Three Pounds Eighty Five Pence (Harper and Bailie, 2016)
This blog entry outlines our most recent lines of enquiry, exploring the differentiation between the house as site of performance and the culturally constructed concept of ‘home’. Gill Perry, in the introduction to her book Playing At Home: The House in Contemporary Art loosely defines house as ‘any constructed space or building in which we dwell.’ (Perry, 2013:9) while noting that ‘ ‘home’ can be a shifting notion’ (Perry, 2013: 9) Perry states:
[o]ur relationship with ‘home’ and its material correlate, the house, can reveal complex cultural geographies in which established categories of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, class, and social status can overlap and interact. And it is through these relationships that we usually distinguish an idea of ‘home’ from that of the house.’
It is worth noting at this juncture, for the purpose of this particular research Harper and Bailie are interested in the cultural geography of class and social status and how they are performed within the concept of ‘home’. This will be expanded upon later.
Cultural historians such as Philippe Aries and Witold Rybczynski both support the idea of the concept of ‘home’ evolving in Europe, from the medieval period to the twentieth century, inferring that ‘the term was increasingly separated from the word ‘house’ ‘ (Perry, 2013: 11) Aries used the ‘home’ to explore family life and ‘an emerging concept of ‘privacy’ from the eighteenth century onwards’ (Perry, 2013: 11) while Rybczynski posits that the evolution of the concept of ‘home’ is ‘enmeshed with developing and culturally specific notions of ‘comfort’, ‘domesticity’, ‘intimacy’ and family privacy’. (Perry, 2013:11) Before Aries and Rybczynski, philosopher and social critic Walter Benjamin argued that ‘the increasing separation of living space from the place of work in the nineteenth century encouraged the development of our modern idea of ‘domesticity’ . (Perry, 2013:11) The common thought amongst these philosophers is that the concept of ‘home’ has evolved out of a sense of separation from the ‘outside world’ and ‘privacy’. Aries explorations of family life and childhood from the 1960’s led to his argument that ‘the family began to hold society at a distance [in the eighteenth century ] […] The organisation of the house altered in conformity with the new desire to keep the world at bay. It became the modern type of house, with rooms which were independent because they opened onto corridors’ (Aries in Perry, 2013: 37). This argument was centred largely on observations made of the middle-classes in European culture. This separation of private rooms ‘ was one of the greatest changes to everyday life’ (Perry, 2013:38). Aries views summarise ‘that our modern ideas of home and domesticity are tied to the evolution of separate spaces for different social activities.’ (Perry, 2013: 38)
However, it is not only an increasing sense of privacy that separates the house from the concept of ‘home’, Chinese born artist Song Dong in his installation Waste Not, collected more than 10,000 family objects from his mother’s home which she had hoarded over a 50 year period. The objects included rotting shoes, old cuddly toys, rusting radiators, bars of soap, plastic bowls, empty toothpaste tubes and window shutters. This staged display of objects traced the materiality of his family life. Perry writes of the piece, ‘[t]he chinese expression wu jin qi yong, loosely translated to ‘waste not’ is the cultural mnemonic that haunts every corner of the work.’ (Perry, 2013:33) Sung Dong’s mother had been born into a wealthy family but when her father was accused by communists of being a spy, he was arrested and jailed. The family fell into poverty after her mother died from cancer. As a coping mechanism Sung Dong’s mother revealed her emotional trauma by hoarding her possessions. Perry offers of the work; ‘ it is tempting to read this work […] as offering a kind of voyeuristic insight into a personal history-a memory of traumatic loss.’ (Perry, 2013:36) Perry continues:
The installation positions an obsessive accumulation of domestic junk within a public framework of art and display, applying museum taxonomies and classifications to the most banal everyday objects. Waste Not reminds us of the sheer materiality of domesticity-objects transform the house into the home.
Social anthropologist, Kate Fox, draws attention to the idea of privacy and object in connection to notions of ‘home’ in her book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Fox’s book stems from an attempt to ‘understand and define [her own] native culture.’ (Fox, 2008:xi) After moving to America from England at the age of six, Fox found herself reluctant to adopt the accent and join in with American customs such as pledging allegiance to the flag. Fox returned to England at the age of Sixteen and found herself having to ‘re-learn the rules of Englishness.’ (Fox, 2008:xi) In turn Fox, having spent a majority of her career researching various aspects of English culture and social behaviour, wrote her book with the aim of providing a ‘grammar’ of English behaviour. The object of Fox’s research was ‘to identify the commonalities in the rules governing English behaviour- the unofficial codes of conduct that cut across class, age, sex, region, sub-cultures and other social boundaries. (Fox, 2008:2)
In Fox’s chapter, Home Rules, she observes that if one hovered above an English town one principle would become clear ‘the English all want to live in their own private little box with their own private green bit.’ (Fox, 2008:111) Fox notes that this English quest for privacy is highlighted in the highly discreet way in which house numbers and names are hidden from view from the passing public. Fox says, ‘our house numbers are […]obscured by creepers or porches or even left off altogether, presumably on the assumption that our number may be deduced from those of our immediate neighbours.’ (Fox, 2008: 113) Fox terms this practice of concealing our house numbers as ‘the moat-and-drawbridge rule’. Fox expands, ‘an English[…][person’s] home is much more than just [their] castle, the embodiment of [their] privacy rules, it is also [their] identity, [their] main status-indicator.’ (Fox, 2008: 113)
Fox highlights that the English use the objects they put in their homes as an indicator of their status. Fox identifies an obsession with home improvements amongst the English which not only speaks to notions of territorial marking but self expression, ‘your home is not just your territory, it is your primary expression of your identity.’ (Fox,2008: 115) Although Fox’s interviews and overheard conversations with members of the public would suggest English people view their obsession with home improvements as them exercising their creative talents. Fox’s further research concludes ‘that the way in which we arrange, furnish and decorate our homes is largely determined by social class.’ (Fox, 2008: 115)
Before highlighting a number of Fox’s examples which illustrate this point it is worth mentioning that Fox uses the terms upper-class, upper-middle class, middle-middle, lower middle, upper-workings and proletariat to describe the different class factions in England, although these definitions are appropriate at this juncture, for future research we we will be deploying the terms and rhetoric developed by Mike Savage in his research for The Great British Class Survey.
Fox highlights the difference of opinion between class factions surrounding the condition of the objects placed within the home, saying:
‘Upper-class and upper-middle class homes tend to be shabby frayed and unkempt in a way no middle-middle or lower-middle would tolerate, and the homes of the wealthiest working-class nouveaux-riches are full of extremely expensive items that the uppers and upper-middles regard as the height of vulgarity.
Further, Fox illustrates the cultural implications of objects in the home and their connection to class factions:
Younger lower-middles and upper-working may have less fussy tastes their “living-rooms” are often uncluttered to the point of Dentist waiting-room bleakness (perhaps aspiring to, but never approaching, stylish minimalism). They will compensate for this lack of visual interest with an even bigger wide screen television, which they call the TV or Telly and which is always the focal point of the room (and, incidentally, currently shows at least six programmes every week about homes and home-improvement) and a high tech ‘music centre’ with big speakers. Many upper-middle homes also have big televisions and stereos, but they are usually hidden in another sitting room, sometimes called the “back room” or “family room” (not “music room”: when upper-middles say “music room” , they mean the one with the piano in it, not the stereo).
(Fox, 2008: 116)
It is important to note that Fox makes no mention of the upper-class in this conversation, highlighting that they, unlike the middle-to lower classes may have more opportunities to partake in different social activities in their homes. Their absence in the conversation implies that their social activities may be somewhat more sophisticated than watching the television.
Perry has illustrated how objects can be used to transform a house into a ‘home’, while Fox’s research highlights that these objects, and in turn our ‘homes’ are a display of our social class. It is in the space between these two findings that Harper and Bailie’s own research interests lie. Harper and Bailie had mentioned previously that ‘home’ (their own and other people’s) can be a site for anxiety and unease. It is important to highlight at this moment an awareness of the slipperiness of words, and that utilising terms such as ‘anxiety’ and ‘unease’ in reference to an arts practice based in a domestic space, between married male and female artists can be and may be read as having connotations of domestic violence. Although aware of this issue it is not something this research is aiming to address.
In order to address the idea of domestic unease that we have been exploring, we first contextualised ‘home’ as a cultural field according to the work of Pierre Bourdieu. Field is the idea that ‘[a] field […] is a social arena within which struggles or maneuvers take place over specific resources or stakes and access to them’ (Jenkins, 1992: 84). These social arenas are many and are similar to social games that humans “play”. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus,derived from the latin for habits or habitual, are the rules by which humans live or “play the game” of that social field. These “games” are being played, like Jenkins says, ‘for specific resources or stakes […]’ (Jenkins, 1992:84) or as Bourdieu terms it capital. Capital would then be “the prize” which one would win if they play by the rules of the game. So, if ‘home’ is the field, habitus is the rules by which the inhabitants of the ‘home’ live and in turn playing by these rules would reward you with the capital of feeling at ease in that particular field. However, it is a sense of unease that may be conjured to both the inhabitants and guests alike that we are interested in. A sense of social anxiety that stems from making social faux-pas for the guest or from guests making judgements of the inhabitants home.
In order to explore these ideas more explicitly we photographed objects/ scenarios within our own house which we would allow to exist in private but that, ultimately, we would tidy away in the case of visitors.
The photograph of the collection of plastic bags behind our kitchen door, was the observation that stood out the most. The image resonated with the work of Song Dong mentioned earlier in this text. We had hoarded our bags like his mother had hoarded her own banal everyday objects.
Song Dong’s performance of Waste Not made his mother’s hoarding visible, the discovery of our hoarded bags was reminiscent of Song Dong’s work. We took our plastic bags and covered our kitchen floor, the branding of the bags stood out and acted like a carpet of capitalism on our kitchen floor and we laid it out for all to see. Contextually Waste Not not only tells the story of Dong’s mother but speaks to an entire generation of chinese people. In the wake of the famine in China 1959-61 frugal living was reiterated throughout the cultural revolution. Song Dong recounts, ‘for the Chinese, frugality is a virtue […] [i]n that period of insufficiency, this way of thinking and living was a kind of fabao, literally translated as a ‘magic weapon’ (Dong in Perry, 2013: 34)
Our plastic bags made visible, also engages with cultural politics. In 2014 the British Government rolled out a law to monetize plastic bags in order to stem plastic bags being disposed of and in turn protect the planet. We counted how much the bags were worth, (£3.85) however, the monetization of the bags are worth more than their value, the environmental impact of plastic bags has been reduced 80%. The amount of money we have spent on plastic bags – £3.85 – although it may be deemed by some as an insignificant amount of money, however, to some it may be quite significant. To us we don’t deem £3.85 as a huge amount of money but that fact alone speaks of an economic and cultural laziness that is directly linked to our social class.
Moving forward we are continuing to explore our house, experimenting and interrogating the use of certain rooms, their cultural function and our own functional use of the space.