There are still a few of the artists from the original Shoddy exhibition in April that I haven’t featured on this blog. In some cases, this was because their work was difficult to represent and do credit to, perhaps because of the media used.
Katy White’s audio visual piece in the exhibition, Kicking Up A Dust, draws on her family history over a number of generations and brings together issues of mill work, industrial injury, ill health, women’s roles, disability and care.
This was a complex piece, both in terms of the range of media used and in the themes it covered. It was highly successful; people found this work powerful and moving. Most visitors to the exhibition spent time with it, settling into the armchair that was part of the installation and listening to the whole audio track of around 15 minutes. People even took away the transcript, provided to make the work more accessible to people with hearing impairments.
In describing the work, Katy White said:
In the conversation my mum and I follow the thread of chronic ill-health in the women in her family, beginning with my great-grandma Bess, who was born in the 1890s and had mill fever. We draw parallels between Bess’s and my ill-health, uniting them as environmental and connected to work. We discuss the mutual neglect by the state and question how much attitudes to illness and disability have moved forward since Bess’s lifetime. Simultaneously, the piece explores the contrast between the healing I find in textile craft and the working conditions of textile industries as a cause of illness.
Below are some excerpts from the conversation between the two women.
Only after being ill myself I’m discovering this thread of somewhat ill-health or susceptibility to chronic health issues in this line of women on your side of the family and there’s a great – particularly in Bess’s story – I find a great sadness in that. But I also find, there’s also this story of closeness between us all… And there’s a sense of solidarity and a sense of always having looked after each other and offered each other comfort and I think there’s a real strength in that.
When we went to the industrial museum that time … there was that display about the lives of the mill workers, there was a whole panel about mill fever and I thought, that was grandma, that’s what she had. And it was so common. What an awful thing for a young girl. She never had a teenage life, like you did or I did, like a young adult carefree adulthood. She was just working in this wretched place and it really was very hard for her.
I’m interested in the environmental factors and work factors that are at play in disability and ill health. We spoke about, when we were speaking generally about the mills, the mill work caused deafness and mill workers developing sign language within that place of work. And I guess I understand my CFS in the context of both bodily, constitutional factors and also environmental factors. For me I think I’ve felt a real neglect on the part of the state and broader society and community.
We can all be vulnerable at any point but we don’t seem to care about looking after each other.
We all need these moments of care. And it’s shocking. On one level there’s been so much advancement since Bess’s time, since the 19th century, I feel like this government has taken us back there. That’s how I feel. I feel like there’s too many parallels to draw.
For me there’s a modern phenomenon of aggressive work ethic that produces an anxiety in the general population, a new type of work that, is for me, I can’t see how it’s compatible with good health and also a caring society that works towards accessibility for everyone at every moment in their life. We’re just moving backwards towards this much more Victorian state of affairs.
There’s a practical reality of these cuts to the welfare state, and treatment of disabled people which doesn’t bear thinking about, but it has to be thought about, but it’s just so disgusting. But there’s also the ideological element, the message that it sends. To me, it’s like: you’re not a person. If you can’t work long hours, six days a week, in this very efficient way and as you say, play hard the rest of the time and embrace life and – you’re not a person.