Andrew Kötting talks to Gary Thomas
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Andrew Kötting talks to Gary Thomas
Andrew Kotting Photo: Aonymous Bosch

Andrew Kotting Photo: Aonymous Bosch

Ivul opens the UK at the Curzon Renoir, London, on Friday, 23 July 2010.

Off Ground He, a multi-screen installation, is showing at The Gallery, Sketch, 9 Conduit Street, London W1, from 5 June to 17 July 2010.

We’ve known each other quite a while…

1874 we first met.

Well, 1988.

You were a skinhead and I had an Afro and you kept chasing me down Lewisham High Street… I think we might need to edit this…

I remember the first communication I ever got from you. I’d seen Hub Bub in the Baöbabs at your Slade graduation show, and selected it for a student film festival. You dropped off the print with a note signed ‘Kisses and blow jobs, Andrew’.

And that was to you before I even knew you?

That was to me before you even knew me.

But I’d obviously guessed that you were a bit away-with-the-fairies.

Well, my initial response to the memory might have been “I’m still waiting.”  But actually it’s, “In your dreams Andrew, in your dreams…”

Well we’re both too old now. Truth be known.

You were already quite old when you left The Slade! You were 30? I wondered what you had done – you went to Ravensbourne but what about your 20s. Not to have gone straight from school to Art School.

I was a jack of all trades, master of none. I spent time in Scandinavia working as a lumberjack. The title of my Slade show was Jack of All Trades Master of None in the Land of Man-eating Trees. That was an homage to Madagascar which is where I shot a lot of Hub Bub in the Baöbabs.

The Victorians referred to it as the ‘land of man eating trees’ because there were trees there that a lot of the indigenous population were then still making child sacrifices to. Many women if they were giving birth to baby girls and they were born on a Thursday in a month with a letter ‘r’ in it – that kind of thing – then they would have to commit the child to the landscape. And I found that very, very mysterious.

I stumbled across some research in fact in Senate House Library before I went to Madagascar. It’s called The Fady system.  A kind of Shamanistic ex voto – really like an offering to the landscape. I loved the idea of it and there’s something about me trying to commit myself to the landscape over the years. It seemed to tap in with a lot of my kind of philosophies, a lot of my interests at the time and so I made this pilgrimage to Madagascar.

It’s only now with hindsight that I kind of look back at Hub Bub in the Baöbabs and see it in the context of this new film, which is also a film dealing with trees and mythology, tree culture and the notions of the Pyrenean landscape in particular and the kind of fecundness of the arboreal world down there. All those things at the time seemed really important to me and…

And you’d been a lumberjack…

In Finland. Truth be known I had two days on the chainsaws and then I was moved indoors to the factory. It wasn’t safe. I didn’t know what I was doing. So I pulled levers for another ten months and then went to a sister company in Sweden. Eventually I came back to London to be a scrap metal dealer.

I used to do a lot of scrap metal’ing in and around South East London. Painter and Decorator. I had my own business. Everything was very physical, corporeal, hands-on.

And at the same time I was part of a performance duo called Being Karnal. We supported The Weathergirls down at The Fridge in Brixton.

I was out ducking and diving and in a way I was just stalling the whole idea of going to The Slade. I did my post-graduate degree quite late, I was 27 or 28.  And I was very reluctant, very anti the whole world of academia, which if you think of the state I’ve got myself into recently, it’s ironic.

How did you find it when you got there?

I was a big fan of a Stuart Brisley and I was very familiar with the work of Bruce Nauman, a piece that you might be familiar with called Bouncing Balls – close-ups of his testicles in extreme slow motion.

And I went back and rediscovered a lot of what was going on within the Dada movement.  It just seemed to be a lot of fun.  And I suddenly thought, “Well I don’t have to be too serious about this stuff.”  And landscape wise, it was Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. I liked what they were doing but it always felt really dry. And it was missing spunk, it was missing some uncontrolled energy. It was missing the berserk.

I think most of my practice is informed by the berserk – controlled berserk in one way or another. Yes.

As well as what might be called berserk elements, throughout your work there’s the landscape, and also a sense of a family. And there’s eccentricity and humour. You’re almost invariably described as British and eccentric. How grating does that get?

When I’m abroad it’s not too bad. I can play up to it.  And especially in France, it’s a tag that they use a lot.

But I don’t know that it’s eccentricity. I was very familiar with Bob Godfrey’s work. The Goons and Monty Python,  The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film and Vic and Bob maybe. There seems to be a kind of lineage, a bloodline.

They’re kindred spirits I can relate to and I feel that there’s an eccentricity within what they all do.  But it’s one of those tags, one of those boxes, that’s quite easy to put you in, especially if you’re navigating between different genres or you’re fucking around with different mediums and formats, then, as if by definition, people say you’re eccentric.

And I kind of enjoyed, and may be still enjoy, playing to the gallery in that sense. It still informs the work for sure.

And family, in the sense of working with people like Nick Gordon Smith and Gary Parker shooting work for many years. And of course your real family, Gladys your grandmother and your daughter Eden in Gallivant, and Mapping Perception, a collaboration with Eden.

I wanted to ask about Eden in particular. She has Joubert’s Syndrome, and as a father, is there perhaps a different kind of intensity to your relationship, that has become incorporated into your work?

Absolutely yes. I mean, she’s the very fabric of my life. And in a way I’ve always turned the lens, the gaze, back in on myself and what I do.

Even at The Slade, the work was very autobiographical. I always pulled on my own experiences – ego probably. Probably just became slightly too self obsessed. But when Eden was born, she’s severely disabled and the way in which she processes things is fascinating to me. She’s completely beguiling and infuriating and full of all those paradoxes. As a parent, regardless of disability, you nurture your offspring and you commit to them. And with her, she was more dependent on that commitment, but I think in turn it just helped keep me sane.

To be honest, my sanity was always a little bit precarious and I think when she was born it gave me and Leila, her mother, a point of focus that was above and beyond our own particular needs. And in fact even became the very glue to our relationship quite often.

And I think, because I was still obsessed with travelling and the great outdoors, the landscape and I guess too selfish to stop making work and concentrate on her as just the parent, I found a way of involving her and engaging her with my work. Hoi Polloi was just a diary – an early piece of work that was at the same time a strange testament to her life expectancy. I was convinced that, for all the research I’d done, she wouldn’t be alive by the time I finished the Slade – by the time she became one year old. But she carried on living, and that film is a testament to our early years down in the Pyrenees.

By the time I made Gallivant she was eight and I was spending a lot of time with my grandmother, who had just lost her husband, my grandfather. And I saw the relationship between my grandmother and Eden something really pure, really interesting – eccentric in many ways. And me nurturing the eccentricities of my grandmother and of Eden and me – it became a way of working that I was really comfortable with.

There was something uncomfortable for other people. Quite often there is when you’re working with members of the public and there is no script and you’re improvising. And I bring my own particular wants and my own bag of curiosities to a public space in my obsession with performance and happenings. I like to kind of fuck around with ‘reality’.  But if you’re doing that within a public space and you’re doing it with somebody that’s very old and you’re doing it with somebody that’s clearly severely disabled, the whole thing gets very interesting.

It’s that kind of alchemy. You’re chucking stuff at it and you don’t really know what’s going to come out of it. And I would never really worry about too much of that. It never became a hang-up. I wasn’t a structuralist. I didn’t want to control everything, the material. I didn’t want to control the lack of sound. I didn’t want to control everything.

I was far more interested in just letting things happen.

As I’ve grown older, I love the structuralists. But then of course you sight somebody like John Smith who I thought was a man barking up a very similar tree. Very much in control of his medium and I love his work, and Nick Gordon Smith’s early films.

But I kind of felt I was out there with no roadmap but I intuitively felt that Eden belonged to what I was doing and it kept me sane. Because then I wasn’t disappearing to make feature films. I had offers and I had an agent. And when I was down in the Pyrenees with Eden I was offered pop videos for Suede, Everything But The Girl, Cocteau Twins. I’d send back little treatments and then they’d say, “Right we need you back here next week and we’re going to be doing a recce and we hope to be shooting the week after. And you’re going to get a couple of grand for doing it.”

But to leave Leila and Eden in the Pyrenees alone to come back to do a jobbing piece of work suddenly didn’t seem that significant… As a result I carried on shooting other material and – through the Arts Council and people like David Curtis and yourself – a commitment to the waywardness of what I was doing.

I remember – I think when you were developing Gallivant – you came in and showed us a tape of Me, which is you bashing your head against a stone wall in a derelict house. Until you bleed. It’s perhaps a bit of a performance art trope, but nevertheless an extraordinarily powerful thing to see someone do – a very private kind of performance moment that you’d recorded – and a sense of being something close to madness… What was happening then?

I’d been in the edit suite trying to process, trying to edit, so much material for Gallivant without a script and without a structure. In the end we just thought, “Right, fine we began at Bexhill-on-Sea and we’re going to end at Bexhill-on-Sea.”  And all the footage that you see is just about chronologically kind of correct and accounted for.

But I had no idea how to manage that bigger project and it was just driving me mad, quite literally. And this hard-core experience of echolalia, you know listening to myself, again looking at images of Gladys and Eden, trying to make sense of it. Working with an editor who would always say, “OK, take time out – you need to step away from the thing.”  But every piece of work I’ve ever made now, with hindsight again, I know you have to go through that kind of madness.

You have to really enter into that space. And it’s the first thing I’d ever done digitally so being able to listen to all the wild interviews I’d had with members of the public. Trying to make sense of that much material just drove me to the edge and then into the abyss.

And at the same time, Eden’s mortality was an issue again. And thinking about that made me very melancholic and incredibly moribund. But I wallow in that, and I think now I understand that that’s that dark place that I have to go to make the work. It’s now become very familiar, and within that dark place there is still, there is yet humour.

Does humour, for one thing, help make it palatable?

It’s the icing on top of a very, very dark cake!

Well, it’s the universal human condition, but particularly for you, where does that pain come from?

There’s this kind of strange maxim in a way – that I’m never comfortable with the comfortable. I enjoy being uncomfortable. And I think that traverses pretty much everything, including my intellectual abilities. I find myself now as a professor – and I feel like an interloper.

I’ve swam the Channel, yet I’ve felt inadequate as a swimmer. And as a parent I feel inadequate.

The extreme physical thing… you used to box as well… the questions of masculinity in your work…

There’s a machismo to it but I think it’s more of an exploration. Looking at what you can get away with and beyond. And sometimes, endurance. I think it goes back to Stuart Brisley in a strange way. I was really impressed with the film that he did with George Saxon – he’s vomiting, he’s drunk a saline solution. There seemed to be something very symbolic of that act.

And the same with Stelarc – I remember seeing a suspension that he was doing at the Haywood Gallery – his skin, his flesh, pierced, and he’s suspended by hooks and high tension wires and he’s 100 feet above the ground and hanging off a crane. And I could really relate to that, I could just relate to the corporeality of that. Again to go back to that word – and it is something that, when I’m outside in the landscape… it needs to be raining, it needs to be cold, it needs to be difficult. And then I’m happy. I feel as if I’m capturing something within the ‘elemental’ that is important and significant. And it probably is something that comes with maturity… age.

Ivul, Andrew Kötting

Ivul, Andrew Kötting

Which brings us up to date with Ivul – which I think is certainly a mature work. I couldn’t quite believe how much I loved the film – and I think it’s as though all that sort of terror and pain and edginess is distilled. And it’s not an eccentrically British film. It’s not eccentric at all.

It’s not a French film either. It may feel French to a British audience. It’s in French, but for the last 20 minutes of the film there’s no dialogue… which is very anti-French. A French film without dialogue is almost unheard of.

Monsieur Hulot?

But that’s a comedy.

And Ivul isn’t a comedy?

No. Not really. I mean, Ivul gets his knob out, and has it massaged by his wife.

That wasn’t funny at all!

There’s a hybrid perversity to it. I think we had this conversation many years ago about This Filthy Earth. And I think if I’d made that film in Hungarian and not in English and people had discovered it and then realised I’d made it, they might have forgiven maybe its berserk waywardness and that it was slightly out of control.

In a way, they seem to be doing that with Ivul. I was very apprehensive, very anxious about showing the film to people. I feel as if it may have been sent through a cipher that just isn’t me. I’ve been a little bit more understanding of and listening of the team – the people that I collaborated with.

And I think the producers – in particular the Swiss and the French – were a lot more ‘controlling’ of the edit than I’d been used to. We were having many issues around there being a need to make sense of characters’ motivations. They seem to be a lot more conventional and clichéd and classically geared, in terms of the storytelling within it. And therefore the passages of waywardness – the archive and so on – are for me more interesting possibly. They wanted that to be controlled, structured and comprehensible and I was very resistant to that initially, until I was feeling very vulnerable.

And we did have a big crisis about this time last year where I kind of let go a little bit. I let go of what I had in my mind’s eye. I don’t have a template ­– for me the edit process is very sculptural. It’s trial and error. And it goes back to this notion of alchemy.

And I’m working with sound at the same time, which is quite rare in feature films. And the music might actually inform a whole passage where I don’t really care about where the story’s going to go. It’s about the feeling; it’s about something that is implied through the sound/image correlation that takes you somewhere that is unfamiliar, cinematically.

And those moments, those passages, I adore. I’m very proud of all the work. You could zoom in on probably most scenes, most sequences in any film I’ve ever made, and I’ve really enjoyed, and will stand by them. But with a feature film you have to sustain people’s interest on a grander more coherent scale. And it’s judged on a very different kind of stage: there’s a very different gaze on the film.

Do you think that way of working with the producers helped?

I don’t know. I’m very pleased that I finished the film, and that the journey was worthwhile.  And I think I learnt a little bit more about humility and listening to other people.

And because the French language is, was, a barrier and the nuances of performance sometimes I might miss. So my hands were tied in some of the takes that I was choosing, where they said, “Well it doesn’t feel right.”  And I’d say, “Well why?”  The performance looks and feels brilliant to me but then they would explain that perhaps a bit of the dialogue was incorrect.

So in the end I kind of stripped out most of the dialogue for the last 20 minutes. I got my own way!

But that last 20 minutes works because you’ve had that measure and balance – that tension between you and what you might call convention.  I thought it worked really well.

Even the caravan, even the climax? Because that still infuriates me. I kind of never believed it, you know but maybe I was too close to it. The burning. The climatic scene in the caravan.

That isn’t in your script?

It’s in my script, but I just never felt that it was realised as ferociously or as terribly as perhaps it could have been.  But then in a way it becomes a little bit more elegiac I think.

His passage to the higher ground to the final sequence, when you see him on top of Montségur makes more sense.

Have you read what Variety said? It starts, “After he’s caught fingering his own sister….”

Yes, it was a bit rude wasn’t it.

Well, it’s crude, and it doesn’t event happen in the film.

No. She demands that he French kisses her navel.

And what could be more natural! And Ivul is about family again, and nature. And the second in a trilogy?

The disintegration of a family, and yes, it was always designed as part of a trilogy. The third part will be set underneath the ground. It was probably halfway through the writing of This Filthy Earth. I love the character of Lek, who’s this kind of mysterious presence. He doesn’t really have a voice in Filthy Earth. And he doesn’t have a voice in this – Lek, played by Xavier Tchili, in Ivul, is the same character as in This Filthy Earth. And he reappears in the final part of the trilogy. I’m in the process of drafting some loose ideas around a story that takes place literally underneath the ground.

And is that Lek’s story?

It would be… Lek would have a voice. He’d find a voice.

My friend Matt Hulse – a wonderful filmmaker – came down and spent the last ten days in the French Pyrenees and made Ivul Unmade – a sort of ‘making of’. And he took Xavier aside, and Xavier has this voice and it’s French and it’s like a rap.

It’s an amazing piece of automatic prose that he delivers. He kind of sums up the making of Ivul and the story of Lek – the story of his own character in a kind of rant which lasts for two minutes.  And it’s absolutely exhilarating.  It’s wonderful.  And I think when he was providing that bit of soundtrack for Matt I heard him and I just thought, “That’s what I need for the final part.” So really, the final part of the trilogy would be Lek entering the underworld and reconnecting with some of the characters – Jean-Luc Bideau from this film, Dudley Sutton, Rebecca Palmer and Shane Attwooll from This Filthy Earth.  And he’ll be travelling into the underworld but meeting these people as a kind of Master of Ceremonies almost. A reflection on the other two pieces of work.

How long does it take you to write a script?  How does that process happen?

This Filthy Earth and Ivul are the only feature length scripts I’ve ever written and both were collaborations. The first with Sean Lock – we spent almost a year honing that, getting it right, backwards and forwards, just the two of us in a studio learning about each other and learning about writing.

A couple of months into that I got this commission from BBC Scotland to write what was to become Ivul, but which was then called Off Ground He. I knew that I wasn’t in a position to attack that on my own either, and there were two young Oxbridge graduates that were working with the producer Ben Woolford at Tall Stories – Andy Mitchell and John Cheetham. So we then had this kind of threesome, and they were young, and I would just chuck ideas around about this story that I wanted to tell, and they would come back with drafts.

There was a kind of six-hour version for the BBC. They were talking about turning it into a three-part TV drama.  And we’d mooted the idea of Anthony Hopkins in the lead role and Tilda Swinton playing the part of the mother.

With Aurelia Petit I think I found an actress that is very, very close in her sensibilities as an actress to that of Tilda Swinton, whom I would love to have worked with. But that took about another year to complete. And eventually it petered out and went into turnaround and was jettisoned by the BBC when they went digital. And I thought, “Oh great, that’s the end of that fucking shenanigans. It’s all over.”

But Émilie Blézat, the French producer, got excited about it and I then spent another year on my own going back to the script and trying to, well transpose the story. Because initially it was going to be shot on the Island of Jura up in Scotland and I had to transplant the story to a kind of French backwater, a Pyrenean landscape. But somewhere that was familiar to me and that took about another year. So yes the last stretch on Ivul was very much a kind of labour of love. But at least by then I knew that there was a chance it might get made. So there was a four-year hiatus after that first year.

Well you’ve made three feature films plus In the Wake of a Deadad, which is short feature length… and whilst that’s not prolific on the one hand, on the other hand, you work consistently and you’re one of less than a handful of British filmmakers – certainly of the  experimental kind – who have made any features, let alone three. And you’ve sustained a career over a period of 25, 30 years. You’re now kind of an elder statesman! How do you do that?

How do you do it?

Our readers would like to know how do you do that.

It’s like spinning plates and provided you’ve got enough of them in the air and you know that they’re going to start careering and breaking. I don’t know, I don’t… I find it very difficult not to be working.

My younger brother’s a writer – always taking the piss about, “Oh you’re always working.  You can’t go to the cinema, you can’t go to the gallery, you can’t even sit on a beach without actually making your own work…”

I can’t not be making work.

And I love the kind of multifarious nature of my outbursts, my output if you like. Because if I’m not making films then I’m making performance. If I’m not making performance it might be music, it might be installations and also teaching. I guess for the last ten years one of the things that has helped is the teaching. It’s paid the bills, you know it’s really paid the bills. I’ve only ever been a part-time lecturer. But it kind of keeps you in touch in a strange way, and I found that really inspiring, rewarding, satisfying and that’s helped, you know, that’s helped me through some really difficult times.

Not so much financially… we’re pretty frugal, and having this Pyrenean hidey-hole, bolt hole – that really is a place that I go to write and to ‘be’ – blimey.  And it’s a life place that is also very elemental – it’s corporeal and scratchy and damp and satisfying. And I think that this type of alter-existence feeds me spiritually to come back to this country and to carry on doing the odds and sods that I do.

And practically, Ivul was made with French/Swiss money? Is it harder to make films in the UK than in other countries, and what would you like people to do to make it easier?

Keep it difficult.

I think in terms of feature films, I was lucky enough to have both This Filthy Earth, and Gallivant developed as scripts. And I was very privileged, very lucky to have them developed by the BBC and the Arts Council and so on.

The climate for this kind of work is always going to be difficult and I understand that.  But therefore it means that you had to work that little bit harder or you had to convince people that are going to be collaborating with you that they need to believe in what you’re doing.

And as a result things become a lot more personal, a lot more kind of committed. And you don’t then start thinking about the hours you’ve put into the project or who’s going to pay for your supper that evening or who’s going to reimburse my fares to travel to France backwards and forwards for three years. It goes out the window and you find yourself on this trajectory, on this desire to make a piece of work. And if it means that you’ve got to go to France and if it then means you have to have meetings in Switzerland to convince funders over there that it’s worth taking a punt on – then that’s what you do.

I don’t know enough about the systems over there to know whether it’s harder or easier. I guess in France it’s easier, albeit that my French producer is still finding it a big struggle to raise money for her projects. But it was her commitment, it was her fearlessness, bloody mindedness that meant that Ivul got to see the light of day.

You know, the climate is difficult. It always has been difficult. Wind in your ears and piss in your face. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

  1. Matt Hulse says:

    I screw my little head off to Mr Kotting. Keep going man.

  2. abina manning says:

    Beautiful interview. Can’t wait to see Ivul.

  3. Gareth Evans says:

    Go Andrew, Go Gary, two stalwarts, pivots, hinges, doorways, thresholds and their arriving place. Excellent. Thank You.

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