Pilgrim (1988, Bristol UK) is an artist currently on a residency in Dakar exploring queer/LGBT experience in Africa. Through the employment of performance, video and music his work reveals autobiographical accounts in dialogue with other individuals. The starting point being a personal question, Rory seeks to unravel religious structures that manifest through ritual, music and aesthetics. He does so by retaining an element of expression, collective experience, and understanding in his artistic practice.
In the following conversation Emma Siemens talks with Rory Pilgrim about the development of his artistic practice and focus on the work “Sacred Repositories”.
Conversation text below
Emma Siemens: Could you share with us a work you are currently working on?
Rory Pilgrim: At the moment I am in Senegal working on the beginning of a project called “Affection is the Best Protection”. The work I am doing here is actually part of a wider commission I have been asked to do in Holland, with my main focus working with the queer/LGBT community. The commission in Holland is for a project called Land Art Live which is based in a town called Almere. Almere is a town which was created in the 70s from land which was under the sea and is a perfect example of a 1970’s architectural social experiment/engineering project. As there are no “historical cultural places” the municipality decided to commission famous artists like Richard Serra, Robert Morris and Daniel Libeskind to make land art works which would create a connection between people and the new landscape. The project “Land Art Live” is commissioning a different artist to create a live work for one of these Land Art Works. I choose the land artwork by the architect Daniel Libeskind called “The Polderland Garden of Love and Fire”. The initial attraction was that it seemed the piece where the artwork had most blended with the landscape and created its own rather strange energy. Over the last 20 years it is also best known as the main gay cruising ground in the area and I was really intrigued that it naturally evolved as this place for people to have sex, share intimacy and feel liberated. It feels almost too coincidental that “The Garden of Love and Fire” would become a place for people to have sex, even if its original intention was to create these geographic lines in the landscape connecting Almere to the birth places of 2 poets of “Love” (St Juan de la Cruz) and “Fire” (Paul Celan). So for the commission, I wanted to explore how the land artwork could connect to other places in the world where questions of “Love” are very different. I started to think how the “garden” could actually become a relevant place to bring people together to share intimacy and fight for liberation freely where they cannot elsewhere due to the threat of violence. I am interested how “love” and sexuality can really be utilised as this social/world force to radically challenge ideas and how we live, an idea that seems to have been lost through caution and cynicism between the 70s and the AIDS crisis. So I am working with the queer community in Almere and different places around the world to explore how the garden can be a place to do that. I am working towards a big event in 2015 that will hopefully culminate in a film and body of music that can travel beyond the time of a single event. Working with the voice, music and language naturally become the most important ways to do this. So I am only really at the beginning, and Senegal is the first place that I have travelled to work.
ES: Were you accepted into this residency based on a concrete proposal? If so how has it evolved since then?
RP: I made a proposal based on my current work exploring queer experience and was luckily accepted even with the sensitivity surrounding the subject. In Senegal same-sex relationships and sexual acts are completely illegal with imprisonment for up to 14 years. There have been violent acts and people for example are shamed in the newspaper if discovered. I have been here for just over 2 weeks and it has gone very quickly. While here I have been exploring how queer communities in Africa are able to have a voice and express themselves. It is hard to describe how sacred, vulnerable and courageous an act it is to do so here. It is important not to underestimate the political act of sharing experience. I am exploring how the “garden” in Almere can provide a space to share a voice without the threat of violence through sharing stories of love. It is apparent how important the relationship is between the voice and body. Over the year I hope to develop a choreography based on the relationship between the body and these questions of love, land, activism and private/personal experience.
ES: It seems as though an occurring thread throughout your practice has been the importance of the individual’s voice and how it is either represented or suppressed within a community. Would you agree with this observation? Has your worked changed in recent years?
RP: Maybe it is easiest to answer this question in relation to the last work I completed. Last year when I met you I was in transition moment. Before that I had a really intense 2 years when I left De Ateliers where I made 8 works very intensely. It was work I was very happy with and felt like it had been brewing in the 2 years before that where I felt like I really didn’t make anything. The work was predominantly performative with a lot of organization involved, and was hard to keep sustaining. In most of this previous work the role of the individuals voice within a collective experience was vital. However it was important for me to take time to explore things which I felt were subconsciously arising and my “own” voice. So, towards the end of last year I found myself picking up a video camera for the first time properly in about 8 years and at first started by having a lot of fun experimenting and just being very playful. As a teenager I made a lot of films so it almost felt returning to that time when I did not really have a clue what I was doing. It was incredibly liberating after feeling that I had to know exactly what I was doing and working quite pragmatically. It was also brilliant to burst out a sort of aesthetic within me which was not so present in past work, which was more connected to my religious background, and a British civic aesthetic. After making a series of experiments, I finished my first film at the beginning of this year called ‘Violently Speaking’. It felt like a really big step for me as it finally felt like I was about to bring many things together I had been searching for. In many ways the film is very personal. I decided to go to America, partly because I wanted to go but also because it felt like it harboured many of the things I had been thinking about. I had been thinking a lot about the religious history there and that it was this place that people travelled to, through this utopian vision of ‘new beginnings’ and ‘progress’ which maybe felt attractive with the frustrations I felt in my work. But the irony was that I ended up being connected most with something that was most personally unresolved in my previous work, my relationship with Quakerism. When I was 14 I started going to the Quakers and that became an important part of my life, but since moving to Holland I stopped being so connected. I felt like a lot of my work was coming out strongly with my connection to Quakerism but I needed to understand this connection more. While I was in the USA I contacted Quakers as they are people I naturally contact when travelling and I ended up filming a dialogue between 3 Quaker ladies in Salt Lake City. There was a young woman who was around my age who had just started to go to Quakers a year ago after leaving the Mormon Church that was a very big deal. Hearing her talk and the dialogue reconnected me to this feeling of how important it is to find a community in which you share ideas and feel a part of, which affirmed things in my work and also helped me move on. The conversation is also interspersed with dream like sequences of Drag Queens I filmed in New York where I felt the sense of community and a “family” like network of support that felt very sacred and strong. It is also structured by a series of short songs I wrote for my sister and her friends who happen to be the same age as when I discovered Quakerism.
The film is quite abstract, and I am still trying to understand it actually. But it felt incredibly liberating to create something that felt very open and I was able to find my own voice a bit which I felt was rather clouded after working a lot with large numbers of people. I sort of have this dream that it is the first film in a new cycle of films called “Sacred Repositories”. I love the idea of thinking of a film or a piece of music as a “sacred repository”. The songs in “Violently Speaking” are a bit like American folk/Gospel tunes but I would love to run with them further as at the moment they are very basic shells. Hopefully a film from the work I am doing now will result in the second film in the cycle.