November 5, 2014
by Gabrielle Willms
Pam Hall is an interdisciplinary artist based in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Her twenty-five-year career has spanned a range of mediums while investigating questions of knowledge, labour, community, and feminism among others. This past summer, a collection of Pam’s work entitled Housework(s) was on display at The Rooms in St. John’s. I was struck by her commitment to her questions (which she often researches on location for months), her capacity for generous yet political collaboration with diverse communities, and her fluidity. I contacted Pam, who was as gregarious and thoughtful as her work suggests, on Fogo Island, where she continues research for the next chapter of her Encyclopaedia of Local Knowledge.
Gabrielle Willms: Do you see yourself as part of a community of Canadian artists?
Pam Hall: I see myself as part of many communities. Some are Canadian artists. Some are artists in other locations in both space and time. Some are communities of non-artists. I am not convinced there is a single community of Canadian artists but feel connected to many artists in diverse communities in this country and in others.
A portion of your work, such as ongoing projects The Apron Diaries and Toward an Encyclopaedia of Local Knowledge, investigates and celebrates the minutiae of women’s everyday life in smaller communities. What made you want to record and share aspects of rural Newfoundland life (i.e. the importance of women’s work in both domestic and industrial realms)?
While these projects are indeed rural, I can easily imagine them emerging from urban locations. Women’s labour exists in hospitals and factories as does local and vernacular knowledge. These projects are located in rural Newfoundland because that is where I was following my questions. I suspect my interest in the rural reflects my interest in work and knowledge that is still directly connected to a live and lively environment that we do not control. This connection within ecosystems, environments, “natures,” is most interesting to me.
The Apron Diaries project, which consists of colourful outdoor installation of aprons as well as portraits of female workers, has been displayed in several local communities, including Arnold’s Cove and Bonavista Bay. How do these communities respond to this project?
I can speak only to the Icewater Seafoods and Auntie Crae’s communities and to audiences of this work at The Rooms during the HouseWork(s) show there. The communities of work and workers and the audiences at the art gallery found this work deeply engaging. The Icewater work portraits, for example, are still installed in the women’s lunchroom at the fish plant. They have been there (and are owned by the plant) since they were first competed in 2009. One of the most common responses to this work is surprise at the HUGE quantity of hours invested in the project and appreciation that it counts (and can be counted).
To what extent do these siteworks contribute to a larger discussion of female labour? Do participants engage with the work as a political act?
I think some might, and others might read it as simply celebratory—an act of valuing by making visible. I think it is safe to say that at the fish plant, where workers are unionized, that many might see this work as politically informed. For me, the work is very political, as is almost all of my work.
Collaboration and collective projects generally seem to be an important part of your work. Does this reflect your understanding of art and its purpose? How important is it to you to facilitate the creativity of others, to create a sense of community?
My leanings towards collaborative, co-operative, and collective projects reflects my belief that art has work to do in the larger world. I’m interested in revealing our collective connections across difference and distance, and the possibility of artists working outside the boundaries drawn by a hermetic art world. I am instinctively interdisciplinary, and suspect I have never believed that there is one way to know the world. I like working with scientists and doctors as much as with fishers and farmers.
You are very active on social media, using Facebook as a means to share ideas, collaborate, and receive feedback. For your Building a Village project you asked participants to mail you decorated paper house templates, which you then assembled for an installation. Facebook allowed you to collaborate with a diverse, dispersed group of people and make this virtual community visible. What have you found, as an artist, to be the perks and pitfalls of using social media? Do you see this kind of online “community” as a valuable alternative to more geographically localized communities?
I am a critical user of social media, but I use it intentionally for many purposes, not the least of which is to diminish my isolation from many people to whom I feel deeply connected. I see it as an enabler, a way to work and play with others who I cannot afford to physically visit. Social media simply adds a layer, a way to share with a small group of friends or, in the case of Building a Village, a means to facilitate community-building. The pitfalls are petty distraction, the endorsement of narcissism, and how it is undoubtedly being used to gather data on its users.
New Readings in Female Anatomy, a multimedia exhibit you completed in 2001, is described as “a complex and personal mapping of the complexity and diversity of female embodiment and its historic construction by western history and science.” What did working on this project reveal to you about the discourses amongst women around their own bodies? What did it reveal about your personal relationship to western, patriarchal discourse as an artist and woman?
The preoccupation with medical representation of the female body and medical intervention in the female body was extremely personal. I’d been working on another project and I had to take a break to have a hysterectomy. At forty years old. And I was going, what the fuck?! Up until then, I really had been living in my body the same way that many of my generation lived in it. We were political, we were sexually autonomous, we were the first generation with access to birth control, but the body was invisible. As long as it was doing what we wanted it to do, it was fine. But that surgical experience stopped me in my tracks.
When we discovered it was not cancer, there was not only a great relief but a great permission. Ethically, you can be a voyeur of your own medical experience. If it’s your own body, you can ask the path lab to bring your x-sized womb to you in a white tray so that you can photograph it. That experience opened up this whole line of questioning that started very personally, and became very political. It was a process of voicing and imaging the unnamed, making visible the invisible, taking those things out of the body, and gathering stories from other women. I was able to step into a more obvious dialogue with “theory,” “history,” “philosophy” (in order to contest many of their presumptions) and also to build my own multi-vocality with text, image, sound, and object, while incorporating the voices of others. It was a watershed for me, in a number of ways.
You describe your daily gestures as “gentle interventions, which serve as small ‘presents of ‘presence.’” What does it mean to you to be present?
To be thought-less, without objective awareness, swallowed by full engagement, simply there or here. Out of self. Self-less.
Has the repetition of these gestures created a sense of consistency or progress for you?
This does create a sense of reliance, a way of seeing the immediate moment. It’s like I’m in a state of readiness in every environment I enter, to find a tool that will act as a lightning rod for making something visible.
What projects are you currently developing? When can we next see your art on display?
I am in full research mode for a new chapter in the Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge on Fogo and Change Islands until just before Christmas .
HouseWork(s) will hopefully be exhibited at the Kamloops Art Gallery early in 2015.