Architecture on Film: Counting + Jem Cohen Q&A

A diary of urban life in fifteen chapters, Counting hypnotically captures the ephemera of cities including New York, St. Petersburg and Istanbul, as Cohen's wandering camera gazes with forensic fascination upon the world around it.


06:30pm, Tuesday, 20 September 2016


09:00pm, Tuesday, 20 September 2016


Cinema 1
Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS



AF Members:
£7.50 (Please contact AF for promotional discount code)


Young Barbican:

Tel (9am-8pm):
+44 (0)20 7638 8891

This is a past event

We are delighted that Jem Cohen will be joining us at this screening, to participate in a discussion with Gareth Evans (Film Curator, Whitechapel Gallery).


Independent American filmmaker Jem Cohen’s latest feature offers a diary of contemporary urban life in 15 chapters. Hypnotically capturing the ephemera of cities such as New York, St. Petersburg and Istanbul, his wandering camera gazes with forensic fascination upon the world around it, finding connections, beauty, and many cats, within the everyday.

Peerless in his knack for chronicling urban transformation
- Steve Macfarlane, The White Review

Across 30 years of filmmaking, Cohen has repeatedly trained his lens upon the urban environment as his protagonist and material – from elegiac records of a changing New York City (This is a History of New York, 1987; Lost Book Found, 1996) to the global collision of capital and the city (Chain, 2004; Gravity Hill Newsreels, 2011/12). In a parallel to his frequent collaborations with musicians – including REM, Fugazi and Patti Smith – Cohen takes the built environment as a score, upon which his camera traces its harmonies, discords and rhythms.

In Counting, Cohen presents a global city symphony, finding vivid evidence of lives lived echoing within the physical, political and economic structures that condition them. Observation and surveillance become both techniques and subject matter, in a poetic document of the contemporary world.

I wanted to make a record of street life in a number of disparate cities within a limited time period, so as to measure recurrent ways in which people, animals, landscape, and politics interact within roughly the same global moment. I wanted to witness how displacement and real estate-driven destruction have become so interwoven into the fabric of urban life that they seem almost natural.
- Jem Cohen, Filmmaker Magazine

Somewhere between documentary and diary, essay and home movie, the film practices a mode of ‘life drawing’, in the director’s words, to examine the terrain of the “no-man’s land where we actually live”.

USA, 2015, Jem Cohen, 111 mins

Programme Notes by Gareth Evans

From the Curve of the Earth
Sightlines: 15 degrees

In a dark time, the eye begins to see… - Theodore Roethke

Spoiler Alert: This is not a review of the film you are about to see or have just viewed. There are many insightful critiques freely available online. That said, nobody is more articulate about this work than Jem Cohen himself, and the current writer urges you to read both his own luminous statement on the film (here: and the hugely rewarding extended exchange between JC and film-maker J.P. Sniadecki (here: This piece seeks a tentative occupation somewhere else in the landscape.


He said, there is a book. It has a kind of covert, fugitive existence, found by entire chance in one of the few remaining second-hand bookstores, or recommended by a friend whose own encounter was as fortuitous. It’s published out of Nevada City. It’s called Humble Work and Mad Wanderings: Street Life in the Machine Age. It is a weave of moments caught in text and image, gathered by Ken Appollo from across the last two centuries. It does exactly what it says. You can see where I’m going with this, yes? It’s all in the title really. The project…

One everybody clear your mind and take a breath

1. He said, you must remember Borges and his map, drawn to a scale of 1:1, and how it ended its days sheltering the dispossessed in the ragged reaches of the empire, a failed cartographic tent. Could we say that all our images - and the perception we bring to them, and to the world, the register of our senses - are like that map, appearing to attempt a total tracing of the found, while all the time doomed to spectacular failure…?

The world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through. – Simone Weil

2. He said, it is important to travel publicly, by various means of transport, from plane above to subway down below. You need the shift in perspective. You need to be vulnerable. Sight leads in due course to insight. You are passing through signals. These navigations can be light readings. Equally, they can reveal dark matter(s), dark energies. Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. At the same time, just because something is there, it doesn’t mean it’s seen.

Two everybody wipe your eyes and take a sip

3. He said, you travel as if you were taking a pulse, the rhythm of this moment in the world. It is not even, not regular, but it has a beat in common, it has a shared texture. London, New York, Porto, Sharjah, Istanbul, St Petersburg… Could we say it is a search for, an expression of, the globalization of the humane? About the refusal to make of the other an ‘other’. It is not about a false unity but rather it issues from the common ground of being in the world and its mysteries. So you need fully to attend. Did you know that ‘sense’ derives from sentire, ‘to find one’s way’, ‘to go mentally’. Even before you have taken a step, this knowing is, in and of itself, a gift.

Behind the tireless efforts of the investigator there lurks a stronger, more mysterious drive; it is existence and reality that one wishes to comprehend. – Albert Einstein

4. He said, it is not so much about the medium as message, but the medium with its own various hats. The means. The ends that do not… World without… the form and the spaces within the form, neither one thing nor another, but hybrid, dwelling on thresholds, where the living and the dying is actually done. You see, the street is not (the air) between the buildings. It is the other way around, despite what they would have you believe. Imagine a geography that was only the built, from wall to wall to wall…

Three everybody look away but trust yourself

5. He said, it’s proof after a fashion. Did you know that the word ‘proof’ surfaces in the Old French, meaning experience? What then is the image? It is proof of, and proof against time. Once this place, this object, this face, this gesture were. This person was alive and now they’re not. It’s evidence. Perhaps these are mortality dispatches, confirmation of the terrible contradiction at the heart of the procedure: all of this has gone, or it will pass, but it is here preserved (reminding us every time we look upon it, or listen, that it is no longer).

…the great text of the streets… - Luc Sante

6. He said, sometimes surviving is itself resistance, before the protests, the leaning into the police line, the sitting down on the illegitimate earth. The building that still stands, the vacant lot that holds out for a time against the cranes; the elements of the known world that remain resolutely themselves and gently insist. When capital is the dominant architectural form of reality, when it builds the world, and in its own image, daily, everywhere, more and more and more, you find your allies where you can: animals, music, sidewalk plants, the ever-shifting indices of light.

Four everybody know the way you know yourself

7. He said, you do not impose meaning (of course), or even make meaning, if you can help it. Rather, you seek to glean meaning. You gather it through an assembly of the lived, the felt, the encountered and witnessed. By a process of free association, meaning not random juxtaposition of one thing with another, but freedom of possible connection…

Structure is the giver of light
. – Louis Kahn

8. He said, there is a subterranean seam of thinking – deep but strong, like an artesian river - within philosophy that it should be one of the tools to be used towards a repairing of the broken vessel of the world. I think these episodes might be shards. The word grows from the Old English (incision, cleft, gap, broken piece) but it stems more broadly as always. For example, the Dutch has it as a flaw, a fragment, a crack. This is not necessarily a problem. After all, as we surely know, “there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in…”*

Five everybody lose the map of discipline

9. He said, looking is a vocation. This is what one can count on when all else, all related and remaining permission, is taken. To stand in the great thoroughfare of the world and to pay attention. And the coin of that transaction? It is kindness. To be and to recognise we are (in) kind. We are the others. The others are us. When respect for being is erased further with each sunset, there is a dignity in this, and a version of success.

Then, as we walked, there was a heaped up cloud ahead that changed into a tepee, and a rainbow was the open door of it. – Black Elk

10. He said, without the retina we are lost. It is the street of sight itself, the plate on which all is caught. How suitable, then, that it descends from ‘Vulgar Latin’, literally ‘net-like tunic,’ on resemblance to the network of blood vessels at the back of the eye.

Six everybody rediscover understand

11. He said, surely you are as fascinated as me by how etymology reveals the encoded, founding, secret possibility of things? The retina as a tunic (we wear our seeing, we are clothed in perception, made fit for the world); and the retina as a net, gathering in the shoals of the seen… Words as incantations; scripts in the great library of the world, archiving itself daily. And images too, of course, sleeping in those halls and arcades, woken and purposed for strange, fresh alignments. Archive… Ark, Hive…

My perception is itself a thinking, and my thinking a perceiving. – Goethe

12. He said, look, what can a documentary do? Increasingly, they are demanding it ‘deliver its content’ as all other forms and platforms are inclined. Let’s call it instead, for our purposes, a document; from the Latin, ‘to provide written evidence or proof’. What goes around…

Seven everybody see yourself as you come in

13. But ours, he said, is scripted in the clouds, on the page of morning and in the gathering shadows entre chien et loup. It is marked in its passage by cats and hand-made signs. It is a life-drawing en plein air, a fugitive sketch redeemed from the day, an echo on the wind, a drift through evening leaves. It is as huge as waking, as mundane as breathing, as modest and transforming as a handshake or a raising of the eyes. The world is under way, great crowds are crossing deserts, mountains, oceans. This is just one life’s journey, discrete and yet a part.

What is the purpose of resisting corporate globalization if not to protect the obscure, the ineffable, the unmarketable, the unmanageable, the local, the poetic and the eccentric? - Rebecca Solnit

14. He said, “you already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”** The eye is not a monoculture. Surveillance is not observation but imposition. We came here to see how the street is and can be filled; how it can be proscribed, informal, intimate, collective, tragic, joyous, despairing, resilient, supportive, alienating, distracting, dictatorial, innocent and ‘true’; all of these and many more it can hold within its multitude of hands. The journey has been worth it. How could it ever not be? But don’t be fooled it’s over. Can you hear the airport’s ‘final call’, the train’s high whistle whine, the ferry’s siren song…

Eight everybody turn around and start again

15. He said, “I learn by going where I have to go.”***


I am the one who openeth his eyes, and there is light; when his eyes close, darkness falleth. – Egyptian God Ra, 1300 BCE


Numbered lyric lines from The Evens’ Minding One’s Business, listened to on repeat during writing of this piece.
*Leonard Cohen / **Sven Lindqvist / *** Theodore Roethke