New Worlds

Still from Ben Rivers’s Slow Action, 2010, 16mm film, 45 minutes. All images, unless otherwise noted courtesy Kate MacGarry, London.

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Blending speculative fiction and documentary, Ben Rivers’s films offer a nuanced, contemporary take on utopian thought. 

Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on
hand; the making is a remaking.

—Nelson Goodman

If there is an image that encapsulates the central themes of Ben Rivers’s films, it is found in Sørdal, a silent short from 2008. The film comprises a series of static shots of old barns and farmhouses in rural Scandinavia. A boreal forest appears to be overtaking these structures. Dense foliage obscures the camera’s view of the buildings, the roofs of which are carpeted with green sod. We never see the inhabitants of these houses, but the architecture suggests a distinctive world in which lives are lived in near-solitude, apart from modern society. The film leaves us to wonder whether the structures are fully abandoned or simply on the cusp of ruin, as if the residents had accepted a state of equilibrium with nature.

Rivers (b. 1972) has made 24 films since 2003, including four features. Many depict rural, isolated settings and document—or speculate about—the lives of those who occupy such “edgelands.” 1 Critics invariably use the term “far-flung” when describing the locations where Rivers has worked: the Highlands of Scotland, the remote forests of Finland, the Pacific islands of Tuvalu and, most recently, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The British artist’s films survey an equally broad range of strategies for living outside the Western mainstream, from retreats into hermetic solitude to experiments in communal life to the development of full-fledged utopian societies.

In this sense, Rivers’s body of work may express a desire to flee 21st-century realities. In his fascination with the exotic and even the primitive, Rivers follows a tradition of modernist artists and intellectuals—a tradition he often references in interviews and alludes to in his films. Yet this old fantasy can seem like an indulgence today. Many of the individuals who appear in Rivers’s films eke out difficult existences, and it’s possible to imagine some coming to resent being represented as a mechanism for a London-based artist’s quest for spiritual and intellectual escape. The concept of the artist leaving behind the frustrations of the contemporary world to undertake a journey to a distant land, where nature and culture might exist in harmony, can appear hopelessly retrograde, a holdover from past romanticisms and as obsolete as the 16mm film stock that Rivers uses in his work.

Rather than aesthetic failings, these concerns and the historical baggage associated with them are present in the structure of Rivers’s work, providing a level of tension, conflict and anxiety to his otherwise picturesque imagery. To that extent, Rivers offers a complex reconsideration of utopian thinking at a time when that tradition is increasingly being met with suspicion. 2 Rivers’s utopianism is not about finding complete renewal or starting a more perfect world from scratch. Instead, he shows how individuals and collectives can build new realities from the fragments—or ruins—of old ones. This approach is often integral to Rivers’s films. The enigmatic structures in Sørdal, for instance, are not quaint pastoral dwellings, but, according to an artist’s statement, parts of a set constructed in the 1970s for film adaptation of a work by Norwegian author Knut Hamsun. It’s often mentioned that Rivers blends fact and fiction in his work and combines different genres, ranging from ethnographic documentary to science fiction. The clashing tropes associated with these modes contribute to the mix of moods and attitudes conveyed in Rivers’s films, from a highly pessimistic view of civilization’s total collapse to what could be called “dark optimism,” 3 a sense of hope in the provisional pleasures of the hermitage and the temporary utopias engendered by collective creative activity.

“I’m interested in worlds people have created,” Rivers said in a 2012 interview, “very specific, hermetic worlds that haven’t needed to conform to the perceptions of the way we should live.” 4 His choice of the word “hermetic” is apt. Some of Rivers’s early works, including This Is My Land (2006), Ah Liberty! (2008), Origin of the Species (2008) and I Know Where I’m Going (2009) are portraits of eccentrics—anchorites, to use a term that suggests the long and distinguished history of British recluses, monks and ascetics. The men in these films have unwieldy hair and overgrown beards, and they inhabit the kinds of dilapidated woodland structures shown in Sørdal. Even in Ah Liberty!, which documents life on a family farm, the defining feature of the nuclear social unit is its isolation.

This Is My Land, the first work in the group and a kind of prototype for the others, follows Jake Williams around his Scottish home. The film conveys a strong sense of place through finely observed details. The camera frequently lingers on the forest floor, watching the moss grow. In one sequence, a shot of tree branches growing through an open window is followed by a similarly composed view of tangled wires in a workshop, or perhaps the living room. Williams is at one with the landscape, and his identity (at least in the film) is defined primarily by his relationship to the wilderness. We hardly ever get a good look at him; he’s mostly shown peeking out at the camera from behind curtains of ferns and bushes.

Natural time, the time of the seasons, is an important aspect of Rivers’s work, and the 14-minute This Is My Land includes scenes from both the summer and the winter. Williams is fully in tune with these temporal rhythms. At one point he explains in voice-over his peculiar approach to landscaping:

I was telling folk. . . . If you want to make a hedge and you’re not in a big hurry . . . then hang up a line of birdfeeders on sticks or something. And when the birds come there they’ll be shitting out seeds from the last berries that they ate . . . and eventually you’ll get a line of shrubs growing along the line where you put up the birdfeeders.

Williams may scurry around his property, collecting wood and endlessly rearranging things, but he’s never in a big hurry.[pq]Rivers shows how individuals and collectives can build new realities from the fragments-or ruins-of old ones.[/pq]It’s clear that he understands his labor on the land as a kind of collaboration with natural forces that take their time. Two Years at Sea (2011), a feature-length film that Rivers has described as an extension and fictionalization of his earlier project with Williams, adheres to this relaxed pace, with long takes in which Williams lounges in a loch on a homemade raft, wanders the woods or simply daydreams supine in a field.

Rivers’s films also evoke longer spans of time, what he has called “deep time.” The piles of detritus around Williams’s home are not a seasonal affair; they’ve taken years to coalesce. Another recurring trope of Rivers’s hermit films is a panning shot surveying old photographs and other imagery hanging on crumbling walls—artifacts from a seemingly distant civilization abandoned long ago.

In Origin of the Species, described in an opening title card as “an exploration into the nature of the world via the extraordinary S. who lives in the wilderness,” the protagonist invokes the big bang, glacial movements and evolution. Celestial imagery, reminiscent of psychedelic light projections, is intercut with shots of lichen and fungus as the “extraordinary S.” intones:

It has taken so very long . . . 3.8 billion years for life to be on earth. An awful, awful lot happens in 3.8 billion years. And some things happen very, very slowly and yet other times things happen very fast. Like for instance man’s brain. It evolved very quick and it’s just trouble.

The last line hints at a darker vision lurking just below the surface of even Rivers’s most bucolic films. The happy-go-lucky Williams may be something of an outlier in this respect. In I Know Where I’m Going, a rotund man with a great red beard residing on a blasted wintry landscape looks to be barely hanging on. S.’s project of surviving in the wilderness appears to be not only a physical struggle with the land, but a spiritual and intellectual struggle with the bonds of society. Here is Thoreau as a doomsday prepper. Later in the film, S. is shown tinkering with machinery of his own design—an elaborate pulley system (booby traps?) that he strings through the forest. He is heard speculating about a global pandemic capable of wiping out humanity.

In this regard, the hermetic worlds that Rivers depicts may not represent a return to nature so much as a projection forward to a post-collapse future, a time when technological capitalism has shattered, and men like Williams and S. are merely picking up the pieces. There are hints of apocalyptic imagery in some of Rivers’s work, such as The Coming Race (2006), a brutal short depicting hundreds of people clamoring up a smoke- or fog-shrouded hillside toward an unknown goal. Rivers has described the film as a horror movie. 5

Still, the main concern of his work is the period of aftermath, the process of reconstruction. This is why the mood of his films can be optimistic as well as despairing: life on the fringes may be lonely and hardscrabble, but it’s also freeing. Within the piles of junk and obsolete technology that surround rural yards, there’s a template for something new. Occasionally, Williams’s quiet forest is interrupted by the sounds of burly, jerry-rigged machines, perhaps functioning as chain saws or generators. One can’t help but think that Rivers’s own windup Bolex camera is postapocalyptic technology of this sort. Rather than a nostalgic choice, the simple optics and rough film stock that Rivers employs may represent a deliberate attempt by the filmmaker to align himself with his subjects. After the Cloud dissipates, celluloid remains.

Apparently, Rivers also shares with his subjects the impulse to operate on the fringes, a desire to get outside, to undertake adventures. Even his shortest films take months (or seasons) to shoot and edit, which means that Rivers is often on location for extended periods. To make a living as an experimental filmmaker, one has to become adept at navigating the festival circuit, negotiating with art galleries, preparing endless grant and fellowship applications, talking with critics. Rivers has mastered these chores, it seems, at least partly to facilitate his own escape from the bureaucratic world they represent.

[pq] The main concern of Rivers’ work is the period of aftermath, the process of reconstruction.[/pq]

The production of his feature Slow Action (2010) took him to remote archipelagos in the South Pacific. Rivers’s route recalls Paul Gauguin’s 19th-century journey to French Polynesia. But if the Post-Impressionist painter sought a paradise untarnished by industry and innocent of the bourgeois ideology that oppressed him in France, Rivers chronicled a series of environments that he saw as fostering alternative ways of life even though they appear developed, trashed and, in some cases, abandoned.

Rivers has described Slow Action as a science fiction film, though the otherworldly landscapes that he shot in wide-format 16mm are haunting in part because we know the director couldn’t afford special effects: these settings are “real.” Long panning shots document brutalist ruins on smoky moonscapes, tropical atolls overrun with garbage and discarded cars, and an entire concrete city vacant and crumbling on an island in the middle of the ocean. It comes as something of a surprise, then, when a voice-over, composed by contemporary science-fiction author Mark von Schlegell, begins describing a series of civilizations identified explicitly as utopias.

Some of these descriptions come from the furthest-out-there realms of speculative fiction. The film starts with a description of “Eleven,” a nocturnal society of scientists who conduct their great experiments “illuminated by the light of reason.” In other segments, the tone of the voice-over shifts with a dry recitation of “facts” about an island ecosystem “dominated by castaway species from other islands and lost continents.” Mixed in with these ethnographic observations are absurdities, such as a reference to Anus Isle, “an island rich in natural gas and dingleberries.”

Though we may regard Rivers as an “experimental” filmmaker, what might be most interesting about Slow Action is its manipulation of long-standing literary and cinematic conventions. Aspects of the work share affinities with Margaret Mead documentaries. Rivers has also spoken extensively about the film’s genesis in the peculiar strain of literature that imagines new, fantastic societies growing out of ruined metropolises, from Richard Jefferies’s After London (1885) to Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann (1999). Despite the alien appearance of the landscapes in the film, it doesn’t invite viewers to gaze at uncharted terrain. Instead, the overall effect is of retracing steps that many have taken before. Just as people have long inhabited the islands in Rivers’s film, previous writers and artists from the West have projected countless fantasies onto them. The film surveys ruins while reconstructing a series of abandoned utopias.

Rivers’s newest work, The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015), was commissioned by the U.K. nonprofit Artangel, and a version of the work was initially exhibited this summer as an installation at an abandoned BBC production studio. Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), the film partly depicts the production of a film-within-a-film, with Rivers following a crew led by Spanish director Oliver Laxe. Rivers’s work also weaves in an adaptation of a 1947 short story that American writer Paul Bowles based on his adventures smoking copious hashish in the Moroccan Sahara. [pq] If there is a utopia here, it is temporary and evolving, existing on a remote island, in an abandoned village, even within a lonely urban center.[/pq]The costumes and peculiar habits of the Moroccan subjects of the work—at one point a character dances in a suit made of tin-can lids—appear not as ethnographic discoveries but as performances that have been honed over the decades as rural North African culture has been represented and re-represented through various Western lenses.

The two major threads in Rivers’s body of work—a fascination with isolated individuals and an attraction to imaginative social forms—come together in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013), an ambitious and beautiful film that marks a return to and reinvention of the themes of his earlier hermit portraits. Importantly, the work is a collaborative effort. It is codirected by American Ben Russell, whose previous efforts in what he calls “psychedelic ethnography” parallel Rivers’s search for alternative lifestyles and echoes the British artist’s penchant for melding cinematic genres.

There are three main parts of A Spell, each following the activities of an unnamed and mostly silent character played by musician Robert A.A. Lowe. We see him living in a commune on an Estonian island, whose inhabitants share child-care responsibilities, prepare food together, construct a geodesic dome and engage in playful sexual hijinks in a sauna. These are scenes of pure joy, and it’s not surprising that Rivers and Russell have both spoken in subsequent interviews of starting a commune.

In the next sequence Lowe leaves this idyllic setting, finding himself in familiar territory for Rivers: the wilds of a remote forest. A bearded man in the natural world, staring at moss: it could be a description of a scene in any number of Rivers’s films. Yet, unlike the reclusive Williams, who seems absolutely at home in his world and fundamentally (and permanently) detached from a larger society, Lowe appears to be a temporary visitor to the woods. We see him exploring an abandoned village and examining photographs in vacant homes. It’s clear that these fragments of a forgotten world are foreign objects; like us viewers, he’s observing an unfamiliar place as an outsider. Lowe eventually rejoins society in a dramatic fashion, walking onto the stage of a crowded bar to perform, in full goth-white makeup, as part of a black metal band. During the intense set, which is captured in what is presented as a single, continuous shot, Lowe screams at the top of his lungs over huge waves of noise and his bandmates’ guttural vocals. Then, unceremoniously, he exits the stage, wipes off the face paint and wanders through the streets of an empty city, once again isolated and self-possessed.

Paraphrasing Godard, the filmmakers described the work as having a beginning, a middle and an end, just not necessarily in that order. That description of a nonlinear narrative is important because it suggests that each social form that Lowe inhabits is, in the end, provisional. If there is a utopia here, it is temporary and evolving, existing on a remote island, in an abandoned village, even within a lonely urban center. “Our idea of utopia may reside in the individual,” Rivers has said, “but it is always the individual in relationship to others, in relation to society and community. Even if you decide to take yourself away from society and live in solitude, you’re still defining your life in relation to society and community.” 6 The commune can be abandoned for the intimacy of the band, which in turn can be jettisoned for the nomad’s life in the forest. And maybe this is the meaning of utopia in Rivers’s peripatetic work. It’s not a place to end up but a middle, or a beginning