Sitdown is an Alchemy Film & Arts series of artist interviews, published to complement its exhibitions, residencies, and other events. You can find all other Sitdown entries here.

On 26 – 28 November 2021, we present I’ve Only Been Here Half My Life, Jessie Growden‘s new film commission in which the artist connects her personal experiences of growing up as a woman in Hawick to the town’s industrial heritage within the international textiles trade.

Exploring Hawick’s former Peter Scott Knitwear mill, this new work encompasses documentary, memoir, artefacts rescued from the factory floor, and a new book featuring images of the mill following its closure – and was commissioned as part of The Teviot, the Flag and the Rich, Rich Soil, our programme of residencies, commissions and community engagement exploring the borders, boundaries and lines of Hawick, Scotland’s film town.

Jessie’s contribution to Read More, Alchemy’s ongoing project encouraging additional engagement with its exhibitions and other events, can be found here. She has also produced and published a book to complement her exhibition.

Jessie spoke to Alchemy Director Michael Pattison in autumn 2021, to discuss the balance between private and public, the ethics of exploration and artistic responsibilities to rusting junk, and riding a unicycle through an abandoned factory…

Alchemy: What kinds of impulses is an exploration of a disused mill like this satisfying for you as an artist? 

Jessie Growden: Quite a lot of different ones. I’ve always had a relationship with Hawick, visiting my family in Craik. I don’t think I ever had a holiday that wasn’t in Craik, until we moved up here and I went to a scout camp for a holiday. At the time of filming I was having various conversations with people in Hawick, who said, ‘Somebody needs to record this.’  

I later found out in 2016 someone actually photographed the mill as a record of what it’s like when it was shutting down. It looks similar to what it did when I was in there. I wanted to get in there and get some images, some footage, of what it’s actually like in this state and make it available for people to actually have a look at and go, ‘Oh I remember being in there.’ Or for whoever ends up moving into the luxury flats there. 

What did the mill suggest to you, or open up for you, when you first walked into it? 

I got this real sense, this feeling in me, that really connected me to where I grew up in Lancashire, where our family business was a garden centre. We had various sorts of industrial buildings. Nothing like the mill, but it was left sort of abandoned when the business shut down, and it became part of me and my brother’s playground. Even though you were in this giant empty space, it was homely in a way that was quite comforting, to see spaces like that. 

The smells really did something to me. The oil they used on the wools has got a really specific smell. I studied textiles and that smell of the wool in the yarn store – I smell it and I’m immediately back in the High Mill [at Heriot-Watt School of Textiles and Design] in Galashiels. Smells are a really powerful way of transporting you to different places and memories. Also the machinery, the workshop rooms, which smell of machine oil and stuff, took me back to my dad’s lawnmower workshop. These were big piles of machinery, rusting junk, that made me want to spend time in there, and to go back and see what I could pick out.  

You touch on a key tension in I’ve Only Been Here Half My Life, between the intensely personal and private and autobiographical on the one hand – things only you have access to in terms of memories, and the smells that inform and prompt them – and then on the other hand there’s this public realm, and what’s available and accessible with regard to space and the artefacts within it.  

I started off researching what other people had done with empty factories. I was aware that it’s been done before. There are a lot of takes on empty, abandoned space that’s so predictable. I don’t want to be mean about other people’s work but it’s like, ‘Oh not this again.’ It’s interesting to look at, sure, these spaces are fantastic and they’re only going to be there for a certain amount of time and they should be recorded, but if you’re going to record something, is it enough to just shoot what’s actually there? 

I found myself looking at all these videos of empty car factories and stuff in America, and it would feel soulless. Really smooth shots like they’ve gone in with a drone, and the technique is really good, but they didn’t have any kind of personality and didn’t say anything other than, ‘Look at these spaces, they’re empty.’ They didn’t speak about what was there before or what went on there and didn’t speculate about who the people who worked there were. 

I spent quite a while wandering around asking how I make something that I don’t feel is a giant cliché. And then slowly started to ask, ‘What if I started doing silly things and used it as a performance space to move my own body into it, to see what I can do to it rather than trying to reawaken or bring this space back to life?’ But to actually put myself into it, physically and metaphorically, to explore it in that way and see whether it would actually bring out something a bit more interesting to look at than just lots of empty factories. 

You position yourself within the space physically, but you’re also positioning your own history, as a woman and as an artist, within the broader context of Hawick as represented by Peter Scott Knitwear. 

When I was there in winter 2018, I found this album of postcards and all these labels that suddenly jumped out as this thing that had a story in it that was something more than endless piles of paperwork. It made me think about how I could use these postcards and labels and make them into a video, to get them to say something more than just being a slideshow. Putting parts of my own story into it felt like the natural thing to do, to actually explain what was going on behind the pictures of me unicycling across one of the big rooms in the factory. It seemed like the way to attach images of myself – of my physical presence – and what’s actually going on in my head, and what’s appearing in my notebook. It’s tricky to write about a place like Hawick, especially if you’ve got a kind of love-hate relationship with it – which I think most people have with most places anyway.  

This is a snapshot of the Peter Scott mill at particular points in time, and of you inside that space at those particular points in time too. But the work also includes images of your younger self, in the form of written memoir and diary excerpts. I’m interested in the contrasts that you feel as an artist – and again, as a woman – bringing elements of these in. Or are there weird continuities at play? 

There are so many weird continuities. I’ve got all my diaries; they live on a shelf. I’ve got the fear that I have to build a world just so they’re not just put in the recycling. Even if no one cares I want to know that they’re somewhere. It’s interesting when you diary over a length of period, cos you realise you’re not necessarily writing for yourself and you’re not necessarily writing the truth. I’ll write about something that frustrated me: ‘And I said this and they said that or whatever.’ And you tell yourself at the time that this is definitely what happened, and you realise you’re painting yourself in this wonderfully bright light. Actually it’s something you regret, hiding in a line on your bookshelf. 

You’ve interspersed these diary excerpts with postcards sent to the Peter Scott mill from various locations – mostly Scandinavia – and views of Hawick from Google Street View. How did you decide what to show and when? 

I matched the dates on the postcards to the dates in the diaries. If the postcard was stamped 3 March, then the diary entry is from 3 March. In my 2005 Jacqueline Wilson diary I realised I didn’t have enough dates. I think I spent 2006 using notebooks that didn’t actually have any dates. 

And the Google Street Views? 

They roughly sort of visually match up to the postcards. It was more cut and paste. This question of public and private – two of the shots I used from Google actually have my dad in them. One of them is outside our house in 2008 or 2009. It’s really weird to look at the old cars. This is public imagery that I’m basically stealing off Google, but also these are pictures of my family. Don’t I have some kind of right of ownership over them? 

Ownership’s an interesting question, particularly in terms of the objects you found in the factory. What kinds of responsibility do you feel to the presentation of, for instance, the postcards? 

It’s tricky. When I took it from the factory, this album, I felt like, ‘Oh shit, now I’m this artist who steals stuff.’ My first introduction to conceptual art was this BBC documentary about Goldsmiths that had an interview with this artist who was stealing people’s rhododendrons. I’m sure there was a great concept behind it. It was full of students who were going to their crits who were shitting in a jar and going, ‘A-ha!’ So I was asking, ‘Am I this terrible, terrible thief for even taking this album in the first place, despite knowing it wasn’t going to get noticed, and hoping it might get noticed now?’ The owner can have it back now if he wants! 

Taking the physical thing, I found it ethically difficult, as someone who doesn’t like to steal. But I had to redefine it. The roof was leaking and everything else had gone really mouldy and it wasn’t going to last any longer, so I’m a justified thief! But in terms of showing the postcards: I don’t feel like I’m showing anything particularly personal just because of the nature of what’s actually in them, which is kind of like, ‘Hey George, have a look at this nice shop, it’s great, have you tried the waffles in Stockholm?’ It’s that kind of level of chat, though I haven’t deciphered everything. I would have had a different feeling about that if they had a lot more personal stuff in them. They’re addressed to the work address, the directing manager. 

They’re also onscreen for relatively brief periods of time, which is obviously a deliberate decision on your part. It might not even be an ethical consideration on your part, but nevertheless there’s a choice not to linger on these postcards, which each appear onscreen for four seconds at a time. How did you arrive at this as an optimum duration? 

The first thing I learned about making films is to make yourself rules, which helps me to get an idea on the timeline in the first place. It’s something I’ve been doing since the first video I made. I’m still slightly obsessed with Zorns Lemma [1970], an infuriating film that you’re stuck with or not quite falling asleep to, but you’re being hypnotised by these images that keep changing, and you know what’s going to happen next but you’re not quite sure if it’ll change slightly. I was amazed by what that did to your head when you’re with it in a dark room. 

It’s not a case of choosing a thing and putting a time on it, and thinking, ‘Okay, four seconds for that.’ The four seconds lines up because I used four seconds for my first film, and when the postcards video is playing next to the labels video, which is two seconds [per image], you get an image and words on screen for the same time you have one image of the postcards, so they talk to each other and work together at the same time. As you said about not leaving these postcards onscreen long enough to read them, it was also about censoring bits of my diary as well. I think I’ve blurred out the vast majority of names. Not that there’s anything really dodgy, although I think I said something mean about one person! It’s about focusing in on what’s there, and then saying, ‘Okay let’s go onto the next bit,’ and seeing how it speaks to it rather than spending an indeterminate random amount of time looking at something that’s… I don’t know, I just like rhythms. 

What about the two other videos shot in the factory, one in winter and the other in summer? What kind of rules did you set yourself to discipline that material? 

I had about five hours for winter and, well, far too much for summer. I’m still mourning some of the bits I cut out. Cutting them down was a task. The winter footage is shot over one day, which made it easier to cut down because there was less of it, and I really enjoyed how the light changed throughout the day, getting darker and darker quite quickly. Whereas the summer stuff was the middle of June, so it wasn’t going to get dark unless I really hung around, and by that point I was starting to get really hungry, so I had to get moving. So the winter stuff is chronological. The summer stuff I basically bunged it all together, and then kept cutting, and cutting, based on whether it felt right. I know you bought Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up for Read More. It’s a fantastic help. It’s a skill I’m developing, to look at something and not necessarily ask, ‘Does this clip spark joy?’ but, ‘Does this clip do everything I want the video to do?’ Is it just another shot that looks nice but isn’t actually contributing, you know? 

Is it as simple as asking yourself that question at every point? How does your brain tell you, ‘Yes, this is enough, it’s not going to add any more,’ or, ‘No, I want more’? 

If you find yourself doubting if it should be in there, then it probably shouldn’t be in there. I print a screenshot of every image onto paper, and then move them around and throw various ones in the bin if they’re not doing anything for me. They’re tiny, very low-quality printouts of an image that makes it easier – you can get rid of a whole lot that way. I would pick ones that I felt, ‘Right, this needs to be in,’ and then colour them in and pin them down and say, ‘Right, this one needs to be here, here and here.’ I didn’t have two shots from the same room next to each other.

I’ve Only Been Here Half My Life runs 26 – 28 November 2021 at the Heritage Hub, Hawick, TD9 0AE