Slow Action by Dominic Paterson


'A work set in a future that is visually constituted by contemporary footage modelled after the look of a 1970s idiom.'


The conceit of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is that all the many fabulous civilisations described by Marco Polo throughout the book are in fact the same place, namely Venice.[1] The island city emerges only gradually from amidst its imaginary ciphers, but somehow the reader comes to feel closer to the real Venice than if it had been described objectively. Calvino, then, celebrates the potential of fiction to both invent imagined worlds and figure real ones. Ben Rivers’s four-screen film work Slow Action explores cinema’s capacity to function in somewhat similar ways: its component parts each describe a fictional island in a post-apocalyptic future, the populations of which have been cast into unique evolutionary trajectories. The intensely absorbing footage which illustrates, and seems to substantiate, these fantastical places, has been shot by the artist in real locations, from Tuvalu, Japan, and Lanzarote to the more prosaic terrain of Somerset. A voiceover, written by novelist Mark von Schlegell, reworks these locations into odd, possibly utopian, worlds.

In terms of style, Slow Action brings a whole range of associations to mind. Shot on 16mm anamorphic film, it deploys a visual language redolent of science fiction of the 1970s (from art house films to more mainstream visions of other places and other times). It recalls the early cinematic uses of animation and tricks such as superimposition by Méliès and others, whilst the way landscape and narrative intersect echoes Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana (with Rivers’s use of film critic Ilona Halberstadt to voice the narrative a deliberate nod to a similar strategy in Herzog’s film). The global scope of the piece is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and its poetic form of filmic anthropology. Indeed, the whole work might be thought of as merging the cinematic with the (science) fictional and the anthropological, to compelling effect.

Ben Rivers’s posited islands are – as fictions – utopias in the strict sense of being non-places or nowheres. But as the footage used to picture these islands shows real sites, their status is more ambiguous. The temporal and spatial ambiguities of these utopic islands suggests that they might usefully be thought of as examples of the marginal, paradoxical, ambiguous spaces the philosopher Michel Foucault termed ‘heterotopias.’ Foucault suggests that one of the hallmarks of the heterotopic space is that it has “the ability to juxtapose in a single real place several emplacements that are incompatible in themselves,” and further notes that heterotopias are also frequently heterochronias, that is places “connected with temporal discontinuities.”[2] Interestingly, the cinema itself features amongst Foucault’s various examples of such places, while his account also draws on anthropological accounts ranging from Polynesia to Brazil. Just such a heterotopic combination of genres and of times is one of the defining features of Slow Action, a work set in a future that is visually constituted by contemporary footage modelled after the look of a 1970s idiom (and with sound directly appropriated from older films).

One of the most intriguing aspects of Slow Action is the relationship it creates between the viewer, the perspective of the camera, and that of the narrator. From where do we see? From what position does the narrator speak? After all, if we accept the narrative that animates the images, how is a single unifying perspective possible that can encompass the isolated island worlds and describe them to us? Foucault identified just such unattributable, placeless voices as a crucial element of Jules Verne’s fictions. The fiction, Foucault suggests, is to be distinguished from the fable (which consists of the events, characters and so on); rather we should think of it as the narrative system itself. And here we find that in Verne the fiction is heterogeneous and heterochronic, that is, it allows for multiple perspectives, temporalities and voices to emerge, to relay knowledge that is not within the diegetic space of the fable. As Foucault puts it, in Verne we encounter “a completely toneless voice, articulated by no one, without any support or point of origin, coming from an indeterminate elsewhere and arising within the text through an act of pure irruption…”[3] A similarly dislocated and dislocating effect pervades Slow Action, casting the viewer adrift in time along with the camera and the narrator.

In its thematics and in its fictional structure, then, Rivers’s work bears a family resemblance to the pioneering science fiction of writers such as Verne and H.G. Wells, who both deployed the island as a space of fantasy in their works. But Slow Action also draws on Darwin in its positing of Galapagos-like isolated evolutionary paths, and indeed Rivers’s has explicitly taken Darwin as a subject in previous work. I would contend that in superimposing science fictional futures with narratives of the descent of man, Rivers presents a picture of the mythology of the nineteenth century, a mythology which (as Foucault and others have argued) shaped the imagination of the twentieth, in cinema and elsewhere. In Slow Action imagined futures are built upon images informed by cinema’s past and derived from our present, along with the stories that have shaped our own cultural evolution, offering the viewer a space to both enjoy the fictional and to interrogate its terms.



[1] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver, (London: Vintage, 1997).

[2] Michel Foucault, ‘Different Spaces,’ in The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, Volume Two: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James Faubion, (London: Allen Lane, 1998), p. 181, 182.

[3] Michel Foucault, ‘Behind the Fable,’ in ibid, p. 140.


Dr Dominic Paterson works at the University of Glasgow where he teaches 20th and 21st century art and theory.

He wrote his doctoral thesis on the place of aesthetics in the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, and his research interests include critical theory as well as modern and contemporary art. Dominic's publications include essays on Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Matthew Barney, and Marcel Duchamp amongst others, as well as recent exhibition texts for Claire Barclay, Kate Davis and Faith Wilding. He is a regular contributor to MAP magazine as a writer and critic, most recently addressing the work of Mexican artist Martin Soto Climent.

Dominic organised and introduced a series of talks and film screening events as part of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2010, which expanded upon the Festival's theme of ‘past, present, future' .