Epping Forest is situated just ten miles from where Rory Pilgrim is exhibiting at Rowing in East London. There, under the canopy, plant biologist, Merlin Sheldrake studies the complex relationship between trees and fungi. Not only do the two exchange nutrients but fungi also distribute food between trees, directing nutrients from plants with a surplus to young seedlings or trees that are dying. Symbiosis in plants was discovered way back in the nineteenth century by German biologist Albert Bernhard Frank but the idea of a “Wood Wide Web” reconfigures what’s possible of today’s computer networks.
Pilgrim’s exhibition, titled ‘Software Garden’, is based on the idea that technology, like the ecology of Epping Forest, can facilitate beneficent exchanges between its users. The show’s main feature is a short film (22 minutes) also called ‘Software Garden’ (2017), which takes the structure of the diverse environment of a garden by combining work from a number of collaborators: sensual dance from Casper-Malte Augusta, Robyn Haddon’s singing and a poem penned and narrated by Carol R. Kallend, in which she describes the “software garden” as a place “where all the hearts of our motherboard converse”, symbolising a desire to not only link up to computers but also to employ them to connect with other people (much like the tree-fungus relationship).
‘Software Garden’ also refers to a flower shop in Tokyo, a city where much of the film is situated; there, a group of a dozen students perform a dance involving mobile phones, highlighting the most prominent mode of communication in Japan and the rest of the world today. Rather than use their phones to communicate over long distances, the students intermingle close to one another, and record their voices but also those around. The dance reaches a climax when the students assemble the phones in a tight-nit circle. They play back the recordings, creating a symphony of voices, one that is the product of both speaking and listening (or recording), the requisite components of any dialogue.
Ideas of technological communication and exchange are also reiterated in the exhibition’s layout. The film is projected on two screens, positioned in the middle of the gallery. Despite that the images are only projected from one side, they are perceptible on both sides of the somehow transparent and reflective screens. In between, the two screens is a large gap, through which you can see from wall-to-wall of the room, and against each wall is a padded bench or pew from which you can watch the film but also watch other visitors watching it. The setup creates symmetry between the opposing views of the film. It’s possible to share the same experience of the work as someone else on the other side of the gallery, promoting empathy and understanding for differing perspectives.
On the walls, brightly painted posters captioned with maxims such as “Intersect a system of care and kindness” reflect a wish to establish a technological community but the moralising tone of these works also registers a religious inflection to Pilgrim’s practice. He grew up as a staunch Anglican but later abandoned his faith. Now, Pilgrim uses his art to explore how secular society can utilise Christian spirituality and sociality outside of the hierarchy of the church. For ‘Can We Help You?’ (2009), for example, Pilgrim organised a choir to sing to morning commuters in Rotterdam, offering support to the community, rather than praising God. Similarly, in Pilgrim’s Rowing exhibition, where pews are usually pointed towards the pulpit in a church, here they point at one another, abandoning liturgical power dynamics and establishing dialogue, rather than prescription, as the basis of congregation.
Pilgrim’s democratic treatment of religion also relates his hopes for technology. In the film, he explores how Artificial Intelligence (AI) might be used to care for people with mental and physical disabilities. At the beginning of the film, Haddon chants in a robotic, synthesised tone, “We can help you keep up with your rent”. Apple’s Siri already offers its users a PA service, why couldn’t AIs also help dementia sufferers? With the UK elections around the corner and the Tories proposing increased cuts to disability care – the so-called “dementia tax” - automated care may provide a necessary substitute to present circumstances.
To finish where we started, in the same way plant symbiosis in Epping Forest offers a radical alternative to Darwin’s theory of “the survival of the fittest”, Pilgrim’s powerful exhibition attests that technology has the possibility to nurture a society and politics of beneficence.