Rory Pilgrim’s works are vessels to hold and amplify the personal experiences and voices of others. Through songwriting, music, film, music video, text, drawing and live performances, Rory recasts the everyday as sublime and explores the transformative potentialities of art. Working with various affinity groups and long-term collaborators, Rory stages tableau-like scenes that are grounded in the natural wonder of planet Earth and the spaces, technologies and forms through which we find communion, and set in counterpoint to dominant systems of power that often define people against their will. Using methods of dialogue, collaboration and workshops to create his works, Rory brings forward care as a relational practice for art making, as well as an overarching conceptual concern. From his earliest years growing up in a vicarage in Bristol to more recent years living between the Isle of Portland and the village of Ee, in the Netherlands, Rory’s practice is one that charts a movement both into a deep understanding of one’s own sensibilities and an opening out to what can be gained by listening to others and exulting in our shared imaginative capacity to find ways through the most difficult of times.
Susan Gibb: In your work you bring together lots of people, often associated through certain affinity groups, be it LGBTQ2+ communities from different countries in Affection is the Best Protection (2014–15), youth climate activists in The Undercurrent (2019) or users of a mental health service in RAFTS (2021). I want to start by asking what does trust, intimacy and consent mean to you and to the way that you work? And how do you meet the people you work with and bring them together?
Rory Pilgrim: Trust – that’s been quite a word on my mind. It’s a heavy word in some ways. As soon as you say ‘trust,’ it requires a feeling of you and another. You can also ask yourself, ‘Do I trust myself to do something?’ It’s always reflective of yourself in proximity to someone or something else. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without trust. A huge amount of my time is building trust and getting to know people, and I try to be in situations where I am afforded longer periods to do this. With the line dancing group in Software Garden (2018), for example, I joined their class for a year before I asked them to be in the video, because I had tried to reach out to line dancing groups and got nowhere. It’s about forming relationships, and that you’re a person to the people who you want to learn from and listen to. It’s a lot about learning from others, as my experience only goes so far.
Susan: What of your personal experience that inspires this way of working?
Rory: This comes from my personal history of growing up in a community space. My dad is a vicar, so I grew up in seven different church houses in Bristol in the UK, where the family home was also an extension of the church. So the boundary between public and private was often very fragile. I found this very difficult, so I’ve always been someone who needs a door to close ever since. But I love people. My desire to engage with people comes from the experience of how I grew up, and thinking through what it is to be of service to others. Growing up at the heart of a church community, the relationship to being ‘of service’ is complex, which I’ve tried to work through in different ways, by building trust where you are honest in your intention of why you want, or feel the need, to engage. Maybe it’s just by saying ‘I’d love to know more about what you do?’ or following things you have an affinity with.
… faith is inherently connected to a spiritual or sacred feeling, which also binds to the word ‘intimacy.’…
Susan: Knowing this about your personal history, I am curious what faith means to you, and in particular how you understand the difference between faith and trust. One thing that’s always struck me about your work is the intergenerational, international and interfaith dialogues you support through them. I wonder, how does the idea of faith figure in your way of relating to people and as part of your artistic process?
Rory: I connect faith a lot with hope. My older sister is called Faith. It’s interesting to think about what the difference is if you say ‘I have trust in you’ or ‘I have faith in you.’ In this process now, thinking it out loud, faith is inherently connected to a spiritual or sacred feeling, which also binds to the word ‘intimacy.’ What do I value? What is important to me? Or to another person? I desire very much to give space to this. I think the most valuable thing is always a person’s experience, and sometimes that is so compromised in our structures, and in our worlds, like a social system not having faith in a person. There’s a huge violence in undermining a person’s experience. I’m less fearful now of using a word connected with religious histories or spirituality, because I think our secular structures attempt to silence that. As soon as you step outside certain bubbles, many people have faith in a belief system that is not secular. If you don’t allow that space for spirituality, you decrease the value in things, or you just make things monetary, or a person is treated as a number, and their humanity is compromised. Faith can be very political as well. And this thing about bringing people of different faiths together, maybe it’s a desire to learn from one another. It’s a lot about listening.
Susan: Yes, for me trust is often used in contexts related to transactions, and material actions and consequences. What’s interesting to me about faith, both in your practice and in terms of what faith proposes as an action in the world, is its allowance for the unknown, for futurity, and, as you say, for hope. There’s something generous in the movement that faith proposes.
Rory: Yeah, the unknown; like faith in another world, or faith in something you can’t see. It’s connected to belief.
Susan: In your work there is an ongoing attention to systems and structures of care both at a macro level – such as the dismantlement of the social state under neoliberal conditions or the climate crisis affecting the natural environment which supports life on our planet – as well as more one-to-one manifestations of care, such as the intimate relationship between one person and another, and one’s relationship with themself. I’m curious to know how through your practice you propose new forms of care. For example, how might a filmmaking process or a music video be a structure for care, and a site for tenderness, affection and love?
Rory: It makes me think about what the process of creating one of my artworks is. Often I am trying to navigate something which isn’t there, like care is lacking, such as in the British context where basic social support to a person’s welfare has been eroded. So in the process of making a work I’m often dealing with things which aren’t there and having to provide them while I’m creating an artwork. The most tangible thing might be my relationship with my collaborator Carol R. Kallend, who was at the heart of the work Software Garden where she wrote about her desire to have a robotic companion or form of AI that would take care of her where humans and the government had let her down. The care structures which aren’t there are essentially giving time to someone, like the fact that our social services are completely ill equipped to give basic time and contact to an individual. The process of creating these artworks is just doing that, like everyday interactions of talking on the phone, having a chat about what you’re going to eat for lunch and for dinner, laughing, and also dealing with things when they are complicated. I think these are the care structures I’m working with – they are just really fundamental things which people don’t see.
Susan: You mentioned contact, and this makes me think about how technology appears in your work, and your affordance for affect and emotion to be so palpable. What is the potential you see in technology as a means to foster contact and as a conduit for emotion? And how as an artist do you allow yourself to be touched by others’ experiences, even if that doesn’t involve direct physical touch, but rather via contact fostered via analogue or digital media?
Rory: I’m from the YouTube generation. When YouTube came out in the 2000s, I was around seventeen or eighteen years old. At art school the hot shit was Wikipedia and open source; it was the tail-end of hacktivism. Essentially, those net practices were all about how technology could disrupt or provide things which were lacking in the physical world, whether it was the distribution of knowledge, wealth or education. As a queer person, I feel really lucky to be part of the generation that saw the first wave of queer YouTubers. I remember feeling that I knew no one who was like me, and then encountering these teenagers in America, on the other side of the world, just talking about their lives and experiences in a very everyday way. I’ve never lost the feeling of how amazing that felt technologically. I’ve never lost sight of technology as providing that form of hope and connection. As I’ve followed my own relationship with technology over the years, it’s always this question about how to utilise it as a form, and of what happens beyond and behind the screen. You have to engage with both now.
Susan: Could you provide an example of what you mean by this?
Rory: There are moments where there’s a sort of technological lack, where there is such intimacy and connection made, but then it falls apart. Like in these online workshops I was doing during lockdown with a homeless rehabilitation shelter in Idaho – which I had already been to and worked with for The Undercurrent, and with whom I wanted to continue the relationship for RAFTS but it was impossible to get over there in person – there were moments in these workshops where people would talk about the most traumatic things, such as losing all their family in a tragic accident and then spiralling into homelessness. And I shouldn’t joke about it, but in that circumstance it’s the most awful moment for the internet connection to cut out where you are like, ‘Oh, what did you say? Can you just repeat that …?’
And you’re like, ‘Did I really just hear this detail?’ You’ve built a level of trust where a person feels able to say that, but then, in the moment, you can’t extend beyond the screen. And I know that the person was supported because they were with care workers in the room with them, but it’s that extremeness of being able to express something so vulnerable or intimate about yourself through technology, and then the internet connection cuts out! I think a lot of what I’m doing is trying to find the bridge across these technological limits. Like with Software Garden, for example, when we’ve toured that work as a music album even before the pandemic, Carol can’t leave her house so we used Skype for her to perform from her living room while so much was also happening live in the concert space. Sometimes Carol was performing to audiences of a few hundred people, and it’s incredible that it’s so possible to do this with the technology we have. But it’s about bringing together that technological possibility with the ‘what happens next.’ Sometimes it’s just really basic like phoning Carol immediately afterwards to check in. It’s the middle ground between the ways in which technology connects and utilises us, and its boundaries. It is a bit like trying to create two hands grasping beyond and behind the screen.
Susan: I also wanted to ask you about the concept of the lyrical, which I feel could be used to describe the music you write and your approach to creating imagery.
Rory: I try to acknowledge for myself that making work is a balancing act between listening and learning from others and what they bring to the work, and giving space to my own creative sensibilities, and also as a way of being able to do the work with other people. For me, creating imagery or music is my way of emotionally processing what I’m experiencing in my own life, and a way of providing anchors for others to be able to share their own experience. I’m someone who loves a metaphorical anchor or image. In my recent work it’s been very literally the symbol of the raft. I have to love the process when I’m making a film. It becomes almost a computer game, like for The Undercurrent it became about how many times I can film something through a window, or creating this repetition of continual movement through the flow of the river, the flow of the car, the flow of the choreography. For me, that’s a way of storytelling, and also to process an emotion or an experience. That’s what we do through art, it’s finding a way to externalise an emotional experience, and sometimes it is about abstracting that into an essence. Lyric writing can be that. Sometimes it’s also about being very literal. Sometimes I like to approach songwriting as being as literal as possible. In past years it’s been much more storytelling, and now, as I am starting to work on a new soundtrack, I’ve realised that a lot of the lyrics I’m writing are very physical. Two recent songs are called ‘The Grip’ and ‘Shake,’ and it’s literally a thing that I’m feeling, and then through that I have a basis to create dialogue with others.
Susan: On these metaphorical anchors, I want to ask about one in particular that appears in your work: the garden. Beautiful and fertile nature is often given a lot of presence in your films, so that in many ways they are equal parts portraits of certain landscapes and places as they are of the people that appear in them. I’m interested in your relationship to the garden and nature, as a very fertile and abundant force.
Rory: I was a very obsessive child who didn’t do anything in half measures, and one of my earliest obsessions was Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies. I learned about flowers from these fairies. I also used to make a lot of gardens as a child, in which I would collect things. In my adult life I’ve now mainly lived outside of the city, and I am someone who needs to be outside. So it just manifests in my work. Again, it comes down to this thing of what you value. It’s a spiritual thing; it’s an inherent thing. Gardens are also strange, as when you humanise them they become a separation; a constructed nature in a Western sense, or even in the sense of the Iranian and Persian garden, and then, in the Biblical sense, the Garden of Eden and the subsequent separation of the world. I gravitate towards thinking there is no boundary between the Earth as a total garden to nurture rather than as something separate. I suppose in my work I am trying to blur or collapse this boundary. Maybe it also connects a bit to my relationship with technology, and why the phrase Software Garden felt so appealing – it’s this merging of things, this constant desire to merge.
…I sometimes feel that when you’re dealing with things that are quite traumatic or everyday, or, in the context of ‘social engagement,’ that there is an expectation of a sort of ‘kitchen sink realism’…
Susan: With merging in mind, I wanted to ask you about genre-bending? You often take a genre, such as the music video, and somewhat twist it. I’m curious to hear your reasons for this approach, both in terms of how it relates to your personal experience of being queer and as a strategy for the conceptual concerns of your work.
Rory: It’s just so inherent to my experience, so it’s nothing that I set out to do. It’s really natural for me to merge things together that shouldn’t be together, and relish it. I mean, now that I’ve gained a self-awareness that I’m doing it, I can also think there’s an intention behind it. Going back to the way I film things and the imagery that I make, it’s often very beautiful. I sometimes feel that when you’re dealing with things that are quite traumatic or everyday, or, in the context of ‘social engagement,’ that there is an expectation of a sort of ‘kitchen sink realism’. My natural sensibility is not to do that because I think it gives no room to the realms of the imaginary or place of dreaming that is also so fundamental to our human experience. This genre-bending, I’ve sort of harnessed it, or gained an awareness that it has an effect, so that if I’m dealing with something quite difficult, it’s transformed through a beautiful lens, or a very joyful lens. I think my work is really camp at moments, and that campness comes from a self-awareness of not feeling like you fit in one structure, or one mould, so you inherently just fuck with it, and then relish in it, and you let it become its own thing that it shouldn’t be, and there’s something subversive in that or transformative. It’s about resisting categorisation. As soon as you try to fix something, it can become quite violent and restrictive, and I think my way of navigating or dealing with that is always to let things shift, or merge, or blur. There’s always things that you can’t describe, and that’s OK. This comes back down to that question of trust or faith. If you fail to fit in one genre, it might make people feel uncomfortable because it doesn’t speak to something which is known. So, like if I’m creating a music video, which isn’t quite like a music video, I feel like I am able to open a space for something to take place
Susan: Could you extend this with an example?
Rory: Like in Software Garden, in the first main video there is a moment where it’s Carol, Cassie-Augusta Jørgensen and Robyn Haddon, and it seems like three people in their disconnected worlds. But then, halfway through, two of them form this contact in which they stroke each others’ face incredibly intimately. In this moment it goes from three separate people to two who have this charged exchange. In music videos it is this feeling of it not being a reality or just a fantasy to illustrate the music. But in this particular music video, you get to witness two strangers coming together from completely different backgrounds sharing this really intimate touch. What I’m always trying to do, even when making a music video, is make it still feel like a workshop or that it is an experience not separated from life, so it never quite crosses the threshold into it being an alternative reality and it remains that this is a real thing taking place. In that way, it blurs this boundary between what can take place through socially engaged practice but coming together in a music video or something almost connected to pop culture, and in that way genre-bends.
Susan: Thinking through how you use beauty, there are moments in your work that could be described as ecstatic – which can be connected both to the spiritual and the sexual – such as when a song crescendos and climaxes. Could you elaborate on this?
Rory: I sometimes get insecure about beautifying things or this ecstatic quality, because sometimes I am working with things where there is a lot of pain. So the question is, how do you deal with pain? Both pain that you experience in your own life, but then also experiences which you’ve never encountered in your own life but through others that are so traumatic. How do you find a language for that? I think often the most painful or traumatic experiences feel like a world falling apart. But also you can have a very traumatic experience, and the way you deal with it is by going straight to a very mundane activity, like making a cup of tea, because you can’t quite process it. Sometimes I’m encountering such difficult lived experiences, and I think my way of dealing with it and what art can do in general is to create something like a ‘balm’ with others to heal, a bit like how Ursula K. Le Guin describes the story as a ‘medicine bundle.’
Susan: Can you provide an example of this in your work?
Rory: In my most recent film RAFTS a lot of those I worked with had experienced recent or sustained traumas, and midway through the film there is a really over-the-top moment, where one of the songs builds to this huge orchestral climax which creates an apex within the film. But at that moment it’s also balanced out somehow by a group of young people I worked with to make choreography for the music video dancing in quite a humble way. You’ve got this ecstatic music and these young people exploring with the movement to interpret the feeling of ‘staying afloat.’ Within that film I worked with people from ten to seventy-eight years old, and I wanted to create this gradient of possible experience which is also worked through visually, sonically and somatically in the process of filmmaking and songwriting. I feel a song like ‘Family’ by Björk does this really well in a literal sense. It starts off with her being like ‘fuck you Matthew Barney,’ and it’s about him destroying the family which she always wanted. So the first bit of the song is really violent, and then in the second section she is trying to transform and mend these feelings, and then, like, the third section of this song is this overwhelming ecstatic vessel of sound. And in the lyric she says, ‘This universe of solutions / This place of solutions / This location of solutions.’ That song is a real example of how to bring these two things together. Sometimes in my films it’s very mundane settings. It’s how to deal with the mundaneness of everyday life, how to use all the tools we have within our human experience to deal with life.
Susan: As my final question, I wanted to ask about the mouth – the fleshy threshold between our inner intimate world and the outer public world through voice and language, through which we inhale and exhale the vital life force of breath, and as a site of sensual or erotic pleasure through taste and touch. What does the mouth mean as a site of focus in your work through singing and speaking?
Rory: Words come out of our mouths. It’s very much connected with language. Also as a sensual thing: the tongue. The potential of the mouth as a gateway. I’m wondering if there are other ways to think this through, like speaking with your mouth closed. I can only locate it personally, because my father is essentially an orator, and my mum worked a lot with people with learning difficulties. I myself was categorised as someone with learning difficulties, as I felt that words were never natural. It was like whatever I wanted to say, my mouth wasn’t the best way to do it. When I was younger, I was obsessed with musical instruments, and I was very lucky to grow up in a house with a piano, so I spent hours playing at the piano. Because I was not so comfortable speaking, the idea that I could speak through my fingertips, or through an instrument, felt more natural, and it took a learning process to do that with my own mouth. I was also singing in cathedral choirs, and this also felt like being a mouth for something else, which was quite uncomfortable. So how do you really speak for yourself through your mouth? Or how might the mouth speak through the fingers or another part of the body? I actually have written this song recently which is trying to think about the mouth. The lyric is something like, ‘I release my words to you / and I hope they land somewhere in your mouth.’ As if my words land in another’s mouth, or if that person’s words land in my mouth, there is an actual exchange. A lot of the time when I’m confronted with things, for instance when there’s been a loss or lack of care, it’s because a person’s words have not been listened to. The mouth is about understanding. It’s about the transferral of connection.