The Whalebone Box Long Read: Andrew Kötting in conversation with Jason Wood

Andrew Kötting talks to HOME’s Jason Wood about his film, The Whalebone Box, and the mystical journey it took to make it.

Jason Wood: Can you begin by telling us how the box came to your attention and at what point did you begin to envision that it might be your next project?

Andrew Kötting: Iain Sinclair had been banging on about the whalebone box for many moons. It was given to him by the sculptor Steven Dilworth over thirty years ago when he was up on the Isle of Harris making a documentary. It had sat on Iain’s writing desk and witnessed the thing that is Iain’s remarkable oeuvre unfolding. He called it his animal battery and that without it he might be lost. So, it was strange that when we were working on the Swandown project he had this idea that we might take it back to the island and bury it on the beach where the whale was washed up.

I think he wanted to be rid of it for various reasons but refused to tell me until I agreed to carry it back with him. It was only when I handled it a few years ago that I realised its potency and also its weight. Held together by the fishing twine that had entangled the whale and lined with the melted lead weights that held the net in place, it was as heavy a car battery. It cast a spell on me and for the sake of Iain’s sanity I knew that we had to take it back and be rid of it. But I had no intention of it becoming a film. I just wanted to make the journey with him and perhaps document the reverse pilgrimage using pinhole photographs, maybe even a little bit of super 8.

We took Anonymous Bosch with us, one of the few artists capable of recording the volatile trajectory of myth-making and unreliable memory, he’s also very good at documenting the spectre of dreams. But before we left we went with the box down to Netley in Southampton to get some advice from Philip Hoare. He is the go-to person for all things cetacea or HUGE FISH. He wrote a book called Leviathan, or The Whale which I had read when I was working on another project called Sea Swallow’d in 2010 with the performance artists, CURIOUS – Helen Paris and Leslie Hill.

Iain and I felt that it might add gravitas to our undertaking but little did we know that it would open up a can of worms. The moment Philip held the box was the moment I realised that the project had potential to become something significant and somewhat spooky.

JW: There are the usual Köttingisms here. The synthesis of ancient and modern, an interest in folklore and mythology, tribal or outsider art (a term I am suspicious of) a sense of the danger of the unknown and also how humanity is undoubtedly governed by forces that are partly unexplainable to us. Why do these and other such subjects continue to exert a fascination for you?

AK: I’m a humanist but am also fascinated by the notions of hauntology, psychogeography and tomfoolery. Folklore, myth and literature have always had a hold on me as an artist. There are parallels with Iain’s interests and belief systems. He commits to the page and I commit to whatever’s to hand. He is the brains behind the operation; the Esotericist, I’m the Existentialist, Experimentalist, Empiricist and Shoddyist.

The notion of happenstance or serendipity has also played a large part in the work that we make, whether separately or together. Iain has perfected the art of walking his work into existence, and I tend to reverse engineer the work into existence after the event. After I’ve documented some performance or happening. We need the catalyst of physicality or endurance to make things manifest. The haptic is vital.

I’m also an atheist searching for signifiers, holding on to all those things that come to mind when out and about in the landscape; those thoughts that pertain to each project. The unexplainable is an antidote to the faithful record of observation, and why they have such a hold on me is unexplainable and therefore I rest my case….

JW: Your daughter Eden has almost always been a presence in your work, sometimes spectral and sometimes more physically present. In The Whalebone Box she acts as both muse and mystic and in many ways makes sense of the journey, guiding the viewer through like Orpheus in the underworld. At what point did it become clear when working with your original material and the concept of the box did you begin to envision Eden fulfilling this role?

AK: Eden is unfathomable, an enigma, muse and mystery and the film is as much about her and her ‘otherness’ as it is about The Whalebone Box. Many years ago when I was working on This Our Still Life I would film her asleep on Super 8 for a minute or so just before we went to bed. We have to turn her onto her back at nigh because she is incapable of doing it herself and in these moments I was struck by her serenity and beauty.  She seemed to be away with the fairies and would often stir, uttering otherworldly noises so I began to record these events on my iPhone. In the morning she would tell us about the dreams that she might have had.

Although Eden’s speech is both limited and idiosyncratic it lends itself to translation so throughout the film we use subtitles to convey new ‘meaning’ and this is something that features in her paintings and drawings. I don’t know whether she is ventriloquising me or visa versa….

Anyhow one of these dreams involved her deep in a Pyrenean forest with a gun in a chair shooting BIG fish. She was wearing her favourite dress and looking into the trees through binoculars. This image resonated and seemed to make perfect sense once The Whalebone Box project was underway. So I started to incorporate some of the early footage of her asleep and then developed the idea further of her becoming the Mistress-of-ceremonies, Sybil or Seer in the film. She even helped to make the replica imaginary box that appears in her dreams. And It is the same box that I carry throughout Edith Walks that contained the sculpture of Edith Swan Neck. It too has magical powers.

Eden is seen in both the New Forest and the French Pyrenees wearing the dress from her dreams…. it’s all interconnected, a spell to ward off the darkness. Don’t open the box ‘else a dead cat might jump out….

‘Along came the devil with his pitchfork and shovel, He was digging up potatoes on the turnpike road….’

These things all make perfect sense. The Folkloric is people and their imaginings, like the Bible, The Talmud or the The Koran.

JW: Your films are so visually dense, packed with allusions and imagery and inventiveness with the same amount of attention being given to the sound design, which is always incredibly well thought through and bracing. For you are sound and image equal? Don’t you wonder sometimes ‘bout sound and vision? 

AK: I indeed do wonder what David Bowie might have made of my shenanigans. But perhaps there is a connection in so far as his process of working with text often involved cut-ups. Something again that William Boroughs was fond of. However I’m cutting up sound and image in a collagic way encouraging chance to get involved. So when I’m in the edit suite I’m moving stuff around waiting for it to make sense. Invariably it is the sound design and music that dictates the rhythms and moods rather than the picture. When archive or still images are introduced then the dynamic opens up further possibilities. It is a process of trial and error with just the chronology of the journey holding the thing together.

As opposed to the industrial model of locking picture and then applying the sound design and composing the music, my methodology allows for a more organic or alchemical approach. The generosity and trust of the musicians and soundsmiths that I work with also makes the process easier. They will send me snippets and smidgeons of ideas that I can offer up and remove, loop, slow down, speed up, reverse, layer, in effect compose the soundtrack in tune with the picture edit.

Atmosphere is vital and the sound thus becomes the very fabric of the work and less the decoration or mood enhancer. Silence is also useful, something I learnt from Morton Feldman.

JW: There is a sense of a continuing aesthetic in your work, a thirst for experimentation that incorporates archive footage, pinhole photography and also newly emerging film apps. How do you attempt to corral all these together? The film feels both epic in scale whist also conversely sharing with earlier walks such as Edith WalksSwandown and By Ourselves the sense of being a home movie.

AK: Perhaps I got lucky when I made Gallivant almost twenty-five years ago. I would never have been able to articulate what I was doing back then but there was something innate in my process that still holds water today. The work can often feel shoddy, lo-fi and wantonly home movie in its aesthetic whilst at the same time embracing high end technologies, especially when it comes to sound or working with people that really know what they are doing such as Nick Gordon Smith, Jem Finer, Tony Hill, Helen Paris, Hattie Naylor and of course Iain Sinclair.

Derek Jarman might be a good point of reference here; never working in isolation always multifarious in his output, supported by friends, family and kindred spirits. Coaxing the epic out of the small and local. The Familial as the Universal.

JW: You are joined by a number of recurring companions, Iain Sinclair and the aforementioned Anonymous Bosch or example. Could you say something about the value of these ongoing creative collaborations? Sinclair has obviously been a huge presence in your life, sharing your love of place, wandering and the sense of strange and beguiling tales specific to British life.

AK: Since we moved down to St Leonards on Sea from London 15 years ago my relationship with Iain has grown into something which has indeed impacted on my life enormously and also having Mr & Mrs Anonymous Bosch down here has made the collaborations a lot easier. Iain and I walk, talk and swim the work into existence and Anonymous is always there to support and document the endeavours.

Suffice to say the idiosyncrasies that these strange isles offer up continues to inspire and sustain me, despite what we have just lived through and what we about to endure….

Again, Gallivant might be a good point of reference for my interest in place and journeying and it was this film that Iain wrote about in Sight and Sound when it first came out. I didn’t know his writing that well at the time but it came as a breath of dense fresh air especially when other film critics had either walked out of the screening or suggested that the film might have best been drowned at birth like the runt of a litter.

Manna from the heavens arrives in different shapes and sizes….

JW: Your films often spin off in a very organic fashion into other terrain with books, artwork and multi-media projects. What seeds has The Whalebone Box planted? Both for your own projects – I understand INVADA are issuing a vinyl soundtrack – and for Eden?

AK: I dig into each project like an archaeologist to see what I might retrieve or to find out what might yet be possible. I’m multifarious by nature and therefore the outcomes for each project are numerous. I’m milking them for as much as they might give and quite often re-configuring elements of past or future projects. They spill in and out of each other. Never the closure. Always the colon or semicolon….

And yes INVADA are releasing a double vinyl LP and Badbloodandsibyl are then releasing a bespoke limited edition boxset with full colour 28 page booklet including writings by Iain, posters, postcards, whistles and bells and pizza cutters, bones and baseball hats…. the whole nine yards.

Anyhow, Oliver Cherer and Riz Maslen, who are neighbours here in St Leonards, both contributed to the original soundtrack and I then commissioned them to remix the 15 different sections of the film.  We borrowed titles from Philip Hoare’s Leviathan book to help us hold the thing together, so again all these things are interconnected and held in a semblance of order by the process of reverse engineering and spillage….

Meanwhile Eden remains in costume from the film and continues to look for whales in the most inappropriate of places. Painting, drawing and collaging until her heart’s content.

JW: I am typing this looking at two pieces of art by Eden that adorn my walls. Eden seems to be really growing as an artist and has inherited your prolific nature. Can you talk a bit about Eden’s more recent art  – including also the accompanying short, In Far Away Land, and also about the wider value of your collaborations? I’d love to hear from Eden on this too.

AK: I can’t remember did you borrow those paintings or are they yours for keeps? [1]

In Far Away Land grew out of a collaboration with a close friend from Hastings, Glenn Whiting who has known Eden for most of her life. He remains captivated by her drawings, collages and paintings and decided to start animating them a few years ago. The Channel 4 Random Acts strand commissioned a short film by the three of us entitled It’s All In The Mind and In Far Away Land might be seen as a companion piece to that project but also echoes some of the themes from The Whalebone Box.

Eden and I share studios so whatever I’m working on always impacts on what she’s doing. Themes overlap, there are motifs, texts and images from the larger projects that find their way into Eden’s paintings and drawings. When spending long periods of time together either here in the UK or in the French Pyrenees it is inevitable that the work feels as if it all ‘belongs’.

She has been widely exhibited in public galleries and this brings great pride and joy to her father but simple pleasures to Eden. She likes the crisps and attention at the openings. This year we were hoping to find a commercial gallery to represent us in an attempt to move ‘stuff’ from the studio and free up space for yet more work, but more importantly to provoke debate around the notion of what is or isn’t Outsider Art or Art Brut.

We are conjoined in our making and it is very difficult to separate my agency from her agency and this creates a tension about the context of the work. Ultimately it is both therapy and art as the lived experience, without it we’d go properly bonkers.

Today we are here in the studio in the Old Town, Hastings. It is Friday and there isn’t a soul around it is spooky and disconcerting but we are happy despite everything.

I just put your question to Eden.  She says Hello BIG man.[2] The best bit about working with Papa is the lunch – today she had an out-of-date sushi platter, an egg sandwich, grapes and some soggy berries along with a Naked Green Machine juice. Her next favourite bit of the day is tea-time when she will have a caramel wafer biscuit and a cup of mint tea. Food and drink are very important in her life!

She is drawing pictures of wheelchairs for a new BFI commission that was green lit on Friday 13th March just before the lockdown, titled Diseased and Disorderly. It is another collaboration with Glenn Whiting and Isabel Skinner who did some of the CGI for The Whalebone Box. Prophetically we had the idea way back before the crisis. The animation will incorporate a sequence where she will enter the film itself through high end CGI. She is very excited about it. There might even be a VR version.

As I mentioned earlier Eden is wearing the same dress from The Whalebone Box. It is the dress she wears every year for the Deptford Jack and the Jack-in-the Green festival here in Hastings, which have both just been cancelled. My mother made it for my sister when she was a teenager and Leila, Eden’s mother added to it. It has been in the family for a long time and contains the trace elements of three generations. It is the same age as the Whalebone box.

Eden has just told me that she is Happy Happy Happy. She loves to work to music and presently we are listening to a Front Line Roots compilation. Daughters of Zion by Prince Far I is her favourite track.

JW: Although it’s fair to say that your work exists outside of the mainstream, you have enjoyed the support of a number of high profile figures, including the enduring admiration of Mark Kermode. How helpful is this in terms of actually being able to access funding to make the work and in terms of perhaps helping to bring your films to a wider audience?

AK: Mark, like yourself has always been incredibly supportive. We have only ever met once, a long time ago in Edinburgh when This Filthy Earth premiered but he feels like a kindred spirit and promotes the work whenever he can. He is an inspiration and when my friend Mark Jenkin released his film Bait last summer, Mark Kermode came on board with his support very quickly and I’m sure that his unbridled, intelligent enthusiasm convinced the more tentative cinema-goer to give a hand-crafted experimental film a go. And when it went viral – pardon the pun – it warmed the cockles of my heart. Mark does have influence but nothing is ever guaranteed in this life….

However as you probably know apart from Lek and the Dogs most of the work I make nowadays is self-funded or in receipt of small grants from the Arts Council or awards from the University of the Creative Arts, where I teach part-time. However, Gareth Evans is also a remarkable advocate of the work and helped me compile an Alphabetarium of Kötting just before we left London, it helped me come to terms with my practice and worked as therapy. He gave me the confidence to at least try to bring the work to a wider audience. I’m now a lot more comfortable within the pond of my own making.  

JW: Finally, the film is released at an unprecedented time in our history with the world on lockdown due to COVID-19. It feels strangely fitting in some way that as the world is suspended in a state of stasis we have a film that deals with forces that exist outside the realms of reality. So, in some ways the timing of the release of the film – which will appear on MUBI – could not be better…or worse…

AK: Indeed, have we opened the box to let out Shrödinger’s cat? It was meant as a thought experiment. Lek and the Dogs felt somewhat prophetic when that came out a few years ago but with The Whalebone Box and presently with this new film Diseased and Disorderly I’m overcome by spook. And what was even weirder was that when we drove up to the Hebrides with the Whalebone Box on the dashboard of the car, the windscreen cracked to form a fissure almost identical to that of the route taken from London via Oxford.

The box went back as an ex-voto for some particular unwellness on the island, we buried it in the sand and then a few weeks later it resurfaced in the belly of an imaginary whale in London. It can be seen at the Middle Temple Library in London, still bearing the scars the salt, sand and seawater that have informed its life. It is behind glass, but is it safe?

“Once touched the box can change lives”, Iain told me. I was somewhat sceptical, but my opinion has changed drastically. The object was indeed so much more than just an animal battery, and I sometimes wonder whether its creator, the sculptor Steve Dilworth was really in control when he made it. I know that Robert Macfarlane also has his own theories about the shamanistic power of Steve’s work.

Last night we partook in the clapping for the NHS it was profoundly moving but were we really clapping for ourselves? I was overcome by emotion, overcome by the fact that despite our present situation there is hope. It would appear that a psychic recalibration seems to be taking place where we have all been afforded the opportunity to stop and reconsider our place in this world. Things will never be the same hereafter. A bit like watching the film.

For better or worse?

Manchester and St Leonards On Sea, Hastings, March 27th, 2020.

[1] I paid good money. Not much. But I have no paperwork that would stand up in a court of law.

[2] Eden has her mother and father’s sense of humour. I am 5 foot 6.