Domestic Gestures

Jenny Hughes and Simon Parry

A blog is a kind of public diary that discloses intimate or private thoughts, written often from an author’s home and connected by the internet directly to readers in other homes. It constitutes a kind of ‘domestic public’. It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that, in reading back through a year-long blogging project on activist performance, we were struck by the recurrent documentation of domestic gestures. Between May 2013 and May 2014, as part of the development process for the special print issue of Contemporary Theatre Review on Activist Performance, over twenty artists, activists and researchers were invited to contribute to a blog – a gestural (rather than action) research project. It became apparent as we developed it that a blog, in contrast perhaps to the utopian encyclopedic project of a wiki, combines the properties of a private and public virtual space with a meandering narrative unfolding over time. This short article is intended to provide a guided tour of this virtual space, or one meander through its narrative.

Lauren Berlant, who has influenced our thinking on gesture during work on the special issue, has theorised the relationship between the public and the intimate, particularly in relation to sex and sexuality. In an article co-authored with Michael Warner she commented that:

Intimate life is the endlessly cited elsewhere of political public discourse, a promised haven that distracts citizens from the unequal conditions of their political and economic lives, consoles them for the damaged humanity of mass society, and shames them for any divergence between their lives and the intimate sphere that is alleged to be simple personhood.1

Domestic gestures intervene politically through their confusion of the intimate and the public, the elsewhere and somewhere of political discourse. These gestures are everyday actions: cleaning, washing, making tea, decorating, furnishing, knitting, planting, growing, cooking and eating. Activist performance involves the re-embodiment of such gestures somewhere else, out of place. These performances reject the idea that there is anything inherently simple about the activities of everyday life. As bodies transpose actions from one place to another, gestures take on new meanings and can have significant political effects. Making tea for your political opponent becomes a radical act of community constitution. Decorating a bus stop becomes an eloquent protest. Cleaning the right (or wrong) street can make the cleaner a ‘domestic extremist’. Assembling a range of these gestures via the blog began to reveal to us the various political possibilities embodied in apparently mundane activities performed in new (para-domestic?) states of relation.

Several blog posts have explored gestures of cleaning as a response to political concerns. Artist activist and so-called ‘domestic extremist’, the vacuum cleaner, who is also featured in a filmed interview within these webpages, gained his name from an action in which he cleans up after capitalism in contested public/private places using a domestic vacuum cleaner. As Jenny Hughes comments in her blog post:

this gesture of cleaning obeys its own strapline to ‘never allow the dirt to settle’ – the repeated, durational performance calls crisis into appearance.

Hughes draws attention to the care he takes in covering every inch of Wall Street or the other locations he has cleaned. Cleaning here becomes a critical aesthetic. Dirtiness and cleanliness as critical aesthetics are also central to the practices of Liberate Tate and other activists who have developed protest actions in response to sponsorship of major art institutions by oil companies. Their gestural vocabulary has combined introducing ‘dirty’ oil into or onto the ‘clean’ art gallery and the appearance of ‘cleaners’ at the gallery intending to wash it of its dirty money.

Liberate Tate, Licence to Spill, Tate Britain, June 2010. Courtesy of Liberate Tate.

Liberate Tate, Licence to Spill, Tate Britain, June 2010. Courtesy of Liberate Tate.

It is not just the symbolism of the action in combination with its material effects (the real cleaning going on) that seems to be important though. It is also the unexpectedness of the gesture in a public place and the unexpected carefulness with which it is performed. It is this unexpectedness that Roger McGinty highlights in his discussion of gestures of cleaning across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland and the startling, if low-key, intervention of mosque members in York who met English Defence League protesters with ‘cups of tea and conversation’.

Paul Harfleet, The Pansy Project, "Unreported Attacks", Copthorne Hotel, The Quays, Newcastle

Paul Harfleet, The Pansy Project, “Unreported Attacks”, Copthorne Hotel, The Quays, Newcastle

A militant but gentle gesture of care is at the heart of a range of practices in which activists have gone beyond cleaning away dirt to the unexpected introduction of decoration. In response to the introduction of a ‘bedroom tax’ on spare rooms in social housing, artists in Manchester decorated bus stops in the city, turning them from uniform, drab, public utilities into a colourful bedroom and a quaint garden. Alison Jeffers blogged about the practice of activist knitting or ‘yarnbombing’, in which guerrilla knitters decorate objects in public spaces with crochet-ed or knitted clothes. In the blogpost, she not only comments on how the interventions transform space but also how the practice shapes time, linking it to ‘the slow movement which isn’t about doing things at a snail’s pace but which calls for us to challenge the cult of speed’. Artist and activist, Paul Harfleet, draws attention to homophobic violence by planting pansies at the sites of attacks on gay men. This gesture holds together both the symbolic resonance of the single, vulnerable plant that attracts attention because it seems out of place and the gesture of care performed by the cultivation of colourful life in an often grey, concrete location.

Jess Allen, All You Can't Eat, 2013

Jess Allen, All You Can’t Eat, 2013

Care for life, human and nonhuman, imbues a range of digging, planting, growing, cooking and eating gestures that stake a claim for new forms of communal space and time. These include approaches by artists, Lisa Woynarski and Bronwyn Preece who have experimented with growing and making tea and Jess Allen who explores the relationship between walking and eating in her practice.2 Here the realm of the domestic is extended beyond the built environment of towns and cities into natural worlds variously conceived. These gestures draw attention to existing human relationships with other species and attempt, in small ways, to refigure such relations.

As we meander through this documentation, we have been struck how multiplying virtual realms, including blogging and other forms of social media, offer many ways for the embodied gesture to be disembodied through image, video and digital data and rapidly re-embodied elsewhere. The viral transmission of activist gestures has been a feature of many recent transnational social movements. If domesticity is a state of life in relation, the transmission of gesture via virtual networks produces new modes of the domestic and may help imagine common places in which to care for life.


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  1. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner ‘Sex in Public’ Critical Inquiry, 24:2, 1998, pp. 547-566 (p. 553).
  2. A collection of documents on individual activist performance gestures can be found within the print special issue in the ‘Gestural Notes’ section. This includes pieces by Woynarski and Preece, Allen and Harfleet.

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