Published  20/10/2023

Rory Pilgrim – interview: ‘I hope the work I create is like a permaculture – always living’

Rory Pilgrim – interview: ‘I hope the work I create is like a permaculture – always living’

This year’s Turner Prize nominee talks about choosing between a career in music and art, the Dutch attitude to artists and their collaborative process, which includes a new project, working with prisoners

Rory Pilgrim.


Even though Rory Pilgrim (b1988, Bristol) had won the esteemed Prix de Rome in 2019, their name may not have been that well known in the UK when their installation Rafts opened at the Serpentine Gallery in spring 2022, as part of its Radio Ballads show. But Pilgrim had certainly found recognition in Holland, where they have lived on and off (now more on than off) since heading to Amsterdam in 2008 to spend two years on the remarkable De Ateliers post-academic residency programme, after completing a BA at Chelsea College of Art. Fresh out of the residency, Pilgrim was commissioned by the Stedelijk Museum to create a large-scale performance piece for its grand reopening in 2012.

Pilgrim has now been nominated for the Turner Prize for the Rafts film, which is on display at Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery, so their name should be a lot more familiar.

Rory Pilgrim, RAFTS, 2022. HD film with sound, 01:06. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Installation view, Turner Prize 2023, Towner Eastbourne. Photo: Angus Mill Photography.

For me, seeing Rafts again, the work is not improved by being removed from the intimacy of the Serpentine setting, where it was shown on a domestic-sized TV screen, in a small, cosy room with comfy seats, surrounded by drawings and elements found and used in, or resulting from, the filming process. That setting brought a sense of bearing witness to the pain and beauty of ordinary life and cares reflected via Pilgrim’s particular, compassionate lens. However, blown up on to a huge screen in Eastbourne, the vulnerability and honesty of the participants - all of them volunteers from the mental healthcare programmes of the London borough of Barking and Dagenham (with whose culture and social care programme the Radio Ballads curators collaborated) – shone like a beacon, accompanied by the lilting, lyrical soundtrack composed and arranged by Pilgrim. And the spacious gallery gives more room for us to examine Pilgrim’s many radiant drawings and paintings as well as objects that were part of Rafts’ creative process.

Rory Pilgrim, Little Fires, 2021. Oil and pencil on wooden board, 24 x 30,5 cm. Turner Prize 2023, Towner Eastbourne. Collection Fries Museum, Leeuwarden. Photo: Angus Mill Photography.

Truly multidisciplinary in their practice – using film, drawings, collage, stories – it is music that usually underpins Pilgrim’s work. Participation and collaboration have also been integrated into their projects from the start. Pilgrim told the young interviewers from the Whitechapel’s Duchamp & Sons youth participation stream (in a filmed interview on YouTube): “My dad is an Anglican vicar. I grew up in a sort of semi-public house where the phone was always ringing and we, my brothers and sisters, learned to answer the phone not for ourselves but for the church. It teaches you what it feels like to be part of a community. I realised when I started (as an artist) that people were very important to me.”

The Undercurrent (2019) resulted from a residency at Ming Studio, in Boise, Idaho. Pilgrim put out an open call for young people to articulate their thoughts, fears and hopes around the climate crisis. The resulting group of 10 participants workshopped ideas intensively, co-creating music and choreography, resulting in a film that feels like a series of interweaving music videos, culminating in a crater-filled landscape that could just as well be on the moon. Though Pilgrim has described their process as “activism through the lens of beauty and joy”, the work is always accessible – for example, they have referred to The Undercurrent as something “you might watch on a Sunday afternoon on ITV”.

Although films are a core part of Pilgrim’s output, they also translate to large-scale performance works, usually incorporating local people, as happened with Software Garden (2017). This work evolved from a close collaboration with the poet and disability advocate Carol R Kallend, exploring technology and disability. During the pandemic, Software Garden was workshopped online and then performed in online crossover concerts at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam as well as in Berlin.

Mark Jones, Stuck in Time Tree, 2022. Glass jar, wire, and moss, 10 x 7 x 7 cm. On loan from the artist. Installation view, Rory Pilgrim, Turner Prize 2023, Towner Eastbourne. Photo: Angus Mill Photography.

Pilgrim’s work has been shown at leading international institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York (screening of The Undercurrent, 2022); Turku City Museum, Finland (2022); Kunstverein Braunschweig; Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe; Between Bridges, Berlin (2019); Ming Studios, Boise, Idaho (2019); and the South London Gallery (The Resounding Bell, 2018).

They will be bringing elements of a prison-related work (discussed below) to the Chisenhale Gallery London, in 2024.

Studio International spoke to the artist on Zoom from the Netherlands, where they have a studio. They also have a studio space in Portland, Dorset.

Veronica Simpson: I was blown away by your work Rafts, when I saw it at the Serpentine’s Radio Ballads show last spring. Compared with the other three works shown, it was a particularly powerful statement about fragility, vulnerability and community. It really hit a nerve coming after two years of the pandemic.

Rory Pilgrim: I felt very privileged to be part of that exhibition. We were so well supported by the Serpentine team. There aren’t many art institutions that could have supported a project like that.

VS: Your work was probably the most holistically integrated across many disciplines. I wasn’t surprised when I learned that you studied and now live in the Netherlands. It always seems to me that the Dutch really get multidisciplinarity – there is a more porous idea of what it is that artists do and who art is made for.

RP: Yeah. The short answer is that arts are well supported here. It’s interesting because I’ve experienced it in Germany: there, they have a reverence for art, and it’s put on such a pedestal, but they have the worst artist fees. And then you have Britain, where I think art has always been a bit of a joke – either like something frivolous and elitist, or maybe because of the 1990s and the YBAs, it took on this kind of notoriety…

Rory Pilgrim, Turner Prize 2023, Towner Eastbourne. Photo: Angus Mill Photography.

I think in the Netherlands they have this general idea that things should be well supported. There are complexities in their systems as well, but they believe in supporting the arts. After you’ve graduated, you can apply for a grant that gives you £18,000 a year. Of course, not everyone gets it, but it’s there. After that, there are grants they call proven professionalism funds, and you can apply for £36,000 over four years. It’s not this ridiculous Arts Council mess where everything is just a tick-box exercise. They are genuinely looking at what people are making, and they want to support it.

VS: Where does this Dutch ease or fluency with multidisciplinarity come from?

RP: I think the 1960s were important here, especially the influence of the Fluxus movement. An artist who is really important to me is Louwrien Wijers (b1941, Aalten). She is like my grandmother/mentor. She was very active in the Fluxus scene in the Netherlands, and there is this legacy for a certain kind of art-making that comes from that Fluxus period. Also, because the arts are so well supported, they are quite good risk-takers. For example, they have these experimental programmes where they just try things out, such as the art organisation If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution founded by Frédérique Bergholtz. We do have that in the UK but in a very different form.

Also, the Netherlands is like a crossroads between places. Whereas the UK is so inward looking, here it is very transient: people are passing in and out, we are two or three hours from Brussels and Paris, Germany’s not far away, people come for two or three years and move on.

Rory Pilgrim, Turner Prize 2023, Towner Eastbourne. Photo: Angus Mill Photography.

They’re very pragmatic. I was given a lot of trust. I did my first big performance piece for the Stedelijk, at the age of 22 when I left De Ateliers, and then they commissioned me two years later to choreograph the opening ceremony and I was 24. I don’t think they’d ever do that in the UK - put their trust in a 24-year-old to choreograph the reopening ceremony for such a major institution. It’s things like that which I think they’re really good at.

VS: That obviously explains why you have based yourself there, but you keep a foothold in the UK.

RP: My main home is in the Netherlands now. I rent a studio and have a little place in Portland, in Dorset. That’s where my family are partly from. And I’m making my next work there, which I think will be the last in the series of my UK pieces.

VS: Can you tell us what that is about?

RP: It’s about the criminal justice system. Portland is a place of two prisons. The barge (the Bibby Stockholm, controversially moored in Portland to offer temporary accommodation for asylum seekers) is just another continuation of Portland’s history of things being placed there that other people don’t want to deal with.

One of the participants in Rory Pilgrim's film RAFTS. Installation view, Turner Prize 2023, Towner Eastbourne. Photo: Veronica Simpson.

Over the last year I have been getting things to a point where I can start working at the prison. And it’s taken a year of negotiations … so that, in January, I can begin. I’m working on a feature film. It will be my first feature. But there will be a first iteration exploring the dialogue around the work and the creation of the screenplay and that will be shown at the Chisenhale Gallery in London next May. Like a lot of my work, there will be staggered iterations. It happened with the Software Garden, and it had to happen with Rafts.

VS: One of the things that really stood out in your Rafts project was the quality of the music that ran throughout - composed in collaboration with the community you worked with, but arranged and played by you. I believe music was a career you were considering seriously at one point, and you had this amazing musical education through a youth spent singing and performing intensively in cathedral choirs and pop groups. Do you ever wish you had gone down that route?

RP: No, I don’t regret it now. I’m not a purist musician. I think maybe music is my most intuitive language. But I do love image-making and I do love working with people. There’s a very kind of “people side” to me, even if I’m actually quite a recluse. If I had gone to a music school, it would have been way too structured, so to give Chelsea (Art College) its dues, it was the best possible place for me where I could just do anything. There was no structure. I spent the first two years just learning a language (Estonian). I am a huge language geek.

But with my musical background, it’s common that musicians are obsessed with language because it’s such an audio thing. When I started at art school, the main question was: Who are you making art for? As a musician, I had all this experience where you stand up and perform for people and it’s very clear who you are making this (music) for. But with art, how do you enter into a dialogue? And I think this question of learning a language that isn’t your own is useful - to understand yourself through it … To explore how do you embody yourself in relation to another ...

Even in the first year (at Chelsea), I knew what I was going to do through the three years. I worked on one work for the entirety of my degree and that’s how I operate. I am a long- term person. Now that I work quite a lot in education, I try and encourage students to be like that: I say: you can just work at one thing, and cultivate a world, a universe.

With language it’s a living thing, and I hope the work I create is like a permaculture, it’s always living.

Rory Pilgrim, …f…g…. 10,000 flowers, 2022. Oil, crayon, and pencil on board, 30 x 45 cm. Turner Prize 2023, Towner Eastbourne. Collection Fries Museum, Leeuwarden. Photo: Angus Mill Photography.

VS: Does having that experience with music, as a composer and arranger and musician help when it comes to synthesising all the elements of your work?

RP: I think a lot of it is just trust. It’s a bit like a balancing act, where I do what I do and then there’s this process of working with … or making with other people. (What’s important is) they feel they can be completely themselves. At certain points, I am kind of sculpting or making suggestions, but I’m trying to do that in the essence of that person.

VS: Are you planning to write songs for this new film?

RP: I’ve already written 15 songs. It will be very music driven. But I’ve realised that I’m a terrible (script) writer really. Songwriting is my form of writing. I will be working with the people who are incarcerated to make music, so it will feature them in that way.

VS: In your interview with (Whitechapel outreach programme) Duchamp & Sons, you said your Quaker practice is very important to you, although you were raised as High Anglican.

RP: My engagement with Quakerism is something that has shaped me greatly. Maybe it’s also (about) going from this Church of England background and to see that some things can be so different within a Quaker structure. For me, with Quakerism, what’s most important is that, in its bedrock, it’s a ritualised form of listening and responding. And again, that is a form of bridge. When I’m working with people and I’m asked about that balance between what might be my work and the work of others (I am figuring out) how do you allow a space in which you really listen or give space to it? I think that’s what I learned a lot through my Quaker experiences.

Rory Pilgrim, Rafts, 2020. Oil, pencil, nail polish, and body glitter on wooden panel, 10,2 x 15,2 cm. ABN AMRO Collection. Installation view, Turner Prize 2023, Towner Eastbourne. Photo: Angus Mill Photography.

VS: Do you have hopes for the impacts your work might have, even if you don’t think of it in such blunt terms?

RP: Maybe that’s where the music comes in: when something feels overwhelming or unquantifiable, maybe you create an emotional resonance with this. That’s why songs are so important. Four minutes and they’re so graspable and you can listen to them over and over, and they become like soundtracks to our lives, and they change with what we’re experiencing in our own worlds.

VS: Finally, let’s talk about the Turner Prize nomination. How do you feel about being nominated for this once controversial prize?

RP: The Turner Prize is one of these things you grow up with. I feel very honoured. It means a lot to the people I work with (as recognition for) something which we started and didn’t know the outcome of. It means a lot to those who have worked on the project, and that’s really important to me - that level of … I suppose respect. In the end, people desire to be part of this project in the hope that if they share (their story), someone else seeing it might feel less alone. And I think people do enter into these works wanting to share and connect with others.

Rory Pilgrim: Rafts is on show as part of the Turner Prize 2023 show at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, until 14 April 2024. The Turner Prize winner will be announced on 5 December.

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