On the Surface

Rachel Pimm works in sculpture, video and performance to explore environments and their materialities, histories and politics often from the point of view of non-human agents such as plants, minerals, worms, water, gravity or rubber. She is interested in the potential of surfaces and matter to transform.

Working in sound, Lori E Allen uses sources including obscure dialogue, background noise, cut-up word percussion and distorted popular television themes to create audio landscapes.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Rachel Pimm: I have a pretty straightforward background in Fine Art. I studied an undergraduate Fine Art degree at Central Saint Martins in a discipline called 4D which was developed from a blend of Critical Fine Art practice, film studies and then performative and video practice- all the extras to painting and sculpture. Then I started a project space called Auto Italia, which is still going, and went on to a postgraduate MFA programme at Goldsmiths. Those initial feelers into curating, which also included a curatorial internship at the ICA and a short stint after working in the department, have now morphed into more of a collaborative practice, where I invite people to do projects with me.

I wasn’t born in the UK though, my family are white Rhodesian and I came here from Harare, Zimbabwe in 1986- shortly after independence from Britain. This perhaps affects my interests in ways I haven’t yet unpacked, but It certainly gives me plenty to work on and address in terms of my own relationship to the world as a European settler thinking about land management and colonial histories.

Lori E Allen: My background is in social science with a Bachelors in Anthropology, Classical Studies, and Ancient Latin from New York University and a Masters in Archaeology from University College London. I never trained formally in fine art or music but when living in New York began a very low key experimental type of art practice around media archaeology. This began as a method of chopping up broad-casted media in real time to extract concurrent narratives across television networks, and took the form of a weekly public access television series. I then expanded that focus to include field recordings and began focusing more on sound and sound scape than image. My practice is still generally very low key in that I while I do make solo work it’s mostly for my own amusement, and I prefer a collaborative approach in creative work.

RP: when Lori and I work together we are good at thinking about larger scales than I do on my own- humans, animals, time, place. Lori is very technical and I do admin 😉 I’m only half joking. We have made performance together since 2015. You can listen to worming out of shit performed at the Chisenhale Gallery in 2015 here and Disintegration, performed at the Whitechapel Gallery earlier this year, here.

Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm: Disintegration, Whitechapel Gallery, 2019

Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm: worming out of shit, 2015, performed at CCA Glasgow, 2016

Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm: Disintegration, Whitechapel Gallery, 2019

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

RP: For a short while I did a full time office job at the Ideal Home Show, designing and specifying the model home village at the show – then building show houses inside Earl’s Court. For me, not only is this display format just as interesting historically as gallery exhibition, its lineage can be traced via British Colonial histories to the Crystal Palace, botanical gardens, raw materials, the industrial revolution and housing after the Garden City movement- really rich (and violent) contexts for the relationship between stuff we take from the ground and the systems of engineering and capitalism that surround its movement and processing.

I’m also influenced by Natural History. I find old books and go to libraries a lot – the Geological Society, Linnean Society, Bournemouth Natural Science Society library, the Teri Institute in New Delhi, and then gardens and greenhouses, physics evening classes, kids science kits, conversations and study days with friends, and strolling around, taking photos of infrastructure space, and ways in which ‘Nature’ is being put to work. I learn a lot from living with houseplants about care, and time and growing.

LEA: For me it’s probably studying archaeology that has influenced me most. I like thinking about and witnessing the ways people, myself included, interact with and build relationships with inanimate objects – of which I would also class mass media. There is so much story-telling in the scars, rips, wear and tear of a thing. Yet the thing is silent while retaining a record of events it’s undergone.  Conversely, mass media is not silent. I think the pull from the mute objects to the noise of constructed narratives led me to think more about noise and silence in internal dialogue, where it comes from, what records it holds  – and I suppose focusing on broad-casted media, especially the way it is told/digested/re-told/re-digested is a way of getting at/excavating the noise and silence of objects embedded in narrative rather than the earth.

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

RP: I suppose what things are made of, how things work, and how they change the environment are my primary focuses. I find the idea of the surface of something especially interesting because this is the place where the change visibly happens. Also because everything material comes from the surface of the earth. The theory conversations around materialism where they combine with climate activist, feminist, queer, crip or anti-racist work are part of what engages me in this and the desire to understand the environment through structures other than Cartesian western patriarchal power.

LEA: I’m really interested in mass behaviours, ritual, and taboo how they generate, what they come from, how enduring they are, and what influences rate of change. Rachel and my underlying interests are really different in this way, but her focus on material and the surface of the earth I have found to be a really good way round again to approach such questions. It is literally from the ground up and makes human society kind of less important – which is a relief.

RP: and Lori helps me think of ways to create narratives around images and sound. She’s a good storyteller and while I’ll Wikipedia something or buy something, she’ll just get on and make a test. Lori is very unafraid of trying something even if it sounds hard or stupid, because doing it mechanically almost always works something out.

Rachel Pimm photographing landscape at Dallol in the Afar Triangle, 2019

RB: In 2018 you were involved in the project ‘Experiments in Art & Science’, a collaboration between Kettle’s Yard and The Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. Can you say something about your work in this?

RP: I had a period of around 9 months where I was supported by a stipend and was given fantastic access to the genetics labs run by Eric Miska at the Gurdon Institute who had approached the art partners to be able to make a project with no fixed outcome, refreshingly. I was matched with some scientists whose research I could engage with and rather than being a project, it became more of a change of practice and an opportunity to learn and reflect. I read a lot, and used much of my production time and fee to collate a lovely library of rare and specific books on morphology, geology, biology, and also go on field trips to archives to see the lineage of the research into morphology- through fish and worms. I learnt some amazing things- like that transgenerational traumas are chemical in cells, that from suboptimal exposure to environments that suppress life (and those survived by ancestors) sit in a protein you can dye and actually see under the microscope in the RNi. That’s how life forms become resilient. That is mind blowing. I also now understand that ALL patterns of growth and shapes in nature are connected in a spectrum, and that this is due to chemistry and physics at a cellular level, also completely amazing and an overhaul of my thought process.

Rachel Pimm and Emilia Santos at the Gurdon Institute Cichlid Aquarium, production Morpho Chemical, 2018 (Experiments in Art and Science  residency, Cambridge University and Kettles Yard)

Rachel Pimm at St Andrews University Special Collections library, production for Morpho Chemical, 2018-19 (Experiments in Art and Science residency, Cambridge University and Kettles Yard)

Rachel Pimm at Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland, production for Morpho Chemical, 2018-19 (Experiments in Art and Science  residency, Cambridge University and Kettles Yard)

I’ve since also been lucky enough to do more labwork, including some photomicroscopy, with Radar, in Loughborough at the Chemical Engineering department.

SEM microscope samples from Afar triangle fieldwork, production for S, Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019 (Radar residency, Loughborough University)

RB: You are taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition ‘Dark Matter: 95% of the Universe is missing’. Can you say something about your involvement in this?

RP: I was approached to work on a set of new elements in the Periodic Table- which is one of my catalogues of collaborations, and I approached Lori E Allen to come on a very amazing field trip to the Afar triangle triple rift junction in Ethiopia and make work together in response to Sulfur. This has since turned into a project about alchemy- we’ll be doing a performance at a late event, and then showing S and Hg at an event on August 7th. I recorded mainly images and Lori recorded mainly sound but we will fully collaborate on the works in the events.

LEA: I was invited by Rachel Pimm to take part in this project, which follows from a previous work we did with the material from Ethiopia, linked above :)!

S, Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019 (Dallol)

S, Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019 (Lava fields at Erta Ale crater)

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate in this exhibition?

RP: Art doesn’t have to communicate. That’s one of the great privileges about making it.

LEA: I agree with Rachel’s comment above and would add that in my experience it’s very hard to control that aspect in the first place as well as limiting the opportunity of a work to communicate how it will or won’t with anyone seeking to engage with it.

RP: Maybe you can learn and control some of the tools at your disposal so you can take a didactic political position where needed or get people thinking on a particular track, like when we talk about the use of vocal samples.

LEA: Hmm. yeah. But even so what you want to communicate may not translate the way you expect it to, and that’s kind of the best part about a work becoming organic/non static

RP: But aside from this, we want to show people the images and sounds we experienced when we went off to investigate sulfur as an element important for life forms. We have looked at a lot of Alchemy practices and cultural references of burning hell holes (Sodom and Gomorroh! Volcano Deities!) and tried to incorporate those alongside harder sciences like  geology and chemistry. We think it will be messier than the show itself, perhaps more true to the way matter operates.

RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?

RP: Both seem to be about trial and error, failure, learning and experiments. Art can change form part way through though, methodologies can be really sloppy compared to the science. In both making and in publishing- peer review matters to both, but I find science a bit of a straight-jacket and would want to work on more things at once, not finish things, do things incorrectly or whatever. I have a lot of respect for the focus of scientists. Artists working with scientists have the pleasure of finding out facts and then ignoring them entirely if they want. I imagine scientists like the lateral thinking opportunity to flex their ideas. Sometimes scientists actually want an illustrator, which is a misunderstanding. Illustration is a whole other, also very interesting thing. But that’s not what artists do well.

LEA: Both are linked by inquiry of the observed or experienced and function in similar ways in the quest for understanding a thing, a relationship, a process, a being. While the scientific method is robust and disciplined this can have limitations. Similarly, so can art.

Lori E Allen making contact microphone and hydroponic sound recordings on a field trip in the Afar triangle, 2019

Rachel Pimm looking at Lava Rock samples, Erta Ale crater, Afar triangle, 2019

Geological samples and AV equipment on a field trip in the Afar triangle Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019

RB: What other projects are you currently working on?

RP: I have a performance coming up making some music using cash crops and plants that are domesticated at the Serpentine Gallery and am working on a menu of earth-based food for an event in Lincoln at Mansions of the Future around the practice of Geophagy.

LEA: I have vinyl coming out soon with my band from a piece we did for the Tate Modern a couple of years ago. I am working with another artist producing soundscape compositions for a performance work investigating medical imaging, for which I will also produce the soundtrack for a short film version of the work. Perhaps what I’m currently most excited about is a children’s book.

RP: We have made a start working on a video project about Salt- its geology, history, production, trade and processing. That was an unexpectedly big part of what we saw in the Afar triangle and there are a lot of leads to follow. It was bigger than the elements so it has become its own project.

Lori E Allen making sound recordings on a field trip at Lake Asale in the Afar triangle, 2019

Rachel Pimm sampling lake salt crystals during a field trip at Lake Asale in the Afar triangle, 2019

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All images copyright and courtesy of Rachel Pimm and Lori E Allen

 

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