Ann Jaeger

What do we do in the face of scientific uncertainty?

Text 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 Soundtracks: Public Domain sounds from Internet Archive

In the heart of the city of Peterborough is a block of land too toxic to use. Much of the handsome Victorian architecture still stands on the 50 acre site that housed a company intrinsically tied to Peterborough's prosperity, identity and recent history. Over the years, General Electric Canada built cars, kitchen appliances, florescent tubes, lamps and motors of every size, and in its heyday employed as many as 6000 workers. It closed its doors in 2018.

Through the 20th century, Peterborough rode the wave of industrial promise that followed the second world war: the glorious age of stable union jobs, labour-saving appliances, tidy post war houses and family-friendly neighbourhoods, factory tours, company picnics, and a future full of economic hope.

The history of GE cannot exist without the history of the people who worked there. And if you live in Peterborough, you may have worked there, or have a pal who worked there, or know someone whose dad or uncle or sister worked there. And the sad truth is that too many people who worked there have suffered from a life-altering illness.

Each of those people have a story, a memory bundle that is complex. They recall the security of a decent job, the camaraderie of co workers, the kindness or injustice of managers, the smell, the unrelenting noise, the chemical feeling on their skin, the dizziness from fumes on the factory floor, the asbestos dust in their hair, the massive buildings, the feeling of pride in their work, the repetitive actions performed on the assembly line day after day, year after year.

Of the 230 claims against GE for compensation for work-related illnesses between 1945 and 2000 only 71 have been settled for the workers. The toxins that caused these illnesses were mostly invisible, though the symptoms were not. GE continued to deny culpability. It is the workers themselves who have had to do the additional work of building their case. The battle for compensation from the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) continues.

Peterborough is a company town. We have been irrevocably altered by GE's 126 year presence, and also by its absence. How will we remember its workers and its legacy?

Embroidered textile by Ann Jager.

Factory Tour is hand stitching on muslin, based on the floorplan of the GE building, which was used in the worker-commissioned Report of the Advisory Committee on Retrospective Exposure Profiling detailing the areas where different hazardous chemicals were encountered by workers.

When you look at the photographs in Peterborough Museum & Archives, you can easily imagine the din of metal echoing and clanging in the the great hall and the sour smell of burnt metal. We are struck by the beautiful architecture, but something is not right.

(Photo: Esther Vincent)

Embroidered textile by Ann Jager.

Motor Map is stitched felt based on an internet-sourced schemata of one of thousands of motors produced by GE.

I think of a motor as an iconic object. I imagine that if our civilization were to end, we would find a lot of motors. So much of Company Town centered around maps. 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.

(Photo: Esther Vincent)

Embroidered textile by Ann Jaeger.

Ghost, embroidery on screening material, is based on a "map" of a human body indicating incidences of disease attributed to exposure to toxic substances by workers at GE. The dots on the diagram correspond to diseases but at first glance are almost decorative.

Something Sue James said has stuck with me. She said that while we lament the loss of jobs in Peterborough after the plant closed, she can't help but think of the workers who will take up the jobs we have lost - the workers in Mexico or Vietnam, who will receive lower pay and fewer health protections.

(Photo: Esther Vincent)

Black paper mache scultpures of a motor and a heart, by Ann Jaeger.

Motor / Heart
Two black sculptures in paper mache are crude depictions of a heart and a classic motor. Both icons represent engines: one, the engine of human life and the other an engine of industry.

On a shelf in the collection of the Peterborough Museum and Archives, one of the few objects that represents GE's century long presence in Peterborough is a plain black motor, one of thousands built over the course of a century in every size and shape. Motor / heart is a false equivalency. 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. Yet as a society we are still willing to sacrifice human safety in the service of economic gain both in our own country and by outsourcing labour.

(Photo: Esther Vincent)

Performative Mapping

Three dimensional mapping installation. Three dimensional mapping installation.
Three dimensional mapping installation. Three dimensional mapping installation.

Anne White residency with Public Energy

Photos: Will Pearson

Ann Jaeger traces images under projection footage.

Archival photo from Peterborough Museum and Archives Company Town project development with Public Energy's Alternating Currents

Photo: Andy Carroll