Rachel Pimm works in sculpture, text, photography, video and performance to explore environments and their materialities, biochemistries, histories and politics. They are interested in queer, feminist, postcolonial theories and materialisms, natural histories and resource extraction, and the potential of surfaces and matter to transform. Their recent work has been included in programmes at the Serpentine Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery, Jerwood Space, Chisenhale Gallery and The Royal Academy (all London 2014-2019), as well as internationally across Europe and the US. Residencies include time spent at Loughborough University Chemical Engineering, Gurdon institute of Genetics at Cambridge University, Rabbit Island in Michigan, and Hospitalfield in Scotland. Rachel is currently artist in residence at The White House in Dagenham, working in their garden, and has a forthcoming commission with Arts Catalyst in 2021.
Q: What do you enjoy the most about the Quincunx project?
R: My practice in general is like an ongoing investigation into what everything is in the world around us and how all those things connect to different histories and to production. In this project, I can focus on production or the history of plants being aligned to medicine. I’ve been thinking about plants for a long time, in terms of the production of raw materials for the building trade or tactile products that can be obtained from them. This project gives me a concrete way of thinking about how plants have a direct relationship to functions within the body. For me, the body is a really useful analogy, because it’s also a kind of social body.
Q: Could you elaborate on your research into breathing and its relation to plants?
R: I’ve been reading a book called What Is Life (2000) by Lynn Margulis, in which she talks about the idea of gases within the whole of the atmosphere being seasonal, like the earth takes breath at a different pace to the breath of the body. The planet breathes in and out seasonally. And there’s a kind of photosynthetic relationship to oxygen. When I think about the earth breathing at a different pace, we’re doing all these quick breaths in between each of its rotations as well. So for me, it’s about how our body is situated within the wider environment of all of the other species’ bodies.
Q: We have been researching nature worshipping in Shamanism. Is that related to your practice at all?
R: I don’t know a lot about Shamanism, and I’m definitely more of a student than a teacher, but I do think often about the idea that everything that you ingest becomes a part of your biology. That’s why I find food really interesting. Also types of medicating that are potentially on the edge of psychedelia, because you’re altering the chemistry within your own body, which affects everything, including your world view and neurological functions. So it’s a kind of alchemy to work with other elements and organisms by eating them. To an extent I think nature worshipping is observing these processes, allowing those things to flourish inside your body as well as in your environment.
Q: How do you understand the ‘interspecies intimacy’ that Daisy Lafarge mentions in her Q&A?
R: I recognised the proximity in that human beings are still very much entangled with the environment they are living in. The idea of breathing, or the fact that you’re taking part of the environment into your own body through breath, and that intimate distances include the air as well as tactile touch. Every time you breathe is a case in point of how close the proximity to others is. When Daisy talked about intimacy, it complicated which parts of chemistry and biology are in the air and how that travels around our body. I found that really exciting.
Q: What is your process within the project? Are there elements of your research and work that you believe would benefit from being presented in a physical context?
R: We are starting to work on the sound part now. I was keen to think more about the compositions that Hildegard von Bingen wrote, and to consider them as a communication device between medicinal plants and the aural systems in the body, but also because sound waves have an effect on what’s around them. I got really interested in planetary frequencies and using the frequencies of cosmic bodies. Herbalists studied astrology too, and attributed plants to planets. Mercury ‘rules’ the throat and lungs. Cosmic bodies can also be thought of in terms of waves: for example, the way in which the moon produces a frequency and the wave that comes to the earth pushes and pulls bodies of water around. Lilah looks at sound waves and thinks about them pictorially. And there’s a lot of sound wave imagery, like the horizon line and the divergence from the horizon that I think we haven’t got to explore yet. But sound is a useful way to connect with the audience. There are certain types of music that, as you’re listening to them, will actually slow your heart rate and breathing. The idea of producing something like this for a public is exciting, because it means that there could be a collective slowing of breath.