Slow Action (2011) – one of two 16mm films comprising Ben Rivers’s solo show, ‘Fable’, at Cologne’s Temporary Gallery – sketches out a possible future in which Earth has been flooded and mankind has withdrawn to a few islands where strange and highly distinct cultures have taken shape. Rivers conceived the work in four chapters with a screenplay by sci-fi author Mark von Schlegell. While it is clearly fictional, it is presented as an ethnographical documentary of sorts, in which Rivers ‘visits’ four of these islands: the dry and desert-like Eleven (filmed on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands); Hiva (actually the Pacific island of Tuvalu); the deserted Kanzennashima, full of industrial ruins (in real life the abandoned Japanese coal-mining island of Gunkanjima); and Somerset, shot in the eponymous British region, where Rivers grew up. A voice-over provides encyclopaedic facts about each locale’s geographical features, peoples and tribes, flora and fauna, history and political systems. Over the course of 45 minutes, Slow Action unfolds a (post-)apocalyptic panorama of utopic and dystopic endings to history.
Things (2014), Rivers’s most recent film, is also a sort of travelogue, albeit a wholly different one. Likewise structured in four parts – winter, summer, spring and autumn – the film’s underlying principle is one of a year-long travel through ‘one’s own room’. The press release references Xavier de Maistre’s short travelogue Voyage autour de ma chambre (Voyage Around My Room, 1794) as a source of inspiration. Like De Maistre, Rivers remains in his apartment, ‘travelling’ only by scanning his rooms with his antiquated 16mm camera, filming images and artefacts he collected from various trips and research projects. Things reaches its crux with a reading of the first page of Robert Pinget’s 1971 novel Fable – a strange surrealistic account of a man on his voyage home through an apocalyptic landscape. Then, a drawing of one of these very scenes from the novel appears in the flickering projection, as well as a drawing of the cover of Pinget’s book (the drawings themselves – together with two other ‘by-products’ of the film – were also on display). Rivers’s show seems to collapse different spaces and times: the literature referenced in the film, the images being filmed, the film shown alongside the images.
The final chapter of Things, ‘Autumn’, takes us on a computer-animated walk through the very apartment scrutinized in the three previous segments, with images and details reappearing as posters on the wall. The strangest effect, though, comes from Rivers’s use of computer-generated 3D renderings filmed in 16mm – an odd fusion of old and new media. Above all, Things is a meditation on the nature of film itself: not so much as a window on to the world (as the travelogue genre usually suggests), but as the creation of a completely new one – a room in its own right.
The atmosphere of the exhibition – and, ultimately, its content – was defined by Rivers’s use of the outdated 16mm format. This is ‘film’ in the most literal sense of the word: a specific (and now historical) medium, rather than an inaccurate substitute name for any moving image work. The fuzzy, crackling analogue material gives Rivers’s works a patina of nostalgia. If you want to use a buzzword from a few years ago, you could term Rivers’s approach ‘hauntological’ – a reflexive mourning of utopian dreams; ‘ruins of ruins’ as the voice-over puts it at one point in Slow Action. His films seem to come from a just-passed age: too young to be rediscovered, too old to be trendy, the lee-side of progress. I say this not to criticize ‘Fable’ for being out of tune with current aesthetics; rather, the contrary. The feeling of the just-passed paradoxically adds to the show’s vigour or, to quote Slow Action: ‘We are our own visitors and ghosts’, which is also true, it seems, of Rivers’s approach.