“I assemble all the images. I stitch them together in the way one remembers dreams – a systematic effort to collect and analyze empirical information.” – an excerpt from Lillian Ross-Millard’s moving image work, Blue Smoke.
On Friday July 17, Brazil and I set out on Aylmer, heading south, to a destination we have not been able to frequent for months – Artspace. It is the kind of day where the heat arrives early in the morning and hangs in the air all day. The sun is not yet at the spot in the sky where it beats down on the gallery’s windows, so the heat has not yet found its way inside.
At the door, we are greeted with an invitation to sanitize and a reminder that the viewing for this installation is only two at a time. We introduce ourselves to Anne White, the principal artist for Company Town. We are all wearing masks, but our eyes give away friendly smiles otherwise concealed.
Brazil and I peruse the installation – walking slowly, almost tip-toeing, from work to work, speaking softly. I think about how even in a near-empty gallery, there is an unspoken decorum – one that I am grateful to abide by again.
Company Town “maps the complex legacy of the General Electric (GE) factory in Peterborough/Nogojiwanong.” The installation reimagines the factory “as a layered space: a 50-acre lot of buildings mostly sitting in a state of disuse in the south end of the city and a non-literal space imbued with memory, imagination and association.”
The story of GE in Peterborough is one that I have become acquainted with slowly during my time here. It includes a manufacturing powerhouse that once employed 6 000 people, corporate negligence and consistent, daily exposure to over 3 000 toxic chemicals, countless subsequent diagnoses of various types of cancer and other illnesses linked to this exposure.
The story also includes a community coming together to seek justice for hundreds of workers whose claims have been denied. In August of 2017, the province agreed to re-open 233 of these cases, but would only accept 71 of them. For many, this process has been devastating, compounding the grief of illness and death.
I have walked and biked past this abandoned factory on Park St. more times than I can count, often remarking that it resembles a prison, with its tall, barbed-wire enclosure. But I am wholly unfamiliar with this other layer of space – the one that exists in memory and in the act of remembering.
As we tip-toe through the installation, I feel like I can catch glimpses of this more ephemeral layer. I photograph the works, and think about how the act of photographing an object, of framing it perfectly in the viewfinder, aids the memory in its efforts to recall.
I start with Ann Jaeger’s Motor / Heart papier-mâché sculptures. They are a deep black, their colour and texture remind me of oil. Despite their opaqueness sunlight seems to still reflect off their exterior. Later I will read that Jaeger’s intention is to illustrate the false equivalency between a heart and a motor. In her words, “We know unequivocally that a human heart is worth far more than a motor, even when the WSIB assigns a dollar figure to the value of a life lost to corporate negligence or refuses to pay a claim at all.”
I then make my way to Jaeger’s textile works. They are hung on the window-wall – three of them – one on top of each other. The first is called Factory Tour – a hand stitching on muslin that outlines the floor plan of the GE Factory.
The second – Ghost – is an embroidery on screening material; it shows two bodies, with various parts highlighted with coloured thread to indicate the location of disease caused by toxic exposure at GE.
The third is called Motor Map. It is hand-stitched felt based on a GE motor blueprint that Jaeger found online. She writes, “I imagine that if our civilization were to end, we would find a lot of motors…. In my research I found a repository of thousands of GE motor blueprints online. They reminded me of an Incan calendar, which is like a map of time.”
Ghost is hung at eye level, which is perhaps why I can’t take my eyes off of it. I stand in that same spot for a long time, watching pedestrians pass outside, watching them walk through the coloured-thread-organs. Because these works are hung on the window, their backdrop becomes what is left of the building across the street – the old Baskin Robbins Plant, now sitting derelict and half-demolished, abandoned for cheaper labour markets.
I wonder if this placement was intentional, or if it is an example of how unavoidable these problems are in Peterborough, a city littered with empty industrial space – a breadcrumb trail of capitalist greed.
I arrive back where we started, at the entrance to the gallery, where there is a stack of booklets entitled Today is our Last Day Together: Memory Work After General Electric, made by Anne White. On the Company Town website, she explains that this book is meant to “explore the intimate relationship I have developed with documents in my process.”
In the book, she writes “This is my gesture to others’ embodied research. This is a book of how bodies absorb the environments in which they work. This is how documents remember bodies, how bodies constitute documents.”
The book features images and excerpts from The Report of the Advisory Committee on Retrospective Exposure Profiling of the Production Processes at the General Electric Production Facility in Peterborough, Ontario 1945-2000 – a document that White became quite familiar with over 9 months of research and creative work. The booklet is beautiful and poignant. I hope you can hold it in your hands someday, but in the meantime, an online version can be found on the Company Town website.
On our way out, we strike up a conversation with Anne White, and she tells us about Company Town’s origins, about her residency at Public Energy, and how the pandemic challenged her to come up with a different plan for the installation than she had originally imagined.
Part of this plan was the creation of the website. As the sun pours in through the window-wall, Brazil talks about how much she loves the website, and how it is is a brilliant way to present an installation in virtual space.
White shares with us that the person behind the website, Eryn Lidster, actually learned to code specifically for this project. We allow our jaws to drop just a little in response. The website strikes me as a map of the installation, and I do not think this is coincidental. It is conceived as being open-ended; insofar as it exists outside of physical space, and beyond the duration of the physical installation, it serves as an invitation to continue this work beyond Company Town.
As we head out the door, I pick up an instructional card created by Miranda Gee Jones, entitled Moving and listening to a body (of research). I fold it in half, and place it in my pocket, to complete at home later. On this piece of paper is “an exercise that encourages embodied thinking as a research practice for tackling a mountain of information. A way of sitting with, moving with our sources.”
A few days later, on Sunday – the last day of the installation at Artspace – a friend and I spend our evening biking around the south end, photographing the near-empty industrial spaces that are scattered throughout these neighbourhoods. Eventually we find ourselves at the corner of Park St. N and Monaghan, our eyes fixed on the pattern of the factory windows. I wonder out loud why the lights are still on. My friend knows this building to be GE, but is not as familiar with its dark history and the people left in its wake. I tell her about Company Town and we decide to take Aylmer on our way home.
When we bike past Artspace, the installation remains. It has been curated to allow for nighttime, outside viewing. Ann Jaeger’s textile work is hung on the window beside the front door. Her papier-mâché heart and engine are well-lit in the southwest corner of the building. From the windows on the opposite side of the building you can see Lillian Ross-Millard’s Blue Smoke playing on a screen fixed to the wall.
I am not wearing my glasses so I can’t make out the captions, but my friend squints and reads each aloud.
“Losing the scent of sumac I’m following, I stop looking for you. I let what is left speak for itself.”