Ride a white swan: on location with Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair’s Swandown

Andrew Kötting’s new film Swandown is the result of a bizarre pedalo trip he took with the writer Iain Sinclair. Nick James joins them.

Nick James
Updated:

Web exclusive (an edited version of this report appears in our August 2012 issue)

Swandown still

On a June day of knockabout winds and partial sun, I arrive near the eastern entrance to the Regent’s Canal tunnel that cuts beneath Islington. I can see Iain Sinclair on a bench, contemplating the filthy black water.

I’m here to meet this tracer of ‘morphic resonances’ and author of such crucial London exegeses as Lud Heat, Downriver, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, Lights Out for the Territory, London Orbital and Hackney, That Rose Red Empire. But the project we’re here to discuss, Swandown, is not principally Sinclair’s, though he is its guiding spirit. This film was made by the equally fecund artist/filmmaker Andrew Kötting, a geezerish manhandler of poetic pranks and pratfalls best known for his feature-length works Gallivant (1997), This Filthy Earth (2001) and Ivul (2009).

I’ve known, admired, been amused and bemused by both these figures for years, but have never met them together. Sinclair writes for this magazine occasionally, and Kötting is someone I met socially 20 years ago, who’s work I’ve followed ever since.

The duo’s practical idea was to borrow a swan pedalo (dubbed Edith) from the amusement lake on the seafront at Hastings, take it onto the sea and round to the entrance to inland waterways so as to make a scimitar-like movement against the London borough of Hackney, Sinclair’s principal subject and the setting for a project he loathes – the London Olympics.

Kötting’s job, while shooting the film, was to get that swan from Hastings to Hackney, via canals, the Medway and eventually the Thames; Sinclair made several visits to sit beside him and mythologise, but he knew he had to leave for a trip to the US before filming was over. When Sinclair was not around, guests would take his place and perform. Sometimes visitors took control of the pedalo, but the whole trip was planned in such a way that Kötting’s camera team could capture casual encounters with passing riverside people, and it’s these that provide most of the film’s stand-out moments. Sinclair is the explainer, the context-giver, the master of ceremonies, and Kötting the undercutter, the stunt artist, the man ever-suspicious of pretension (but in love with such high-modernist stuff as the rolling cadences of Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto I’ as read by Basil Bunting).

I went to Rochester with the artist Dinos Chapman during one of Sinclair’s absences, both of us prospective guests for the pedalo. Neither of us ended up (on camera at least) in the finished film, although Dinos’s trip across the Medway and through the huge lock is the film’s online trailer.

What struck me most was how simply the filming was organised – one camera going ahead to be pre-positioned on land, the other in a motorised dinghy – and how ad-hoc was Kötting’s approach to each moment of surprise and negotiation. When I was in the pedalo, Kötting’s feet were constantly in water, and he regularly jumped out in his suit to push Edith off mudbanks. He handled the deal-making to go through the lock with a characteristic edge of bluff and challenge.

Now at the canalside, Kötting saunters down the ramp to meet us, looking dry, tanned and relaxed. What ensues is a talk-and-stroll session [recorded below in nearly all its glory, interruptions from passers-by and all] along the canal to the Hitchcock statue in the grounds of what used to be Gainsborough studios, with me clutching my voice recorder, and Sinclair and Kötting talking over one another as only two collaborators can, giving me a soundtrack that in terms of decipherment is not unlike a Robert Altman scene.

Swandown still

Andrew Kötting: Up here [above the tunnel] was one of our first beating of the bounds… there’s a sort of trickle.

Iain Sinclair: We were by the New River.

AK: We did a massive walk that day – it was about nine or ten hours, and you were grizzling like a baby at the end. Your feet were all swollen up.

IS: We walked the whole way around Hackney, [a route] that Andrew would have done in the water had he been prepared to do it. I thought he was a serious sort of wild-water swimmer. My opinion was that he was deranged and in reverse evolution, that he needed to get back into the rivers or the sea to live. He was developing gills. So I thought he was the perfect person.

I’d gone round Hackney every other way. I’d walked it with everybody. I’d cycled it. I’d dragged everybody round the bounds. I really wanted to draw Andrew in, partly because of Gallivant…

AK: He thought old muggins would have a go because he’s young enough.

IS: …But he wouldn’t do it. He meandered round grizzling a bit. We finished up right alongside the New River. Suddenly as we sat down, we were completely surrounded by swans.

AK: It was very omenic.

IS: Omenic. I thought, “This is it! This is the moment!” So it all cooked from Hackney.

AK: But that was way back, probably three years before we thought we might actually be doing it. I remember Kathy Acker being a connection.

IS: That’s right. Kathy Acker lived in Duncan Terrace, right behind us, and the last time I saw her she walked down here and dropped a plastic bottle of water into the canal. She took it out and drank the water. She said, “I’m feeling spooked. I feel ill. Some strange spirit has got in.” We had this strange conversation.

And at that time she was in remission from cancer and she had been feeling really good. She was going back to San Francisco, and got back there and the cancer came forward again. She went over the border into Mexico to try to do some strange cure and she died. And so the spirit of that thing… I thought the Mexico story was absurd when she told it to me.

AK: We sat out there and you riffed a bit on Kathy Acker and I’d always been a big fan.

IS: Duncan Terrace had this whole cluster. Peter Ackroyd lived right next to her. And I carried him back one night.

Nick James: Acker and Ackroyd, that’s a weird connection.

IS: It was a weird connection. He was completely pissed and I carried him back home and all his keys and everything were tumbling down the pavement. He didn’t want to go inside because he was having a scene with whoever was his boyfriend at the time.

So there’s all this seething underhistory of London. There right behind us in Noel Road is where Joe Orton got killed [by his lover Kenneth Halliwell]. And he became a figure in the story because when we walked the isle of Sheppey on a recce, I was telling Andrew about the prison complex [where Orton served time] and about the library books in Islington library [that Orton defaced – the crime he went to prison for]. And at that moment this character appeared, a shaven-headed tattooed crab-sexer.

AK: He was a big football fan – he was all pumped up. And I said, “Who do you support, then?” He went, “I’m ICF [Inter City Firm]. How about you?” And then Iain tries to interject with [puts on Sinclair-type voice], “Do you realise that out there on the island Joe Orton…” And he said, “Well, I’m collecting crabs.” He had no interest whatsoever…

IS: But he did. I was there! He said, “The one [prison] at the top of the hill was for the serious psychos – that’s where I was. And the bottom one [where Orton was] was a bit nancy.” So we had a whole riff on the prison.

AK: He’d been there for six years.

IS: A bit of domestic.

AK: He gave us a beautiful psychogeographical insight.

IS: That was the essence of the whole film…

AK: Well, for me the catalyst was that massive walk. It was a long, long day and I thought, I can’t swim that, it’s gonna take forever. And it’s filthy: bloated carcasses, shopping trollies…

IS: The irony is that, as he peddled the swan, Andrew spent all his time in the water. I’m told by my wife that when he arrived here he was like Norman Wisdom: his trousers were about here [indicates mid-calf], his suit had shrivelled to [about half Kötting’s height] and without me there to rein him in he was doing endless pratfalls and comedy; it was a great moment.

Swandown still

Well, that’s a good lead in to my first real question, because I’m interested in where your different kinds of playfulness meet.

IS: They meet in journeys of various sorts. What was moving to me in the film was the last section, after I’ve gone. Andrew absorbed everything I wanted to do and cast it back in a melancholy and quite touching form. But it’s an obituary for everything that my idea of the voyage was about, which we didn’t do because we were always in this knockabout relationship in which I was trying to float cod-Homeric notions while he was trying to do Benny Hill.

I’m interested in the presentation and undercutting that goes on throughout the whole film.

AK: Well this is our relationship. We don’t ricochet off each other. There are these great meetings and a confidence in stuff that happens, a mixture of the [Joseph] Beuysian with the [William] Blakeian.

IS: What I found in Still Life [Kötting’s last film, a poetic family memoir] is this mixture of the lyricism and intensity of a Stan Brakhage with the interrogation of the image, and then the absurdist comedy and parodying and fracturing of high culture that goes on all the time underneath it. And there was Eden [Andrew’s daughter Eden, who was born with Joubert’s syndrome] as a kind of angel floating behind it all.

AK: There’s a density to Iain’s writing that’s really difficult [he chuckles], but it’s so rich, you pull out any of it and nothing falls apart. It reforms, like algae. So you take what you need or what you feel is working and it recomposes itself. There are little moments when you feel something is going to unravel but it never does. It just ends up being torn about by my nonsense, my desperation to subvert high culture.

The physicality of it is also something.

IS: There’s a quest there. Roberto Bolano says that there are two forms of American writing: it’s either Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn. So you’re either on a a comedic river excursion through American life or on a deranged Lear-like quest with a demonic entity that you have to chase down and kill.

And we’ve combined the two things. The thing I had to kill was this malign enclosure of the lower Lea Valley [the Olympics site], this octopus spirit that was crushing London. I wanted a pilgrimage quest against it. Andrew said, no, that’s not what it’s about…

AK: I wanted that to be more of a sidebar.

IS: I was happy for it to be cut out, but in the end Andrew has done exactly what I wanted by creating a kind of absurdist alternate spirit that’s truthful because it moved across England and touched all those contour lines of culture, with the tattooed riverbank people and the fishermen – all these characters who are in this Cartier-Bresson sort of panorama. We’d come through that and suddenly hit this toxic river [the Thames].

At the end it’s like going into William Burroughs, and I’ve gone [to the US] and Andrew’s alone on this swan, and you can almost feel the acids eating away at it. And then the departing, with the voice of McGillivray singing – fantastic!

AK: But there was a palpable sense of melancholy and loss when Iain left…

IS: There was an alternative ending shot that didn’t [end up in the cut], a secret version of my ending going into Bunhill Fields.

AK: It was a three-minute random act that never got random-actified.

IS: I’ve projected the notion that all the great English journeys are readable back to Bunhill Fields. With William Blake’s Jerusalem, there’s a great seizing up of geographic particulars, casting them into the cosmos. [Buried] right next to him is Daniel Defoe, who takes off from Britain and becomes the inspiration for Patrick Keiller’s version of going round Britain: Keiller’s Robinson series is underwritten by this Defoe-like take.

The triangulation is completed by the great pilgrim figure, John Bunyan, lying on top of his stone. He does a real walk but mythologises it into this Christian structure [The Pilgrim’s Progress], which is then reinterpreted by Blake in drawings. For me, that’s the vortex of energy to which these journeys have to pay their dues.

AK: We mooted the idea of winching Edith [the swan pedalo] out and carrying or pushing her through the streets. Bunhill Fields is not far from the canal and we’d end up on the pedalo riffing on some of these things, but it was logistically difficult. The pedalo had to go back to Hastings, so the plan was to use Sitwell [a smaller wooden-model swan]. When Iain came back from America we did take Sitwell and Eden, this angelic presence, there, quite late in the day as the park was closing.

IS: It was all a bit melancholic. Not only was the park closing, the project was over. I thought Andrew [originally] made a very interesting scrambled collision of a film with all those elements in.

AK: It worked as a coda for Swandown but [now] it’s a standalone piece and we’ll be showing it up at the British Library. Iain and I will be doing a performance with Kirsten Orange and Jem Finer in July. That’ll be its public premier.

Iain is also doing a reading of Downriver, which is now being committed to vinyl, done off the Isle of Grain near the London stone. So there’s another beautiful way of concluding this adventure.

That’s the book of yours [Iain’s] that first got me hooked.

IS: That’s the one Andrew can’t stand.

AK: I Keep giving them away. People kept giving them to me thinking, “Oh, you’ll love this, read it,” and I just think it’s boring.

IS: It’s one of my favourites. You can’t really read it – you have to be able to read. It’s quite intricate.

Swandown still

You mentioned Sitwell, no doubt named after Edith. And you have an excerpt from Sitwell’s Parade in the film. Given the short jumps that people make, and that Sitwell wrote English Eccentrics, do you worry that you end up in a bag that makes you easy to push to one side?

IS: If I’d worried about that I wouldn’t have done much.

AK: He wouldn’t be here today.

IS: Look across here at this Egyptology [Islington Basin]. What’s left of it is Hawksmoor’s St Luke’s Church obelisk. Before all this building [obscuring St Luke’s], you could look at a classic Egyptian scene down to the obelisk and it’d be perfectly aligned with a church you could see behind it, if you were down there. It’s on this ley line of London, and Bunhill Fields is right alongside.

PASSING WOMAN: I heard you use the word ‘obelisk’. Is that that building there…

IS: St. Luke’s, it’s called.

WOMAN: Is it a spire?

IS: There’s a little dragon on the top. It’s a weathervane.

WOMAN: Is it?

AK: It’s a pretty vainglorious darning needle really.

WOMAN: It’s beautiful.

IS: The strange thing is that the church and the obelisk are by different architects.

WOMAN: Oh really?

AK: See, you can’t stop him.

NJ: It’s OK.

AK: I have to edit that stuff out…

WOMAN: You know, some people sit here and watch the sun go down on the spire.

IS: They do!

AK [slightly mocking]: Yes, it’s perfectly aligned with the sunset.

IS: I’m just telling them how important a site it was for those reasons.

WOMAN: Then it changes colour, apparently, like Ayers Rock.

IS: It does. It’s very like Ayers Rock, because people disappear there. It used to be brilliant. John James’s church was a ruined shell. There was no roof on it after bomb damage and there was still some stained glass in the window frames. The inside was just all plants and shrubs and trees. Inside and outside had no meaning.

When the sun was setting, light from the stained glass windows came down onto these bushes. There were vagrants living there and you used to be able to climb up into the bell-tower – school kids used to do it. I have a section in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings about creeping in there to the top of the obelisk.

Swandown still

So in Lud Heat and in Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, is that the church in the middle of the Barbican?

IS: It’s not that one. That church [we’re looking at] is on Old Street, on the right-hand side as you come down from the roundabout. It’s now an arts venue for the London Philharmonic Orchestra and others. Ackroyd invents a church.

AK: We don’t do Ackroyd. We only do Sinclair here.

IS: The school right behind us is where Emma Matthews [Chris Petit’s partner and editor] went. She above anybody else had the most horrific experience on a canal. She was on a narrowboat with her family. Her younger sister fell over the side and her father dived in to rescue her, and they both got tangled in the weeds and drowned.

AK: She was the only witness.

IS: Yes…

AK: When we came past here [the Narrowboat pub] on the swan, it was full of people shouting. We had loads of that as we came past. I had to do a 360-degree turn and show off Edith to them and they were full of praise.

One of them seemed to know the guy who’d stolen a pedalo a couple of weeks before we set sail from Hastings. It was for an attempt to peddle across the channel to get some duty-frees cheap! Everybody in the pub assumed it was us. They were shouting, “Duck-boy, did you get to France?”

IS: Within 24 hours of us putting to sea in the swan, two more were taken. One was abandoned a mile out to sea because the peddlers had got bored and abandoned it – which is what Andrew tended to do when things got a little too intellectual.

AK: Yes. If things got a little bit too clever, I was off.

Given that you both regularly do extraordinary things as part of your work, I’d like to know if this particular project has changed you in any way?

AK: It’s reassured me that the impossible is always possible, the ridiculous is always important, and that the physical, the corporeal, really underpins nearly everything I do.

And there are other projects that might happen from it. Iain and I might end up in the Hebrides on another quest.

IS: That’s one that’s been hanging over me forever and ever. Andrew is the only person who has given me the faintest hope that it might actually happen. It’s got more difficult, this other project, as I’ve grown older, because the weight of the object in question is heavy.

There’s a sculptor called Steve Dilworth who features in a chapter in Robert MacFarlane’s new book [The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot]. He’s calls him the most interesting sculptor in Europe. He makes work out of dead animals and objects that he finds, which he then encases in elaborate caskets. You have to take what’s inside on trust.

Years ago I was up there filming for The Late Show in the 90s and he [Dilworth] was going to bury this casket he’d made from whalebone that he’d found on the shore in Lewis. Inside there was a phial of storm-water taken at midnight on New Year’s Day and the casket was incredibly heavy.

Part of the film was that he was going to bury it. The cameras are all there and he takes us to this ruined church, lifts up a flagstone and says, “I’m not going to do it, I can’t do it, the thing of filming has killed it stone dead. It’s yours.” He shoves it at me. “You take it away with you and, when the moment’s right, bring it back here and we’ll go up into the mountains and bury it properly.”

Two or three times subsequently I’ve got it back to him, but he says, “No, it’s got to be carried or taken by water.” I thought, I can’t carry this because it’s ridiculously heavy.

AK: And he thought, I know a bloke who can.

IS: I thought we could use a kayak. But now I’m much more taken with getting it on the swan. I’m thinking of a different methodology of filming. Doing the journey is the primary thing, making some basic recordings of that and then choosing the episodes that are really important to be filmed in a more structured way at the end of the whole process.

Swandown still

One of the difficulties of Swandown was the fact that you’ve got the cameras on water the whole time; you have to keep them still and presumably you sometimes have to reconstruct things that have just happened.

AK: No, the cameras were tracking us the whole time. The hard bit was the health and safety issues that went with them. The biggest fuck-up was to turn round and see, not a camera, not a boom operator sitting next to us, but people worrying about where we were going to spend the night, whether we’d eaten, worrying about the sea being too rough, about the tide coming in when it wasn’t scheduled to come in.

Whereas you guys are just Robert Macfarlane-types who will just bed down in a field.

AK: Absolutely.

IS: Well, he is. I’d ring up Anna [his wife] to give me a lift back to base.

AK: It’s just that he suffers from trench foot and I don’t. There was no room for him in the minibus we were living in. But yeah, I could spend the night on the beach, on the towpaths. When you have that apparatus of industry it becomes very different.

IS: But without that apparatus there’s no film…

AK: Exactly. We wouldn’t be talking to you for a start.

IS: There was a situation with Nick Gordon Smith, the principal cinematographer, slightly detaching from the swan journey itself. Moving down the river ahead to set-up an elaborate shot, whereas Anthony was right alongside in the rig, viscerally close all the time.

AK: He was the sniper.

IS: Philippe [Ciompi, the sound recordist] was like a long-suffering Russian monk who’d wandered from the set of an Eisenstein film.

AK: In the film Will, Iain’s son, came along for a day’s peddling as his dad’s doppelgänger. Iain’s spirit was meant to be living on and Will does a wonderful impersonation of his old man. He was telling us these stories about his parents’ incompetence. He used to go here into Gainsborough [Hitchcock’s former studio, where we’ve just arrived) for an evening class in scriptwriting.

There’s a floating bookshop back down the canal and we had breakfast there. I said [to the owner], “You got any Sinclair?” And he said, “Do you mean Iain Sinclair?” I said, “Yeah”. He said, “I’ll have a look for you.” So he went round the back and started going through and he said, “No, I can’t find any.”

I said, “Does that mean it’s all sold out?” He said, “Well, the thing is about Sinclair…” I said, “Is he good?” and he said, “He’s had his day, really.” And then I said to him, “I’d just like you to meet Will, Iain’s son”. He’d been schtoom throughout this 20 minutes of banter.

The BFI is just about to do a major Hitchcock blockbuster retrospective – and the last time they did Hitchcock they launched it here, when the refurbishment of the old Gainsborough studios had just been completed and the Hitchcock head was about to be unveiled.

IS: While the studio was in ruins there were all kinds of strange parties went on here. I think it was where Hitchcock was doing his own diabolical practical jokes, handcuffing stunt men, feeding them enemas, all that stuff.

AK: There he is [Hitchcock’s head]. He’s left his watch [a watch is lying on the rust-coloured platform].

Going back to the early walk, I got very excited here. We were riffing on Hitchcock and The Birds and imagined that all these balconies would be full of swans. At a given moment as the sun set they would take off.

IS: When I came here with Robert Macfarlane, he immediately climbed it. He had to climb the nose because he was getting into North By Northwest, and immediately there were security guards.

AK: Another show-off

IS: Both of them [Kötting and MacFarlane] go up trees a lot. I’m glad we kept that sequence of the thorn tree in that wasteland on the edge of the Isle of Grain, where we were doing the Edith Sitwell.

There were all sorts of things that might have happened and didn’t because we were down to the logistics of getting this thing from Hastings to London in a couple of weeks. In a way, once you got into the rhythm of that, I just couldn’t see it ending.

AK: When we came up the Thames on the Endurance [a tug boat they were obliged to piggy-back Edith on] and Iain left that day, it was as if it had all been too easy.

IS: Partly that was we weren’t able to peddle up the Thames.

AK: And that again was down to these health and safety issues. We easily could have done it.

IS: When we peddled out to the London Stone we were right in the mouth of the Thames. We were perfectly fine, even though the tide was turning and everything.

AK: It was rough but so buoyant. The pedalo was bouncing up and down but we felt secure.

IS: Time was running out because the budget wasn’t there.

AK: You had a plane to catch.

IS: We could have sneaked it.

AK: It’s a bit like Gallivant. When you embark on adventure like this it’s amazing how infectious it is. People who see you going past want to be involved. The fact that you are doing something so ridiculous creates a kind of solidarity.

Swandown still

What kind of briefing did you give your guests in the pedalo?

AK: Not much. They were chosen because they were kindred spirits.

IS: You’ve got people in it who are quite obviously a turn. Dudley Sutton, for instance, just comes in and does his own piece.

AK: Getting Dinos [Chapman] was an excuse to reconnect with someone I was very fond of at art school.

IS: In the initial vision people like Patrick Keiller were going to be part of it. It would have been good to have a single shot in the film of the concrete works which he likes a lot. We would have invited all kinds of people who have their own cinema and topography to come, but that became far too ambitious.

AK: There’s a vestige of that because Ben Rivers features in the Bunhill Fields sequence filming Nick Gordon Smith filming me filming Ben.

IS: If it was a book you’d do all of this and then trim and cut. With film there’s never a finite entity.

The logistics bring their own limitations.

IS: It’s a sod because there’s the drama at the beginning – will it take to the sea? [the swan sits stubbornly in the surf] – and the libations [Sinclair pours a wine libation over the it.]

Some of my favourite poetry is in that moment: Basil Bunting reading Pound’s Canto I.

IS: It’s so ambitious to recreate this Homeric theme, to start with a chunk of Ulysses which then becomes Joyce.

It was accidental because I found these cassettes of Basil Bunting in Kingsland waste market and could only play them in the car. Then the car was broken into and they were nicked, and I was heartbroken.

My doorbell rang and it was Lee Hall who said, “I’ve got the recording of Bunting and I think you should have it,” and he gave me this pile of CDs that have Bunting doing this and a whole lot of other stuff. As soon as I got it all I sent it round to Andrew and we put it in.

Swandown is released on 20 July, and is reviewed in the August 2012 issue of Sight & Sound. Swandown – The Installation is at Dilston Grove, London SE16 until 29 July.

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