Documentary Swandown charts journey to Olympic village by swan pedalo
Psychogeographer Iain Sinclair's journey questions worth of Olympics project
In Swandown, acclaimed author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair embarks on a trip from Hastings to the Olympic Stadium in a swan pedalo. Gail Tolley speaks to him about his absurdist exorcism of the Olympic project.
Part way through Swandown, comedian Stewart Lee and comic book writer Alan Moore are sat in a swan pedalo on a canal somewhere in Kent. The two are discussing what the film they’re both appearing in is all about. “You know Iain Sinclair is obsessed with the Olympics?,’ Lee says. ‘He hates the Olympics more than anything … this is what this is about I think …’
It’s one of the few times the Olympics is actually mentioned in Swandown, a documentary made by experimental filmmaker Andrew Kotting and writer Iain Sinclair, but in many ways Stewart Lee is spot on.
Swandown traces Kotting and Sinclair’s journey from Hastings on the South coast of England up through the waterways of Kent to East London and specifically to the Olympic Stadium. This is no ordinary trip though – the entire journey is done in a swan pedalo, stealthily freed from the seaside resort, launched into the English Channel and then pedalled by the pair (and some of their friends en route) along rivers and canals towards the capital.
The film has Andrew Kotting’s signature all over it: it mixes visual absurdity with ideas of local identity and landscape to create a playful and at times melancholic work that recalls his earlier film Gallivant – a gloriously idiosyncratic road trip around the coast of the UK with his grandmother and daughter in tow.
The key difference here is his collaboration with Sinclair, whose work is similarly concerned with place and landscape and has in the past also embarked on ambitious projects (in his book London Orbital Sinclair set out on a series of walks tracing the outline of the M25 motorway).
Initially, though, Sinclair had Kotting in mind for an entirely different project: ‘I was doing a book about Hackney and I wanted to find somebody who’d be prepared to actually swim right round the whole borough by way of canal and rivers.’ he explains. ‘I thought of Andrew and I put it to him and he said, “Oh no no, wouldn’t do that,” but we did do quite a long walk around the whole of the water system in advance of the coming Olympic moment.’
It was during this walk around East London that they came up with the idea for their swan-themed voyage, which Sinclair describes as ‘a grand physical marathon project that appealed to both of us, and to my point of view it was also a sort of absurdist exorcism of the grand projects that were going on’.
In recent years Sinclair has been one of the most vocal figures speaking out against the Olympics. His latest book Ghost Milk (accompanied by the line: ‘Calling Time on the Grand Project’) is an urgent and passionate critique of the corporate whirlwind that surrounds the Games and the effect it has had on East London – Sinclair’s home and the subject of much of his writing.
The topic is unmistakably present in Swandown. The final destination of the Olympic stadium and the ideas it encapsulates are a heavy and foreboding presence in the film. But while the Olympic invasion is an undercurrent, the documentary itself is filled with all manner of other ideas and images. The journey features Sinclair’s recognisable musings on local history, spontaneous conversations with characters they meet along the way and swan-related cultural tributes that come together and interconnect in a way that recalls the writings of German author WG Sebald. A patchwork of thoughts, history, place and culture that present an alternative, idiosyncratic and personal Britain. “We didn’t ever want it to be a polemic about the Olympics,’ Sinclair says, ‘but simply to be made in a spirit of doing something that’s private and quirky, something that’s happening on our own will rather than one of these grand Olympic cultural projects.”
Sinclair may be best known for his writings on London but Swandown could represent a turning of the tide. “The book I’m working on at the moment, which is called American Smoke, is all about journeys away from London. I think it’s a whole new movement for me and maybe this journey in the film is really a pivot.” There are plans too that his next adventure may even take him to Scotland. Many years ago, when Sinclair was filming on the Isle of Harris, he was given a whale bone box by a sculptor who asked him if he would return in the future to bury it. Sinclair is hopeful that Andrew Kotting may be involved in the project too: ‘I think he’s especially interested in taking the swan to pedal across from the mainland to the Hebrides. He likes a challenge!’ he laughs.
Back to his most recent journey and, ironically, the swan pedalo is stopped just before it reaches the stadium itself – its now grubby white form hits the yellow floats that prevent any water transport getting close to the heavily protected Olympic site. It’s a slightly anti-climatic moment but an image that sums up what, in Stewart Lee’s words, ‘this is all about’: we reach the behemoth that has invaded East London and the communities living there and the contrast to this quiet, poetic quest that we have followed couldn’t be more stark.
Swandown is on selected release from Mon 20 Aug.