When planning a conference at Lancaster University on Mobilities Studies a couple of years ago, I asked the artist-film-maker Andrew Kötting to come and speak about his work as the closing plenary, and he agreed to screen his newest film, Edith Walks (2017) and do a Q and A with me and Brian Baker. While it was a fitting conclusion to the conference, it was also a chance for me to meet one of my favourite directors in person. This week he came back up to Lancaster from his home in Hastings to talk to our students about his work as part of a seminar series on careers in the arts, and gave a fascinating talk about his methods and personal history, showing clips and short films as well as attending a rare screening of his latest, apocalyptic feature film, Lek and the Dogs (2018).

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  • Dudley Sutton (left) with Andrew Kötting on the set of This Filthy Earth.

Andrew is a singular film-maker whose work I’ve followed since seeing his first major film, Gallivant, in Manchester in the 1990s, an entropic road movie depicting a journey around Britain with his grandmother Gladys and daughter Eden. One of the things I find inspiring about his work, despite its narrative density and abstraction, is its openness. While his films are exceptionally beautiful in their blending of Super8, 16mm and 35mm film with digital video and iphone footage, nevertheless their deceptive casualness and thrift gives you the sense that you could make films too; it is an anarchic aesthetic in which minimal resources are no obstacle and which puts the lie to what the New American Cinema group called the ‘Budget myth’. In this respect he has much in common with Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas or Derek Jarman, a film-maker he describes as ‘Proof positive and evidence of a commitment to the experiment outside of the industrialized pantomime’.

 

Outlining the underlying principles of his work in the talk, Andrew reflected on the importance of punk (which gives permission to the untrained outsider to make art), and an impulse to attack the pretentiousness of gallery-based art and the work of ‘land artists’ like Richard Long (which motivated his student film, Klipperty Klopp (1984)). He described his ‘magpie process’ as a film-maker, an approach that is driven by collage, and underpinned throughout by collaboration. He discussed the importance of an openness to accident and ‘happenstance’ as aspects of the creative process, and his growing sense that ‘reverse engineering’, assembling a film through editing, is more important to his film-making than working from a script.

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After the talk, Andrew gave me a copy of his latest book, which is about three features he describes as the Earthworks trilogy, Lek and the Dogs, Ivul (2009) and the Emile Zola adaptation, This Filthy Earth (2001), films that are linked by the character of Lek (played in all three by actor Xavier Tchili), as well as by their visual and thematic preoccupation with dirt. He has produced a number of these books which are very different from typical ‘making-of’ books or film-makers’ diaries, and which exist as artworks independently of the films they relate to. Instead they are like remixes of the films, demonstrating that a film is just one of many configurations in which the ideas and source materials can be arranged. They sit alongside several records that Andrew (an inveterate punk) has produced from film soundtracks. Again, these are not so much conventional soundtrack recordings as musique-concrète collages of speech, field recordings and music that offer alternative perspectives on the material generated during the preparation and production of the films.

 

Earthworks Bookwork exemplifies the bricolage principle, gathering together on its mud-spattered, finger-marked pages excerpts from scripts, production diaries, drawings, engravings, stills, production photographs, sketchbook pages, flyers, maps, book jackets, poetry, quotations and essays by other writers – including his regular collaborator Iain Sinclair – on Andrew’s work. It reveals the phenomenal amount of labour that goes into making any film, but also gives a strong sense that films are a minor part of his creative activity. It is a portrait of a magpie artist who is continually gathering, dismantling, recombining, layering and reworking material, looking all the time for the flash or resonance of a surprising, serendipitous connection.

 

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to the LP, Songs for Drella (1990), the moving elegy for Andy Warhol recorded by proto-punks Lou Reed and John Cale after Warhol’s death. I bought the record when I was an art student and found the song ‘Work’ particularly inspiring. In the song, Reed recalls Warhol instructing his younger self to work harder: ‘No matter what I did it never seemed enough. He said I was lazy, I said I was young. He said, “How many songs did you write?”. I’d written zero. I lied and said, “Ten”. “You won’t be young forever. You should have written fifteen.”’ The refrain of the song is Warhol’s maxim, ‘It’s just work. All that matters is work.’ For Warhol, this was a matter of morality and self-improvement, of aspiration to financial success and celebrity as well as aspiration to the emotionally cool status of an industrial machine. However, what is also striking about Andrew’s output is a similar insistence that art – whether it takes the form of earthwork, bookwork, or filmwork – is always a matter of sustained, dirty work.

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Included in Earthworks Bookwork is a 16-point manifesto from 2001 stipulating, among other things, ‘Only the director to handle dead animals and dead animal inner parts’, ‘The editing process should be as sculptural as possible, where edit lists are ignored and sound is treated with as much respect as picture’, ‘The local community should always be involved with the filmmaking process’, ‘The shoot should always prove a physical and athletic challenge rather than just an aesthetic one’, and ‘The director should dig like an archaeologist to get to the heart of the matter’. In a perfect crystallisation of the idea that the creative process is a matter of labour, he titles it, ‘The Earthouse Manifesto’, emphasizing the parallels between artwork and (e)art(h)work, while carefully retaining a crucial, critical distance from the pretensions and detachment of arthouse cinema.

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