By Jenna Ashton, Institute for Cultural Practices
Corners, floors, walls, ceilings: a personal exploration of how intimacy in confinement shapes our ways of looking and taking notice of the material-human-natural cultures around us. And the potential for this experience to fuel a feminist ecological imagination. (Part 1 of 3)
‘Symbol, site and structure: the house is not one, but all three of these components’.(Ashton 2015: 290)
I am not one for sentimentalizing the “space, container, of objects and familial relations – the domestic sphere”’ (Ashton 2015: 288). The likes of Bachelard and Bathes perpetuate mythologies of the protective womb; Massey, Douglas, Blocker, Slater, Watney, and Kuhn reveal the suffocating and crushing experiences some (many) feel in the home-house space. United Nations (UN) research evidences that “home” is one of the most dangerous places for women and girls. During Covid-confinement that research continues to be reaffirmed at a terrifying pace. The current debate on children returning to school turns on an argument that an infection-infused classroom may be a safer space than their lockdown surroundings; a dire admission indeed. A focused lens on the domestic space brings into view (or to knowledge) the cruel contradictions of that which both shelters and confines us. It is our space of rest and one of increased labour; it offers the hope of independent expression and yet frequently asserts or demands ritual. Our first social conflicts are played out in the domestic sphere; we then transfer our learned methods of resilience to other locales. For those of us working at the intersection of arts, heritage and social justice these issues are all too familiar.
But walls cannot be blamed for abuse, they are only their gatekeepers. And houses can be radical spaces of activism, enabling parallel anarchic communities, as I learned in Kosovo, where during the ‘98-99 war Albanians transformed their homes into makeshift teaching spaces having been expelled from all official education sites.
I have decided to make peace with my suspicion of houses and homes and what lies within. I have to. Here we are. Stuck, in these walls, with these walls, for many months (how many more?); we each experience this differently. Yet, we hold intimacy in common.
Intimacy is connected to affective experiences and the ‘dynamic encounter’ (Cooke 2013: 10). Jennifer Cooke’s analysis of intimacy within literature draws on the likes of Berlant, Bersani, Phillips, Ahmed, Foucault, Sedgwick – and specifically the sexualities and the sexual encounter of and within intimacy. Indeed, the house is a sexed space. Returning to this idea of the ‘dynamic encounter’, which offers us the suggestion of erotic frisson, sparky energy, the “new”, unexpected; I am currently experiencing a different kind of intimacy, a sensuality of familiarity at polar opposites to the dynamic: the settled, the entrenched, the well worn, the repetitive. Sounds sexy, right? To have an intimate knowledge of something is to have revisited that idea, place, and object time and time again.
This relationship of intimacy with space is a changing one; my attitude towards it fluctuates. I catch myself staring at corners of the house, at the dust accumulating on the ridges of the coving. My eyes trace blobs of paint that dribble over windowsill edges, but come to a sudden halt before they ooze onto the radiator below. Has that wall always been so dirty? When was the last time I cleaned the windows? The weave of the carpet is repetitive; the grain on the wooden floors too familiar. At first, I am frustrated by all this detail, its continuous presence, unchanging surfaces and predictable regularity.
Two, three, four weeks go by. I begin to notice, and watch, differently. I catch myself not just living in this house but with this house. Pre-Covid I would frequently come home late. Most weekdays I would be at the office, finishing various admin and meetings, or be out somewhere, project planning, and roll in just before the sun waned and disappeared. I have rarely known this house and its life, so frequently and continuously during daylight hours. Much like Louise Bourgeois’ Femme Maison (1946-1947), the windows of the house become my eyes. Its view is my view; I too see, continuously, what it sees, each day. The side brick wall of a terrace house faces my home office window. I used to dislike it, this blank terracotta-coloured surface all brick brick brick. I now find it beautiful. It is not blank, far from it. There must be at least 5,000 bricks facing me (I will count them one day). Each has its own texture, shading, and unique position in this wall, which runs the length of the house. It is also the most important wall for an end-of terrace, sitting next to a ginnel and open to the extremities of the weather, people and nature. It is west facing so beautiful shadows of our house are cast upon it in the evening. I had never seen those shadows before lockdown.
It is out from this window I also spot simultaneously, a Goldfinch (on my windowsill), a Blackbird (in the dandelion patch), a Wood Pigeon (on the roof of the utility), a Magpie (flying to its nest in neighbour’s tree), and a Grey Tit (flying to a nest behind the house). Later in the week a crow comes to perch on the neighbouring house TV aerial.
Back in late 2019, I began a creative research collaboration with three artists, Eleanor Mulhearn, Alice Kettle and Alison Duddle on The House of Opposites, a feminist reimagining of the domestic space-as-dollhouse: disruptive, mythological, fantastical, sensuous and diverse. The project responds to the surrealist work of Leonora Carrington and explores “home” and “house”. The work brings together through installation, ceramics, textiles, embroidery, puppetry, animation, illustration, writing and photography. The first outing of our work at Dean Clough Mill (Halifax) has been cut short due to Covid closures, but will re-emerge again in May 2021 at the Weaver’s Factory, in Saddleworth.
I had already been writing and photographing homes and houses, imaginary and real. I had been toying, playing, with different ways of looking at and through domestic spaces, up close, to see what I could find: the mundane, obscure, dirty, beautiful, terrifying, hopeful.
Covid lockdown forced me, and my body, to stay still for a while, in this house. To become intimate with the corners, walls, floors and external immediate views I had pushed to my peripheral vision. This is the point of learning: shifting to a different mode of living within and through spaces. Holding something within sight long enough to find and explore its details, surfaces and crevices, and not thinking you’re “done”. It is a lesson for feminist practice, for taking notice of socio-political-environmental injustices, and their spaces, during and beyond Covid-19.
Ashton, Jenna, “A Concrete House & its Photographic Portrait”, Parallax, 21:3 (2015): 288- 308.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1994.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. London: Vintage, 2009.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage, 2000.
Blocker, Jane. “Woman-House: Architecture, Gender, and Hybridity.” Camera Obscura 16 (1996): 126–150.
Cooke, Jennifer. Scenes of Intimacy: Reading, Writing and Theorizing Contemporary Literature. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
Douglas, Mary. “The Ideal of a Home: A Kind of Space.” Social Research 58, 1 (1991): 287 – 307.
Kuhn, Annette. “The Child I Never Was.” In Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, edited by Patricia Holland and Jo Spence, 17–25. London: Virago, 1991.
Massey, Doreen. “Space-Time and the Politics of Location.” In House: Rachel Whiteread, edited by James Lingwood, 34–49. London: Phaidon, 1995.
Slater, Don. “Public/Private.” In Core Sociological Dichotomies, edited by Chris Jencks, 138–150. London: SAGE, 1998.
Watney, Simon. “Ordinary Boys.” In Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, edited by Patricia Holland and Jo Spence, 26 – 34. London: Virago, 1991.
Dr Jenna C. Ashton is a curator, artist and Lecturer and MA Programme Director of Heritage Studies in the Institute for Cultural Practices, University of Manchester. Her practice concerns creative feminist methods and analysis, working across heritage, arts, activism, place, care, and ecology. She is Creative Director of the arts and heritage organisation Digital Women’s Archive North [DWAN], and co-founder of studio the Centre for International Women Artists (CIWA).