Perfectly timed for the arrival of the Olympics, an event even the most hardened Londoners are sick to the back teeth of before it has even begun, this collaboration between artist, filmmaker and restless rambler Andrew Kötting and writer, cultural investigator and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair is a match made in heaven. Kindred spirits who both share a physical and spiritual attachment with the South Coast, the pair first met when Sinclair reviewed Kí¶tting’s Gallivant for Sight & Sound and then maintained a correspondence before collaborating, tentatively, on the filmmaker’s cross-channel Offshore.
In many ways a summation of the themes and practices that have acted as signposts in their respective careers, the film, commissioned as part of Abandon Normal Devices, is a travelogue-cum-odyssey of suitably Olympian ambition as the two fearless explorers and a stolen plastic swan pedalo christened ‘Edith’ (named after the ancient English queen Edith Swan-Neck, whose statue can be seen at the Hastings suburb of Bulverhythe, cradling the dying King Harold after the Battle of Hastings) travel Jerome K. Jerome-style on the waterways of south-east England to the riverside fortress that will become East London’s Olympic 2012 site.
Having aborted several attempts to pen a synopsis, here is the filmmaker himself on the kernel of Swandown: ‘For four weeks throughout the months of September and October 2011 Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair pedalled a plastic swan over 160 miles from the seaside in Hastings to Hackney in East London. They drank 84 litres of water, 2 bottles of whisky, 4 bottles of wine and 24 cans of special brew. They got through 8 pairs of sunglasses, a handmade suit, a pair of walking boots and a camper van. Andrew Kötting wore the same clothes throughout. Iain Sinclair was changed regularly. They met all sorts en route, from the hoi polloi to the hoity toity, from the very old to the very young, with the pedalo acting as catalyst and magnet. Sometimes they were accompanied by invited guest pedallers - sage and comics creator Alan Moore, comedian and cultural commentator Stewart Lee, actor Dudley Sutton [who appeared in Kötting’s Emile Zola-inspired second feature This Filthy Earth], neuroscientist Dr Mark Lythgoe and artist Marcia Farquhar.’
A liquid road movie evocative of Gallivant, which Swandown frequently echoes, it also conjures the ghost of Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, playfully referenced via audio excerpts of Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams. Shots of the two self-confessed ‘codgers’ strenuously dragging their vessel across fields and roads to the next stretch of water add to the Herzogian tone. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is another frame of reference. I was also, if a little perversely, reminded of John Huston’s The African Queen. For its creator, the endeavour also acts as a tribute to the acclaimed performer, traveller and conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who in 1975 was lost at sea attempting to cross the Atlantic in a pocket cruiser. ‘Swandown was always meant to be a homage to him and the ridiculousness of his quest,’ comments Kötting.
Jovially described by Sinclair as ‘a blend of Benny Hill, Stan Brakhage and Joseph Beuys’, Kötting adopts the role of athlete, fool and visionary, larking about and cheerfully interacting with the flotsam and jetsam of British life. He is both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The director suffers for his art, contracting trench foot from his waterlogged boots and a nasty leg infection from a dog encountered en route. Sinclair is cast in the role of the cynical, weary, literary, philosophising wordsmith. Will Self in Shooting Stars in essence. The blend is perfect.
During their journey our intrepid, increasingly stiff-legged Marco Polos listen to the ambient echoes of British culture (historical, literary, political and depicted through Super 8 and archive newsreel footage from the South East Film and Video archive as well as a re-enactment of Shakespeare’s Ophelia as depicted in Millais’s pre-Raphaelite painting) and tune in - like ‘flesh radios’, as Sinclair says, channelling the cultural unconscious - to the secret voices of England today and yesterday. The result is a factual, frolicsome and fun film/text/Dada performance piece that offers an artistically riotous response to the corporate spirit dominating London in Olympics year. As Stewart Lee comments, ‘Iain Sinclair hates the Olympics. He doesn’t think anything should happen in Hackney without his permission’.
The two key points on the Swandown itinerary are its start and end: Hastings (from where ‘Edith’ originates and the actual physical launch point of the trip, a disastrous and inauspicious event hilariously captured on camera) and Hackney, homes to Kötting and Sinclair respectively. ‘The two geographies are intimately connected,’ says Sinclair - ever since a chunk of Hackney’s old artistic-bohemian population moved down to the South Coast, in search of freedom, inspiration and an affordable cost of living. ‘The old Hackney of anarchy and poverty has drifted down towards Hastings, whereas Hackney is now a virtual Wizard of Oz city of supermalls and surveillance. We had the idea of doing an anti-project, against the global corporate entities of the huge projects being done in Hackney in the name of the Olympics.’
Sadly, Sinclair’s commitments force him to abort the voyage before the Olympian Citadel is breached, leaving Kötting to pedal the final leg of the journey alone. The tone of the film becomes ever more melancholy as rural idyll gives way to urbanisation (a river littered with rubbish, frequent shouts of abuse rather than encouragement from passers-by and fellow river-dwellers) and a sporting project ensnared in bureaucracy, security and secrecy. The somewhat downbeat conclusion, however, never for a moment overshadows the project’s impish inquisitiveness and quintessential Englishness. Featuring many of Andrew Kötting’s long-time collaborators, including musician Jem Finer, cinematographer Nick Gordon-Smith and sound recordist Philippe Ciompi, this is an enduring and entertaining male buddy movie the likes of which we haven’t seen before.