10 Minutes with Rory Pilgrim

RORY PILGRIM (b. 1988, UK) works in a wide range of media including songwriting, music composing, music video, film, text, drawing, and live performances. Centred on emancipatory concerns, Pilgrim aims to challenge the nature of how we come together, speak, listen and strive for social change through sharing and voicing personal experience. Strongly influenced by the origins of activist, feminist, and socially engaged art, Pilgrim works with others through different methods of dialogue, collaboration, and workshops. In an age of increasing technological interaction, Rory’s work creates connections between activism, spirituality, music, and how we form community locally and globally from both beyond and behind our screens. Solo Shows include: Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe (2020), Between Bridges, Berlin (2019) Andriesse-Eyck Gallery, Amsterdam NL (2018), South London Gallery (2018), Plymouth Art Centre, Plymouth (2017), Flat Time House, London (2016), Site Gallery, Sheffield (2016) and sic! Raum für Kunst, Luzern CH (2014). In 2019, Pilgrim was the winner of the Prix de Rome.

Following Giuliana Rosso’s interview, Huma Kabakci interviews Rory Pilgrim who is currently included in the exhibition “But I doubt, I tremble, I see (shaking edges) and the wild thorn tree” until the 4th of July.

Installation view:
But I doubt, I tremble, I see (shaking edges) and the wild thorn tree, 
Giuliana Rosso & Rory Pilgrim, Curated by Caterina Avataneo, Pina (Vienna) 

Somewhere between activism, music video, documentary, and poetry, your work often uses performance, songwriting, video, dance, choreography… What is the role of music in your practice? And, how would you situate your work concerning the artistic expressions mentioned here?

Music has always been a bit like my first language. I grew up in a house with a piano and have clear memories of trying to play it. I never really felt comfortable in expressing myself verbally so I found a lot of solace in how you could express yourself by making sound through a musical instrument. At school I learnt music classically. I was also in a British Cathedral Choir (which is quite hardcore singing: 7 church services a week). I then played in pop/folk bands as a teenager. In the end, I decided to go to art school instead of continuing with music, but when I started I was really confused by the situation that I was supposed to ‘make’ with no clear audience in mind. When I had performed music I was used to standing in front of an audience and directly communicating to those in front or around me. Whatever way I work, I feel I have never lost my experience of playing music and this has informed very much my need to think about for whom and how I am communicating to a listener. 

While I was in pop bands I never saw myself as a songwriter but over time I feel writing songs has become central to what I do. Since 2015 I have been working with singer Robyn Haddon where we have written songs together, and for ‘The Undercurrent’ I worked also with Declan Rowe John who was 13 at the time, and another singer called Ezra Hampikian. I love how in one song, you can create one world/organism/room which can then join or situate itself in a further constellation/biosphere/home through other songs. There is something so perfect in a song in how you can inhabit it and how it provides a home for us to house feelings or work through what we are experiencing. Whatever way I am working or exhibiting work, I think I often want it to feel like how you are listening to music on your headphones on the bus. 

You are one of the artists in this year’s Forum 2021 curated by Caterina. In addition to the exhibition at Pina, Open Space has decided to have a mail-art commission. Have you done anything like this before? 

I don’t think I have explicitly done a mail-art commission before, but at art school (now over 15 years ago) I did do a few works where I made cards and flyers which I put through peoples homes. Continuing from music, I was interested in finding ways to approach how you could directly communicate with someone or reach them. One of the flyers I made just said something along the lines of:

I put it through different houses throughout Bristol. Then if someone emailed, I would send them my own sort of Wikipedia page version of information I could find about the country Mauritania. I come from the sort of ‘pre-post Internet’ generation where Wikipedia was starting, and Wikis and OpenSource’s creation was a massive deal. I personally was interested in how information reaches us, where it comes from, and the difference between how we cultivate it by ourselves online versus how it might come unwanted or unasked physically through a flyer in our home. I suppose this has magnified in intensity through social media and the digital echo chamber, which I am still always trying to think about how to break.

It was very exciting to receive the mail art commission with Open Space and revisit it as a form. For me, it was important to ask one of the youth climate activists I worked with for The Undercurrent, and Liam Neupert very kindly accepted the invitation. Liam was one of the founding organisers of the youth Climate Strikes in Boise Idaho and has been fundamental in bringing people together and giving speeches. Liam approached the mail art commission by writing a letter initiating those who receive it to create a dialogue about a tangible way they can create an environmental change within their local area or a place important to them. By returning to mail art as a form, it has been a very nice reminder of how it can be used to create a much more intimate and embodied platform of dialogue away from the screen.

But I doubt, I tremble, I see (shaking edges) and the wild thorn tree, 
Giuliana Rosso & Rory Pilgrim, Curated by Caterina Avataneo, Pina (Vienna) 

How has working collaboratively with Giuliana Rosso been? Do you see more future collaborations like this?

It was very special to be brought together by curator Caterina Avataneo to do the duo exhibition with Giuliana Rosso for the exhibition at Pina and the mail art commission. I was excited to be paired with Giuliana as a constellation and see how this brought out shared themes in our work. I love how the figures in Giuliana’s work so luminously inhabit a space and how the blurring of internal and external worlds come together. Her figures are often alone on the canvas or in space, and I was intrigued by how they give space to what an individual might be feeling or experiencing. Seeing her work inspired me to make a small portrait film of footage I had made with Liam but was not able to use for The Undercurrent. When putting it together, I tried to channel a similar feeling to what I felt in Giuliana’s work. It also makes me excited to think about the future of collaborations more visually using painting and drawing, similar to how I might collaborate with a musician. 

You use a wide range of media within the body of your work. What is your preferred medium to work with (if you have one)?

I think for me it’s often more about gravitating towards forms that allow you to work in a range of media rather than one in particular. From 2016-2018 I worked on Software Garden which is a music video album for example, and for me, the music album format was fascinating as a way to create a cosmos where I could give depth to a series of different collaboration and voices and then extend that out sonically, visually and also performatively through a touring live concert version. In more recent works like ‘The Undercurrent’ which is centred on a 50-minute film, it’s been important to use any opportunity of it being exhibited to continue dialogue with those involved beyond the fixed edit of the film. On a personal level, my sketchbooks are vital for me as an ongoing practice to work and bring together all that I am trying to process sonically, verbally, and pictorially through drawing. As a counter to more expansive forms like a music album, sometimes there can be something so special and liberating that so much can be encapsulated in one contained image. 

Rory Pilgrim, Liam, 2021,
Video still,
Courtesy of andriesse-eyck galerie

Your artistic practice is strongly influenced by the origins of activist, feminist, and socially engaged art, and you collaboratively work with others through different methods of dialogue and workshops. How has working through a pandemic affected your usual way of creating? 

Working through the pandemic has definitely brought many challenges. I started a series of workshops with a group from an arts organisation called Green Shoes Arts, which provides creative sessions for people with different mental health experiences in Barking and Dagenham, London. Going online raised confronting questions ranging from: if everyone had access to technology and whether they had a home or safe space to talk from. Organisations like Green Shoes are vital in offering spaces in which people could come together, get out of the home and connect with others, so to then work online through Zoom; we had to learn as we went along how best to facilitate and create sessions where people felt comfortable. From the suggestion of Amal Khalaf, whom I am working with at Serpentine, we started to implement physical cues during online sessions so people could show how they feel because so much body language is lost. Creating a visual cue of a heart to show you are emotionally moved or connect to what someone is saying helps the speaker know you are listening.

One challenge in particular that working through online formats has been building personal and one on one relationships. If you are facilitating a workshop in person, the moments where people arrive or in a coffee break where you can have a little chat are vital to know how that person is doing are not possible. It, therefore, meant that we started to alternate online workshops with weeks where we would catch up with people on the phone, which has been really important. 

What have you learned over the last year?

I think I am trying to understand my boundaries and what to do when I feel where my capacities or my own understanding of something is limited.

Are you reading or watching anything interesting at the moment? 

I find it quite difficult to read very much, but earlier this year, I read ‘Carceral Capitalism’ by Jackie Wang, which I am very grateful for. The book brings together a series of very personal essays that connect her own experience of dealing with the criminal justice system through her brother’s incarceration and how that connects to so many structural relationships socially, politically, and technologically. In her writing, she focuses on the politics of dreaming as a vital space of imagination and political agency to implement change within the world. In the last chapter, she references the writer Mia Mingus who wrote:

“We are building a reality that we have never seen before. We are asking people to flex their visioning and dreaming skills, something that is not readily supported in our society.”

I have found this very important to reflect on in what I am working on now.

In terms of watching things I am a real youTube addict and watching vloggers is my main source of media I consume. I am endlessly fascinated by the desire of those to pick up a camera and share their lives, thoughts and experiences whether that be them showing you their local environments, talking about youth culture and cars, or more complex political realities. At the moment I am watching quite a few vloggers from the far east of Russia who vlogs about their lives and experiences in Russia such as a channel called ‘Yeah Russia’ and ‘Zach The Russian’.

Do you have any exciting projects coming up?

For the last year, I have been working on a new commission with Serpentine London called Radio Ballads. I have been working on a new film called RAFTS that will be exhibited next year. RAFTS, in many ways, is a second chapter to The Undercurrent and explores intersections between mental health and the climate crisis. I have been working with incredible individuals from Barking and Dagenham in dialogue with those also from Project Well Being, a rehabilitation programme for those experiencing homelessness in Boise, Idaho, whom I began working with as part of The Undercurrent. I have just had a duo exhibition with the Karrabing Film Collective opening at the end of May at Kunstverein Braunschweig in Germany.

From next year I will be focusing on a new commission for Chisenhale Gallery, London where I am thinking about how to approach a feature film format, likely exploring the intersection between the British Criminal Justice System and environmental law.

The EP of the music from The Undercurrent will be released on the 1st of August across streaming platforms on Creamcake. You can listen to a preview here: http://www.apparent-extent.com/index.php?id=118