Domestic unbliss / washing up…

You may remember the code I devised for ‘washing up types’ many months ago whilst working on the Fantastical Reality Radio Show with Mundane Appreciation?According to that scale I position myself resolutely as a type C washer-upper; i.e. I dislike doing it, I leave it until it absolutely must be done (i.e. there is nothing to eat with/on) before I do it, and I love the dishwasher. This may seem strange given that I began my PhD research by recording people doing the washing-up and discussing it. But I find the non-liking of the task, the ritual of the task and the politics of it far more interesting than bland appreciation of, or ‘ironic’ fetishising of, the task. ‘Heppy‘ dishwashing is just not as interesting to my mind as actual dishwashing.

When I was designing this blog, I went to the museum of domestic design to look at historic images of washing-up which I was planning to use to ‘brand’ my washing-up recordings in some way. But I have never used the drawings I made because  I eventually felt they would convey the wrong messages and align my work in some way to the recent proliferation of ‘ironic’ (and very pretty) domestic projects. Although 1950s advertisements for washing-up products provide masses of cute, vintage eye-candy and a pleasing array of typefaces, the values of the era reflected in the magazines are sinister and distressing. ‘Quicker shine, more free time’ is just one of many slogans I discovered which references women’s housework obligations to her family, and the slogan contains an implicit assertion about how ‘free time’ and chores must be prioritised by women. As I turned page after page of housekeeping magazines and read enthusiastic infommercials on new appliances, technologies and techniques pertaining to washing up, I found myself picking up on a certain desperation. The message of time-saving is prominent in 1950s advertising; ‘buy this product and save time.’ But this is a message which only works in an era where woman are still socially obligated to do most/all of the housework and chores, at the expense of any other pursuits they may have been hoping to follow. Housework undoubtedly must be done and does take time, but the pitching of this message is so obviously female-bound in 1950s advertisements that it is impossible to distinguish the practicalities of this from the social construct of womanhood in the era. In conclusion, I wonder whether such imagery can ever really be used to engage imaginatively with everyday tasks and chores, or whether it is just too heavy with history for making new enquiries into our relationship with the everyday. I also felt eventually that using the 1950s advert imagery would rob the washing up recordings of their subtler qualities and shoehorn them into some kind of ironic, self-aware, post-feminist, pop-culture bracket. I am all for ironic, self-aware, post-feminist, pop-culture joy: Anne Taintor’s cards, for example, are often very funny. But they are not revising our contemporary relationship with everyday space so much as ogling and mocking the values of the past for amusement.

I realised I wanted to present ideas surrounding domestic incidents – for instance, washing up – in a way more subtle and complex than can be attained via the subversion and appropriation of 1950s domestic imagery.

Not that there is never any irony, however, in my continued attempt to celebrate or engage imaginatively with everyday things. Yesterday whilst attempting to reclaim my bedroom from the ravages of my own mess I found my perfect cup of tea mug (produced as part of the Fantastical Reality Radio Show’s perfect tea radio feature) with a mouldy mint-tea teabag in it, and a thick, fumey liquid, blackened with time.

This is not my perfect cup of tea, I think. I was rather sad that we hadn’t featured a with | without mould option on the list of questions up the side of the mug. Mouldy, forgotten cups of tea – afterall – are probably as much of a fact of reality as steaming hot, perfectly brewed cups of rust-coloured goodness.

Once I had begrudgingly hand-washed and scrubbed away the stains, replaced the contents of the mug with a fresh brew and put the manky mint solution into the wormery, I sat down to contemplate the installation instructions on the new dishwasher, fully confident that I would be able to install it myself. I don’t know about you, but I found the list of installations very unspecific:

Kind of stating the obvious don’t you think? I was very keen to get more instruction on ‘installation’ but the accompanying diagrams shed little light on this, and whilst being very specific about how dishes ought to be organised in the appliance,  were mystifying in terms of explaining which tubes go where or with what.

Is the dishwasher dreaming of trees and bricks or what? And where do I affix the pipes, please?

Thankfully – if the thing ever gets installed – I will be able to refer to this helpful diagram in order to get optimal usage from the appliance. But in all seriousness: what is going on with these diagrams?

Luckily Mark had more confidence than me in fitting the expensive new equipment in the kitchen and this morning and he put it all together while I tried to type up these ramblings. I am very excited to see how the new dishwasher will sound as the old one had a distinctive, grumbling timbre which accompanied me on many occasions when I was doing stuff in the kitchen.

I heart the new dishwasher and will no doubt be recording its new purring sound and comparing it to the growl of the old one. Our domestic soundscape will now be different. But it has been an interesting time – the period of handwashing the dishes again – in terms of bringing my thoughts about the subject to light. I was listening again to many of the recordings I made of people talking about the dishes and appreciating the complex relationship that we all seem to have to this task… this difficult task, this repetitive task, this endless task… this very necessary task. This task of care-taking and of maintenance…

…and I remembered Ali Roscoe’s amazing washing up drawings. Ali started drawing the stacked dishes, drying, because ‘everyday it’s different.’ I find these drawings amazingly questioning, earnest and affirmative. Devoid of irony or lazy, simplistic rhetoric, they represent to me the need to unearth wonder in the most ordinary things and to ask ourselves how we relate to the things we do each day.

I am very inspired by these non-ironic images of washing up; their scratchy, questioning quality. As I looked over the selection Ali sent me on CD, I was drawn more and more to the charcoal versions with their immediate qualities and their sense of asking (where exactly is the line that spoon makes against that bowl?)

In the midst of my deliberations about washing up (how to depict, how to consider, how to present, how to frame, how to record?) I got an unexpected and very welcome telephone call from Radio 4 asking me to go on Questions, questions tomorrow and talk about the washing up recordings I made. I hope I will be able to convey something of my interest in daily rituals and tasks and in the personal and individual way in which we experience our everyday lives; I just hope they don’t ask me how dishwashers are installed or about 1950s housework imagery…

4 Responses to Domestic unbliss / washing up…

  1. Clare says:

    I love the idea of the poor dishwasher dreaming of trees while trapped in the kitchen…

  2. Kate says:

    love Ali Roscoe’s drawings. And general non-ironic approach. And the dreaming dishwasher.

  3. Susan says:

    I remember standing at the sink in my first apartment, looking down at my hands, covered in dishwashing suds. Suddenly, I had an image of my hands – then 22 years old – in sixty years, and how they’d be wrinkled and age spotted, and yet still covered with dishwashing suds. I realized at that moment that I was going to be washing dishes for the rest of my life. Now, it sounds like I was feeling like I was headed for a lifetime of drudgery and washing up, but I really wasn’t. It was more of a celebration of how my hands were going to be doing useful things for me for years to come.

    It’s twenty years on now. My hands have some age spots; the wrinkles are yet to come. A lot of my dishwashing is now done by the (mechanical) dishwasher, thankfully, since I’m very firmly in your category C. (Have you ever had the dishes mold in the sink?) There’s always something that can’t go in the dishwasher, or won’t fit, and so my hands are still periodically soapy.

    Hands are miracles. Really, they are.

  4. Felix says:

    Thanks all for comments. I wasn’t sure if this post would resonate with anyone but your feedback is really helpful in my developing these ideas further… the dreaming dishwasher seems to have struck a chord!

    I knew Ali Roscoe’s drawings would be loved as they really are amazing… the process is amazing, really. The attention to everyday things, the noticing of small differences. I am very inspired by her project.

    …and Susan! Thank you so much for your description of hands and the things they do and for your affirmative and thoughtful perspective on washing up. I too love how our hands age and are changed through their work. You’re right:

    Hands ARE miracles.

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