Islands in the stream
by Lucy Reynolds
1st March 2011

Writing for Sight & Sound, Lucy Reynolds explores the suspense between fact and fiction in Ben Rivers' Slow Action.

A fascination with worlds that exist beyond the accepted boundaries of civilisation pervades the films of Ben Rivers. “I’ve always been interested in remote places,” he says, “places where you feel you are in a very isolated world, whether deep in a forest or on an island.” This is not to suggest that the artist’s engagement with the enigmatic outsiders and elemental wildernesses that populate his films is grounded in a nostalgia for preindustrial ways of living, or expresses an escapist tendency on the part of his subjects. For Jake, the hermit woodsman in This Is My Land (2006), and the other seers of the forest depicted in Rivers’s films, the seclusion of nature is not a refuge but a model for – and intimation of – the potentials of a post-technological age.

Although Rivers’s sympathetic portraits of outsiders reflect an anthropological curiosity, and while the observational nature of his camera may place his work in the category of documentary cinema, his films are as much visions of some possible future as they are records of the present. Both sci-fi writing and anthropological studies have informed the ambiguous slip between fact and fiction in his films, revealing Rivers’s awareness of cinema’s unique ability to harness images of photographic realism to imaginative worlds. Indeed, the narration that runs through his most recent film Slow Action is based on a collaboration with the critic and sci-fi author Mark von Schlegell, whose fantastical stories of interplanetary travel Rivers admires and feels have an affinity with the suggestive spaces he wants to conjure on screen.

A travelogue narrative recurs throughout Rivers’s films, particularly in his journey across the snowbound regions of Scotland in I Know Where I’m Going (2009). In Slow Action, his singular acts of exploration take on more ambitious dimensions, seeking those distant forms of isolation embodied by the sea-bound form of the island. Rivers has been travelling among remote islands and exotic archipelagos in his imagination for many years, informed by books such as J.G. Ballard’s futuristic novel The Drowned World (1962), alongside the imaginary voyages of Melville, Jules Verne and Samuel Butler, and the cinematic seafaring of Powell and Pressburger. A commission from Animate Projects and Picture This, the Bristol-based agency for artists’ moving-image work, allowed him to realise his “dreams of islands”, whittling his list down to the ten locations that were accessible enough for him to have some chance of filming there. Of those ten, Slow Action depicts just four, which appear as separate chapters in an island odyssey, equally allusive of Odysseus’s fantastic voyage and of the field study, perhaps, of an ethnographic explorer treading uncharted regions.

In the gallery space at Picture This, the islands of Slow Action were presented as four simultaneous highdefinition projections, their grouped but discreet screens mapping an archipelago of image and sound navigated by visitors as they traversed the audio and spatial boundaries between screens. For its London premiere at Matt’s Gallery, the film is a single 16mm projection, its sequential form calling for a different mode of onscreen voyaging. Viewers are carried on their journey by a linking voiceover from two narrators, female and male, recounting a mysterious curator’s descriptions of each island’s flora, fauna and political and social structures.

As we pass from the so-called Eleven to Hiva, Kanzennashima and finally Somerset, it seems the objective is to decide whether any of these islands can be considered a Utopia. The blasted lava landscapes of Eleven, for example, support an unseen society of nocturnal beings; the detritus-strewn beaches of Hiva harbour rich plant life and fractious natives; the desolate island city of Kanzennashima lies deserted; the wooded kingdom of Somerset shelters a primitive tribal society.

By setting these futuristic narratives to images of the contemporary world, Slow Action provokes an imaginative leap of perception on the part of the viewer, inviting them to read futuristic patterns into images that are clearly earthbound and contemporary, however remote. Thus the extraterrestrial can be glimpsed in the concrete shells of half-built houses on Lanzarote, the model for Eleven, or when a Polynesian family peacefully afloat on a fragment of polystyrene in Tuvalu is mistaken for a subspecies of Hivan society. Suspended between fact and fiction, Rivers’s island exploration uncovers strange shapes in familiar landscapes, reading the present through the future.

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The films of Ben Rivers are rich, cinematic portraits that explore wilderness environments and self-contained worlds.