What We Seee Talks To Cultural Director, Writer, And Editor John-Paul Pryor
The term “cultural curator” is often thrown around as empty rhetoric, a kind of meaningless title slapped onto a ball of fluff. But when you meet John-Paul Pryor, no other term seems to do justice to someone with such wide-ranging cultural interests combined with a skill and passion for bringing people together. Whether it’s serving as Cultural Director of Mortimer House, the editor of AUTHOR Magazine, the songwriter and frontman for The Sirens of Titan, or running The Conversation Party, there is a keen interest in cultivating ideas — and the room to explore them.
His current work at Mortimer House feels like a natural extension of both his professional history and personal passions. Formerly the Editorial Director at M&C Saatchi, European Editor at Flaunt Magazine, Editor-at-large at Port Magazine, and Contributing Art Editor to AnOther Magazine — as well as Art Director at Topman Generation — he has a strong editorial and curatorial background along with a penchant for creating real-world connections.
“I’ve got a quite a large network of people who work in the creative and cultural industry,” he explains. “I think that it just came very naturally. It seemed like a natural crossover to start putting that into physical events, and bringing people together. That’s a really nice aspect of what I do — bringing different creative people together.”
In fact, when talking to Pryor, it’s clear that bringing people together — creating face-to-face connections — is a powerful driving force, one that’s served him well in his interdisciplinary interests and wide-ranging professional life. It’s perhaps not surprising that he worked as co-editor with Ferdinando Verderi on Jefferson Hack’s toolkit for the imagination, We Can’t Do This Alone, published by Rizzoli.
Pooling Different Experiences
When it comes to in-person communication, Pryor isn’t interested in small talk. In fact, he’s refreshingly willing to jump in with both feet — and to encourage others to do the same.
“There’s an event which I just launched last month called The Conversation Party, which is loosely based on the Proust questionnaire but updated — quite big questions, but often very personal questions,” he says. “What is the most difficult thing you have ever had to tell another human being? When is the last time you lied? What is your conception of God? Or, you know, quite broad questions about the future of AI technology. It’s a nice way to cut through the chit-chat. It’s quite nice to have the opportunity and a space where that sort of conversation is encouraged and accepted.”
In a society where emotional or controversial topics tend to be pushed aside, Pryor is intent on bringing them to the surface. Creating a space to talk about these topics seems to be both a personal preference and a driving force. He is fascinated by the conversation itself and the exchange of thoughts and opinions — as well as being determined to offer an alternative to the stilted, superficial exchanges that happen online.
“How can we evolve our ideas around certain subjects in real-time with real people and engage our minds — and also engage the physicality of being with somebody in person?” he asks. “I’m very interested in that disconnect between our reality and the art-directed reality of social media.”
Even within Mortimer House, there is a focus on evolution. The main theme of the space — and of the events that Pryor curates — is self-actualization. Drawing from American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, there is an emphasis on growth and understanding.
“People are generally coming here for something that’s happening, an event, or they’re coming here to share ideas,” Pryor says. “It’s quite intellectual, or a better word for it might be thoughtful, mindful.”
A Day Dreamer
Creating space for people to share, exchange, and grow seems vital to Pryor, but perhaps that’s partly because he clearly draws so much from learning about — and talking to — people. There is a sense that constantly broadening his experience is a source of both inspiration and of well-being.
“I’ve always been interested in pooling different experiences,” he explains. “Maybe because there’s a critical distance, you’re always gleaning a different perspective. It gives you the critical distance from your own experience of life so you can make sense of things again.”
Although he clearly has a sharp analytical mind that learns from everything — and everyone — he encounters, Pryor puts a lot of his own experiences and imagination into his creative work.
His novel, Spectacles, which has been described as a “Kafka-on-viagra-esque vision”, draws both from his love of outsider writers such as William Burroughs, Herman Hesse and JG Ballard, and the romantic poet John Keats. The result feels both deeply personal and highly imaginative.
“It was influenced by a desire to write something dark but compelling, and by some personal experience of obsessive-compulsive disorder,” he explains. “I think in some ways that book was a literary exercise about killing off the darkness in humanity — and killing off the darker parts of imagination, saying, ‘How far can you take this?’ I love books like American Psycho that really challenge. I want to write the riposte to Spectacles now, something super positive and hopeful.”
The Sirens of Titan, the band that he is both the frontman and songwriter for, also deals in darkness — but with a distinct edge of the fantastical. Metaphysical imagery runs throughout, giving it an almost mythic twist.
“I guess it comes back to me being, at my core, a kind of a day-dreamer — which can be very not useful in day-to-day life — but I can slip very easily into a reverie,” he explains. “There’s a lyric in one of the songs which says: He got lost inside a room and that’s all it takes to break a man. And I feel like I’ve been there myself, it’s almost like — it sounds so pretentious — but it’s almost like astral-projection. Almost like the ayahuasca without the ayahuasca. So I’ve got that ability, not a particularly useful ability,” he laughs. It’s clear others would disagree.
The Devil’s Verse
There’s a forward drive that radiates from John-Paul Pryor — along with a healthy self-awareness.
“I try to keep busy and doing things,” he says. “I think it stems from the fact if I don’t have anything to do I tend to fall toward depression, I need to be doing things to feel alive — whatever that might look like. We can be very self-destructive, we can turn upon ourselves. You have to be mindful. There’s a really amazing Latin palindrome: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. It’s known as the devil’s verse and it loosely translates into ‘We enter the circle in the night and are consumed by fire.’ It’s so true, isn’t it, how the mind can attack you?”
There’s a surprising and compelling contradiction in Pryor. He’s clearly someone who is happy to embrace darker thoughts — to try to understand them, to try to process them, to explore their meanings. His sense of humour is dark, much of his writing is dark, his interests are often dark. But there is inherent optimism in his belief in the power of experience, in his knack for facilitating real-life interactions, in his passion for discussing and wrestling with ideas.
The trappings of a cynic and a nihilistic sense of humour aren’t normally found within someone who loves exploring ideas for the sake of exploration, who seems to constantly have the momentum for doing more, for making room for things to happen — someone who drags themselves to regular yoga classes despite, as he puts it, not being at all a natural yogi. But these two forces, the darkness and the enthusiasm, like so many of Pryor’s quirks and experiences, have found their place — and their role in spurring him forward.
“It is doing things for the sake of doing them — I do often think, wouldn’t it be great to have been young and know exactly what you want to do?” he says. “To have that clarity of vision. But then you look back and think, well, maybe you did have it. You did study literature, and you did study journalism — the writing thing was always there. I guess it all coalesces in the end, that’s the key thing.”