Folds was a public art project co-ordinated by The Context Gallery in Derry in 2002. It consisted of three public artworks commissioned by three women artists based in Ireland or from Ireland. My piece, was installed in an empty shop unit in the Craft village in Derry’s town centre.
Folds followed on from one + one + one + one....(see gallery exhibitions) in the sense that it focused on the relationship between women and new technologies. It explores the impact that technological developments have had on women’s lives and experiences in relation to the textile industry in and around Derry. The shirt industry was central to the economic growth of Derry city and it relied heavily on a largely female workforce. This situation necessarily impacted on the social fabric of Derry, and altered attitudes towards women and family life, since there was very little work for men in Derry and they sometimes took on what have been considered as women’s tasks: housework, child care and cleaning. While women worked long hours and were expected to take over household duties when they returned from work, they also had a certain amount of social freedom through their work in the factories. For many women, this meant avoiding the isolation which women often feel when they are tied to the house and do not interact with other adults. In some ways, this meant that women who worked in the factories had greater freedom to explore their own becoming. This is reflected in the fact that out of the women who I interviewed, who all left school at fourteen, one subsequently became a Councillor for the Foyle Constituency, and another became the representative for Northern Ireland on the European Trades Council
The shirt factories have been regarded as a classic example of how capitalist mass production with the aid of ever developing new technologies and centralisation of resources can increase wealth and standards of living in urban regions. However, I was interested in exploring the impact of the shirt factories from the perspective of a different economy of labour, one which focused on exchange of a social nature between individuals, groups and families.Through an engagement with some of the women who have worked in the shirt factories over the years, I developed an audio installation which invoked the atmosphere of the factory when it was active, but focused less on mass production than on the ‘in-between’ of factory life, the experiences of social interaction which give mechanical labour its human quality. Material used for the sound installation included sections of interviews with ex-workers, recordings from contemporary factories, extracts from a speech by Eleanor Marx on the necessity for women to join trade unions, and pop songs.
To present this material in a audio installation seemed to be the most appropriate form for the subject because many of the women who worked in the factories were highly intelligent, but had little or no formal education. Oral communication would have been their chief means of passing on information and sharing stories. As the shirt factory industry in Derry has died out, this piece came at a critical time and aimed to preserve and re-circulate stories which might otherwise be lost.