Robinson in Ruins

New materialism and the archaeological imagination

RP 169 () / Article

Robinson in Ruins (2010) is the third of Patrick Keiller’s fictionalized documentaries featuring the investigations and struggles of his character, the ‘wandering, cracked scholar’ and political visionary, Robinson.1 The first in the trilogy, London, was released in 1994, and the second, Robinson in Space, in 1997. Together they represent, aesthetically and politically, some of the most enlivening work produced in contemporary British cinema, with comparisons being made to Chris Marker and Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub.2 Whilst the range of his work has been diverse – since the 1970s he has produced architectural photography, academic essays, journalism and books, installation art and films from 16 mm experimental shorts, to the arthouse 35 mm Robinson features and more conventional televisual documentary forms – there have been certain preoccupations unifying this output, specifically an interest in what Brian Dillon calls the exploration of the ‘culturally occluded material infrastructure that subtends daily life in Britain’.3 In the Robinson trilogythis exploration is linked to a political interest in the utopian transformation of these everyday realities, and this has involved him in a critical engagement withthe agendas of the twentieth-century ‘historical avantgardes’, such as Surrealism, the Lettrists and Situationists, and Russian Formalism.4

Despite his critical successes, the fortunes of Keiller’s working life, ghosted in the tribulations of his character Robinson, contain an instructive story on the relationship between cultural research and aesthetic practice, on the one hand, and the encroaching reach of neoliberalism as it has reshaped public bodies responsible for culture and the arts, on the other. Through relationships with the British Film Institute’s Production Board, Channel 4 and the BBC, Keiller managed, from the period of his earliest 16mm shorts to his television documentary The Dilapidated Dwelling(2000), to find assistance from institutions capable of offering public funding. The gathering constrictionson such film-making, including the increasing exposure of Channel 4 to commercial imperatives in the early 1990s, the inbuilt favouring of mainstream work in National Lottery funding in the mid-1990s and the continuation of this logic under the rubric of the ‘cultural industries’ with New Labour in the late 1990s, and the eventual closure of the BFI’s Production Board in 2000, led to a situation in which the hopes for a projected sequel to Robinson in Space were curtailed. As Keiller himself puts it, after the BBC withdrew their offer of further collaboration, it became apparent that ‘the possibility of realizing such works [the Robinson films] in television or as public-sector “cultural” film, disappeared’.5 As if in confirmation, The Dilapidated Dwelling was abandoned without being screened by Channel 4. It was only through a reconfiguring of the Robinson project in terms of ‘collaborative research in an academic context’ that Robinson in Ruins was finally able to take shape.6 Along with Keiller’s film, geographer Doreen Massey’s contribution to that project will form the main focus here.7 It is interesting to note that shortly after the film’s release, the shadow of the neoliberal agenda fell upon the academic funding body, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) which had provided this support.8 Certainly, one can imagine Robinson, with his quixotic desire to bring about the collapse of neoliberalism, producing an interesting investigation of the Tory ‘Big Society’ project.9

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Notes

1. http://thefutureoflandscape.wordpress.com.

2. See Mark Fisher, www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49663.

3. Brian Dillon, www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/nov/20/robinson-ruins-patrick-keiller-dillon.

4. Patrick Keiller, www.3ammagazine.com/3am/therobinson-institute.

5. http://thefutureoflandscape.wordpress.com.

6. Ibid.

7. Doreen Massey, ‘Lanscape/Space/Politics: An Essay’,http://thefutureoflandscape.wordpress.com/landscapespacepolitics-an-essay.

8. As well as Massesy, the other members of the researchteam operating within the AHRC’s interdisciplinary Landscape and Environment project included the cultural historian Patrick Wright and doctoral student MathewFlintham.

9. www.3ammagazine.com/3am/the-future-of-landscapepatrick-keiller.