The Artist Pioneer

This article was published by 3:AM magazine in October 2014, and is republished with kind permission from 3:AM.

______________________________________________________

 

images

Our contemporary stripped-pine pioneers have recreated a pattern of street life that originally belonged to the old working-class East End […] Their crescents and squares are turning into one-class communities of neighbours […] The easiest way of making house prices soar is for two people to move into a decrepit square and paint their facades white. The point should be taken within a few weeks, when these ghost pioneers should these be able to re-sell their houses at an amazing profit.’ (Jonathan Raban, Soft City, 1974).

Since the 1960s a picture has emerged. A collective language of urban development, which paints artists – to use a generic conglomeration of fine artists, writers, architects, photographers and filmmakers – as urban pioneers. It would seem this has become the portrait of urban renewal. Artists as what Jonathan Raban so cuttingly called the ‘stripped-pine pioneers’. First-wave foot soldiers of gentrification. Bolding marching beyond the frontiers of well-trod quartiers, in search of new, cheap, interesting spaces to live and work. Renovating, retrofitting and renewing areas of the city which have often lain degraded by economic and industrial decline. Rebuilding them from the rubble up, towing eager property developers in their wake. Creative pioneers, who, in the following decades will be kicked out as future rich ‘yuppies’ move and property prices were pushed into the stratosphere.

This language of the artist as pioneer has a long history, working alongside a Romantic vision of the artist as outsider. As practical craftsman. As bohemian in their ability endure the rough and ready lifestyle of run-down spaces, and poet in their re-vision of them. However, it is this direct connection to housing – with artists as pioneers of urban renewal – which is particularly traceable to a period in the late 1960s and 1970s, voiced first with the loft conversions of New York’s SoHo district, and later transposed, to areas to the East of London. In Hackney, Bow and Wapping, artists of the late 1960s eagerly took over industrial warehouses, laid dormant by declining industry. Housing cooperatives like S.P.A.C.E and Acme, made these shells of brush and lightbulb factories, into studios, and into loft-living spaces. In areas still left standing after the Blitz, and after the exuberant demolition and tower block construction of the 1950s and 60s; artists also took up occupation in Victorian and Georgian properties which had been largely left to rot. Renovating them, and renewing part of East London like Shoreditch and Hoxton from areas of declining population, to the now fashionable hubs of recent years, with booming commercial and residential, and creative economies. In a fascinating BBC documentary, ‘Ours To Keep’, the late, great Denis Severs – whose house in Folgate Street, Spitalfields, was a beacon for these creative incomers – espouses the freedoms of these artist renovators. As he puts it in 1985, ‘I think most people think of it as a new frontier [..] that is what makes it so special’.

It was Ruth Glass, the Marxist sociologist, who first introduced that clunky portmanteau, ‘gentrification’ to our vocabulary in 1964, describing the advancing middle-classes in Islington. Just north of the East-End. Over a decade before Thatchers housing reforms, Glass’ sociological survey led the way for property to become an indicative linch-pin in the analysis of urban change. She outlined the process of opportunism as (often) left leaning, young liberal intellectuals and creative graduates moved to ‘shabby, modest mews and cottages’ in run-down areas, transforming them into ‘elegant, expensive residences’ with escalating price tags. In East London, half a decade later, it was the very demands of new waves of graduate artists, seeking cheap living and working space, which brought new middle-class inhabitants to the East End of London. Established housing associations, like S.P.A.C.E and Acme studios; and working collectives like the London Filmmakers Cooperative, in the late 1960s and early 70s. These semi-organised groups took advantage of the disordered local housing systems, and large numbers of derelict buildings. Utilising them from their own individual and collective purposes. Like New York a decade earlier, it is through housing that one can see this perfect curve of transformation. Artists moving in, areas being ‘done-up’, priced-up, and later, when these prices sky rocketed, with artists being priced-out.

While Glass’ report in 1964 was ahead of the curve in reflecting this process, her tone is far from glorifying the activities of these middle-class incomers. She describes Islington as being ‘invaded’, and states that, ‘once this process of gentrification starts in a district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed’. Other writers have given even more violent accounts of this process. The historian Jerry White has suggested these gentrifiers were a Trojan horse, whose belly has burst […] the bastards […] fanning out through the streets, burning, looting, raping. Trampling our memories, stealing our treasures, destroying our history. Stripping our assets. From White’s perspective of ‘our’ history, the history of residents of East London before the late 1960s, these in-coming residents are colonialists. Ransacking the old East End. Though White’s metaphor is somewhat overdramatised, his perspective does highlight how divisive the language of the ‘pioneer’ is. It’s whitewashing of the people who lived and worked in East London long before the gentrification of the 1960s, and whose culture, traditions and industries long pre-predated this period. It is the pioneer as adventurer, crossing the unknown frontier, which presupposes the East End as a ‘non-place’, without characteristics, culture or economy before these artists moved in. And nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. In direct opposition to this, it is extremely interesting that the artists moving to East London, were themselves so interested in the culture and history of the area. Indeed, it was the historic vibrancy, the multicultural mixing of East London which intensified interest in artists moving to the area in the 1960s and 1970s. We can see it in the works of artists like Gilbert & George, Jock MacFadyn; in the films of Derek Jarman and Stanley Kubrick. An interest in the reality, the grit and industrial culture of East London, which was slowly being eroded by this process of gentrification.

The East End has always held interesting communities of artists, writers and thinkers; long before the YBAs of the 1990s. To name but a few key groups; cooperatives were set up, like the East London Group including John Cooper and Walter Sickert in the 1920s and 1930s, keenly interested in the landscape and workers of the East End. Public institutions like the Whitechapel Gallery have been important supporters of local artists since first opening in 1901. Exhibiting international shows of Jackson Pollock and Picasso, to the people of the East End, as well as providing a exhibition space for local artists. Areas like Whitechapel and Bow have long been the historic location for craftsmen, and important place for artists and writers of immigrant communities who made East London their home; from the Huguenot silk weavers, to the Yiddish community. Groups that emerged include the important ‘Whitechapel Boys’, with members like Isaac Rosenberg and David Bomberg, whose work is keenly interested in the Jewish community in this area at that time. Artists who moved to East London in the 1970s clearly did not wish to whitewash these previous communities. Indeed, in recent literary traditions, from writers like Iain Sinclair, there is a certain scavenging mentality which draws heavily on a certain historical nostalgia for an East End before they themselves arrived.

In the years just before groups like S.P.A.C.E studios emerged in East London, a key documentary by Robert Vas’, Belonging (broadcast by the BBC in 1967), is an incredibly interesting record of three artists living in and around Stepney in the mid-1960s. Vas himself was a Hungarian emigre, forced from Prague after the uprising in 1957. His early films, like Refuge England, were included in Lindsey Anderson’s pivotal Free Cinema movement, and as such portray a neo-realist stance with a humanity which exposes individual stories behind big political and social events. In Belonging, Vas follows the painter John Holmes (known as Johnny Martin for the purposes of the documentary), the poet Johnny Quarrell, and the Yiddish poet, Abraham Nahum Stencl, each struggling with their work and the context of their surroundings in East London. On-one-hand these artists represents a strong cultural and artistic life in the East End, and yet, there is an implicit acknowledgement that these men are outsiders to the traditional or commercial systems of London at the time.

This is particularly evident as Vas follows John Holmes, working through the night in his modernist sixties council flat, as he tries to break into the commercial galleries in West London and in the world of advertising. Throughout the film is evidence of artists working and living in East London, and yet it is equally clear that their horizons are focused on central and west London, or even abroad, to have any commercial or public success. This is also true the other artists from East London, like David Bomberg, who necessarily involved themselves in circles in Camden, or in North London, in order to have opportunities to exhibit and be significant within the art worlds of their time.

What changed then, from the late 1960s to today? Why did East London establish itself as such a hub for working artists from 1968-1980? The answer can perhaps be found in this very language of the artist pioneer, which I have suggested is so culturally divisive and historically inaccurate. Artists organisations like S.P.A.C.E studios, set up by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgeley in St Katherine’s Dock in 1968, while by no means being the first group of artists in the East End, were pioneering in the way they approached and provoked the systems of the art world which had been long established. They muscled their way into these warehouse spaces, seen at the time as blighted symbols of imperial decline, and negotiated with the Greater London Authority for their temporary use. Many of these artists also pioneered a new forms of open criticism to public funding organisations like the Arts Council, challenging their narrow systems of arts funding. They actively encouraged change in the system which would allow new, young graduates to pursue avant-garde art forms of, not only bigger in scale but also beyond the remit of the commercial gallery as a space of display. Particularly in performance art, in mixed media, in film and in sculpture. It is interesting that, with many of those involved in S.P.A.C.E and Acme at this time, materials gleaned from local dumps and street corners were increasingly valued; with artists like Richard Deacon, using worn out domestic appliances and scrap wood, occupying an Acme studio at Acre Lane at the time.

It is new attitudes to exhibiting art which were key to how East London expanded in this time. While Johnny Holmes, in Vas’ documentary of 1967, was forced to look towards traditional commercial galleries in West London; only a few years later, large numbers of pioneering gallery spaces had been set up, fundamentally reforming the centre of art distribution and display. Groups like S.P.A.C.E were early adopters of the idea of ‘open studios’, encouraging collectors, gallerists, critics, and importantly other artists to visit their studios and view their work. This was not pioneering, the idea of open studios had been initiated centuries before in the salons of Paris, had been developed within the cultural circles of the Beat Poets in New York, and in Warhol’s Factory. But the idea of inverting the traditional flows of artistic production and dissemination, manifested at the time in exhibitions like When Attitudes Become Form, which was brought to the ICA in 1969, and indeed the writing of artists like Daniel Buren; radically altered the centre of the art world, bringing the space of the artists studio back into the centre of the art world.

Housing associations like S.P.A.C.E and Acme, not encouraged a critical mass of artists to move to East London, but also allowed a far more vital and communal attitude to art practice and exhibition to emerge. When Acme was founded in 1972 by young art graduates Jonathan Harvey and David Panton, S.P.A.C.E studios had already laid the way for working with local authorities to use and renovate derelict spaces in London, which Acme took full advantage of. Seeing the need for new forms of exhibition space, Acme established the Acme Gallery in Covent Garden in 1974, moving to The Showroom in Bow from the start of the 1980s. Many of the early residential properties Acme offered, by Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Leyton councils, were in a considerable state of disrepair and dereliction. So artists who took over these properties need to be innovative in their renovation of them, on very limited budgets, working within the limited planning controls imposed upon them to create spaces which would work best for them. Knocking through ceilings, walls and opening their spaces to allow them to get their pieces in and out, and to be spaces of production which they could life and work in. It was also as a group that they could share the skills of many of the artists who moved into these properties, with artists often supplementing incomes as builders, painters, plumbers ect. Indeed, in 1975, Acme brought out the first of many collectively published guides to doing up properties titled Help Yourself to A Studio, which was repeatedly republished in different forms throughout this first decade.

This DIY approach to making your own space also enabled many of these artists to create domestic galleries, and to show their own and each others work. Acme properties like the 1950s prefab houses on Conder Street, in Stepney, were used by artists like Bobby Baker, as temporary galleries. In 1976, Baker staged her performance series An Edible Family in a Mobile Home, allowing visitors to walk around her home over a period of two weeks and shockingly to consume the edible family she had created. A key street was Beck Road near Broadway Market which, in the 1980s, was home to artists like Genesis P. Orridge, Helen Chadwick and Mikey Cuddihy, and the centre of a tight knit art community. The American émigré, Maureen Paley, opened her gallery Interim Art in Beck Road in 1984, showcasing local artists in her converted home, including Hannah Collins, Susan Hiller, Stuart Brisley, Langlands & Bell, and her neighbour Helen Chadwick. Interim Art became a key gallery, not only because it launched many artists early careers, but also because the fluidity of the space and the experimentation and scope it encouraged, allowed new forms of work and reception to be developed. The centre of the art world was increasingly de-centralised, with, as Daniel Buren put it, the spaces of production, exhibition and commerce being fused and blended.

It is perhaps in the work of artists like Chadwick and Bobby Baker, both Acme residents, that the pioneering impact of these new gallery spaces is illustrated. Chadwick’s celebrated In the Kitchen series, first shown in 1977, like Baker’s Edible Family, used the houses as a space of performance and display, to say something new and politically current about the role of women, the family and the traditional representation of the home. Beyond the novelty of their use of space, and the DIY, ad-hoc construction of their shows; it was the spaces themselves which aided the pioneering of new forms of work, especially for women and from a feminist perspective. But this was pioneering as briocolage, as re-assemblage, rather than as something new. Artists playing with and inverting the ideas of other artists and thinkers. For example Bobby Baker’s implicit play with the works of male artists likeClaes Oldenburg’s Store (1961), which she admired, but equally wished to ‘domesticate’. Many artists in East London were putting these thoughts into practice. In their renovated Victorian properties or even pre-fabricated modernist blocks, it was the very scale and domesticity of these independent galleries, which brought a visual critique and oppositional context to the work. And more importantly, brought critics and collectors to their own front doors.

While, in the 1960s, avant-garde artists had lamented the lack of funding from sources like the Arts Council into new artists and spaces, by the early 1970s these pioneering projects and organisations had begun to attract significant grants and funds from the Arts Council, the Gulbeiken Foundation, and later, others like the National Lottery from 1994. Indeed, in her reflections on the late 1980s and 1990s, the filmmaker and performance artist Rose English, a long term collaborator of director Sally Potter and Acme resident, suggested that funding for performance art went into serious decline as funding was sucked into refurbishing properties. To an extent, the feedback loop of the surge of interest in East London since the late 1960s, particularly in terms of property and building regeneration, has been a victim of its own success. One cannot and should not circumscribe a blanket generalisation about the impact of this period of the 1980s and 1990s, on artists in East London, but under Thatcher, many artists living as tenants in properties like those of Beck Road under Acme, were invited to buy their properties, cementing and stabilising the situation of many artists who had been living in temporary, short term or squatting situations. Many were able to buy properties, maintain cheaper studio spaces through many of these continued housing associations. Some even profited significantly from the ensuing housing bubbles, and from new audiences and interest in their work which developed as a result of this new interest in East London. I say one cannot generalise because this is certainly not the whole story. At the same time, the price of properties rose to the extent which surpassed the means of many. Living prices also increased, and with new, more wealthy residents, many parts of East London have been cleansed of the tatty, self-made roughness, which at once galvanised residents in the 1970s towards change, and formed such an indelible part of the identity of the East End, which artists often revelled in.

If we look at this period, from 1970 to the present day, can we say this was a period of pioneering? Since the 1960s, many areas of East London have been completely transformed; both by the large government driven re-developments of the Docklands, and most recently at Stratford. But, at the heart of the re-invigoration of East London, has been the impetus and creative re-imagining of the area, often by incomers during this period of early gentrification. In the long-duree of East London history there is a problem in invoking the language of the pioneer. These artists were by no means the first, nor will they be the last to transform the area. Nor was this the East End the only area which was so transformed. Now, in areas like Deptford, Lewisham, Peckham and Purfleet, new generations act as stripped pine-pioneers. Rediscovering the suburbs, new outskirts of London. Seeking cheap living and working spaces. Looking for fledgeling communities of like-minded people.

Like the decline and fall of civilisations, as Gibbons would label it, gentrification sweeps into areas, transforms them, and then ultimately supersedes them. It is a waxing and waning process, which possibly, leaves the possibility for some further re-incarnation in the future. At some point, maybe soon, East London will cease to be nest of creative output. Artists moving to new areas, urban professionals replacing them, prices going up, creative industries moving on. Wave on wave on wave. And where is the pioneer now? Those artists pioneers of East London in the 1970s. Most are now in their 60s and 70s. Many have moved. Some made money in the ensuing property boom. Some not. Those who have stayed often look in horror at the influx of ‘hipsters’, at the new bright-young creatives and professionals leaking into East London, and turning every corner into a Climpson’s coffee shop. So generations roll over each other, re-making the city. It is not the city as a tabula rasa, with its populations pioneering new unfound territories. It is the city as a palimpsest. Continuously re-written, over-written, malleable. Reformed in continuous amorphous evolution.

 

Advertisements

The Necessity of Disorder in a Soft City: De Certeau vs Foucault

Here is a short article published in two parts by The Society Pages (September, 2014):

Part I

For better or worse, [the city] invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in.

In his novel Soft City, written in 1974, Jonathan Raban eloquently drew out a vision of London as a fluid city. A city in a continuous process of making and re-making by its inhabitants. A postmodern city whose central locus was not imposed and pre-constructed, as with modernist urban utopias like those of Le Corbusier, but a palimpsest. Malleable and in constant state of construction.

My own research into the fluid fabric of the city has concentrated on the social and cultural shifts in East London when Raban was writing in the 1970s. I am looking, in particular, at the influx of artists whose DIY activities and collectives were instrumental in the transformation of this area of London. Again and again looking at this period I have returned to a central debate between the two French theorists, Michel Foucault and Michel De Certeau, regarding the power relations in the spaces of everyday life. A debate which hinges not only on how we see the city, but how we continue to construct future cities.

For Foucault power relations are everywhere, as mechanised actions, attitudes and functions in daily life. But in his vision of discipline and power, his panopticon; Foucault focused primarily on the imposition of power on the individual and the construction of environments and mentalities which ordered and controlled society. In his work The Practice of Everyday Life Michel De Certeau openly criticised Foucault’s instrumental power relations, suggesting that individuals (agents) often had power either through accepting these power relations, but also be resisting and manipulating them as consumers. De Certeau drew distinctions between the ‘strategic’powers, and the ‘tactical’resistances to these strategies through the re-appropriation of resources, spaces, language and narrative. To use an example to explain the differences between De Certeau and Foucault: a boss might impose work hours on an employee, but at the same time an employee might resist this control by spending time on Facebook or on the phone during their work hours. While Foucault’s work necessarily drew attention to the increasing move towards organisation as a central issue of power, De Certeau brought focus to the complexity in this one-directional flow of power. To the agency of individuals in re-ordering these very flows, and the actions of the everyday as the locus of this subversion.

When considering the complex organism which is the city, I would assert that in effect both Foucault and De Certeau are right. For De Certeau’s ‘tactical’ activities to exist, they must have strategic powers to resist. As Gibbons has suggested, the binary of strategies and tactics are not unique, but dynamically interconnected and interrelated. To look at it another way, we can consider their debate through Newton’s law of thermodynamics. In Newton’s second law there is an acknowledgement of entropy, the natural move of energy from systems of order to disorder. Systems of order and coldness require energy to be maintained, from the refrigerator to the white room. But, within rigidly constructed systems, there is little room for manoeuvre, improvement or collaboration. For cities to work therefore, there is a need for strategic powers of control which bring organisation and order. But, on the other hand, for cities to be malleable spaces which are friendly, inclusive, communal and vibrant; there needs to be a bit of disorder so that individuals have agency and input over the spaces and environments they occupy. For the city to be a space which an individual can remake, it needs to allow the agency of its inhabitants. To invite the individual to reform it into a space they could live in.

 

 

Review: The View from the Train by Patrick Keiller

London-006

Patrick Keiller’s film London (1994) has haunted and intrigued me since I first saw it nearly five years ago. The film, a blend of documentary and fiction, presents a year in London as seen through the eyes of an imaginary protagonist, Robinson, whose thoughts and insights are related by an unnamed narrator. Keiller, through Robinson, seeks to examine London, suggesting that it “no longer exists” – that it is the “first metropolis to disappear”. This heightened awareness of absence is central to Keiller’s relationship with the urban landscape of London, as well as the critical impetus behind much of his film-making. It is still there, at the heart of his latest book,The View from the Train, a collection of essays published by Verso that charts Keiller’s writing from the start of his career in the late 1970s to the present day. Although his more recent films, Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins(2010), have moved away from London, this collection of essays is clearly devoted to the landscape of the city in which he has been immersed for the best part of forty years.

In his introduction, Keiller sets out the influence that surrealism has had on his interpretation of London, in particular the exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed at the Hayward Gallery in 1978. Surrealism, since the work of André Breton, has been symbolically embedded in the landscape of Paris, but Keiller saw how easily it could be applied to London, by imagining the capital as what Roger Cardinal termed the “soluble city”. This notion of the “soluble city”, in a constant state of flux and revision, is present in much writing about London, such as Jonathan Raban’s semi-fictional Soft City (1974), and greatly influenced Keiller’s film-making. At a recent talk about his work around Battersea and Nine Elms at the Open University, he returned to this idea, suggesting that, while continually changing, in some ways London hasn’t really changed at all. In his early work, Keiller documented the architectural changes of the 70s and the rapid cycle of ‘new’ architectures in the era of late capitalism. His work has often recapitulated the city as having an organic – rather than controlled or wholly planned – evolution. It is clear in this career-spanning collection, possibly with the virtue of hindsight, that Keiller considers continuous change to be in some way the status quo. He does not mourn for a lost London, but takes pleasure in re-appropriating what has been overlooked.

Verso

In one essay in this collection, Popular Science, Keiller quotes Guillaume Apollinaire’s description of the London suburbs from the train as “wounds bleeding in the fog”. Apollinaire stayed in London in 1904 and 1905 and saw the city’s rapid suburban expansion as a flight from the wounds at the city’s heart. Apollinaire’s beautiful phrase seems not just to encompass the suburban ideal that transformed the landscape around London at the turn of the twentieth century, but also to foreshadow the increasingly dystopian London of the 1970s that Keiller came to as a student; a city traumatised by the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block and troubled by the decline of the post-war modernist dream. In his essay Dilapidated Dwellings, which accompanied his television documentary of the same name for Channel 4 (2000), Keiller looks at the legacy of this period by juxtaposing what he calls ‘new’ space – corporate, short-lived – and ‘old’ space – residential, degraded.

In many ways, Keiller’s perspective represents a particularly British mentality; his vision of London embodies a conundrum of town-planning that dates back to the reconstruction of the city after the Great Fire of 1666. Unlike Paris – with vast swathes of its centre straightened out by Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-nineteenth century – London remains a hodgepodge of architectural narratives. Keiller uses the term ‘palimpsest’ in one of his early essays, characterising the city as being continuously rewritten, its land and architectures reused and adapted, rather than as a modernist tabula rasa. Whereas Apollinaire’s view of a bleeding London characterises a city at the turn of the twentieth century, Keiller’s appreciation of Apollinaire typifies a longer view of ebb and flow in the old and the new.

In his essay Benjamin’s Paris, Freud’s Rome: Whose London? (1999), the art writer Adrian Rifkin describes London’s streets as having this “linguistic” structure. Keiller plays with this idea in his own essay Imagining. Like Rifkin, Keiller considers his own history as a London commuter, as well as a wanderer, in a quintessentiallypsychogeographical manner, although Keiller treats this term with scepticism, lamenting its recent apolitical reincarnation at the hands of certain London writers. And yet, Keiller’s films are clearly part of this re-emergence of psychogeography in London – what Keiller calls “the current tendency”. Will Self has alluded to this in his own review of The View from the Train, in the London Review of Books, saying that the “unplanned perambulations” that make up Robinson’s cinematic narrative, and indeed Keiller’s praxis as a filmmaker, are, as Robinson puts it, “seemingly intent […] on bringing about the collapse of what used to be called neoliberalism”, and are therefore highly political. As Keiller states in the earliest essay published in this collection, The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape:

The desire to transform the world is not uncommon, and there are a numbers of ways of fulfilling it. One of these is by adopting a certain subjectivity, aggressive or passive, deliberately sought or simply the result of the mood, which alters experience of the world and so transforms it.

Despite Keiller’s misgivings about psychogeography (particularly what he sees as its role in gentrification, which he describes as a form of colonialism) his vision and practice align with many of the post-Thatcher, London-based psychogeographers of the 1990s, such as Will Self. In fact, the popularity of his films, and the reason for this collection, lies in his very singular ability to consider and alter one’s experience of urban and rural landscapes in a way that many would associate with psychogeography.

This collection is a mixed bag, but it has a fragmented charm. A recurring motif in many of his later essays, evoked by the title, The View from the Train, and giving a loose sense of a theme, is the parallel development of cinema and technology, and the coinciding decline of the cinematic panorama with the growth of the railway. In both Film as a Spatial Critique and Phantom Rides: The Railway & Early Film, Keiller returns again and again to Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that the “space of common sense, of knowledge, of social practice” and everyday discourse was “shattered” in around 1910. Evoking Walter Benjamin’s formative essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Keiller looks at the changing dynamic of cinematic narrative, from the early ‘cinema of attractions’ – in which a camera was mounted on the front of a train to create a continuous, single-frame, moving narrative – to the fragmented montage of space and time in Dziga Vertov’sMan with a Movie Camera (1929). He suggests that the train had an important role in early cinema, both as a subject and as a parallel technology that eroded this idea of a shared space, and the boundaries between geographical and mental space.

Like the railway itself, this collection has an intrinsic, almost perverse linearity to it, moving through Keiller’s thinking and work over forty years and charting his changing voice from failed architect to successful filmmaker and academic. It can be repetitious in a way that is alternately illuminating and frustrating, but for fans of Keiller it brings an important critical dimension to the reading of his films and his thinking over the past forty years. In the essay Architectural Cinematography, Keiller does give some details of his film-making process, but this is all too short and there is not much said about the making of his later films or his exhibition at Tate Britain in 2010. That said, such omissions do not make The View from the Train anything less than invaluable reading, especially as Keiller’s essays are a singular companion to his films, considering the problems of his work without forcing the reader to reach firm conclusions. In that very postmodern way, they pose questions and reflect on his work without resolution. Keiller may pick holes in his own impact, but this collection solidifies his place in contemporary cinema and highlights the importance of criticality and politics in filmmaking. Here, as in his films, Keiller more than fulfills his own brief, as laid out in the first essay in the collection, “to alter the experience of the world and so transform it”.

[This review was published by Litro in Spring 2014]