London, Feb. 2011 - Ben Rivers currently has a solo exhibition on at Matts Gallery which showcases four 16mm films. The resulting work is a mix between science fiction and ethnographic investigation all set in several fantastical island landscapes. London ArtSlant writer Laura Bushell had the great opportunity to discuss his epic work Slow Action.
Laura Bushell - You worked with writer Mark von Schlegell on the voiceover narrative for the film, can you tell me how that collaboration came about?
Ben Rivers: I had been developing the film with an idea of narration that I was going to write myself, or at least collage together from various bits of slightly adapted existing pieces of fiction - excerpts from books which I had been reading for years, stories of Victorian explorers searching supposedly undiscovered lands and finding Utopias or strange races, as well as travel writing from the 19th and early 20th century. So things like Erehwon by Samuel Butler, After London by Richard Jefferies, The Green Child by Herbert Read, The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon.
Anyway, I was struggling a bit and then went to a show called Dreaming the Mainstream at Vilma Gold (http://www.vilmagold.com/), and what seemed like the press release was written by Mark. It was fascinating because it wasn't a press release, it was a piece of work in itself, a very strange piece of fiction. I immediately read his book Venusia and loved it - so got in touch. Then we started a long email discussion about these books and he came back with things like Melville's Mardi and Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island, and it was obvious we understood each other.
Then it was a matter of me going off to film, without knowing exactly what he was doing, and him writing with no idea of where I was going. In the end I had five pieces of writing to narrate four islands. Three worked perfectly, with a bit of editing - only one island didn't work, so in that case I gave Mark more details about that particular place and some elements I was interested in including in the narration, like underwater tunnels and an unreliable narrator, then Mark came back with exactly what was needed.
LB: I wanted to ask about your influences and you’ve already mentioned some. What were you reading and watching in preparation for the piece?
BR: Other than some of the books mentioned I was thinking a lot about Borges and Bioy Casares, and JG Ballard, particularly The Drowned World, Vonnegut's Galapagos, and Robert Smithson. In terms of films - lots of post-apocalyptic science fiction like Glen and Randa, The Seed of Man, Phase IV, Days of Eclipse. I also watched a few more ethnographic films by Chagnon, Rouch and Gardner. And Fata Morgana by Werner Herzog - this film presents a kind of mythical fiction over footage taken in the Sahara, some magical, some quite depressing. As an aside, Herzog asked Lotte Eisner, the great French-German film scholar, to narrate his film and so, as some kind of mirror to that film I asked Ilona Halberstadt, a really great film scholar, who has a similar very lovely intonation.
LB: How did you go about choosing the locations for the films?
BR: I had a wish list of islands, which had to be narrowed down to ones which were all significantly different to one another. I started with the easiest and cheapest to get to, Lanzarote, being interested in the volcanic landscape. I wanted a place that looked very unfamiliar and alien, as I was thinking of an overheated Earth. What I also found there were lots of great structures to film - modernist buildings by César Manrique as well as unfinished resorts. This was the island where I decided to have geometric shapes appear floating above the landscape.
After that, with the help of Picture This and my friend Takino Takashi, I went to Gunkanjima, which i'd seen photos of on BLDGBLOG (http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/). It belongs to Nagasaki Council and they guard it carefully - partly because its pretty dangerous, and also they want it to become a world heritage site.
After Japan I continued on to Tuvalu, which I'd read about when I was very young and the name had always stayed in my mind - so when I read it may disappear beneath the rising ocean, I took it as a sign that I should go. This island was the most remote place I have ever been in my life, and although it was perfect for the film it was sad to see that while goods get shipped in, the packaging does not get shipped out. Both these experiences were quite incredible and worth making the film for alone. Then the final island was home.
LB: I liked the fact you chose Somerset as an island, it was amusing but also very pertinent. Would you say this was the segment with the clearest message about climate change?
BR: The last island was going to be Svalbard, far into the Arctic. I thought it would be good to film somewhere very cold and white, but just before I booked the ticket I felt like it was too easy - to go to a fourth remarkable island and film what I found. I figured it would be more interesting to invent the last island, to go further with this fiction of the future and think about Britain, and particularly Somerset, where I'm from. What would happen if in a few hundred years or more, imagining much of Britain was underwater and part of Somerset became an island? Even the village where I grew up, Milborne Port, is in there. I then went about peopling this place with two groups, meant to represent the multiple 'clades' discussed on the soundtrack. Climate change is in there, because it's fairly certain that sea levels will rise drastically - but in a way it's not the most bleak outlook, at least plants, humans and other animals survive, which isn't necessarily the most likely outcome of the big mess we've created.
LB: Thinking about your filmmaking technique, you tend to work self sufficiently, which you’ve said affords you a lot of freedom and the ability to be impulsive. But you use 16mm, which is restrictive in terms of shot length and shooting time because of cost. How did this working process evolve for you?
BR: Initially my understanding of having control of making a film was based on more traditional apparatus and construction associated with conventional filmmaking - so starting with writing, then storyboards, filming with a crew, all that. After a while I felt like this was a less interesting way to make films - it was fine for Hitchcock and I enjoy watching films that have been made that way, but for me personally I prefer more of an adventure when making a film. So gradually I began to relinquish those devices, which was fairly easy as I never went to film school, and started going out with my camera and an idea, but also with the room to move, allow for the unexpected to affect the direction the film went. Some of this filming turned into films, others didn't but they were good practice.
I always worked on film right from the start for a number of reasons, not least because it allows for much more chance to take place - this has become an integral part to my process, as well as the restrictions you mention. When I'm off filming somewhere remote (I rarely film very close to home) I shoot film but I never really know exactly what I've got until I get home and develop. Even if you're taking notes and you're very familiar with how light works with the film stock you are using you are still not certain, and I like this. I don't want to be able to film endlessly on video, then watch it straight back - I want there to be a certain amount of tension and trepidation involved in the moment, and the sleepless nights before I finally watch the footage - then your understanding of where the film is headed can change again. This explains why I like to make a number of visits to locations too, so I can then react to the previous filming.
LB: With 16mm you have to record sound separately, but you’ve mentioned that you didn’t record any sync sound for Slow Action. How did you compile the soundtrack?
BR: I very rarely record sync-sound because I don't like being tied to a literal illustrative sound/image association - I like these things to go in and out of sync. This helps build into a soundtrack more surprising relationships, With Slow Action I knew from the start that the soundtrack was going to be comprised of narration that I would record, alongside sounds and music from existing sci-fi films, mainly the 70's period I had been watching in reference to the film. These bits of sound and music are sometimes stretched or manipulated, but sometimes they are just fine as they are, like they were waiting to be used again for this film.
LB: The setting of the show in Matt’s Gallery is different to the four screen-set up you exhibited the work on before in Bristol, it’s much more like a cinema this time. How does that change the audience’s encounter with the piece?
BR: At Picture This I tried out something that had been in my mind from the start, which was to play the four image tracks simultaneously, while you only hear one soundtrack at a time. In this way the audience is uncertain which narrative goes with which island seen on the four screens. At Matt's I really wanted to see how it worked as a single-screen film shown on 16mm. They are two different ways of experiencing the work, and I can't say which I prefer. I like them both and it's the first time for me to make something that works in two very different ways, one is definitely more fixed, in terms of being more like a conventional way of watching, with a clear beginning and end - though I think they both are quite sculptural as installations.
LB : Can you tell me what you're working on next?
BR: There are two films I am working on at the moment - one is funded by FLAMIN, which is as yet untitled. It's a feature length film about Jake, who I made a film about 5 years ago called This Is My Land. I felt like there was more to be done at his place, and that it would be interesting to see how my approach to making films had changed in those years. As I had the opportunity to spend more money I felt like it was a good time to go back and make a film less fragmentary than the previous one, and one based less on me observing and filming what I saw, and more about observing and then setting up 'scenes' with Jake in a way acting his part. Instead of working with the 26 second constraint of the clockwork bolex, with this film I now have the luxury of being able to film eleven minute takes, which seems like an age when you are running now discontinued black and white stock through your camera.
The other film I'm working on is called Sack Barrow that Kate MacGarry and I will show as part of Statements at Art Basel - this is a film based around a small metal plating factory on the outskirts of London. The factory is another hermetic world, a small cave-like place with bubbling vats of toxic fluids, crazy oxidised textures and colours, and few remaining workers who are working through the last days now that the factory can no longer sustain itself.
ArtSlant would like to thank Ben Rivers and Matts Gallery for their assistance in making this interview possible.
(All Images: Ben Rivers, Slow Action, Production Stills, 2010; Copyright and courtesy the artist and Matts Gallery/ Photograph by Alice Dubieniec.)