-ranging but, as a flâneur, was it really so easy for him to abandon the city altogether?

PK: The locations followed very directly from the project’s starting point – the displacement of the previously settled agricultural population. When I began making the pictures for the film, it seemed to be easier to find what I judged to be successful camera subjects outside built-up environments. In that sense, you might see the three films as a gradual progression away from conventionally architectural images. One aspect of this might be an increasing reluctance to make perspectives. Where there are perspectives, these often involve an element of parody, and the hope they’ll get a laugh.


KR: Early British film often surveyed the countryside rather majestically (in phantom ride films, or even Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, 1945), celebrating England’s ascendant modernization. In Ruins your signature static shots ‘fracture’ the flowing landscape (as Doreen Massey described), a style of cinema that sort of paradoxically montages longue durée views. How do you look at landscape as opposed to urban hardscape? Robinson thinks that if he looks hard enough at the ‘surface of the city’ (in London) or alternatively ‘the landscape’ (in Ruins) it will ‘reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events…’

PK: There were probably more early topographical films of urban than rural subjects. In London, the picture accompanying the statement you mention is of the surface of the river, so the narration has ‘the surface of the city’, which is a landscape. In the later film, the picture is a view across a field, so the narration has ‘landscape’, but it’s the same thought. Perhaps it’s more difficult to think of molecules in motion as bricks than as, say, leaves trembling in the wind, but the hoped-for joke is supposed to derive not so much from the camera subjects as from a superficial resemblance between the illusory movement of the grain of successive frames of photographic emulsion, and Brownian motion: the visible expression of molecular movement in a fluid.


KR: Your work has been compared to W.G. Sebald for its lyrical perspective on materialism, although you’ve mentioned that his thinking on displacement and loss is ultimately melancholic. How do you (and perhaps, Robinson) avoid irresolute melancholy? You’re not especially convinced by Heidegger’s concept of dwelling because ‘place’ has almost entirely eroded into the generic, although Robinson continues to do his shopping at Lidl…

PK: The project was prompted by what I saw as a discrepancy between the attention accorded experience of mobility and displacement, on the one hand, and, on the other, a tendency to fall back on formulations of dwelling derived from a more settled, often agricultural past, notoriously by Heidegger. While the former was widespread, it often seemed to involve regret for the loss of something very like the latter, and I wondered if it was possible to avoid this. I also wondered if there was anything about the UK, with its preeminently permeable economy and culture, and its early production of capitalism and capitalist displacement, that might make it a good place to locate such an attempt. If so, this would probably involve thinking about the changes that enabled capitalism to develop from the 16th century onwards, many of which took place in the rural landscape.


KR: Vincent Barry’s 16th-century Manor House in Hampton Gay, Oxfordshire, figures prominently in Ruins, one of few buildings to do so. Robinson’s 19 film canisters are ‘discovered’ in the ‘ruin’ of an abandoned caravan. Because the landscape appears rather verdant – poppies, heads of wheat or pyramidal orchids waving in the breeze or the breeze of traffic blowing by – it’s apparent that ‘nature’ isn’t a ruin. At the same time, it’s not especially natural. Brian Dillon has written that the ruin ‘is not the triumph of nature [or the Burkeian “naturalism” of the market], but an intermediate moment, a fragile equilibrium between persistence and decay.’ In this sense, might the ruin also be a Utopian moment? Can this explain Robinson’s attachment to the disused Oxfordshire cement works?

PK: Perhaps. I think the interest in the cement works and its quarry is primarily that it’s very ‘photogenic’. When one tries to work out why, and what that means, it seems to have something to do with a sense of opening possibility. It probably also has to do with geological time, limestone, etc., which involve a similar intuition.


KR: Vanessa Redgrave wonderfully reprised Paul Scofield’s role as the narrator in Ruins, piecing Robinson’s journey together from his notebooks without having much first-hand relationship to him (sexual or otherwise) and as such can’t comment on his peculiar habits (waxing poetic about ill health, illicit encounters by aid of internet). She comes across as more authoritative, which might have something to do with her own role as a Blairite spatial researcher. Might one surmise that the romance or ironic whimsy of Robinson’s project has been reprimanded by political urgency?

PK: I don’t think he was ever whimsical. In the current manifestation, he seems to be a bit reduced in substance, but he offers a fairly unambiguous endorsement of insurrection, not far from the home and constituency of the current prime minister.

KR: If London is a city which has disappeared, what do you make of the absent (in this case) British countryside, which so few architects and urbanists (enamoured by the megalopolis) seem to care about?

PK: The UK’s landscape is a strange phenomenon. It’s a public good, in that very many people can see it, and much of it is now accessible. But land, as distinct from landscape, is ‘held’ by landowners. Not all of it is in private hands – the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust are big landowners, and some local authorities own agricultural land – but more than two-thirds of the UK’s land area is owned by a small number of private owners. Increasingly, people are asking how land came to be owned in this way, and why it is not a collective resource.

Kari Rittenbach is a critic and independent curator in New York City.