23rd November 2007 — 3rd February 2008
A revised vision of urban living would be timely. 2007 was the year in
which the number of people living in cities surpassed the number living
in rural environments and apparently this is a trend that must continue
if life is to be economically and environmentally sustainable (1). What
is it going to be like? As part of his ongoing investigation into the
transformation of rural and urban space, (Robinson in Space, 1997,
Dilapidated Dwelling, 2000), Keiller appears ready to risk ridicule and
tell us once more how things are going to be.
But just as space has moved on, so have the types of things that get said and the way they are presented. The open hand of Ebenezer Howard, George Orwell or Ridley Scott has been replaced by a more guarded and systematic approach, beginning, of course, with the archive and the text. Keiller's archive- that of British Film Institute - contains 68 single shot 'actuality' films of about three minutes in length and dates from between 1896 and 1906. His text is a short quotation from Henri Bergson's Matter and Memory written in 1896, in which Bergson tackles the problem of representing time. Together they form an interactive multimedia projection involving walls and screens which the viewer can walk between and menu stations from which films may be selected by choosing a place where they were shot - something like the Google Earth interface, only the revolving globe is substituted by a 19th Century global map with Britain, not the US, at its centre.
There are two or three videos that require repeated viewing. One of them depicts heavy traffic circulating round the junction at Bank. There are all manner of vehicles: horse-drawn coaches, carriages, motorcars, bicycles, steam-powered busses negotiating each other with remarkable speed and precision despite the lack of signage or formal rules. At one point a boy attempts to cross the road. He HeHHkksteps into the street, seeming to judge instinctively the speed, position, and direction of travel of each vehicle that bears down on him, calculating as he does so his best option for survival. As he nears the kerb the film cuts. Bergson's quotation comes to my rescue. "Images are perceived when senses are open to them. These images react to each other in accordance with laws I call laws of nature and, as a perfect knowledge of laws would probably allow us to calculate and foresee what will happen in each of these images. The future of the images must be contained in their present." (My emphasis.) I study the boy's centre of balance, the position of his feet, his speed, the direction in which he is looking. It's a close call.
If there is anything portentous in this archive about the city of the future, the implication is that it can be discerned in the same way as the boy's fate at Bank, that is, by repeated examination of the initial conditions that the footage reveal. Most of it records street scenes, it immediately invites comparison and contrast between the occupation of public space then and now. A trajectory can be plotted and, all other things being equal, forecasts provided as to what public space may become. One significant comparison includes the use of advertisements and the range of shops - evidence that by the end of the 19th Century the middle classes are the dominant force in exploiting the public sphere effectively. Surfaces are papered with advertisements for everything from food to gold, while general stores are interspersed with niche shops: tarpaulin dealers, cosmetic retailers, mint rock specialists. But the un-worldliness of the subjects, unwittingly framed and under surveillance but now within a highly produced exhibition contrasts with the viewer's own sense of knowing (represented in the ability to globe trot at the click of a mouse). This narrative is underscored by scenes in the archive: the motorcar is tracked by the camera as if it is a newly identified species, the ship is just being launched, the train in Canada is heading out into mountainous territory, the soldiers dug into a trench in South Africa are still slogging it out (presumably with the Boers) for imperial control. This footage is of what is arriving rather than what is disappearing and there is an overriding sense of expansion, transition and change. The archive and its display thus suggests a lack of understanding on the part of late 19th Century middle classes of the global character of the public sphere and, by implication, therefore, of the complications that ensue when locally acquired knowledge is applied globally.
This use of history would appear to constitute something of a U-turn on the part of Keiller, and makes the City of the Future a very curious work indeed. For in his film Robinson in Space Keiller took up quite the opposite idea, that of Doreen Massey that space is open and in a state of 'continuous becoming' (2) rather than closed: Robinson's tour of the country revealed that England had moved on in unpredictable ways and its development was not part of any trajectory that could have been predicted at the height of empire. Moreover, the unpredictability of space was an argument formerly made of time by Henri Bergson, as part of his rejection of science and the idea that processes were repeatable, and a-temporal that the future could be contained within its initial conditions. From its' context, The City of the Future would appear to take up the baton and run with a theory of becoming. Difference and multiplicity are key to ascendant philosophies of space, Bergson is ceremoniously cited in the wall text and the installation forms part of a wider collaboration with Massey under the umbrella project heading The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image. In a strange twist however, the footage undermines Keiller's position, generating a scenario in which Bergson is cited against himself, and an argument for the openness of public space is difficult to sustain.
1. 'State of the World Population'. 2007. United Nations Population Fund. Retrieved 7th January 2007 from http://www.unfpa.org/swp
2. Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage Publications, 2005.
BFI Southbank Gallery
London SE1 8XT