Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Robinson Instute at the Tate Britain and Patrick Keiller's Robinson Films

Back in September, I went to see an exhibition in the Tate Britain which purported to be curated by the Robinson Institute, whose aims were to ‘promote political and economic change by developing the transformative potential of images of landscape’. The exhibition used the classically columned aisles running through the centre of the Tate building, with their temple-like grandeur, to house a jumbled assemblage of materials, turning the spaces into an ad-hoc blend of museum, gallery and library. Its slightly knocked together, church hall aspect, which worked against the professionalism and sanctity of the building in which it set up its stall, gave it the appearance of a collection of artefacts scavenged and gathered together after the fall – a reconfiguration of cultural matter in the wake of a cataclysmic crash aiming to provide a new way of seeing the world. The Robinson who lent his name to the institute was (or perhaps still is) an ‘itinerant scholar’; and like his shipwrecked and marooned namesake, a man adrift, isolated and at a remove from the dominant concerns of society. His name also links him with the Robinson of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s black novel Journey to the Centre of Night, who provides the bitter, anti-social narrative voice, full of fiercely intelligent misanthropy. Celine’s Robinson evolved into the titular character of Chris Petit’s novel, ringmaster of Soho’s night circus, would-be diviner of its secret heart, and witness to the apocalyptic deluge which turns its narrow streets into the canals of a new Venice.

The character of Robinson whose explorations the exhibition drew upon is the subject of three films by Patrick Keiller: London, Robinson In Space and Robinson In Ruins. A blend of fiction and documentary, they are structured around a narration which relates the journeys and reflections of Robinson (we never learn his first name), although he remains an off-camera presence throughout. The images presented to us are coolly, classically distanced, static observations of the atmospheres of place and time, season and weather. Robinson’s excursions are roughly planned, with vague scholarly ends in mind, but allow for diversions and chance happenings or revelations along the way. They are attempts to address ‘the problem of London’ and, in Robinson In Space, ‘the problem of England’. The first two films are narrated by a travelling companion (voiced by Paul Scofield) who is both close to and distanced from his guide (the distance which comes with the well-educated background the narrator’s accent suggests, and which is embodied in the public school use of surnames rather than Christian names as a mode of address); Close enough to be a sometime lover, but not really a friend. Robinson’s explorations take the form of short journeys in search of some particular connection, often of a literary or artistic nature, with place. The seven journeys in London (although the pattern set out at the beginning becomes a little diffuse as events proceed) begins with a pilgrimage to the sources of English Romanticism: Hugh Walpole’s house at Strawberry Hill, the locale for his novel The Castle of Otranto, and the view over the Thames from the hill above Twickenham, the winding curve of the river across the plain still redolent of the pastoralism of Turner and Reynolds. Robinson is in essence a latterday Romantic (a term he describes in London as defining ‘a mode of feeling’), a man out of time in a materialist age. He also shares the Romantics’ yearning for a new Utopian society arising out of the ashes of some revolution or catastrophe. In Robinson In Space, in which he embarks on a further seven journeys suggested by Daniel Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, spiralling outwards from the centre point of Reading, he finally discovers it in the unlikely guise of Blackpool. This it the end point of his journey, a town whose economy is based almost entirely on the pursuit of pleasure. It’s also revealed as the town he came from before he moved to London (and perhaps not coincidentally, it is where Keiller grew up, too), giving his quest something of a Wizard of Oz ‘there’s no-place like home’ circularity.

Robinson In Space explores the strange hinterlands of England, linking the blank spaces of commerce (the container ports of Sheerness and Tilbury), justice and containment (the newly built and privately run prisons at Blakenhurst and Doncaster), self-contained mall worlds (Bluewater and Merry Hill), and military, communications and power installations (the Menwith Hills geodosic ‘golf ball’ tracking stations, DERA – the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency – at Malvern, the smoking cooling towers of Didcot Power Station and the monumental bunkers of Sellafield, and the Hiatt Works, with its historical links to the slave trade). Literary associations with land, place and memory are unearthed and followed up along the way: Paul Nash’s Wittenham Clumps; Daniel Defoe’s supposed meeting with Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe, at the Llandoger Trow wharfside pub in Bristol; and Shandy Hall, where Laurence Sterne set his labyrinthine cock and bull story Tristram Shandy. The final image, of lorries, trains and cars shuttling back and forth over adjacent bridges (the camera angle making it seem as if they are stacked one on top of the other in rising, Metropolis-style layers) spanning the Tyne in Newcastle, is choreographed to Allan Gray’s floating, whole-tone scaled music from Powell and Pressburger’s dream for a post-war Britain A Matter of Life and Death. These hypnotically arrayed bridges with their perpetual contrary motion portray an England caught between an industrial past and some new future configuration, in the meantime suspended in some indeterminate no-place, filling its uncelebrated midlands and obscure peripheries with deliberately faceless, inaccessible and secretive bases, enclosed complexes and depopulated compounds.

If Robinson In Space criss-crossed England observing the furtive landscape of its new service industrial base, then Robinson In Ruins concentrates on a more narrow radius surrounding the city of Oxford. Robinson, having, by the time of Robinson In Space, been dismissed from the teaching position we were told he held in London, has now, it is revealed, spent some time in prison. This may well have been an outcome of his investigations and reports in Robinson In Space. Paul Scofield’s narrator is, of necessity, gone (the actor having died in 2008), replaced by another ex-lover, this time female and voiced with calm authority by Vanessa Redgrave. Robinson In Ruins is presented as a specimen of the found footage genre, a device generally associated with verite-style horror movies. Its filmed content and the written comments read out by Redgrave purportedly derive from 11 film cans and a notebook found in a caravan in the corner of a field. From the beginning, Robinson states that he is ‘looking for somewhere to haunt’, plotting the course towards his conspicuous absence. The evidence he leaves suggests that he has succeeded in managing his disappearance (or has been ‘disappeared’), and is perhaps now dead. His journeys on foot through the villages and fields surrounding Oxford explore in microcosm the agricultural history of England and the current state of arable farming in relation to the wider condition (bad, in short) of the national and global economy.

Rocket sheds at Westcott
Robinson, true to his Romantic nature, seeks out the pastoral picturesque, the soul of a certain vision of Englishness (the kind which put the Hay Wain on hundreds of living room walls), believing that by framing such pictures ‘in the manner of Turner’ with his camera, he will dispel some ‘great Malady’ which has infected and possessed the spirit of place. He also visits SSSIs (sites of special scientific interest) and finds hope for the future (albeit not necessarily a human future) in nature, and plant life in particular. A certain strain of apocalyptic, Blakean mysticism becomes apparent in his usually empirically analytical and intuitively sceptical outlook. He dreams of building eco-villages in old, disused clay pits, ‘experimental settlements in spaces of extraordinary biomorphic architecture’ (spaces which Keiller, trained and practicing as an architect, has perhaps dreamed of too). He is attempting to imagine a new form of futurism, a new kind of science fiction vision to replace the old, now-tainted variety. This futurism past is represented by the old 50s hangars of the rocket testing site (or ‘Guided Projectile Establishment’) at Westcott, a site now occupied by a business park. Robinson’s mysticism extends outwards beyond the bounds of the Earth towards speculations about a cosmic connection linking meteorite falls and historical moments of seismic social and political change. He also believes that ‘he could communicate with a network of non-human intelligences’. These principally seem to take the alien-sounding form of Xanthoria Parietina, more commonly known as lichen. Seen in close up, they do indeed form extraordinary biomorphic florescences against the rigidly geometrical green tesseract patterning of the Newbury roadsign (a beautiful image which was reproduced as a large photograph in the exhibition). Exotic beliefs stemming from a science fiction imagination (frequently indistinguishable from reality in the bewilderingly swift and ceaseless flux of the present) were also voiced in Robinson In Space (hence the title, I suppose), in which Robinson ‘explained that life on Earth evolved after the arrival of Buckminsterfullerenes in meteorites. Buckminsterfullerenes are complex carbon-based molecules with a vaguely geodesic structure (hence the nod to Fuller and his geodesic domes), which do indeed, it has been deduced from studying meteorite impact craters, exist in space. Robinson had also visited Horsell Common (a SSSI) in the course of his travels, the site which HG Wells chose for the first landing of his Martian cylinders in War of the Worlds. In Robinson’s SF imagination, the boundaries of fiction and fact, of the metaphorical and the real, become indistinct, leading to his delusions of alien plant communication (unless Robinson In Ruins, which is after all itself a fiction, has crossed genres and become a science fiction movie).

The lichen which so fascinates Robinson is seen as a model for a new kind of co-operative social structure. It exemplifies a symbiosis, a conjunction which benefits both participants, actually comprising two different but interdependent species – a fungus and a green algae. Robinson’s belief that he can communicate with a fungal algae may present a strong case for his solitary wanderings and mental divagations having led him too far from reality (and sanity); But as a metaphor, it has a simple elegance, and in close up an unearthly beauty (the geometrical backdrop of the metallic sign being the human world, and the invading spread of the lichen the alien). Robinson’s biophilia (‘the love of life and living systems’, as the narrator helpfully informs us) is manifested through many shots of plants and flowers. These take the steady, statically framed gaze common to all the films to new, unhurried lengths, inviting a meditative absorption in the detail of movement and sound. A shot of a cluster of teasle heads, their spiky ovals blossoming in pink and green, boiled-sweet colours, is taken from ground level, with the blue sky as a speckless backdrop. It makes them look like some strange alien forest rising improbably into the summer haze. We watch them for what seems like several minutes, as butterflies flit on and off, and their occasional nodding motion makes manifest the light wafts of warm air. Another sequence invites us to observe a stand of foxgloves trembling and swaying in the wind, bending out of the shot from time to time before springing back into the frame. This movement makes them seem vigorously alive, and their flexibility in the face of the passing breezes offers an Aesopian fabular lesson, a variant on the tale of the oak and the reed. The static form and extended length of these vegetative takes (‘vaster than empires and more slow’ as Andrew Marvell might have put it) makes them look like photographs possessed with sudden motion, and reflects Keiller’s background in architectural photography. The exhibition contains a good number of photographs, including some by Keiller himself. The stills from the film work perfectly as carefully composed photos, as did those from Robinson In Space included alongside the published and annotated script. Other photographs in the exhibition include selections from Jon Savage’s Uninhabited London series, and Bernd and Hiller Becker’s Coal Bunkers (1974), which captured vernacular and sculptural industrial architectural forms shortly before they were to become redundant. They were often in a state of disuse and disrepair, a kind of concrete gothic ruin which possesses its own desolate Romanticism.

Framing the landscape - the Wittenham Clumps (Robinson In Space)
The exhibition followed the form of the films, tidily compartmentalising itself into seven separate sections, reflecting the various stages of Robinson’s journey around Oxford in Robinson In Ruins and the themes and historical events it encompassed. The first part, entitled Robinsonism, (thereby granting the character immortality as a philosophical system), sets out the nature of the project, its basis in a reflection on and detailed framing of landscape, after the manner of the Romantics. Robinson, drifting towards a Blakean mysticism, was hoping that ‘if he looked at the landscape hard enough, it would reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events’. This is a transposition to a rural context of Robinson’s philosophy of urban observation which underpinned the film London, in which he put forward the similar belief that ‘if he looked at it hard enough he could cause the surface of the city to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events’. The important difference between the two, learned through the travels and incarceration of the intervening years, lies in the removal of the active, causational element. This philosophical shift betokens a willingness to suspend the ego and become a part of the surroundings in order to understand it, rather than to impose oneself upon it. Robinson succeeds in this to the extent of eventually disappearing into the molecular grain of the landscape, becoming a part of its accumulated strata of history, fiction and myth. The introductory notice to this first part of the exhibition states that ‘the lnstitute continues his enquiry, with the aid of works by artists, writers, historians, geographers, cartographers and geologists, and a variety of other objects, that advance its exploration of unfinished histories in landscape’.

The architecture of New Babylon - Constant Nieuwenhuys
There are books which form a sample of the Institute’s imaginary library, some of which are available to read at a desk, chained to the display cabinets behind to prevent pilfering. These include Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the locales in which are thought to have drawn upon the Otmoor landscape north east of Oxford, a central site in Robinson In Ruins; A book of Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon plans for an utopian future city from the 60s and 70s, based on a world in which land has become collectively owned, an influence on Robinson’s dreams of an ‘extraordinary biomorphic architecture’ and new social model; Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the Captain Swing agricultural riots of 1830; Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which Robinson had read whilst travelling around Oxford and its environs in Robinson In Space, the narrator remarking ‘I think we were never so happy as on the day of our pilgrimage to the memorials of Robert Burton’ (suggesting that Robinson was most content when in a state of pleasurable melancholia); Jorge Luis Borges stories collected in Labyrinths, for their penetration of the surface of things, their dismantling of the singular vision of history, the idea of the discrete and indivisible self, and the immutable materiality of the world – for revealing the molecular basis of perception and reality; and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as an exemplar of the Romantic worldview which Robinson shares, and as a founding work of the science fiction imagination, which Brian Aldiss, in his history of the genre, characterises as being ‘in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode’.

The second section of the exhibition is entitled 1795, referring to the amendment to the Settlement Act made in that year, which allowed for much greater freedom of movement of the labour force, and is seen as key moment in the development of an industrialised economy. Robinson links this historical shift with a meteorite fall in Yorkshire, and a mineral specimen of space rock is duly displayed. A close-up of the Newbury roadsign with its blooming Xanthoria Parietina stain was also included, pointing the way from the fields to the urban centres, and through its symbiotic biological patina, to the possibility of alternate forms of social organisation (or to post-human futures). A quotation from Frederic Jameson’s The Seeds of Time (no relation to John Wyndham’s SF collection – or is there?), also included in the film, points to the vital importance of visionary art and fiction in offering new and different ways of seeing the world: ‘it seems to be easier’, he writes, ‘for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the Earth and nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations’.

GPSS signposts
The third section looks at Greenham Common, Aldermaston and the Government Pipeline System (GPSS), the landscape of militarised power. The GPSS traces the hidden circulatory system of the national body’s lifeblood. Its hidden subterranean presence undermines notions of an ineradicable English identity rooted in the rural landscape. It is a system which is linked to a longer pipeline heading East across Europe, a drip feed making Britain’s dependence on wider geopolitical forces apparent. Robinson also notes tributaries branching off to military bases and weapons research establishments, many owned or part-owned by the US government or American corporations. A map outlined this veinous web, and there was a model of one of the pipeline markers, looking like a homely, slope-roofed birdhouse, painted with cheerful yellow stripes. Robinson used these markers to follow the pipeline north to the village of Ipsden, near which he passed a field of opium poppies, grown for medical use. They had a hypnotic effect, wavering with a pink blurring of vision commensurate with their narcotising purpose. The idea of secret government power sources piped into bases from alien sources is illustrated in science-fictional form in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass 2, those sources genuinely extra-planetary rather than merely extra-national in this case. This played on a small screen, with headphones for those who wanted to listen to the soundtrack. Unfortunately it was the 1957 Hammer film with Brian Donlevy in the title role, playing Professor Quatermass as an entirely inappropriate American tough guy, rather than the original 1955 BBC series. It was a cheaper and more concise choice, and served well enough to make the point.

Section 4was entitled the Non-Human, The Post-Human, and looked at Robinson’s biophilia, and his argument for the primacy of symbiotic relationships in nature. Included amongst the plant studies and Keiller’s own picture of foxgloves (a still taken from Robinson In Ruins) was one of Michael Landy’s etchings of hardy plants dismissed as weeds, the colonisers of post-industrial wastelands and urban cracks and patches of scrub – in this case, a study of herb robert. William Blake’s patron and follower John Linnell’s Study of A Tree from 1806 foregrounds the tree as a beautiful form in itself, rather than as just one element in a landscape. Philip Wilson Steer’s Elm Trees from 1922 remains as a record of a species now wiped out from the British Isles, a foretaste of the potential for mass extinctions.

The Agriculture sector, number five, included the note that ‘Robinson rarely saw anyone working in the fields, even during harvest’, the arable farming processes now being so heavily mechanised. In Robinson In Ruins, we watch huge combine harvesters slowly and inexorably eat their way through broad expanses of wheat, looking like unstoppable robotic mega locusts. Turner’s Harvest Home illustrates the older ways, with a celebratory gathering of farm hands in a huge barn, the golden glow of the evening landscape framed through its doors, the cavernous spaces waiting to be filled with the last wagons of hay just pulling up. James Ward’s 1808 painting Beef is a patriotic display of plenty, two hulking sides hanging up raw, bloody and dripping. Meanwhile, Andreas Gursky’s large scale photograph Chicago Trading Floor II, on which yellow and orange shirts blended in an almost abstract way with the blue of computer screens, indicated the kind of place where the fluctuating values of the wheat harvest and other farming produce was likely to be determined.

Satellite dishes on Enslow Hill
Stage six of the exhibition’s survey was based around the year 1930, a year of revolutions. The Captain Swing riots spread across the country, and in the seven towns surrounding Otmoor in Oxfordshire, there was active and recurrent resistance to attempts at enclosure and the diversion of the river. Robinson notes that it was also the year in which the Liverpool to Manchester Railway was opened, and that on the 15th of February, a meteorite landed in Launton near Bicester. The final section, Hanged, Drawn and Quartered, ventures further back in time while remaining geographically rooted in the Oxfordshire fields. 1596 marked the year in which the carpenter Barholomew Steer called for a rebellion against the local gentry who were enclosing the land, declaring his intention to tear down the fences they had put up and attack the manor house. In the end, only three other men turned up at his meeting point on Enslow Hill, and they failed to tear down any fences or make their proposed march on London to demand a change to the enclosure laws. He was said to have preached ‘the politics of Cockagne’, a vision of common ownership, plenty and creative leisure which would later be reflected in Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon some four hundred years later. The would be rebels were swiftly apprehended and taken to Newgate prison, where Steer undoubtedly died after torture. The surviving two members of the rebellion that never was were brought back to Enslow Hill, where they were hung, drawn and quartered. The site now looks down on an array of satellite dishes, relaying images and messages almost instantaneously around the globe, nestling in an old disused quarry. It is also an area rich in fossils (some of them on display in the exhibition), geological and historical planes of time intersecting with the invisible, intangible and transitory networks of contemporary information overload.

Hepworth and Hamilton
Various works of art from the Tate collections were displayed throughout to reflect Robinson’s multi-layered and –disciplined outlook on the world, his efforts to make connections. His approach was echoed in the Psychogeographical Guide to Paris produced by Situationist artist and prankster Guy Debord in 1957. Henry Moore’s Family Group, with its roughly formed bronze figures of mother and father holding a baby between them, draws on geological forms and suggests a connection between humanity and the landscape which it inhabits. It also, more prosaically, bears some resemblance to the piece of public art which Robinson films outside a LIDL supermarket on a retail estate. Barbara Hepworth’s Sun and Moon sets red and black discs, the latter intersecting with an open circle as if about to eclipse it, against a frottage background suggestive of a ploughed field. It gives semi-abstract, symbolic form to cyclical patterns of nature and the seasons, as does Richard Hamilton’s Microcosmos: Plant Cycle, with its watery sun cresting the horizon like the arc of a cranium. A Paul Nash sketch of the Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, made in 1943-4 near the end of his life, echoes Robinson’s travels in investing these twinned hilltop stands of beech with a personal symbolism and meaning, and the sense of connection with a particular place through time. Robinson notes them during his wanderings across Oxfordshire in Robinson In Space. Nash’s Totes Meer has intimations of a bleak post-human world in its depiction of a wintry ocean whose waves are composed of the wreckage of crashed German bombers. Beyond its specific wartime context, it could be seen as a sea of industrial detritus, creaking and grinding as it washes up on the shore of the world. Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze bust Shattered Head and Nigel Henderson’s Head of a Man (which looks a bit like William Burroughs), both from 1956, look like they are either cracked and decayed, dug out of the ground after many years, or half-formed, golems made from the stuff of the earth – a modernist Gog and Magog.

Henderson and Paolozzi
How much sense any of this would have made to those unfamiliar with Keiller’s Robinson films is uncertain. The Institute’s assemblage would have seemed a merely random gathering of objects and artistic works. But they may well have been intriguing enough to make the viewer want to make the connections between the apparently disparate elements and seek out the source. Which would have been well worth their while.

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