Genteel, Accessible, Revolutionary

By Roger Luckhurst

city-of-the-future-patrick-keiller.jpgThe City of the Future, 2007

Patrick Keiller’s The City of the Future recovers Victorian urban space from the amber of the archive

In 2006, the filmmaker Patrick Keiller was commissioned to produce an installation at Le Fresnoy in Lille. He used 30 screens to reproduce in virtual form the concourse of the old Victoria Terminus in Bombay, a Gothic edifice (see Vertigo vol 3, no.6, Summer 2007). A year later, Keiller has used the new gallery space at London’s BFI Southbank to present the latest version of his ongoing project, The City of the Future. This time there are five screens showing 68 short, silent films from the first decade of cinema, a number of which are from the re-discovered Mitchell and Kenyon archive.

city-of-the-future-patrick-keiller-2.jpgThe City of the Future, 2007

Nearly all the films are single takes of around two minutes of English cities taken from trams, railways or boats. The five screens are labelled in a notionally spatial way, with London in the right-hand corner and the Midland, Irish and Northern towns at their appropriate points. Unlike ‘Londres/Bombay’ in Lille, which was an immersive experience, ‘The City of the Future’ is in an interactive form, with the audience able to sit at small desks and use controls to manipulate how the sequences are shown. Maps narrow down from the world to Britain to region to town to local roads to orient the viewer. As one’s eye drifts between the screens strange coincidences and disjunctions offer an intensely subjective montage of these extraordinary early film survivals.

city-of-the-future-patrick-keiller-3.jpgThe City of the Future, 2007

The exhibition is in Keiller’s familiar mode: genteel, accessible and yet revolutionary. He wants, I think, to suggest that our conception of the turn of the century modern city has been misdirected by our saturation in Modernist urban and film theory. From Walter Benjamin, we are meant to regard the Modernist city as ‘a series of shocks and collisions,’ with film its emblematic, violent form [1]. Keiller’s catalogue statement includes Lefebvre’s view that in 1910 ‘a certain space was shattered’ into the non-Euclidean forms of Cubism and revolutionary urbanism. Yet these late Victorian films exist before the syntax of editing, close-up and montage: they deliver the felt form of vanished urban worlds. Keiller waxes lyrical about these: Dickson’s Panorama of Ealing from a Moving Tram (1901) presents us with sedate, relaxed citizens. Bradford, he says elsewhere and with indeterminable irony, ‘looks almost American. [2] Did we get our account of modernity wrong? Is this ‘The City of the Future’ because, as we approach gridlock and the end of oil, the electric tram is actually returning to the streets? This suggests that Keiller is not investing in uncritical nostalgia for these past worlds. His is a critical, constructive engagement.

city-of-the-future-patrick-keiller-4.jpgThe City of the Future, 2007

The exhibition is also quietly political in another way. Keiller implies that the utopian dreams for the future transformation of the city at the turn of the century (imagined in texts like H. G. WellsAnticipations in 1902) have not been met and that the striking thing about these films is that, whilst the people seem alien and distant, the built environment is often little changed. We live in old spaces, often shoddy and ramshackle, as the physical existence of public space withers away. Capitalism likes markets, shopping malls, business parks; it can do nothing with domestic houses except hope for gentrification. This was the argument of Keiller’s The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000). This thesis perhaps depends on where you live – in my stamping ground in Stepney in the East End of London, virtually every brownfield site or surviving patch of bombed ground has ‘luxury’ flats shooting up and changing the skyline month by month. Yet, at the same time, it is uncanny how familiarity pervades some of the streets that unfold on Keiller’s screens.

city-of-the-future-patrick-keiller-5.jpgThe City of the Future, 2007 

The City of the Future has existed as an interactive DVD, intended as an archive of late Victorian and Edwardian urban volumes and sometimes in a fictional version, with brief intertitles narrating a silent film melodrama of espionage and derring-do. It has also become a piece of research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which can be returned as an academic project in the dreaded bureaucracy of the ‘Research Assessment Exercise.’ The installation is the latest of these morphing forms. This is testament to Keiller’s roving intellectual interests, and also to how digital technology has transformed his working practice (he was previously entirely prejudiced in favour of the volume and depth 35mm gave the image). Keiller is to work next on a film, but in the meantime the installation is the latest adventure in a career that continues to delight and provoke.


[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,’ Illuminations (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 171.
[2] Patrick Keiller, ‘Tram Rides and Other Virtual Landscapes,’ in V. Toulmin, S. Popple and P. Russell (eds.) The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon: Edwardian Britain on Film (London: BFI, 2004), p.198.

Patrick Keiller’s The City of the Future runs in London’s BFI Southbank Gallery until 3rd February.

Roger Luckhurst lectures at Birkbeck College. His monograph, The Trauma Question is published in June 2008.