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Ben Rivers, Origin of the Species, 2008
Courtesy: the artist and Kate MacGarry, London.

Into the Wild

by Ed Halter

The films of artist Ben Rivers present exploratory visions of other worlds, uncannily crafted from documentary bits of our own. Shooting on 16mm, he continues a longstanding British fascination with the countryside, but now portrays rural and woodland locales as curiously alien, forgotten and abandoned. In recent years, his work has -taken him beyond the UK to a variety of sites around the globe.

ED HALTER Where are you right now, and why are you there?

BEN RIVERS I’m in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. I’m staying with Jake, who lives in the middle of Clashindaroch Forest, down a dirt track and about eight miles from the nearest village. I’ve been waiting for the last snow of winter to come and film Jake’s place covered. The first few days here it looked like the forecast was wrong but suddenly it started coming down in a blizzard. It’s nearly the last part of filming that started last July, making a feature length film with Jake and his surrounding space the subject. I made a film about him five years ago called This Is My Land (2006) and have always felt like there was more to be done at his place, so when I recently got a commission to make a longer film I decided to go back to him, but with a different approach – this time I’m directing him more, the film will be a more fictionalised vision of his life in the wilderness. After my first visit last summer I came up with scenes which I thought would work in the film; some of these have made it into the shooting and others will fall by the wayside, as when I’m there I allow for serendipity to guide some of what is filmed.

EH The land and landscapes have been important if not central elements in many of your films. You mentioned This Is My Land, but I’m also thinking of the abandoned English farms in The Hyrcynium Wood (2005), the image of crowds climbing mountainous terrain in The Coming Race (2006), junk-strewn rural Scotland in Ah, Liberty! (2008), or the footage from various remote locales, seen on the four sections of Slow Action (2010). How did this become such a prominent aspect of your work?

BR This love of the British landscape probably goes further back than any thoughts about making art and films. I grew up in the countryside and always enjoyed having adventures and the feeling of getting a bit lost, so I think that part has continued in my work – I’m quite clear about the idea that, as opposed to some kind of Romantic struggle with creation, I want to enjoy the experience and adventure of making my films, that the construction of something is more than the final result. This has no doubt led me back to places that I’m very fond of – I had this same conversation last night with a friend who says she finds it hard to imagine not making films in London for the same reasons. For me there is an association with walking in the landscape and daydreaming – and this is something I’ve always been interested in incorporating somehow in the films, an impression of being slightly outside of what we might consider reality, but not too far in a overtly fantastical sense. So a film like The Hyrcynium Wood came from me investigating the number of derelict farms in the South East of England, but somehow turned into a three minute horror film; or The Coming Race, a film of thousands of people climbing a mountain becomes a mysterious and ambiguous film about mass movements of humans, inspired in part by the epilogue of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon. I guess what I want is to transform these landscapes I love into spaces that mirror my own imaginative wanderings.

Ben Rivers, Slow Action, 2010
Courtesy: the artist and Kate MacGarry, London.

EH In Slow Action you pair the images with voices reading passages by contemporary American science-fiction author Mark von Schlegell. Elsewhere you mention weird old science-fiction and fantasy novels as inspirations. The title of The Coming Race references a book of the same name by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and you write that Slow Action was “inspired by novels such as Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, Bacon’s The New Atlantis, Herbert Read’s The Green Child and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man”. Ah, Liberty! has something of a post-apocalyptic feel as well – like bits of an observational documentary shot somewhere quiet and calm after the fall of civilization. What is it that draws you to these particular books, and how do they play into your filmmaking?

BR It seems impossible in our world today to not think about massive collapses, from technological disasters to natural disasters that inevitably have greater impact because of overcrowding. I think my interest for post-apocalyptic narratives is in a sense related to a longing for a long-term sense of optimism after my short-term pessimism. I always thought of Ah, Liberty! as being a post-apocalyptic, and trying to set a tone of joy paralleled with an underlying sense of unease – and in some ways many of the films of people living of in the wilderness could be read like that, though sometimes, like in my road movie I Know Where I’m Going (2009), the tone is gloomier. I have borrowed some of the aesthetics of post-apocalyptic films but it is the books that hold a greater attraction in their content, being more complex and having a greater sense of hope even in their doom, like After London by Richard Jefferies, or Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing. In Slow Action I wanted to bring this interest to the foreground, to make an unashamed sci-fi film, which is why I enlisted the help of Mark, to work on getting the right language for the narration. So the process was to give him lots of ingredients and literary references, then for him to compile them into “reports”. The basic premise is that of Earth in hundreds or even thousands of years time, when sea levels have risen and created new islands and archipelagos, which have developed as idiosyncratic societies. The reports in Slow Action are then to be seen as a small part of a great Borgesian library accounting all these separate societies.

EH Some of Slow Action was shot in England, but other parts were filmed in a variety of far-flung locales: the volcanic island of Lanzarote, a deserted city on the Japanese island of Gunkanjima, and the tiny Polynesian nation of Tuvalu. What drew you to these places?

BR When I was first thinking about Slow Action I was reading about Darwin’s travels on the Beagle, and how his stopping off on various islands began to inform his ideas about evolution. This led me researching island biogeography, which studies species found on islands of habitat surrounded by non-habitat (so not just literal islands but also islands such as a pool of oil in a machine room where specific bacteria have found a home). I then started thinking about these islands and archipelagos of the future, a little like Vonnegut’s Galapagos, and came up with a wish list of islands I’d like to travel to. I wanted to find four distinctly different places, in terms of their geology, flora, fauna, weather etc. Lanzarote was high on my list because I wanted somewhere that looked like another planet, and this seems to resemble that idea very clearly, while still being peppered by unfinished holiday resorts and the strange buildings and sculptures of César Manrique. I came across Gunkanjima on BLDGBLOG, which is an excellent blog based around all things architectural – this island seemed perfect for an account where you would have only the remnants of a past society and an unreliable account of what had happened. Tuvalu, I think, I had read the name of as a child and somehow it had stuck in my mind, and had recently been reminded of it because it had come up in the reports about sea levels rising, as Tuvalu lies only a few feet above the Pacific. This seemed to match the central premise of the film being about a future where sea levels have risen dramatically. The final island was going to be up in the arctic, but just before I booked the trip I decided that I would just be repeating the previous three shoots within a different looking environment and not exactly pushing the film further – so this is when I decided to create a fictional island in my own home county, and people it with masked revolutionary clades.

Ben Rivers, PAN, 2011
Courtesy: the artist and Kate MacGarry, London.

EH All your work so far has been shot on 16mm, and landscape is important to so many artists working in film today, like Deborah Stratman, Luke Fowler, Peter Hutton – I could name many more. Do you feel a kinship with any of these artists, and do you think film as a medium has something about it that encourages looking at landscapes?

BR Yes, I feel a kinship with all those artists, and others. I don’t think consciously about a relation between film material and landscape, but rather film material and time. I wonder whether there might be a relationship between time and landscape, as I often think about geology and deep time and somehow the association I have with film is one of a slower sense of time. Digital video to me is more closely related to speed, quick and ever changing developments – whereas with film there are always reminders of time, particularly in the interval between filming and actually seeing what you have filmed. This aspect of filmmaking is one of my main reasons for staying with this medium, as it encourages accident, and unknown qualities and instances to effect the outcome of the film – I don’t want to be so sure about what I have got until I have gone home and developed the film, hung it up in the bathroom and had the excitement of the first look at the negative. I am also interested in the stuff of landscape as well, the dirt, and the leftovers of human endeavours – with film these things are more physically apparent, particularly in the life of a 16mm film print. To me as digital video becomes increasingly more sophisticated, it also becomes incredibly clean, cold and too separate from the worlds I’m interested in.

EH Your work has usually been made for the cinema, but recently you’re moving into showing work as installations. What do you think about the process of shifting between these two modes of exhibition?

BR I have been pretty dedicated to the cinema, even when I was at art school where I ran a film club. I always liked the way you can capture the audiences attention, which can be problematic in the gallery. I started showing in galleries again about five years ago with House (2005/7), and over the past few years has become a greater part of my exhibiting practice, so that now I try to show films equally in both cinema and gallery. With the latter I have tried to find ways of encouraging an audience to watch the whole film, creating environments that somehow mirror the film, having a button for the audience member to press to start the film at the beginning (then it stops automatically at the end), or having timed screenings, all of which inform the viewer that there is a beginning and end to the film. At Matt’s Gallery I feel like I might have created the ideal setting, which isn’t far off being in a cinema, with timed screenings – but this time you get to sit on beanbags and have the sound coming directly to your ears with cordless headphones, so it’s very immersive. When making the films I tend not to think too much about the exhibition – I’m happy with the idea of showing the films in both cinema and gallery without feeling the need to change them in any way. It is by the changing of the context alone that alters the interpretation, because people go to those places with different expectations, and I like the way that can change the work.

EH Where will you be heading next?

BR Apart from editing the feature film over the next couple of months I am also working on a film called Sack Barrow, which will show in Statements at Art Basel. It’s a film of the last days of a small metal plating factory on the edge of London. I’ve already filmed the parts with the remaining factory workers during the last month of the factory’s operation, and I now want to go back six months later, to film the empty space. When I heard it was shutting I just went along for five days with my camera, with little idea what the film would be. Now having sat on the material for some time I have an idea about the way it should be finished, possibly with some images of cave paintings in Spain, and an excerpt of a book mentioned earlier – The Green Child by Herbert Read, read by Barbara who managed the factory.

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