Lea River Bridges: Walking/Looking/Listening

By Michael Pattison

We live in a world in which layers upon layers of things happen… We know this, but we are seldom made conscious of it. We need the discipline of the recording device, of the frame, and especially of the person recording, to make us reinvestigate what we are living in and through. — Michael Pisaro

Lea River Bridges is a 34-minute non-narrative film consisting of 45 fixed-frame, tripod-mounted, moving-image shots, each lasting 45 seconds. The first shot is an easterly view of Waltham Abbey, in Essex, Greater London, as seen from the roundabout at which Highbridge St meets the B194, and the final shot is a westerly view of the River Thames, as seen from Limehouse Basin. In between these two locations, there are 43 shots of bridges, each of which spans the River Lea. The bridges themselves are shown in sequence, north to south, as one would encounter them while walking the Lee Navigation Towpath, firstly through East London, and secondly via Limehouse Cut after the Lea divides in two at Bow Creek. The bridges are all framed from the same vantage point: from beneath, centrally widthways, and perpendicular to the river, which flows through the frame left-to-right or right-to-left depending on whether the towpath is east or west of the river.

It began on foot. My walk from Waltham Abbey to the Thames, in January 2017, was a reversal of the one with which Iain Sinclair begins London Orbital (2003). Sinclair’s is an escape route, a desperate retreat from the Millennium Dome — New Labour folly and avatar of imminent encroachment — but, as his subsequent output as a writer attests, this particular stretch of the capital has a sticking quality. Something to be haunted by, drawn back to: in the following decade, East London became a ‘red zone’, barricaded by the ubiquitous Blue Fence that gives the final section of Sinclair’s Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2007) its name. In The Last London (2017), Sinclair refers to the area, post-2012, as ‘Olympicopolis’.

The idea behind Lea River Bridges was to minimise variables. By systematising composition and duration, and by drawing attention to this aesthetic decision through repetition, variations are emphasised, both from one shot to the next and over the course of the journey depicted in the film. Such variations include: weather, lighting conditions, footfall, architecture, infrastructure, sonic ambience, and the overall but less easily described effect created by all of these in combination. The film is both a document of the 18-mile walk undertaken to make it and a snapshot of London at a particular point in time. The temporal component is amplified by the hard cuts that begin and end each shot and by the two seconds of black screen between each bridge. Through structural repetition, the film creates a tension between its aesthetic limitations and the contingencies that unfold within them. Another tension is that between the sequential continuity of the walk and the discontinuous nature of the film that emerged from it; in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, Michael Sorkin highlights the sequential-cinematic nature of walking.

One of the joys of walking a city is that what are otherwise disparate pockets on a map bleed into one another. Boundaries, clearly marked on paper, do not necessarily announce themselves to the pedestrian. Abandoning the map, allowing the potentialities of the pavement to do their work, one must read the landscape through other means: street signs, bus timetables, those hoardings that advertise which small businesses might be found within some anonymous industrial estate. All of this is merely compounded in the interstitial realm, the liminal terrain that constitutes the edgelands. As one graffito put it as I walked down the Lea: DEFINATLY NOT IN HACKNEY NOW. How else was I to know?

Lea River Bridges is an example of what P. Adams Sitney would call a structural film: that in which the shape is predetermined — or, at least in this instance, determined by and in relation to pre-existing topographical features — and in which said shape ‘is the primal impression’. I arrived at the decision to make each shot 45 seconds by identifying that containing the most incident — the ‘busiest’ scene, if you like — and timing how long it took for this to find something resembling a sense of completion. By standardising the 45-second duration across the film, so that each bridge is given its due regardless of what ostensibly might be a shortage or even absence of incident, the film activates an especially attentive mode of spectatorship: absent conventional narrative hooks or identifiable clues as to why we are watching what we are watching, everything inside the frame (and, through the soundtrack, everything hinted at outside of the frame) is suggested to be of equal importance.

The film’s deliberate framing points to the mediated nature of its gaze, and therefore to both its own limitations and particularities as a form of research. In this sense, Lea River Bridges can also be viewed as a form of rhythmanalysis. The film induces its own rhythm — over which I had control as both cameraperson and editor — so as to more effectively study various other rhythms at work, over which I had very little control: the found choreographies, the spatio-temporal tensions, happened upon in everyday life. Such rhythms are encountered in the form of both images and sounds, and at various levels within the urban infrastructure, including the towpath (dogwalkers, joggers, cyclists, commuters, businessmen); the bridges (the crescendo of a police siren, the whoosh-whoosh of traffic, the mechanic throb of a timetabled train); the river (boats, runoff, swans). There is also the interplay of on- and offscreen rhythms — such as, for instance, the hums and clatters of an industrial site across river and the audible song of unseen birds; or the sound of the five o’clock bells at St Anne’s Church in Limehouse and the image of a mattress beneath a nearby bridge, which might evoke a sense of automated time on the one hand and an image of precarity and displacement on the other. Both of which appear, by now, to be key components of city living.

As such, Lea River Bridges encourages imaginative modes of engagement, a politics of looking and listening: as a sensory examination of landscape and urban space dependent upon duration and structure, and of our awareness and anticipation of duration and structure. As James Benning notes, ‘Place is always a function of time so one has to sit and look and listen over a period of time to get the feel of a place and see how that place can be represented’. Place and time, image and sound: there are less answers, here, than there are questions. A determining factor in my decision not to provide any kind of voiceover narration, by which I might have explicated the research aims of the film, was due to its specific construct: never mind what I might think, what might you?

Michael Pattison is a film critic and PhD candidate in Film Practice at Newcastle University’s Film@Culture Lab. His PhD is part of the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council.

Originally posted 29th October 2018.

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