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cultural geographies in practice Landscape and cinematography
Royal College of Art
n January 2008, I began the cinematography for a work1 conceived as a search for images of landscape, and of what is conventionally thought of as nature, which would become the basis for an exploration of ideas about dwelling. I had already made three films in a similar way: the first, London,2 conceived, essentially, as a story about a man who thinks he would be happier if London were more like Paris; the second, Robinson in space,3 an exploration and, ultimately, a dismissal of the idea that the UK, or England, is a backward, failing capitalism because it has never had a successful bourgeois revolution; the third, The dilapidated dwelling,4 an exposition of the continuing failure of consumer economies, particularly the UK’s, to successfully produce and renew domestic space, and of the condition of domesticity in advanced capitalist economies. The current project had its origins in a longstanding desire to continue this kind of activity, which had been curtailed in about 1997 by the sudden disappearance of the possibility to initiate such films as public-sector cinema or remit-fodder television, and in some of the ideas I had encountered in researching the earlier projects.
Former cruise missile silos, Greenham Common, Berkshire, May 2008. © 2009 SAGE Publications 10.1177/1474474009105056
as in. comparable images of a peasant life now lost. had been revealed as the city with the fastest rate of population growth (1. as Doreen Massey had pointed out. however. formerly an office and. I had quoted Martin Heidegger: ‘Let us think for a while of a farmhouse in the Black Forest. Polanyi’s book. which became the A4. similar preconceptions were disposed of. writing (in 1944): ‘Dwelling. unlikely ideal: difficult. giving particular attention to the enclosure process in England and the development of the economic system at the beginning of the 19th century.12 published in 1944 and conceived as a response to the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. to alleviate distress caused by a rise in the price of grain following poor harvests. internal mobility was not. some long-established structural characteristic. and the north end of what is now Newbury’s main street. particularly the idea that freedom of movement was a factor in the early development of capitalism in England.4% per annum) of 410 . It had already become clear that neoliberalism was. Grade II listed building. is now impossible’8 might have had in mind a dwelling that. between 1900 and 1983. quoting David Harvey: ‘The contradictions are endless: “The two economic engines that have powered the world through the global recession that set in after 2001 have been the United States and China. Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven.’5 Heidegger’s idea of dwelling. to attain. not particularly neoliberal. Polanyi accorded great significance to the Speenhamland system of poor relief devised. I decided to make the Pelican the first destination for the project’s wandering cinematography. especially in developed economies. which was built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants.9 As the project progressed.”’10 Pursuing the question of why capitalism first took off in England. but rather the intended result of political decisions. in December 2007. Arguing that laissez-faire was no such thing. At the beginning of the project. The irony is that both have been behaving like Keynesian states in a world supposedly governed by neoliberal rules. or the George and Pelican. in the proper sense. by the Berkshire magistrates who met at the Pelican Inn in Speenhamland on 6 May 1795. in the end. was mentioned with increasing frequency by broadsheet and other commentators13 as a useful companion to the crisis that was unfolding perhaps more rapidly than had been anticipated even by those who had long predicted it. had it been possible. and to counter the increased labour mobility legislated for in the same year. a bank. which. but the intended result of legislation: the partial repeal of the Act of Settlement in 1795 ‘in the interest of freeing hands to go where burgeoning capitalist enterprise needed them most’. With all this in mind. with its agricultural connotations and its emphasis on ‘the different generations under one roof’ and ‘their journey through time’6 seemed an elusive. untroubled by capitalist displacement. the coaching trade having declined after the opening of the railway through Newbury in 1847.cultural geographies 16(3) In the proposal. On the other hand. for example.11 I encountered references to Karl Polanyi’s The great transformation. Its starting point was about 27 miles away. it was an empty. would have perhaps resembled that found in such imagined worlds. as it was in 1795. and the Pelican. in which Polanyi set out to describe the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. I had explored the mythology of Anglo-American capitalism. in a dilapidated part of Oxford. Speenhamland is a part of Newbury. It ceased to be an inn in about 1850. was a large coaching inn at the junction of what was then the road from London to Bath. if not impossible. In 2008. During 2008. ordered the house. for long ignored or derided by economists. divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things. Henri Lefebvre’s ‘Notes written one Sunday in the French countryside’7 (in 1945) still seem to be widespread and even Theodor Adorno.
structurally unsound. while the latter’s subject had suggested many locations. around this starting point. Oxfordshire. perhaps unsurprisingly. It had been empty for several years owing to its being. price inflated by increased demand and speculation in international markets. continuing until the end of September. having made an erratic circuit. a ruin which suggested a plausible ending for a narrative and another allusion to The great transformation. most of them fairly easy to get a picture out of. a distant property company anxious to demolish it. it was supported and protected by an unusually extensive construction of scaffolding and plywood. I had not worked with a ciné camera since 1995. In December 2007. and had become an attractive site for fly-posters. I recalled a sentence in the introduction to Fredric Jameson’s The seeds of time: ‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism. the present project’s theme was much less obviously imageable. Themes that emerged during the cinematography include oil. wary of producing footage that too closely resembled that of the earlier film and because.15 I had noticed an unoccupied neo-gothic villa in a street near the centre. either as Near Islip. I had accumulated about 4½ hours of 35mm negative. anti-clockwise. perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.16 I adopted the house as a camera subject. according to its former owner. and had written. 411 .14 and has an unusually high rate of homelessness. With an interest in the comic and other possibilities of gothic revival. famously. if volatile. in a passage ‘Refuge for the homeless’ in Minima moralia that ‘it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home’. October 2008.17 stopping when I arrived at another at-risk domestic structure. late and damp. which was slow. in the context of a high. and to begin with found it quite difficult to identify camera subjects. I had been particularly keen to make some footage of the wheat harvest. a new owner had been granted planning permission to convert it into flats. nuclear weapons. space exploration and. and having in mind that Adorno had spent the years 1934–37 in Oxford.’18 The most successful camera subjects seemed to offer the possibility of overcoming this weakness.Keiller: Landscape and cinematography any in the UK. agriculture. By the end of November 2008. so it seemed likely that the scaffolding and plywood might be dismantled at some point during the coming year.
I began to wonder why I had never noticed these difficulties before. ultimately. or whether I had simply forgotten them. The final decision rested not so much on these considerations as on the materiality of the photographic image. Film hence tends to involve a greater commitment to an image before starting to turn the camera. for which cameras and editing equipment are no longer produced. This hybridity of photographic and digital media so emphasizes the value of the material. IMAX. so that the footage is never seen at its best until the end of the production process. the legendary colour films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The choice of 35mm as the originating format for the pictures was made despite knowing that the resulting work would be viewed most commonly in some reduced electronic format. but its spatial qualities had never quite matched those of 35mm. film stock is expensive to purchase and process. even the largest moving-picture format. mineral characteristics of film that one begins to reimagine cinematography as a variety of stone-carving. the largest practically portable format. Landscape and architectural photography is often further characterized by finely differentiated contrast and shadow.33mm is seen when projecting in the now-conventional 1. which also contribute to a mimicked stereoscopy. as if they might amount to a non-sedentary perception. so that they require continual management. a high-definition format used as a lower-cost alternative to 35mm origination of feature films. data stored on a device in which their originality is not physically located. and electronic image and digital file formats are prone to rapid obsolescence. routes or views from high viewpoints. and the camera’s magazine holds only 122m of stock. both to limit expenditure and to avoid running out of loaded film. which utilized the three-strip technicolor process. by which time some subjects were no longer available and others had changed. but also colour. In comparison. Digital images are. purchase being out of the question. especially when this offers high levels of contrast and colour-saturation as in. Another problem was that.19 however unlikely. markers. unsustainable economic reality had developed.85:1 widescreen ratio. Results are visible only after processing. 412 . Landscape photography has traditionally favoured large formats which successfully represent the detail characteristic of landscape subjects. which. a broadcast-quality digital video format introduced in 1996. physical original in a format that has survived for over 110 years and seems likely to continue.21 These latter qualities are often achieved with film. typically monochrome photographed in sunlight. The last ‘film’ I had made was originated as Beta SX. so as to rule out the possibility of a retake. and the equipment would have been very expensive to hire for the period anticipated for the present project. In comparison. is small and 35mm. if only as a basis for successive electronic copies. with the results transferred to 35mm negative from which prints are made for cinema distribution. offers an emulsion area of only 22x16mm. or by suggesting alternatives. a photographically originated ciné frame is a reassuringly visible.cultural geographies 16(3) clues to how the present. I had originated an installation as HDCam in 2006. and there is pressure to stop as soon as possible. Instead.22 The most likely electronic alternative to 35mm would have been HDCam. I noticed that many of what I considered successful images were of signs. with computer editing. Compared with videotape. camera rolls are transferred to video after processing. just over 4 minutes at 25fps. of which only about 21x11.20 such detail being one of several qualities that can combine to create the illusion of three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional image. was usually several days later. it is no longer usual to make a print to edit. in this case. for example.
both as a critique of the world. His focus. of everyday reality. Robinson in space (82mins. 1999). Verso. so that cinematography involved the pursuit of a transformation.S. as I have never encountered much written or other enquiry as to why illusory three-dimensionality might be valued to the extent that it seems to be. ‘Building dwelling thinking’.landscape. Harper & Row. and The city of the future. Patrick Wright is preparing a monograph. 201–27. in Kitty Hauser’s Bloody old Britain. Recent works include Londres. he favoured stark contrasts. 413 . Biographical note Patrick Keiller studied architecture at University College London and fine art at the Royal College of Art. Crawford’s photography: ‘Like photographers of the New Objectivity. ‘Refuge for the homeless’. featuring a 1000m2 30screen moving-image reconstruction of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Bombay. for the British Film Institute. in Minima moralia (London. p. at BFI Southbank. even if only by improving the quality of the light. Like them. and Doreen Massey will produce an essay.htm and links.23 I recently came across a description. its subjects and the process of its production. an exhibition at Le Fresnoy: Studio national des arts contemporains. and to demonstrate the possibility of creating a better one. where he began to make films. Tourcoing (13 October 2006–24 December 2006). Ibid. . with no blurring or mistiness. 1997) for the BBC and the British Film Institute. language. like theirs. early in the Thatcher era. which it was his aim to illuminate as clearly as he could. . 2008).ac. clarity was his goal. .1900. based at the Royal College of Art. and Matthew Flintham the project student. 1975). in Poetry.uk Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 One of several projected outcomes of The future of landscape and the moving image. an assembly of maps and early topographic films as a five-screen navigable landscape of the UK in c. London (23 November 2007–3 February 2008). adapted and extended as Robinson in space.uk/research/larger/future_of_landscape_moving_ image. The dilapidated dwelling (78 mins. Critique of everyday life (Volume 1) (London. 38. an interaction with the film. . Reaktion. pp. p. See: http://www. and a conversation with Patrick Wright (London. 1994). a critique of past and present ideas of deep settlement and their engagement with landscape. in which Professor Patrick Wright of Nottingham Trent University and Professor Doreen Massey of the Open University are co-researchers. Henri Lefebvre.’24 I had forgotten that photography is often motivated by utopian or ideological imperatives.ac. radical or otherwise. after encountering a surrealist tradition in the UK and elsewhere. pp. 2000) for Channel Four Television. Martin Heidegger. email: patrick. 160 (emphasis in the original). 2005). Matthew Flintham’s related PhD project is Parallel landscapes: a spatial and critical analysis of military sites in the United Kingdom.keiller@rca. was on the object or the scene in front of him.] It was commitment that lit up his photographs [. [.Keiller: Landscape and cinematography One of the aims of the project is to investigate the significance of the spatial qualities of landscape photography and cinematography. 145–61. a research project in the AHRC’s Landscape and Environment Programme. Theodor Adorno.G. thought (New York. of O. I had embarked on landscape film-making in 1981. London (85 mins.] Such photographs suggest a love of the world that was almost mystical in its intensity. Verso.
including the gradual replacement of much of the existing built environment. to the south. Duke University Press. The British landscape (London. Livingstone.. national self-sufficiency in agriculture. 39. See. a radical reform of the design and construction of dwellings and settlements. see Margaret S. pp. to the east. p. 68–75. Chris Boot. 29. 1976). New Left Books. Doreen Massey. for example. Launton. Adorno. October 2008). 2008). p. Bloody old Britain: O. The seeds of time (New York. One of the subjects of the project team’s discussions has been the tendency of film to suggest a homogeneity – primarily. and that if actually existing socialisms go down the drain. ed. a revival of manufacturing industry. citizenship and the state (Cambridge. See. Homelessness strategy 2008–2013: A brief summary (Oxford City Council. better ones later on’: Fredric Jameson. p. The great transformation: the political and economic origins of our time (Boston. ‘Sweezy reminds us that capitalism failed to catch on in a number of places before it finally arrived in England. The Guardian 6 October 2008. described the three-dimensional look that characterizes a sideways view with a moving camera as ‘the stereoscopic effect’. Beacon Press. p.cultural geographies 16(3) 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 John Torpey. 1988. 2005). Polity. Henry ‘Hangman’ Hawley’s house at West Green. Columbia University Press. Oxford University Press. 213. Which might involve hopes for a sustainable energy supply. RAF Brize Norton. John Davies. This economic orthodoxy was built on superstition’. 143–4. ‘Faith. The transition from feudalism to capitalism (London. for example. Granta. Manchester University Press. 1991). so homemade: surrealism. that contribute to the illusion of depth. ‘Refuge for the homeless’. 2002). Fredric Jameson. NC. Not all the locations photographed will necessarily be seen in the finished work.160–86. MA. Scientific American 258(1). 147. to the west. Cambridge University Press. 414 . p. Cities Outlook 2008 (London.G. 67.S. Centre for Cities. 2007). p. novel political forms to bring all this about. the cultural logic of late capitalism (Durham. A brief history of neoliberalism (Oxford. of appearances – which is at odds with lived experience. See. 2006). David Harvey. to the north. p. So exotic. the British film pioneer. 1996). especially but not exclusively monochrome images. Karl Polanyi. For a possible explanation of why this might be. 146. illusion and the visual system’. for example Ian Walker. 152. 2007). above. xi. see Rodney Hilton. Movement. p. Cecil Hepworth. Postmodernism: or. 1999). 2007). Some of the more distant camera subjects are. pp. Kitty Hauser. etc. the site of a meteorite fall in 1830. p. p. 264. Englishness and documentary photography (Manchester. near Bicester. Crawford and the archaeology of modern life (London. Belief. World city (Cambridge. a radical reconfiguration of humanity’s relationship with the rest of the biosphere. but not only. ‘Art. for the Dobb-Sweezy debate. 31. Hampshire and. pp. Trust. see also note 22. contrast and detail are qualities of images. and the former Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott. there will be other. The invention of the passport: surveillance. Madeleine Bunting. the disused chalk quarry of a former cement works at Chinnor.
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