BY Nick Aikens in Reviews | 01 MAY 12
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Issue 147

The Grand Domestic Revolution

BY Nick Aikens in Reviews | 01 MAY 12

The Grand Domestic Revolution, 2012, installation view

The two-year research project ‘The Grand Domestic Revolution’ took its title from American theorist Dolores Hayden’s 1982 eponymous publication, which looked at a group of 19th-century American feminists who saw women’s isolation within the domestic sphere as the primary reason for their unequal status in society. Hayden’s study of what she termed the ‘material feminists’ – whose proposals for communal kitchens, housewives’ co-operatives and new building types can be seen as radical precursors of 20th-century feminism – challenged two basic principles of industrial capitalism: the physical separation of household from public space and the economic separation of the domestic from the political economy. It was these two principles that Casco’s own ‘Grand Domestic Revolution’ took on. Through a series of residencies, actions, town hall meetings, publications, commissions and a final exhibition over three venues, this ambitious initiative aimed to ‘question and challenge the very notion of social design’.

And grand it certainly was. The apartment that comprised GDR’s ‘headquarters’ hosted a staggering 58 residencies. Visitors included designers (Åbäke’s characteristically insightful logos, signs and printed material accompanied the GDR); artists (from Martha Rosler – who produced an archive project based around her seminal 1989 project If You Lived Here – to Agency, who researched and presented a series of intellectual property cases where the authorship of domestic goods was contested); architects (the Paris-based collective Atelier d’architecture autogérée took part in the forum ‘Dwelling in the Commons’); theorists and students whose research and art works were, for the most part, on display or documented in the final exhibition. An equally energetic programme
of Town Meetings (discussions included ‘How Do We Work Together?’ and the more humorously framed ‘A Revolution is Not a Dinner Party’ led by Xu Tan and chefs Mingfang van Dillen-Wang and Chi ho Suen), research forums and ‘Read Ins’ (where a group would knock on doors and stage impromptu reading groups) saw the GDR attempt to imagine a changed domestic sphere as the basis for a larger, grander form of revolution. In the Netherlands, where domestic space is considered sacred, attempting to publicize the private in such a way was a bold move.

The project’s efforts to address the locality of Utrecht and its wider political concerns around equality and worker’s rights, as well as contemporary art’s responsibility to articulate these debates, was reflected in the exhibition’s three venues: the Volksbuurt Museum, a fantastically quirky folk museum founded in 1974 to preserve the neighbourhood in response to urban development plans in the area; De Rooie Rat, the oldest leftist political bookstore in the Netherlands; as well as Casco itself. Wandering through the locations, a few central themes emerged. Most noticeable was the shift from the feminist framework of Hayden’s original usage of the term to a contemporary re-framing around the rights of domestic workers, particularly immigrants, within the Netherlands. I will not ask anything about you, you will not ask anything about me (2011), a specially commissioned work by Dutch artist Matthijs de Bruijne in collaboration with Domestic Workers Netherlands, was one of the central pieces in the Volksbuurt Museum. In this operetta-style work, a series of four narratives unfolds around domestic work, with the silhouetted protagonists coming together at the end of each scene, in Brechtian fashion, for a song and summation of their concerns. In De Rooie Rat, Why We Work Together documented the activities of Ask! – a group formed after one of the GDR town meetings – who organized a series of public actions in collaboration with domestic worker’s groups.

A series of historical paradigms within the exhibition served to contextualize Casco’s project. As well as Rosler’s re-articulation of ‘If You Lived Here’, of which the original manifestation was a turning point in how the art space was re-thought as a site for collaborative, socially informed action, How Do We Know What Home Looks Like (1993), comprised a series of interviews with residents of Le Corbusier’s housing complex in Firminy-Vert in southern France, which considered how effectively an architect can author our living space. The feminist undercurrents of a ‘domestic revolution’ were evident in the work of Mary Kelly and German filmmaker Helke Sander: Kelly’s Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry (1975) showed the disparity in remuneration between male and female workers in the 1970s whilst Sander’s beautifully shot Nr. 1 – Aus Berichten der wach – Und Patrroillendienste (1985) shows a mother scaling a crane in Berlin with her two young children to demand an affordable place to live.

If the GDR’s final manifestation, in the form of this sprawling exhibition, lacked a little focus, it reflected the vast scope of what the project attempted to articulate. Successfully tackling themes from the commons to immigration and contemporary feminism whilst deploying workers unions, city groups and local residents is a tall order. Indeed, the working methods of ‘The Grand Domestic Revolution’ were further evidence of what Hito Steyerl recently identified as an art practice increasingly creeping into and occupying marginalized places. Yet this extension of the field and processes of contemporary art into the cracks of social and economic structures should be seen as a necessary and welcome move. Publicizing the private, as Jacques Rancière has so successfully argued, is the essence of politics. In this sense, ‘The GDR’ was right to propose that revolution can and should start at home.

Nick Aikens is a curator at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven