Ealing Filmworks – trading on false nostalgia

The Ealing film studios are synonymous with the heyday of British post-War filmmaking. The studio became such a well-recognised player in the 1940s and 1950s that the ‘Ealing film’ became a genre in its own right. For audiences, the geographical location represented films with ensemble casts, community spirit and celebrations of the plucky British spirit. Hue and Cry (1947), Passport to Pimlico (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Blue Lamp (1950), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955) were all produced by Ealing in the space of ten years and remain beloved classics.

Producer Basil Dean founded Associated Talking Pictures (ATP), as the production company working out of Ealing Studios was initially known, in 1929. The studio building itself was finished in 1931 and the production company’s name changed to Ealing Studios in 1938.[i]

The studio itself used community and collaboration for its corporate branding as well as for its film topics. Michael Balcon, who took over the running of the studio in 1938 when Dean left, has been described as managing the studio with “benevolent paternalism.”[ii] This neighbourhood feel was also reflected in the shape of the studio’s main building, which from the front looked like a house:

Associated Talking Pictures/Ealing Studios films from the interwar period include Look Up and Laugh (1935) and Laburnum Grove (1936). As is evident from the posters for these films, Ealing Studios also cultivated its brand of ‘cozy old England’ in its film advertising.

The very British pedigree of the films are the focus of the posters. Not only do the British stars receive ample attention, both posters also highlight that the films’ stories are written by J.B. Priestley, a quintessentially British writer. The posters have the feel of a collage, with different fonts and images laid over one another. These are not posters that stress modernity, like other types of posters of the same era such as posters for ocean liners or railways. Instead, they almost have a home-made feel.

I found it curious, then, to see the advertising campaign used by property developer St George to market a new development in Ealing. As such developments are now inevitably given a name, St George has called this site ‘Filmworks’. It is not at the site of the studios, but stands in the place of what used to be the Ealing Empire Cinema. The development’s website promises a property development ‘inspired by the past’. On the hoardings of the building site itself (although not used on the website) are copies of four advertising posters made to look like film posters:

Or, more correctly, they are made to look like what a corporate entity thinks a 2018 audience thinks an interwar film poster resembled. The sharp lines and minimalist designs of the Filmworks posters stand in contrast to what film posters in the 1930s actually looked like. The Filmworks advertising alludes to a vague idea of transnational modernism that cannot be found in British interwar cinema posters. The films that used similar poster designs were German cinema posters such as for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Spione.

Ironically, these German films were produced by the UFA studios, a massive company that produced the majority of Germany’s films in the interwar period. UFA was the polar opposite to Ealing in its vision and approach to film production. Yet today, years of re-appropriation and re-hashing of historical illustration and design styles means that a minimalist illustration of a woman with short bobbed hair wearing a tuxedo is believed to represent interwar London. The historically imprecise style of the posters represents the opposite of the Ealing Studios’ ethos – they employ a false nostalgia to sell luxury goods.

[i] Charles Barr, Ealing Studios, London: Cameron & Tayleur, 1977, p. 4

[ii] Ibid., 6

Battersea power station: heritage and gentrification

I have recently moved to south London, so now I frequently pass Battersea Power Station on my way into the city centre. This old coal-fired power station was partly built in the 1930s, and partly in the 1950s, in the ‘brick cathedral’ style. Although it was aesthetically pleasing, its main purpose was to supply one-fifth of the total electricity needed in London. It stopped its core activities in 1983 and stood empty for decades, during which the four tall chimneys remained a London landmark, complete with its own ‘heritage’ memorabilia. In 2012 private investors bought the site and started refurbishment works which are due to be completed in the next year. The new development comprises not only the original power station but also a large number of new apartment blocks and a new Tube station. The website designated to the project promises it to be ‘London’s newest neighbourhood – a truly mixed-use destination’ which will include spaces to ‘live, work, play, shop, eat, and stay’. Last week it was announced that Apple Inc will move its London headquarters to the site in 2021.
The chimneys are the most recognisable element of the Power Station, and an important guarantee the private investors had to give in 2012 was that the chimneys will be retained. However, during the refurbishment works each of the chimneys has been taken down and built back up, temporarily depriving London of an ‘iconic’ part of its skyline. Although the refurbished Power Station will ostensibly look exactly the same as the original building, it will in fact be made up from new materials. The insides of the building will also be completely transformed as its industrial function is replaced by third sector work spaces. So, while the Power Station will rejoin the skyline, it will never be the same again.
A big selling point of the new corporate branding of the Power Station (which includes a new logo) is the heritage of the building. But although the building will look the same, its old identity will be gone and be replaced by the uniformity of luxury flats, copies of which are springing up all around the area. The London Mayor has recently called for an inquiry into foreign ownership of such flats, an action triggered by the revelation that more than 60% of residences in the St George’s Wharf Tower are owned by foreign buyers who do not actually live in the apartments. St George’s Wharf Tower is only 0.8 mile east from Battersea Power Station, so it is not inconceivable that many of the Power Station’s new flats will suffer the same fate – especially as 2 bedroom flats start at £1.16 million. Rather than a thriving ‘new neighbourhood’, the Power Station site seems set to become a ghost town for the super-rich.
Battersea Power Station has been a much-loved London building since its opening in 1939. But by attaching such importance to the Power Station keeping the same outward appearance, attention is diverted from the implications of the building’s radically altered function. From having an industrial function it becomes ‘industrial’ purely in its aesthetic.
It used to be a marker of modernity and functionality, providing electricity to a large part of south London. Now it will be one in many property investment opportunities for the 1%, contribute to London’s ever-escalating housing prices and erode local communities in favour of bland globalisation.

Sleepless at Stansted: A Nocturnal Airport and its Representations

Recently, I had an early morning flight from London Stansted Airport, located 40 miles outside the capital’s city centre. The day before, while cursing myself for not flying from central Heathrow Airport, I checked my travel options to Stansted and was left with two alternatives. Either, I would take the last evening train and sleep at the airport; or I could get some sleep at home but leave in the middle of the night to take, first, a night bus and, then, a coach. A little curious, I chose the first option, which inspired this blog post. Needless to say, I did not sleep at all. In what follows, I seek to make sense of this nocturnal experience of an out-of-town airport architecture and how different media play into that experience. Three types of representation formed part of my trip: a website about spending the night at airports; a TV show that another night guest watched on her laptop; and an airport information screen. Throughout, I explore night-time Stansted in relation to what anthropologist Marc Augé has established as typical of airports, in order to pin down what made my experience so peculiar.[1]

First of all, I started an internet search at home to check under which conditions a stayover at Stansted was possible. Google pointed me to “The Guide to Sleeping at Airports.” This website assures you that “[a]irport sleeping is no longer just for the cheap young backpacker” but an accepted activity for any early flyer. The online guide normalises the idea of being private and restful in a space commonly associated with publicness and passage. This approach challenges Augé’s definition of airports as non-places which are destined for transit and in which time is spent economically.[2] It suggests that, at least for a few hours every night, people can try to turn this site from a non-place into a place. The guide even promises first-timers to become part of an established community of “fellow airport sleepers.” This counters the loneliness that individuals experience in the typical non-place where they only share their status as consumers with others. [3]

The tips and reviews do not only verbally invite the travellers to imagine the upcoming experience but the website also visualizes it in illustrative drawings of what the bivouacs should look like. A lady in one illustration has gotten comfy on a row of seats, equipped with blanket, pillow, slippers, alarm clock, and magazines. Are past airport sleepovers shaping their representations on the website or is the online guide moulding future airport behaviour? The website leaves it undeterminable which influence is stronger, yet the acts of normalising and visualising the sleepover help to establish it as a cultural practice.

I arrived at Stansted shortly after midnight. Indeed, a considerable amount of people had come to sleep there and they had come prepared with blankets and even air mattresses. The check-in and security-check counters were shut. Individuals, couples, and families with children had begun to populate the floor in front of the security check. Early settlers had occupied the desirable electricity sockets to keep their devices charged for the sixty free minutes of Wi-Fi flagged in the Stansted review online. Others were wrapped up in sleeping bags and snoring. A quasi-colonization was in progress, leaving the colder, windier spots around doorways empty. Couples walked around, contemplated a spot as if it was a piece of real estate, only to move on and find a more favourable night quarter. Pathways remained clear in the middle for wheeled (suitcase) traffic. I observed in miniature what non-places in Augé’s view do not accommodate: the becoming of an “organic society.”[4] At first, people attempted to keep some distance from others. This was not an act of isolation but mutual respect of privacy. As the fringes of the hall filled up, settlers became neighbours.

This proximity put me next to a lady watching Desperate Housewives on her laptop. Her choice of entertainment is strikingly intimate. She did not turn to video games or YouTube clips, both of which are connected to usage in various locations, from desktops to parties to means of transport. The (horizontal) reception of a television show like Desperate Housewives is most closely linked to the home living room or bedroom. Additionally, this specific show concerns itself with residential space and its intimacies. By lying down on a pillow and watching this series, my neighbour privatised her airport spot. Her individualisation problematizes Augé’s claim that the airport non-place defies identity.[5] My neighbour brought a hint of her personal living room to her nocturnal stay at Stansted.

Another screen attracted my attention almost simultaneously: while the hall lights were dimmed, an airport animation on the wall stoically showed the steps for placing hand-luggage into security trays. Yet no one was currently allowed to pass through the security area. Stansted Airport neither stopped this light source nor customized it with information tailored to the nocturnal settlers. The screen confirms what the website guide suggested: Stansted “tolerates” but does not endorse this colonization. This standard communication which is neither specific to this airport nor the stayover passengers, corresponds to Augé’s writing on airports: the abstract institution of the airport contacts an anonymous mass of customers through depersonalised signs.[6] Stansted continues this communication at night, reminding everyone of its ultimately de-individualised nature.

Stansted Airport presents a paradox: it is both tailor-made and badly-suited for inviting sleepovers. Located out of the city and not easy to reach, it tempts the guide’s sleep-community to arrive the evening before their flights by train. They avoid the longer and more stressful trips by bus in the middle of the night. The airport is a likely target for individual nocturnal appropriations which shake up the characteristics of this non-place for a couple of hours a night and which made my time there feel so unusual. Yet, specializing in cheap flights, Stansted does not provide additional comfort to its stayover customers inside the airport hall.[7] The unpleasant lights of the daytime screen keep flashing throughout the night. They prevent the travellers from making the airport really homely – and from ultimately turning it into a place.

Around 2:30AM, my night ended abruptly. The shutters went up and the night quarters became an airport hall again. The website guide does not prepare users for this part. People looked unsure, hesitant, before they started wrapping up their camps. They joined the queue at the security check behind which duty-free shops encouraged a nocturnal shopping spree in glistening light. But that is a story for another night…

[1] Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Super-Modernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 1995).
[2] Augé, Non-Places, 96, 103-104.
[3] Augé, Non-Places, 101-104.
[4] Augé, Non-Places, 112.
[5] Augé, Non-Places, 103.
[6] Augé, Non-Places, 96, 101-102.
[7] The only option for such comfort is to book a room in one of the surrounding bed and breakfasts.

The final disease: infertility in ‘Children of Men’

In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) the ailment that has struck humanity is infertility. For eighteen years, no babies have been born on the planet, which has led to the breakdown of societies across the world. Britain has reverted back to using World War 2-style propaganda to stress its superior ability to deal with the crisis over the rest of the world. But it deals with it by interning all immigrants in camps and by offering legal suicide pills to the elderly. In the midst of this journalist Theo is approached by his ex-partner Jules, now leader of the rebellious ‘Fishes’, and asked to smuggle something very valuable to the coast: the girl Kee, who is pregnant.
The dystopian background is established in the opening scenes of the film. Theo enters a London coffee shop to get a take-away coffee. On the TV in the shop the news announces that the youngest person on the planet, 18-year-old ‘Baby’ Diego, has been killed. The crowd in the shop are crying. Theo walks out and puts his coffee on a nearby electricity box to stir in his sugar. Then the coffee shop he has just exited explodes. Although this explosion is referenced later in the film (it was orchestrated by the Fishes), it is not treated as the extraordinary event that it would be in the ‘normal’ world. (Re-watching Children of Men in 2016, after recent terrorist attacks, makes it resonate in new and different ways.) When Theo asks his boss for permission to work from home later that day, he uses Baby Diego’s death as a pretext, and not his near-death experience. Equally, later on in the film Theo gets kidnapped off a London street by the Fishes, and later dropped back again. Neither instance appears to even raise an eyebrow of passers-by.

CoM_cafe explosionFig. 1: A café which Theo has just exited blows up

CoM_Jasper's houseFig 2: Jasper’s house in the woods

In this sense, Children of Men follows a well-established dystopian trope of equating the city with degeneration. This cliché is in the first instance strengthened when Theo visits his friend Jasper, an old political activist and hippy who lives out in the woods in a ramshackle building where he grows his own weed. Jasper’s house is a sanctuary where Theo can speak freely. The countryside appears relatively untouched by the ravages that have hit the city, and Theo’s cynicism is juxtaposed with Jasper’s optimism. But this division gets blurred as the film progresses, when Theo’s attempts to save Kee lead the Fishes (who turn out to be ‘baddies’ after all) to Jasper’s house, where they execute the old activist.

CoM_Jasper's executionFig 3: The Fishes kill Jasper

And of course the infertility exists in the countryside as much as it does in the city. Choosing infertility as the ‘disease’ inflicted on mankind, rather than a bacteria or viruses, allows the characters and audiences to speculate what humans have done to bring this upon themselves. The disease is a ceasing of bodily functions, not an external invasion that humankind has to fight. Although it is not revealed what the cause of the infertility is, characters drop some clues throughout the film that allow for a reconstruction of events. The film is set in 2027. Baby Diego dies at 18 years old, so the last babies were born in 2009. Miriam, Kee’s midwife, tells Theo that the infertility started by pregnant women having miscarriages, which occurred earlier and earlier in the pregnancy, until it became apparent that no new pregnancies were registered. Theo and Jules haven’t seen each other for twenty years. Jasper reveals that the couple had a baby, Dylan, who died in the 2007 flu pandemic. From these facts we can gather that the infertility was preceded by at least one pandemic of a viral disease, and that when the infertility set in it was a gradual process. It was not a divine judgement meted out to the masses (although there are plenty of religious groups in the periphery that take the infertility to be God’s punishment), but rather a halting development that took time to really take hold.

CoM_TomorrowFig 4: The ‘Tomorrow’ arrives to bring Kee and her baby to safety

But what caused it? And why is Kee able to get pregnant? The story wisely does not answer these questions. It is self-aware in its positioning of Kee, who jokes about being the virgin immaculate. In fact, she slept around and does not know who the father is. This leaves open the possibility that the issue is with the male half of the population, echoing noughties fears about mobile phones in tight trouser pockets. The end of the film cannot help but echo religious sentiments, with the baby being hailed as a source of purity and goodness, and with the saving ship ‘Tomorrow’ advancing through the fog. But is Kee’s baby the Salvation of humankind and the start of a new generation, or is it just a one-off medical incident?

Attack the Block

Even though it is the name of the 2011 film, the phrase “attack the block” could also describe the process of selling off and the regeneration of land and neighbourhoods in London. More precisely, the trend in recent years has been for local authorities to sell housing estates to private developers in order to facilitate large scale renewal of housing stock and the regeneration of neighbourhoods. One justification that councils have offered in making the case for renewal has been that due to the state of disrepair and the social issues presented by such conditions, it is beyond the financial means of councils to refurbish and upgrade the existing housing stock. It is no secret that most sites earmarked for sale are regarded as prime real estate. Enter the property developers who have the resources to purchase and redevelop the valuable land — value that is defined within a paradigm of exchange value rather than use value.
Whilst, of course, the financial burden is passed on to the property developers, and local authorities promise new social and council housing paid for by the proceeds of the land sale, the proposed benefits also have profound consequences. These are starkest for the current residents of any site. For example, the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle — one of the locations in Attack the Block — tenants in social rented accommodation were dispersed across London, and sometimes beyond, to other council housing. Those who owned the leasehold to their properties were offered amounts under compulsory purchase orders that did not allow them to buy a comparative property locally. Those in one bedroom properties were offered an average of £95,480; the cheapest one bedroom flat in the planned Lend Lease development was to cost in excess of £300,000.[1]

The individual and collective social cost to the breaking up of such communities, then, is irreversible separation, as one community is dispersed across a very large city. One of the local campaigns, 35% Elephant, shows the mapped displacement of the former tenants and leaseholders, as depicted in the following images.[2]
ATB1ATB2

These maps provide an interesting visualisation of the dispersal of those former residents. For both tenants and leaseholders, these maps clarify how the former community was geographically exploded. It is also salient that each of the journeys represented by these maps is most likely one-way. With that in mind, these images bring to light a collective parting of ways without the prospect of return or of re-establishment of the former communities.
Added to the sense of irreparable change to the parts of the city’s social fabric, Loretta Lees (2014) makes the argument that the London that is left in its wake is not viable or socially sustainable. New Labour pursued a policy of mixed communities, a policy that aimed to foster social integration and mutual flourishing by engineering a social mix of different backgrounds within the same property development. She highlights how the policy, although oft cited by the Mayor’s office and local authorities in the name of regeneration, has largely been abandoned, given the paucity of planned, genuine social housing by property developers. Lend Lease, for example, have plans for around 25% of the development to be ‘affordable’ social housing — this includes socially rented, affordable rent and shared ownership. Real council housing has been and is being written out of the future.
Lees argues that, with ‘[m]ost of inner London now gentrified, […] council estates and tenants have become the final gentrification frontier’ (2014: loc. 3772). The mixed communities policy has, moreover, merely provided a means by which the state has proceeded to displace estate residents from the Heygate and similar, central London locations. Lees writes, ‘[s]ignificant numbers of low-income tenants have been, and are in the process of being, displaced from their homes and communities in inner London through the guise of mixed communities policy’ (2014: loc. 3834). Such changes in the material reconfiguration of London underscore the ephemerality of the city’s spaces and architectural environment; the Heygate itself was condemned to closure by Southwark council less than 40 years after its completion. However, these changes in the spaces of the city, particularly around Elephant and Castle, conspicuously symbolise the forces of capital guiding the priorities of the local council — where a big bang solution was more favourable than a restoration of the Heygate’s existing housing stock. Such a restoration was, in fact, mooted, costed, and could have been made possible (2014: loc. 4121) but such a modest solution did not serve the priorities of the capital forces which built a narrative around the estate that it was always already inviable [3]. Whilst such capital forces are generative insofar as they ensure the ongoing reconfiguration and creation of the city’s material, perpetuating its unfinished, ephemeral materiality, these forces are also socially destructive. Communities are scattered. Without these, the city’s material fabric is undermined such is the inextricable link between the city’s architectural spaces and their human occupants. Playing bagatelle with communities of people, decoupling people from place, suits capital but does not serve the city well, when the ephemerality of social relations in a large, international city is accelerated and fuelled by the forces that promote its material change.
With the closure of the Heygate and pressure on surviving estates to be swallowed up in the same wave of regeneration, Attack the Block (2011) creatively deals with those who resist forces that threaten the estate. The film follows a gang of teenage boys, led by Moses, in thrall to their estate gang and drug-dealer boss. The boys mug a nurse who, it turns out, lives on the same estate as them. Shortly thereafter, something crashes from the heavens into the street they stand in, wrecking a car. An alien, soon dispatched by Moses, hails the the start of an attack by a legion of other invaders that arrive — the boys’ estate is officially under attack. The straight concrete edges of the estates’ blocks and the distinctive angular walkways belonging to the Heygate are evident as the boys seek to defend their estate against the invaders. In the end, all that the strange creatures appear to have been doing is pursuing the scent of a fellow alien, perhaps in order to mate.
The film is comic and light-hearted and notable for its locations and smaller budget, but the film is vitally political, too. Outsiders and authorities external to the world of the estate are impervious to the assault — the boys stand alone. In this sense, these alien trespassers, bent on the single goal of reaching the dead alien whose scent they keenly detect, do not so much stand for the property developers and local authorities but more for the unseen work of capital forces mentioned above. Their goal is to serve the best interests of capital by the most efficient means. Likewise, the manner of the aliens’ single-minded pursuit of the scent of their fellow life-form, the goal, is just as ruthless: people die; property is ruined; and the estate terrorised.
The total impassivity of the world outside the estate is evident, when, having contacted the police, the young nurse turns up with them on the estate looking for the Moses’ gang. The police’s efforts are fatally sabotaged by the aliens, but, of course, the damage and death come to be blamed by the police at the end upon Moses and friends, residents of the estate. Their otherness, it seems, mandates that whoever comes from the place of alterity must be caught up in the negative mythologies that come to be associated with it over time. Moreover, it is on this very point that the film rebuts such an assumption. After the police are killed, the young, white nurse who is relatively new to the area, teams up with her former assailants to survive. Only at this point do the boys discover that she too lives on the estate, that she is part of their world. They help her escape the aliens and she helps to patch one of the injured up. It is not so much to do with the sense in which the perilous circumstances throw the nurse and her assailants together, rather it is the fact that they are neighbours and live on the same estate that is the key variable that facilitates the transcending of differences in race, class, education, and background. It is not just that this unlikely band fight for their estate; this film defends the notion and potential of such communities.
Francesco Sebregondi (2012) argues that between the time of the Heygate being emptied of all but its most determined residents and prior to the estate’s demolition to make way for new buildings, a kind of void opens up in the city landscape, ‘[a]n unoccupied, un-utilised, un-programmed space’ (2012: 338). Leaving a sealed-off, neglected estate of buildings on display to London residents served the conventional, neoliberal narrative that the estate was destined for closure in any event and that such closures should be welcomed as progress. Sebregondi points out that one of the unique phenomena to arise within the void is its role as an image ‘machine’ (2012: 339). That is, it became the site for many films seeking to shoot on a location that typified brutalist sensibilities, and Attack the Block was, of course, one of those objects that arose from that void. Now, Sebregondi argues that one of the functions of the many films [4] made on the Heygate was to reinforce the narrative of this and other such estates as being harbours of violence and criminal activity. More than this, these images co-opted the memory of the estate, to ensure it would be remembered in such a light. What is interesting about Attack the Block is that there are signs of resistance to the general narrative and the memorialising of the estate as a place of crime and violence. Yes, people are killed by aliens and the boy-hoodlums come from there, but the film models the triumph of the estate, of those supposed troublemakers — who exhibit courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice — united with their one-time victim to survive and defend against the intruding force. And it is the estate as a social fabric, of local people and knowledge that accomplishes the very thing being exploded by capital forces.
The other consequence of the many images of the estate in this period, according to Sebregondi, is that images displace and dislocate. So, ‘related to the very phenomenology of the image, is […] [the dissolution of] both the specificity and the materiality of the Heygate as a place’ (2012: 339). Whilst Attack the Block no doubt participates in this very process, what is championed is the idea of the ‘estate’ as a distinctive place, but also as one that is worth something (other than pounds and pence), against the ’30 years of stigmatisation in political discourse and popular culture [that] has established the council estate as a page already turned in the city’s history’ (2012: 340). The film pictures the Heygate — and indeed every council estate — as something that can and should be fought for, preserved, saved.
As a cultural object that arose from the void in the city’s landscape, Attack the Block embodies the very same things as its characters in defence of the estate.

[1] Ian Steadman, ‘Look to the Heygate Estate for what’s wrong with London’s housing’, New Statesman, 6 November 2013 <http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/11/look-heygate-estate-whats-wrong-londons-housing&gt; [accessed 22 August 2015]
[2] ‘The Heygate Diaspora’, 35% Campaign, 8 June 2013 <http://35percent.org/blog/2013/06/08/the-heygate-diaspora/&gt; [accessed 22 August 2015]. See also the pamphlet: Loretta Lees, Just Space, LTF, SNAG, ‘Challenging “the urban renewal”: the social cleansing of housing estates in London’, in B. Campaign, D. Roberts and R.Ross (eds) Urban Pamphleteer #2 ‘London: regeneration realities’, London: Urban Lab, UCL pp. 6-10 <https://www.ucl.ac.uk/urbanlab/research/urban-pamphleteer/UrbanPamphleteer_2.pdf&gt; [accessed 5 October 2015].
[3] For more for the narratives surrounding the Heygate see Stephen Moss, ‘The death of a housing ideal’, in The Guardian, 4 March 2011 <http://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/mar/04/death-housing-ideal&gt; [accessed 1 October 2015]
[4] For example, films such as Shank (2010), Harry Brown (2009), World War Z (2013) and The Veteran (2011) in addition to television episodes and music videos.

The Fleeting and the Enduring: A Salt Photograph of Nelson’s Column

nelsons-column

Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, William Fox Talbot, 1843 ©The Wilson Centre for Photography

During a recent visit to the Tate Britain exhibition ‘Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860’, which displays early salt print photographs, one image in particular caught my eye. Nelson’s Column (1843) shows the construction of the eponymous column on Trafalgar Square. The viewer sees the bottom of the famous London landmark, shrouded in scaffolding. In the background is St Martin-in-the-Fields church. What most interests me, however, is an apparently irrelevant detail: the advertising posters displayed on the hoarding around the column. The contrast between the enduring column and the ephemeral posters and playbills is mirrored in both the transience and permanence of the photograph itself.
Salt photography was one of the earliest types of photography, invented in Britain in the 1830s by William Fox Talbot, who also took the photo under discussion. This type of photography used a salt-based solution to fix images created by a camera obscura on paper. [1] Along with the French invention of the Daguerreotype this innovative process gave photographers the ability to record a fleeting moment, seemingly forever. Over time it became apparent, however, that the photographs printed on paper were not enduring; any exposure to light degrades the image. Talbot’s photos, although an attempt to capture the beauties of the world forever, in fact turned out to be most ephemeral.
The image shown on the photograph Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square reflects this tension between the lasting and the fleeting. The column was built between 1840 and 1843. As a commemoration of one of the greatest naval commanders in British history the column is closely linked to Britain’s imperial identity. The column was built to last, and serve as a constant reminder of the country’s achievements. The church of St Martin’s was erected, in its current form, in 1726 and represents the enduring importance of the Anglican Church to the British state and society.
These two Classical structures are the centre of the viewer’s focus. At the bottom of the photograph, the posters on the hoarding around Nelson’s Column represent the transient aspects of the built environment. They display a mixture of text and images, advertising shows and spectacles which could be visited around the capital. The display as a whole would have been ever-changing as billposters layered new adverts over the old ones. The use of advertising posters became mainstream practice at the start of the 19th century, and is perhaps most famously represented in John Parry’s ‘A London Street Scene’ (1935). As Sadiah Qureshi demonstrates, Parry’s image also juxtaposes the transience of the posters ‘to the seeming permanence of St Paul’s Cathedral.’[2] Nelson’s Column serves a similar purpose in Talbot’s photograph. Whereas in Parry’s drawing the juxtaposition is an artistic invention, Talbot merely captured a scene already available on the street. His artist’s eye spotted the suitability of the composition, but the posters were already there, right around the column. His photograph shows that on the streets of the Victorian capital, there were tensions between the permanent and the temporary. At the same time, the newly invented art of photography was trying to find ways to make fleeting moments last forever, but was not able yet to shed/overcome those tensions between the eternal and the ephemeral.

[1] For a more extensive discussion of the invention process see: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm

[2] Qureshi, Sadiah. Peoples on Parade: exhibitions, empire and anthropology in nineteenth century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 49.

Rehousing Cinema: From ‘Cinema Paradiso’ to the Cinema Museum

Cities might be said to have a beat. A rhythm to which life — all the things that animate the city — gets played out. One of the sources of this energy are the relentless manifold changes that take place in the formation of its material, built environment. What at one time were sites of activity and vibrance can, over time, become sights indicative of decline, neglect and disuse. Some buildings may be appropriated for many different uses other than those which they originally served. Others are destroyed and replaced and the land is used for new buildings. Whatever the stimuli for change, the materials and the surfaces of the city’s landscape are in flux. Such ongoing mutations and the concomitant provisionality of space that arises, are perhaps constitutive of what it means for a city to be a city.
The story of cinema’s home — cinemas — and the city is, of course, caught up with this ongoing development and change. Cinemas, like other sites, are left to decay, are re-appropriated for other uses and replaced entirely by other structures. Even though the social practice of cinema-going is certainly far from dead, and whatever the contributory factors, cinema attendance in western markets has declined markedly since its peak in the 1930s and 1940s. Such social and economic changes naturally entail that the siting of cinemas in the city have also radically altered, with the number of cinemas declining in general alongside the rise of the out-of-town multiplex.
     Cinema Paradiso (1988; d. Giuseppe Tornatore) is an exuberant and affectionate homage to the world of cinema and specifically its materialities. It is also a lament for the demise of cinemas that close, decay and are re-appropriated whereby the land or building is put to a different use, thus altering the immediate environment and the practices that take place in and around that location. After many years of self-imposed exile, Salvatore, the former projectionist of the Cinema Paradiso — now a successful film director — returns to his hometown. He does so to mark the death of his long time friend and mentor, Alfredo. Salvatore visits the cinema where he spent his formative years, learned about film and then served as projectionist, following Alfredo’s blindness.

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He finds a dilapidated relic inside and out. In a muted greyish-brown palette, the camera follows Salvatore into the former hub of community life. Promotional posters, upturned chairs, a broken lavatory, light bulbs are strewn over the floor of the dusty auditorium. The wallpaper peeling from the walls is visible as the camera pans left whilst tracking right to reveal the void of black behind the broken screen. In the projection booth, offcuts of film and empty reels litter the room. Its broken windows look out over the square of which it was once an integral part. All these artefacts, which speak of a former era of cinema-going, are deemed to be detritus along with the structure of the cinema itself — worthy only of destruction. Shortly afterwards, the cinema and its artefacts lie demolished to make way for a multi-storey car park. Lined up to observe the demolition are the familiar faces of years gone by, those who were involved and attended regularly, to pay their final respects to the place that brought them together. Their ageing faces speak of a bygone era.

There is, however, another point in the film that Francesco Casetti links to the relocation of the cinema. The trajectories of this relocation are twofold. One is the proliferation of screens and the manifold means of accessing the film object that exist today. The other pertains to the organisations of space that occur outside of the cinema, in the home and elsewhere, to re-create a cinema theatre like experience. One evening, when Salvatore is still a young boy assisting Alfredo, such is the demand from those outside waiting for the next screening that Alfredo uses the glass of the projection window to reflect the film behind the projector, out of the window overlooking the square, where it can be viewed on the side of a house.

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In is this moment, cinema symbolically leaves its house, a moment that Casetti interprets as ‘cinema’s exit from its temple’.[1] This exit is evidenced today in the non-theatrical expressions of cinema taking place in urban spaces with free film festivals, pop-up cinemas, outdoor screenings, themed secret cinema events, and ad hoc screenings. Also present in this moment, however, is the re-appropriation of the material urban space by cinema and for cinema — a wall is illuminated with images from the filmstrip, transforming a building’s wall into a screen. This is a reminder of how the earliest cinema spaces were created by a re-appropriation of existing used and disused spaces in cities — mainly shop fronts, giving birth to the first ‘nickelodeons’ in the U.S. and ‘penny’ cinemas in Britain.
Even if there has been a reduction in the number of cinemas since the heyday of cinema-going, and the artefacts of a bygone era discarded in the process, there are places that are salvaging and preserving just such artefacts through the re-appropriation different spaces. The Cinema Museum in south London serves as one such example of that. The museum is based in what originally opened as the Lambeth Workhouse in 1873, and subsequently became Lambeth Infirmary. The museum took over the surviving building in 1998 that has remained as its home since then. Many of the artefacts in the museum’s core collection — uniforms, projectors, light fittings, doors, ashtrays, display boards, carpets, seats, posters, postcards, film stills, as well as films — have been salvaged from former cinemas to preserve these objects of cinema’s material past. In so doing, this might be read as the re-housing, the re-siting of cinema in the city. In the same way that space was re-appropriated in cities for the earliest cinema theatres, so the former site of the Lambeth Workhouse has been re-purposed as a site for cinema. This time, the space is organised to preserve objects from those original theatres. These objects are given a home, they take on an afterlife which summons the memory of, and serves as an index of the presence for, the periods and former sites they represent. And as people visit the museum — a space dedicated to imbuing the present with cinema’s past — the social practices that once took place around these objects are instantiated once again. In this way, cinema remains caught up in the beat, in the rhythms and flux of the city’s continual material change.

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[1] Francesco Casetti, ‘Cinema Lost and Found: Trajectories of Relocation’, Screening the Past, (2011) <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2011/11/cinema-lost-and-found-trajectories-of-relocation/&gt; [accessed 12 January 2015]