Ben Rivers Takes Over The BBC Drama Block

English filmmaker Ben Rivers takes over the former BBC Drama Block of Television Centre for an ambitious film installation.
Tom Stevenson

In 2013 there was an open call for artists to share their most ambitious ideas with the commissioning body Artangel. Ben River’s application was chosen from amongst 1,500 submissions. The filmmaker—best known for Two Years At Sea (2011) and A Spell to Ward of the Darkness (2013, with Ben Russell)—saw an opportunity to combine a number of ongoing projects in a mutually enlivening fashion. A feature film The Earth Trembles And The Sky Is Afraid And The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is scheduled for release later in the year. In the meantime, however, elements of its production and of several other productions besides, have been brought together in a singular installation free to view in London until the end of August.

One of the most notable features of Ben Rivers’ filmmaking practice is that he hand-processes his own exposed film stock. The resulting images are effervescent with imperfections. His frames contain not only their ostensible subjects but also the fizz and wash of the kitchen-sink-laboratory. Image and texture correspond to two discreet moments within the chronology of filmmaking, the exposure of the film and its processing. However far removed they are from each other, logistically speaking, they are nevertheless totally dependent on one another. The scene filmed of strange figures on a dramatic Moroccan coastline, cannot exist without the scene never filmed, of Rivers elbow deep in developer. And vice versa: Rivers would have no reason to immerse his stock in the pungent chemicals of the developing bath did it not contain the traces of some distant episode. Rivers’ images function as strong deconstructions of the cinematic moment: the here and now of the projected film is shown to be the temporary co-existence of a bouquet of other points in space and time. Add to that some non-diegetic and un-synced sound and Rivers’ work eloquently meanders the various levels of process and artifice always present in a single moment of cinema.

Of course, the tension between knowing and forgetting the degree of artifice implicit in cinema is one of the sources of its pleasure, and one of its defining characteristics. The wink to camera and the shock of the real are two ends of a spectrum that contains everything else in between. Yet, however much one may claim to ‘understand’ the constructed nature of cinema, one rarely experiences it as such. For his latest project Ben Rivers is staging an installation in the former BBC Drama Block of Television Centre. The installation consists of five pieces of film playing on loops in a variety of screening spaces. Rivers’ focus in the films themselves is on the production of films by two other artists: Oliver Laxe and Shezad Dawood. The context and the subject redouble and elaborate on Rivers’ exploration of the various levels of filmic construction. Not only do the images on display bear the after-effects of his home-processing techniques, but the action wavers between the staged and un-staged, the fictional and documentary. What’s more, the screening spaces in which they are being displayed are made of the salvaged sets of long-completed BBC productions and the sonic ambience of some of the spaces in between is an appropriated fragment of the soundtrack to Pere Portabella’s Vampir Cuadecuc. To say that there are ‘layers’ to the experience of The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is almost as useful as saying there are songs in Singing in the Rain.

Given the BBC’s fondness for documenting itself, the architectural environment of Television Centre provides echo after echo of fifty-three years worth of production before one even sets eyes on Rivers’ own multi-layered films of films. The walls of the Drama Block itself are spattered with paint from thousands of sets from untold numbers of past productions. The scale of the place speaks to the size of its now absent workforce. The rattling gangways and echoing voids of the vast abandoned factory are negative reflections of the scale of the labour that used to take place. The industrial setting of the screenings is a counterpoint to the unique texture of Rivers’ home processed images: a reminder that the projected image contains not only the scene captured on film, and the scene of the films’ processing, but the thousands of hours of diligent fakery that went into the staging of it all.

Typically, Rivers’ images are beguiling. Here, in the bowels of Television Centre, they become eerie and fascinating, nakedly artificial but also deeply mysterious. Secreted in a small corner past a cage containing a nightmarish costume that looks like a torture device, a 16mm projection of a man looking over his shoulder plays with only the sound of the projector to accompany it. The film stock is luscious; its sunlight blanching and strong, the actor’s repeated glance grows weirder and weirder as if he, too, is unsettled by his performance’s total lack of context. It is banal, yet enigmatic. It is a Second Unit reel shot by Rivers for Oliver Laxe’s forthcoming feature Las Mimosas. Shortly after this strange performance, the actor captured on film disappeared from set and never returned.

Elsewhere, another 16mm projection documents a casual performance by oral storyteller Mohammad Mrabet, a man from whom Paul Bowles allegedly lifted a number of ideas. The muffled bellowing sounds from one screening room bleed into and over the images in another, and the soundtracks of films overheard but not yet seen animate the spaces in between. Within a ramshackle screening room built from salvaged Drama Block sets some unedited rushes of Rivers’ adaptation of a Paul Bowles story—“A Distant Episode—play out in clean bright colour. It features a man captive to bandits and forced to wear a horrible costume made of the lids of tin cans. In yet another screening room built from salvaged sets, an inscrutable black and white digital image documents a stunt being directed by Oliver Laxe—whom we recognise as the performer previously draped in the stifling scrap tin-lid costume that is hanging in a cage across the hall.

There is no clean separation between layers. The cross-pollination of productions and ideas, of sounds and images, of contexts, frames and pictures creates an atmosphere of unparsable multi-valence. No matter which projection one stands in front of, the other four projections and the hulking presence of the Drama Block crowd in too: aurally and visually, hauntingly and explicitly. Rivers manages to invert the normal experience of spectatorship. Instead of understanding the constructedness of cinema, but failing to experience it, the levels of artifice and construction in Rivers’ installation are too many and too varied to fully apprehend, but the experience it augurs, with its restlessly changing emphases on artifice, fakery and deconstruction is very compelling indeed.

The show’s centrepiece is a 35mm projection in a large viewing room on the upper floor. It’s a hand-processed 35mm film showing a production taking place in Morocco without delineating between staged and unstaged action. It is edited to a soundtrack by Carlos Santos created for an entirely different film altogether. There is no balance to be held between understanding and forgetting the degrees of artifice in operation. The image gives way to the variegations of Rivers’ processing techniques, the action reveals itself to be a rehearsal: the film is compelling, moment-to-moment, as it always contains its own parallax.  Rather than any didactic effect concerning the multiple layers in a given image, the show prompts a sense of wonder that one was ever able of read images naively in the first place. Surrounded by the detritus of pre-production, aware of the volatile chemistry of exposure and development, watching the logistical struggle of production itself and listening to a post-production artefact from forty five years earlier, Rivers’ final projection allows us to experience the cinematic moment in its most dismantled state. It’s strange to think, but in Rivers’ hands the experience of seeing through the screen to all that is contained within it is a more powerful experience than being wholly suspended within the screen’s seamless artifice. The cinema screen is a flat space dappled with light, but being aware of the multiple layers of process and artifice that result in its image can prompt a feeling more vertiginous than any cut-and-paste rooftop chase.

The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is a timely installation and not just because the Drama Block is soon to be destroyed. With new forms of immersive cinema and with the ‘experiential’ dynamics of effects driven blockbusters, it is important that we’re still able to experience film as the sum of its constituent parts. The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers takes everything we claim to ‘know’ about film production and manifests it powerfully within the otherwise familiar moment of watching the finished product. It is a reminder that the forgetfulness of spectatorship needs to be tinctured with acknowledgement. Otherwise it’s possible to forget what the huge wonderful, historic factory in W12, currently undergoing its redevelopment as a lifestyle-plaza, was ever for.

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