But the game is up! We must all die: Ben Rivers, Urth

I have lived from The End of History to the end of history. The events of the past year have ensured that any notion of a linear progression of history has been shattered. This century has been folded back around on itself and all the horrors of the early twentieth century are recycled in the opening years of the twenty-first.

Ben Rivers’ films are liminal. They exist somewhere close to us, but while their narratives span long stretches of time they are rarely located in a specific period—this year or last. Urth takes its name from one of the Old Norse fates—meaning turned or looped, Urth personifies the past. With echoes of our own word Earth, Rivers threads together numerous discourses of environmentalism, artificial intelligence, literature and history. The film was shot on location at B2, formerly Biosphere 2, a project that between 1991‒1993 turned from an experiment in cybernetic systems into a disaster described as a cult. Without reference to this specific history, Urth reverses the fortunes of Biosphere 2. In this world the experiment has survived, while the Earth burns. A lone narrator remains the involuntary captive of the biosphere, tracing her thoughts through audio logs recorded during her final solitary months in the sealed building.

In many of his films Rivers approaches the question of the future, often drawing on literature—particularly those texts that knowingly reference their own position in history. In adapting these texts Rivers’ work is always framed and rarely offers a direct telling of a story, rather his films parallel and re-enact their material. Paul Bowles’ writing was the starting point for Rivers’ recent project The Sky Trembles And The Earth Is Afraid And The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015), while There Is A Happy Land Further Awaay (2015) features a poem by Henri Michaux. This approach leads to projects that become larger than themselves, inserting Rivers’ work into an existing framework of events and cultural artefacts which allows these to be reread.

Urth opens with a prologue quoting from The Last Man by Mary Shelley, regarded as the originator of both Gothic horror and science fiction. Shelley delineates the political-familial breakdown that follows an apocalyptic plague in twenty-first century England,

Will the earth still keep her place among the planets; will she still journey with unmarked regularity round the sun; will the seasons change, the trees adorn themselves with leaves, and flowers shed their fragrance, in solitude?

Urth, though, draws less on the content of The Last Man, and more on the framing device. Shelley’s introduction describes her own descent into a cave somewhere outside of Naples, where she discovers fragments of leaves covered with writings of the Cumaean Sibyl. The Sibyls were women of Ancient Greece, living alone outside the polis, prophets of Chthonic deities, but these oracles were unreliable; their mode of speaking, indirect and indistinct, could be easily misinterpreted. According to Virgil, if the leaves on which the Cumean Sibyl painted her words were scattered by the wind she would refuse to reorder them. Shelley writes that she has collected and translated these prophetic writings and published them here as The Last Man.

In Urth, the narrator is unnamed, apparently alone and trapped in the biosphere, unwilling or unable to leave it. She is seen only fleetingly through Rivers’ 16mm Bolex camera and known only through her distorted audio-recordings read aloud by artist Janice Kerbel and written by contemporary science-fiction author Mark von Schlegell, who has previously worked with Rivers. Talking to Erika Landström in BOMB magazine, von Schlegell describes his non-linear approach to writing, a mode that never pins down a subject but expands it,

I’m looking for the invisible part of writing, the more mystical sense. The invisibility of interpretable text is more fascinating to me than the visibility of the code.

The narrator speaks to us through the format of the transcript or the log, a device that von Schlegell employed for Rivers’ film Slow Action (2010). The log bears an association with exploration, the nexus of science and travel. As a literary form it’s terse and repetitive, one that ultimately serves only those who find it in the future, a record of events to inform and justify.

Day 0: 22,000ppm. This is the log of the surviving Urth/Earth Project. It arrives out of nowhere by necessity not invention. This is the first thing I discovered upon taking command of system files, is that no log had ever been kept. My predecessors kept detailed records of day to day experiments and problems of individual biomes. But never of the vivarium as a whole, what we might call the whole Urth/Earth. Discontinued when operations were taken over by our AI. Who had any idea Urth/Earth would the most important experiment ever conceived—in this atmosphere at least. And that a graduate student summer worker, the ones with no family to return to, that’s what she said to them, would be the last scientist. FACT: I have disengaged the majority of the AI functions at this moment. I have taken command of Urth/Earth.

The logs in Urth are poetic, they flit between the word Urth and Earth, a word play that merges the two biospheres. This is visualised through the camera’s movement between two positions: literally as the scenes cut between points within Urth to outside on Earth; figuratively it describes these changes in the way the camera focuses on its subjects. Inside Urth, within the biosphere, the camera sits still and peers across the biomes, or watches a single space, a plant, a bucket. In rare cases it sits underwater or at a distance, capturing a figure, assumed to be the narrator. It’s hand-held, the movement of the unsteady human operator exaggerated by the zoom, as though peering through a scope. It suggests the viewer occupies the position of the lone narrator, or has somehow entered the space themselves to observe. The camera in its second position, outside of Urth, appears more like a CCTV camera, completely fixed. These scenes cut between parts of the complex, the camera focuses solely on the building itself, low down, zoomed in, emphasising the scale of the structure, different parts of the building and its artificial, thoroughly human shapes, its separate organs.

In attempting to find some stable ground on which to base the divisions of interior and exterior, before and after, the narrator becomes obsessed by the wind, or lack thereof, and this becomes the focus of metaphors, thought, and emotion for what has been lost in this new biosphere. It has been nearly a year since the wind has blown. The narrator records seeing a breeze one night and becomes fearful of its loss, I will not let the camera take it away, I will not look, before a more surreal turn of events, I ate the arm of a cactus that showed it to me. The camera focuses on a cactus swaying gently. This moment marks a turning point. In the next log the narrator states that they are anticipating their death and have programmed the AI to return, and that their remains must be scattered on the winds. There is a hopelessness that they’ve resorted to this, a degree of solipsism, and a sense of futility; if they are alone, who will conduct the funeral? If there is no wind, how will they be scattered? The architects were correct, the narrator finally decides, we are only our monuments. Between this futility, there’s the sense of a person trying to cling to degrees of humanity and culture, of thought and planning even as their poetic pronouncements become more indistinct.

As the film nears its end the narrator asks a pertinent question, whether they are the AI? This is a question that has hung in the air throughout the film. There are a few clues to this; the narrator’s language and their repetition; the fact that many AI systems today have been given gendered female voices, supposedly comforting moments of panic; Kerbel’s monotonous voice suggests little emotion, with only pauses to punctuate, add feeling and a sense of questioning to her monologue. We have long learnt to distrust AI, which so often comes from the screen to hunt down, to kill, as if it were some monster of a modern Frankenstein. There is another possibility— that the narrator has dissociated. Has she become to embody an AI in the sense she feels no emotional feedback, dissociated from comfort, from friends, and forced into a process of constant repetitive monitoring and adjustment, with the realisation that this system doesn’t serve your needs but they become subsumed by the system itself. There’s an indifference in the way nature treats the narrator, it doesn’t support her, it doesn’t thank her, despite how carefully tended for. This realisation is revealed in a few comments, Fact, the environment does not promote. It demands stress at every level. It’s a one-sided relationship in which the humans become the machines they strive to supercede.

I first read of Urth in an email. It was premiered at The Renaissance Society, Chicago, in Rivers’ first solo show in the US, curated by Solveig Øvstebø. The Renaissance Society exhibited this new work alongside two of Rivers’ earlier pieces, Slow Action (2010) and Things (2014)—a year-long travelogue that takes place entirely within Rivers’ own home. Each film allows readings to be drawn from one another; the 16mm films explore characters indirectly, through their choices of surroundings and through objects, rather than through reactions, emotional engagement with the lens. Isolated and distant in some way, while remaining awfully familiar. They show that Rivers’ films have consistently presented an ambiguous, if not cynical, vision of the future. In a 2012 interview in Sight and Sound he describes the trope of making, ‘last man in the wilderness films’. But, even dystopian fiction is in some sense optimistic; its existence implies the potential that life in some form has continued, that a world relatively recognisable to our own remains viable.

Perhaps this is the best way to think of Biosphere 2, less as a rigorous experiment, more as an optimistic fiction. In Biosphere 2 can be read traces of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, there’s a degree of esotericism, a turn towards the elemental and archaic, seen in the aesthetic choices made by the architects—geodesic domes that resemble temple ziggurats and burial mounds, palimpsests of Buckminster Fuller’s designs and the hippy movement’s turn to Earthships. Biosphere 2 was designed during the 1980s within a technical climate still very much inflected by the work during the 1970s, principally by Stafford Beer, on cybernetics—with the belief that, although complex, systems could be designed to be inherently balancing, contained, and computable. Environmentalism of the period drew on these beliefs, with James Lovelock’s 1979 Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth and Dr Lynn Margulis’ later contributions to the Gaia Hypothesis, being highly influential. Together they posited the Earth as a dynamic system responding to its biomass to ensure equilibrium and promote life. While the concept of a dynamic system was an important contribution, the idea that the biosphere promotes or enables life is now held sceptically, and in closed cycle systems have been proven to be unstable rather than stable. The poet Richard Brautigan expressed the mood of the late 60s combination of science, nature, and utopia, in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

There is a contradiction at the heart of Biosphere 2. They wanted to show the viability of human life inside closed cycle system, but it also wanted to model the outside world; the aims of the project oscillated between the ideal habitat for humans and the realistic habitat of earth, in a conflation of the two, as though the best habitat for humans is the natural world and that the natural world is untouched by humans. Even this realistic simulation of Earth within the exoskeleton was limited, comprising only rainforest, mangrove, ocean, savannah, desert, an agricultural zone and ‘habitable zone’. No fir forests, no tundra, no mountain ranges, no deforestation, no salt plains, no reclaimed land. The layers and layers of support infrastructure that actually facilitated this playground were artfully hidden like any canvas, or screen, or page. The Biosphere 2 model included no imminent danger or disasters, the oxygen depletion that plagued the original project was merely a failure in engineering the building. There was, despite its claims, no variation, nothing that could not be controlled by minute adjustment.

The conclusions of Biosphere 2 found that it was precisely this degree of stability, safety, of temperateness, of an insistence not to rely on technology that was to have a detrimental effect on the entire project; the trees of the rainforest biome suffered horrifically due to etiolation, the growth of weak, chlorophyll-diminished leaves and stems due to lack of sunlight, this was compounded by an underdevelopment of stress wood, normally developed following damage during heavy storms. Urth recreates the sense of this slow deterioration through short comments throughout the logs, with oxygen how it is I haven’t exercised within a week. Though, the narrator, optimistically and without evidence believes that, this will only be for a time. It’s notable that the logs stop after day 376—barely one solar cycle has occurred. The seasonal development and the system cycles that the narrator pins so much hope on are never repeated—the cycle was broken.

Long after the events, Jane Poynter, one of the original Biosphere 2 residents, described to an audience that, I was eating myself in some strange sort of bizarre way. Poynter means this literally, in the sense of the recirculation of carbon round and round the biosphere, from respiration to crops to digestion, but it also speaks of the mindset of the residents within the space. This process occurs on Earth too, although over the course of geological time, but these patterns appear to be catching-up with us. In 2016 the Earth faced the highest temperatures in recorded history. 2017 will, most likely, see the same. As the ice retreats across the Arctic Circle and the northeast passage is revealed this vision of the world eating itself returns.