In my recent tutorial I commented that I found Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins a hard watch. My tutor suggested that his ‘London’ (1994) was a more interesting one to watch. This I did on the BFI viewer.
An interview with Keiller and further information about the film is on the BFI’s website: https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/interviews/patrick-keiller-london-robinson-trilogy.
There is a melancholy in the work that carries from the sentiments in the narrative to the backing music. To me the atmosphere centres around difficulty in determining the identity of London – at one point Keiller suggests that it is absent. Perhaps the reason for a sense of absence is that there are many voices clamouring to state its identity and meaning, undermining any singular sense of identity. As clever and insightful as the narrative is, I found 1 hour 40 minutes of melancholy hard to digest.
I my own work, I’m thinking more about the sound as the images are now settled. I listened carefully to how the narrative was layered with the background sound, relative volumes play a part in the separation but the volume differences are not as pronounced as I’d expected. Separation in the stereo space is also important. On occasions it seems that additional ambient sound is added to reference a subject in the image – however, this is not done with a frequency that allow predictability. The ambient sound features throughout the film and is more present than in my own work; I’d already been thinking that there didn’t seem to be quite enough sound in the latest edit (v3).
I’ve learned more about effective use of ambient sound alongside narrative by watching this film.
In my last tutorial, I was encouraged to revisit the genre of psychogeography. As I’m now planning to make a video of my work, I thought it would be interesting to focus on film. The British Film Institute (BFI) have a useful blog post: Your next obsession: the drifting explorations of psychogeographic filmmaking. (www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/where-begin-british-psychogeography-cinema).
I watched a few of the films mentioned. Curiosity drew me to Ringo Star’s wander around Camden during the film Hard Day’s Night (clip on YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIvEc4yhdpM). I also watched some of Peter Greenway’s A Walk through H (clip here: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7axivb) and rewatched my own copy of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins, part of the Robinson trilogy that the BFI consider defines British psychogeographic cinema.
All convey a strong sense wandering. The wander for wandering’s sake, with no specific purpose in mind, other than an intuitive response to the environment. I confess that I find Keiller’s work a hard watch – I think I would enjoy Robinson in Ruins more if it was 30 minutes long rather than 1.5 hours. The same fixed frame film shots are frequently revisited, cropped in or out. The narrative is deliberately unexpressive tonally.
All works make use of ambient sound to connect the auditory sense with the physical act of wandering. A signifier introduced through sound. This seems important in placing the works and is something I intend to incorporate into my video. The other strong attribute of the works in the sense of the ordinary or banal – there is zero chance of National Geographic featuring them. There is a a sensory revel in the everyday.
Where there is narrative present, it tends to deal with psychological response to what is seen, rather than a traditional plot. This too enhances the sense of ‘wandering’. I’m developing some prose to go with my own work and will keep this idea in mind. The words should not be descriptive of what is shown in the images but suggest a psychological response to the urban environment.
I watched Ian Nairn’s 1972 trip on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal (BBC iPlayer – https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01rwfkm/nairn-across-britain-2-transpennine-canal) at the outset of my CS research. It was interesting to watch it again having covered the entire canal during my project. Nairn’s narrative is that of an architect and critic of town planning.
Putting aside the pleasure of time travel in watching this, I have a few observations:
Nairn hoped that the canal would be transformed into a leisure place with proper footpaths. It is encouraging that this has been largely achieved and a credit to the work of the Canal & River Trust and its predecessor.
The canal was empty of traffic on his journey apart from moored pleasure craft. I found it often empty too – what has changed is the lycra-clad cyclists and joggers; a look and activities that would have been rare in 1972.
Nairn expressed hopes for the redevelopment of the canal where it passed through towns – specifically Skipton and Leeds. This has been delivered in both towns’ canal basins. He also hoped that homes would be built along the canal, enjoying the water rather than ignoring it. This too has happened in some areas.
Importantly to my sense of the canal, he mentioned the feeling that it existed as a place apart from its surroundings (echoes of heterotopia again). In 1972 the canal was more open to its surroundings and not bordered by trees and hedgerows. I think I would have enjoyed it more how it was.
I watched episode 2 of James Fox’s (art historian) BBC series The Age of the Image – ‘James Fox explores how mass communication and new technology helped 20th-century image-makers transform society, from Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films to the moon landings.’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000g6mj) . It was a slick enjoyable programme with rich content from throughout the twentieth century. The theme ‘power games’ stated that all images are political was developed by showing the misuse and use of power – from Stalin and Nazi Germany to the American black protest movements.
A central idea was ‘if you control what people see, you control what they think’. This is something I’ve addressed in my dissertation draft ‘understanding the canal’ and how it is a contested space. Watching the images in the programme pulled me back to thinking about how I might visually represent the canal. In these grim times, I was toying with the idea of working with the ideas of canal time and the materiality of water from an aesthetic perspective, rather than a deliberately political angle.
However (and as my CS tutor suggested as an aside in my tutorial), perhaps there is a more nuanced approach that deals with both aspects. One idea I will try is contrasting the canal as a regulated space with the fluidity of water and canal time.
My tutor suggested I might enjoy a BBC ‘slow TV’ programme of a journey along the Kennett & Avon Canal. Unfortunately, it is currently showing on iPlayer. But what is ‘slow TV’? I had no idea, so with a little research discovered a TED Talk by the Norwegian instigator of the genre. It’s linked below and well worth a watch.
Slow TV is real-time TV is real-time TV and Thomas Hellum explains his creative process and audience engagement with the programme in his entertaining TED talk. His initial film was a 7 hour train journey across Norway. Following its success, he made a 5 day live programme aboard a boat travelling around Norway’s coast line – and included footage of those following the journey from other boats and the shore. The showings attracted record numbers of viewers.
Hellum analyses the success:
Very little scheduling of what will happen during the programmes, with a readiness to accept things are they are found.
The use of uncomfortable long shots of each view – not the rapid cutting from shot to shot that is common in TV. By holding the shot for longer than normal, Hellum suggest that viewers begin to notice things on their screens and creative their own narratives for what is happening. As they might do if they were on actual journeys. He tells of one man, who having watched the train journey, rose to collect his bag from the overhead shelf in the carriage, only to realise that he was in his own living room!
It seems that this kind of viewing is a televisual phenomenon, through which the audience are held captive by their TVs in expectation of something interesting happening. I suspect this anticipation of something happening is crucial to the engagement.
I’m not sure that the concept of slow-TV could be adapted to the photographic medium with the same success, but there is encouragement that an audiences is prepared to engage with contemplative visuals (and sound) for an inordinate amount of time. In addition, there is a surprising willingness to engage with the banal when presented in an engaging format. Hellum stresses that he only makes one or two of these programmes per year so that a sense of ‘event’ is maintained.
Stuart Heritage comments in the Guardian, ‘I get why people might not want to watch Great Canal Journeys. Ostensibly, it sounds awful – a couple of plummy old thespians pootling down a waterway – but once you’re in, it’s almost unbearably poignant.’ . This is my experience – I watched a couple of episodes to see how other stretches of canal compared to the stretch of the Leeds & Liverpool I’ve been looking at – and found myself compelled to watch more; not just journeys along a canal but recollections of life and love by Prunella Scales and Timothy West. The poignancy of Scales’s fading memory (she has Alzheimers) apparent while the two talk, as if there are no camera present is at times painfully moving.
The whole series is available on More4 . I’m using this post to note anything of interest to my own study of canals and will update as things catch my attention.
Leeds & Liverpool canal (series 3, episode5) – noted that this was an extraordinarily quiet stretch of canal (the journey passed through the route I too am following). The contrast is apparent from the other canal journeys included in the series. Simon Armitage (Yorkshire poet) joined the journey and read a poem about water – from his Stanza Stones series …
Be glad of these freshwater tears, Each pearled droplet some salty old sea-bullet Air-lifted out of the waves, then laundered and sieved, recast as a soft bead and returned. And no matter how much it strafes or sheets, it is no mean feat to catch one raindrop clean in the mouth, To take one drop on the tongue, tasting cloud pollen, grain of the heavens, raw sky. Let it teem, up here where the front of the mind distils the brunt of the world.
Also mentioned in the Leeds and Liverpool episode was a traditional boat painter – on the L&L stretch the style is called ‘brights’ (I suppose reflected the textile heritage. Ginny Barlow.
The Rochdale Canal (series 1, episode2) referred to the poems of Ted Hughes who was born on the canal and wrote about it when it was disused and abandoned. The poem read was ‘stubbing wharfe’, about liaison in a downbeat pub with Silvia Plath. Hughes once collaborated with photographer Fay Godwin, for the book Elmett. An article by Michael Nott contrasts Godwin’s perspective on landscape as nature, with Hughes’s on landscape as culture. I’ll explore this further, as I research cultural geography.
… The world was all before us. And around us This gloomy memorial or a valley, The fallen-in grave or its history. A gorge of ruined mills and abandoned chapels. The fouled nest of the Industrial Revolution That had flown. The windows glittered black. If this was the glamour of an English pub. it was horrible. Like a bubble In the sunk Titanic ..
The BBC are sharing Ian Nairn’s journey’s across Britain, first broadcast in 1972, on BBC iPlayer. One of the episodes shared is a journey exploring the post-industrial North through a narrow boat journey – starting north of Manchester and concluding in the Leeds canal basin (where the canal joins the Aire and Calder navigation).
Of interest to me was how the canal had changed between 1972 and my present day experience of it. Nairn characterised it as a neglected, forgotten space, where there were great opportunities for development. At the time many stretches of canal had been neglected and were not navigable – Nairn’s journey followed an indirect route.
Nairn and the film showed neglect and disuse – the canal and environment are unrecognisable from today. No cleared footpaths, empty derilict buildings / old warehouses, nothing in the way of new development. It was the image of a grim post-industrial landscape with traces of activity that had once been. Nairn himself championed considered development of such places and was clearly exasperated at the lack of any development.
The Skipton canal basin was unrecognisable from its current state – it was utterly unused and unkept. Now there are bars, cafés, boat hire businesses, outdoor clothing store and a curry house. The canal space reinvented – just what Nairn was calling for. Why do I have an antipathy towards photographing this aspect? Perhaps because it is photographed by every tourist with a camera phone – I need to let go of prejudice and accept the cultural geography for what it is.
The spaces in between towns remain similar – the are surrounded by agricultural land. Perhaps changed little over hundreds of years. The idea of time standing still on certain parts of the canal comes to mind.
Perhaps the stretch of the canal that captured my attention more than any other in the program was the approach and terminal in Leeds. Kirkstall was a field of factory chimneys, which have long since been flattened, but left as empty undeveloped ground. The chimneys made the space more interesting – like statues commemorating past industries.
The canal basin in Leeds centre, behind the train station, is now surrounded by hotels, offices, bars and restaurants. In 1972, it was desolate and neglected but close to the heart of the city.
There is a geography of time evident from the comparison of 1972 to now. How place changes to space and back to place in the same spot, with the only things moving being time and, of course, culture.