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“Life on the Society Islands is particularly novelistic” says the commentator while explaining how in the Hiva archipelago stories constitute an essential element, as its society and way of life are constantly subjected to the possibility of change guided by the construction of new narratives. Hiva (the Society Islands), along with Eleven, Kanzennashima and Somerset, is one of the four strange paradises that the film, Slow Action (2011) by Ben Rivers presents. A small atlas of places and social structures defined as utopian that are presented in chapters, by a female and a male narrator; their accounts traverse a compendium of short scenes that construct disturbing visions of each case study.
The descriptions these voices make of the places and their societies don’t follow any specific pattern. Each one establishes a particular exposition, explaining their ways of life, customs, climatic conditions, etc. Nevertheless, all of them count with the halo of estrangement of classic science fiction, while at the same time employing approaches that respond more to an ethnographical vision of communities and unknown spaces, structured around a corpus of knowledge focussed on the knowledge of a “Great Encyclopaedia”, the observations of “the curator” and oriented by coordinates of “the Quinnian’s compass”. In these science-fictional descriptions, each word extracted from the idiom itself opens up a crack in the imagination for other typologies of what is designated. With a cold and allegedly objective analysis, these mysterious reports present new islands of Utopia that are neither desirable nor totally negative, so much as enigmatic and evocative, through recordings that also don’t offer specific images of these societies, just visual stimuli and isolated data that favour mental constructions. This combination of text, image and sound construct in this way a monstrous report, in its acceptance of the anomalous and deviant, through a montage based on the deformation of the visual record.
In a story written by Hazel Heald and H.P. Lovecraft the plot occurs in a wax museum in London, the Rogers Museum. Said Rogers is an old employee of Madame Tussaud and his personal collection counts with, apart from the protagonists of the most celebrated Western macabre stories of the 21st century, mutilated by war and the like, an extensive catalogue of mythological figures. Amongst these stand out those of a dark precedence: “the black, formless Tsathoggua, many-tentacled Cthulhu, proboscidian Chaugnar Faugn, and other rumoured blasphemies from forbidden books like the Necronomicon, the Book of Einbon or the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt “[[HP Lovecraft i Hazel Heald, “Horror al Museu”, a Horror al museu i altres col·laboracions, Caralt, Barcelona, 1978 (published for the first time in the magazine Weird Tales in 1932).]]. Halfway through the story, one discovers these figures, that Stephen Jones, protagonist of the story and assiduous visitor to the museum, attributes to the imagination and even the brilliance of the author, are in reality generated out of human beings and real animals that Rogers offers to a strange deity and thanks to the hot wax converts what is left of them into effigies. They are not modelled figures, so much as beings and objects stemming from the travels of Rogers that thanks to the wax are conserved under a halo of fiction. What at the beginning of the tale appears as representation turns in this way into pure transformation; it ends up that the fiction in these horrific images doesn’t derive from a process of invention so much as one of deformation of the real. Although without the means of any ritual sacrifices, the fictions that Slow Action proposes also originate from a process of manipulation. In this film, Ben Rivers generates a speculative fiction constructed through the visual and semantic manipulation of documentary images. In this way, he establishes through old cinematographic techniques and the process of montage, monstrous scenes of utopian forms that don’t respond to the conventional imaginary of science fiction.
In an interview, Ben Rivers explains how he worked on this film with the science fiction writer Mark von Schlegell. He comments that initially he aimed to use pre-existing texts from Victorian literature (which would have given it a steampunk, vibe that I’d have loved to see how he resolved) but in the end, he decided to work with new texts, for which he sought out this collaboration. So he commissioned von Schlegell with four stories for four islands, and while he wrote them, Rivers made the set of recordings in various islands, without a script, without knowing exactly what text would accompany them. The montage material were the takes recorded in the volcanic and desert landscapes of Lanzarote, in Gunkanjima, an abandoned city constructed on a rock in the coast of Nagasaki (Japan), and Tuvalu in the Pacific, one of the smallest countries in the world. To these original recordings, Rivers added images and sounds collected from different post-apocalyptic science-fiction films from the seventies. Through the documentary images of the current terrestrial geography of each one of the islands, he constructs a fictional island that corresponds to the first three chapters of the film. The last part, Somerset, on the other hand, is made up of dramatic scenes that present a strange society but also don’t specifically illustrate the description with which it is attributed.
In his book Daimonic Reality, Patrick Harpur explains some questions related to the mythological that directly affects its ambit of study, the experiences derived from paranormal phenomena, from the premise of the variability of its meanings according to the context and the relation with the images. In tune with this, he introduces in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s proposals regarding mythologies, the question of the imagination. He proposes: “what the Imagination does is try out all the combinations of a given mythology. The structural elements remain more or less constant but change their value and meaning in relation to the rest, forming distinct patterns, producing different apparitions and recounting different histories …” [[Patrick Harpur, Realitat Daimònica, Atlanta, Girona, 2007]]. This social dynamic is the basic structure for cinematographic montage, that in the work of Ben Rivers becomes the motor with which to narrate this science fiction in which myths and images construct unstable realities. A pseudo-ethnography that, just like the narrative tradition of Lovecraft of Cthulhu and the Anglo-Saxon horror story, constructs monstrous fictions through mystery and the unknown.