May 2011, Ben Rivers @ Matt's Gallery

Ben Rivers, Slow Action, 2010
Film Still
Copyright & courtesy, the artist; Photograph copyright Alice Dubieniec

Ben Rivers: Slow Action
Matt's Gallery
42-44 Copperfield Road
London E1 4UJ
26 January through 20 March, 2011


 Slow Action is a 16mm film by artist / filmmaker Ben Rivers, most recently screened at Matt's Gallery in London. Made up of four distinct chapters, Slow Action spans ideas of biogeography, futurity and fiction. The world it creates is farfetched and phantasmatic, shifting between the naturally beautiful and the unnervingly alien landscapes of post-apocalyptic, dystopian "realities".

As 1970s documentary-style spoken word overlays sumptuous 16mm footage, the film laces together archetypal impressions of futurity. Questions emerge enlisting the legitimacy of a perceived future, who it belongs to and what it holds. Ben Rivers harnesses fact and fiction and eradicates temporality – as a means to shed light on new ways of understanding the present through a reading of the future? As a means of trying to understand the future through re-reading the present? Interestingly, fear (of the future – foresight, visibility and understanding of it) and its affects materialise as key trajectories beneath the balmy cinematography and sci-fi affiliations of Slow Action.

Engaged in trialogue, three members of KIOSKCollective discuss further.


Ben Rivers, Slow Action, 2010
Film Still
Copyright & courtesy, the artist

 LS: Slow Action has an ambiguous relationship to fiction - the islands in the film half exist. The footage, at least for the first three islands, is taken from real islands and places – one is Lanzarote, one is just off Japan, one is in the middle of the Pacific and the last one is filmed in Somerset which isn't an island at all. But a voiceover then describes them using invented names, characteristics and histories. The gallery notes refer to watery, post-apocalyptic landscapes where the global sea level has risen and left only the highest points of the landscape inhabitable, where tiny communities develop in isolation from one-another. To me it feels more like a study of island life and isolation than of a post-apocalyptic environment.

LB: Yeah I didn’t really feel the post-apocalyptic references - I thought it was more of a comment on utopia/dystopia. Or rather a kind of spoof on utopian ideas.

SH: So was it quite dark? Or more farcical?

LB: No, it took itself pretty seriously. It was presented as a quasi-ethnographic study, and felt quite obscure. It also engaged with a very specific aesthetic, in terms of the monotone narration and the 16mm footage - it was all very archaic.

LS: Yes exactly, it felt so nostalgic, a kind of retro-futurism. Like the hyperbolic future visions of the year 2000 – all laser guns and robots. It was really disorienting, which made it difficult to locate yourself in relation to the narrator or the characters – was the position one of future-gazing? Or because of the aesthetic, was it more a nostalgic look back at our future…from some projected point in the more distant future?

LB: The seventies sci-fi soundtrack definitely gave it that feel of some kind of future-nostalgia - it was wrapped in the aesthetic of very deliberate techniques. Looking back, however, I suppose my main question would be about the integrity of the narrative - where did it come from and how much of it was fiction? It switched from the abstract and poetic, to the clinically ethnographic, and there was a huge disjunction between this narrative and what was on screen.

Ben Rivers, Slow Action, 2010
Film Still
Copyright & courtesy, the artist & Matt's Gallery

SH: It was a collaboration with sci-fi writer (and art writer), Mark von Schlegell and addresses the would-be evolutions of the four islands – the footage and text were produced in isolation from each other [by Rivers and von Schlegell respectively] and were only put together in the editing process. So it's inevitably going to seem pretty disjointed in that respect.

LS: And you don't think that worked?LB: There were a lot of layers pinned together that didn't quite cohere into a richness. I got an understanding of what was going on, but I didn’t feel comfortable. Actually it reminded me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but the opposite way around; a physically embedded dystopian equivalent of Calvino. Whereas Calvino shows us that words enable us to vicariously inhabit spatial realities, here we are confronted with a roving, visual and aural representation of places, which, when we delve deeper, aren't as real as we thought. It shows the vulnerability of truth and the power of portrayal. This is quite obvious, but I found Slow Action to offer an overt and extremely constructed perspective – I got stuck on the tools it employed before I could really enter the content. And I found it quite obtuse.

LB: On the basis of it exposing what we may have as very basic presumptions about alterity, about alternative futures, perhaps it tapped into something. Perhaps it plays out some of the things that one imagines might happen in a post-apocalyptic state; perhaps there’s a general belief that some sort of alien thing is going to happen (referenced by the hologram, sci-fi theme at the beginning); perhaps there’s belief – or perhaps these are fears rather than beliefs – a shared consciousness or fear of return to primitivism or of desolation, about being a species under inspection. This film seems to tap into a feeling of us being both the inspector and the inspected. Perhaps it is delving into some of our base fears or beliefs attached to the future.

LS: Yeah, there was certainly an element of colonial ethnography that was pretty uncomfortable... this idea of being under inspection..

LB: But it must have been a parody of that? There was a bit of a Blue Peter vibe about it, perhaps it was implying that these are limited projections of the future.

SH: Wasn’t it at all positive? Wasn’t there any form of “…we’re…

LS: ...they're possible utopian visions, yet...

SH: …getting together, we’re doing this, and we’re going back to this idea of… fending…

LB: was so dystopian...

SH: …for ourselves.” Could you glean any sort of humane, community spirit – “We can get through this together – this is what we CAN do.” How was it dystopian? On a purely aesthetic level?

LB: in terms of the landscapes it presented. The first was rocky desert, one of them was a city in ruins, another was a kind of bound up island, which reminded me of some sort of Escher illustration of a city on a rock in the middle of the sea, and the last was a kind of jungle.

Ben Rivers, Slow Action, 2010
Film Still
Copyright & courtesy, the artist

SH: So what was really at stake here? Was it landscape, biogeography, ethnography or was it this idea of the future and futility?

LB: The idea of the future was entirely laden by the fact that it was utterly encased in an aesthetic of the past. It didn’t feel like you were looking to the future – we all have the urge to look to the future, but all we have is the present and the past by which to imagine it.

LS: It is the future looking back at the post-apocalyptic landscape, which is all in the future from now. But it’s still filmed in 16mm, which is problematic because it’s such a laden medium.

SH: It seems as though a rigid temporal framework has been completely cast aside; is it interesting because it is purely fictive, or is it interesting because Rivers has used fiction as a tool, purely as a medium over method?

LB: Because everything is fictive. Everything was created. And therefore it’s not a fictive reflection of something real. It was all fabrication. All reference points - be they physical, the places we’re seeing; informative, the words we’re hearing; or thematic, the "post-apocalyptic" - seem to implode because nothing is stable. Whilst that could work in terms of highlighting instability and the futility of futurity, I left that dark room none-the-wiser.

Ben Rivers, Slow Action, 2010
Production Still
Copyright & courtesy, the artist.


KIOSKcollective was borne of a combined interest in relational geographies, critical spatial practices, micropolitics and contemporary art practice. KIOSK’s research serves to develop an understanding of the multiplicities and multidisciplinarity within contemporary Visual Culture and explores these through diverse practice-led research methodologies. KIOSKcollective formed through cross-disciplinary studies at Goldsmiths, University of London in June 2010, and is based in London, with outposts in Bogota and Berlin.

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