Going for a swan

Andrew Kotting and Iain Sinclair in their swan pedalo
Andrew Kotting and Iain Sinclair in their swan pedalo

OF all the stories I wrote during my time at the Observer, one in particular stands out.

I first interviewed artist Andrew Kotting and psychogeographer/writer Iain Sinclair about their plan to travel in a swan pedalo from Hastings to Hackney nearly two years ago, and after the article was published many people asked me if it was some kind of hoax.

But the pair were deadly serious and duly spent four weeks travelling the 160 miles to the Olympic site as a ‘a dada performance...an artistically riotous response to the corporate spirit dominating London in Olympic year’.

With the film of their extraordinary adventure released last Friday, I spoke to them at a Soho cinema last week.

“My wife has heard many completely insane projects but she did say she thought I had gone too far this time,” Iain said. “But it’s the basic thematic structure of The Odyssey, the beginning of modernism – the return home to a home that may or may not be there. It was an important project for me to see if Hackney was still there and what form it took.”

They both now live in St Leonards, but it was more than convenience that made it a good starting point.

“The two geographies are intimately connected. The old Hackney of poverty and anarchy has drifted down towards Hastings, whereas Hackney is now a virtual Wizard of Oz city of supermalls and surveillance.”

It was the inherent echoes of his east London background that first drew Iain to 1066 Country: “When I first went there a real sense of old Hackney-on-Sea mix of bohemians, drug survivalists, economic migrants, a glut of teenage mums that had been expelled from places like Hackney, rogue landlords” – and Andrew, who moved from Deptford agrees: “It was wonderfully dishevelled.”

The idea of journeys have both been central to the pair’s previous work, but it was their new hometown that suggested the best mode of transport for this particular quest. Having considered a few ideas for a while, it was when Andrew was having lunch next to Hastings’ swan pedalo lake that the Eureka moment occurred.

“Hastings was home to these unusual characters like Duvet Man and a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who just sort of melted into the landscape and the inner city canal system is populated by strange swans in pairs who haunt the most unlikely parts of London. There’s a strange symbiosis,” Iain explained.

The logistics of the challenge were all part of the fun. “We both like difficulty,” Andrew said. “We have never been comfortable with the comfortable. When you hear people saying you can’t do it because of the tides or the rivers that tightens up the trousers.”

The pedalo was a ‘great leveller’ according to Andrew, bringing together ‘philosophers, ecologists and madmen’. “There was a ridiculousness to it that drew people in, they could see there was buffoonery afoot. The only drama we had came from our health and safety team until they realised we were going to be okay. We had to invent some, there’s one swear word in the film when we were going under a bridge but that was reverse engineered – I added that in in the edit.

“For an authentic Homeric version I thought we needed someone who hates swans throwing stones at us like a Cyclops from the Isle of Grain,” Iain adds.

They were joined by some guest-pedallers along the way including comedian Stewart Lee, iconic comic book author Alan Moore and neuroscientist Dr Mark Lythgoe. Some of the film’s most memorable scenes involve the afternoon Stewart and Alan spent together on the swan.

Andrew said: “Alan Moore is a friend of Iain’s and is completely locked into Northampton and his whole mythology is there so drawing him into London occasionally releases a whole new chain of stuff from him. He has never been on a pedalo, he’s hardly been on the water. Stewart Lee was really drawn to the absurdity of the project.”

They credit producer Lisa Marie Russo for turning what was, and is a great sprawling set of ideas into a film and there’s a book, live talks and an exhibition that go with the project. Andrew spent months editing the footage into a coherent whole, building on the way of working he developed on films like Gallivant.

“It could have become hugely complex but Andrew made the decision to respect a linear continuity, it’s very faithful to the way we pedalled it,” although there are some nicely surreal touches sprinkled throughout the piece.

They’re clearly proud of the final piece though as ‘an antidote to the hubris’ of the Olympics although one final idea remains unrealised. Andrew’s initial plan that Edith (the pedalo, named after Edith Swan-Neck King Harold’s mistress) would be returned to the Hastings amusement park strapped to a Chinook helicopter with them sitting in their pedalling positions is at this stage unlikely. Andrew said: “I thought after this wonderful event we could have a kind of homecoming, a separate part of the performance.

“If we had some budget or could find someone who has a helicopter then maybe it could still happen...” he says wistfully. Iain’s wife may raise an eyebrow, but don’t put it past these two supreme schemers.

l Rob is now editor of www.itsnicethat.com.