Pam Hall. Towards an Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge: Excerpts from Chapters I and II (St. John’s: Breakwater Books, 2017).
By Sara Spike
What does knowledge look like? Artist and ethnographer Pam Hall offers a compelling model in Towards an Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge: Excerpts from Chapters I and II. Building on Hall’s forty-year career as an interdisciplinary artist engaged with place-based knowledge in rural Newfoundland, this book documents the community ethnography project at the centre of her recent PhD from Memorial University.
A handsome hardcover art book, the Encyclopedia opens with a substantive introduction, offering Hall’s reflections on local knowledge and rural culture. She reveals local knowledge to be the accretion of place-based sensory training, embodied, situated, and specific, but always in conversation with other knowledges, other places, other knowers. The settler communities of rural Newfoundland have always been connected globally to other places through circuits of colonialism and capital. As Hall notes, “here and away remain part of daily conversation” (20).
Hall challenges the authority assigned to quantitative, data-driven knowledge at the expense of “the qualitative, the embodied, the value-laden, and many individual and cultural ways of knowing that form and inform our embedded relationship within our now endangered ecosystems” (23). The Encyclopedia centres rural knowledge but also disrupts binaries of local/global and official/vernacular, encouraging instead an embrace of “both-and-more” (19) as a path toward the sustainability of rural communities.
Hall’s introduction is also a generous guide to art-based ethnography. She walks readers through her practice – “look carefully, ask everything, listen deeply, pay attention” (29) – and discusses the process of taking the work back to her community collaborators. This book is a static version of the original collection of unbound 11×17 prints, copies of which are now held by local archives in the participant communities. The prints were initially designed to be displayed, to be mobile and unsequenced, and Hall grapples with how knowledge is transformed and transmitted in these various guises.
The primary medium of the Encyclopedia is collage, more than 160 gorgeous full-colour pages of orderly disorder: a mix of photographs and illustrations, handwritten notes and typed texts vividly documenting the customs, foodways, and material culture of rural Newfoundland. Each page is titled and represents knowledge about a single topic, often reported by an individual named informant. Hand-drawn maps of local berry-picking spots. Photographs of raw and prepared foods, from pies to bottled rabbit meat, accompanied by handwritten recipes. Labelled diagrams of the parts of a boat, or the components of various types of fishing gear. Nautical charts overlaid with notes about knowledge of the fishing grounds. Photographs of the work of hands, and often the hands themselves, knitting socks or making quilts, hooked mats, sealskin slippers, or useful knots. The original prints are occasionally glitchy and distorted, perhaps the effect of enlarging low-resolution images, detracting somewhat from the aesthetic pleasure of the book, but the sheer joy emanating from each page tends to compensate for this.
The Encyclopedia is divided into two geographical chapters, covering first Bonne Bay and the Great Northern Peninsula, and then Fogo Island and Change Islands. The book upends the organization of a traditional encyclopedia, forgoing alphabetization and also defying the notion that complete knowledge of a subject can be contained in a single entry. Numerous topics recur across different locations: knitting, berries, boatbuilding, cod, moose. The online version of the project (http://encyclopediaoflocalknowledge.com) uses tags to allow readers to create topic clusters, bringing complementary information together from disparate locations. But in book form, Hall chose place as the primary organizing principle, honouring the specificity of the knowledge, a reminder that knowledge always comes from “somewhere in particular” (20).
Hall does not aim for comprehensiveness; the project is necessarily and intentionally fragmentary. It is an eavesdropped moment in a conversation, but it is also an effort to keep that conversation going. As Hall observes, “knowledge calls out knowledge” (36). When the completed pages were displayed in each community, new collaborators came forward to share what they knew about net-making or salt fish. Ideally, as it circulates, this book will inspire further discussion about rural culture and knowledge, both in outport Newfoundland and elsewhere.
To her credit, Hall does not restrict her definition of local knowledge to so-called traditional knowledge. Although much of what she documents has been passed down through generations, this is not a nostalgia project or a search for cultural purity. Traditional knowledge is represented in its contemporary forms, as living, changing practices performed by real people today. Women add onion soup mix to their grandmothers’ bottled caribou meat recipes; fishermen use the latest navigation technologies; on a map titled “Where Things Come from in Conche,” local businesses are identified, but so too are the WalMarts in Corner Brook and St. John’s. As Hall notes, “new materials come along, new technologies emerge, and old ways of doing things adjust, change, and are modified. … People are nimble and innovative and are delighted to try new things with old ways” (144). The people of rural Newfoundland are tradition bearers; they are not frozen in time.
This nimbleness is essential to the future of rural communities. The Encyclopedia lovingly archives knowledge at risk of being lost as younger generations leave, severing the embodied ties to local environments that make such skills meaningful and transferable. But it also documents the ways that rural people have adapted to change in their communities, the environment, and the economy from a position of place-based global awareness. Hall writes: “Working to reveal a bigger and more diverse picture of knowledge invites us to develop collaborative, accessible, and imaginative strategies for its exploration and use. It opens up our ideas about place and how we know it together.” (23) With her Encyclopedia, Hall offers a model for how visual art might contribute to our ability to re-imagine the possibilities for sustainable and dynamic rural communities in the future.
Sara Spike is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the University of New Brunswick (Fredericton).