"Extraneous knickknacks": Patrick Keiller at Tate Britain

29 May 2012

Tate Britain's Clore Gallery hosted a conversation between Patrick Keiller and Dr. Nina Power on Wednesday, 23 May, in conjunction with the former's exhibition, The Robinson Institute, which runs in the neighbouring Duveens Galleries until 14 October. Described by Keiller as the second manifestation of a journey undertaken in and around Oxfordshire by his fictional researcher, Robinson, the exhibition continues themes first explored in Robinson in Ruins (2010, reviewed here) and presents some artefacts depicted within that film alongside others from the Tate's own collection; juxtaposed in true Robinsonian fashion, the two happily coincide.

My own journey down to London for the event was something of a necessity: as reported last month, I'm about to embark on a thesis this summer that explores the extent to which Ruins overcomes the reconciliatory fashion with which its two predecessors, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), conclude after initially setting out to confront capitalism - limitations commonly embodied by the essay film in general. Alongside this, I'm also making my own film, details or progress of which can be found here.

To some degree, talks of this ilk must inevitably accommodate those to whom Keiller as a filmmaker might be more or less unfamiliar. At least one person in the room admitted to not having viewed Ruins, for instance, while I overheard another confessing beforehand to not having seen any of Keiller's films at all. You can't and shouldn't expect the whole room to be experts, and though the event was sold out, such confessions might double as a retroactive indictment of a generally woeful network when it comes to UK theatrical distribution. Indeed, the historical emergence of the essay film as a commonly oppositional form also seemed to guarantee that any resistance put forth within it is restricted to the periphery, to a marginal perspective.

As such, Keiller's first foray into curation is a welcome one, as it points to and extends the benefits a film of Ruins' sort has to gain from being part of a multi-media and interdisciplinary research project in the first place. (You can read more about this project, entitled "The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image", here.) Indeed, as Keiller himself noted at one point, The Robinson Insititute was curated in the first place partly in response to the problems presented by the film's linearity. Encompassing several interrelated but distinct themes, the film itself might be daunting and dense - upon first viewing, it probably is, though for my money it's the most coherent and rewarding of the three Robinson films to date.

Consequently and importantly, there's a participatory element to the exhibition, with the gallery space doubling as some democratic outlet shared by such unlikely and otherwise disparate pals as Hammer's 1957 sci-fi film Quatermass 2; Marx's doctoral thesis; a Linewatch map of UK oil pipeline networks; an encased extract from a 1795 amendment to the Settlement Act and other "extraneous knicknacks that might engage with landscape art and painting", to quote Keiller. Advised to engage with the exhibition in an anti-clockwise fashion, an opening plaque informs us that each of the seven thematically distinct areas within it unfold in a clockwise fashion. Intriguingly disorienting, it makes us work. Its design and layout is rewarding indeed; I was able to spend a few hours in there before the talk that evening, and will probably venture down again at some point before its time is up.

Of the several themes upon which the Robinson project intervenes, Dr. Power pinpointed three in particular: militarisation, industry and rebellion. Responding duly, Keiller highlighted the context in which his project developed. Searching at the outset for images of a "global predicament" in the landscape, questions quickly emerged as to which global predicament was meant: having just failed again, the economy was the obvious answer. And clearly, this impacts and is impacted by ecological or spatial questions: on the one hand, we had the perceived benefits of neo-liberalism and the sense of heterogeneity and cultural diversity its discourse celebrates, while on the other there was a sudden melancholy or regret associated with a perceived loss of "dwelling". Questions of identity became strategically interlaced (again!) with nation; consequently, the national working class, displaced economically, is told its interests are different to those of the transnational immigrant (more on this by Doreen Massey here).

Keiller humorously attributes this alarming resurrection to "the [7/7] bombings and the fact that Gordon Brown is Scottish". Amusingly presented or not, such identity politics are as bankrupt as they are prevalent - they have overrun both official political discourse and academia for too long. Though the dialogues it prompts might be unfolding in too removed a place for my liking, The Robinson Institute addresses urgent questions that should demand our active intervention. As also outlined in the Massey essay, the market is not the result of natural laws, and so when economic recessions present governments with unique opportunities to implement ideas and ideals that might otherwise be scoffed at or rejected, we should be genuinely worried by the lengths to which they will actively go in order to counteract such hostility. For his own part, Keiller reminds us, at a time of our own massive economic failures, of the fate of Bartholomew Steer and a few peers, who in 1597 were executed for what became known as the Oxfordshire Rising, a protest that in 1596 didn't even take place. Clearly, any attempt to explain away revolutions on the basis of their internal defects, without an understanding of the deliberate forces of counterrevolution, is grossly misplaced.

In Ruins, Robinson concludes that a falling meteorite necessarily coincides with a significant historical occurrence. Steer and co.'s battle was against land enclosure. Over 400 years later, we face ongoing privatisation and a war waged against those dispossessed and displaced by it. Against these reminders, as Keiller likens the epochal rise of today's "Superclass" to that of the gentry, we might ask where our own meteorite is. In asking, we should also be wary of making our own rise analagous to that of the ruling class currently in power: as Trotsky notes in Literature and Revolution, whereas the bourgeoisie had the historically particular means of appropriating its culture before it was able to acquire political power, the historical conditions facing today's working class preclude a harmonious development. In other words, we'll have to make our own meteorites fall. Pressed what he thought of Lenin after the Bolshevik leader's name was mentioned in passing, Keiller admitted he didn't know much about him, but went on to quote what he'd learned from school: "reactionary vanguard politics, i.e., Leninism". It was unclear if the quotation was meant, but its reconciliatory tone should be resisted. (I did wonder what Power, author of this short piece on last year's riots, thinks on the matter.)

Keiller says Robinson's recurrent interest in meteors drives at the fate of the planet. Foregrounded against geological time, human time is comparatively insignificant, or short-term. Put another way, planetary concerns "predate and will probably post-date" human needs. In line with Robinson himself, Keiller hinted here towards biophilia - the love of living systems - as a precondition for addressing seriously the more pressing questions we as a particular species face. As humans, it's necessarily impossible for us to sustain a perspective beyond our own; the geological context is as comforting as it is pretty meaningless. We're left with each other, and the need to love.

In biophilia, Keiller sees an endearing image of scientists entertaining aesthetics. From their practice, he borrows his own purpose for the economic critique that informs The Robinson Institute's aesthetic undercurrent: before any other suggestions, the results of British capitalism are "so aesthetically ugly." Whether this results in an aestheticisation of problems that remain fundamentally political is not yet known, but at any rate the move beyond the moving image seems so far to be a beneficial one for Keiller - though I wouldn't want to see him abandon films altogether - since it accommodates an emphasis on the interrelated nature of life and its objects, and the dialectical relationship between the natural world and our conscious employment of and impositions upon it (what Trotsky termed "culture").

Come July, one hopes for and expects an increase in numbers engaging with The Robinson Institute's fascinating and often eccentric displays. That too will be of a dialectical nature: when asked what Robinson would think of the Olympics, Keiller stressed ambivalence. "I don't think [Robinson] would be going." Noting that Pierre de Coubertin revived the modern Olympics in the aftermath of France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Keiller drew attention to the compensatory element found in sport as an organised spectacle. (No doubt informed heavily by France's defeat, Coubertin famously philosophised taking part was more important than winning.) It isn't difficult to see how the gross abuses, indulgences and mediocrities embodied by this year's Olympics might be designed with some compensation in mind. With aesthetics by this point very much on his own mind, Keiller's inner architect kicked in: if we're to have the Olympics at all, we should at least strive to do it properly, instead of designing and creating buildings whose architecture is "pretty awful really... indefensible."

The Robinson Institute runs at Tate Britain until October 14. Admission is free.

You can read Patrick Keiller's answers to five questions I posed to him early last year here.