Abstraction of Space

The Abstraction of Space

Technics and Otherness in the City Film

Adam Kossoff


Centred on William Raban’s About Now MMX (2010), this paper will look the conflictual demands of surface and deep space, which films about the urban and the city typically highlight. About Now was filmed from the 21st floor of Balfron Tower in East London. Filmed with a telescopic lens, it reveals Raban scanning across the urbanscape of East London, dominated by the high-rise offices of Canary Wharf. As Raban pans and uses stop-motion, so the overall effect is a juddering exploration of flattened space. In making this film Raban was concerned to look at the nature of recession in the pictorial in tandem with the economic recession. Whether the two coalesce in any obvious way is open for discussion.


“The true identity of London is its absence”, one of the characters in Robinson in London says (Keiller, 1994). Film and the moving image also absents the spectator. The combination of composition, spatial compression, framing, re-framing, editing and the screen itself, removes the audience from the spaces they are watching. So whereas the typical assumption is that the moving image conveys a ‘thick space’, space with a lived-in depth, the moving image actually utilises what I term as ‘thin space’. The former claims the realism of deep space, an immersive idealism, and the latter reveals the artifice of film language.


The distinction between thick and thin space is often apparent in films which document urban space and place, the city symphony for example. In Man With a Movie Camera (1929) the image is frequently flattened through the use of in-camera special effects. The film utilises both thick and thin space, culminating in the screening of the film to an audience. Rather than our ‘being-there’, the reflexive nature of the film enhances our ‘not-being there’, and the otherness of the documentary form.


Bringing together the experimental and the documentary filmmaking traditions, Raban’s films have often explored a sense of the spatial otherness of the moving image. In River Yar (1971-1972) for example, which also used stop-frame, a sense of place (in the form of space and time) is revealed via the mediation of filmic technology. Here the relationship between nature and technology is seen as essential and harmonious. Which is not the same with About Now where nature and technology are shown to have an uneasy relationship. Nevertheless, it is Raban’s technique that allows this uneasy mapping of the East London landscape to draw out how both cinema, in aesthetic terms, and capital, in terms of the spatial attributes of the city, serve to abstract space, albeit for very different ends.


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