Interview | Andrew Kötting at St Leonards International Film Festival

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St Leonard’s International Film Festival
Blackmarket VIP, George St, Hastings
19-21th January

HUBUBINTHEBAOBABS – 1987 33 minutes
HOI POLLOI 1990 – 10 minutes
SMART ALEK 1993 – 18 minutes
JAUNT 1995 – 5 minutes
DONKEYHEAD 1998 – 4minutes
KINGDOMPROTISTA 2000 – 6 minutes
ME 1999 – 5minutes

In the seaside town of Hastings, in an old, old street in the old town, I climb up the stairs on a cold Sunday night to find myself in a large high room that I’m told is a former corn exchange. The walls and panels are painted black, like a club or a cinema. In this mysterious location I find a bar, a screen shadowed with the giant reels of the glory days of  and a Brazilian man (married to an Anglo-French artist) threading a projector with the spoils of research, community and positive action and with spools of a reflective, innovative film-maker known for incisive, post-modern modern filmmakers. This is a special retrospective of early works of Andrew Kötting, shown on celluloid by an expert projectionist, enthusiast and projectionist of avant-garde rarities, Mauricio Vincenzi.

This is the evening event of a community festival. A morning workshop saw many families from East Sussex working on a joint film, working directly on the stock in bleach and colour. Tonight this is screened with a surprise live improvised soundtrack as the immediate precursor to the main programme . . .

. . . which kicks off with his 1989 film, HUBUBINTHEBAOBABS (16mm, 1989, 35mins). A movie which peculiarly switches between Bolex shots of children in Madagascar, grinning and performing in front of the camera, beautifully washed in grainy grey, fluid as only young limbs and young minds can be, and the ravaged forests of the 1987 storm, figures moving in shamanic folk-loric staccato dance, wearing fish sandals and surreal costume.

Answering questions, Kötting comments on his memories. How he went to Madagascar as a young art graduate from the Slade, chasing his interest to explore the ritual of a very religious culture, where he perceived the importance of the dead to the living. In the drug-fuelled, artificial-consciousness-altered late years of the 1980s, the young man was hunting for a transcendental difference, a way of moving beyond suburban culture and the dominant television pop-culture of alternative Britain. Like the Beatles experiment in India, he was looking for a transformation to his own culture.

Back in the UK, in the turned up roots of the forest that circle South East London, he and his friends perform in the mud and the grass and the rural culture, screened to a soundtrack of folksong and layers of audio. Kötting was, he says, trying to connect this experience to the ideas he had encountered, and, it seems more literally, the observations of the behaviour of the people he had been surrounded by there. The greeting culture, the waving is performed by the costumed folk-characters, who gesture at the camera. This hand gesture, here one of blessing, returns in later films of Kötting in common urban cursing that drives the narrative. For now this is Kötting establishing his voice, his cinematic vocabulary, his world of spells and encounter in a friendly mode. Like a god in her benign aspect.

One thing I notice about Kötting’s work straight away is the outstanding visual quality. Not only the performance, but the composition, the choice of colour, the dance-like movement of camera and actor and mise-en-scene, it draws me in like Maya Deren’s dancing world. And so we go on, into more movies where movements and gesture, where mute actors and inconsequential gesture are articulating notions or at least appear to me. It’s convincing enough to keep us enthralled, or is that just the painterly camera rather than true intellectual interest?

I spoke to the filmmaker about BAOBABS and the rest of the programme:

This was an unusual opportunity to see a catalogue of your work in public, on celluloid. Do you think that this is an important way to view your work. How much does the materiality of this artistic process matter to you?

The evening was very inspiring for me. The films seem to have withstood the test of time. HUBUBINTHEBAOBABS was particularly ‘impressive’ – probably because of the sound which was VERY loud – but within the sound track were elements that I had forgotten and yet have become very familiar to the way in which I work nowadays. The collaging of both music and voice was a revelation, I hadn’t realised before how competent my shoddiness was in both mixing and finessing and yet despite this the sonic barrage was compelling and beguiling in places. I think a lot of the atmosphere from the evening was as a result of the materiality and clatter of celluloid running through the projector. The images were also delightful in their own way, carrying the scars and tell-tale signs of their age and previous projections.

You spoke eloquently about your interest in superstition and religious belief, and a seminal trip to Madagascar where you witnessed very different ritual concerning fate and the human body. Could you describe what you saw and what effect if had upon you? When you transplanted that immersive experience back to the UK, you tried to bridge the gap between what you witnessed in Madagascar and in London. Could you tell us about how you achieved a connection? On viewing the film about 30 years later how did your own work communicate with you? 

I was overwhelmed primarily by the landscape but also by the warmth of the people we met. The strange paradox and the symbiotic relationship between the taboo ridden Malagasy culture – FADY and the superstitious monotheistic belief systems in the form of Christianity was a revelation. Despite having experienced similar cultural fusions in South America several years earlier when I was travelling with Leila, the richness of these new images and sounds was impressive. I wanted to explore and connect the folkloric traditions of Madagascar with those of the British Isles by creating a collage of sound and pictures that would evoke an atmosphere of the two places and our experiences therein. With hindsight I think that this was perhaps my first foray into the ideas behind the notions of hauntology which has become a very important feature in my work, although at the time I had no idea that such a trope existed. The happenstancial superimpositioning of the English landscape with the Malagasy landscape encouraged this exploration to boot. So in this way the work communicated with me in an exhilarating way. Thirty five years later I can better articulate what I was doing back then but my intuitive methodology was writ large on the evening, which for me was a revelation. 

I was very moved by the film with Eden as a baby. It was delicate, poetic and the colours. In the makeshift cinema I found a mood of contemplation and heavenliness conveyed by the blue of the Pyrenees light. When the odd, clunky pram that had been conveying your baby Eden, crashed to its death at the end of the film (and I hope that I’m not going to spoil this film for anyone with giving away that ending any more than King Lear is spoiled by knowing its plot) I felt quite chilled, and so did at least one other mother in the audience. You told us before we saw the short film that Eden had been given only one year to live by the doctors and so this scene had a very ominous significance. Fortunately, life took its own path and Eden today is an ESTABLISHED ARTIST. The next film had a more conventional, organised narrative but colour was also a very important part, the oranges and browns summoning the decade of the 1970s in which the semi-autobiographical piece was set. Could you tell us something of your technical process in colour and mood for either films and reflect on their relative successes in your eyes.

The first film HOI POLLOI was all shot on Kodachrome super 8 stock which always had a vibrancy and density of colour which reminded me of technicolour. It was also the cheapest colour stock that you could buy at the time – now sadly discontinued – and the following film SMART ALEK, although shot on 16mm was processed to look as if the colours had been bleached out. I think the end result, also seen in the film thereafter, JAUNT, evokes an atmosphere of THE PAST, there is something nostalgic about the colours that was intentionally designed to represent ‘timesgone’ and the fading of memories or experiences from my backstory that informed the work. HOI POLLOI in particular was a drift diary which I created out of our somewhat absurd lives in the French Pyrenees. There was an urgency to the film conveyed in part by the dread that Eden’s life expectancy wasn’t good and Freudian ideas around the imminent loss of a child and the dread that that evokes. The film won prizes at several festivals and gave me the confidence to go on making work in a similar way, primarily by not using sync sound but more importantly it proved to be non-prophetic and Eden will be 31 in a few months’ time. She has also become the motor, muse and inspiration for much of my work.   

We were treated to an encore with ‘Me’. Violent, introspective and again with an incredibly important palette and aesthetic consciousness. The overt darkness of this piece was disturbing, with screen-inflicted self-concussion and the gobfulls of blood you let fall from your mouth, and felt very much connected to the self-mutilation  of some performance art by, say, Chris Burden. Were you aware of working in a tradition or was it more that you were connected to the expression of inner anguish or whatever you might call the troubles that led you to perform in film in this way?

Not necessarily a tradition but definitely carrying on a legacy of kindred spirits. I have been infected effected and affected by a plethora of practitioners throughout my career with people like Stuart Brisley, Joseph Beuys, Gina Pane, Marina Abramović, Prince Far I, Augustus Pablo, URoy, IRoy, David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer having had the earliest impact. I think a common thread that connects them all is a sense of atmosphere or taking the viewer to a place that they have not been before, the unfamiliar, whether it be intellectually, physically, emotionally, musically or mentally. They were all pushing at the perimeter fences of what might be possible, they were also all flawed and this in particular is what I embrace through my own troubles and anguishes. We are all approximations of the people that we want to be and we all make work which is an approximation of our ambitions, it is not an industrial process focused on churning out product moreover an artisanal and incomplete business but it is of course vital. 

Any autobiographical experience you want to reference as influential on your choices in movie-making?

The birth of Eden Rintoul McMillan Kötting on 6th April 1988 and the consummation of a relationship with Leila Dorcas McMillan in the early hours of a cold and damp evening on November 16th 1982. Perhaps also the loss of my virginity to Hastings beach on August 8th 1975 is worth noting…. 

For more information visit www.andrewkotting.com

Words and interview by Jude Cowan Montague.


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