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Place, space, and capital: the landscapes of Patrick Keiller.


Through his three films London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller has sought, inter alia, to provide an incisive commentary on the neo-liberal social order and the way that the spaces we inhabit are experienced and represented. Keiller's films draw from a variety of sources including: surrealism; political economy; cinematic theory; and architecture. Yet, although there is a considerable body of commentary on his work, there is less analysis that engages in a detailed way with the substance of the work itself--its images and techniques--or with the framework within which it operates. Our aims are twofold: first, to redress that omission here, and especially to attend to what appears to be the divergent character of the most recent film, Robinson in Ruins, when considered in relation to the framework established by the first two--a divergence that directly implicates Keiller's thematisation of landscape; and, second, to reflect more broadly on the wider significance of Keiller's films for geography and other critically inspired scholarship.


Cinema, Patrick Keiller, space


The filmmaker, artist and writer Patrick Keiller has produced a body of incisive work over a 30-year period, but only recently has he acquired the discerning attention of a wider audience. The historian Owen Hatherley, in an article for The Guardian newspaper, proffered an explanation: 'Patrick Keiller has been the most original geographical and political thinker in Britain, something little noticed partly because of his format, or partly because of a tone that lulled viewers into thinking they were watching some elegant, camp eccentricity' (Hatherley, 2012: 2). The importance of Keiller's work for geographical and related disciplines rests not only on his responses to episodes of post-war economic and political turbulence, but in his direct engagement with landscape and place.

As with any truly original work, Keiller's inquiry draws on a rich body of previous thought and practice, deriving, most obviously, from surrealism and avant-garde literature and film, but also twentieth--century philosophy and critical theory. Keiller's work is especially significant for the way in which it traverses the boundaries between creative practice, particularly film, and the critical analysis more commonly associated with academic forms of inquiry, but also for the way in which it takes up the spatial and topographic as the means to explore a set of contemporary issues centring around capitalism and neo--liberalism, landscape and mobility, memory and loss. Keiller's work has already drawn a considerable body of scholarly attention (see for example: Bowring, 2011; Catterall, 2012a, 2012b; Clarke, 2007; Clarke and Doel, 2007; Daniels, 1995; Dave, 2011; Grimble, 2005; Goldsmith, 2012, Hegglund, 2013; Kinik, 2009; Martin, 2014; Massey, 2013; Moore, 2005; Nigianni, 2015; Power, 2010; Stevens, 2010), and Keiller has himself commented on London, Robinson in Space and his collaboration with Doreen Massey and Patrick Wright in the making of Robinson in Ruins (see Keiller, 2010, 2012; Keiller and Wright, 2000).

For the most part, however, the attention given to Keiller's work has remained within the framework that Keiller has himself established. Exceptions to this are to be found in the work of Clarke (2007, 2013; also Clarke and Doel, 2007) and Dave (2011). Clarke's (2007) paper (primarily a discussion of Keiller's 2005 documentary The City of the Future) takes issue with Keiller's evocation of romantic inspired forms of introspection pointing out that this evocation is reliant on a 'quintessentially English version of the Romantic self (Clarke, 2007: 31), while Dave reads the films that are the focus for our discussion here in terms of their implied analyses of the workings of capital, and their understanding of the nature of and possibility for change (which Dave argues shifts between the first two films and the third see also Clarke, 2013). Yet, Keiller's material seems to offer a richer body of work than Clarke's critique, the readings of Dave, or the frameworks within which the films are usually positioned may be taken to suggest. Part of what Keiller's work reveals is the connection between a critical sensibility and a certain form of spatial and 'topographic' (place--oriented) awareness, one that is expressed through Keiller's engagement with landscape, even though we shall also argue that this is readily misread, perhaps sometimes even by Keiller himself, in ways that threaten to restrict its critical potential.

Our analysis focuses, first, on the elements and techniques that Keiller's three films employ, and, second, on three key geographically related themes or problems around which they are structured. At the outset, we would note that, rather than simply recapitulate the existing literature or merely comment upon it, our aim is to engage more directly with the work itself, and so to engage in a more detailed analysis of Keiller's three films, of their techniques, framework and fabric, than is commonly offered--at least within geographical scholarship. This requires close attention to the narration and visual images within each film prior to making any judgement as to their significance. Such an approach might be viewed as 'interiorized', but we would argue that it is better described as 'reflective', and as grounded in a mode of hermeneutical and phenomenological practice, since it aims to attend to Keiller's work as it presents itself rather than as it is presented through any particular critical appropriation. In this respect, our reading of Keiller can be seen to connect with the work of geographers such as Ingold (2001), Wyle (2006), Simmonsen (2013) and Ash and Simpson (2016), all of who advocate a broadly 'phenomenological' approach to explaining the interrelatedness of perception and landscape. Where our approach differs, however, is precisely in the way hermeneutical and phenomenological practice is understood as already place--oriented--as already 'topological' or 'topographic' (see e.g. Malpas, 2012a, 2016). As will be evident in our discussion below, part of what we argue is significant about Keiller's work, is precisely the way it explores the entanglement of the structures of contemporary capital, and of resistance to those structures, within the material fabric of place and landscape. Part of our argument, however, is that this is also something Keiller, in his collaboration with Massey and Wright in the final of the three films, seems himself to misconstrue.

Elements and techniques

The work for which Keiller is best known centres on his fictional documentary films London (1992), Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010). (1) Spanning two decades of political, economic and cultural change in Britain, these three films can be thought of as 'travelogues'--each taking the form of an explorative journey across urban and rural locations. The places that appear in Keiller's films, particularly in the first two, are not the well--traversed tourist sites, but the marginal, out--of--the--way places that make up so much of the English landscape (where more familiar sites appear, it is often in partial views, or else inserted between scenes without commentary--like the giant of Cerne Abbas in Robinson in Space). For Keiller, it is these marginal places that are of interest precisely because they have, up to now, been largely unmediated by the influence of tourism, but also because they are the places that make up the primary fabric of the English landscape. As an investigation of landscape (a landscape that encompasses both city and countryside), Keiller's work is also an investigation of how places are transformed through seeing, and of the act of seeing as it occurs in the form of the film. (2)

There are no actors, sets or dialogues in these three films; none of the usual trappings of cinema. Keiller's cinematography involves no camera movement--tracking, pans, or zooms and no close--ups. (3) The films take the form almost of a documentary montage--a sequence 'of stately, static, distant and highly composed shots' (Hegglund, 2013: 1). As Goldsmith observes,

Such shots may identify specific places with their own archetypical or historical references. London, the English countryside, various military and industrial sites across Britain are all featured. Each city street, field ruin, or supermarket parking lot framed in Keiller's fixed wide--shot serves as a state that has his characters in their travels, making discoveries and remarking on items of local and historical interest. (Goldsmith, 2012: 1)

The restricted and concentrated focus of each shot means that there is no movement in the view either vertically or horizontally, either forwards or backwards. This changes the character of the spatiality that the view affords forcing attention on to the image as a surface, and to the interconnection of the elements that make up that surface. Each shot remains on the screen for a space of time that is often longer than might be thought necessary to appreciate the content of the scene as it is directly relevant to the accompanying narration. The viewer is thus forced to attend to the scene presented and the details contained within it, and to entertain the question as to just what elements in that scene are intended to be the focus of attention, or whether there is any such intended focus at all. Power observes that 'Keiller's cinematic technique is designed to almost slow down time itself. Frequently unpopulated long takes permit a view of the slightest movement, the swaying of crops, a stray insect, a passing car' (Power, 2010: 44). This slowing down of time allows for the making salient of details that would be unavailable in a fleeting shot, but it is also what makes for 'the potential for boredom boredom--is, one might say, exactly a form of slowing down or stretching out of time. Thus, boredom itself functions in changing the way in which the world appears.

The overwhelming sense of most of the images that appear in Keiller's films is their ordinariness--and this includes even those images that record the preliminaries to a ceremonial occasion or the aftermath of a bomb. Much of what appears before the camera seems random, accidental and contingent. Just as the camera shot is static, so is much that appears within the image--where movement is an element on which the image is focussed it remains movement within the frame of the image (like the swirl of water or the wind in the leaves of a tree); where there is a movement that extends across and beyond the frame, that movement is itself made marginal by the fact that it is not tracked, and so the focus remains only on what remains within the frame itself. For this reason, Keiller's films convey a sense of stillness, and in this respect, his work can be contrasted to the ephemeral and fast moving productions that make up so much of contemporary cinema. There is no 'action' in Keiller's shots, and the events described in the narration almost never appear in the image are never present to us. The scenes we are shown thus have an ambiguous relation even to what is described as belonging to them in the narration, and as viewers we remain always at a distance--at so much of a distance that we cannot even said to be spectators, and in no sense can we be said to be witnesses to what is described. Everything appears as if second--hand as 'reported'--and so always open to doubt, always uncertain. That uncertainty itself seeps into the apparent ordinariness of what is presented, and it is thus that its ordinariness, even its contingency, also becomes uncertain, is undermined as ordinary, as contingent, by the strangeness of its presentation and by its presentation in its very ordinariness.

Since they eschew so much in the way of conventional cinematic technique, Keiller's films may appear almost as a form of anti--cinema--in some ways evoking a past era of documentary film--making, seeming to represent a reversion to a more primitive mode of film--making (see Burgin, 1996; Clarke and Doel, 2007; Doel and Clarke, 2007; Rees, 1999 for explorations of these and related themes). Yet, Keiller's films have a sense of reality that is achieved precisely through their cinematic minimality and the quotidian quality of their images. One might say that through its 'realism', Keiller renders the scenes he presents as both more and less real at the same time, suspending their reality, and the taken--for--granted distinction between the real and the unreal, and in so doing employing that 'suspended' view as the means to enter into an investigation of the world and ourselves. In this respect one might say that Keiller employs techniques that belong, not only with surrealism on the one hand, but with phenomenology on the other--the suspension at work here being analogous to the epoche of Husserlian phenomenological reduction. The 'seeing' that Keiller's films attempt to embody and to evoke is thus a seeing that uses the techniques of cinematic art, not to remove us from the world, but to return us to a vision of its own dense materiality, its own reality, its own worldliness.

Keiller's three films are composed of just two primary elements: the succession of carefully paced images, each image being presented as a single sustained 'moment' or 'view' of a single place, and a voice--over given by a narrator (Paul Scofield in London and Robinson in Space; and Vanessa Redgrave in Robinson in Ruins), spoken in a modulated and generally unemotional tone (although in Scofield's case, with a certain wry edge--Redgrave seems rather more tired, even monotonous), as if the narration were being read (as it surely is). The filming was without sound, the narration and ambient sound, as well as the music that is an important additional element in the first two films, being added in post--production. The text of the narration, like the sequence of images, often juxtaposes observations that seem otherwise unrelated--either to one another or to the images that they accompany sometimes the observations consist in quotations from official or other documents, from the writings of poets or philosophers, sometimes they offer ironic commentary on the images they accompany (though there is nothing in the tone of voice that suggests that the irony is intended), sometimes they recount the activities or ideas of Robinson himself.

In the first two films, most of these observations consist of blocks of loosely associated statements with those blocks separated by longer pauses--shots without accompanying narration; in the third film, the blocks of statements are more focussed and connected, and less associative, separated by what are correspondingly longer, sustained shots typically focussed on a single image or scene (Doreen Massey writes of a 'stillness' that seems to characterise the third film and that arises out of just such sustained shots--Massey, 2013: 2). In the first two films, the relation between the narration and the images is itself indirect and often inferential (we are never told, for instance, that the ship we see coming up the Thames to its dock at the beginning of London is the ship referred to in the narration as that on which the narrator has been photographer), and although we are shown images of many places that are identical with the places referred to in the narration, we are given nothing that asserts any connection between the particular scene shown and what is presented in that narration. Nowhere in the narrations of these first two films is there any reference to the film or the filmed images. The two remain merely juxtaposed--concurrent, but unconnected except inasmuch as they are connected by the viewer. The third film disrupts this pattern--and so represents a significant departure from the technique of the first two--even though a superficial viewing may well take the three films and the relation between narration and image in each of them, as with the succession of images, to be much the same. Certainly, the general effect is very similar: through the juxtaposition of word and image we are drawn into what nevertheless appears as if it were a single integrated narrative--though one whose protagonists are never seen, whose action remains merely described, and that seems to relate, if uncertainly, to the places and scenes that are statically presented.

In all three films, the narratives centre on a fragment of the life and works of the eponymous Robinson--on a particular journey or set of expeditions each lasting some months. In the first film, London, we are introduced to Robinson as an academic researcher who has returned to the UK from a period abroad to take up a temporary teaching post at a new University. The film focuses on a series of journeys around London on foot and by train, undertaken by Robinson in company with his companion, who is also the narrator, as part of Robinson's investigation into 'the problem of London'. In the second film, Robinson in Space, we are told that Robinson has left London in order to become 'an itinerant student of the English landscape, its economy and sexuality of its inhabitants'. The film recounts Robinson's travels, once again with his companion/narrator (now employed as his 'research assistant'), around various towns, ports, factories and shopping centres, mostly but not entirely across southern England--travelling first by public transport and then by car as part of an investigation into what is now 'the problem of England'. In Robinson in Ruins, the third film, we are told of Robinson wandering in the ruins (although those ruins seem remarkably busy--even prosperous) of an England given over to neo--liberal capital and in the throes of the economic crisis of the global financial collapse--and wandering too in the ruins of his own previous life after a time in prison (an outcome already presaged by the increasingly erratic tendency noted in Robinson's behaviour at the end of Robinson in Space).

Of the cinematic devices that Keiller employs in these three films, the most striking is undoubtedly the indirect construction of the narrative itself. The consequence of this indirect technique is that there is a strange absence that permeates Keiller's films, and especially the first two. Not only is Robinson himself absent, but so also is the narrator, appearing only as a disembodied voice. Moreover, they are absent, as the events of the narration are absent, even from the places whose images are presented and in relation to which the narration locates them. The sense of the viewer as absent or distant from what appears in the image as well as from the events of the narration is thus repeated in the absence of the film's protagonists from the images of which the film is composed. The presentation of the films almost as documentary 'reports' (clearest in the first two films even though an idea more directly invoked in the third) is a familiar literary device that reinforces the sense of absence and the sense of fragmentation that is also evident here. In addition, it enables Keiller to distance himself from Robinson and even from his narrator. Inasmuch as the films indeed appear as reports, then it is as reports on Robinson--who is himself reporting on the state of London and of England and as with any report, it is up to us what we make of it. In this way, Robinson is distanced from the viewer as well as from Keiller, so that we are never entirely sure who Robinson is, whether his views might be our own or Keiller's, never sure how those views are intended, never sure whether they are offered for our agreement or disagreement. Everything we see and hear is thus presented as questioning, but also as questionable. At the heart of these films, then, is the figure of Robinson himself whose enigmatic presence becomes even more obscure in the final film, in which he appears only as a trace, as a figure now rendered almost as a fiction.

Part of the intriguing paradox of the three films is indeed the way they present us with a series of narratives whose reality is, for the most part, deliberately left uncertain, and whose reality is thereby brought to the fore as a question, and that they do so through what is essentially a body of documentary footage. Keiller's films thus report on a putative investigation whose own provenance may seem dubious, but in so doing those films also constitute themselves as that very investigation. One might thus be led to the conclusion that, for all that Keiller distances himself from Robinson, in a strange way Robinson is Keiller, and the three films themselves take the form of the investigations that they also recount.

The third film is surely the least successful of the three (even though it is perhaps also the one that has received the most critical attention), and yet it is also anomalous, in other ways, within the trio of films. In the third film, the impact of Keiller's indirect approach to his subject matter is much reduced, perhaps partly because the technique is now familiar, but largely because the composition of the film, even though superficially in keeping with the previous two, is much more orthodox in both narration and image. Whereas, for instance, the images of nature in the first two films often appear in strange juxtaposition, either within the image or in the sequence of images, the images in the third are more directly focussed on natural phenomena and often have the character almost of conventional nature photography, including a much greater use of close--up shots than in the previous films and much longer timings for each shot (in one case, as noted by Massey, 4 minutes and 15 seconds, see Massey, 2013: 3). The narration shows none of the irony or humour of the previous films--it is, as noted above, much more detached and even monotonous largely a factual recitation relating to English history, contemporary economic and political events (at times, one can almost hear Redgrave draw breath in some of the longer passages), and with only the occasional reference to Robinson and his wanderings. There are also, commensurate with the increased length of many shots, longer moments that remain completely un--narrated--the image of a field or plant accompanied by the ambient sounds of the surrounding landscape (the moments of stillness to which Massey draws attention).

The way Robinson is invoked in the third film is also quite different here Robinson's absence is much less prominent because it is almost complete (the project out of which the film came was not originally envisaged as having any necessary connection to Robinson at all). Much of the narration makes no reference to Robinson, but to accounts of historical and contemporary events, details of economic and environmental matters, and political developments. When Robinson is referred to it is often as if he were a character in a story a point of marked difference from the other two films which indeed retain the character of reports. The very beginning of Robinson in Ruins reinforces the story--like character of the narration ('When a man called Robinson.'), as does the early reference to Robinson Crusoe (the reference jars with the way Crusoe is invoked in the first film, in which he is identified by Robinson as a symbol of Protestantism), and the different positioning of the narrator (she refers to the narrator of the earlier films, Robinson's companion in the investigations of London and England, as her 'late beloved', thereby locating herself in relation to Robinson only indirectly through her relation to the previous narrator).

Robinson's story runs throughout the third film, but it seems to be a story juxtaposed with many other stories that are sometimes told in considerable detail, and typically without any attempt at integration. Moreover, many of the scenes that make up the film relate to the narration, not in virtue of the place depicted or narrated or its relevance to Robinson's wanderings, but simply because of what is shown--shots of wheat or poppy fields, for instance, accompanying parts of the narration relating to agricultural production. The third film is indeed, much less about Robinson (and so his absence is less evident and also less significant), and much more about aspects of English history, politics and economics. Indeed, in many respects, this is the most 'English' of the films--its preoccupation with the English countryside and its social and especially political formation reflecting a characteristic obsession that runs through much recent and contemporary commentary, even when related to global issues, by English academics and theorists. It is as if English social and political thinking are haunted by a landscape with and about which it must constantly contest.

Significantly, this is the only film in which the narrator directly refers to one of the images (in the previous films the narration runs as if it were independent of the sequence of images), and not only that, but the narration also identifies what appears in the image as one of the places that figures in Robinson's story. Thus, over a shot of a dilapidated caravan seen through trees, the narrator tells us that 'this is the caravan in which the film cans and the notebook were discovered'. Here Robinson's presence is directly invoked as it is not invoked anywhere else in this or any other of the films, and so too is the narrator's own position as narrator thereby brought to the fore along with the character of the film, the images and the place. In doing so, the suspension of the films in an uncertain space between documentary and fiction is effectively destroyed since in asserting its character as documentary it also affirms its character as fiction, as indeed, 'a story'--as is the uncertainty of the images, of the narration, and the entire framework that operates up until that point. Perhaps this is deliberate on Keiller's part a sudden and intentional collapsing of the device that sustains the trilogy of films (if this is indeed a 'trilogy' in other than an accidental sense) or at least that sustains the first two--although one suspects that it is more likely a result of the very different character of the project in which the third film is embedded. Since it no longer holds its narration and imagery in a state of suspension as in the first two films, Robinson in Ruins appears as much less exploratory and indeterminate in character. More conventional, it is also a somewhat didactic film that seems concerned to project a set of relatively straightforward claims concerning the nature of contemporary capitalism and its crises, certain enduring aspects of the natural world as well as its mutuality, and the historically mobile character of human belonging in the landscape.

Themes and problems

The problem of Robinson

Keiller describes all three of his films as presenting the attempt 'by a fictional would be scholar called Robinson to address a 'problem' by undertaking a journey, or journeys' (Keiller, 2010: 1). Yet, although we are told by the narrator of the first two films the 'problem' that Robinson aims to address in each the 'problem of London', the 'problem of England'--the exact nature of these problems is never made explicit. The reason for this surely lies in the fact that the problems at issue in London and Robinson in Space are not separable from the places or landscapes to which they are attached. Although some of Keiller's own comments might suggest otherwise, (4) the 'problem of London' is not a problem about London a problem that London has or that London exemplifies. The problem rather resides in the very fabric of London--in what London is or might be.

The problem at issue concerns London's very identity, its past, its present and its future, more than anything to do with some contingent feature of its contemporary configuration. Similarly, the problem of England is not to be construed as some particular concern that afflicts the England of its title, but as asking after what England, or the English landscape, is or might be--what place is it, what landscape, what is the space that belongs to it? The construction of the third film, in this respect as in many others, is rather different. Robinson in Ruins does not itself identify any named 'problem' that Robinson, or the documentary footage he leaves behind (and that is represented in the form of the film itself), is portrayed as having sought to address. Moreover, Robinson's investigations in Robinson in Ruins are both more fragmentary (in a way deliberately intended to disrupt, according to Massey and Keiller, the 'smoothing' effects of landscape see e.g. Massey, 2013: 11) and also, one might argue, more strongly oriented around a set of utopian ideas only hinted at in the previous films. (5) In spite of its insipient utopianism, however, and notwithstanding its being embedded in an extensive additional discourse generated by its research team, Robinson in Ruins also seems more diffuse, and less clearly articulated on screen, than the previous two films.

Keiller tells us that the research out of which the third film came was 'prompted by a discrepancy between ... [the] experience of mobility and displacement' and 'a tacit but widespread tendency to fall back on formulations of dwelling that derive from a more settled agricultural past' (Keiller, 2010, 2). (6) Doreen Massey, part of the research team (her, Keiller, and Patrick Wright) out of which the film came, (7) emphasises the contemporary political context that gave rise to their collaboration

By the time we came to carry out the project the capitalist world was in full-blown financial crisis. And it is with this, and the possibility that the immediate crisis might lead to a more profound political questioning, that the engagement with the landscape became most preoccupied. (Massey, 2013: 2)

With both Keiller and Massey's comments in mind, one might say that, Robinson in Ruins offers a view of contemporary capitalism that is linked to earlier conflicts. The point being made is that an understanding of the workings of capital cannot be separated analytically from the past. But this is a different sort of 'problem' from the 'problems' that underpin the first two films (and so one might say analogous only in the place it occupies in the structure of the film and not in its character as a problem). Unlike 'the problem of London' or 'the problem of England', what might here be called 'the problem of landscape' stands apart from the landscapes the film presents. It is thus, to use the language employed above, more a problem about landscape than a problem in landscape; a problem that is more illustrated by the landscapes with which the film engages than embedded or embodied in them.

In this respect, too, the narration in the third film stands in a very different relation to the images than does the narration in the first two: it stands out as indeed a narration that overlays the cinematic images, and on at least one occasion refers directly to them. Its character as a narration, as indeed a story, thereby becomes explicit. If the first two films take as their problem a certain place, space or landscape, and respond to it in spatial and topographic terms--by journeying--the third film journeys, but without a clear sense of the place, space or landscape to which that journeying is a response. As Robinson is himself somewhat peripheral to the third film except as a framing device for the narrative, so Robinson's journeying also turns out to be peripheral in the same way. The journey, like Robinson himself, is simply that which, all too loosely, connects the scenes belonging to the stories from which the film is built up. Exactly how the journey is tied to the landscape as landscape, rather than as the encoding of a set of conceptual associations, or the medium for the exemplification of a set of social and political ideas, remains unclear.

Across all of Keiller's films, certain aesthetic and intellectual influences can be tangibly felt--the 1960s work of Parisian situationalist Guy Debord is one such inspiration; in particular, the importance he attached to drifting; 'a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances' (Debord, 1996: 22); others include the poetry and writings of Baudelaire (1970), the surrealist Louis Aragon (2011) and Edgar Allen Poe (1994). This turns out to be another point at which the third film diverges from the first two: London and Robinson in Space each stand in an especially significant relation to an individual thinker who is invoked in the very titles of these films--in the case of London, Walter Benjamin, and in the case of Robinson in Space, Henri Lefebvre--but there is no such connection in Robinson in Ruins.

London is to Keiller what Paris was to Benjamin, and Keiller's project in London seems almost to be a relocated version of Benjamin's investigation of Paris as evident in his so-called (and never completed) 'Arcades Project' (Benjamin, 1999), drawing upon ideas and techniques presaged in that project, including Benjamin's focus on the figure of the flaneur, the strolling observer of the city and its places, who appears also in the work of Baudelaire (Benjamin, 2006). Of his approach in the Arcades Project, Benjamin writes, 'method of this work, literary montage. I needn't say anything merely show' (Benjamin, 1999: 460), and he asks: couldn't an exciting film be made from the map of Paris? From the unfolding of its various aspects in temporal succession? From the compression of a centuries-long movement of streets, boulevards, arcades and squares into the space of half an hour? And does the flaneur do anything different?' (1999, 83).

Bowring (2011: 213) suggests that both Keiller's London and Benjamin's Paris 'are cut through with liminality, the in-between moments in time and space that characterise the melancholic landscapes of modernity'. Our sense of the past is inevitably bound up with feelings associated with loss and the realisation that what has gone before can never return. As melancholic, so Keiller's films also carry a strong sense of nostalgia--but nostalgia that is the inevitable accompaniment of the experience of time, and of time in place, and the sense of loss that is part of that experience. It is in nostalgia and melancholy that the experience of space and the temporality that belongs inevitably to it are most strongly felt. The sense of the melancholy that pervades Keiller's films is ironically underlined in Robinson in Space in which the narrator tells us that the day he and Robinson spent visiting sites in the life of the author of the Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton, was the 'happiest' time they had spent. (8)

Neither the melancholic nor the nostalgic are as strongly present in the third film, or is not present in the same way, as in the first two--and this is so even though time is (as we shall argue in more detail below) more directly at issue in the third than in the previous two films. Moreover, although the spatial and topographic thinking of Benjamin and Lefebvre underpins the first two films, there is no similar underpinning in Robinson in Ruins Benjamin is not a presence there and neither, in any strong way, is Lefebvre. Whereas the first two films seem deliberately to invoke the spirits of thinkers like Benjamin and Lefebvre, as well as others, there are no such invocations in Robinson in Ruins--except, of course, for the invocation of Robinson himself. As the opening of the film has it, on Robinson's release from prison 'he made his way to the nearest city and looked for somewhere to haunt', and he haunts the film no less than any of the places to which he is said to have gone. Partly as a consequence of its different relationship to the intellectual tradition upon which it undoubtedly draws, but which seems not to be part of the fabric of the film itself, the third film thus has an air of contemporaneity about it that is lacking from the first two, and that is not solely attributable to the fact that it is the most recent of the three films. Something of this is suggested by Massey's embedding of the film in relation to the political events occurring around the time of its production (see Massey, 2013), and her repeated insistence on the contemporaneity of the film and its landscapes. (9) Whereas the first two films could almost be seen as having the outward form of personal reminiscence, the third is presented in direct relation to the current activities of the research organisation to which the narrator supposedly belongs. In this, the film perhaps also reflects the way it emerges within the context of the research project undertaken with Massey and Wright (and so too out of Keiller's reconceptualization of his filmic work as a form of research). Robinson in Ruins is thus explicitly understood as a research project in a way in which it seems the first two films, in the course of their production, were not.

The problem of space

Even though Benjamin's Parisian 'Arcades Project' is perhaps its primary inspiration, London is grounded in a rich and varied set of literary and philosophical sources, and although having a limited geographical horizon, its explorations nevertheless move across a rich spatial and topographic range. Robinson in Space also draws on a number of literary sources, notably Daniel Defoe's Tour through the whole island of Great Britain 1724-26 (Defoe, 1979), but they are more restricted in scope than those of the first film, and, on the face of it, Robinson in Space also appears more narrowly focussed, recording a set of travels that seem based primarily around spaces of production and manufacturing in the UK of the late 1990s. Of the film, Keiller writes (2013: 36) 'whereas London set out to transform appearances through a more or less radical subjectivity, Robinson in Space addresses the production of actual space; the manufacture of artefacts and the development of sites, the physical production of the visible'. The film makes explicit a direct debt on Keiller's part, not to Benjamin, but to the French geographer Henri Lefebvre (1991: 39).

What is crucial about Lefebvre in this context is the way he takes the social and the political to be worked out only in and through the spatial--space, or at least social space, is socially and political produced (Lefebvre, 1991: 26--see, among other commentaries, Pierce and Martin, 2015). The spatial therefore becomes that in and through which the social and the political become evident and so also that by which they become available to description and analysis. To explore the space and landscape of England, to respond to the 'problem' of England, is thus to engage, not with the picturesque landscape of hill and dale, stream and brook, field and meadow, castle and stately home, or at least not with this merely as picturesque, but with a landscape that is socially reproduced, that is 'urban', a landscape of ports, factories, motorways and shopping centres. Yet, if we take the spatial character of this engagement seriously, then the space that appears here is not merely a space produced, as the title of Lefebvre's The Production of Space (and almost all of the contemporary commentary) seems to suggest, but also a space that is itself productive. Indeed, what is produced is always space or spaces, and yet space itself always produces. Robinson in Space is an exploration of the space that appears here--a space both produced and producing. Here is space working itself out in terms of a particular landscape--a landscape already formed, and necessarily so, through the productivity of the spatial. What this means, however, is that the spatial as it appears here cannot be treated as merely that into which social and political forces are inscribed and by which it is shaped--not even as an overlay on physical space (whatever that may be), nor can it taken to be merely a construction either. Keiller's London takes up Benjamin's work, reworking a set of ideas in ways that elaborate, but do not necessarily operate against Benjamin's own thinking.

In Robinson in Space, the reworking is undertaken with Lefebvre in a way that, while it need not operate against Lefebvre, nevertheless draws out an implication of Lefebvre's account (whether intended or not) that is typically overlooked, namely, the character of the spatial as itself productive of the social rather than merely produced by it--of a deeper entanglement between the spatial and the social than is captured by any one-way production or construction. (10)

At first sight, Robinson in Ruins appears to continue the spatial focus of the first two films, and especially the second. One might take the analysis and critique of contemporary forms of capitalism as they are played out in terms of modes of spatial production, understood somewhat along Lefebvrian lines, to be at work in the third film just as it is in the second. The discrepancy Keiller identifies between displacement and belonging seems to be a spatial and topographic discrepancy, and Massey's commentary on the film also seems to focus on issues of space and place. Yet, exactly how the spatial and topographic focus of the third film is to be understood is not at all clear from the film itself. In fact, we would argue that Robinson in Ruins is not a film that thematises space or place, so much as time, or of space as it stands specifically in relation to time.

This does not mean that space and place are absent from the third film, but that they are taken up through what is essentially a focus on time and the temporal. The very contrast between displacement and belonging, though it can be put in spatial terms (such as that of the mobile and the sedentary) essentially relies on what is usually taken to be a temporal contrast--between the dynamic and the still or the transient and the perdurant. Both Keiller and Massey take issue with this contrast in their own commentaries on Robinson in Ruins, and the film takes issue with it quite directly through those long sustained shots in which the camera is at rest and yet the scene that it captures retains movement within it. The extended length of these shots in Robinson in Ruins seems designed specifically to draw attention to just this conjunction of the dynamic and the still. Invoking Bergson and process thinking, Massey writes that 'these long stills are about duration. They tell us of 'becoming', in place' (Massey, 2013: 3), they show, she says, in oddly metaphysical language, that 'Being itself is Becoming' (p. 4). (11) The use of the camera to provide a frame for movement but which does not itself move is a feature of Keiller's technique through all three films, but whereas in the first two this establishes a particular relation to scene, surface, and so to place, in the third, the length of the shot is extended in a way that exaggerates the technique even further, thereby drawing attention precisely to the fact of its duration, and so also to its temporality.

Quite aside from the way Massey draws attention to the way time and temporality figure in Robinson in Ruins (a way that tends to emphasis the focus on time as a way of reconceptualising space), the film itself brings temporal themes to the fore in a way not evident in the previous two films. The very title, with its reference to being 'in ruins' suggests a preoccupation with the past and its continuation into the present, as does the character of the film as a sort of retrieval of Robinson's activities. The narrative structure of the film is one that is organised around the months of the year, and the movement of the seasons is clearly evident in the progression of images, while large parts of the narration move between descriptions of historical and contemporary events. What Robinson in Ruins itself seems to present then, especially in comparison with its predecessors, is a problem concerning the temporality of landscape, rather than primarily its spatiality, and more than this, with a temporality that seems intended to stand almost as some sort of metaphysical absolute--a temporality that is the abiding temporality of nature itself.

All of this is complicated by the way Keiller, and especially Massey, have framed the film, and by their tendency, in discussions of Robinson in Ruins, to draw upon spatial and temporal, as well as topographic, notions at the very same time as they also make claims about space and time. What space and time might be such that either could be taken as a problem becomes uncertain, ambiguous, opaque. The distinction between space and time, and between spatiality and temporality, is undoubtedly philosophically problematic, (12) but its problematic character is not resolved by asserting the effective collapse of the one concept into the other--any more than the relation between being and becoming is illuminated by asserting their simple identity. The same applies to the contrast between displacement and belonging understood as a contrast between movement and stillness. Keiller and Massey both reject the idea of either of these terms as absolutes, and yet it is hard to see what alternative construal they offer of either--and in the case of belonging, the matter is complicated by the idea that, as Massey puts it (Massey, 2013: 5), the film posits a reversal of belonging from the question of belonging to landscape to the question to whom landscape belongs (although whether these two questions are of the same order that would allow such reversal is not addressed). Robinson in Ruins does not resolve the issues at stake, but neither does it leave us with any settled account of what is at issue with respect to displacement or belonging. On the one hand, Robinson himself seems to exhibit a constant restlessness in his ramblings across the countryside, and yet on the other hand that restlessness can also be interpreted as a search for a form of belonging--a form of rest--that is not immobile, nor univocal, but rather offers simply a place in which he can work, think, live. That he does not find such a place is suggested by the fact of his final disappearance although the more general question whether such a place can be found is left unanswered (unless, that is, one takes the images from the natural world as indicating the possibility of some other alternative, and even then it surely remains only a possibility).


We turn to our third theme: 'materiality'. Robinson is himself described by the narrator as 'a materialist, his vision of the Universe that of Lucretius' and we also hear that 'Robinson believed, 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, and in this way he hoped to see into the future' (Keiller, 1994). The primacy of the material is evident in his other films too; that all that there is, and everything that we see, has a material basis. Such materiality appears as the basis for a fundamental continuity human life and society is given in and through such materiality, and is not something apart from it. The 'subject', especially as it might be taken to stand apart from the materiality of the world, does not appear in these films. Subjectivity, inasmuch as it is present, is instead given in the landscapes that appear before us--in the surfaces of those landscapes, and the depth of their interconnected elements. The emphasis on materiality does not, however, imply any form of reductionism. If Robinson, and perhaps Keiller himself, is a Lucretian, then he is so in his emphasis on things as given in their material appearance--in their surfaces--and not in anything that stands before or behind them. One might say that this implies a certain form of realism, except here the very contrast between the real and the apparent has disappeared--there is no real, but neither, as with Nietzsche's 'The History of an Error' (1998), is there any mere appearance either.

Here materialism coalesces with romanticism. At one point the narrator describes London as a romance, and certainly the Romantic element, which may be said to be present within surrealism itself, is also clearly present in all three of Keilier's films. This is not the romanticism so often pilloried as some sort of hankering after an idealised past or a ruralised future or as a form of indulgent introspection, but rather the romanticism that consists in the attempt to reconfigure the world through seeing that world anew. Romanticism, in this latter sense, is revolutionary, but it is also something that Robinson's London, Robinson's England, has turned away from towards a narrower, and drabber, form of Protestant commercialism. A central tenet in such a radical romanticism is the idea, perhaps strongest in the third film (although there also at perhaps its most problematic) of the revelatory or transformative power of the image. Keiller himself writes of the origins of his own film-making in his encounter with 'a surrealist tradition in the UK and elsewhere' out of which came the idea 'that cinematography involved the pursuit of a transformation, radical or otherwise, of everyday reality' (The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image, 2008). The narrator of Robinson in Ruins speaks, in words also quoted by Massey (2013: 8), of the work of her own research team as 'based on the transformative potential we attributed to images of landscape'.

Although Robinson seems occasionally afflicted by a sense of optimism or even utopianism--that perhaps London and England could have been different, perhaps still could be different, that nature might itself offer a model for a different way of being--such optimism and utopianism, and the desire for hope and happiness to which these are connected, nevertheless always sits alongside a continuing sense of failure and of loss. A sense of melancholy, already remarked upon in connection with nostalgia, thus remains pervasive throughout these films. Where there is any sense of 'success', it is precisely the drab success of small-minded suburban government and its singular ambitions--a success that represents the destruction of civility, the abandonment of social life to the market, and the triumph of finance. 'It is a journey to the end of the world' says the narrator at the start of the film London. Robinson's wanderings are part of an investigation into the problem of London, but they also constitute a search for an antidote to the misery and dourness of the city--an antidote he finds, if briefly, in the multi-cultural communities of places such as Brixton. That antidote, however, seems to have only passing efficacy if it offers the glimpse of a different London, it remains only a glimpse.

One might say that the final film, Robinson in Ruins, with its explicit invocation of ruination, of the landscape and of Robinson himself, is a film that thematises the continued failure of any antidote to the excesses of capital as its apparently reshapes space, and the lives of those who inhabit it, to its own ends. There is no holy well that will bring relief, nor can we understand the manner of our belonging to space or place, nor of its belonging to us, through any such magic. Yet, the ruin also has a history, especially in an English landscape setting, of ambiguous meaning. Shelley's Ozymandius is not of England, and English ruins, seen as part of a picturesque landscape, can as readily signify the continuing power of wealth and privilege as they may mark the transience of human hope and ambition. The ruination of the landscape--and of its potential for the realisation of human life--that occurs through the depredations of global capital and neo-liberal economics can itself appear as a form of success, at least as measured in the increasing concentration and accumulation of wealth. Ruination can itself be the mark of how effectively such concentration and accumulation can occur.

Keiller's privileging of the material certainly serves as a cinematic device for the critique of contemporary capitalism and its structures. In his evocation of the melancholic aspects of landscape across all three films, and especially the first two, he establishes an atmosphere of fragmentation and loss. It is as if, in spite of himself, Keiller undercuts the possibility of any positive position other than the attempt to draw attention to the narratives of conflict that remain within the landscape itself. There is no unitary vision, only the juxtaposition of images and surface. If there is only surface, and yet those surfaces are always incomplete, always implying other surfaces, then there can be no over-arching solution, no utopia, but only the working out of things in the way that the natural world itself works itself out--no progressive evolution, just growth, complication and eventual decay.

It is commonplace to view Keiller's three films as standing in a critical relationship to the social and political landscapes that they also explore and evoke. Yet, this relationship cannot be assumed to be the same across all three of the films and this is itself directly related to the significant differences between those films in the way in their spatial and topographic focus. Both London and Robinson in Space demonstrate, not simply the manner in which space and place are shaped by social and political forces, but also the manner in which the social and political, and so human life in general, is embedded in the spatial and topographic. Yet in this respect, one might say that the earlier films do indeed explore a form of belonging to space and to place, and that only on the basis of that 'belonging', namely, the embeddness in the spatial and the topographic, can one properly begin to question the social and the political, including the social and political structures associated with that other mode of 'belonging' that is 'ownership.' It is, however, precisely this idea of 'belonging' that Keiller and Massey both explicitly put into question in Robinson in Ruins. Indeed, the shift to what seems actually to be a temporal perspective in that third film has the potential to blunt the critique that develops out of London and Robinson in Space, just as it also seems to fall more readily into the sort of introspective mode that Clarke (2007) argues is characteristic of Keiller's approach (both temporality and duration being characteristically associated with the 'inner').


Keiller's films point towards a way of seeing that has direct relevance for academic enquiry; that is, the need for an engagement with art as a mode of exploration rather than as an object of study (see Hawkins, 2012 for a broad discussion on this issue). (13) Specifically, in relation to geography, Keiller's films serve as a riposte to the mobility turn and the deterritorialisaton thesis expounded by scholars such as Appadurai (1996), Urry (2000) and others to the effect that new technologies render the actualities of places less significant. In contrast, Keiller's films establish 'place', and with it landscape, as the primary object for any sustained investigation.

The critical possibility of Keiller's films, and especially the first two, resides precisely in the way they make salient the spatial, the topographic, and the material as that in which even the life of capital is embedded and to which it belongs the way they make salient, therefore, the embeddness of capital in landscape. On this basis, the limit of capital, and so the possibility of any critique of it, is to be found in its spatial, material and topographic embedding. Yet just as it is time, more so than space or place, that appears in Robinson in Ruins, so the third of Robinson's three films seems to set capital, not against any other social or political formation, but against only nature. Images of nature--rural scenes, plants, flowers, insects--have a much stronger presence in the third film, appearing not merely as elements of images, but almost as their primary focus. This has the effect, less of establishing capital, and perhaps even the neo-liberal order, as counter posed to nature, as of reinforcing what has always been the tendency of capital, and especially neo-liberalism, to present itself as if it were itself 'natural'. Robinson in Ruins thus becomes a film that, inasmuch as it is about the critique of contemporary capitalism, seems also to be about the failure of any effective response to capitalism--about the 'ruination' of anything that stands opposed to capital. The nostalgia that does remain in this third film is thus more the nostalgia that seeks to find solace in the perdurance, the durational extendedness, of the natural, than the nostalgia that accompanies our embeddness in the spatial and the topographic and the limit that this necessarily entails (a limit belonging, on this latter account, even to capital, though unacknowledged by it).

The account of Keiller's films that we have proposed here is not confined only to the understanding of Keiller's work alone or merely to the analysis of the political and economic landscape of contemporary England. It has a much wider significance for the way in which we understand the materiality of capital, and of the social and political structures associated with it, and for the way in which we understand our own implication in--our belonging to--the material structures, which is to say the structures of specialisation, demoralisation and emplacement, within which the social, the political and the economic are necessarily embedded and embodied. Keiller's films thus connect with and contribute to a larger theoretical discourse that lies at the heart of much twentieth and twenty-first century thinking (in their focus on belonging, in particular, the films relate directly with a topic that has been at the heart of much recent and contemporary geographical discussion--not least, of course, in Massey's own work (14)), and they do so through the medium, through the very materiality, of filmic experience. In doing so, of course, they also raise the question--only hinted at here--concerning the materiality, the spatiality, the topography (or topology) of film itself. Keiller's films thus explore a landscape that can be seen in the films--that is exhibited in the images of which the films are composed. Yet, the films also open up a landscape of film, of the image, that invites us to consider the role and nature of film and the image, and the space, time, and place that belong to them and to which they themselves belong.

DOI: 10.1177/0263775816654474

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


(1.) Another film Dilapidated Dwelling (2000) narrated by Tilda Swinton, considered the problematic aspects of UK housing and the paucity of design. Commissioned by Channel Four it was not broadcast on TV.

(2.) Here our approach might be said to connect with work on what might be termed the 'art of seeing' as taken up by theorists such as Michael Fried (1980) and T. J. Clark (2006). There are some points of convergence, but there are also significant differences. Clark and Fried's concerns are partly determined by the conventions and preoccupations of modernist art-theoretical and art-historical scholarship, and as such their discussions are differently focused and framed. Moreover, film also brings a very different sensibility to that which is at issue in the contemplative engagement with a painting, especially one exhibited in a gallery setting. Some of the issues concerning visuality, image and work that engage Clark are also issues addressed elsewhere by Malpas, though in a very different way (see e.g. Malpas, 2008, 2012a: 225-250). There is an interesting question, though not one that can be pursued here, as to the extent to which Clark's emphasis on the importance of a more attentive form of seeing is itself dependent on a mode of being-placed that Clark does not himself thematise. In contrast, the connection between place and the careful attending to what stands before us (both in relation to the artistic and the everyday) is a key theme in Malpas' work.

(3.) The one exception is near the end of Robinson in Space, accompanying and immediately following the final line in the narration 'I cannot tell you where Robinson finally found his utopia'.

(4.) On the web site for the project 'The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image', at https://, Keiller comments that the 'problem of London' 'seemed to be, essentially, that Londoners then suffered (as they perhaps still suffer) because London was (as it still is) unlike the model of a European city promoted in architectural discourse and elsewhere during the 1980s and early 1990s (notably, perhaps, by Richard, now Lord Rogers)'. We would not deny that these are elements in the issues with which Keiller is engaged, but that this reduction of what is at issue to what is essentially the anomalous character of England compared to other parts of Europe is a misrepresentation, on Keiller's own part, of what his films actually offer, but they reflect the peculiar self-preoccupation (quite distinct from the romantic introspection criticised by Clarke (2007)) that seems characteristic of the mode of expression of a certain contemporary English intellectual sensibility. If Keiller's account did capture the essence of the problems at issue in these films, then it is hard to see how those films might engage with the problems that their invocation of Benjamin and Lefebvre (as well as others) also suggests.

(5.) In discussing the ideas that gave rise to the third film, Keiller notes that 'I had forgotten that landscape photography is often motivated by utopian or ideological imperatives, both as a critique of the world, and to demonstrate the possibility of creating a better one'--at https://, based on material that also appears in Cultural Geographies 16 (3).

(6.) At, Keiller also notes that '[Massey] had alerted me to Bruno Latour, who writes that 'Heidegger is taken in [...] since he and his epigones do not expect to find Being except along the Black Forest Holzwege...'. Significantly, neither Keiller nor Massey (nor indeed Latour) engage in a sustained way with any Heideggerian text, and the account of Heidegger they assume is a problematic one--even if also commonplace.

(7.) The larger research project of which Robinson in Ruins was a part, 'The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image', was funded by a three-year grant, beginning in 2007, from the Landscape and Environment Programme of the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council.

(8.) This may not be simply ironic one might argue that the melancholic is the mood that itself belongs to the engagement with place and so with landscape. Nostalgia (which, properly understood is not the desire for an impossible return to the past, but rather an awareness of the inevitable connection of loss, and so the pain, algos, that belongs to it, with place or 'home', nostos)--itself originates as a term of medical diagnosis to refer specifically to a species of melancholia (see Malpas, 2012a: 161-176).

(9.) They are 'about the present' (Massey, 2013: 13), they alert us to questions 'for today' (p. 13), they are 'about today' (p. 14), they speak 'to today' (p. 27).

(10.) To some extent this is part of what is at issue in Massey's emphasis on the dynamic, 'temporalized', character of spatiality (Massey, 2013). As soon as one recognised the dynamic character of spatiality, then one cannot understand space merely as produced or constructed. Its dynamism implies its productivity.

(11.) Elsewhere she writes that 'space must itself be imbued with temporality', although without seeming to notice that one could as easily say that time must itself be imbued with spatiality (Massey, 2013: 4).

(12.) Part of the reason for this, and the explanation for a certain opacity in Keiller and Massey's discussions of the film, lies in a systematic ambiguity around notions of space and time that derives from their own prior entanglement with one another. Space cannot be understood but in relation to time, nor can time be understood but in relation to space (see Malpas, 2012a, 2012b).

(13.) Such an approach was apparent in the exhibition Keiller curated at Tate Britain in 2012 titled 'The Robinson Institute'. It featured 120 works from the Tate and other collections displayed on frames in the long galleries. There were also video extracts of the film on display and visitors were able to trace the fictional Robinson and the journeys he undertook. In a similar way to Robinson in Ruins, the exhibition draws attention to the continuities that can be discerned from the English landscape.

(14.) Although one might well argue that inasmuch as it is in Robinson in Ruins that Keiller engages, through Massey, most directly with contemporary geographic thinking (and it is often the third film that seems to attract most attention from geographers), so it is also at this point that Keiller's work appears at its most didactic and conceptually weakest--even, perhaps, at its least 'critical'. Perhaps this tells us something about contemporary geography and its own limitations.


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Jeff Malpas

University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia; Australia/RMIT University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Keith Jacobs

University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Jeff Malpas, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, University of Tasmania. His interests are primarily in place, space, and time, memory, self, and identity, architecture and the arts, and philosophical topology/topography. His most recent publication is Reading Heidegger's Black Notebooks 1931-1931, co-edited with Ingo Farin (MIT Press, 2016).

Keith Jacobs, Professor of Sociology and Australian Research Council Future Fellow, University of Tasmania. His interests are urban policy and housing. His most recent publication is Housing, Home and Society authored with Rowland Atkinson (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016).

Corresponding author:

Jeff Malpas, University of Tasmania, Private Bag 78, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia.

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Date:Dec 1, 2016
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