Ben Rivers

Slow Action


Not on display

Ben Rivers born 1972
Film, 16 mm, projection, or video, high definition, 4 projections, black and white and colour, and sound
Duration: 45min
Presented by Tate Members 2018


Slow Action 2010 is a 16 mm science-fiction film shot in both colour and black and white by the British artist Ben Rivers. Shown as a projection and lasting forty-five minutes, it was filmed in four locations: Lanzarote, a dry island in the Canaries known for its beaches and inactive volcanos; Gunkanjima, an island off the coast of Japan, once inhabited by thousands of people due to its coal reserves but now deserted; Tuvalu, a small country in the middle of the Pacific barely above sea level; and the British county of Somerset, Rivers’s birthplace. Footage of each location is accompanied by a soundtrack of a narrator giving detailed information about its evolution according to geographical, geological, climatic and botanical conditions. Slow Action was produced in an edition of five, of which this version is number one.

Rivers chose these locations for different reasons, both cinematic and scientific. For example, his decision to film in Lanzarote was inspired by Werner Herzog’s 1971 film Fata Morgana. As Rivers had commented, Slow Action ‘was made in the shadow of this film’ (Rivers 2010, accessed 23 May 2015). However, the sites were also chosen for their geographical isolation and reflect Rivers’s interest in biogeography – the study of how species and ecosystems evolve differently when isolated and surrounded by inhospitable habitats. In Slow Action Rivers also imagines the ecological future of the earth; with sea levels rising to uncontrolled levels within a few hundred years, earth’s geography is continually changing, perhaps leading to landmasses becoming removed from one another and creating new archipelagos.

With Slow Action Rivers developed his interest in the otherworldly effects of these unpopulated scenic locations. He constructed four fictitious utopias, one for each landscape, imagining alternative small societies that could possibly exist in the near future. It was important to Rivers that there was an authentic scientific language to the film, and he worked closely with contemporary American science fiction author Mark von Schlegell to achieve this. Some scenes include a computer generated graphic of a turning cube superimposed on the landscape. The various scenes of ruins and isolated locations as well as the narration all offer a post-apocalyptic feel to the film, a consistent theme throughout Rivers’s practice. In his words, ‘It seems impossible in our world today to not think about massive collapses, from technological disasters to natural disasters that inevitably have a greater impact because of overcrowding.’ (Quoted in Halter 2011, p.2.)

Although Rivers documents actual places and habitats in his films, his work has elements of both documentary and fiction. His use of analogue film stock and retention of the white flashes at the end of the film roll gestures to the process of his films’ making. Stylistically they are characterised by slow panning shots over sometimes barren, sometimes beautiful landscapes, which provide backdrops for the viewer’s imagination. Rivers has described this effect in relation to his childhood in the Somerset countryside: ‘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 an overtly fantastical sense.’ (Quoted in Halter, p.1.)

Rivers works largely with a 16 mm handheld Bolex camera, which not only delivers the distinct grainy quality of analogue film, but also suits his working process. As he has explained: ‘There’s an interesting time constraint with the Bolex; you wind it up and only get a 30-second shot. It creates mini-rules and more concentration and consideration are needed. It makes filming less arbitrary, it helps you think about what you’re doing.’ (Quoted in Corless 2008, accessed 9 December 2014.) Furthermore, just as there is often a separation in his work between the periods of filming and editing, he has described how with Slow Action, ‘The images and text were deliberately being made without each other in mind, to see what happens when they are finally put together. This is how I like to work: having an adventure while making something and being surprised.’ (Rivers 2010, p.69.)

Further reading
Keiron Corless, ‘The London Film Festival: Ah Liberty! – Ben Rivers at the Edge of the World’, Sight and Sound, November 2008,, accessed 9 December 2014.
Ben Rivers, ‘Slow Action’, Map Magazine, no.21, March 2010, pp.66–9,, accessed 23 May 2015.
Ed Halter, ‘Part of the Process’, Mousse, issue 28, April–May 2011, pp.1–4.

Leyla Fakhr
February 2015

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