Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair navigate a swan-shaped pedalo down the Thames. Here are the madcap results.
As Andrew Kötting’s work is laced with rigorous philosophical quotations from the likes of Romanian philosopher EM Cioran, it’s safe to say he assumes a certain amount of theoretical knowledge on the part of his viewers.
Yet his journeys – from 1997’s Gallivant (around Britain’s coasts), to the 2003 book/installation In The Wake of Deadad (through England to Mexico with inflatable representations of his late father) and now in Swandown (up the River Thames) – depend on unselfconscious interactions with local residents who remain oblivious to the fact that they’re springboards for larger musings.
"Meet ordinary people," Kötting notes in mocking voiceover while detailing his plan for the first few days. But he is green with exhaustion and ready to pack it in on day one, fit only for a few TV interviews by day three. There are a few encounters with the same kind of friendly natives that populated Gallivant; local eccentrics who can be counted on to lead a brief tour through the countryside or pop off a song. But the focus is largely on Kötting and his travelling companions, most often writer/psychogeographer Iain Sinclair.
The task of divining essences from the landscape is one fraught with the possibility of alienating less academically rooted viewers, hence the need for constant self-mockery and deflation. "We’re in a different kind of England… The morphic resonances of some of the things that we’ve begun are beginning to come back and haunt us in a different way, a kind of suburbanised way," Kötting muses to his crew via walkie-talkie. "Everything around Maidstone is a parody. You’re gonna see pirate ships, you’re going to see castles pretending to be castles that are really tax offices." Their response is meant to dash all charges of pretentious self-involvement: "You think what? Over."
With his big head and reassuringly blokish presence astride an inefficient swan-shaped pedalo (borrowed from venerable Hastings seafront attraction, Swan Lake), Kötting reassures viewers nothing too pretentious is about to happen. Sticking to small rural towns achieves, like Gallivant’s coastline route, the soothing side-effect of keeping all potential unpleasantness off-camera: there are no signs of racial friction or economic dispossession here, no homeless drug addicts or other marginalised social members.
Indeed, Englishness remains disconcertingly, ill advisedly close to the ‘Little Britain’ eulogies of JB Priestley. Stylistically, much of Gallivant unfolded with Kötting’s finger on the fast-forward button, the jerky visuals exemplifying his musings on technology’s over-rapid march. Here, he favours long shots, some of which are allusive (mornings in the fog on the Thames that resemble Gainsborough canvases) and others merely symmetrically serviceable.
As in his earlier film, audio and video snippets from government-produced shorts of the '30s and '40s rest against chilly electronica, neatly in line with the effect produced by ‘hauntology’-minded electronic musicians like Mordant Music. London, unavoidably, resists this affirmation of cultural continuity.
Fuming over "the huge enclosures of the Olympic site", Kötting is denied permission to navigate the waters nearby, his journey ending with peevish justification for his preference for a relatively untroubled past alive in the countryside.
The madcap latest from Britain’s premiere psychogeographer and film artist.
A jolly, tin-pot Fitzcarraldo.
Misses a few socio-political tricks, but Kötting and Sinclair make for fine shipmates.